Saturday, 2 May 2015

"Get Off My Bedroll You Filthy Dwarf!": An Essay On Playing With People

Last night a friend asked me to write an article about this topic. I don't normally do 'requests' as such: I have to be genuinely inspired by a topic, and actually have something worthwhile to say. But I viewed it as a challenge, so here goes...

Note that this is largely written for the benefit of the beginning DM. This stuff will probably be obvious to veterans, but my hope is there is at least something of use herein!

A Communal Game
Dungeons & Dragons is invariably a communal game. Thus, there exists a social contract between everyone at the table. The catch is, this contract is often unspoken, and becomes effectively rendered invisible. It is very apparent that people are drawn to D&D because it is an enjoyable pastime. Simply put, it is fun. There are additional reasons of course: some like rolling dice; others enjoy assuming fictitious identities or world-building; making characters; inhabiting mythology, history or folklore can be attractive; or maybe it's just to escape reality for awhile. The invisibility of the social contract can become problematic for a number of reasons, mainly because everyone wants something slightly different from the game. 

Everyone's Different
Let's pretend we have five players at the table:

1. Sally is the Dungeon Master. She loves creating her own worlds. It's a creative process for her. Helping players become immersed in her creations is vastly rewarding.

2. Bevan likes combat. He loves rolling dice, scoring critical hits (if such things exist in your games), he likes the action, and he likes being a bit of a hero in the party. Some call this guy the 'min-maxer', and often he knows all the rules. 

3. Samantha is primarily a role-player. She is always coming up with new ideas for characters. The powers or the benefits of the character are not really important , it's more the process of immersing herself in the game that is appealing. She needs to feel like she can actually express this alternate identity. 

4. Doug like solving problems. He likes riddles, puzzles, determining intrigue, setting up traps, coming up with strategic ways of dealing with situations. His character is really just him, but in this shared fantasy world. The challenge is what he's drawn to, rather than the character or the world necessarily.

5. Finally we have Sophie. Sophie doesn't talk much at the table, being fairly quiet. She loves the game however, and faithfully shows up every week. She has a vivid imagination and while she doesn't say much, there's plenty going on in her head as she experiences the fantasy worlds presented by Sally, and negotiated by the players. She loves the adventure or exploration aspect of that game. 


Have you been in this group before? Because I have.

The names of the players may be different, the wants and desires from the game may vary group to group, but I've been there. I've been both the player and the DM in this type of situation. The mark of a good DM (and I would say player too) is negotiating the differences at the table. Not only do we have personal drivers for why we wish to play, but the type of games we want to play vary substantially. Some love the high fantasy thing: lots of magic, myriad races and magic items, and a vast world that the characters can become heroes of. Some games are gritty and dark. Some have horror or weird elements. Some players like 'gonzo' games. Some want a mix of this and a mix of that. Some don't really care.

To complicate matters further we have different levels of commitment. For some players the game is an obsession or their favourite hobby. For some it just gives them something to do on a Saturday night. The places we actually play the game might also vastly differ: some congregate at hobby stores, while others infinitely prefer the solace of one's home surrounded by friends.

With all this difference it's a wonder that groups stay together very long (and I suspect it's a reason why many fall apart).

I don't care who you're playing with, there needs to be a level of teamwork or agreement for a group to function. I don't mean the friendly well-behaved party where all the members agree on everything, even though they are supposedly wildly different people (although if that's everyone's cup of tea, go for it). Groups where characters disagree, or have vast difference is more interesting in my opinion. It is a more organic or believable process. It reflects real life to a greater extent. Disagreements or conflicts within a game do not necessitate in being an 'issue'. See them as an opportunity. When I say there needs to be 'agreement' or 'teamwork' I mean that the players need an understanding of what their games will entail and what the expectations within the games will be. As I've already mentioned I don't believe this is often verbalised (nor does it necessarily need to be), but it is essential that if I'm playing with whoever that we're on the same page. In my games D&D is not the outlet for someone to express their sexual fantasies, but for some groups this sort of thing is okay. Likewise some will inevitably balk at the idea that my games are extremely violent, often involving human sacrifice and other nastiness. Luckily everyone at my table is down for that style of play so it's not a problem. The point is, everyone needs to be board. There is a need for collaboration.

Keeping Things Safe & Appropriate
Tastes evolve and adapt over time, but it's essential to respect those you play with. Last year I ran a 5th edition game in a hobby store and I was very careful about the level of brutality I injected in the game. I have a general disdain for including other races besides human (I find them yawningly boring and over-used), but this game had all the races you may wish to play. The game was designed to be open to all, and hopefully be an enjoyable experience for everyone at the table. Compare that to my home games where the players have slaughtered everyone within a temple, or walked into a room where cannibals are tearing the flesh off a still-living human. Clearly there is a massive divergence between these two games, but it is reflective and appropriate for the context of play where the game occurs. In my home games there is a level of trust available for these themes to occur and be present, and for everyone to go home having had a good time. It's taken years of playing together. Yes, we've had some heated arguments over the years. Or one player may vehemently disagree about a ruling, or whatever, but that sort of stuff has actually been essential for establishing the group process. We have a mutual respect for each other.

With public games (at a store), or in games in which you are playing with strangers or mere acquaintances I feel a slightly different approach is required. The DM either needs to be transparent about the content likely to arise in the game, or they need to run a strictly G or PG styled game. The key is respecting the players. Just because I've written a vastly brutal adventure that I think is awesome, doesn't mean I have the right to inflict that on anyone unless it's within a safe context.

Encouraging Synergy
So that's my essay really: things need to be safe and respectful for all players. When these two things are present within a game I find the differences between players actually become assets: Bevan knows all the rules so he can assist Sally (DM) when she forgets something. Samantha can help Sophie express herself more openly. Doug's enthusiasm for puzzles can rub off on other players, etc. Likewise, when the social contract is uncertain, why not voice it: "I'd love to run a horror-fantasy game, and it may get bloody and violent. What does everyone think?" Speaking from experience these two elements - safety and respect - go a long way towards the true intent of the game: to have fun.