On Being a Dick…

I saw a post today which I am pretty sure is the result of someone being “mad as hell” and unwilling to take it anymore. Basically, his problem was that players were not bothering to take responsibility for making or understanding their characters as well as the issues of players not even knowing the rules of the game they were playing.

The unclear part is whether those players were unwilling to do so or just had chosen not to. It’s a small distinction but one that merits some thought when you are confronted with it. If a player is unwilling to take ownership of their stake in the game table, then yeah, they are probably a dick. But if they just haven’t committed to it yet, then maybe that’s something else. Maybe that player just needs some encouragement to get with it. Maybe they don’t understand something and aren’t willing to ask because they are afraid it will make them look stupid. Maybe lots of things. It is also possible they are just a dick.

I’m of two minds about this though. I have a problem that when I go into a game, I’m usually pretty gung-ho. Gaming is my favorite thing to do in the world so I don’t always remember that other gamers might be in it more for the social aspect. I’m likely to jump to the conclusion that someone doesn’t care or isn’t engaged if they aren’t as engaged as I am. It’s something I try to fight against but I frequently fail.

It’s also the case that I usually try to reserve judgment for a few sessions. I mean, it’s possible – especially if playing a new system – that a player may just be dabbling and not willing to commit until they’ve seen the system and the group in action for a few sessions. This makes sense. Again, I try to respect this without always succeeding. But I try.

Here’s where I gotta agree with the thought of the original poster though… If you are joining a game, take ownership of your part. You don’t have to memorize all the rules chapter and verse, but take the time to be familiar with the ones that involve your character. If you don’t understand something, please ask. I’d rather you get it and have fun than not get it, suffer in silence, and then quit the game three sessions in.

And even though you may not understand everything in a game, once you are more than 10-12 sessions into a game, it’s time to start thinking about investing a little into the game. Consider getting your own copy of the core rules, make sure you understand the action/interaction systems (like combat, social skills, action structure). This is a minimum commitment that should not be too much to ask once you know that you are playing a game fairly long term.

Most of all though, don’t put your GM or fellow players in a situation where they have to be the jerks because they have to call you out. Don’t be lazy. Yes, it’s a game. But it’s also a time commitment, a social engagement, and something that everyone is agreeing to do in lieu of literally everything else they could be doing with that time. So be in the moment, take some ownership of your engagement, and contribute to the fun.

In other words, don’t be a dick.


8 responses

  1. Thanks for making this post, Mike. It gives me a chance to address my style of game (recall that Likert-scale graph I sent you a couple of years ago, the one I needed some technical help with?) as well as to emphasize a play-style approachable only by role-playing games because no other game allows for the player to trump the rules. [Among other improvised play aspects, I refer to the “yes, and” ideas generated and accepted at the table and the simple GM rulings over rules – aka GM = System.]

    And, maybe, I am a “dick” but I am not a pedant at a game that feels (to players like me) more like a role-playing seminar than a shared fantasy. I suppose this is the other side of the same coin. I play RPGs to relax; to imbue my PC, Sir John Thumpalot, with all /my characteristics/ and try to overcome the poor statistics I rolled in session 0. Or, it may be anyone but the Thief who has to acquire coin without the benefit of a pickpocket statistic. I want to problem solve with the other players and overcome the challenges of the game as a team rather than be, what Sally from the film Oblivion might call, an “effective unit.” I do not want to attend my game as though I were in a business meeting, or to narrate action in the Third Person Limited.

    I don’t get bored playing a game in this manner. On the contrary. The more I get to know the other players, playing as I do, the more I will want to attend the game and the more thought I will give to the game (not the system). True, I will not be immersed in rules how to beat the system. I do not play these games to beat anyone. I won’t be talking shop with the other players, one of those discussing the physics of Star Trek teleporters, but I will be excited in retelling the shared fantasy that engrossed us – just like when I walk out of a film.

    And when I play the GM role, I enjoy the interaction of my players (not their PCs) and what they add to my experience as game master. Sure a wizard PC requires the player to know his spells and all players will eventually know what dice to roll for what action they take. They will learn I only allow communication between players at my table when the PCs can communicate in their world of our shared fantasy. But I presume, not having read the original rant, this stuff is not the knowledge lacking from “dick players.”

