Slaying the The is harder than it looks

The last three and a half months have been full of funny, heartbreaking and just plain fun roleplaying (D&D 4e, Marvel Super Heroes, S/lay w/Me, and Sorcerer). I regret not having the bandwidth to post about these games in detail at present, because I owe so much of the quality of my recent roleplaying to Ron’s “People and Play” course and to fellow Adept Play participants.

However, I wanted to post about a realization I had in a recent session that may further an ongoing conversation here: “Slaying the The,” or disengaging from the toxic idea that the GM is responsible for making things happen.

It’s an idea that I’ve been dwelling on a lot, and I thought I’d internalized it pretty well, particularly through this gem from the Sorcerer annotations: “Bangs are everyone’s business. Anyone can deliver one.”

However, I realized that I had a long way to go in this direction while playing Marvel Super Heroes with David and James Nostack.

To make a long story short, my villainous protagonist Connie Bleak, a.k.a. $P3CTR has been plotting a data-center bombing attempt against an Amazon expy. Her plan hinges on tricking union activists to plant micro-explosives in multiple locations on the belief that they’re placing hacking devices that will exfiltrate data about corporate malfeasance. $P3CTR will take out one data center while triggering the explosives in the backup locations.

She ended up delivering the devices to the home of union rep Samantha Sol, who was in the middle of dinner with her husband. I handed the devices over, but realized that even $P3CTR didn’t want the blood of multiple labor activists on her hands. So I described Connie taking off her mask, setting it next to the salad bowl, and coming clean to Samantha. I showed her how to make the devices harmless, but I told her, “I’m not offering you justice. I’m offering you power. Think of the rich bastards who destroyed the planet. Did they pay any actual costs? Do you think these people will? When I strike in three days, I’ll do it with or without your help. The choice is yours.”

When I made this move, I saw both David and James’s eyes widen in surprise. The social validation of “delivering a Bang” as a player was hugely exciting. While reflecting on the session, I realized that this moment felt so rewarding because I still, on a gut/muscle-memory level, associate the role of narrative provocateur and driver with being the GM. Making my fellow player’s eyes widen is one of my favorite things about playing as GM. Noticing when ANOTHER player does it and honoring it (with a +2 in 4e or Bonus Dice in Sorcerer) is even better. But doing it myself, when I’m a player? I haven’t really considered it before. And I think I can see some subconscious passivity when I look back on playing The Whispering Vault.

Learning this has been the best kind of lesson: one I only could have learned in actual play, and one that’s made me so excited to play more.

4 responses to “Slaying the The is harder than it looks”

  1. Dissection

    There are a couple of variables at work.

    One of them isn't so much a real factor as a huge distraction from understanding: one person vs. many. It's really hard to get past. If one has been experiencing the "The" as expressed by one person (either by doing it or playing 'under' it or both), then it's very easy to misidentify the singular presence as the problem. Then, obviously, to try to solve it by spreading the same behavior around among multiple people.

    Whereas since the "The" is a behavior, not a person, this is no solution whatsoever, and indeed is a bit like objecting to a pile of refuse in the middle of the floor, but thinking you're dealing with it by smearing it onto the walls. 

    That's not apparently relevant to your account of play, and probably isn't at all, but I definitely see what you mean about another, more play-related variable: this self-silencing you're describing. It was in fact evident in The Whispering Vault game (when we were both playing characters); at times, I wondered if you'd gone to sleep. In the Whimsical Ways game (when I was GMing), this wasn't as obvious, but that game featured a lot more direct social framing and location-shifting dice methods, and you tended to restrict your input to reacting specifically to these. I can't know whether, without them, you'd have played Theoxxa doing much. 

    In thinking about "The," I've realized that it's not an isolated error but tied to a mistaken medium for play, if the group has not grasped the importance of reincorporation. I can definitely identify two kinds:

    • If the medium is wrongly thought to be "in the imagination," then one's participation hits its necessary endpoint with hearing. It goes in, and it stays there, because "in" is supposedly where the fun is. In this case, one speaks when spoken to directly because talking "too much" would distract from one's private work, as well as interfere with everyone else's internal and private fun, both at all, and because of the risk that you'll provide something they won't like.
    • If the medium is wrongly thought to be a sort of radio theater, a medium of literal sound as if a separate audience were listening, then one speaks only insofar as to contribute to it in a formally cued way. Again, talking "too much" is a flaw because it ruins the overall performance and disrupts the performing-troupe social contract, however that may be constructed.

