Miss Manners Wouldn’t Play D&D

Some rules I have encountered in my travels:

  • Refrain from making negative comments during play concerning the contracts made.
  • Always pay attention to the play and stop your mind from wandering.
  • Making a questionable claim or concession is inadvisable.
  • Don’t prolong the play unnecessarily.
  • To vary the normal tempo of bidding or play in order to distract opponents is not recommended.
  • Do not leave the table needlessly before the round is called.

While a few of you might be able to guess what these are for I suspect most of my readers won’t. They are taken from Bridge: Rules of Etiquette by David Braybrooke.

You are probably asking one of two questions and possibly both. The first is “why am I bringing up contract bridge in an RPG blog?” The second is “why am I bringing up rules of etiquette in an RPG blog?” The answers are “because bridge is commonly seen as a game for adults” and “because RPGs aren’t” respectively. Last week I discussed how TSR’s marketing choices moved D&D into being primarily perceived as a kids game. Today I’d like to discuss what I consider the single biggest obstacle to changing that perception; role-playing gamers as a whole have horrific manners.

Before you contend I’m alone in my thinking or that I’m merely subscribing to gamer stereotypes let’s look at the evidence. While I had considered this before the topic was rammed home by two postings in the RPG community. The first, and more acerbic of the two, was by Alexis at The Tao of D&D and was titled DM As An Asshole (a how-to guide). The RPG Rules of Etiquette he laid out were very strict and drew on his experience as a chess player, specifically tournament play. However, strict as they are he correctly points out that they are common for many activities such as yoga, theater (performing or attending), and even playing in some musical ensembles. About two months after a similar post was made at RPG.net entitled Critque my table rules by D. Archon.

As for gamer stereotypes, I am indulging them. If we want to move RPGs back to an adult hobby from a kid’s hobby which for any niche hobby is vital to its long term survival, we need to confront these stereotypes on two levels. The first is most people have them. The unwashed, mouth breathing, obsessed with his 70th level Paladin/Mage/Dungeon Master and the S&M elf chick that character is having sex with is the broader view of the hobby. Alexis is right. That is exactly what your coworkers are thinking when you walk away after talking about what you did this weekend. They may not think it of you specifically, but even then they wonder why you put up with people like that and what’s wrong with you. To claim the same respect hex and chit wargaming had in the 1970s, an acceptable adult hobby even if not for everyone, we need to correct this image.

Before you start writing Alltel or the guys who write whatever sitcom dumped on gamers this week we need to clean up our own house. The fact is the matter is Alexis only went part of the way when he said, “D&D has consistently been, in my experience, the second worst offender when it comes to poor manners, poor habits and unbelievably infantile self-proclaiming posturing. The worst, of course, is any bar with a television where you’re trying to get solemnly drunk.” The reality is too many of us not only accept this but celebrate it. When you consider the most popular gaming comic out there, Knights of the Dinner Table, this is driven home. I love the Knights and identify too much with the comic. That is part of the problem. Three different tables are regularly featured and at best one of them has a majority of functional adults at the table, Patty’s Perps. To even bring them to that status of majority functional adults we have to include an ex-con as functional. That an ex-con trying to go straight is more functional that all but one of the lead group’s players (the only functional adult in the Knights is Sarah) says something. Before anyone says, “but it is just a comic”, they should come up with a reason for it being routinely funny and very popular that doesn’t involve it reflecting the hobby as a whole.

If you need a more real world example let’s return to D. Archon’s table rules at RPG.net. Despite being milder than Alexis’s rant there were multiple objections to rules I would consider fairly common sense. Some examples that people thought were “bring your own stuff” and “be on time or call”. When you’re 14 these are common issues that you put up with. When you are 25 or 35 or 45 or beyond and trying to squeeze gaming in along with a full time job, grad school, spouse, kids, maintaining your house, and so on the behavior being explicitly prohibited should not even come up. Even more disturbing, for me, was how much of myself I saw in both lists and how, with one exception (being on time, which is an ongoing personal struggle), they are mostly gaming specific.

The fact is we don’t act like chess, bridge, or hex and chit gamers. We don’t model their public and tournament play in our public and tournament play nor do we model their casual play in our casual play. We have more in common behaviorally with science fiction fandom. Even adults who love fantastic literature and media often avoid fandom. For the same reason, a large number of adults who love the literature and media that inspire us and love to create stories avoid our hobby. Not only do they avoid it but actively consider it in a negative light.

Yet that occurs in a world where one of the most influential figures on TV, Stephen Colbert, an NBA player, Tim Duncan, and some popular actors, Robin Williams, Mike Myers, and Vin Diesel, are all one of us. As I wrote last week this could be the real golden age of the hobby. It is older than it’s been in two decades in terms of players, fantastic media is on the upswing, some prominent people are players, and we are returning to our DIY roots as DIY is on the upswing again. Let we are still considered a childish hobby. If we want to begin to reverse that trend and take advantage of all the possibilities to carve out a place as a stable, adult, niche hobby that will be around for our old age and our grandchildren the first step is to act like adults. Hell, in this day and age that might be another groundbreaking creation of the hobby.

