Saturday, June 8, 2013

Sort of SUE: Local Environment Variables



This is less a full post and more me mashing together bits of things I had sitting around in an effort to give our absent writer as long as possible to get back here.
It occurred to me as I was looking through my note folders that there’s a weird spectrum of extremes to which DMs here gravitate on the subject of electronics, and it was especially noticeable in college because we were all forced to either buy or lease (and then break, and then buy) laptops from the school. With everyone having one, people would naturally try to use them for RPGs. Usually they would want to use a dice roller, since we were all so critically sleep-deprived we were terribly forgetful and people would invariably forget to bring their dice.
 The DM from whom I learned a great deal of my craft was against this with a vehemence I’ve rarely seen, and it actually took me a while to notice it when I was hanging around and assistant DMing. People just did not have anything out during the game; no phones, no I-devices, no laptops. This DM also showed up chronically late to everything, and that was how I eventually noticed he’d open every session with “okay, guys, laptops away, etc.”.
This was very much in line with his DMing style; in many ways it exemplified it. To play in his games was to enter a cadre of backstabbing lunatics who were out to screw each other over as much as the antagonists; the party was working so many angles you needed a sextant to say hello.  I think he liked being the only one who knew everything, what with how cryptic he made his clues. At any rate, he’d carefully parcel out useful information and work it into the adventure, and at any given second an inattentive player could miss something vital to him or her personally. It was very like a poker game. Then, too, he played with an enormous group, and mass inattention could grind things to a screeching halt.
Of the people who played and assisted with his games, two would go on to regularly DM things of their own here.
My approach to electronics in games was dictated by practicality. Thanks to motor dysgraphia, I’ve been shackled to a computer since elementary school. I built my first desktop at age five by digging through the dumpsters of a bunch of companies in the middle of replacing their hardware, dragging the parts home in a little wagon, and matching plugs to ports until everything worked. Since then, I don’t write; I type. I don’t draw, I use Paint (or, for a long time now, Inkscape). This means I cannot pass notes in the conventional DMing sense, let alone sketch a battle grid with any degree of legibility, without a computer—and I depend on my players having access to one as well, since otherwise we’d blow through paper by the crate.  
This means that my players are in a constant state of information overload. For one thing, I’ve been spoiled rotten by being able to distribute things electronically. I work through the machinations of my campaigns by making in-universe documents out of my notes, and most of them find their way to my players eventually—so by the time the campaign is in full flow, they’re usually sorting through reams of stuff trying to make sense of the world. I’ve gotten better about being concise and omitting extraneous information, but still, without a Find function my players and I would be hopelessly lost.  In a larger sense, though, I’m competing with the whole Internet for my players’ attention by necessity. I don’t like trying to control my players out of that; I’m not their warden. Instead, I use it as a combination safety net and rubric. If one player requires my exclusive attention for a moment, it’s not like everyone else is trapped with nothing to do; conversely, if I haven’t heard from someone for a while, I’m probably not engaging them more than the Internet, and I need to address that. It’s a handy way of allocating time for large groups, anyway.
I can actually understand those two approaches as valid. Then we have the SUE Files method: “you can have your laptops out, but don’t use them except for game-related purposes”.
In practice, this translates to “if at any time you are not paying attention to me, I will harp at you, regardless of what I’m actually doing”. This works about as well as you can imagine; the percentage of DM time spent controlling players rises exponentially with player number, since no one in their right mind is going to sit attentively through an hour-long exposition fest directed exclusively at another player when they’ve got an endless source of entertainment in front of them. It’s especially noticeable if he feels you’re overpowered, since he’ll usually open a combat by somehow inactivating you. If, for example, you cast spells, you can look forward to, at worst, eight real-time hours of combat during which you are irreparably grappled, unable to meaningfully roll dice because even the 1/400 best-case scenario changes nothing. Oh, but how dare you not pay attention to the session. The one redeeming quality of the resultant farce is that he’s not usually attentive enough to notice when people aren’t listening to him.
It works fairly well as a partial explanation of the psychosis underlying our existence here—which itself might help elucidate our reasons for continuing to play with someone so preposterously inept as long as we did. If you’ve ever asked where I find these people, here you go:
This university is not, in any way, a nice place. Our student orientation (the real one, the one after the parents leave) opens with a detailed explanation of just how little anyone cares about us or any issues we might have, and we have the astronomical self-harm rates to prove it. Every class is taught with the attitude that all you wastes of student loans might have skated along in your previous classes, but here, ah, here’s where we separate the people who deserve to be here from the other 90% of you. The ones who don’t say that outright, we call “the nice professors”, and even they’re a little weird. My first faculty advisement meeting (these happen with everyone of your year and major) included this little gem: “If you’re 4.0, there are additional programs available to you. We know who the real students are.”
This attitude continues outside of class. For a start, everyone cliques up pretty quickly, assuming they have free time (meaning they do not study architecture). If you’re an international student (roughly 1/6 of our student  body) , you join the [National] Student Association and they’re your social circle. I’m not generalizing; 100% of the eligible students are members. The level of blatant racism here from all quarters is astounding, by the by, assuming you’re polylingual enough to pick up on it. The other big bloc is the stupid rich legacy students, who will join a frat with other stupid rich legacy students and spend their off hours hosting closed parties and generally acting like assholes because they know they’re being hired by their parents after this. I’ve seen the bottom of so many blueblood noses I could be an ENT. Premed students have their own little gang, too. The general advice we get regarding our associates is “make the friends your career will thank you for”, and the premeds, among others, take it to whatever they have in place of a heart. It’s like taking classes alongside the Borg version of ‘80s Guy. The engineers and scientists hang out; these people have “informal networking sessions” and will actually refer to them as such in conversation with other ostensibly human beings. The sheer amount of calculation they do is chilling. They introduce each other by major, GPA, and lab (not name), and that’s how they decide who to suck up to. Elsewhere, athletes exclusively self-associate for the same reason architects don’t talk to anyone; there’s just no time. I’d go into campus sexism, but it’s so laden with school-specific jargon there’s a real risk of someone figuring out where I went from it.
People don’t talk in the halls here, and not just because there’s usually someone trudging around on the verge of crying.
It’s a bit difficult to get a group together, under the circumstances. Especially given how clubs work here: they are not generally for recreational purposes. They exist to enrich the resumes of their officers, and you join to become one. There isn’t an RPG club here because it’s not marketable; so says the Student Union. To be fair, there is a traditional games club, but it’s something of a special case. Good place to play Arkham Horror, but in general people there are there because it’s the only time they have free, and the desperation hangs in the air like ozone.
Assuming one overcomes all that and gets 5+ people with enough simultaneous free time to play, there’s the matter of sanity. This is not a trivial problem. Usually the people who get full-blown PTSD leave (or more accurately flunk out; most students are far too in debt to leave and start ticking down the grace period on their student loans), but that still leaves ASD along with generalized anxiety, depression, the occaisional nervous breakdown and a battery of defense mechanisms on top of whatever we came in with. Our first reaction to bizarre behavior, then, is generally to accept it and move on, since it’s probably the result of another administrative/academic screwing-over. It’s why I put up with the SUEthor’s bullcrap for so long, actually; we’ve all taken leave of our senses at some point here. I just didn’t realize how thoroughly some of it had stuck.
Or, to put it another way: Our president reacted to a vote of no confidence by disbanding the faculty senate. Our professors see no issue with assigning literally impossible problems “just to test how you react to them” and see no problem with still marking them wrong. Our local police respond to noise complaints but not muggings. This is all happening while we’re absorbing debt like sponges getting degrees in STEM fields in an economy that will never see us hired. In that kind of environment, if someone tells me they think they’re psychic … how is that supposed to stand out from all the background insanity? And how am I supposed to differentiate stress-induced control freakery from pathological control freakery when they’re indistinguishable coming from my professors?

