by Charles Bernstein*
originally published in Harper's Magazine June 2003, Volume 306, Issue 1837; ISSN:0017-789x
All of us from time to time encounter a difficult adventure. Sometimes it is the adventure of a friend or a family member, and sometimes it is an adventure we have written ourselves. The difficult adventure has created distress for both GMs and players for many years. Experts who study difficult adventures often trace the modern prevalence of this problem to the early years of the last century, when a great deal of social dislocation precipitated the outbreak of 1978, one of the best-known epidemics of difficult adventures.
But while these experts have offered detailed historical discussions of difficult adventures, and while there is a great deal of philosophical speculation and psychological theory about difficult adventures, there are few practical guides for handling difficult adventures. What I want to do in this essay is explore some ways to make your experience with the difficult adventure more rewarding by exploring some strategies for coping with these adventures.
You may be asking yourself, how did I get interested in this topic? Let me be frank about my situation. I am the author of, and a frequent player of, difficult adventures. Because of this, I have the strong desire to help other players and GMs with hard-to-play adventures. By sharing my experience of more than thirty years of working with difficult adventures, I think I can save you both time and heartache. I may even be able to convince you that some of the most difficult adventures you encounter can provide very enriching aesthetic experiences-if you understand how to approach them.
But first we must address the question-Are you playing a difficult adventure? How can you tell? Here is a handy checklist of five key questions that can help you to answer this question:
1. Do you find the adventure hard to survive?
2. Do you find the adventure's purpose or goal hard to understand?
3. Are there unexpected logistical, moral, or philosophical dilemmas brought up by the adventure?
4. Does the adventure make you feel inadequate or stupid as a player?
5. Is your imagination being affected by the adventure?
If you answered any of these questions in the affirmative, you are probably dealing with a difficult adventure. But if you are still unsure, look for the presence of any of these symptoms: high mortality, tactical, or intellectual activity level; elevated mood intensity; rules irregularities; initial withdrawal (adventure not immediately comprehensible); poor adaptability (adventure unsuitable for use at childrens' birthday parties, pick-up games with random hipsters, etc.); sensory overload; or negative mood.
Many players when they first encounter a difficult adventure say to themselves, "Why me?" The first reaction they often have is to think that this is an unusual problem that other players have not faced. So the first step in dealing with the difficult adventure is to recognize that this is a common problem that many other players confront on a daily basis. You are not alone!
The second reaction of many difficult-adventure players is self-blame. They ask themselves, "What am I doing to cause this adventure to be so difficult?" So the second step in dealing with the difficult adventure is to recognize that you are not responsible for the difficulty and that there are effective methods for responding to it without getting frustrated or angry.
The writers of difficult adventures face the same troubling questions as players, but for them the questions can be even more agitating. Often a GM will ask himself, if he is a man, or herself, if a woman (transgendered individuals also find themselves asking these questions): "Why did my adventure turn out like this? Why isn't it completely accessible like the adventures in the back of rulebooks, which never pose any problems for understanding?" Like players of difficult adventures, these writers of difficult adventures must first come to terms with the fact that theirs is a common problem, shared by many other GMs. And they must come to terms with the fact that it is not their fault that their adventures are harder to understand than the ones in the back of rulebooks, but that some adventures just turn out that way.
Difficult adventures are normal. They are not incoherent, meaningless, or hostile. Well meaning players may have suggested that "something must be wrong" with the adventure. So let's get a new perspective. "Difficult" is very different from abnormal. In today's climate, with an increasing number of adventures being labeled "difficult," this is an important distinction to keep in mind.
Difficult adventures are like this because of their innate makeup. And that makeup is their constructed style. They are not like this because of something you as players have done to them. It's not your fault.
Difficult adventures are hard to play. Of course you already know this, but if you keep it in mind, then you are able to regain your authority as a player. Don't let the adventure intimidate you! Often the difficult adventure will provoke you, but this may be its way of getting your attention. Sometimes, if you give your full attention to the adventure, the provocative behavior will stop.
Difficult adventures are not popular. This is something that any player or writer of difficult adventures must face squarely. There are no three ways about it. But just because an adventure is not popular doesn't mean it has no value! Unpopular adventures can still have meaningful readings and, after all, may not always be unpopular. Even if the adventure never becomes popular, it can still be special to you, the player. Maybe the adventure's unpopularity will even bring you and the difficult adventure closer. After all, your own ability to have an intimate relation with the adventure is not affected by the adventure's popularity.
Once you have gotten beyond the blame game-blaming yourself as a player for the difficulty or blaming the adventure-you can start to focus on the relationship. The difficulty you are having with the adventure may suggest that there is a problem not with you the player or with the adventure but with the relation between you and the adventure. Working through the issues that arise as part of this relation can be a valuable learning experience. Smoothing over difficulties is not the solution! Learning to cope with a difficult session of an adventure will often be more fulfilling than sweeping difficulties under the carpet, only to have the accumulated dust plume up in your face when you finally get around to cleaning the floor.
Players of difficult adventures also need to beware of the tendency to idealize the accessible adventure. Keep in mind that an adventure may be easy because it is not going anywhere. And while this may make for undisturbed playing at first, it may mask problems that will turn up later. No adventure is ever really difficulty-free. Sometimes working out your difficulties with the adventure is the best thing for a long-term aesthetic experience and opens up the possibilities for many future encounters with the adventure.
I hope that this approach to the difficult adventure will alleviate the frustration so many players feel when challenged by this type of aesthetic experience. Reading adventures, like other life experiences, is not always as simple as it may seem to be from the outside, as when we see other players flipping happily through collections of retired 20th level PCs. Very often this picture of playerly bliss is not the whole story; even these now-smiling players may have gone through difficult experiences with adventures when they first encountered them. As my mother would often say, you can't make bacon and eggs without slaughtering a pig.
*I have made the following substitutions:
The word "poem" in the original essay has been turned into "adventure"
"Read" has been turned into "play"
"author" and "poet" into "GM"
"1912" into "1978"
Identifiers 1, 2, 3 and the paragraph after the list have been substantially altered.
"of billy collins" has been replaced with "in the back of rulebooks"
"saying anything" has become "going anywhere"
"best loved verse" has been replaced with "retired 20th level PCs"
The unaltered version is here.