Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Outgoing Goblin's Guide to Gaming Etiquette

(This is a slightly updated article I wrote for the late, lamented Dragon magazine back in the day. It is a humorous summary of all I learned from many years of playing Dungeons & Dragons. It is also darn funny. I haven't checked to see how many of the rights to this article I signed away when it was published. However, since they never bothered to pay me for the article, to Hell with them.)

The Outgoing Goblin's Guide to Gaming Etiquette
Etiquette is the art and science of living together happily. It is the set of rules which maintains the peacefulness of civilization. It is the salve which soothes society when it becomes chafed.

Have you ever been in the middle of a long, happy session of D&D, with everything going great, when suddenly you said the wrong thing, and your whole party suddenly ganged up on you and killed you?

Wow. Me too.

Fortunately, I've learned from all the times this has happened to me. This guide is a way of giving something back to the community from which I have taken so much. Follow the advice within, and you will shine as a beacon of politeness to all your fellow patrons of the geekly arts.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Just because you're playing a chaotic evil thief doesn't mean you should be rude. Read on and follow my advice, even when every ounce of common sense tells you you shouldn't! You'll be glad you did!
Do's and Don'ts of the Proper Role-Player

It is a terrifying thing to play a character, massively outnumbered by monsters, surrounded by huge forces you can't understand, trying to keep your dice from mingling overmuch with the dice of the player next to you. Here are some simple rules to help hold off your inevitable, grisly death a short period of time.

  • DON'T stand up, point at the DM, and shout "You're not the boss of me!"
  • DO regale your friends with tales of high role-playing adventure. What's the point of having Frodalf make 3rd level if you can't tell your pals about it in intense, soul-crushing detail?
  • DON'T ask the magic user how much mana is left in his pool.
  • DO give your characters classic fantasy names, to help get people in the proper mood. "Bilbo" and "Mel Gibson" are excellent choices.
  • DON'T blow cigarette smoke in the DM's face after casting a fireball, no matter how much it helps him to "feel the fantasy."
  • DO adopt a special voice to use when your character speaks. Your fellow players will feel much more immersed in the fantasy after thirty minutes in a room with "Squeeky, The Gnome With A High-Pitched Voice."
  • DON'T try to get an automatic rifle for your character. The DM will be forced to give the orcs rocket launchers in the name of game balance.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Well, this may not be so bad. In my games, the ogres tend to come equipped with energy pistols and canisters of the bubonic plague. But then, my campaigns tend to be more lively and fast-paced than most.

Good manners are, of course, not for the player alone. Believe it or not, sometimes the Dungeon Master should play nice too. Not too much, of course, or the players will take advantage, shifty vermin that they are. Never trust them for a moment.

  • DO blow cigarette smoke into a player's face after an enemy throws a fireball at him or her. It will help that player "feel the fantasy".
  • DON'T give the ogres canisters of the bubonic plague until a character in the party can cast Cure Disease. Fair is fair.
  • DO make fantasy speech mandatory. Common use of phrases like "Prithee, my liege." and "Huzzah!" create an environment that makes the players feel blissfully adrift in time and space. (Example: "Prithee my liege, but if mine +1 dagger doesn't end up back in my pack on the nonce, I will have to kick some serious elven butt, huzzah!")
  • DON'T forget to encourage serious thought. Try making your players have to answer a riddle before they can leave the dungeon. Nothing builds the self-esteem like coming up with that brilliant answer after a mere three hours of saying "It is the sun? No? Then how about a snail?"
  • DO encourage role-playing by enforcing an "If you say it, your character says it!" rule. In the middle of a dungeon, do you really want your elf to say "Hey, Jason, get me a coke?" Or "Arrgh. My chest. Aaaghh! Where are my nitroglycerine pills?" Certainly not.

See? Nothing but good, simple, common sense. If any of this seems strange or inappropriate to you, well, it's a good thing you read this article before you really embarrassed yourself, isn't it?

Helping Build a Balanced Party

Remember, the central element of every great drama is conflict. When creating your character, be sure to do so in a way that maximizes conflict! Keep things interesting! Does your friend plan to play a shifty, untrustworthy thief? You must play a Paladin. Is Erik playing a laser gun toting alien hunter? Then be an alien in human disguise, and lay your eggs in his torso as soon as possible. Is the DM's girlfriend in the game? Then do something to tick her off, by all means!

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Any campaign in which the DM's girlfriend plays is destined to be rich, exciting, and complicated. Especially after they break up.

There is no better time for exciting role-playing and intrigue than when splitting up the loot. Look at is this way. Think about how important it is to get paid at your job. This of the loot as your character's salary. Imagine working hard at, say, McDonalds, cleaning the grease traps and mopping the floors and waiting for the end of the month when, finally, you will get that Girdle of Hill Giant Strength you've been busting your butt for. But then, when the time comes, the shift manager tries to stick you with a lousy +1 Glaive-guisarme instead! And you're not even proficient in Glaive-guisarme!

I'll tell you what, that is the time for some serious, noisy role-playing.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Remember, if your party is created with enough conflicts, you will be able to have hours of wild, noisy action without even making it to the city gates.

