Wednesday, June 18, 2008


Have you thought about the way children play? There is a conception among adults—an irrational conception—that “play” is somehow frivolous, that children are blissfully leaping about the flowered landscape waving bubble makers, without a care in the world.

This could not be farther from the truth.

Children, when they play, are deadly serious about what they’re doing. They don’t see it as frivolous at all, but as vitally important. You don’t think so? Watch a group of children discuss the rules of a game, and count the number of seconds before fists start flying.

This “childish” behavior is more or less dismissed by adults as evidence of an undeveloped emotional maturity. What it actually shows is the extent to which children care about what they’re doing. They have not yet developed the cultured apathy so prevalent in adults, you see.

Consider a typical situation. John and Mark have spent about four hours carefully building two cities out of Lego, at opposite ends of a basement. The crowning effort has been to “post” one hundred army men on each city, with the stipulation that the army men MUST be placed on top of buildings, and not on the “ground” (children would never refer to it as a floor…the distinction is relevant and steadfastly adhered to). Children make up such rules without being told to invent them—the reason for the rule being there is as follows.

John and Mark intend to throw wooden blocks at each other’s city, as a war to destroy the other person’s army. Thus, the men must be on top of a building. A man not on top of a building will be considered “dead” unless they fall and somehow remain standing.

Remember, it is has taken four hours to arrange this combat. The combat itself will require about ten minutes. At no time, all afternoon, will the two boys remotely consider the effort-to-payoff ratio as anything but worthwhile.

Now, introduce Jeremy, who has shown up just before the battle is ready. Jeremy, who won’t have his own city, might just decide he’s going to muck about with the army men or maybe with some of the Lego…quite probably out of boredom.

Watch John and Mark’s response to Jeremy touching anything. Watch the two boys run towards him, screaming, fists out—you will not see any evidence of “fun” in the boy’s behavior. Their faces will be twisted, menacing, furious…their play has been spoiled by Jeremy’s failure to understand the IMPORTANCE of what is happening.

This is not restricted to boys. Girls have rules like this too. At the tea party, the stuffed animal named “Bonita” ALWAYS serves, and “Clarisse” ALWAYS gets the first cup. This blouse belongs to Malibu Barbie and is NOT worn by Staci. EVER. Friendships will end over things like this.

Which brings us at last to D&D. I know there are many Jeremys in the world who see the game as cheesy, who feel the need to mock and laugh because they don’t understand the importance of the rules as they’re played by others. I don’t quite want to make the argument that the game can’t be played by adults because of their tendency to filter everything through their cynicism, but to a certain degree, that IS the problem.

Children do become adults, and they are made to feel silly as they get older for playing games that many adults feel they should not be playing. The game I describe above between John and Mark really was something I used to play at 8 years of age…and at ten, and at fourteen.

As we got older, the rules got more extreme. From the Lego we built “ships” which had specific designs intended to bear the brunt of a hit; each ship demanded a certain minimum of pieces, and the design was up to the player…but there were designs that were tougher than others.

We ascended from throwing wooden blocks to golf balls in the back yard. And from that to darts, which produced very interesting patterns as we fired them at ships placed in the grass (and there were rules about how you could not dig them in). From darts we expanded to lawn darts, played on a school field on the weekend – hurling the darts thirty, forty feet at Lego ships we could barely see, and still hitting with accuracy.

But as we got to be fourteen and fifteen, and interested in girls and gadgets and so on…we began to feel pretty dumb building things of Lego and blowing them to pieces. For some reason we became conscious of the houses around us, and the people in those houses, watching grown boys with Lego. Somehow we began to feel shame about what we were doing.

Shame is the great destroyer of childhood. It is shame that encourages us, as we get older, not to get too interested or excited about anything. We are all supposed to remain detached, remote from feelings of passion, so that we no longer feel the need to beat up Jeremy for being such a fuckwit and not understanding. This is how we descend towards tolerance, where the rules are less important than appearing “cool” or self-assured.

By our twenties we're expected to limit our concern for games with rules to acceptable sports. This is why the thirty-year-old who spends his weekends playing Halo doesn’t talk about it much. This is why, if you’re a rock star, you don’t mention too often that you enjoy a good session of D&D when you can get one. Because the Jeremys of the world will descend on you and do their best to make you feel as much shame as they can muster.

Building a serious campaign, and making people take it seriously, requires one inward philosophy and one outward philosophy. Inwardly, the DM must find again the attitude he or she had as a child—that the rules are important and that they are not cheesy…except to those who don’t get it.

Outwardly, the DM must quash any and all frivolous behavior in a campaign, immediately and without qualm. It doesn’t matter if this means being rude or inconsiderate—if you want players who can take a campaign seriously, they must be made to understand that they WILL take it seriously or they can take their fuckwit selves to another venue. It may take time, but a DM prepared to have standards like these will eventually draw people who LOVE these standards…who will enjoy being able to play the game without shame, at least within the confines of the campaign on weekend evenings.

They may not be able to talk about it with outsiders; but the other insiders who are with them will back them 100%…and the campaign will develop and do what its supposed to do.


  1. I think the category of "Dungeon Mastering" is going to be one of my favorite categories on this blog.

    And I'll bet you could still nail a Lego ship with a lawn dart at 20 paces.



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