The Ten Commandments of Tabletop Role-Playing Games

I spent many, many years playing tabletop and live-action role-playing games. Many, many years. Years I’ll never get back.

But I learned a lot, especially about how to keep a game fun and successful. And now I’ve decided to share my wisdom from on high with the Ten Commandments of Role-Playing Games.

Follow these rules, and you will go to gaming heaven. Sin, and burn in the fires of gaming hell.

I am far from perfect. I have been guilty of most of these sins. But in any game I play today, I am a Saint.

Each Commandment is followed by an explanation, or exegesis, by Rabbi Kunochan Ben Tatewaki.

It’s Gary GyGod!

I. I Am RPG Thy Game, Thou Shalt Have No Other Games Before Me

Exegesis: It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to properly prepare and run a good RPG. Gamemastering, when done well, is labor-intensive. If you’re not going to dedicate yourself to an ongoing game, then don’t play. And once you have committed to a game, and your character is central to the story, you cannot just run off to play Halo, or spend a semester in France, or date girls. Role-playing is a responsibility.

And absolutely, positively don’t give up tabletop to play World of Warcraft. These people are traitors, and will be shot. (Full disclosure: I gave up tabletop to play WoW. Gave up LARPs, too.)

Just write your stats in pencil…

II. Thou Shalt Not Cheat, It Is An Abomination

Exegesis: This goes for any kind of game, anywhere, anytime. Tabletop games, LARPS, wargames, card games, computer and arcade games, sports, Chess, Bingo and thumb wrestling.

I have never understood why anyone would cheat. Scratch that – I have never understood why anyone over the age of 14 would cheat. Unlike work or taxes, games are entirely voluntary activities. So cheating at work or on your taxes, while evil, I can get. But why play a game at all if you’re just going to cheat? If you’re cheating, you’re not playing.

If you’re cheating for money, say at gambling or sports, then I understand. You’re an asshat, but I understand. But if there’s no money riding on a game, then you’re just ruining the game for yourself and others. Which means you suck.

What’s that? You cheat to win? If you cheated, you didn’t win. Somebody else won, and just doesn’t know it. You’re a loser. And if no one else knows, you know. And you care, if you have an emotional age over 14.

What about exploits, such as in computer games? Well, if you’re hacking game software for the sole purpose of sharpening those computer skills, then you are a 7334 h@xx0r — knock yourself out, sport. If you’re cheating to “win,” then see above.

In RPGs, cheating is a betrayal of everyone else at the table. And if you’re willing to do that, then you are a waste of protein. Go feed yourself to the boars.

Stop pissing me off!

III. Thou Shalt Not Take Thy Game Too Seriously

Exegesis: There are many ways to ruin a tabletop game or LARP for everyone. But the worst is to take the game too seriously. Nothing is worse than the guy (and there’s always one) who, upon losing his character/failing a saving throw/making a bad roll, freaks out and storms out of the room. That’s the end of the game for the night, folks.

Read my lips: it’s just a game. Now, I know this flies in the face of Commandments I and IX. I never said religion would make sense. But the reason we treat the game seriously is to keep it fun. Take the game too seriously, and it’s not fun anymore.

You will make a bad roll. Your beloved character will die. The gamemaster will make a bad or unfair call (see Commandment VI). You will lose one of your dice. Another player will do something stupid. Something bad will happen – it always does. It’s all part of the gaming experience. If it’s unavoidable, like a bad roll, then learn to deal with it. If it’s something that can be helped, like a poor decision by the referee, then feel free to defend yourself — right up to the point where you’re detracting from the fun of the game. Then stop. Just give in – be the better person.

If you’re upset about something, you may consider just going home. Don’t — it will ruin the whole evening. Unless you can genuinely convince everyone you’re leaving for some other reason (hey guys, my girlfriend called, and she’s ovulating), then just suck it down for the rest of the evening. If you still have your panties in a twist later, you can stop coming to future sessions.

Everyone contributes to making the game civil, successful and fun. Even you.

Loaves and fishes?

IV. Thou Shalt Not MinMax

Exegesis: Everyone loves a rules tweaker. Except we don’t.

