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Jim Vassilakos (email@example.com) http://members.aol.com/jimvassila
One thing that bothers me about this hobby is the stigma which is attached to gaming, the media-propagated stereotype that we are all “geeks and nerdlings” (a phrase I remember reading recently, possibly from one of the D&D movie reviews which have been making the rounds of Internet email). Personally, I’ve begun to long for the good old days when the stereotype was that we were performing satanic rituals and sacrificing live virgins (no doubt, we wouldn’t know what else to do with a live virgin). Back then, there was a certain “mysticism” associated with gaming, possibly due more to the bizarre dice, demonadorned texts, and strange lingo than the fantasy-oriented subject matter. Whatever the reason, back then gaming was truly a niche-pastime to which one could admit to being involved without incurring too much social backlash. But now the rules have changed. Gaming has over the last dozen or so years become increasingly massmarketed, and the mysticism has all but evaporated. People no longer associate us with black magic or the devil. Now we’re viewed (in Phil Foglio’s amusingly elvish commentary in this month’s issue of Dragon) as “lonely, spitting, and fat.” Harsh words, and certainly they don’t apply to the majority of gamers, but the fact that they do apply to a disproportionate few is reason enough for the stereotype to exist. From commercials for the yellow pages to appearances on prime-time television shows, gamers are portrayed as pizza-faced, social misfits. That’s the fact, and for the moment, at least, we have to live with it. But certainly this isn’t all the fault of the media. A long-time friend and regular gaming-buddy of mine (his name is Kurt) has a saying: “stereotypes exist for a reason.” The message is twofold. First, be realistic. The world isn’t out to get you. There is no grand conspiracy against gamers. And society (the media) really isn’t being unfair. They are just a group of people reacting to a stimulus. You, for better or worse, are part of that stimulus. Second, take action. Recognize and be honest about how your group is perceived, and if you don’t like that perception, than make sure you don’t fit the mold. In fact, go a step further by breaking it, and encourage those you associate with to do likewise. No, you’re not going to change the world, but perhaps you will make a small dent, and collectively, if enough people do likewise… who knows? Maybe perceptions will begin to change. Since I started up the Inland Empire Gamers Guild out where I live, I’ve noticed that there are far more gamers living in the immediate area than I could ever hope to game with, but at the same time, putting together a really good gaming group remains as hard as ever, and I’ve come to wonder how best to handle problems of player screening. I’ll share with you three different stories from the past few years, changing names to protect the innocent and all that. Perhaps some of you will have some useful comments on this or will want to share some stories of your own. remark about “bad juju”. So what went wrong? He had a warehouse job, and by the third session, he was showing up without showering or even washing his hands. Furthermore, he began a practice of making long-distance phone calls from the host’s phone without telling anyone. It wasn’t the money so much as the rudeness, I guess. Finally, he began making insulting comments to other players (for example, to Kurt’s wife, “Oh, what does she know… she’s blonde”). I realize that in retrospect, the right thing for me to have done would have been to simply pull him aside. “Okay, look… if you’re going to show up at this guy’s place, it would be polite for you to shower first, and wash your hands before sticking them in the licorice, and as for the phone calls, ask before you proceed to run up their longdistance bill, and as for the snidecomments, can-it or I’ll can you.” Unfortunately, I was too much of a pussy to do it. I think I must have actually cared about what people thought of me, and I wanted to keep everyone happy. But that doesn’t work. Politeness isn’t a virtue. It’s a weakness. Or is it? What finally ended up happening is that myself, Kurt, and the host got together for a few beers, and we talked over the situation, and everyone decided to just tell the guy that we “suspended” the campaign. We’d just continue it without him, and we’d never have to hurt his feelings. Of course, then he’d never learn that his actions have consequences, but was it really our duty to teach him? If teaching gamers etiquette was a duty, then it certainly was our duty to confront him honestly. But honestly, I really don’t think it would have done much good. He’d mentioned how nobody at work liked him because of his weight problem. I wonder if the real reason he was having trouble fitting in at work had to do with his personality, but he was just too blind to see it.
