Thursday, June 01, 2006

Sometimes a pawn has to be sacrificed

I joined a play by email roleplaying game set in the Firefly universe, and as these things usually do, it died of loss of momentum and the disappearance of the GM. One of the players happened to belong to another Firefly PBEM and brought up the possibility of moving what remained of our ship and crew into it.

Just so happened it was my idea for a storyline that'd bring us into the new game and explain the sudden loss of half our crew (including the NPC captain) that got adopted, and because of that, the new game's moderator appointed me as the go-between and assistant moderator for our little ragtag bunch of players. I didn't realize at the time that from that moment forward, I was doomed.

This is a really big game with three (now four) different ships each with a full crew, at least thirty characters (though a lot of players run more than one character). It has, as any group that size is bound to do, formed itself into a community that has a history and culture and a set of unspoken rules and traditions; and since these tend to form organically over time, rather than being something someone sat down and decided one day, they remain unspoken. They're too obvious and too obfuscated to actually mention. But newcomers, no matter how careful they are, are bound to trip over a few of them.

In an ideal situation, the people in question will realize that that's what's going on, and cut a little slack. They will explain the group's societal norms and not take umbrage that the newcomers didn't know them, nor that no one thought to mention them. But then, if this were an ideal situation, I probably wouldn't be blogging it, eh?

As designated go-between, I got to be the one who asked all the questions about those unspoken rules, and therefore, the one that unwittingly stirred up discussions, that touched nerves, and ultimately, that provoked a bunch of defensive, closed-minded people to decide I was a malcontent and agitator. How, after all, could I not already know all this stuff? If I was asking about it, I must be disagreeing with it.

Now, you're probably thinking, particularly if you know about me, that I brought some of this on with my own clumsiness. Normally I am the fastest person in the world to blame myself for things like this. But I go over and over everything that happened in my head and I just don't see anything I did wrong. As good as I am at finding things wrong with my own actions, I have to conclude if even I can't find it it must not be there. For once, I'm clean on this one.

There was one bit of bad luck that contributed. I made a post in which I unwittingly came close to breaking a game rule: my character bumped into someone else and knocked them down, with no lasting ill effects. The assistant GM told me to repost without the bump since that was against the "autohit" rule. I was surprised; I've been doing this kind of roleplaying for over 20 years now, and I have seen the "autohit" rule (don't decide that you can hit another character, it's up to them or the GM to decide if actual contact is made) interpreted a lot of ways, but this was the most strict version I'd ever seen. Fine, I thought; that's how they work here. I can do that.

I couldn't see an easy way to rewrite the post quickly to remove that (that was the whole point of the post) and I was about to go to bed, so I just posted that I was redacting that post, and a new one would follow, and left it at that. But people wanted to know why. I resisted making a public issue of it but eventually the GM herself demanded in public to know what the rule was that caused the redaction, so I told herI then got mildly rebuked for discussing it publicly, but I also got a private apology from the GM saying the assistant GM had gone too far in her interpretation of the rule. Fine, I thought. I wasn't really upset in the first place and by then I'd written the replacement post anyway.

But gradually it was dawning on me that people kept taking things I said and did the wrong way, that it was becoming a pattern. That people had gotten the idea that I was a troublemaker, that I was slyly being insulting or attacking, that every time I asked a question they had to take umbrage that I was disagreeing with something. (Why is it that people so often assume if you ask about something, you're attacking it? I hate that.) I tried to step even more carefully (being a newcomer into a game I was already stepping pretty careful) but it was far, far too late. Perhaps a more canny person would have seen what was happening earlier, maybe enough to stop it, but I'm not nearly that canny. Not a tenth as canny as they seem to be accusing me of being, in fact.

This might have been dragged out for months, except that I did make one simple mistake, a tactical error rather than a "blame" thing, but mistake nonetheless. People like to flood the group's OOC discussion listserv with off-topic things like the dumb Internet "what kind of person are you" quiz of the day results. I have no problem with that. I prefer not to read it, or at least to be able to easily sift through it to find the important stuff (like game announcements and OOC game coordination, the ostensible purpose of the list), but I have no interest in stopping it. If people like that, more power to them. All I want is for it to be tagged off-topic so I can sort them into another folder.

