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.

“Are videogames actually games?” and other stupid questions

Originally posted 7/6/07 on www.ggl.com.

I checked out an article entitled “Ten reasons why computer games are not games” for two reasons. First, it’s highly rated on Digg, which means it has to be good, right? And second, I was intrigued by the title.

This has to be the dumbest gaming article I’ve seen online, ever. And that’s saying a lot.The anonymous author’s point seems to be this: there are certain (largely imaginary) differences between videogames and “traditional” games. Therefore, videogames are not games.

Here are my point-for-point responses to the post:

1. Intimacy
Most computer games, including many multiplayer ones, are played by single humans behind a machine… The intimacy between the game and its user creates a potential depth of mental exploration unseen before in any medium.

This makes no sense to me at all. Whether traditional or hobbyist, any game is either played alone, or with/against other people. Every game is interactive; sometimes the player interacts with inanimate objects like playing cards or miniatures, sometimes with other people while using inanimate objects, sometimes with a computer, and sometimes with other people over a computer network.

I can’t see what the author means by “intimacy” here, unless it is exactly what he means by “immersion” below.

2. Stories are more important than rules
… computer games feature characters. Creatures that we can empathize with, in whose behaviour we can recognize our own. Unlike the pawns and dice of traditional games.

If this author is looking for stories and characters in non-videogames, I guess he’s right. They’re pretty hard to find. The only ones I can think of are: Dungeons & Dragons, GURPS, Champions, The World of Darkness games, and every other RPG ever written; Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40,000, and many other plot- and character-based tabletop war games; Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft Collectible Card Game, and other plot- and character-based collectible card games; Illuminati: New World Order, Car Wars, and other plot- and character-based tabletop games.

But of course I’m cheating. All of the non-RPGs above were heavily influenced by RPGs, after AD&D became popular. I guess my point is that RPGs constitute a massive genre of story-based non-video games. And need I add that every single story-based videogame, from the earliest MUDs and MUSHes to World of Warcraft and Gears of War, is based upon earlier non-computer-based games? Of course I don’t.

3. Immersion
Computer games allow you to step into their worlds, to become part of the events. To some extent you become one of the pieces on the board, one that acts autonomously.

This breaks down two ways. On the one hand, tabletop games can be as fully immersive and engrossing as any videogame. I don’t have to explain this to any actual gamer. If you’ve spent all Friday night and Saturday day playing D&D, without bothering to sleep, then you know that offline games are just as addictive as the online ones.

On the other hand, videogames can offer something that meatspace games cannot: virtual reality. Sure, it’s not the fully immersive virtual reality that William Gibson promised us 20 years ago; you’re still sitting in a chair staring at a screen. But there’s a world of difference between having a dungeon master explain something to you, and actually seeing it and interacting with it in World of Warcraft. In this sense, videogames are truly more immersive than offline games. LARPers try to recreate that magic, but let’s face it; they’re just playing D&D while standing up and wearing clothes from Hot Topic.

But I don’t see how virtual reality makes videogames “not games.”

4. Not (just) for children
Games are traditionally considered to be for children. … They tend to contain simple structures that are easy to understand. As we get older, the things we need to learn become more complex.

Oh, come on! Do I really have to argue this? “Games are traditionally considered to be for children.” By whom? Poker players? There have always been children’s games and adult games, going back to the beginning of time. And I hate to break it to this author, but the vast majority of people still consider videogames to be exclusively for children, despite this being patently untrue. Unless someone out there is letting their 6-year-old play Rule of Rose.

5. An artistic medium
Some people try to defend games as an age-old art form. But this is not a widespread belief. Games have their function in society but they are generally not considered very high on the cultural ladder. Computer games are different. They have an enormous impact on their users. They can lead to life-changing events.

This may be true for videogames in some circumstances, but it is also true for other games as well. The author does not try to defend his statement with examples, and I don’t blame him.

The author is once again appealing to the views of the general public, which is always a mistake when it comes to gaming. It’s true that most people don’t consider games to be “high culture,” but they don’t see videogames that way either, even when it’s warranted. Okami could be displayed in a museum; but so could the best wargame miniatures.

