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Good Fences Make Good Players
Legends and Lore
Mike Mearls

My name is Mike Mearls, RPG Group Manager for the D&D Research and Development team. Welcome to Legends & Lore, a weekly column where I write about various topics on D&D’s history, how the game has changed over the years, and where it’s going in the future. One of the things I want to do is pose questions and topics to D&D players across the world, because my real purpose is to understand what you think about D&D. Once I know that, then I can better understand the game.

L ast week I wrote about how rules are a tool for the DM, rather than a way for the game to force the DM into a certain role or to serve as a tonic against DM incompetence. In thinking of the relationship between the rules and the DM, it’s also natural to look at how the rules interact with players. Most importantly, can the rules change bad players into good players?

Before we start in on that question, we have to take a moment to consider the definition of a good player. Obviously—and I’m sure I’ve belabored this point—D&D is a game with a diverse player base. People like all sorts of things, and one person’s fun adventure is another’s cure for insomnia; plus, there are definitely people who are good D&D players in terms of making the game more enjoyable, rather than in terms of play skill. With that in mind, are there a few traits that distinguish a good player from a bad one? If so, can the rules help to enforce good play habits over bad ones?

What Would Gary Do?

In the Dungeon Master’s Guide for 1st Edition, Gary Gygax wrote at length about troublesome players. From his comments, we can discern the qualities of a good player.

To Gygax, bad players “will find more enjoyment in spoiling a game than in playing it, and this ruins the fun for the rest of the participants.” Bad players are “loud and argumentative,” “pout or act in a childish manner when things go against them,” and “use the books as a defense when you rule them out of line.” Bad players aren’t just obnoxious toward the DM. They also “attempt to give orders and instructions even when their characters are not present, tell other characters what to do,” and otherwise boss everyone else around.

In short, we can see that to Gygax the key to being a good player was simple: Don’t be a jerk. The solution to a bad player was equally simple: Kick them out of your game. Clearly, this was a DM and designer who saw little need for mechanics as a tool to keep players in line. If anything, his disparagement of using the rules to override the DM places a clear divide between the rules of the game and the rules of behavior at the table. The rules were a tool for the DM, not for the players. The DM set the rules of the table, using the rulebooks as he or she wished.

“Don’t be a jerk” is a fairly simple rule, but one that requires a little more illumination. In looking over the AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide and a few other books, I think we can make a list of good player traits that includes the following:

  • A good player gives others the space to make decisions and do fun stuff.
  • A good player gives the DM the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the rules.
  • A good player focuses on the group, rather than himself.
  • A good player becomes immersed in the action by paying attention and focusing on the game.

These rules are by no means set in stone, and different groups can interpret them differently. For example, making fun of an NPC shows that a player is paying attention to the game, and if the comments are genuinely funny they help everyone have a good time. However, other groups might prefer a more serious approach. At the end of the day, what matters the most is that the players and the DM are all on the same page.

With these ideas in mind, we can return to the original question. Can the rules help turn bad players into good ones?

I believe so, and I think it comes down to, conveniently enough, another bullet point list:

  • Balanced rules help give everyone the chance to contribute.
  • Hitting the right handling time gives everyone the right amount of time in the spotlight.
  • Streamlined rules let players pick options and use them without upsetting the game.

Balance helps avoid a lot of tension around the table by making each player feel like he or she can contribute meaningfully to the game. If a player needs to work against a broken class or combo to make the game fun, then the rules are getting in the way. Ideally, each player can use his spells, feats, and so on in the most efficient manner possible without inadvertently running roughshod over everyone else.

Good rules also help give everyone a chance to shine during a session. A good initiative system gives everyone a few moments to sit at the center of attention. Ideally, the game’s handling time—the time in seconds it takes to do something—is quick enough to keep the action flowing but long enough that the player taking a turn feels like he has made a useful contribution. His turn wasn’t so quick that he barely had anything to do, nor so long that the rest of the group grew sick of waiting. Finding the middle ground is a good goal for any rule set.

By the same token, rules need to hit the right level of complexity to keep the action flowing. If the system for casting a spell is intricate and time consuming, the guy playing the wizard either has to hold back on using magic or just accept that he’s hogging the spotlight.

A good player can overcome any of these shortcomings, but a player’s energy is better served in portraying his character, immersing in the environment, coming up with cunning plans, and so on, rather than working against the system. A good system encourages good play.

Mike Mearls
Mike Mearls is the senior manager for the D&D research and design team. He led the design for 5th Edition D&D. His other credits include the Castle Ravenloft board game, Monster Manual 3 for 4th Edition, and Player’s Handbook 2 for 3rd Edition.

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