Saturday, February 23, 2013

You can play the game however you want, but...

“To be truly ignorant, be content with your own knowledge.” (Zhuangzi)

Let them roam free?

With all that thoughts about sandboxing and totally free decisions, I wonder every now and then why alignments are still being used. Does D&D need a moral compass and is it necessarily something written on a character sheet? Is it something a DM regulates? Or should it rather be ignored for good? Are the players really free to do what they want?

This is not about how to play The Game?

A little story about the trick-taking card game Skat. As wikipedia states it, it's a game about hand evaluation, counting and cooperation. A simple french card deck (32 cards) produces up to 2.753.294.408.504.640 hands alone. That means, how the hands are played, is a totally different matter. You just won't live to see the same combination twice. I love this game. And it is dying. Mostly "old" people play it. Younger generations just don't care enough to put in the effort, rewarding or not.

Reasons for that? Players have to take the game serious, before they can start having fun with it. It's not even a difficult task or work. Mistakes happen during play, but it's not about mistakes. It's about counting, evaluation and cooperation. Every lack in even trying any of those (that is, not thinking about what to do and why) will cripple the game. Not for yourself, but for the other players.

It's not about the rules

The rules are complex. Lots and lots of little games in the game. You may have the best hand, but you may not play the lead or play it wrong (wrong evaluation). You may miss that one color is already played (wrong counting) or you played a card that helps the enemy and not you and your partner (no cooperation). That's not the argument I'm trying to establish, because, again, you're still playing the game. Actually, by trying all those things every game, everybody gets better at it.

But knowing the rules and playing the game wrong (there, I wrote it) by, let's say, holding very good cards and not raising for them only to get an edge, will have consequences. The game won't flow, evaluation and cooperation won't be possible anymore. And as soon as the cards are all on the table, the others will notice. There are several other examples I could raise, but it would be about the wrong game.

And now back to D&D

When playing D&D we like to cherish the idea that we can do whatever we want. Most people wouldn't see anything wrong in it, because they won't think bad things might happen. As soon as some bad stuff happens at the table (and I think I wouldn't be wrong in assuming that anyone of us has a few examples to share...), we take it personal.

Whatever the reasons, what happens is always the same. The game won't flow right, evaluation and cooperation don't seem possible anymore, even if people play it by the rules. So, like with Skat, if a game needs a skill set other than knowing it by the rules, the lack of that skill set gets obvious pretty fast. Not knowing how this is related to "playing the game wrong", makes it personal every time and in every discussion I've seen so far.

There is no use in getting angry

It's never the rules or the interpretation of them. Misuse of the rules, on the other hand, will always have an impact on the game. Taking it personal is not a solution, but showing helplessness. Treated as what it is, finding a way to deal with it should be possible. So never take things personal. It's a game after all. This is actually something, you will find in nearly every rulebook. Let's check the Rules Cyclopedia:
"If an argument starts during a game, stop the game for a moment. Listen to both sides, and make a decision. Then continue the game as soon as possible. Do not allow an argument to continue for long. Explain that everyone is trying to have fun, and that the argument can be settled after the game if necessary. If a player complains about the way you are handling something in the game, try to listen to the objection. Be reasonable—he might be right! If you can fix the problem by changing a procedure, try to work out a reasonable compromise." (RC, page 144)
It's never about winning the argument, it's about finding a compromise. It's NOT part of the game, but something that has to happen outside of it. The DM is the one in charge, but that doesn't mean he is always right, it means he has the responsibility. And, finally, it's about an additional skill set: the art of having an argument and coming to a conclusion that settles it.

In conclusion

Are the players free to do whatever they want? As I see it, no. They are free to do whatever they want after considering if what they are about to do is crippling the game for the others and willing to find a compromise if an argument arises. Same goes for the DM. And it's part of the process to learn the game, but not part of the rules. Just knowing all the rules won't make you automatically a good player or DM.

The game itself does not need a "moral compass", but the social interaction between the participants of the game is subject to some kind of moral code based on acceptance and compromise, as all things are when people decide to spend time together. And yes, disregarding this, is playing the game wrong, because playing the game is to make it possible for others to play the game too.

The rules for using alignments in a D&D game are those rare instances, where the rules try to dictate how to behave when playing the game. And I believe they are wrong for exactly that reason. For me, the perfect way to handle alignments is defined by Jeff Rients.


3 comments:

  1. I'm still struggling to find a reason for why alignment is needed at all. I think it is a vestige of the miniatures war games -- "should we put these humans with the orcs or the dwarves?"

    If the ONLY deciding factor is which side you're on in an apocalyptic battle -- and if ultimately you don't have to choose until that battle starts -- and if you're quite likely never going to have that battle anyway -- why does it matter if you are Lawful or Chaotic?

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  2. I'm still struggling to find a reason for why alignment is needed at all. I think it is a vestige of the miniatures war games -- "should we put these humans with the orcs or the dwarves?"

    If the ONLY deciding factor is which side you're on in an apocalyptic battle -- and if ultimately you don't have to choose until that battle starts -- and if you're quite likely never going to have that battle anyway -- why does it matter if you are Lawful or Chaotic?

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  3. You're right about that, Butch. There are some very few areas, where alignment could be interesting, though. The obvious one would be the end game (I'd really like that to be part of the game...). Character death and the afterlife could be another one. And then there are clerics, spells and magic weapons. Interaction with NPCs comes to mind, too. It just shouldn't be about how to behave in the gaming world, but how the world reacts to the characters in that world. To what extend may be a different problem.

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