Tuesday, 16 May 2017

From the Depths: Speak softly, but carry a Big Stick

This week, I was far too interested in helping my wife and family have a productive and enjoyable Mother's Day. For the first time in a while, the weather was gorgeous, and we got outside and did the things, as well as visit with family like my own mother, who had just returned from a trip through Ottawa and the province of Quebec.

Here is an article of mine from the Mad Adventurer's Society which caught my eye. Not because I currently have any new members to the BTGC which require special attention, nor am I feeling particularly fed up with the world. Part of having a healthy community is how you as a leader or person of influence deal with the people within said community.

So here you are. Please enjoy responsibly...

Sartre said “Hell is other people.”  In many ways, he isn’t wrong.  Relationships and social interactions complicate our lives to no end, and our responsibilities to these other people fill up our schedules and throw our routines into constant turbulence.  In my job as a carpenter building and renovating homes, I often lament that it would be a lot better if it weren’t for the customers.

Some people simply can’t deal with the world at large.  Others can only deal with small groups at a time.  I am not a fan of crowds, myself.  I find myself increasingly uncomfortable and nervous when around a large group of people with whom I am unfamiliar.  Crowded malls may take a little longer to get to me, but a bar where my band is playing causes me no end of stress in a short amount of time, and I tend to go from the extreme of flitting from group to group seeking small talk, or end up sitting at a table tuning my bass and feigning intense focus.  Really, I just want to get on with everything and go home.  Not to say that I don’t want to be there entertaining people with our performance, just that I break out in social hives when I am lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces.  

I have it pretty easy, and my social issues are pretty mild.  I have developed some natural talents to deal with my challenges, and people are often surprised when I express my fear of social situations.  “But you’re so good with people!”  That may be true, but is that because I want to be, or because I have to be?

I must pause briefly and give credit to RPGs in general and D&D specifically for helping me develop the more complex social skills that aid me in the above environments.  I don’t think I’m alone in the belief that by taking on diverse characters with a broad range of morals and motivations, we can explore the deeper aspects of humanity and its accompanying conditions to better understand what makes us tick.  In so doing, our empathy for others is enhanced by truly putting ourselves in another’s shoes.

I bring this up for two reasons:  Reason one is that for some people, going to an unknown social gathering is a huge deal, and reason two is that we as GMs or hosts of a social event or gaming community have a responsibility to accommodate those people and make them feel comfortable and welcome.

Gaming in the wilds of reality means you don’t get to pick and choose who comes through the doors and sits at your table the way you get to do at home.  You have to put up with every type of person just the way any proprietor of any business ever.

I know that for some of those reading this article there may be the puffing of chests and the declaration that you are in charge, and that if somebody rubs you the wrong way, then you are well within your rights to lock the doors and declare that none shall pass.  That is true, and you can do that, but what it will get you is a shortened lifespan for your group, and awkward conversations with most of your members as they question your motivations, and fear your wrathful banhammer.

There are those individuals who don’t fit in, it’s true.  They are disruptive and disrespectful of property and other people and they need to be dealt with, because the rest of your group are starting to feel uncomfortable, and that is dangerous.  They make racist comments and thinly veiled threats against NPCs that have the other players squirming in their seats.  And they feel justified for all the usual reasons.  That’s how they built their character.  Those people aren’t real, so what does it matter?

These people often don’t get the social cues that the rest of the group is throwing at them.  Eyes are cast down at the table or glances are furtive and thrown to every other player seated, wondering if they find the behaviour just as inappropriate.  The laughter starts off as merely polite and uncomfortable, but shortly there is no laughter at all, and lips become creased as people don’t want to rock the boat.  Through all of this, the player is pressing on, clearly not understanding that this isn’t acceptable.  That is there world.  What makes you think their behaviour is any different anywhere else?

You as the GM/Organizer have to step in at this point.  If you don’t address the situation, you will lose your players.  I have always maintained that you are creating a safe haven for people to come and explore their hobby.  If that place becomes poisoned by that one bad apple, the bunch will simply disappear.

So here is what you do:  step up, communicate with respect and tact.  And don’t attack.

Always pull that person aside and have your conversation away from everyone else.  No good will ever come from chastising someone or pointing out their faults or mistakes in front of their peers.  Remember public school?  That teacher that paraded the shortcomings of others in front of the whole class to make an example?  That is embarrassing at best, and humiliating at worst.  Don’t be that guy.

Never have this conversation via text or email.  I am thirty-seven years old, which means I stand on the edge of the modern age of social communication and the former one.  I still see the faults of an exchange of verbiage via the written word that can be so easily misconstrued.  Type one wrong word, or choose to use a tone that is a little too business-like, and this person will feel attacked.  I guarantee that if you attempt to face the issue with the bravery of being out of range, there will be unwanted collateral damage, and you will be the one who loses.  So take a deep breath, look that person in the eye, and speak calmly and clearly.

Start off with a compliment that will let them know that they don’t completely suck.  You are about to tell them that everyone thinks they are a jerk.  This will emotionally wrench them from the group and make them feel alone and rejected.  So butter them up a little and let them down easy.  If the character they have created is a perfect example of min/maxed, OP, twenty-level feat planning, let them know that.  If they are always coming up with brilliant and left-field solutions to the problems the party faces, share that and let it be known how that player has helped the party out of some pretty sticky jams.  If they weren’t there, I don’t know what would have happened.  This lets that person know that they are part of the team, but there is one little thing that is becoming a problem...