Story #1: A Case of Bad Juju
I’ll call him Albert, because his girth reminded me a little bit of Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” of Saturday morning television fame. All in all, he seemed like a really nice guy. I had met him through the guild and set up a meeting just to get acquainted. Kurt seemed to like him as well, and as we started explaining character generation rules for the campaign, one thing led to another, and soon we had a new player for the group. He was playing a mage, and unlike any other player in the group, he had a tendency to speak in character complete with an alternate voice. All in all, I was impressed. Here was a guy who was actually trying to roleplay. Instead of telling us that his spell had failed, he’d snort (in character) and make some
Story #2: The Problem Child
It was about a year later, and Kurt wanted me to reboot an old campaign involving some ultra-badass character he was playing. That meant finding a few players who would be willing to take over some high-level NPCs. So I posted a message to the guild mailing list, and about a week later, we were meeting at the house of some new guy I’d never met before. I’ll call him Matt, because in a strange way, he reminded me of an old friend named Matt. I think it was really the hair. Both he and the Matt I’m thinking of had long hair which ran free like some Nordic barbarian’s, but unfortunately for this Matt, he wasn’t free at all. He was confined to a wheelchair, a victim of some degenerative genetic disease which will eventually claim his life. In fact, he’d been confined to wheelchairs for almost his entire life. Only during his earliest years was he able to walk, run, and play like a normal child. I wondered if perhaps those memories taunted him in some bizarre way. Although Matt was effectively crippled (so much so that he could barely make himself understood and that simply rolling a die was a painstaking ordeal), he was highly intelligent. I had the sense about him that if it weren’t for the disease, he would have had amazing potential, the sort of person who might do anything with their life and succeed fabulously. I have to admit, this sense gnawed at me whenever I thought about it, and it still does. I can scarcely imagine what it did to him. In any case, I had to treat Matt just like any other player. And that’s where the problem came in. Matt just didn’t fit into the campaign. All of the characters (most as NPCs) had an extended history together. They had functioned together as a team for a long time, and Kurt make ample efforts to email everyone their character histories. A great deal of time and effort was expended in this regard. Matt, however, preferred to play his character as a kamikaze rogue, basically treating the others with scorn (although it was done entirely in character, out-of-character he was not in the least bit odious). I’m not sure if he simply got bored with the campaign and decided to create his own excitement, or if he was (for some bizarre
psychological reason) testing our reaction, seeing if we’d treat him just like we’d treat any other player. Since I was GMing, I had to stay impartial and basically let the players resolve the conflict to their own satisfaction. And what they finally decided to do was kill his character. In a way, it was rather devastating to Kurt. He had adventured alongside that character for a long time. He had worked at maintaining the NPC record sheet and had even kept track of experience points, rolling for hitpoints and choosing new spells as the character progressed in level. In a way, it was almost as if he had handed his own character to Matt, who had then played the character in such a bizarre fashion that the group had no choice but to kill it if they themselves wanted to stay “in character.” For Matt, however, the death had been merely an amusing experience. He took it on the chin, claiming that his character didn’t care whether he lived or died, and so accepted his fate with dignity. Of course it didn’t matter to him. He hadn’t been the one nurturing the character during those early levels of experience. The character, in fact, meant nothing to him. At the time, I was inclined to give Matt the benefit of the doubt insofar as assuming that his actions arose from a misunderstanding rather than genuine mischief. As usual, we never directly confronted him about all this out-ofcharacter. Again, politeness is not a virtue, but I was prone to it at the time, a weakness I try to avoid these days (although to what extent I am successful I won’t even hazard to guess). So instead of tossing him from the campaign, we decided to give him another chance by allowing him to create his own character. He chose to play a chaotic bard, and without any hesitation, began playing the exact same personality he was playing with the last character. Again, out-of-character he was perfectly fine, but in-character it was difficult not to strangle him. Kurt and I talked it over, and I think it was Kurt who came up with the idea that instead of killing him off again, it would be more decent for everyone to just transfer him to a campaign where he’d fit-in better. So as I continued running the high-level campaign, Kurt started up a low-level one where all the characters were brand
new and free to establish their own norms of conduct. In the previous campaign, the party was very tight-knit and orderly. In this one, the party was loosely-knit, and snide remarks between characters were perfectly acceptable. Heck, we had fun with it. But just as we were getting used to the new arrangement, Matt stepped it up a notch. He was no longer satisfied with verbal play. He decided to start stealing things behind the party’s back, starting off with frisking dead foes for jewelry or magic items. Eventually he slipped up and got found out, but since I wasn’t GMing this campaign, I didn’t have to be impartial. Although we didn’t have a party leader, per se, my character had sort of fallen into that position, so I took the lead and said in character that since he was performing dangerous scouting duties, I figured he was due an extra share of the loot but added that I just wished he would have been honest with us about it. Then he decided that stealing wasn’t enough. He started doing crazy stuff which ultimately started costing the lives of some of the NPCs. Kurt was GMing, and he was merciless in applying the rules of cause and effect. Whenever Matt did something stupid, there was payback, and it was always legit, but