    One can view role-playing games in two ways. In the perspective unique to RPGs, one can view play (and its story) as informing and defining the rules. In the traditional board game view, the rules define the limitations of play like in chess or in Monopoly. But board games cannot permit the level of RPGs’ player interaction with its rules system because they’re competitive and adversarial in nature.

    A counter-point worth thinking about, IMHO.

  2. To address only the last point you make, I don’t know that the way I view my RPG experience is quite so binary. I tend to view the rules of the game as setting a shared parameter within which the motion of the story takes place. That is, for my own enjoyment, telling a story together is the paramount reason to enjoy this hobby (rather than “leveling up” or getting stuff or system mastery in the form of optimization). And telling a story together means evolving the life of our characters through shared experience rather than strict adherence to a plot.

    That said, I see the rules (and by extension, rulings made to support/interpret the RAW) as being the primary lens through which the motion of that story progresses. The rules provide the necessary structures and scaffolding on which to hang our PC accomplishments. The rules are a necessary and complex part of the interaction such that despite my PC having a low Intelligence score (or whatever example you choose) and me knowing the Monster Manual backwards and forwards, I am still constrained by the nature of my character’s experience rather than my own as a player in the context of each iteration of play.

    If the two pieces – player engagement with the world and rules to support the motion of events in game – are not working in harmony, the experience will suffer. It seemed to me that the original poster (I decided against posting the original rant but probably should have) was more upset that his players were subverting their engagement by not learning how to interact with the rules that support and underpin play – leaving all the “Game” work to the GM – and thus removing his ability to enjoy the engagement part.

    1. As a “dick player” (no offence taken, I am just using the jargon uniformly) I do not memorize the Monster Manual. That would be like me eating my cake and having it too. Were I to do that, I would be motivated to beat the system and God-up my PC. In fact, I would aspire to Mary Sue. Sure, I have looked at it for the succubus line drawing (and what fine lines too!) but that’s about it. Now munchkin, perforce by definition, will not be a dick player (by the definition we’re using). He may be /that/ guy.

      My in-game player skill, that stuff I always bring to my PCs no matter the restrictions created by statistics or “class” comes from James Bond, Hammer and Ray Harryhausen films; from reading both historical and straight fiction novels beyond the Appendix N list; and my life. I hope I am better at critical thinker today than I was 36 years ago. There is a binary understanding of player skill here that might assume munchkin when the reference is really to a dick player – kind of startling when a dick player is supposed to be dead weight at the table by definition.

      As a dick player, I do not know what is in store ahead of the game and I DO rely on my host, the GM. My game is not only his system, his house, but he rules it. I am free to express myself through my character, challenged in-game by what I know, what I think I know, and by what I have never encountered before. And we (players) all have to know each other – especially true for the GM. I am not talking the fiction of stat sheets but the real flesh and blood people at the table eating the Cheetos, drinking the soda. I can advise the 7-year-old playing a cleric that, for a fact, the monster fighting us is undead because I have watched every undead film. And, moreover, the GM knows I have. And it’s the GM’s system so if he wants to retool undead then my game detours from what I know to what I think I know….

      I do not bitch that his zombies operate more like Internet kidney merchants (and not as I expect zombies from the monster manual should act). It is his system.

      And that’s exciting too – for every one of us. How soon will the players figure out the innovation? But being told I cannot advise the cleric, whose PC is standing right next to my PC, reeks of poor sportsmanship and “no, and.” This is personal. It interferes with my game, and my enjoyment. If the GM is too lazy to know the players, to even socialize, then “dick” players can take no credit for that.

      Now a player out to beat the system faster, stronger and meaner – the players who have irked you and have been written about in past posts https://morrisonmp.wordpress.com/2015/09/18/the-worktheme-dichotomy-in-games/#comments – also receive a story. So to utilize a player category of “story-based play” is, practically, meaningless. At the end of the day, the player that only comes to the table with a hammer (character sheet) sees every obstacle as a nail. 1) /That/ guy playing (correctly) the serial rapist who can’t help himself will testify he adds to the story, and rightly so in terms of the side plots such play can induce to the game. 2) So will the roll player that hardly speaks in character with his munchkin-sized hammer playing to win. Then there is the piano roll itself – 3) the player that misses the opportunity to become engrossed because he or she is immersed by the propriety of the numbers on his stat sheet; the Hammer fan who watches his PCs, one after another, raped by archetypical vampires without so much as lifting a finger in self-defense. This play makes such a player dead party weight in the eyes of this dick player.

