Friday, October 28, 2011


I’ve observed D&D players for more than 35 years, and one consistent observation is that the majority of them play characters who are essentially Chaotic Neutral thugs.  This is particularly true if they’re not in a long-term campaign.  They’re happy to go around beating up other creatures, killing the ones that they can get away with killing (that is, the monsters or the evil types), mugging those they may not kill, and getting whatever useful stuff they can extract out of people or other creatures.  The ideal of “hero” only goes so far, sometimes doesn’t go anywhere at all, though there are also many players who are quite willing to be heroic in the game.

There are various levels of “thug”, and a lot worse than thug, such as the people who are entirely self-indulgent, will do whatever they want, and don’t care about what happens to their fellow party members.  Often the completely self-indulgent players are below the age of majority, but it can happen at any age.  I think of D&D as a highly cooperative game, and such people are nearly impossible to work with.  On the other hand I can work with thugs–sometimes.

I had an example of thuggishness at a recent “D&D Encounters” session that I play in at a local game shop.  D&D Encounters is organized by Wizards of the Coast to help introduce people to D&D.  It is a series of connected sessions with a story of sorts, though the major purpose is to have battles.  This seems partly to be built into 4th edition D&D, though some of this battle orientation is unavoidable because the sessions are open to whoever happens to walk-in and so we often have new players who don’t know the story or have any history with the group.  Over the course of playing since last winter there are only two players (including me) left from the original group that was large enough to play three sessions simultaneously.  I started playing to learn about 4th edition D&D and continue because I sometimes get boardgames playtested after the D&D, and because I like the other person who has been with it from the beginning.  Over the course of that time we have played three “seasons”, so I am now with my third character that I have run up from first level to third.

So while the game is highly linear, which tends to be associated with a strong story orientation, in practice there isn’t much story because players change so often.

In general at these sessions people are willing to be the good guys and do what’s required to have the adventure, if only because there’s no alternative.  There can be lots of hostile byplay between characters, though, and at least one character was killed by his own party on a day I wasn’t present (though knowing the character, I have to say he was asking to get dead). 

But at the end of this recent adventure we ran into problems.  We had defeated the enemy, and clearly our final task for the “season” was to pursue and defeat “the heir”, the bad guy.  As the fight ended, some civilians came out of a nearby building and gave us some information and then a “general” who was more or less second-in-command in what was left of the city came up to ask us to go defeat the heir.  It was a rather odd interjection, as we were clearly going to dothat  anyway because that’s what the linear D&D Encounters calls for.

It is typical in RPGs that if you’re always a good guy and never ask for any benefit you may not get one.  So when my female character spoke to this “general” who was asking us to take on the bad guy alone while her troops protected what was left of the city, I asked if she had any magic items that she could lend or give us that would help us in the last battle.  She said no but if we used her name with the merchants we might be able to get good deals if there were any to be purchased (though this would be after the final battle, of course).  In the circumstances, with what is left of the city more or less falling down around us owing to plague monsters, I thought that was the best we could get and I was ready to go on.

But some of my colleagues thought otherwise.  (I might interject here that all but two of the players are 18 to 20 years old, and that includes the referee who is not highly experienced.  I’m three times their age and there’s one other player who is in between my age and theirs.  He is regarded as the “talker” of the group, because they aren’t keen to do the talking, and I tend to keep my mouth shut so as not to control things too much.)  So the talker and one or two of the others essentially tried to verbally shake down this general to get more benefits-- starting the thug behavior that I’m talking about.  I put both hands over my mouth, to the amusement of the referee, because I wanted to let things play out however they were going to play out.  And the way they played out was that the referee, who has already shown himself to be fairly extreme in his points of view and reactions at times, played the general as quite offended.  We came to a point where part of our party threatened to refuse to go after the bad guy (the heir) even though that would mean the end of the city.  And the general pretty much said “do your worst”!   I finally spoke up and said I was going after the bad guy and went some distance away because I didn’t want to be associated with what was going on.  The inexperienced referee finally asked the experienced referee of the other group, who is the local organizer of the whole business, what he could do.  In the end that referee said well you can go to the stock rooms and shake these guys down for whatever they’ve got but meanwhile the city will fall down around your ears and that will be that.

The session ended at that point and we had a long discussion about the appropriateness of the thuggish behavior.  My main point was that their attempted shakedown had failed, and so their behavior was not appropriate no matter what they thought of it.  I said I had asked for something and got a concession and that was pretty clearly (to me) all we were going to get.  When the ensuing conversation made this even more clear (I thought), then they should have given up rather than proceed to the ultimate shakedown.  But there was lots of disagreement.  No one seemed to think he or she had done anything wrong, though some of the people who seemed to agree with the shakedown artists while it was happening now said they were no part of it . . .

Thugs, gangsters, whatever you want to call it, that’s often the way D&D characters behave.  I’m sure next week we’ll go on to take out the bad guy, and I hope that my efforts have separated me from my thuggish colleagues (not that it matters as that will be the end of the “season”), but it’s possible that we’ll get no benefit other than the knowledge of a job well done.

Much of playing with this group is about people-watching–they love to banter with each other (and talk over each other), and it takes a long time to get anything done-- and it was certainly interesting.  But not good play.

1 comment:

DHBoggs said...

I wonder if part of the underlying motivator of the "thugish" behavior in this case was a rebellion against the tight-nit plot. There may be a feeling of "since you are making us do this you better pay us". I wonder what would happen if you all decided not to go after the bad guy, or join forces with the bad guy or do anything of the track.