Here’s a news flash, Pacho — role-playing games do not have winners. Having the most powerful character is not the point. Tweaking the rules to get powers and abilities the game designers did not intend may be fun for you, but it’s not fun for anyone else. And it may not technically be cheating — but whenever you have to say “not technically cheating,” you’re cheating.

The point of an RPG is to have fun, and to communally tell a story. MinMaxing your character to maximize every possible advantage under the rules does not contribute to either goal; in fact, it’s detrimental. It’s annoying, and it pisses people off. Don’t do it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t design your character intelligently, or take advantage of your superior grasp of the system. It’s all a matter of degree. The minute you’re detracting from the fun, you’ve crossed the line.

Why do Christians believe in Bird-Men? Someone please explain it.

V. Thou Shalt Not Break The Game

Exegesis: This has always been my great sin — intentionally pushing past the limits of what can be done in the game, for the sole purpose of pissing off the gamemaster.

I loved to invent races, powers and abilities the game could not support; devise solutions to problems the gamemaster had not anticipated; drive the party off the main plotline and onto some irrelevant subplot the gamemaster had not planned out. I did these things as a player because I lived for them as a gamemaster. I loved it when players pulled this shit — it was a challenge.

Unfortunately, not everyone appreciates this style of play. I always frustrated the gamemaster, even my friend who did the same thing in my games. Sometime the players found my antics amusing, but often not. Gamebreaking becomes a sin a moment the fun stops for others.

A top-rate gamemaster won’t let anyone break his game. Then again, a top-rate gamemaster won’t let anyone break any of these commandments.

You guys seen my DM’s screen?

VI. Thou Shalt Honor Thy Gamemaster and Storyteller

Exegesis: In a role-playing game, the gamemaster/Dungeon Master/referee/Storyteller must have absolute authority. He or she is GOD.

There are two systems whose rules made this perfectly clear; Paranoia and the World of Darkness games. But it’s true for every game. As soon as the gamemaster loses his or her authority, the game is over. Nothing is worse than a gamemaster who lets the players walk over him or her. I should know — see Commandment V.

If you don’t want to cheerfully accept every single judgment of the gamemaster, good or bad, major, trivial, or whim, then don’t play again. Note that I said cheerfully accept — begrudgingly following along just makes you a fun-sponge.

The Sacred Eight-Sided-Die

VII. Thou Shalt Bring Thine Own Dice

Exegesis: And books and paper and pens and chips and Mountain Dew. A mooch is no one’s friend.

Conversely, Thou Shalt Share Thine Dice. Jesus Christ, people, they’re not made of diamond. Share your dice. Lend your pens. Give your friend a Coke. Be a mensch. A miser is as bad as a mooch.

Also falling under this Commandment: Thou Shalt Care For Thy Friend’s Dice As If They Were Thine Own. Don’t lose dice. Don’t break or chew pencils. Don’t write on the mat with a Sharpie. And for God’s sake, be careful with painted miniatures.

Wanna kiss my rat?

VIII. Thou Shalt Learn The System

Exegesis: This is my other great sin. I have played and even run countless games without ever learning the actual rules. I ran a successful AD&D game for years and never understood the magic system. Still don’t. It’s not complicated, and I’m not stupid. I just didn’t want to learn.

But if you don’t know the rules, then someone has to do the work for you, and that’s not fair. Take care of your own character creation. Do your own bookkeeping. Understand how your abilities work. Otherwise, you’re just a douche.

If you’re going to play, then learn the damn game.

How do you play this thing? How do you win? Are those dice? What are you writing? What do you mean I can “be” and elf?

IX. Remember The Gaming Day And Keep It Open

Exegesis: This is a corollary of the First Commandment. The gaming day is for gaming, and nothing else. Be on time (right, as if gamers will ever be on time), be prepared, and don’t plan anything else.

Also: Thou Shalt Not Allow Gentiles To Defile The Temple. The Temple is the game, and the Gentile is your girlfriend, little brother, or some other non-gamer. If someone you know genuinely wants to learn the game — if it was their idea — then fine. But don’t invite your girlfriend to the game just because you promised to spend the day with her. She’s a distraction. She’s an embarrassment. She’s a Philistine.