    In each case, whoever is the known "The" person, either throughout play or in taking turns, manages all relevant information of play, much like an editor or a vetter, going "in" and coming "out." It's a position of power over play, emphatically not play at all no matter how articulate or entertaining. Over the past few years, I've been horrified as well at how obviously it includes rejecting and not listening to others, to preserve the flow or whatever you call it, and how irritated and threatened people become when they are expected actually to listen to what someone says in the exercise of a perfectly reasonable authority the latter person is supposed to have.

    In my terminology, they don't have some kind of supreme authority, because play includes no authorities – merely this person's subtle or unsubtle control. Functioning play in the medium of incorporation relies on different authorities, which by definition must intersect to produce usable content, and which do not interfere with one another. If one person has a lot or a wide scope of them, that's no problem whatsoever and doesn't automatically mean the "The" is in place just because it's one person.

    Anyway, in the face of such irritation and social feedback that one is ruining things, I definitely understand thinking that "good play" is quiet compliance. It doesn't help that some people have developed manipulative and defiant methods which do in fact ruin play, and they are so accustomed to the toxic presence of the "The" that they cannot stop even when it's absent. Nor does it help, as I think I know too well, that the "guilty" person may become flustered and awkward when trying to play in good faith in the face of the "The," thus not exactly socially effective, and therefore easily marginalized.

    So it's all bad news, basically. Fortunately, just as you say, addressing the medium itself appears to be remarkably effective, insofar as the people present do want to play. Furthermore if a person is "The"-ing solely from habit and training, rather than ego, then they self-correct without shifting into defensiveness. This is what we see with a lot of people GMing (i.e., playing with many and wide-scope authorities) lately in delight that they don't have control and that play doesn't fall apart.

    • …this self-silencing you’re

      …this self-silencing you're describing. It was in fact evident in The Whispering Vault game (when we were both playing characters); at times, I wondered if you'd gone to sleep. In the Whimsical Ways game (when I was GMing), this wasn't as obvious, but that game featured a lot more direct social framing and location-shifting dice methods, and you tended to restrict your input to reacting specifically to these. I can't know whether, without them, you'd have played Theoxxa doing much.

      I don’t think what follows is going to add much to your schematic discussion of failed play above, but I am going to include it as a bit of personal reflection. No aspiration to be generalizable here, just sharing “how this was for me.”

      This state of self-silencing was unique to The Whispering Vault. If all my play  had been in this passive state since December 2021, I probably would have given up my participation in roleplaying. I think our early morning playtime was certainly a factor, but in the sense of exacerbating other factors. 

      Ergh, I hate how messy this language is about to get, and I really hope it doesn’t come across as self-defensive bullshit. But what I’m learning in reflecting back on my last eight months of play in light of the Vault is that I’ve leaned far, far too much on certain elements of character to provide a “matrix of meaning” for my play.

      What I mean is that, early in 2022, I was relying on character relationships exclusively to frame the moves I made. I didn’t self-silence in Whimsical Ways because Theoxxa had a strong network of relationships that gave her recognizable-to-me features that I could work with: her lover, her robot friend, her community. That made my decisions richly meaningful to myself, and even without the procedures you mention above, Theoxxa absolutely would have taken (likely religiously motivated, certainly ill advised) direct action toward Oggox, the religious hierarchy, et al.

      In contrast, Lilith was a challenge for me. Stalkers don’t necessarily have those recognizable-to-me social ties (all their beloveds and nemeses are not yet born or long since dead when the action begins). Instead of enthusiastically taking up one of the game’s core questions and answering it for myself through play (“What does kinship/camaraderie/love look like among mortal-immortals who only have each other?”) you could see me reaching for an extreme and extremely simplistic drive (vengeance!!!) to compensate: “If Lilith has an overwhelming sense of purpose, then she has to act, and those actions have to be meaningful, because they’re driven by her overwhelming sense of purpose. Right….?”

      Seeing your play of Hazard, which I can only describe as, “Using all the instrumentation and fictional content you could lay your hands on to build your own ‘matrix of meaning as you went’” was hugely instructive (as well as seeing my brother, Rod and others doing this in other games.) 

