A Tale of Two Tweets - Elite Gamers, Play-Styles, and "Winning at D&D"
Very recently on Twitter I saw a tweet from a new player. This player was bubbling with excitement over an upcoming D&D session, the first one for them. The player in question had gone all out, the elaborate backstory, they purchased a cool notebook with fantasy flair, custom dice, a mini for their character, all the swag that a D&D player could want.
And then they live tweeted updates as they were playing. Their enthusiasm was palpable. Obviously smitten with the gaming experience, this player was sharing their joy with the Twitter world. And this particular player was quite obviously of the “new school” of D&D players, narrative focused, character focused, and all in for the Critical Role style gaming experience.
The responses to their tweets were heartwarming, all round support, “you go girl”, “so happy for you”, “you are doing D&D right” sort of responses (I am approximating the wording here as I can’t find the original tweet now).
Just to be clear, the kind of game I run is not the narrative focused, player centric kind of game that this player was in. One of the central features of early edition D&D (the kind I run) is that it is deadly. Showing up day one with an elaborate backstory, mini, custom dice and a journal for a 1st level PC would be a big risk. We don’t have frequent character deaths in my game, but they certainly happen.
I wouldn’t, however, turn this player away. Every new player to my game is told the basics of how we play, and one part of that is the lethality of the game. I’m not giving you plot armor because you spent a lot of money and time on your new PC. That’s not how we roll. I would definitely give them a few breaks in the first session or two, as they don’t know the system well enough to avoid the standard pitfalls of a new PC. So they would get “plot armor” of a kind for a session or two, in that I would let them change certain decisions if they had deadly consequences. It isn’t cool to “aha!” someone who knows little about the game.
But once they had a few sessions under their belt it would be business as usual. If the dice say you are dead, you are dead.
D&D can be played in a lot of different ways. Narrative focused, player-centric D&D can be a blast. When you invest significantly in your PC the immersion and emotional rewards of survival and success, even the very experience of moving through the game world, can be fantastic. For a brief period of time many years ago I played this way. I explored the lore of the game world between sessions, thought about what my PC was doing all the time. I developed aspects of their personality that had little tactical impact on the game, just because it was fun to flesh out the character.
Narrative focused, character based D&D can be a hoot, it’s not what I like now, but I have zero issue with those who choose to play this way, and I warmly encourage people to play this way if it is to their liking.
Now, to be clear, over 35 years of gaming I’ve seen a lot of different player types, and honestly, any player can be a pain. I’ve played with narrative focused, character based players who were absolutely toxic. I’ve seen grown adults red-faced and screaming at the DM over the loss of a PC. I’ve watched players completely ignore other players in favor of their PC, I’ve seen games grind to a halt because one player insisted on pursuing one aspect of their character’s story to the exclusion of other player’s wants. I’ve seen campaigns derail and dissolve because one story focused, character based player wanted the game to be all about them.
Play style doesn’t determine if you are a good player to sit at the table with.
Surprisingly, there was a lack of crusty old grognards chastising this player for their enthusiasm. I expected one of the “old school” types like myself to respond to their tweet with derision, “this post is pure cringe”, “aren’t they precious”, “they wouldn’t last 10 seconds at my table”, “I’d take pleasure in killing their Mary Sue PC”, or “they wouldn’t be welcome at my table”. That sort of thing. I have gamed in the past with players who would say and do these sorts of things. I’ve also seen posters on Twitter who say these sorts of things about narrative focused, character based players like these.
But that didn’t happen. To be fair, I haven’t checked back on the tweet thread to see if it happened later on, but the initial response at least was uniformly positive.
In short, this player was invested and enthusiastic about the game, and everyone was on board for it.
That’s the first tweet, the rest of this tale is about the second one.
Several days ago a poster tweeted about “winning” at D&D. The post talked about establishing “winning conditions” and dominating the game. The poster suggested that a dominating player should lead the party even if the rest of the party didn’t really understand what they were doing. There were terms like “elite gamer” bandied about, and pictures of bodybuilders peppered throughout the post.
I’ve played with gamers like this as well. I played in a group in college that was like this, filled with type “A” win or die players, players who thought of D&D as a highly competitive game where the job of the DM was to do everything in their power to defeat the PCs, and the job of the PCs was to do everything in their power to survive and overcome the challenges and opponents in front of them.
When the whole group is on board with this style of play it can be electrifying. The risk of death is real and that alone creates a ton of excitement. Surviving is an accomplishment, mastering the challenges and beating your opponents is glorious, as you know the game world was stacked against you and you still survived, even thrived! Much like sports, competitive D&D can be a blast, and with the right group it can help you learn to work together, to solve problems together, and to thrive in a highly dangerous, oppositional environment.
Having said that, I’ve gamed with toxic “elite gamers” before as well. Self-absorbed jerks who were happy to make the game entirely about them, and freely walked over other players at the table. I watched an adult player lose their PC and then spend the rest of the session pacing around the room with a DMG in their hands, shouting out rules at the DM to try and get their fellow PCs killed because their “elite PC” died. I’ve watched elite players rules-lawyer the game to get advantages to the point where it ground to a halt. Elite players can be as toxic as you could imagine.
As I said above, play style doesn’t determine if you are a good player to sit at the table with.
It was clear that this “elite gamer” was super-invested in the game, and very enthusiastic about how they played it. That kind of buy-in is pretty rare.
At no point in the thread did they say that “everyone else is playing it wrong”, or suggest that any group of players or players who play differently shouldn’t play D&D. Yes, they did state that an “elite gamer” should essentially take over the party and run it, but this is only a problem if the other players aren’t interested in that sort of game. I’ve played in many games where one player essentially steps up and starts running things because the rest of the players aren’t interested or capable of doing so. This often happens without any discussion beforehand, it can emerge organically from play.
