On Ancient Conflict

It is March of 2001. Two conflicting assumptions by industry professionals collide in Dragon Magazine Issue 281.

How To Play the Game
By Monte Cook * Senior Designer
Wizards of the Coast RPG R&D

"It's with some regret that my first letter to your magazine was prompted by something negative, for I really like Dragon Magazine. I think it offers wonderful advice and game material on a monthly basis. That is why I was surprised when I read Tracy Hickman's "How You Play the Game" article in issue #277.
I strongly disagree with some of the positions Tracy takes, and while I admire the goal of encouraging people to have more fun with their game, I think his methods do much more harm than good. In fact, much of the advice in the article is a blueprint on how to create a player who is the bane of both the DM and the rest of the group.

The article starts out with a story of how an adventuring party was trying to figure out the runes in a room and a barbarian character got bored and started fights with nearby monsters, which ended up killing a number of PCs. This is meant to be something desirable? To my thinking this is hardly different than coming upon two friends playing chess, getting bored while watching them enjoy their game, and tipping over the board to watch the pieces fly, because that would be more fun--the game's players be damned. Disrupting other people's fun because you are bored perhaps suggests that you should switch playing groups, but it certainly does not give you license to forcibly impose your will on others.

Later on in the article, particularly in the section, "Take charge of your own destiny" the article's advice really goes wrong. "The appeal of roleplaying games is that they forge camaraderie and encourage cooperative endeavors." So far so good, but it goes on: "But if the result is not heroic, then it's time to take matters out of the hands of the committee." This is tantamount to saying, "The opinion of the others in the group doesn't matter if they don't agree with what you want to do."

Tracy's article seems to take the position that rather than reacting to the situations put forth by the I'm horrified at the suggestion that the players might hold the game hostage until the DM gives them what they want. That's no way to play a roleplaying game. In my own games, such a player would be asked to leave--or simply not invited to return (an action I don't take lightly--it's something I've only done twice in 22 years of DMing).
Tracey's article seems to take the position that rather than reacting to the situations put forth by the DM, a player should just think of crazy things to do and act upon them. This attitude is damaging to the game because it discourages rather than encourages a DM to prepare an interesting and thrilling adventure -- because the troublesome player will ignore or wreck it all anyway. Worse still, in my opinion, the article states "If you find yourself facing a puzzle to which you cannot figure out the answer. . . walk away from the entire adventure. I bet your DM will somehow get you the necessary clues to get you past that impenetrable puzzle."

The rest of the article contains some valuable and thoughtful advice. I agree with Tracy's suggestions for creating interesting character backgrounds, interacting with NPCs, and using dramatic flair when roleplaying (although I believe that it is okay and not everyone's going to want to play a swashbuckler with flourish and panache).

It doesn't change the fact that the article does damage to the game. A section unfortunately trimmed from Chapter One of the new Dungeon Master's Guide due to space dealt with "player types" that described various kinds of players and their approach to the game, encouraging the DM to embrace multiple play styles (although this is addressed somewhat on page 8-9 of that book in the section "Determining Style of Play.") The "troublemaker" player type is one that ignores the actual events in the game and just does whatever he can think of that will mess with or hurt the other players and disrupt the DM's planned adventure. In the Dungeon Master's Guide, it was listed as one of the very few types to arduously avoid. This article creates "troublemaker" players. I hope no one follows this advice.

Viva la Revolution!
Tracy Hickman * Game Designer
NYT Best-Selling Author

I am flattered at the notion that an old gamer like myself, with a stroke of my keyboard, seems to have threatened the foundations of roleplaying across the multiverse. Cool! Who knew?
Unfortunately, Mr. Cook seems to have missed my point: That complacent games--and complacent gamers-- need to be shaken up from time to time. In real life, great ideas and visions often die a slow death being "Bogged down in committee." The same can be said for heroic action in role playing games.

Monte seems to see D&D as another form of chess, a set of rules where the outcome is determined through a contest of intellectual manipulation of conflicting mathematical probabilities. I see D&D as a simulation of a fantasy environment in which the heroes of our imagination attain some measure of life. This goes beyond probability rolls, charts, and tables. Monte seems to take a Newtonian approach; I lean more toward chaos theory.

