A Unified Theory of Table Behavior

Okay, I made that sound way more innovative than this post deserves. Don’t get me wrong, I think the message is important, it’s just not particularly new. I just feel it occasionally bears repeating so everyone keeps it in mind.

I expend a lot of words on this blog from time-to-time defending certain play styles. I’m an advocate for DMs, GMs, Storytellers, and Keepers. I think the Quantum Ogre* is bogus and I think it is the responsibility of both the players and the DMs to make sure that the game is “good.” But really, what I think it comes down to is:


If I’m the DM, I’ve probably put hundreds of hours into a campaign (easily) and I’m devoting myself to being a different part of the playing equation so that players get to have that experience (of being PCs). Also, if I’m a player, I’m probably invested in my character and I expect the DM to treat me fairly and not — as Wil Wheaton put it (best) — “be a dick.”

But what does that mean?

Well, for me, it means a lot of things. There are the little things like, “show up on time” or “call if you can’t show up on time.” Things like, “bring dice, paper, pencils, your freakin’ character sheet, and make some effort to learn the rules from week to week.” Please note with that last one, I’m not calling on everyone at the table to be able to quote the rules chapter and verse and have total system mastery. What I am saying is — if you want to play a Hacker in Shadowrun and your GM helps you build the character and then gives you a copy of the rulebook to read, at least show some improvement from week to week in knowing what all the fiddly bits on your character sheet mean. Or if you are not willing to do this — play a simpler character.**

It means, as many game writers have pointed out in rulebooks, magazine articles, and blogs (for years now), sharing the spotlight and not running over the other people at your table(s). They are there to have fun too and will probably want you to have fun, so they might not being willing to tell you that you are being a jerk — even when you are. Respect takes a little self-monitoring.

Most important to me though is the idea that you are all in it together. Respect means accepting that there are different play styles at the table — not just yours — and being willing to explore those play-styles from time to time, with the assurance that your preferred mode of play will also be given fair screen time. Not a roleplayer? Don’t sulk through those encounters and tinker on your smartphone. Actually make an effort to contribute something — anything — and the others at the table might just surprise you by screaming your battle cry the next time you “just get down and kill some orcs!”

The GM has a responsibility in this to respect that, perhaps, not everyone at his table is “okay with palette switching.” So this is an issue that can be discussed ahead of time and communicated. It also means that if the GM has some stuff on tap that requires a little plot-shuffling — players don’t immediately start screaming about “losing their agency” and pack up their toys and go home. It means taking a risk that maybe, there is no “one true way” to play. It means taking a risk that if you try it someone else’s way, sometimes, you just might find something awesome waiting in those woods.

Respect is a very simple word. But we lose sight of its meaning and function in our hobby all the time. So that’s my piece on Game Theory. Respect is the number one responsibility of everyone at the table to guarantee a better gaming experience.

* — this is not the original Quantum Ogre article but it links back. I think this post presents the point I wanted to convey in saying that I’m not fan of that line of thinking.

** — pick anything. D&D Wizard, could be another example. It’s one thing to want to be a casual player — that’s fine. But if you are unwilling to invest time enough that after 2 months of gaming everyone is still explaining the basics of your character to you (and they are still being patient), then maybe you owe it to them to learn that character a little better.


4 responses

  1. Well said! It seems that basic player behavior is a hot topic this week. Another way to encourage player interaction is to award XP for RP interaction, or to keep track of NPC relationships and make those beneficial. (maybe the smith that your fighter brings whiskey with his most recent repair bill has a little something extra lying around).
    Or, and I haven’t tried this, but make sure your players know there is often a secret quest in their normal game. Maybe this piece of art is worth far more to a sentimental collector you can only discover through RP, or by taking a quick detour on route to the big-bad the party can clean up an old graveyard housing the ancestors of a certain NPC who might reward them handsomely… but only if they get to know the guy first.

  2. While I agree that there are many ways to work with players for for “in-character” behavior — I’m talking more about “player” behavior and just being a part of the group instead of at odds with them.

    Basically, my message could be boiled down to, “don’t be a selfish player/GM”

  3. Yeah, it’s funny you brought it up, it’s a topic I discussed as well at d20Q. I think occasionally it can help to have a conversation with everyone at the game to see what they like, or don’t, about the game. That way you can easily broach a topic like ‘I don’t like how Bob sleeps through town encounters.’

    In my case ‘Bob’ (name changed to protect the poster :] ) is playing with us in Kingmaker and literally sleeps through the ‘making’ portion of the game. The basic disrespect is sort of astonishing.

    1. Oh man… wow. You are a patient DM.

      I’d be upset at that kind of thing. I mean, if he doesn’t enjoy that part, that’s fine. One of my players hated that part. So she took on the duty of being the secretary for that part so she’d be forced to be more engaged instead of less.

      Oh yeah, I’d bring that up with a player. It’s awkward, but he’s putting the rest of the group in that situation, not the other way around.

      Good luck.

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