Granted, art and design are integral to videogames, and often marginal in traditional games. But look at any Games Workshop game, whether RPG, wargame, board game or card game – the perfect example of how excellent art can enhance a game.

I had more “life-changing” experiences while playing RPGs than I ever have had playing videogames. But that’s just me – I’m not holding tabletop RPGs over videogame RPGs or MMORPGs. I just can’t see why on is inherently better than the other.

6. Players as authors
Traditional games have strict rules. Because of this strictness, you can predict all possible outcomes of any game, based solely on analysis of the rules. Computer games, on the other hand, are much less predictable.

Ah yes, you’re perfectly right. Except for having it entirely backwards.

Computer games don’t just contain rules – they are rules. A computer program is just a long, complex series of unbreakable rules, with absolutely no wiggle room. Even a hack, cheat, bug or Easter egg follows the rules; they just mean the rules were poorly written.

Now, computer game rules are very complex, sometimes offering very many choices, some of them unpredictable. But the options are always finite – always.

In an offline game, the rules can be changed at any time; whether through unanimous consent of the players, or the authoritarian dictates of an RPG gamemaster, or even by good old fashioned cheating.

Here’s a good example: Risk. When playing tabletop Risk or Risk: 2210, players can create house rules, make and break alliances, bluff, argue and cheat. In computer Risk, one can do none of these things. A more advanced version of computer Risk might be designed to allow rules changes and alliances; but only if these functions are specifically programmed. And only to the extent that the programmers allow.

A traditional game will always have more options than a computer game; and an RPG will have the most options of all.

7. Aesthetics are more important than systems
You can play a perfectly satisfactory game with a few rocks and some sticks. It’s the activity of manipulating those objects that constitutes the experience. But computer games have such a strong desire for beauty, that they are one of the main driving forces behind the technology of the century.

This is true. But it doesn’t argue for the superiority of videogames. And it doesn’t argue that videogames are not games.

Our videogame culture is different from offline gaming culture, in that players demand exponentially increasing aesthetic technology, and publishers strive to provide it. Whether the advance of graphics and sound technology actually results in better and more compelling art is highly debatable.

Also, this need for increasingly beautiful games is not inherent to the videogame experience. It’s not the result of videogame culture. We’re in the midst of an unprecedented tech boom. Videogames, consoles and gaming PCs are very expensive, and people demand to get their money’s worth. If computing technology ever levels off, gamers’ aesthetic expectations will level off as well.

8. Persistent social context
To some extent, one could say that the social element of games only starts when you stop playing, while in traditional games, the social situation dissolves when the game ends.

So, the “social context” of a traditional game ends when the game ends, whereas the social context of a videogame ends… when the game ends. Got it.

Some people argue that only a traditional game creates an appropriate social context, and they paint pictures of fat, spotty teenage boys playing WoW for 20 hours a day in their mother’s basement. I totally disagree. Even the spotty teen is, in fact, socializing, as long as he’s playing online. If he’s not playing online, then yes, perhaps he needs to get out of the house. On the other hand, maybe we should just leave him alone and let him be happy.

9. No losing
Contrary to traditional games, computer games cannot be lost. … When people say they lost a computer game, they actually mean that they failed to accomplish a certain task. This often prevents them from making any further progress. So they give up. Nobody wins, nobody loses.

Right. So you can’t lose in a deathmatch? And you can lose in D&D? Seriously, dude, do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

Anybody who ever lost a game “…failed to accomplish a certain task.” That’s the very definition, whether the task is “achieve checkmate before the other guy” or “accumulate more kills than the other guy.”

Granted, in many video games, the player just attempts the same task over and over until they get it right. And yes, they may give up. How this is different from solitaire, for example, I have no idea.

10. Cheating is allowed
Traditional games break instantly as soon as you start cheating. But computer games often include cheat codes that allow you to have unlimited money or be invulnerable, etc.

If the game includes a cheat code, then it’s not cheating. The programmer put it in there on purpose. “Cheating” means violating the mutually agreed upon rules, whether those rules are set by a family playing Monopoly, or by the World Chess Federation, or by Blizzard’s EULA. Anyone, in any game, can cheat. But it’s never “allowed” — if it is, it’s not cheating.