12 thoughts on “Miss Manners Wouldn’t Play D&D

  1. As with most things, it's far easier to point out what's wrong than it is to offer ways to correct the problem.

    From my experience, the reason many people exhibit the behavior you mention in regards to gaming is that it's the way the behave in every aspect of their lives. These people are social misfits across the board, not just when it relates to gaming. To ask someone who has no concept of correct social behavior to correct it is like asking someone with OCD to chill out. Simply pointing out their flaws or asking them to change won't do the trick.

    Since altering the behavior is not really a viable option, the only real solution to “making the hobby more adult” is to bring in new blood to replace or at least reduce the socially inept segment of the hobby. And therein lies the rub, because bringing in new blood requires making the hobby more palatable to “the mainstream” instead of the niche. Doing so means making changes to the hobby and its marketing that fundamentally change it – something we're seeing a bit of right now with the drastic paradigm shift that is 4E. And just look at what this shift has done to the hobby. Imagine what will happen if a full-on attempt were made to take the hobby mainstream.

    In the end, what you will have is a hobby that is no longer the niche hobby that we love, but another mainstream, lowest-common denominator form of entertainment that is no longer recognizable to us and with no room for the people who once engaged in and deeply loved it.

    I guess, what I'm really saying here is: Careful what you wish for, you may get it.

    (IMHO, FWIW, YMMV, etc.)

  2. A couple of points:

    1. In case it isn't clear this is going to be an ongoing topic. I will be offering solutions.

    2. I disagree about altering behavior. The local university sci-fi club actually does a very good job a developing social skills in members over their time here. It's the second I've seen do it.

    3. In case you didn't notice I said nothing about mainstream. My comparison to hex and chit wargaming should be a key clue. It was never mainstream. What it was, however, was adult. It was considered offbeat but something adults did.

    4. Looking around me, the idea that insisting on better manners is mainstream or lowest-common denominator is laughable at best. If anything, insisting on better manners would make us more niche. Given the organization I've seen have the most success in appealing to courtesy as a reason to join is the SCA I don't see better manners as a mainstream danger.

    Most adult hobbies are not mainstream, especially creative ones. Yet, if you claim to be a painter, a writer, a knitter, a seamstress, a bridge player, a model railroader, etc people don't think you're immature or irresponsible or smell bad. They consider you at most a tad offbeat. That's not a bad place to be given most painters, writers, knitters, and so on are much better company when chosen at random than gamers. Go to a writer's conference or a model railroad convention or an SCA event and compare the behavior to your local gaming convention.

  3. I disagree with you. My experience with gamers has been that they are intelligent, educated and have good to excellent social skills. My current gaming group includes a teacher, a police officer, a national sales manager, a vp of marketing, a cook, a (soon to be) chartered accountant, a SAP consultant and an IT manager. We have families and careers.

    I have pretty much never met the “non-functional gamer”. It's a stereotype that was created by bullying high-school students, and seems to have spread from there – to the point where our community is parroting it. The “geek gamer” idea needs to go away, and the first place it should go is from our own perception of our own hobby.

  4. @Wickedmurph: I'm glad to hear both your experiences were good and mine have never happened.

    Because the U of Harford Sci-Fi Guild never had a semester opening event of going to the laundromat after we figured out the smelly geek issue was due mostly to not doing laundry as opposed to not bathing.

    Because I have never packed up and left a convention game because a hour in disruptive players have prevented the game from starting.

    Because each week someone at RPG.net isn't discussing how someone at a gaming store or convention game decided to play game or edition wars and run off people.

    Are these social habits an example of all gamers? No. Are the utter absent from other activities? No. Have our problem children to become the face of our hobby? Yes, mostly due to forces beyond our control. Do our problem children reinforce that opinion regularly? Yes and because, like much of fandom, we let them by tolerating it and when people complain telling them they're wrong or dealing in stereotypes or some such bullshit.

    But again, I'll lay this out as my challenge: Go to a writer's conference or a model railroad convention or an SCA event and compare the behavior to your local gaming convention. I have, in locations with time span and geographic diversity. Game conventions have consistently had worse behavior mostly because the handful who do it is tolerated.

    The “geek gamer” idea needs to go away, and the first place it should go is from our own perception of our own hobby.

    If you want to end it as the perception of our hobby you need to do three things:

    1. Stop pretending it doesn't have some basis in reality.

    2. When you see it, if you do, don't tolerate it.

    3. When you don't see it, don't dump on those who do and try to correct it.

    I'm glad you game with a group of professionals. So do I but I've learned from hard experience that when casting about for a group you have to screen people carefully because a lot of the dreks come out of the woodwork. I've seen them essentially run others out of clubs. I know several gamers who avoid conventions because of them. One person like that is all it takes to run off prospective gamers. Go to any university gaming club's open house to see it in action.

  5. Excellent topic.

    First off, you are not moving a kids hobby back into an adult hobby. RPG's have been marketed almost exclusively toward teenagers, at least for the last 20 years. Its likely to remain in that realm because the market are teenagers and young adults with lots of free time. It is the hook that sells books and makes money. RPGs have always been a kids hobby as a starting point.