      I can see my overreliance on character relationships play out over other sessions: trying to force strong relationships with other characters into being, or looking for substitute material. But I can also see how playing my character in Sean’s run on Lamentations of the Flame Princess was a breakthrough for me, and this moment of play with Connie Bleak/$P3CTR is another. 

      I’d really like another tilt at The Whispering Vault, as my mistakes in playing Lilith have actually proved quite instructive.

  2. Noah, re-reading this thread in light of my recent experiences has been a boon to some of my habits as a player. Having not explored this role for quite some time, some games I have played — out of all of them, some Fantasy World sessions and a first session in Forbidden Lands — have manifested this pressing problem. Faced with an uncertain situation, in which I can’t figure out how to orient myself, my first reaction is to think “these GM characters are not giving me space, they are not granting me invitations, I can’t do anything.” This leads me to that self-silencing waiting for the “opportunity” that you describe so well.

    Rereading the exchange between you and Ron made me think that I need to speak and act more, not expecting that everything I have to say will significantly affect the environment around my character, but accepting that I want things and be willing to raise a fuss to get them.

    During our second Forbidden Lands session, I noticed an improvement in this respect: instead of waiting in a corner for the GM to throw me a bang, I took it by force. In our case, the first session had introduced us to the Hexenwald, a forest area inhabited by five witches, one of whom is determined to awaken the dead through the knowledge hidden in the tower of a long-lost necromancer. In contrast, none of her sisters seemed particularly interested in solving the problem, holed up in their lairs baking bread or reading tea leaves. The whole situation played out in an initial conflict with some undead as we headed, not even entirely convinced, to the necromancer’s tower. The impression for me was “what the hell am I doing here? What purpose do I have to fulfill? Maybe I’ll wait a little longer to tell and see if it settles down.”

    That situation experienced a “crack” in the second session: to me, such jovial and flirtatious witches in that situation of permanent danger made me furious. So, taking refuge in the aftermath of a ghoul attack with a wounded man in the baker witch’s lair, I decided to take the initiative and slam an orcish hand on her precious dough: “this entire situation doesn’t make sense, now you witches get together and stop your stupid sister.” It was a tense situation and perhaps failure would doom the rest of the group, but in that moment I felt good about taking the reins and shaking off this sort of acceptance of the status quo that I had passively assimilated in the first part of our adventure.

    It’s definitely a normal situation for people who play by shaking off that THE, but getting the hang of it is helping me. A Trollbabe game I played just yesterday was all about “I want this, and let’s see who stops me”; a bulldozer of determination that made me feel very empowered in being able to decide how to approach GM preparation.

    I also realized how useful it is to talk even when others are busy with their characters. It’s like playing a riff to enhance their instrument: all those “what the hell are you doing!?”, “cool!”, “ah, now you’re in trouble” comments, are not disruptive; rather, they enhance some declarations and make you feel listened and appreciated at the table.

    • Adriano, I’m glad this thread is helpful! It’s cool to see that we both have been working on the same techniques. I’ve been thinking a lot about this one in particular:

      “…that I need to speak and act more, not expecting that everything I have to say will significantly affect the environment around my character, but accepting that I want things and be willing to raise a fuss to get them.”

      I realized (in a related conversation with Ron) that I am really good at doing this when I’m GMing. I narrate “incidental” details all the time, play characters reactively, generally enjoy exercising the authorities I have. I’m not as good at this when playing PCs. The reason, I think, is that I haven’t been looking at PCs as components of the larger situation. When I’m GM, I’m always thinking about how fictional entities are going to react to the events of play. When creating fictional entities as GM, I look across the situation and find characters/places that emerge from questions like “What’s here?” And “How does this work?” Within those characters and places, I look for the weirdness or charge that inspires me to play them.

      When creating PCs, I haven’t been doing this. I come up with characters ex nihilo, instead of seeing how they emerge from the situational/aesthetic elements of the game. And while I sometimes find hints of that weirdness/charge (Lilith’s claws were a detail that made me excited to play), I am not as good at this as when I’m GMing.

      I was reflecting on how I might take these lessons into creating Lilith. I was thinking about how compelling it is to see the Stalkers relying on each other. And about how I could make Lilith’s hunger for a life she didn’t live more immediately relatable for me as a player. What emerged was the new (and frankly terrifying) idea that when she became a Stalker, Lilith was twelve years old.

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