However, the response to this tweet, as opposed to the first one, was night and day. Tons of people retweeted the original tweet and mocked the poster. It was a “cringefest”, this poster was “toxic”. Within hours I saw a bunch of retweets and comments suggesting this poster was a jerk, a gatekeeper, a toxic loser.
I even saw comparisons to Nazis and fascists.
OK, I don’t follow either of the two tweeters that are the subject of this post, I saw their tweets because they were retweeted by people I do follow. So I don’t know what kind of stuff they normally tweet about. For all I know either one of them could be a card carrying Nazi or fascist, either one of them could eat babies and torch villages. And I understand that the “elite gamer” poster had pre-blocked a lot of people. So that suggests that they might have been a troublemaker beforehand. Or it might suggest that they knew that some people would react exactly as they did from other posts of theirs, and did pre-emptive blocking to deal with it.
But Twitter had decided, because this poster wanted to “win” at D&D, they must be an asshole.
That alone was surprising and disappointing.
But what surprised me most was how fast the “elite powergamers are assholes” crew became a mob of gatekeeping bullies. The mockery was fast and furious. There is no surer sign of a bully than mockery. Suddenly instead of “you can play D&D any way you want” or “there is no wrong way to play”, it was all, “look at this toxic jerk”, “you can’t win at D&D”, and “this is not the way the game is played”. Even worse, there was a ton of macho posturing going on, “if this jerk showed up at my table I’d serve him his ass”, or “I wouldn’t let this guy within a mile of our game”.
So no more kumbaya I guess.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a table style and knowing in advance that someone else’s style wouldn’t be a good match for your group. But the speed and derision with which this poster’s tweet was slammed was breathtaking.
As it happens, this was all very timely for me, as we had a new player added to our game this past week. This new player was super stoked about playing D&D, they were friends with two of my regular players and had heard about the game. This player was so excited about playing that they hopped up and down, paced the room and couldn’t sit still. I’m fairly sure they squealed when they first rolled the dice.
Total buy in.
But within about 2 minutes this happened, “OK, you flank the guy up front, then you cast a spell to neutralize the other two guys”, “the two thieves can go back to the other room and see if we missed something, the fighters follow me and we’ll see if there are any more guards around”, “we are going to stop going after this wizard now, and start back to find the road so we can get to the city”.
This new player had decided that they were going to lead the group and make all of the decisions without consultation or agreement beforehand. I had an “elite gamer” on my hands. Someone who wanted to win at D&D, and was willing to decide what the winning conditions would be and take charge of the group to achieve them.
As a rule I let this stuff play out a bit before I jump in. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that an enforced solution doesn’t last. My job as a DM isn’t to police player behaviour, it’s to let them work it out and then, only if there is a problematic dynamic, abuse, etc., do I jump in.
So I was waiting to see how my group would react to Bossypants, ready to say “We don’t order around each other’s characters at this table, everyone gets to control what their PC does”.
However, I need not have worried, the youngest player in my group, 9 years old, was having none of this player’s nonsense.
“You don’t get to tell me what my character does”, was all they said. And that was that. Bossypants sighed and changed tack immediately. The rest of the session was great, and he was super excited when he left to come back and play again. Some “elite powergamers” know how to read a room, and this one realized it would be a constant fight to get the group to fall in line. In short, they weren’t a toxic asshole, they were just competitive and enthusiastic.
What’s important about this story is that I didn’t kick out the player, or try to “teach them a lesson” about play style. I let the group handle it, and if that didn’t work (e.g. bossypants continued to order around other players and they were bothered by it) I would have explained that we didn’t play that way. If pushback from the other players and repeated warnings from me didn’t do the trick, then I would have told them that this game wasn’t for them and asked them to leave.
The intolerance I see on display here is really quite shocking. I know that after reading the “elite player” tweet thread everyone THINKS they know this guy. They have a caricature in their head based on past experience, and that caricature has this guy jailing babies and voting for Trump. He’s a misogynist, fascist asshole and thus DESERVES to be mocked, told off, humiliated and sent packing. Because it’s obvious to them that he’s an abusive, toxic ass.
But that’s just crazy. You don’t know people from their tweets.
If this elite powergamer has a group that likes this style of play (and I gather that they do) then there is nothing to object to. I really do believe that the game is mutable, that it can be played in many ways. You can “win” at D&D if you want. The “winning” can be beating monsters, fulfilling a character’s RP goals, getting the treasure, completing the quest, reaching high levels of advancement, ending the campaign and retiring your characters, whatever you want.
The elite powergamer was right, the group establishes the “winning conditions” for D&D, or decides that their game doesn’t have any “winning conditions” other than everyone having a good time. Just because D&D doesn’t HAVE to be a winnable game doesn’t mean it CAN’T be a winnable game.
I saw one tweet that said that Gygax would be “rolling over in his grave” at Mr Elite Powergamer. No, my sweet summer child, Gygax would crack his knuckles, smile and say, “bring it on”, then proceed to give Mr Elite Powergamer the challenge of his life, and have a good laugh as his fully optimized PC died a horrible death. Early D&D was inherently adversarial, DM versus players, in the sense of the DM creating challenging environments for the players to try and overcome. It’s a game, and all games are supposed to have an element of challenge in them.
Playing D&D in this competitive sense isn’t inherently toxic, even if it can be, any more than sports are inherently toxic, knowing that sometimes they can be. Narrative focused, player based D&D can also be toxic. By all means remove toxic players from your game, and make sure no one is being bullied or harassed at the table, but condemnation, mockery and exclusion of people for playstyles is not the road I want to walk on.