    Kids will always power game systems. Its in their nature to “win”. Wipe the idea of being able to be all powerful and thus “win” the game, and you'll find much more imaginative players. Frankly, I blame a lot of rule systems for this bias. RPG's have never focused on role play, they have always focused on the rules. The G is for game…and you should win games, right? Sports teach us that, media coverage does as well. Shift that, you can shift the hobby.

    My “aha” moment came when I played with a couple of teachers and a couple of other 20 somethings. They weren't focused on the power gaming aspects but instead opened my eyes about playing a character within a story. I was a mere 15 years old at the time.

    I won't disagree with your stereotypes, they are present and overwhelming. Yet systems are published with that in mind.

    Most of the older generations of gamers have grown out of it. At least I hope they have. We prefer to play with like minded individuals and have fun. Figuring out the time to be progressive, outspoken and hobby changing takes a back seat to children, wives/husbands, and professions.

    I look forward to your future posts on the topic.

  6. @Zak: I see them as three fold, one medium term and two long term.

    Medium term: Improve the pool of grown-up possible players. As someone who moves quite a bit I have to find new groups every few years. Being an adult hobby would make it much easier to locate active adult, professional gamers and get professional adults who aren't gamers to give it a shot.

    Long term: It will help stabilize the player pool in terms of entry and exit rates. One big thing I hear over and over is adults saying adult responsibilities take over. While changing perceptions can't change that completely they can modify it. Asking a spouse for the time or passing off other things for adult hobbies is much easier than for kid hobbies you keep as an adult.

    Long term: Availability of products. This will take some other shifts than just the hobby perception, but it is a necessary step to getting at least basic RPG products into a more widespread availability in a stable manner.

    One thing this would not do is “grow the hobby” or return to our 80s heyday. It might grow it in minor terms, but it is more to stop the shrinkage.

    If you can remember that far consider the place of hex and chit wargames circa 1978. That's what I'm aiming for.

  7. I come late to this thread; I've only just found it.

    In light of the post I wrote today, I think it must be said that part of the gamer geek problem stems from the sheer complexity of the game, and the considerable disagreement that exists over unestablished rules; this is worse at a convention, as no house rules exist in the minds of new players. In my world, where I start new characters to play, it usually takes a few sessions to get them into the stream of things, something that is impossible at a convention – you don't have the time.

    Thanks for the call outs. I'm a little confused about how I don't go far enough where I compare D&D and a sports bar, but that's neither here nor there. Be well.

  8. Interesting that you bring this all up. Generally, I think you are quite right in your observations about gamers, though after having helped run SF conventions for over 25 years, a lot of what you point out happens there, too.

    But interestingly, my response to all of this comes from teaching Scottish country dancing in a college setting. One of the nice aspects of SCD is that there's an international organization, and even more than that, an international sub-culture to support it. But when I was teaching dance in a college club, I was bringing students into it cold – they had had no exposure to it, and ended up having to learn not just the dancing, but how to behave and act in a social dance setting.

    And over time, it worked. The college dancers learned how to ask other Ball attendees if they would be interested in dancing, learned how to dress up and enjoy themselves dancing, and incidentally, learned to not drink scotch unless they were of age. Then they passed this along as part of the club's own social norms to newer dancers. So socialization does work.

    As for gamers, I think it's important to remember that “social contracts” are not just some artificial construct, but go on all the time. The best thing to do is to establish the social rules quickly and with common “buy-in” within the gaming group – and then enforce them. Not angrily, not dramatically, just very purposefully. And make sure people understand it. It doesn't solve things over night, but when clearly laid out, can result in better and more enjoyable games.

    Just my two coppers. Thanks for the soapbox.

  9. I’ll have to take your word for it that such behavior is really out there in our hobby at a significant level. The gamers I do come in contact with are all mature and polite enough. (Better than average.) I don’t attend conventions or game clubs very much, though, so my experience is limited.

    In my college days, I and my friends had struggles in this area, so I certainly know first hand that it can happens.

    I have a harder time believing that it has seriously hurt the reputation of the hobby.

    That said, I think there’s a lot of value in some code of behavior. Not only for decorum sake, but because there are behaviors that hurt the experience of the game without being outright rude. e.g. The DM who (politely) uses his superior knowledge of the rules against less knowledgeable players rather than using that knowledge to help the players.

    Having followed the link here from your TARGA post, I do think TARGA might be an good entity to promote such.

    I definitely would want to see an “casual gaming” variant of any such code, though. A “tournament” style code—forbidding extraneous discussion, etc.—doesn’t seem appropriate to me for most sessions.

  10. Maybe the most important thing is, to actually have adult people who play. And lots of them… I have seen an ad for players at an rpg message board where they wanted players under 30. It was a lol. We need more ads where we look for players above 30 or something… 🙂

  11. @Bard: Welcome aboard. I have seen such ads as well as those over 18. If you go way back to the beginning I miss groups that had people from 16 to 45 in them.

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