I realize that the approach of my article is radical and, to a certain kind of DM, downright threatening. Imagine the audacity of mere players thinking that they have an active role in a roleplaying game! Monte states my position as "rather than reacting to the situations put forth by the DM, a player should just think of crazy things to do and act upon them." My actual position is more accurately stated as follows: "Rather than merely reacting to the situations put forth by the DM, a player should act like the hero his character is supposed to portray."

As to player's holding the game hostage, how is this any different from DMs holding their players hostage in a bad game? If the game design is flawed or the Dm is not properly doing his or her job, why not just walk away? Why toss away an afternoon trying to solve a puzzle when the DM has not provided you with the means or information to solve it? In my seminars, I emphasize the need for DM's to listen to their players to understand what the DM is doing right and what the DM is doing wrong. If your DM has his head in his rulebook, he might need a message that is very loud and very strong.

I am in complete agreement with Monte concerning "troublemaker" players in games, as he defines them. If you, as a player, think that my article is a license to become a "troublemaker" in your game, then you have also missed my point: Troublemakers are anarchists and should be stomped out.

I am advocating something else: "Revolutionist" as a player type. Revolutionist act on them. Revolutionist players play their heroic character rather than the game rules. Revolutionist players know when a DM is leading their PC around by the nose and laugh in the face of such tyranny. Revolutionist players are the McGyvers of the game rules, using them in unexpected ways. Revolutionist players cooperate with other players but boldly go--and boldly die--when others quiver in fear or are locked in committee debate.
players pay attention to the background and events in the game and

Revolutionist players are terrifying to DMs who are unprepared for them. They require the DM to demonstrate the same cooperation with players that the DM has traditionally enforced among the players. This, perhaps, is the most important and frightening concept of all.

Roleplaying games might have a lot of dice and rules, but they are first and foremost about roleplaying. Ironically, Monte's team did a wonderful job of doing that very thing. The new edition is a magnificent achievement and has brought back, for me, the magic that once was D&D. I wish I could get my copy signed by Monte's Team.

My article might create trouble for DMs, but it does not create troublemakers. The point of being a revolutionist player is to take back the experience from the realm of "running a game" and put it firmly back in the realm of "having an adventure." Players of the world: unite!


  1. Tracy is right. My own campaign has been greatly enriched by the interaction between revolutionist players and my willingness to work with them. As for the more obnoxious Leeroy Jenkins type behavior, I can handle it fine in a one-shot, and for campaigns I tend to pick players who will not roll that way.

  2. Monte is wrong, when he speaks about the dm providing for the players needs, and right, when he argues, that ONE player actively disrupting the fun of others is shoddy behaviour.
    Tracy is right, when he argues for the freedom of players to express their wants in a campaign, and wrong, when he thinks, a player should be worked with to the exclusion of the other players (which could be the shoddy behaviour from above encouraged by the dm).

    That are all outdated 3e thoughts anyway, though: Make your OSR-Dungeons deadly enough that no one dares to leave, or disrupt in another way, the group even for a second, and you won't have that problem. *Evil Grin*

  3. What is this stress I'm feeling... ? Oh yeah, it's because I'm taking advice from the writer that foisted the Dragonlance Saga, perhaps the ultimate railroad campaign, around how to create a campaign that supports maximum player agency.

    This is a great point/counterpoint piece. I'd be surprised if anyone in the OSR space wouldn't agree with Tracy that we want self-directed (revolutionist) players that don't mind taking the steering wheel (without using that chess-tipping straw man - no sane group would keep that kind of person around anyway).

    1. Yeah, Hickman writing: "Revolutionist players know when a DM is leading their PC around by the nose and laugh in the face of such tyranny." It's Bizarro World.

  4. The writer of easily the worst DMG of all editions, and the designer who introduced railroading to adventure modules, these guys have done almost as much damage to the D&D game as the 4E design team.

    They're both wrong. Tracy is wrong because, if a player gets bored during the game, he should tell the DM 'I'm bored'. If causing some random mayhem and getting some of his friends killed may seem like fun, but ruining other's fun isn't. It's an out-of-game problem, so it should be dealt with out-of-game.