As for the fun of “hacking” a game, making changes, enforcing your will upon someone else’s work – anyone can do this, in any game. And it’s much easier to do this with an offline game. You don’t need to learn coding, or own a dev kit.

In Conclusion

In my experience, both as a traditional gamer, and as someone who has been playing videogames since Day One, I have been struck by the deep similarities between videogames and other forms of games.

This is not just because so many computer games are based upon, or inspired by, traditional games. It is also because a game is a game. And no matter what medium you play in, the goals are the same.

The one genuine way in which videogames improve upon, and are different from, other games is in the creation of increasingly immersive virtual realities. One day, VR realms may become utterly realistic. In that event, whether a virtual reality constitutes a “game” will depend entirely on its purpose.

If the purpose is to challenge the user, in competition against other users, the programmers, or the user’s own talents and expectations, then yes, that reality will be a game.

Why Do MMO Players Hate Role-Playing?

About a year ago, and I was playing my Female Natural Stalker, Lucy Liunatic, in City of Villains. I was in the Pocket D zone, where villains have to hook up with hero characters from City of Heroes in order to complete missions.

Now, I don’t normally bother to role-play in MMOs, primarily because no one else does. CoX doesn’t have role-playing servers, so there’s really no role-playing going on.

Nonetheless, I decided to be cute, and make my requests for hero partners “in character.”

[Broadcast] Lucy Liunatic: I am looking for weak-willed, morality-addled so-called “heroes” to serve me on a mission.
[Broadcast] Lucy Liunatic: If you serve me, then when I rule Paragon City, your death shall be quick and painless!

Most people ignored me, because pretty much every character in Pocket D at that time was a villain. But after a couple minutes I started to get angry responses. One player complained that I had insulted him. Another told me he was going to report me to the gamemasters for offensive behavior.

Players were upset that I was acting like a villain. In a game called City of Villains.

WTF???

I started playing table-top roleplaying games back in a decade with a “7” in it. I remember when the only MMORPG was the original MUD. I lived through D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, AD&D, Ultima, Wizardry, Traveller, Gamma World, Paranoia, GURPS, Champions, DC Heroes, Warhammer FRP, Warhammer 40K, Fantasy Hero, TMNT, Marvel Super Heroes, Space 1889, Shadowrun and the entire World of Darkness.

The most annoying type of RPG player was the “power gamer.” This person cared nothing about the plot, characterization, or any other aspect of role-playing – he (never she) only wanted to build the most powerful character possible under the rules (often by tweaking and deliberate misinterpretation), and then level up as quickly as possible.

The majority of role-playing gamers considered power gamers to be losers. They were usually annoying teenage newbies anyway. The whole point of a role-playing game was role-playing, oddly enough; so power gamers were often met with hostility and frustration.

But role-playing is rare in 3D graphical MMORPGs, the acronym notwithstanding. This isn’t because computer games are poor role-playing environments; online games like EverQuest and Vampire: The Masquerade – Redemption are popular with real role-players.

Other games, like CoX, don’t encourage role-playing in their communities, so very little of it exists. Of WoW’s 222 servers, only 16 are designated as “RP” servers, with specific rules designed to promote role-playing.

The fact is, the power gamer is the norm in the world of MMOs, while role-players are the minority. As I said, I have no problem with this. Role-playing online seems awkward to me.

What I don’t understand is the hostility towards role-players. Try to role-play, even in jest, on a WoW non-RP server, and you will be ridiculed. Bring up the subject with MMO players IRL, and you will get laughter and baffled looks.

Pro gamer Jared “cha0ticz” Cugno suggested to me that MMOs have been overrun by casual gamers, aka “normal” people, who are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the whole idea of role-playing. They don’t want to be seen as the kind of geek who paints lead miniatures and goes to conventions dressed as their character; so they view anyone who reminds them of such behavior as the enemy.

This hypothesis has the ring of truth to me. But the fact is, there is absolutely no reason MMOs can’t support both styles of play, even on the same server. Just let people play how they want to play, and understand that there’s nothing “weird” about role-playing.

WoW wouldn’t exist without Warcraft, which wouldn’t exist without Warhammer, which wouldn’t exist without D&D. Get used to it.