6 comments:

  1. The only reason I know you didn't go to the same private college I went to for a year and a half is the mention of frats, which we didn't have. Otherwise everything sounds almost exactly like the school I escaped from when I was 19. Except you didn't mention the professors being way over-involved in their favorite students' lives.

    I warn people away from small private colleges because of my bad experience, and I was lucky; I didn't end up hospitalized. It took a little decompression afterward to realize how freakish the society in mine actually was. One of the first things I noticed at the state college I transferred to was that people of all races were actually civil to each other -- and more than civil, actually friendly!

    Suddenly I understand why you put up with this guy.

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  2. Heh, I went to a very similar place. For the first 3 years I was mostly a hermit and avoided everyone I went to school with. I didn't even have time for a social life between school and work.

    The last year I was 21 and established a social life at a local bar, hanging out with townies and making friends at clubs and shows. I also wound up befriending 3-4 other people from school that way, when I discovered they were in the same boat I was. One worked nights as a bartender a few blocks from me, another frequented grunge/metal clubs I found myself in quite often. They were all people who worked on top of school, were from the US, and weren't in a sport. If any of those applied I'm sure they wouldn't have given me the time of day.

    I tried to join in TTRPG games my first year, and discovered the same degrees of insanity you seem to have encountered. Everyone thought they were a math genius, and reinvented the wheel with home rules and new systems. Every game was a self-masturbatory exercise for the DMs trying to prove they could do it better.

    I hope where you wind up has a gaming shop and you can find some normal people to play with (worked amazingly for me when I moved). Good luck with the job market (I bailed and am starting grad school in the fall).

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  3. The games are always exciting to play,,

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  4. Sorry for necroing this up.

    Your school experience is completely typical as far as I can tell. It took me 17 years and three colleges and finally saying to everyone in my life, "to hell with what you want me to study," just to earn an unremarkable and I marketable degree.

    College is like the LARP version of Paranoia and only sociopaths get out unscathed.

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  5. I have motor dysgraphia. Can be a pain.

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  6. ZeRoller, are you sure that you aren't dead? Because the explanation I've got for what you are describing here is that you died and went to hell at some point, and that you're attending Damnation U without knowing it.

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