    Monte is wrong because he sees Tracy's position as that of a problem player. A player being bored is, if anything, a DM problem. If a player is bored out of his skull with the game, it's the DM who's at fault, since it's his job to make an exciting adventure. Reacting by asking the player to leave is bad.

  5. If three players are interested and having fun with the problem solving and one player is bored, that's not the DM's "problem." That one player is in the wrong game.

    I tell all my players, I'm about Story, not Hack&Slash game play. If they can't handle that, they shouldn't be in my game.

    Both men are right and both are wrong, it depends upon the "point" being made.

    1. If three players are problem solving and the one player says to the DM: "I'm bored", the DM can ask "Okay, what are you going to do?" and the whole problem is solved. If the DM transfers part of his attention to the bored player, the player probably won't start causing random mayhem. The impulsive "I kick down the door" disruptive play comes from being bored by a stagnant game and being left hanging. That _is_ a DM issue.

      This is not a "Story" vs. "Hack & Slash" issue (which is a false dichotomy anyway), because it isn't a playstyle problem, it's a social issue.

    2. "If three players are problem solving and the one player says to the DM: "I'm bored", the DM can ask "Okay, what are you going to do?" and the whole problem is solved."

      I'd say potentially solved. It's easily possible that player wants different stuff than the other three, and will routinely be bored. Not all players are a match to all campaigns. The player should ask (and the GM should ask, too), but asking isn't solving, it's just the first step to figuring out what to do. The solution might be either of the ones the authors above proposed, or something else.

    3. There's the DM and four players; that makes five people. Only one of them is "bored."

      How do you -- Jasper -- make the decision that it's a "stagnant game?" Your one opinion doesn't "over rule" the other four people at the table. Neither does that of the one "bored" player. Four of the people involved do not think the game is stagnant and are not "bored."

      That's a difference in "style of play" and needs to be addressed before the game begins. The "bored" player is also "bored" by crossword puzzles and any other intellectual pursuits. He's just there to "kill stuff."

      That's not "false dichotomy," -- which is merely your opinion -- that's a difference in play style that is not as easily resolved as you claim. If it makes you feel "better," call it Intellectual Play vs Redundant Play.

    4. Well, when do you make the decision? If there's two players that are bored in a situation, will the DM act on that? What if only one player likes the puzzle the DM sets before them and three don't? Will the DM then decide to do something else?

      For me, it doesn't matter how many of the players are "bored". The DM should attend to all players anyway, so why not just ask him: 'What do you do?'
      Chances are, he will _not_ kick in the door. Simply by DMing all four of the players instead of just three, the DM reduces the chance the game is disrupted and noone has to leave the game.

      > The "bored" player is also "bored" by crossword puzzles and any other
      > intellectual pursuits. He's just there to "kill stuff."

      How do you know? Nowhere in the post it says the player doesn't like intellectual pursuits.

      Anyway, it is a false dichotomy, in that you say people who like crossword puzzles cannot like combat. A game can include both roleplaying and combat, and roleplaying games _always_ have stories. Saying people who like Hack&Slash cannot handle "story" is derisive and false.

  6. Could you please not change the size of the font throughout your articles? It makes it difficult to read and gives me a headache. It's cool that you're trying to emphasize points to avoid creating a wall of text, but that's what bold and italics are for!

    While I haven't seen Hickman's article, I agree with Cook on principle that Hickman's argument seems to twist Cook's words and beat them like a strawman -- this is especially obvious when he takes Cook's chess analogy and changes it to a black and white notion to completely demonize Cook. Cook isn't encouraging complacency. He's encouraging that players have respect for the DM and their fellow players. A player who shows no respect for other players and the DM is a troublemaker.

    I agree that if the party arrives at an impasse, it's okay to take initiative. In fact, I encourage it. The players in my campaign may sometimes spend over an hour trying to make a decision. However, Cook's argument isn't discouraging this. He's discouraging deliberately taking action at the expense of the DM and the other players.

    If Cook is also twisting Hickman's article, then..yeah, they're both right and wrong. They both make good arguments, but choose to bolster it by using the other's as a strawman argument.


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