On the rules of the Public Game

This post from DM David offers some insight into how the Adventurer’s League encourages players to game the system. It’s interesting ~ it certainly reinforces my belief that this is a game and that players are going to push the boundaries of the game, because that’s what play is all about.

There are certain rules that you find in nearly all versions of the game, which we might classify (loosely) according to a broad category or type. Rules for character creation; advancement and awards; “downtime” activities, like running a business or managing an estate; the acquisition and trade of equipment or treasure; training; research; the acquisition and advancement of henchmen or followers; and so on. The DM of a Club or Home Game is at liberty to decide how she’s going to handle these rules, if and when the players prove interested in using them.

But the Public Game is different. The Public Game needs to define these rules in a manner that works for the greatest number of players; that works in all circumstances; that does not derail or unbalance too many game sessions; and that are resistant to abuse.

For example, early in the days of the RPGA, convention gamers noticed some loopholes in the rules and rightly took advantage of them. Things like playing “official” games in a Club or Home environment; while each character may be limited to the number of game sessions they can claim as “official” during a season, if you play with the same DM and the same party members on a weekly basis, you get to pick and choose which sessions count, which means you have more control over how much experience and treasure you acquire.

I say “rightly” above because I believe there’s nothing inherently wrong with players working the system in this way. This is a game. Games have rules and sometimes you can find ways around those rules. That’s the joy of playing games ~ finding just how far you can stretch the rules before something breaks.

But it’s this passage I want to focus on, as an example of what happens when you misunderstand the nature of certain rules in RPGs:

Some items bring role-playing baggage that prove hard for DMs to track and enforce. For example, when a character brings the mighty sword Hazirawn to a convention table, the DM may be unaware that the sentient blade acts as an non-player character, bending its owner toward evil. DMs running games for strangers have enough on their plate.

Some people like player-versus-player in their games. I don’t ~ I find it a crass excuse to destroy a personal creation, an act that ultimately devalues the experience of role-playing ~ but I respect the idea that some people are capable of working around that reality. We are gamers, after all, which means we’re all very good at believing things that aren’t true.

Likewise, some people accept that the DM cheats and there’s nothing wrong with it. Or that using the Quantum Ogre is an acceptable way to get players onto the right track during a game. Or that alignment is a good system for inspiring and encouraging good role-playing, as opposed to an excuse to control and dominate another human being.

It’s the latter concept that I see in DM David’s example of the complications of Public Play.

Given my thoughts on the necessity for player freedom ~ and my shifting attitude on magic domination in the game ~ it follows that I would shy away entirely from a thing like intelligent items that exert control over players. This is not the case. Intelligent magical items are a core fantasy element, not just in D&D, and they’re a concept that I truly enjoy about the game; much like with traps and curses, I’m conflicted about how to handle them but I’m confident that I’ll figure out something (eventually).

That said, I see the issue now in terms of a shared intimacy. In the Home or Club Game, where there’s a certain consistency of play between the DM and the players, it’s not problematic to introduce a magic item that can affect a player character’s thoughts or actions. The DMs in these games often have time to build up trust with their players; and new players are given to trust the DMs because the other players trust them; overall, there’s an existing relationship that tells the player, “This might be annoying or infuriating or problematic for me, but it’ll be okay because I trust that the DM isn’t going to fuck with me just because she’s a dick.”

Further, in a Home or Club Game, when a player brings a character from one DM’s table to another, the new DM is more likely to be aware of the circumstances surrounding that character’s “role-playing baggage.” She knows more about that character because she’s played alongside him or she can talk to the other DM or players and get the insight she needs. There’s a history within the Home/Club Game that works to the benefit of all participants.

This doesn’t exist in the Public Game. The player doesn’t necessarily know how this DM will interpret the rules for his intelligent sword, just as this DM doesn’t know what has and has not already occurred between the sword and this character. That history simply doesn’t exist and there’s no reliable way to count on it.

Thus, the Public Game suffers in that it will never achieve the same level of history, familiarity or intimacy as the Club or Home Games. To be sure, the Public Game can be a fun game to play but only in the same way that it’s fun to participate in an orgy: so long as everyone follows the rules, we can all have fun engaging in carnal pleasures, but that fun will never be the same as an intimate evening with a lover you’ve known for years.

. . .

. . . or I could be less creepy and compare it to convention board game tournaments as opposed to game night with the kids . . .

. . . that doesn’t help, does it?

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