It was the dice!

X. Thou Shalt Not Blame The Dice

Exegesis: Luck does not exist. Read it again. I’ll wait.

Probabilities are probabilities. If you roll 3d6, there’s a 0.4629% chance you’ll roll an 18, a 0.4629% chance of a 3; and a 25% of a 10 or 11. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what you rolled last time. You’re not “on a roll.” There’s no good luck or bad. Just roll the damn dice, and accept your fate.

Also, there are no good or bad dice. As long as you bought your dice, and didn’t make them in shop class, then they are properly cut and weighted. Any possible variations between manufactured dice are too small to matter. (Unless you bought one of those old-school d100s with the seam around the middle. That’s a novelty die, dude. No one uses that.)

There is no better way to roll than another. If you have some trick that supposedly makes the dice roll better, then you are cheating. See Commandment II.

The point is, if something goes wrong, don’t blame the dice. You sound like an idiot. If you must blame something, blame the laws of mathematics.

Rating the Murder Simulators

Originally written in December 2006 for GGL.com; images updated March 2009.

This holiday season has seen two seventh-gen console launches, so video games are back in the news. Mainstream media outlets, particularly local television news programs, seem to be devoted to two, and only two, video game-related memes, regardless of whatever is actually happening in the video game world.

The first is the hoary old “geeks wait in long lines to get a toy” meme, which is closely related to “parents fight each other to buy their spoiled kids a toy.” I guess I can’t be too judgmental – we did it here at GGL this year as well.

The other is “video games will turn your children into raging, murderous psychopaths.” For every positive story about video game culture, there are ten that decry this imminent menace to our children’s very lives.

Scientific studies claim to show a connection between “violent” video games and violent behavior in teens and grade school children. Politicians espouse anti-games rhetoric, and craft laws policing or preventing the sale of video games to children – laws that have to-date been struck down as unconstitutional. Large retailers place restrictions on video games sales, in response to pressure from pro-censorship groups.

I have already discussed why a video game cannot be “violent” or “dangerous.” This absurd idea, that video games are harmful to kids, never seems to go away, or to even die down. For politicians and religious leaders, the allure of this demonstrably false claim is easy to see. In the Sixties, these same forces assailed rock music. But now those sixties rockers are the parents; so the “culture wars” crowd must turn to things parents are less likely to understand. Today, those things are hip hop music and video games.

The most pernicious claim made by censorship advocates is that first- and third-person shooters are “murder simulators” that desensitize kids to extreme violence and train them how to kill. Some studies show that video games can excite and agitate youngsters; but it’s a big leap from there to assume games train kids to be killers.

Therefore, I have decided to review all of the “murder simulators” in our society, including video games, but not excluding the others. I challenge censorship advocates to explain why, of all the items on this list, they focus on “violent” video games.

Grand Theft Auto 2. This doesn't look so very violent...Video games

In recent years, censorship advocates have most commonly targeted Grand Theft Auto 3, and have labeled the game a “murder simulator.” The GTA games are third-person shooters – I would think a first-person shooter, like Halo or America’s Army, would better train a person to commit murder.

A few FPS games, like House of the Dead, are played with gun-shaped controllers. But most employ standard game controllers for console games, or a mouse and keyboard for PC games. They do not teach the player how to hold, load, or fire an actual gun. And Back to the Future 3 notwithstanding, I don’t think a gun-shaped controller really teaches anyone anything about real firearms.

The “aiming” skills required for an FPS game are completely different from those required in real life. “Aim assist, “friction,” and “client prediction” don’t exist in the real world. Aiming a gun is all about the wrists and arms, while “aiming” in an FPS is all about the thumbs on a console, or the mouse hand on a PC. There is no such thing as kickback with a game controller. Games often try to simulate things like kickback, muzzle flash, and reloading, but these simulations are nothing like the real thing.