      I have not read the rant but the presumption being impressed upon me by the rant’s author is that every role-player should approach the RPGs experience academically like a board game. This is a dire shame. The richness of the game and the far-reaching fondness of play that is recalled decades later is well and truly beyond the PC.

      The author of the rant referenced here and I (from my recent experience) might agree it is a tragedy that we lack the language specific enough to attract the sort of players with whom we want to play; and to refrain from the unnecessary rhetoric of “dicks” and “pricks.”

      One more thing I observe. Successful board games have rule booklets, likely because a hoard of rules is a barrier to attracting players (players who have to learn the rules because it’s a board game.) I have watched people who come to RPGs for to spend leisure time be turned off by the amount of rules homework. I refer not only to the professional players who call such players dicks, but, to the very fact that rule books numbering in the thousands of pages is intimidating to a dick like me.

      The message is clear but, maybe, Quixote-like, I do not belong in this hobby. I am certainly in the play-style camp that believes the rules should respond to the players and not the other way around.

      Thanks for the topic and for politely and patiently allowing a dissenting (and passionate) view.

  3. I think, at this point, that our thoughts diverge.

    First, let me say that I’m not 100% clear on the position you are arguing but to hone in on what I think I’m seeing (and I admit I could be wrong) I want to pick up one of your examples.

    Concerning the idea that a player should not bring “player knowledge” to the table… I agree with you that player knowledge is a useful thing. I bring my accumulated fictional knowledge to the table all the time – not just what I know of the rules of a game but also all the accumulated knowledge of mythology, horror movies, spy thrillers, etc. And I’m always willing to share that with my fellow players in terms that make sense (that is, out of game).

    I usually allow players (and expect most GMs to allow players) to talk out of character about things like undead, and how to run a successful con, and what happened during the Trojan War. I ascribe this to time that characters would have during all those long days and nights on the trail that can’t always be played out at the table.

    That said, during play I also try to respect my character sheet (otherwise, why even have them?) in such a way that, if I’m playing a Lando-like con man, then sure, I’m going to allow my character to tap into my own personal knowledge of how that seems to work in fictional representations and run with it. But if I’m playing a straightforward grim servant o’ death in a Deadlands game, then I’m going to respect that my character probably knows a lot about certain things but how to run a con is probably not one of them. So, outside of game I might chat with other players about such a thing but during active play, I’ll probably keep that to myself.

    Does that makes sense? I see the character sheet I create for my character as being the entry point for my play.

    That does not excuse people who place their own fun above that of the group. I’m not talking about carrying this to the extreme of playing a glassy-eyed rapist and claiming that my actions “support my story so I can’t be wrong!” While that is not the same thing the original writer who inspired my post was upset about, it is certainly an issue which should be cleared up by players talking to one another about what their shared expectations are.

    When it comes to “being a dick” in the sense that you don’t bother to learn the rules, or to be a respectful player at the table, I think those are legitimate complaints. I’m not saying that a new player needs to come to the table fully immersed in the complete memorization of a 300 page rulebook – I’m saying that after 12+ sessions of play you have a responsibility to understand the basic building blocks of the game you are playing and not constantly make it other players (and the GMs) problem that you don’t.

    Rules light or rules heavy is a completely different conversation and because so many fine games exist at either end of the spectrum in just about any genre you care to play, I don’t see an issue there. Some people like Barbarians of Lemuria, some people like Pathfinder. Both are still perfectly fine fantasy RPGs. On that count, I think the trick is finding the variety you like and then finding like-minded people to play it with you.

  4. Welcome to why I’ve basically stopped gaming – the level of effort to fun is becoming such that I’m leaving game more disappointed than when I started. And obviously the problem is me, because I’ve switched games and players/GMs and it remains. EIther I don’t know how to get what I want, what I want is unreasonable, or perhaps the groups that I’m joining are the wrong sort but I’m not sure how to find the right sort in a reasonable time. Which is why I’ve generally switched to computer games for the story needs, and board games for the personal interaction. Neither one actually scratches the itch, but both come far closer than gaming has for a while.

