On the motivation behind the Public Game

Full disclosure: I don’t play in organized games. I player a few convention games many years ago and while they were entertaining in their own right ~ I sat a table with Timothy Zahn and got ham up a character from one of his books ~ they weren’t an experience I would willingly repeat. I tried running Public Games during the early days of 4e, though my college group treated them more as “official” Club Games in that the players all knew each other and there was little chance of having to play with (i.e. endure) a new player. I quit running those games partly because 4e sucks, partly because I didn’t have the bandwidth at the time and partly because I simply could not enjoy my role as DM under such limits and constraints.

It also didn’t help that there were too many arguments with players over the Rules-as-Written. One example that sticks with me was a player insisting that his barbarian character would keep his extra hit points after being knocked unconscious. I disagreed, we looked over the rules and I found justification for my position, using the language in the text and an understanding of basic English. The player only accepted my decision on the basis that I was the DM; he stopped attending my games after that. Now, that sort of event is relatively common among gamers. The clincher for me was the underlying assumption that I must have been wrong and that an appeal to WotC ~ the higher authority ~ would bear that out.

I was having none of that, so I stopped running organized games shortly thereafter. I admit my bias; I recognize that this makes me less than well-suited to do an analysis on the Public Game. I also understand that this sort of occurrence is not the norm ~ which makes me wonder why the Public Game persists as a “thing.”

What motivates the player to sit down with strangers and play this game under these conditions?

There are some common responses online. Organized games let players bring their favorite characters to conventions. They encourage an honorable and honest environment, reducing the number of cheaters and assholes. Players get the chance to experience games with new people. You can always be assured that you will have a game, even if you have a busy or weird schedule and can’t make every other session with a group.

Yet these answers only explain that the Public Game exists. They don’t explain why it exists. You can just as easily accomplish each of these things with a Club Game. DMs in a Club can set their games around the players’ schedules. We have opportunity to meet new people and new players through participating in normal, everyday activities, like work, school, church, the bar, hobby stores, etc; and online resources exist aplenty that help connect hobbyists of all stripes. Avoiding cheaters and assholes is a matter of how you conduct yourself, and how the DM manages her game, and does not require the outside authority of an organized game. Finally, convention games can easily address any issues that come with players bringing their favorite characters; there’s no need to create and manage the Public Game.

So what motivates the player to participate in these games? Because there’s plenty of reason for the publisher to organize: they want to promote their product. They want to encourage an image and perception that promotes purchasing their game. They want new players because new players will buy their books and dice and miniatures and character sheets and so on.

What’s in it for the player?

In my last post, I said the appeal of the Public Game, in so many words, is the attitude that DMDavid dislikes: “I won D&D.” And I sympathize with his sentiment. This game is a lot of fun for a lot of different reasons; we don’t need to limit ourselves to “winning.” At the same time, I don’t think we should assume that “winning” is a bad thing. It’s something that people like. It motivates them. To argue that power-gamers or munchkins should not play D&D (or shouldn’t play it “that way”) ignores a perfectly legitimate motivation behind playing any game. If anything, I think the disconnect occurs when people with different motivations sit at the same table to play (what they think is) the same game.

DMDavid cites his experiences running organized games and the experiences of another DM to make a point: that the “I won D&D”-type player is a rarity. I don’t think it is. I think that type of player has been around since the beginning, when convention and organized and league games were starting out, and it was not only acceptable but expected to play the game that way. I remember a blog post about a player who sat in a game with an old-school DM ~ unfortunately, I can’t recall the blogger or anything that would help find it ~ and Fuzzy comes to the rescue in the comments; thank you ~ and ran through an adventure in the “traditional” convention style. It was a different experience. There was an expectation about how the game would go, about things you would and would not do. For example, the DM described a room and the player asked (in so many words), “Do I see anything else?” The DM responded with, “If there was anything else to see, I would have told you,” indicating a distinct approach to the game that’s very different from a Club or Home environment. You’re not there to waste time. The DM is not trying to mislead or misdirect you. You’ve got four hours to get through this dungeon and your status ~ your “win condition,” as it were ~ is based on how quickly you manage to do that (and how much gold you acquire in the process).

Today, however, that attitude has been largely suppressed. The expectation is that players are in it for the “fun” of pretending to be someone else. For the shared experience. For the story-telling.

I’m not saying that these are illegitimate motivations ~ honestly, I don’t think there is such a thing, unless it’s based purely on hurting or dominating someone else. I’m saying that they’re not the only ones. And perhaps the Public Game isn’t the best venue to cater to those motivations.


2 thoughts on “On the motivation behind the Public Game

Add yours

  1. I have to say, I have a feeling that I would greatly enjoy the focused dungeon-crawl style of gameplay if the rules were to my liking (in this case, very “rules-light”). I certainly enjoy the board-game version of this, even though it’s clearly not a role-playing game; the problem can come when goal-oriented and thespian players both think that their preferred style is the only way to play, and end up at the same table.

    As for the event you describe: it was a convention game run by Tim Kask, described by Michael S. here: https://chgowiz-games.blogspot.com/2017/03/i-survived-tim-fking-kasks-dungeon-part-1.html


    1. It’s amazing, isn’t it? If you came to a convention game of Roborally or Power Grid or whatever that railroad game is ~ the one where you draw rails on a hex grid using wax crayons ~ and you tried to justify some off-the-wall behavior as, “That’s how my character would act,” you might get tossed out. Why would we ever expect different from a D&D convention game?

      Thanks for the reference; I’ll add the link above.


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