Forget the guns – existence in an FPS or TPS game has little to do with real life. Movement is unrealistically smooth and quick (or the game would become boring). Video game characters are nearly impervious to pain and injury, enduring “violence” that would fell a real person, or at least put that person into shock. FPS characters can leap and climb better than a real human being. They get “health packs” and “power ups,” things we could definitely use in the real world, but which are, alas, unavailable. And when you die in an FPS, you “respawn” somewhere else. Why are all these unrealistic things included? Because it’s a game, not a simulator.

But doesn’t the army use video games to train soldiers? Sure, but they aren’t teaching how to kill, they’re teaching tactics. Before video games, they taught tactics with books, then films; now it’s games. But no drill sergeant is going to let his soldiers sit through a few gaming sessions and then send them to Iraq. The games are a small part of an intensive training course (see below). So could the Columbine murderers have learned their tactics from Doom? Sure. If their victims had been maniacal Martian demons with rudimentary decision-making powers, I suppose they could have.

The pro-censorship forces will insist that I am avoiding the real issue. Do “violent” video games desensitize our youth to violence, making them more likely to commit violence? No study has ever demonstrated this. Kids may become agitated after playing a game, but they do not objectify other humans. They maintain their sense of right and wrong. I myself am concerned about media, whether books, movies, television shows, or video games, that depict casual murder. It’s bad storytelling, and I believe it does desensitize everyone, child and adult, to the atrocities they hear on the evening news.

But it’s a huge leap from media burnout to murder. Censorship advocates want you to believe this connection is self-evident. In fact, it is self-evidently absurd, if for no other reason than this – not every person under 35 is a murderer.

In conclusion, video games are not terribly effective murder simulators. They improve reflexes and teach hallway-combat tactics; but they fail to prepare the participant for actual killing. Let’s move on.

LARPers. It is NOT weird.LARPing

Some people believe that live-action role-playing gamers represent the lowest, most pathetic level of geekdom. These people have never meet filkers, furries or fan-ficcers.

LARPing is like regular role-playing (Dungeons & Dragons and the like), except the players go to a public location, often in costume, and act out whatever their characters are doing. Players called “storytellers” act as referees, guiding the overall story and arbitrating player combats and disputes. Like most other RPGs, LARPs revolve around science-fiction, fantasy or horror themes, and involve some of the characters trying to kill other characters.

What value does LARPing have as a murder simulator? A player puts on a real outfit, travels to a real world location, and plays face-to-face against other human beings, sometimes friends but often mere acquaintances or total strangers. In most (but not all) LARPs, real weapons, fake weapons, and items that could pass for weapons are not allowed, and players may not touch each other. But in-game altercations can turn very loud and emotional. And players may see a long-term, beloved character slain as an outcome of a combat.There is real human contact, unlike with a standard video game; and you meet your enemy face-to-face, unlike an online game. And you have to deal with real emotions when you “kill” another player.

So, as a murder simulator, LARPing is not terribly satisfying. There are no weapons, no acrobatics, no visual scenes of violence. But you do pretend to kill people, and those people are standing right in front of you, expressing either real or “in-character” dismay at their own deaths. And because of that one characteristic, I proclaim LARPing to be a superior murder simulation experience to video games; it provides a human element missing from any computer game, even an online or LAN game.

Paintball player.Paintball

Now this sporting activity can, in all fairness, be called a “murder simulation.” You put on real military gear, go out to the real woods, and use a real gun to shoot real people. All the things that FPS games fail to simulate – holding a gun, aiming, firing with kickback, reloading, dodging, hiding, running, jumping, keeping sweat out of your goggles, even the pain of getting hit – all these things are REAL. And in paintball, one shot and you’re down – unlike video games with their health packs and respawns.

Of course, nobody gets hurt – not seriously, anyway. That’s what makes paintball a murder simulation, not murder.

Searching online, I could not find anyone claiming that paintball will teach young people to kill. Any reference to a paintball ban I could find was based on paintball guns being used in vandalism or in hold-ups. Strangely, no one is concerned that the real murder simulation is being used to train killers.