    1. I understand. I almost quit a few months ago. Almost just threw in the towel for good. While I know that the problem is “me” as you say, I also think the reason is more your third explanation. And it’s not necessarily that the groups are “wrong” just that what I want from a game is complex. It’s not a simple entertainment for me like watching the NFL or playing a board game. And as much as I got obsessed with Fallout 4, it will never replace RPGs for what they mean to me.

      But what I want seems to be a difficult thing to ask for. So I keep muddling on and hoping that if I just keep playing I’ll stumble into it again. I’ve had it before – and it wasn’t planned – so I’ll just keep looking.

  5. This is what the $5 worth of chemicals in my body will buy you in AD&D 1e light rules terms: Str 7; Dex 12; Con 12; Int 7; Wis 15; Cha 3 According to the rules, I am not even human….

    Mine are not the stats for a great adventurer. Yet I have lived a fun summer in Vienna (without money) in ‘89 and adventured to Poland in 2001 (a career ending disaster). Prior to Poland, I had been a self-employed consultant for 10 years. Wis is for the win, but constantly fighting Cha to make a sale based on cold facts rather than personality, and having mentors aid me with an Int boost to find those facts. My point is: my character did not let my “stats” confine my life to a comfort zone out-of-game.

    Now, in-game, why would I play my character in a comfort zone, if I wanted a fun game? Most important of all, why /should/ I be required to “play my character” when my character has nothing to do with my stat sheet? Is it because that lazy GM (see above) designs a game based on character sheets and is too anti-social to get to know me as a person at his table? What incentive does the GM have for more “work” when all he or she has to prepare for a game is “set up the board” working from character sheets? I am a dick because I am the spanner in that set up. [The glassy-eyed rapist meme exists because GMs do not socialize with people as part of their GM responsibility, Mike.]

    What is being forgotten though is that the dick player, oblivious to the rules minutia, enjoys the playing and will continue to enjoy playing beyond 12 sessions, possibly for life. This is the great undeniable appeal of the game: knowing the rules is unnecessary to play. It is a totally nonexistent condition in any other game, and only exists in RPGs.

    We are not considering players perpetually annoying us with questions about what dice to roll or how to prepare a spell, but discussing players ignoring/ignorant to the PC having rank 0 in a “Know Undead” roll (which is board gaming RPGs, IMHO) and still contributing in-game the knowledge gained from Hammer film TV viewing.

    Let’s take my entry point of 125 lbs, 5’11” frame & join-my-pinky-to-my-thumb-wrist width Str of 7 for a real life example of how rules ignorance works – and is not anti-role-playing – to give perspective, rather than words, to understanding.

    Under stress I have lifted objects that were heavy for me under normal circumstances, maybe not a car or as often as I might do were I stressed shitless living in the World of Greyhawk. I once had a kid (when I was a kid, I do not want to give the wrong impression with this story) pin me to the sidewalk by sitting on me and pounding my head backwards into it. I managed to put him into the hospital with a fractured skull. I was unhurt. When I was 13, I tried out for football. At my weight, I “qualified” for a team I was too old to join and the appropriate team I did try out for made mince meat of me both physically and emotionally. My point being: my “stat” did not dictate my actions. (No, I did not make the cut.) I seem to be living a whole life outside my comfort zone, so why would I expect less excitement from my game where I was able, fictionally, to be a hero? And why would I, given the experiences that shape my outlook on life, allow my game to be ruined because of a stat block? Why can I not try out and fail, if that’s what the game gods demand? Is it because a randomizer determines what character I can play? Must I abuse that randomizer until I get a character I want to play? Just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have a character. (See, for the uninitiated, a language barrier again.) So if I play the piano roll of a Str 7 stat I am not adventuring with the other players but I am their NPC.

    All this talk about stat blocks and characterizations raises an interesting question when it gets applied to race…. Say I am a black person and we’re playing a game set in the Antebellum South. Do I play a slave, or do I play a white person? That choice is entirely inside the GM’s head, not the way the system/game /should/ be played. There were free-black slave owners in the Antebellum South as a largely forgotten fact. Yet my play options could be limited based upon a popular understanding of race and The South: to be a slave or a white person, if we (or more like the GM) lacked the imagination or the knowledge to conceive of any other choice. And therein lies the absolute genius of the game: my character is not limited to be a predetermined chess piece on the board.