the party got to suffer as well. We acquired enemies that we could have avoided. We lost magic items which were critical to our success. And we were continually put in danger by incidents that should never have occurred. I was playing a consciously good character, so I tried with each instance to put the best light on things. And there were some things he did which actually benefited the party, and I was all too happy to pat him on the back whenever this happened. But finally, he crossed the line one too many times and got himself killed. It was a really dumb move on his part. One of the major villains was “out there” somewhere in the mazelike caverns. Matt decided to go out on his own for a little one-on-one chat, without announcing his intentions to the party. Needless to say, we found his corpse a few hours later amidst some rubble and a kindly scrawled note (on the wall, painted with his character’s blood) from our arch-nemesis, basically taunting us, and remarking how his newfound magic items would be of great benefit in our
destruction. I wanted to cry so much that I ended up laughing instead. So Matt’s next character was a kobold. Same personality, same set of problems. We finally decided to tie him up and gag him (the character, not Matt
himself). It’s like he only knew how to play a single tune and a bad one at that. To date, we haven’t actually gotten rid of him. The campaign just stalled of its own accord (with him still tied up and gagged). At that point, Kurt finally decided to have a good, hard discussion with Matt, GM-to-Player as it were. He basically asked Matt if he was enjoying the game, and if so, what he wanted to see happen with his character. Matt responded that he did enjoy the game, and that for Pete’s sake, his character was only a Kobold, so what did we expect? He said the character just needed a firmer hand… more direction from the party. He basically wanted to be ordered around, he said. But we already tried having Matt in a wellordered party. Didn’t work. And I think Kurt was getting tired of constantly bending. Combining how the campaign was going along with the pressures of real life, he decided to put the campaign on indefinite hiatus. I can understand how he must feel. It’s hard enough playing in the same group with Matt, knowing that another kick in the face is just around the corner, but at least there’s a certain amount of comedy at the same time, as long as you don’t really care too much what happens. But running a game with him in it was quite a different
experience. The GM puts in a lot more work than the players (or at least that’s the expectation). I’d have to say that GMing Matt was mentally taxing. It would leave me drained, watching an adventure go up in smoke as all attention would focus on his antics (which I then would have to fairly adjudicate, usually to the detriment of the other player’s enjoyment of the campaign). Ultimately, what Matt seemed to like best was doing something crazy just to get a reaction. It’s almost as though we were continually being tested to see just how much we’d let him get away with. It makes me wonder if perhaps his ailment has something to do with all this. I sometimes think that his whole world view must be warped in ways which are unimaginable to me. And since he receives disability from the state, he doesn’t hold any job. Never has and never will. All he has in his life is his computer, his grandmother, and his gaming buddies. That’s it. I suppose that expecting a person with such a strange background, with such a strange life, to act “normal”… it may just be expecting too much. Ultimately the verdict isn’t yet in about Matt, but Kurt has another saying… “people don’t change.”
if it was some strange glandular problem, but he honestly stunk… badly… as in my nose was in full revolt. They generated characters that night (even as I realized this just wasn’t going to work), and although they seemed perfectly nice, I remember asking Kurt immediately after we left, “So, you think I should call ‘em back tomorrow and tell ‘em the campaign is off?” His reply surprised me. “No, it could work out.” He agreed that the one guy smelled, and the other guy had to find some brakes for his tongue, but that aside from that, they might prove to be good players. He added that he would email some “standard operating procedures” in order to curb the problem with the guy who smelled bad, and that we’d just have to work on the other one as a group. The very next day, true to form, Kurt sent out directions to his place, and at the end of the email, he tacked on his expectations of everyone in the group.
The following explains my expectations of guests: 1. Promptness is nice. I’m sure we’ve all had those games where one or two people were always late and it messed it up for everyone. However, 15 minutes or so is understandable because traffic is sometimes unpredictable. Everyone enjoys roleplaying, and never should one person dominate the entire group. However, some people have stronger personalities than others, so this is just a general suggestion. “Group dynamics” will usually occur naturally (except for the last campaign I was in, which is why I include this). It is understandable that thieves/assassins/scouts, etc., need to investigate things first for reconnaissance and other reasons, but when a character constantly takes “solo excursions,” it takes time from other characters and builds resentment between characters. When playing, try and remain “in character” as much as possible. This tends to keep players more focused and prevents the GM from having to be a disciplinarian.
Story #3: Stinky Boy & Motor-mouth
They became known to us as Frick and Frak, not because those were their actual names, but because they were both such comic oddballs that we felt the names suited them. Now, I realize that’s an awful thing to say, but honestly, you had to see these two character to understand what I’m talking about. By this point we were acutely aware that you’ve got to screen new gamers. Once you let them in the group, it’s too late. So I arranged to meet these guys at the trailer park where Frick lived, and I invited Kurt along so he could gauge them as well. Frick’s friend, Frak, was so talkative that I wanted to run from the trailer screaming. As for Frick himself, he put off a curious scent, and not a pleasant one at that. At first, I thought there must be some strange mold under the carpet. But gradually I realized that the smell was actually following this guy around. I don’t know 2.
