Before I launch into my own spiel about this, know that today’s mumblings about D&D are inspired by Matthew Colville, who posted a Youtube video in the last few days about being a good player at a D&D table. Colville is an inspiration to new DM’s everywhere – so much so that he has ME thinking about running a Waterdeep: Dragon Heist game when that module comes out next month. The video isn’t long – about 17 minutes – and it’s worth a listen.
This is a departure for Colville, who has talked about how to be a good DM for different KINDS of players, but who hasn’t really talked too much (beyond one “why do we even play this whole D&D thing anyway” video – which is also great, you should watch that too) about approaching it from the players side of the table.
Full admission: If you hadn’t caught on – I’ve never sat behind a DM screen except in jest.
But what he talks about here – the lessons he’s learned as a player of D&D (and he even alludes to this at the end) are things that are just generally good ways to be a good human. He doesn’t tell you what kind of player to be – a strategist, a roleplayer, a mathematician, a maximiser. He tells you how to be yourself within the boundaries of a cooperative game in which somwhere between 3 and 8 other humans are all ALSO attempting to have a good time.
And that’s important.
D&D is not a game with winners and losers. Or more accurately, D&D is a game where everyone wins or everyone loses, together, and you roll with it as best you can. Because D&D is, at its core, a complex set of rules that are attempting to mimic the most complex thing in the world – reality. A fantasy version of reality, yes, but reality nonetheless. A quarterstaff does less damage than a greatsword, but a greatsword takes more strength to use. A simple spell might be more reliable, but the risk-reward payoff from a larger spell is sometimes worth it. Problems always arise because there’s no way for any ruleset to truly perfect upon reality, and so there are disagreements about particulars sometimes, but – as a good player – you learn to hash it out, make a “table rule” that applies at the table you’re at, note it down, and move on.
But the thing that got me thinking about this last night when I watched the video, and again this morning when I had a little time to extrapolate, is that the things that make people “good players” in D&D, are the things that generally make people “good humans” in real life. Respect the game you’re playing. Be prepared. Know how your stuff works. Find your fun within the fun that everyone else is also having. A conversation is not a competition. Know how to lose gracefully.
The D&D revival has been extreme, and I’ve loved and rollicked and frolicked in the new opportunities to revel in this game that I love more than any of the other hobbies that I have. But one of the things that I hope that it is showing us – and that I think most of the live streamed games that you can watch on Twitch and YouTube also show us – is that being a good person, a good player, means the fun is different. Whether you’re showing up to bash your head against a meat-grinder of a dungeon or play through a long-range adventure that tells a greater narrative, with D&D, when everyone is having fun, you’re winning, and being a good person goes a long way toward making sure that we’re all having fun here.
I thought of this, in particular, in contrast with another group that I am part of, that is more serious and not a game.
And I realized that while I could work with them, and could get things done with them, I didn’t want to play D&D with them. I couldn’t trust them to be willing to put the group first. To let everyone have their own spotlight in turn, to let the table as a whole determine the fun. For them, maybe, like Colville suggests, they’re looking for a different kind of validation than you can truly get from D&D. Maybe a different game – one with clear winners and losers – would make them happier. Because one or two players that enter into D&D with the mindset that they have to win every encounter, personally; that they have to have the last word, the fastest zinger, the slickest burn; that their character should get the killing blow on every enemy… can destroy not only the fun of the other people at the table, but eventually the fun they’re trying to have for themself.
That’s a slightly deeper layer for me, as well, because I am at heart a roleplayer, and that requires a place where I feel safe, that I can trust the other players to let me have a reaction that is true to my character, regardless of what that reaction is. A place where I can be vulnerable – and hopefully where others at the table can be vulnerable too.
I don’t know if I really have a point to this ramble, but it’s been percolating in my brain since last night and I thought it worth writing down, since I have this here blog thinger and that’s what blogs are for. But if I have one takeaway, it’s that the same things that make me want to sit and play D&D with someone are the kinds of things that make me want to be involved with someone on another project. That the breakdown between “being a good player” and “being a good person” is a lot smaller than I probably ever would have thought it was.
So thanks Matt for inspiring that train of thought.
And for giving me some new ways to aspire to be the kind of person that my friends want to sit at the D&D table alongside of.