    Whatever happened to RPGs when I could pick a weapon and play with a non-proficiency penalty without being called a dick?

  6. You are unpacking a lot of different concepts here… to focus on the first one:

    “This is the great undeniable appeal of the game: knowing the rules is unnecessary to play. It is a totally nonexistent condition in any other game, and only exists in RPGs.”

    I would posit that this is patently untrue. A roleplaying game is unique in that it is a shared social experience AND a game. If we ignore the rules of the game completely (I’m not arguing that RAW should rule every moment at the table) then we might as well get together and simply tell a story.

    One of the best “this is a roleplaying game” bits I’ve ever read was in the intro to Teenagers from Outer Space. It basically said, remember those games you played as a kid like Cops and Robbers? You’d be playing along just fine and then someone would say, “BANG! I got you!” Then the other kid would say, “No you didn’t!” and then it would turn into an argument… Well RPGs, (in a grand oversimplification) are that game of Cops and Robbers but with structures that help us to avoid those arguments.

    Ultimately, while RAW is not a law and should not dominate game-play, if you are going to come to a table with the idea that your character sheet means nothing, then why bother having one? If you ascribe no meaning to the numbers you roll (assuming we stick with the D&D metaphor) or the numbers you assign (even more damning because you chose those numbers in a point buy system) then again, why even bother with the process?

    To address your self-reported stat block, I’d hesitate to assume that your stats are realistic as written and are probably closer to the human averages (even if on the low side) than you guess. But your examples don’t mean that you aren’t playing your “stat block.” Rather, it seems that your examples partake of more rules in the gaming system than just your stat block. You have skills developed over time, you have contacts/allies that provide you with information, you have “hero points” allowing you to transcend your base capabilities in moments of stress. The game system is NOT real life, but it is meant to provide a structural model to hang the action of the game on which allows everyone to participate in a shared reality that remains consistent. It is also tweaked by the designer to fit a particular agenda and then usually further tweaked by a GM to fit their particular game table.

    None of this is meant to abrogate the GM’s responsibility to get to know their players and provide a game experience tailored to that table. Absolutely, it should be a give and take, it should involve personal touches, but to simply say, “rules don’t matter at all” is basically saying, “Why are we even playing this game?”

    To address the idea that, “why would I, given the experiences that shape my outlook on life, allow my game to be ruined because of a stat block?” To me, that’s taking the problem backwards. In your football tryout example, no one said you couldn’t try out… but your stats did, in fact, seem to determine the outcome because you didn’t make the team. When I was a freshman in HS, I also thought about trying out for football. After talking with the coach though, I didn’t because I am slight-framed and realized that I might enjoy other things more. I ended up running Track and Cross Country and had a great time. I was still not spectacular but I enjoyed it. Ultimately, if I had spent time (XP) on going to the weight room and running route trees, I might have made it as a wide receiver, but I would still have been defined by my starting point and my willingness to “grow my character.” But ultimately, the point I wanted to address here is that no one is saying that you character cannot try things they are statistically unsuited for… of course they can… but they might not make the team. For me, the challenge here is not ignoring my game stats to have a good time… it’s playing a great character because of my stats. One of the reasons I love OSR style games is the random rolling of attributes. I find it to be a fascinating moment when a player embraces a character they might not normally try out, or a set of stats that they would never assign themselves to get into the moment and really shine. Ask me someday about the Legend of Hamm. He had a 4 Dexterity and yet my players will always remember his glorious last stand. His stats didn’t define him as a hero, they defined his limitations within the rules of the game. Which he constantly sought to be better than.

    Finally, because this is LONG… To address the idea of playing a game set in a time when social expectations might be different is a fairly common issue in gaming. Women are second class citizens for much of history. Games often ignore this in favor of opening up the play experience. How “historically strict” your game is (I’m in a D&D game now, playing a dwarf in a world run by elves, for example) should be a decision made by the group and everyone’s comfort levels. Also, a GM unwilling to do a little research into a time period they expect to play in (pre CW South for example) to understand more of the nuances is just as recalcitrant as a player unwilling to learn the basic rules. One of the great joys of gaming is the vistas it opens up to us. No one tells you that you can’t TRY anything or learn anything. The rules of the game exist to provide a consistency of experience which allows everyone to share the same fantasy.

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