Give this person the benefit of the doubt.  They may not know that their behaviour is unacceptable.  In previous articles, we have discussed that people are on their own path, and it is not the same as yours.  This also does not make you more right about things, just because you and the rest of the group see things the same way.  In this individual’s world, it is perfectly acceptable to behave in this way.  You are not going to change that.  That is how they grew up, and when they go home or back to their other social circles, they will slip right back into that behaviour.  You are not their parent, or their mentor.  It is not your job to force them to fundamentally change their perception of the world or how they live in it.  All you can do is address how they behave in yours.  And perhaps that influence will cause a subtle change in them over time.  After all, we are all variables in somebody’s world, as they are for us.  You hang around with tigers long enough, you will get some claws.

So, they may have no idea that their comments and so on are not appropriate for your group.  So give them the benefit of the doubt and explain your feelings not as an attack on their character, but as a social misunderstanding.  Identify some examples of incidents to show what they have done that is not acceptable, but don’t beat them over the head with exhaustive stories of their dickishness.  A laundry list of don’ts is like a hammer beating them down into a pool of shame, and that will result in one of two reactions: self-loathing or anger.  You don’t  want either of those.

Tell them how they can solve the problem.  Don’t just dump a list of failures and issues in someone’s lap and walk away.  Give them some clues as to how they can make things better.  If their character is their crutch, point out changes they can make to background and current personality traits that will inform how they play that PC.  If they are making inappropriate or unknown references to things that people clearly are not interested in, help inform them about things the whole table finds interesting so that if they really don’t know the people at all, they can get an inkling of who they are and adjust their topics of conversation accordingly.

If you want to keep people at your table, you have to work with each person and the table as a whole to find the right balance so that everybody is having a good time.

Listen to what they have to say.  After all is said and done, you have to let them speak their piece, and you have to listen.  They have stood there and listened to you spout off, it is only fair that you hear their side of things in return.  They have experienced things from a different point of view, and you may not be aware of the whole story.  Acknowledge their side of things, and then amend your proposed solution in return.  This refers to the previous paragraph about helping them solve their problems.  Compromise is always a solution, especially if it leads to balance overall.

Conclude on a positive note.  Express your excitement about your continued adventures together, and thank them for their attention in this matter.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with being polite and expressing gratitude.  If more people did this everywhere on a daily basis, everybody’s lives would be a little brighter, so say thank-you.  It doesn’t take long, and it will help to rebuild that person’s confidence just a little.

Don’t make a big deal about it to the rest of the group.  Don’t come back to the session declaring that you have yelled at Bob, and he’s promised not to be a big jerk ever again.  You are now holding up a big sign over Bob’s head that just reiterates to him and the group that he was being a jerk, and forces all of those uncomfortable moments back to the surface.  Congratulations, you are now a big jerk, too.  If you feel that it is important to inform the group that steps have been taken, then do so when that person isn’t present.  State that there was a discussion and that you have every confidence that things will get better from this point on.  They don’t need to know every detail.  Simply put, that side of things is none of their business.  All the group needs to know is that something is being done.

Make a group effort.  Part of helping someone adjust their conduct lays on the shoulders of the group.  Enlist them to work with that person to re-establish a positive vibe.  It can be as simple as asking them to just give another chance and be patient.  Alternatively, a player or two can step in to engage the person in conversation outside the session.  Getting to know them or including them in pre-game chit-chat, or talking shop about character building or adventure themes will help rebuild the gap that is created when someone gets a talking-to.

So what do you do if it all just keeps spiralling down hill?  Keep an eye on things as your sessions continue.  Things may be a little strained for a while, but that is expected.  This person is going to be making a conscious adjustment to how they behave, and everybody is going to be a little apprehensive, waiting to see if the other shoe is going to drop.  Be positive and push on.  Bring focus back to the game, and let things settle for a bit.  This is part of giving the benefit of the doubt.

If after a reasonable amount of time it is obvious that things are not working out, you have only a few options left.

First, you can revisit the issue, and try again.  Some issues may be minor enough that a little kick in the pants is not out of the question from time to time.  Especially if things are generally swimming along.  Again, you have asked someone to consciously alter their way of behaving and interacting with those around them, and everybody slips up from time to time.

Secondly, you can attempt to find them another table.  If you are running a public community, cast an eye across the room and have a listen.  Talk to the other GMs and see if maybe this person is just the wrong personality type for your particular group.  There could be a group they would better fit in with just across the way.  Your table may lose a player, but your community will not lose a member.

Lastly, and as a last resort, ask them to leave.  You don’t want to do this unless it is the only solution remaining.  If this person refuses to work with you and the rest of your group, or if their behaviour simply cannot be adapted for the benefit of all, then it’s time to address the problem in a permanent fashion.  This is what you have a code of conduct for.  This is what they refer to as the Social Agreement that really applies to everybody everywhere.  You have all agreed to show up and have fun.  In return you have also agreed to do nothing to erode that fun.

Just remember that in most cases, the person you are ousting will not accept that they were at fault.  They do not see their behaviour as inappropriate or wrong, because it is part of their personality.  This has already been evidenced in their unwillingness or inability to change.

Therefore, in the future when they talk with others about why they no longer attend your game nights, etc.  they will invariably paint you and your group in the darker light, and from a practical point of view, that is bad for business.  If you rely on membership to keep your group going, you don’t want that.

That is not to say that you can’t refuse people at the door.  As I said earlier and in previous articles, that is why we have rules.  A code of conduct that presents a reasonable set of expectations is all the justification you need to address these issues.  Make use of it where it is needed, and as long as you feel that you have exhausted all other avenues in your attempts to resolve the issues on a positive note, you can feel justified in your final decision to ask this person to stop coming.

This hobby is about fun at it’s most basic purpose.  Nobody will willingly put themselves in a situation that is supposed to be fun, just to feel uncomfortable.  It is your job as an organizer and a GM to make sure that people are getting the most out of their time and money.  This is one way to deal with the myriad of persons who you will encounter in your real life adventures.

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