This post was inspired by comments made by my friend Carl on the post, “The Council of Passaic.”
I don’t know if most of you play chess. I learned to play fairly early, at seven years of age. I was taught by my father, who was not a good player – but he felt his sons would be interested in chess. Why he did not feel his daughter would be interested is another post altogether.
It did not take me long to beat my father – perhaps a year. After that I beat him regularly. I don’t remember playing a game with him after age 14. By then I was cleaning his clock.
My brother, five years older than me, was a much better player. It took me four years to win a game against him. Whereupon he threw a fit. I did not play against him for nine years (during which time, we did not speak a lot). He had not improved as a player in the intervening time.
I, on the other hand, played chess furiously through junior high school. I read books on the subject and I began to compete in tournaments. Around the 9th grade I was playing in and around the 1400 to 1500 level. Not spectacular, by most accounts, but I could have done fairly well had I continued to improve. I began to see, however, that if I was going to improve, I would have to dedicate my life to the game, my every waking hour. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I had decided to be a writer.
I didn’t play many tournaments after coming to that realization. Then I found D&D, which was much more diverting than chess. I continued to play, off and on, and occasionally found friends where we could play game after game all afternoon. It is off the point, but I don’t play at all now. I haven’t actually played the game in over two years. I don’t even play programs. I’m not going to get better. I would guess I would have trouble playing at the 700 level. Chess is observation, and observation is a skill learned with repetition.
There is a distinct difference between friend’s chess and tournament chess. With friends, I rarely played according to the protocols. I very rarely played with a clock, unless they were also tournament players. I didn’t play with the you-touch-it-you-play-it rule. I considered chatting a social condition of playing with friends. Stupid moves could be taken back – why not? We’re just friends.
Tournaments are hardcore protocol activities. You train yourself to stare at the board and think. You don’t talk, you don’t make any motions at all while the game is on – it is considered very poor sportsmanship to distract your opponent. If you are training for a tournament you play by these rules in order to adapt and train your mind to think without the need for physical movement. You learn to think without fondling the pieces before you move them. And you think quickly – the clock is ticking. I’ve known many players who always play this way, even in the park, even in local coffee shops. It’s the only way they play.
I would like to make equivalent proposals for the game of D&D. I have never played according to any of these. I have never considered implementing them – I’m not seriously considering doing so in the near future. I play D&D with friends. It is serious, but not that serious. I have some rules, such as dice count on the table only and no re-rolls, not even for the DM. But they are generally player friendly.
However, if you are having trouble controlling your game, and you’d like to try being a real bastard for the evening, I would suggest some of what follows. Keep in mind – these are equivalent to the sort of stern, anti-socializing rules which govern sincere chess players.
1. No touching of the dice except when required. It is an annoying habit of players to roll and roll their dice, trying to make a natural 20 occur. Or players who must roll the dice twice to ‘shake off the demons’ before rolling the one that counts. I suggest no rolling, none at all, unless the die counts. To police the rule, I suggest every random roll be treated as a saving throw versus trap or monster attack (thus conjuring a monster by rolling the die that has some attack which requires a saving throw; this need not be overt – a brown recluse spider nestled in the player’s belt pouch, for instance). Attempt to conceal the roll indicates automatic failure. Even if the player succeeds, the player will feel less urge to roll again.
This is equivalent to a chess player not touching the pieces. You’ll find similar rules in backgammon, and in many other ‘sophisticated games’ which do not tolerate such things as spitting tobacco in the bullpen or counting your money in Monopoly ... while waiting for them to take their turn.
2. No talking except to describe what their character is doing, or what their character is saying, or specific questions asked of the DM. Yes, I know this rule is out there. I have at key times required it of my players. I am asking a little more here, however, than most DMs would ask. I mean NO talking. No unnecessary questions, no irrational statements ‘made by their characters,’ no leading up comments prior to actually giving an answer to a question.
