no wrong way to play

I am always baffled by the neverending stream of remarks of the form, “you people are playing D&D wrong.” Here’s one that particularly bugged me, today:

What SlyFlourish should be saying, here, is “hurts my ability to bring in and keep new players who care about the things I care about.” Some players like playing in a very fatal environment. People play all kinds of games “on hard” on purpose, even games they haven’t mastered on easy. And anyway, having a lot of character death doesn’t make D&D harder, it just makes it different, because you don’t win in D&D. And anyway, if you want to have victory conditions in D&D, that’s cool, too.

It makes me crazy to think that people are being told, “you can’t bring in or maintain new players if you let beginner characters die often.” There are tons of games that work this way, and succeed in growing. I know: I have run some of them. Obviously, you have to know what your players expect, and what will make them unhappy. Part of this is asking, and part of this is establishing expectations up front. I make it clear that characters in my games die a lot, and that this is not about player failure, but about the kind of game I run. We still have fun. I have also played in games where the game master has gone out of their way to prevent character death when it seemed really justified, because they felt it would make the player unhappy. I still had fun.

I’m not a big fan of D&D 3E, but I thought its Dungeon Master’s Guide II was great because it talked about how to establish and maintain a game based on what the players want. That’s how you make a game succeed, after all: you figure out what you all think will be fun, try it, and then iterate on that. That’s why “this is bad for players” makes me crazy. It’s bad for some players. Or “I don’t know how to do this in a way that players will like,” which is a totally okay thing to be true. There’s plenty of stuff I can’t do, even though players might like it, and so I avoid it, because it would be bad.

The whole thing reminds me of [an episode of Parks and Recreation]. Ron “Mustache Guy” Swanson and Leslie “Amy Poehler” Knope have competing scouting groups. Leslie’s group focuses on singing songs, baking cookies, and pillow fights. Ron’s group struggles to build shelter and find something to eat. He tells his scouts, “We have one activity planned: not getting killed.” By the end of the episode, all the scouts in Ron’s group have defected to Leslie’s, because they don’t think Ron’s group is fun. Leslie wins, Ron loses.

There is where a lesser show would end, but Parks and Rec is better than that. Leslie takes out an ad in the paper, calling for the kinds of kids who would like Ron’s kind of camp.

Are you tough as nails? Would you rather sleep on a bed of pine needles than a mattress? Do you find video games pointless and shopping malls stupid? Do you march to the beat of your own drummer? Did you make the drum yourself? If so, you just might have what it takes to be a Swanson. Pawnee’s most hardcore outdoor club starts today. Boys and girls welcome.

Then, some kids show up and they are excited to become Swansons. There is more than one way to be a scout.

So, here is my advice: ask your new or potential players what they want, or tell them what to expect. Or do both. Don’t give up on what you like just because someone told you it was a niche style or that you’d be unable to retain players.

Written on May 25, 2015
dnd