On the social spheres of play

D&D is not like video games.

I realize this is an obvious statement. Like, painfully obvious, so much so that there must be a reason I’m putting it out there. And there is.

D&D is not like video games but I think we’ve been treating it like it is.

I own a Nintendo Switch. It’s my first console since selling my systems back in college (a classic NES and an X-Box). My kids have been going on about Splatoon 2. It looks like a good game, the reviews and videos I’m seen suggest it’s a fun play, so I bought a copy ~ only to learn that you can’t play split-screen multiplayer. Okay, that pisses me off, but we can at least get online and play with other people. Except it turns out that Nintendo is going to start charging for their online service.

We returned that game. Which is fine by me because I’ve always been uncomfortable with the online gaming scene. Mostly this has to do with the anonymity that goes with connecting to random people and playing games with them ~ because we all know how well anonymity has been working for the internet and our culture.

Online games of D&D are not exactly new; they’ve been around for more than a few years; longer, even, if we go back to the days of bulletin boards and MUDs. (Damn. Over twenty years. Now I feel old . . .) Since video game developers joined players online, by making their games compatible with internet systems and networking, there’s been a distinct shift. Players online are treating their D&D games similar to how they treat their video games: not in terms of connecting to other players (because video game developers created platforms for those connections) but in terms of how they talk about online games.

Of course, this goes along with my thoughts about the intimacy of the game: that D&D (and generally, all RPGs) has the potential to be an intimate game and it is this potential that sets it apart from every other game.

Let’s go back to video games. I bought the Dreamcast when it first came out. Like, literally on day one. And I loved that system. To me, it’s the greatest tragedy in console gaming history that the Dreamcast did not survive in America. The best part of that system was that it was the first to connect video games to the internet. I spent hours with friends just browsing websites through the Dreamcast. Yet it was truly a novelty because Sega didn’t expand its potential. With the X-Box, you could get online quickly and easily, and it’s this ease of connection that made the concept take off. Sega missed the boat on this.

It’s very possible that, had they managed to create that shared gaming environment before Microsoft did, I would have a different opinion of online console gaming. As it is, I’m uncomfortable with that environment today because I appreciate the physical connection you get from playing games with people in-person. I recognize that the in-person gaming space is very different from the online gaming space ~ which is also, from what I’ve read, very different from the competitive gaming space and is also, from what I’ve seen, very different from the perspective of a gaming spectator.

In-person, I can talk and joke and mess around with my friends in a way that takes full advantage of our shared experiences and knowledge. It’s almost like a private language; it’s in-jokes and a common history that lets communicate a lot while saying very little. Online, that shared experience doesn’t exist. If I’m playing with online friends, I can draw upon some of our shared experiences, but the absence of a physical connection means that those experiences and that shared language is . . . different. Not necessarily better or worse, but distinctly different. And the fact that it’s easier for a stranger or an acquaintance to enter our gaming space makes the online sphere into something similarly different. Like playing games at the local game bar is different from playing them in your home.

Which leads me to this new thought: we keep talking about D&D as though it is homogeneous. I’m guilty of this myself.

I’m starting to think this is not the case.

Here’s my proposal: D&D can be played within certain circles or social spheres. These spheres of play are defined by one critical factor: how well you know the people you’re playing with.

EDIT: I adjusted the sphere names after some discussion with a reader. I feel these better reflect the concepts I’m aiming for

The first sphere is the Public Game. This is the RPGA or the Adventurer’s League; this is convention games. It’s about the potential for very nearly any player to join your table. You may have a group that you regularly play with but the tenants of the Public Game assume that, if space is available, you will allow anyone to jump in and play.

The DM still controls the game. She can deny access to a player who has demonstrated an inability to play nice with others. She can curtail inappropriate behavior at the table ~ and she’s expected to do so. Overall, though, this doesn’t change the environment of these games, where it’s possible to play alongside Vin Diesel or Wil Wheaton or Donald Trump, or any type of person out there, such that you won’t know that person until they sit down and you likely won’t get to know them during the game because it takes more than four hours to get to know a total stranger.

In the environment of a first sphere game, there are certain conventions and norms. There are understandings that we all have. If we violate these standards, we can expect to be reprimanded and ostracized. And there’s been a significant shift in gaming culture, where more and more people are becoming cognizant of the destructive, poisonous and cruel attitude among some gamers. This is a good thing, though I would argue that it’s also a natural thing and largely inevitable ~ eventually, the culture will shift to the point where these toxic personalities are the true minority and you’re likely to never hear of them again.