What do I mean exactly? I mean comments like, “let me think” (do it silently then); “I don’t know what to do” (try shutting up); “My character goes to the tavern ... no, I mean the inn – no, I think ... I think he’ll go to the market place, if I can put my horse in the stable first ...” (brain in gear, then talk); “I’m attacking the darkness” (Uh, no). Various verbal detritus like this needs to be banned. It will encourage thinking. Chess players do not mutter about possible moves before playing.
I mean intermittent character ‘dialogue’ like, “My character tells your character to get stuffed” (both of you stuff it); “You’re a pussy, pussy pussy pussy ... hey everyone, Ragnock is a pussy ...” (you know what? fuck right off); “Then how come you had to cast magic missile?” (sooooo funny).
And I mean questions like, “Which die do I use for a long sword?” (you know what? you get to attack when you fucking figure it out); and “I can cast any of these right? On the list?” (I told you once); “How can they surround us? I had Mordenkainen’s magical watchdog cast ...” (and you told me ... when?).
Yes, this is being an unbelievable prick. It also greatly reduces the second-grade babble that pervades all sessions, making it impossible for the DM to actually hear the players say they cast this spell or that spell. If you don’t let a player attack during a combat because they can’t remember what die they need to roll for a mace, you know what – they will remember next time. Pabulum feed them and they will suckle that tit for life.
Suggestions for other punishment? All unnecessary chatter in the wilderness to be punished with automatic party surprise + failure for initiative during the next combat. Unnecessary chatter in a public setting like a town guarantees one random item automatically stolen per six second period.
3. No out of milieu references. No references to movies, no references to modern equipment, no references to any anachronistic material, period. All such references to be considered immediate indications of character insanity, to be followed with an extensive spontaneous period of either manic behavior (DM runs character) or catatonia (indicating character is in another space). Either are certain to happen in the middle of combat.
This might, or might not include shouts of “BOOO-YAH!” upon killing enemies. DM’s discretion.
4. Time is an element. I suggest a chess clock for each player (they aren’t that expensive). Or you could do it on a lap top. Set clocks for 20 minutes at the start of combats. All comments and die rolls to be made while the clock is running. If the clock ends before the combat, player drops to the ground from exhaustion.
5. Standardized breaks. Every half hour, every hour – DM’s discretion. No one to leave the table except at breaks. No one to pee or shit except at breaks. Hold it, pace yourself. You wouldn’t get up in the middle of a movie unless your bladder is bursting, and that’s two hours. All I’m asking for is forty five bloody minutes of your undivided attention.
6. NO food. Drinks are acceptable, provided belching and other unnecessary display of drinking is controlled. Eat during the breaks or – guess what – eat at your fucking home before you come. Smoking doesn’t bother me, but it bothers the asthmatics I play with.
These are not a great deal to ask. You know how I know? Because a vast number of responsible, “fun” activities require them as automatic principles under which the activity is done. Have you played in a band? Have you practiced yoga or ichido? Have you performed in a theatre? Have you sat in a theatre or at the opera with other people? These are events served with a healthy helping of shut-the-fuck-up, people are trying to improve themselves here.
You know, thinking and learning any game or activity requires concentration and good listening skills. It requires a degree of discipline, the desire to quell one’s spontaneous bullshit in order to hear about things which are sincerely important, and spread them to other people. Nothing I’ve suggested goes beyond a simple person’s desire to occupy his or her mind with the subject at hand.
D&D has consistently been, in my experience, the second worst offender when it comes to poor manners, poor habits and unbelievably infantile self-proclaiming posturing. The worst, of course, is any bar with a television where you’re trying to get solemnly drunk. The principal reason most people do not take D&D seriously upon first investigating it is the impression that everyone involved is a screaming infant. It is also the unspoken attitude of those at your office who look away when you mention the game.
To improve, behavior and manners are the place to start. Perhaps not to the degree I’m suggesting here. But if you can’t begin to implement even a moderate control along these lines, your only real option is to boot these babies out of your house and out of your life.
Or admit you’re one yourself.