Have you ever been to a gaming convention that reeks like body odor? Okay, at a convention it’s expected because people play until they drop, but my apartment isn’t a convention and my wife will kick my ass; hence, all guests are expected to be “fresh/showered.” Keep in mind that the nature of the campaign is not, “Destroy all evil and save the world.” We’re the evil ones. Absolutely mandatory: HAVE FUN!!!
collective relief). After the session, she laid down the law. Something had to be done. She didn’t want her apartment smelling like a sweaty gymnasium after each session. Furthermore, she expressed concerns that his scent might soak into the walls and become permanent. Since it was my turn to do the discipline, I told them that I’d write him an email. Here it is in all it’s mirthful glory: I thought it would be better to leave this out of the email I sent to everyone, but I’ve got to warn you that the party has taken a vote, and unless you shower before the games, we’re dumping your stinky ass in the pool. Just jokin’… there was no vote, but two people did mention to me that you’ve been a bit “fragrant” lately. Just wanted to give you a heads-up so you can take care of it before people start slapping odoreaters under your pits. Actually, I was being kind. Everyone aside from Frak had commented on Frick’s fragrance. I just didn’t want to tell him that. But I probably should have. My email must have offended him, because neither one of them showed up to the next session. We were all of mixed feelings. Actually, I’m being kind again. I was of mixed feelings. Everyone else was relieved. In the end, it seemed to have been proven again that “people don’t change.” They may deviate their conduct for a brief duration, but ultimately they always come back to center. As for my own self-analysis, I thought we came closer to the best way of handling things in this incident than in any of the previous ones. In the first story involving Mr. Bad-Juju, we just weren’t honest with him. We rationalized our behavior by telling ourselves that it wasn’t our duty to try to bring him up-to-code with all the illfeelings that would probably entail. As for the second story, Kurt finally got to the point of confronting the problem child about his playing-style, but it had taken well over a year to get to the point. If we had been doing it right, we would have set protocol from the very beginning. That, of course, entails that you know about the potential problems and you have a plan for correcting them as they occur. We didn’t have enough experience at that
Okay, the following is what you can expect from me, the host. 1. 2. 3. A clean, fresh environment. Food, drinks, snacks and coffee. No distractions from a wife :-) .
<name censored>, having gone through Basic Training, you should understand my list. I’m a Staff Sergeant in the Army Reserves (did five years active duty), and now I’m a substitute teacher working on becoming a full-time teacher. SOP’s (standard operating procedures) are in my blood. I can’t fight them. Expectations for the guests (you guys) and from me (the host) helps everyone involved have fun. Look forward to gaming with you guys tomorrow.
point to do this, but I think we’ve come a long way in learning to “set the boundaries” of the relationship so that when they are crossed, we deal with it decisively. In the final story, the case of Stinky Boy & Motor-mouth (a.k.a. Frick & Frak), we finally tried dealing with the main problem head-on. It sticks in my mind that rather than writing what I wrote, I could have instead just called him up and talked to him about it, or perhaps even met with him face-to-face. That probably would have been better. Telling people that they have odious personal habits is something that should be done face-to-face. Of course, the tendency among “civilized” folk is to avoid confrontation. But if you respect somebody and truly care about their welfare, you will tell them the truth. that doesn't mean you have to be cruel about it. but you do have to be honest. Even if they don't want to hear it, and even if they are not ready to understand it, you still have a duty to tell them, because one day, after enough people have told them in enough different ways, they may finally “get it”. The lesson may finally sink in, and perhaps, (speaking idealistically here), they might just carve out the gumption to actually change. That’s a hard thing to do and it’s a lot of ask of someone, but if they can honestly see that change is for the best, maybe they’ll do it.
Granted, the main expectation (#5) was buried in the list, but that was done for a reason… mainly, to be polite. Kurt said he’d hit the point, but in such a way that it wouldn’t be offensive and wouldn’t single anybody out. And on the first session, things went great. Frick showed up showered as required. For all intents and purposes, he smelled like a rose. Frak’s motor-mouth was still annoying, but we were tolerating it as much as humanly possible, and speaking personally, motor-mouths are preferable to dead wood. Session #2, Frick no longer smelled quite so sweet. He didn’t stink to high heaven, but there was definite odorage. Kurt’s wife even made a comment about it when she got back (after he’d left, of course). Session #3, Frick was once again the stinky boy we’d first encountered. It was bad. Kurt’s wife got some air-freshener out of the bathroom and sprayed it liberally in his general vicinity (much to our
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