The most intimate, where the game has the greatest potential for a truly immersive experience, is the third sphere, the Home Game. The Home Game is one where the DM and the players know each other; like, really know each other, where they’re friends outside of the game, where they have connections and relationships and an understanding of each other as human beings. The Home Game does not need to be a campaign; it doesn’t need to be a sandbox or a railroaded game; it can be any system, follow any convention and use any house rules the group agrees to. What makes the Home Game distinctly different from the Public Game is that attendance is limited to invite only; and this limitation encourages familiarity and intimacy among the players. The group knows each member in a way that’s not possible with the Public Game, leading to better communication and ultimately to the potential for a better game.

The second sphere is the Club Game. Like the Home Game, this is limited to invite only. The DM controls who is and is not allowed to join or the group decides, or some combination of the two, the most likely scenario). These games won’t last too long or otherwise won’t become too intimate. The Club Game might be a campaign that lasts for years but the game is relatively shallow; not because the game is immature or undeveloped but because the potential inherent in the Home Game has not yet been tapped into. There is no serious or prolonged discomfort, no risk of personal loss, no exploration of topics or concepts that force introspection or growth among the players; indeed, the distinct difference between the Club and the Home Games is the willingness to push boundaries, to get to know each other in deeper ways and to explore the potential that the game offers.

When you’re online, be it on Twitter or Reddit or StackExchange or whatever social media platform you choose ~ my bet is that most people are discussing the Club Game (and sometimes the Public Game). When you’re reading this blog ~ and I’ll venture to say that most OSR blogs apply as well, though I don’t really consider my material belonging to that classification ~ here, we’re talking about the Home Game. And though I have my preference ~ clearly ~ I’m not going to decry one or the other as inferior or illegitimate or “the wrong way to play D&D.” They’re just . . . different. Personal preference and all that.

But they aren’t the same. So when you come across advice about the game, maybe you should ask yourself where the giver is coming from. It’ll probably change your perception of what they’re saying.

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4 thoughts on “On the social spheres of play

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  1. I, too, mourn the Dreamcast, even though I came to it as a historical curiosity-seeker rather than an early adopter. The best thing about it (and about many old PC games with LAN support) is that the games are perfectly playable without getting online – and thanks to private servers, it’s still possible to hook them up and play as people did in 1999.

    The lack of local multiplayer is going to be cause for anger in the next decade, as people suddenly realize that not only can they not play Halo 5 or Splatoon 2 online – they can’t play them with their friends. At all. (This is my theory as to why the retro gaming market has expanded so much in the last ten years, but that’s a whole other rant.) If I want, I can hook up my Nintendo 64 and play GoldenEye 007 with a couple of friends exactly as I did at my 11th birthday party.

  2. I love the idea of your spheres I think they capture well how things should be, because I think we see some of the most distinction when two players are acting as if they are in different spheres you end up with a subconscious mismatch of expectations and then friction.

    I would like to challenge the amount of authority you give/impose upon the GM, while a GM often must invest more effort into a game, I’ve always been a strong proponent that a group owns the game, not the GM.

    In game clubs and homes all the participants set the norms and invite/uninvited players. It should be the group not the GM alone who should be accountable to enforce the norms. It isn’t nessessarily a democracy but it isn’t a gmocracy, we are all responsible for not checking the behaviour of a bad actor, not just the GMs.

    In the public sphere this is actually made more important. In some public games or game spaces the inclusivity rules and game rules are set by the space or the organized play organization. GMs often don’t get any say, they. Are not game masters, but judges of the rules, expectations are they rule and adjudicate fairly, not that they adapt and shape the game.

    In those contexts often tables of players come together and by the sacrifice of one of those players the rest play while the other adjudicates. It isn’t fair to that individual to be solely responsible for the safety and enjoyment of the table. It is my opinion that everyone at the table is coequally obligated to ensure a healthy gaming environment.

    It is important to remember that GMs don’t nessessarily have a training in skill sets like: conflict resolution, mental health treatment, or any minimum EQ, they are just people, players of the same game as everyone else at the table.

    I’m not looking to remove the gms from being responsible for these things, just I would like everyone at the table to be equally responsible.

    1. Very true. While I generally ascribe more weight and importance to the GM’s role ~ as evidenced by my writing and informed by my personal experiences ~ I recognize that it’s possible for any game to have more or less responsibility for these things placed in the hands of the players directly.

      That said . . .

      I think there’s something of an advantage to be gained by having the GM accept the final authority for policing her group’s behavior. I’ve found, in my games and in everyday life, the best social interactions are among peers who police themselves, as a group; but that this doesn’t always happen and when the group fails the individual, the GM is there to step up and put things right.

      Though we may be quibbling about a matter of degrees, as opposed to deeper differences.

      You make a great point, as well, about GM training: no, I don’t believe there is any sort of formalized approach and it’s a damn shame. There are individual GMs who are more or less informed about such things ~ like conflict resolution, mental health management, motivation, leadership skills, etc ~ but they certainly didn’t acquire those skills solely by acting as the GM of a game; they picked them up through other areas of life and adopted them to their hobby.

      Makes me wonder what formalized GM training would look like . . .

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