Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Shared Reality

Huizinga said that the spoilsport is more reviled than the cheat, because while the cheat at least preserves the sense of importance of the game, the spoilsport destroys the magical circle in which it occurs.

Years ago I went on holiday with a friend of mine back to his home town. We did the usual laddish things with his mates that have no place on this blog. We also played D&D.

I had been quite eager to have a hand at the game. I'd been DMing back at university, but hadn't been on the other side of the table for a while. His mates had had a campaign going on for several years, off and on, so I prepared my character. Gareth was a bard in the old sense of the word: an adviser, diplomat, and occasional spy. He was imperious, proud of his position, and relied on a +20 Diplomacy bonus (don't ask) to get his way.

The party had been acting as a mercenary gang in the employ of a powerful warlord, sorting out his business in the provinces, extending his influence, shaving off a generous portion of the profits for themselves (including the entire output of a silver mine they captured from, who else, kobolds). Gareth was introduced into this scenario as an agent from the warlord sent to check up on his gangsters. During the introductions phase, Gareth made his disdain quite clear to the party, insinuating that a shake-down was intended at that no nonsense would be tolerated. A member of the party, an ogre monk (ogre monk! honestly!), promptly punched Gareth in the face. Healing potions were applied.

I was furious (read: your author, not your author's character, though he was not too pleased either). I don't know how they play D&D in the sticks, but where I'm from people can define their characters without having the rest of the party beat them down (note: this is a lie). My hangover (see "laddish activities") didn't help the situation. As we drove out to get breakfast, the monk's player apologised, but assured me that is, indeed, how they play in the sticks. I rethought my position.

The thing is, the campaign had been run up until then on the basis of the party as a private army, barely held in check by their superiors. They did not so much "take orders" as "quest hooks." As high-level combat-focussed romper-stompers, (see ogre monk and his companion, half-dragon fighter), they were not accustomed to taking orders from anyone: least of all a weedy little human bard.

That afternoon, after we had indulged in coffee and fried food, I returned to Gareth. As he recovered from his "introduction," I decided to play him differently. He was NO LONGER an inspector sent to check on the mercenaries. Now the party consisted of a brutish mercenary gang... with a very persuasive agent. He negotiated higher pay, he negotiated past troublesome garrisons(towards the people we REALLY wanted to smash), and he gambled incessantly. In return, he used the party's muscle to set himself up as mayor (we deposed the old regime) of a small logging town, where he settled down to set up his own bardic college. (Translations: settled down means I wasn't going to get another chance to play, and a bardic college is a guild of spies).

In game, the whole situation was mildly hilarious. Gareth had the pomposity literally knocked out of him and became a sniveling hanger-on of very violent people, which was the career path he had suited himself for. Out of game, it involved a serious argument, the liberal application of breakfast, and a compromise. What was the problem and how was it resolved?

The problem was that I had very different expectations about the game to anyone else at the table. This isn't surprising: they were old mates who had been playing the same game for years. With only a few hints to go on, in my mind I decided the game would be about my great and amazing bard leading the party through intrigues. I wasn't quite sure what the rest of them would be good for, but I was pretty sure my character was going to rock. They, of course, thought of the game as being about them going around the world beating up whomever they pleased with little or no oversight of any kind. Those two realities literally collided in the game. Being in the minority, of course, it was obvious my reality had to go.

We solved the problem by building a shared vision of the game, one that incorporated both their traditional playing style and my vision of my character's role (who the hell plays a bard?). The DM was happy to accommodate me, strewing our path with dupes to be duped, and fools and money soon to be parted. The party was pleased to let me scheme and plot, and even pull the odd one over on other party members from time to time, as long as they got to play their parts too.

Games are based around a shared premise. You can't play magnetic golf according to the rules of electric bumble-puppy (a can of tuna to whoever gets that reference). Often in play the players have to renegotiate the premise, but it has to be agreed or else there is no game. If you call out the premise as ridiculous, you're a spoilsport. And that's worse that loading the dice.


  1. "but where I'm from people can define their characters without having the rest of the party beat them down"

    Wasn't he defining his character, by having his punch yours in the face for the attitude he showed? You can't show character and yet also clip back character. It's not defining character if you pull punches on defining character.

    The thing is, D&D is not a narrativistic system - in the end, no one got a reward for defining character. It's using a wrench as a hammer, and coming out with a smashed finger.

  2. I don't know about N's hometown, but that's totally how we play in the sticks I'm from.

  3. I was being sarcastic, Callan. And the point I was trying to make was precisely that I was making a mistake in trying to define my character in isolation to everyone else at the table.

  4. There's truth in humour. And in sarcasm...dashed hope?

  5. Sure. At the time, I was attempting to define my character in a certain style. That hope was certainly dashed. My intent in using humour now was to mock my hope then.