“You are doing it wrong…”

We can all make mistakes. An expression of which I am particularly fond is that even monkeys fall from trees. We can trip while walking upstairs, we can fumble with our keys, spill our drinks, and we can be mistaken in our understanding of things we have learned and been taught. Mistakes are many of the rungs on the ladder of learning.

Despite the frequency with which mistakes can appear in a person’s life, there are many who bristle at the notion of making them. There are those who isolate themselves from the potential benefits of realizing and rectifying a mistake through barriers of excuses and denial. Instead of dealing with the mistake as an opportunity, there are times when practicing the ability to justify one’s actions is what occurs instead.

In the roleplaying game hobby there is a recurring theme that there is no wrong way to play, and I find a lot of truth in that sentiment, but like all things, it can be misunderstood. It can, by mistake, be taken and repeated out of context, coming to mean something it was not intended to mean. In discussion of this topic, dividing lines can form among those who feel that “…it’s just a game” and “…it’s a game and we can learn to play it better.” Put another way, the hobby only has value to some as one of many sources of fun, and it is acceptable if that fun is a hit or miss result of ‘just playing.’ By comparison, to others the fun in the hobby is worth developing skills to refine and make more readily and regularly reproducible. To one group it is an affront to suggest there is a better way to play, and to the others it is as much of an affront to insist that there is not.

What this post is about is not this division, it is about how this division is in itself can be a misunderstanding. ‘There is no right way to play,’ is in other words, a source of confusion.

How so?

There is a right way to play. What needs to be understood, however, is the context.

One of the things I am saying is that there is a right way to play for each person, and that each person can learn to balance what they are looking for within the right way to play for each group they get to join. I also believe that we can become better at playing our games, and better at identifying the people and games that will provide better experiences. There are theories which have been developed to try to help us understand how to do that, but this requires a certain rigor of thought and depth of experience which has a time and a place in a hobby pursuit, but cannot be said to be where one should start, or even spend much of one’s energy. This is made all the more true by those who actively seek to undermine, derail, or flat out resist the concept that understanding what goes into our play has value. If we spend our energies just trying to open a conversation about how we play, we never get to develop our understanding – just our tenacity and debate skills but even there, on the wrong topic.

For many, there is the misconception that to speak of ‘a right way to play’ is to be stating that there is a superior way to play. It is very hard to disabuse someone who feels that way of that notion. Instead of talking about what could benefit us, we end up having to go off on a tangent. That tangent is the ‘superior style of play’ and the elitists who look down on how you play.

I do not believe there is a superior style of play. I do not believe that there is a one true game, and I do not believe that we have found a theory to guide all of us to better play. I do not believe we can be easily divided into little categories, although I have found many protest inclusion in those categories too much and lack the awareness of self to know either way.

Three impulses in gaming which get spelled out again and again in conversation, in forum posts, in RPG videos, and in the very games themselves are the impulses toward our games as systems of rules, impulses toward our games as simulations of situations, and impulses toward our games as vehicles for story. A fourth, oft-repeated, but rarely granted the status of the other three in parroted conversation about these ideas is the impulse toward camaraderie and shared imagination in whatever form it takes. Acknowledged or not, the calling cards of these drives are there to be seen. Whether in real or imagined isolation, or in some alchemical blend of all or some, these impulses are out there.

I do not believe that these impulses are false or a waste of time. I do not believe that embracing these ideas is required to have fun. I do, however, believe that some, one, or a particular stirring of the three will be right for me and enable me to have more fun. Understanding them can lead me in the right direction for improved play. Likewise, I believe what is right for me will not be the mix for someone else. This is an expression of personal preference – taste – and as it is entirely subjective, it does not mean that my way is better. It means my way is better for me. That’s it.

Likewise, a group that is into classic dungeon-crawling is not to be valued differently than a group that is exploring what it means to uncover lore humanity was not meant to know, or a group that is playing valiant mice, smugglers long long ago and far far away, shadowrunners, the Awakened, dogs in a vineyard, mech jocks, time travelers, or a rotation of all of the above and more. The goal of play is some sort of satisfaction, be that fun, mental stimulation, or whatever. Whatever choice of play style or content for play that works for the group was a good choice.

However:

This is a different concept than the concept of playing a game correctly. After all the words above we are finally getting to the point. Don’t worry, it is short.

 

We can make mistakes when we play. They can be simple, honest mistakes. They can be tiny misunderstandings, or they can be fundamental and wide-ranging errors of application. They can be momentary, or they can persist for years. This does not preclude fun, however. Some great mistakes still provide moments of great fun, such as the free parking rule in Monopoly, but at the end of the day the mistakes are still mistakes.

This goes beyond just making errors with the rules, however. We can misjudge how a game works, or how a group gels. We can be misled by the too polite person in our game who is just ‘going along with the group.’ We can accidentally stifle creativity within the group, or by pushing for it too hard or too soon we can scare people away. There are those who will put in the time and effort to learn how a game works (or doesn’t work), and those who will not. There are those who will take the time to build a cohesive group, and those who will not. Even in the presence of that effort, success is not guaranteed. Mistakes can still be made, and it is good to able to share with and learn from others who are about to make those mistakes, have made them with you, or have found their way through to the other side.

There are so many ways we can err and the stakes are so low that the first words we hear when we ask for help should not be ‘don’t worry about it, it’s all good.’ They should be “what are you going to try next?” Why should we want people to have mediocre or unsatisfying experiences and possibly drop out of the hobby or the GM’s chair, when simply acknowledging that gaming gets better with practice can bolster and support them?

I feel if we want people to have fun, stay in the hobby, and attract others to it, it stands to reason that we need to support people learning to consistently have good sessions, and then from there – learn to learn new games.

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