A perfectly reasonable request, and asked simply and reasonably. But even in a sane and well-adjusted group, this has a small chance of backfiring. People sometimes imagine that this amounts to asking for those off-topic things to be censored, when actually it's just the opposite, a way to allow it to continue to be posted indefinitely, a defusing of the only argument that could be made for censoring it. In an uptight, highly defensive, close-knit clique, coming from someone who has been branded as malcontent and agitator for being unlucky enough to have to be the one to ask the needed questions on behalf of the others that came with him, it's treading on a landmine.

I should have seen that coming, but so innocuous was the request that I didn't even give it a moment's thought. I've been involved in listservs and discussion fora since the late 1980s; the "OT" tag is so well-established it's as natural to me as punctuation. But inevitably it provoked a firestorm of private messages to the GM complaining about my "complaint" (which it wasn't) followed by the GM publicly berating me and telling me to "lighten up". That she did so publicly is amusing because her very next message included this line: "Unlike you, I have no need to sling mud in public." It's funny because not once in the history of the game did I ever initiate any public discussion whatsoever, not once.

Well, I decided it was time to stop dancing around things and hope that if I confronted what was happening head-on, I might get them to see how absurd it all was, how I was being abused for things I never even said or thought (often, I couldn't even figure out what insult or attack I was alleged to be making even after the fact), how it was being blown out of proportion. I didn't have much hope that it'd work (though I had even less hope that dancing around it would work either), and sure enough, it didn't. So I'm out of the game and no doubt they're vilifying me right now, making up the most absurd and scurrilous things about me.

This isn't the first time I've been in this situation and it isn't the first time I've been blameless in it, either. Often I find that something needs to be said or asked, but whoever says does is going to be forever tainted by the asking; and rather than hanging back and being quiet, allowing things to fail just so no one has to be to blame for it, I speak up. Sometimes this leads to things getting better. Sometimes, it improves things for everyone else, but at the cost of ruining my participation and making me a useful scapegoat and pariah for the surviving, improved community; that's what I'm hoping happened here, that I'm the pawn that the game needed to sacrifice to better itself. Sometimes I go down in flames but the defensive circle that is drawn around the problem holds up and my sacrifice ends up in vain (that's what happened in Lusternia).

Still, it's wearying. I know I didn't do anything wrong here, and for me that's an accomplishment. And I know I did something that the group needed, whether it manages to benefit from it or not. But once in a while I'd like to not be the sacrificed pawn. I guess in a way my refusal to get involved in such discussions about Harshlands is my one try to not be the sacrificed pawn, and I just hope that the game doesn't end up needing any pawns to be sacrificed.


litlfrog said...

"(Why is it that people so often assume if you ask about something, you're attacking it? I hate that.)"

I think this is just harder to convey in text than it is in person. When the people you're asking already have the information, they may incorrectly assume that the answer is obvious, to be found in a mix of previous posts, accumulated knowledge of play styles, common sense, and board tradition. What sounds to you like a sincere question seems to them a probing for weakness.

There's a book I'd like to track down whose name and author I've long forgotten. (I should have it somewhere in a file of notes in storage.) It's a history of the first generation of science fiction fandom--the people who put on the original Worldcon. By all accounts, it's also a fascinating study in small group politics, acrimony, and the reasons and ways that groups splinter off from a parent.

HawthornThistleberry said...

I later heard that pretty much everyone who joined at the same time as I did ended up leaving or being kicked out within a few days of my departure. The GM asked everyone to speak frankly about whether they also thought there was a problem, and then persecuted those who did.

This is really disappointing for a lot of reasons. My blog post here described an interesting mechanism for this kind of behavior which was non-obvious and not a cliché. But now it seems like the whole thing was banal in its simplicity: a loony who can't handle criticism and her collection of sycophants, straight out of an ABC After-School Special. How boring. I liked it better when the antagonist wasn't entirely unsympathetic.