Now someone’s going to complain that I hate paintball. I have absolutely no problem with this sport whatsoever. I used to participate in something similar using shinai in a local park. I do not believe for a second that some kid is going to be turned into a murderer playing paintball.

But one wonders how the self-appointed stewards of child safety can justify attacking video games, and doing nothing about the horrific scourge of paint-filled plastic balls shot from air guns.

Hunting. It's pretty classy!Hunting

I’m tempted to say that sport hunting isn’t a murder simulation, it’s murder. Tempted, but I will restrain myself from sounding like one of those asshats at PETA. Killing an animal is not murder (with perhaps a few exceptions). And whatever your views on hunting, it does not help anyone to equate killing a deer with killing a human. They are not ethically equivalent. At all. Not even close. Not even on same planet.

That said, as a murder simulator, hunting takes paintball and elevates it to the next level. Not only do you get a real gun with real bullets, but you do real killing. Not the killing of a human, but still.

If I were planning to actually go out and kill people, I would practice by going hunting. It creates the single most realistic environment to hone those murdering skills. In fact, it has everything but human victims. If I’m worried that any of my victims will fight back, I’ll just hunt boar.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find any online complaints about hunting teaching kids to become murderers. Anti-hunting activists focus exclusively on the suffering of animals. Just for even suggesting a link between hunting and murder, I’m sure I’ll get nasty emails from the NRA and other pro-gun extremists. Fire away (heh heh). I’m not suggesting that hunting creates murderers. I’m suggesting that hunting is a much better way to learn to commit murder than a video game.

No, seriously, it's this long when it's flaccid...Military training

Now we reach the crème de la crème of murder simulations.  In the military, people who have actually killed people will give you a real gun and teach you to kill people. Not how to shoot targets, or to hunt deer – how to kill people. And they won’t stick just to guns, either. You’ll learn tons of fun mêlée and ranged combat techniques. You’ll go out to the real desert and shoot at real people with real bullets. And when you’re ready, they’ll send you out to commit real murder.

Oh, here we go. Suggest that what the military does is “murder,” and you must be a Commie pinko subversive terrorist. My argument has nothing to do with whatever it is soldiers do in the field; whether it is murder, or justifiable homicide, or self-defense, or peacekeeping. My only concern is, does military training teach you the skills to be a murderer better than a video game does?

Unlike any other type of training, military training teaches young people to dehumanize other humans. Whether this is justifiable or not is beside the point. The military teaches people to kill people, and to feel minimal remorse afterwards. End of story.

Whether or not military training is good or bad or both, whether or not a trained soldier is a good or bad person or both, that soldier is eventually returned to society, where there is not a Viet Cong or Iraqi insurgent around every corner. I’m not aware of any “untraining” to re-instill human compassion back in a soldier. It seems police officers sometimes have the same problem, suffering from the possibly unavoidable dehumanizing aspects of their work. And yet, should we lock up our veterans? Should we ban military training? Or should we create a kindler, gentler military?

I suppose we only need ask these questions if we are so concerned about the effect of murder simulations on our society. Will we prevent murders if we never, ever teach anyone how to kill, and never ever represent murder in the media? This is an open question, and a much more complicated one than some people would like for you to believe. But let me suggest that actually teaching people how to use a gun and kill people MUST be more dangerous than creating a game where people fake-kill fake-people.

Conclusion

So there we have it: five different murder simulators, all accepted by mainstream American society, but only is one under attack as detrimental to the moral hygiene of our youth. Strangely, only one is not traditionally associated with right-wing political values, but rather with Hollywood and the entertainment industry. And strangely, it’s the same one.

Is it possible that those who wish to censor video games aren’t really concerned with the safety of children? That the real goal is not to prevent children from learning how to murder?

If so, then I can’t imagine what the real goal of all this is. Even the U.S. Army created a video game, a “violent” tactical FPS, to promote recruitment, apparently with some success. Could the real goal, for politicians, be to get votes from Baby Boomers ignorant of gaming? Could the real goal for pundits be to get their faces on CNN?

Nah. That would just be cynical exploitation, not of the games industry, which can defend itself just fine, but of children. Politicians and pundits wouldn’t exploit children, would they?