Gaming Memories: Character vs. Player Hits Home

I’ve walked through my gaming memories before. I wrote a whole series of articles called Wombat’s Path chock full of some of the things I’ve experienced in 30 years of gaming, and more recently I wrote a little something about GMing for the first time. Most of the memories that stick with me are instances that have taught me something, either about myself or about RPGs in general.

I’d like to focus on a game from late high school and explore that memory, if you’ll indulge me. I mentioned the results of this particular game briefly in Wombat’s Path I: The Early Years, but not with any detail. See if you can find the reference.

I don’t remember the season or if we were juniors or seniors in high school. I’m pretty sure there were five of us that night in Kev’s basement. That basement was our gaming sanctum. The walls were studs and insulation framed with cinder blocks, but that let us tack the Greyhawk map up full-size. The concrete floor stayed tolerable only from the carpet remnants piled on it. We found a table and a few serviceable chairs and lived in that half of the basement making our own worlds a few nights a week.

This particular time, Kev GMed something D&Dish, a quick mercenary job for a local noble who’d gotten bitten and started losing control of himself every full moon. It was a new game, and we had rolled up characters who hadn’t worked together before, thrown together for the promise of an easy retrieval and easy money. How hard could it be to get wolvesbane from the woods?

We defeated the pack of werewolves without contracting lycanthropy, and we had the wolvesbane in hand. Adventure over, right? We found a shrine with a hybrid wolf/woman statue. She had a valuable gem in either hand. We had been warned to not touch anything except the wolvesbane, but Matt’s character had to grab the gems over the objections of the rest of the party. And what does a werewolf spirit curse you with if you were to, say, steal a couple of sacred gems from one of her shrines? That’s right – lycanthropy.

So Matt’s character wants to use the wolvesbane, that same wolvesbane that we were hired to retrieve to fix himself, and the rest of us refused. There was handwaving, drama, and debate. It resolved, but not without some hurt feelings. Matt didn’t understand why his friends weren’t helping him, and the rest of us wondered why our characters would help a stranger who had gone off the rails and done something stupid after we were warned explicitly not to do it. The rest of us had a solid separation between player and character. Matt’s dividing line seemed a little more nebulous.

We all got over it – we were friends after all. But this experience brought home to me the need for a social contract. Everyone around the game table needs to have the same expectations about the game, even on something as basic as deciding as a player vs. deciding in character. I didn’t even know what a social contract was at that point, but I tried to communicate what my games were about from then on.

It also brings into focus something more general. Everyone has their own history and expectations. Everyone has a mental map with an opinion about what good gaming is. And here’s the thing about opinions – every single one of those opinions is absolutely correct until modified by experience. So do yourself a favor and take some time to hash through what the game means to everyone at the table. Don’t do the group a disservice by sweeping things under the rug and saying, “That’s just how D&D works.” You’re partially right – that’s how your D&D works. But when it comes to a head and someone feels betrayed because their expectations aren’t being met, you’ll kick yourself and wonder why it’s so hard to find good people to game with.

What gaming memory brought a lesson home for you?

And I’d like to end with an awesome song by Mikey Mason entitled “Best Game Ever” which illustrates this point, or rather what happens when you don’t set a social contract about what’s OK and not OK in the game. It had me laughing my fool head off. It’s bleeping censored so it’s theoretically work safe. Half-elf half-orcish Monk/Illusionist, indeed.

Thanks for reading!

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