Creating a Proper Gaming Environment

All right. The game is at your house tonight. Everyone will be coming over in three hours. You look around your living room. Everything is neat and clean. There is no debris on the couch. The carpet is freshly vacuumed. There are no strong odors of any kind. So everything is perfect and ready for the game, right?

No! You dunce! What were you thinking?

Remember, we are trying to imagine ourselves in a fantasy environment here! Were the middle ages sterile and clean? No! They were pretty stinky, actually. So, before your players come over, you must provide a fantasy-like gaming environment:

  • Pens. Pencils. Paper.
  • Spare dice and rulebooks.
  • Tortilla chips.
  • Comfortable chairs.
  • A fair amount of grime, lint, and dirt.
  • Open flames.
  • Live snakes.
  • Ethereal, fantasy-themed music on the stereo. I recommend Rush. Or Jethro Tull, in a pinch.
  • Numerous copies of Dragon magazine. We can't stress this one enough.
  • Mysterious "blood stains" on the floor. If you can't figure out a way to create realistic looking blood stains, I recommend using blood.
  • A large pot of suet, organ meat, or other appropriate medieval food.
  • A rich, musty, dungeon-like odor.

And remember ... science has shown that if something is good, ten times as much of it is ten times better, at least. Thus, you should strive to provide everything on this list. That way, if the screams caused by the presence of snakes distracts you, you can always just turn up the stereo.

Follow the Standard Rules of Etiquette

When we spend a happy evening gaming, we create a new, fantastic world in our caffeine-addled minds. However, our corporeal bodies, sadly, remain in this world, growing older and rounder. This means that, since we remain in this world, we have to live by the rules of etiquette everyone else lives by every day.

Your mother was right. Please and Thank You are magic words, just as capable of opening doors as any magic spell. There are lots of other magic words, too. Like Critical Hit, and I'm Bleeding To Death, and Huzzah! These are phrases which make every gaming session run a little bit smoother.

When your host has you over for a gaming session, be a gracious guest. Compliment his collection of Star Trek novels. Don't spill Mountain Dew on the Firefly DVDs. Don't point how lame he was for buying a Wii, when Playstation III has much better graphics and plays Blu-Ray. Instead, compliment his taste in furniture and wall decoration, and, if he has crusty dishes stacked in the sink, just think of it as his effort to create a "dungeon-like" atmosphere.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: How can you role-play exploring a gruesome, dungeon-like atmosphere when you're not actually IN a gruesome, dungeon-like atmosphere? You think goblins fold and put away their laundry? No!

And, finally, after a good session of gaming, one should always send a proper thank you note, hand-written on some sort of lovely stationary:

Dear Mr. Dungeon Master,

Thank you very much for having us over for that lovely adventure last Saturday. Also, thank you very much for the lovely +1 longsword. It was exactly what my character needed, and the experience points I received for getting it really hit the spot. Ha ha.
Also, I'd like to apologize for that little misunderstanding that we had. I was mistaken. You are, in fact, the boss of me. I'm sorry for any upset my loud and unexpected outburst caused you.

- Warmest Regards,
Jeff Vogel

The Importance of Timeliness and Understanding

It is a sad fact of our role-playing lives that most campaigns are killed by indifference and the absence of players.

The Outgoing Goblin Says: Well, actually, most of MY campaigns are killed by a natural 20, an orc, and a rocket launcher, but, as I mentioned earlier, my campaigns are a bit more lively and high-spirited than most.

If you are the DM, it is important to be flexible when players miss sessions. If Sue can't make it, let another player play Sue's character. Give that player one of Sue's magic items as a gratuity for the extra work. Or, you can run Sue's character as an NPC. Playing Sue yourself will give you a chance to humorously satirize some of Sue's more notable personality traits and verbal tics. This will help you work out frustration over the time Sue spilled Mountain Dew on your Firefly DVDs.

If you are a player, on the other hand, try to meet the DM halfway. Suppose that the gamemaster for the evening, Frederick, walks in carrying a copy of the module Scum Orcs of the Hills. He sets out a box with twenty carefully painted Scum Orc miniatures. An issue of Dragon magazine drops from his pack and falls open to the well worn article "Ecology of the Scum Orc." For the sake of realism, he has carefully cultivated a personal scent very similar to that of a Scum Orc. He lays out a map of the hills surrounding your village. And he asks you, "What do you do now?"

This is NOT the point where you say "We go to the lowlands and hunt kobolds." Not unless you want to find yourselves face to face with kobolds wielding rocket launchers and canisters of the ebola virus.

A Helpful Example

In closing, I would like to present a transcript of one of my recent gaming sessions with four of my friends. It was a pleasant experience for all concerned, and everyone was so polite that I could barely stand it. Read, and learn.

The group for this session consisted of Player A (chaotic-evil thief), Player B (chaotic-evil thief), Player C (lawful-good paladin), and Player D (chaotic-evil fighter/thief). The DM was, as is ideal, me.

(Note that this is a near-perfect group for the creation of exciting role-playing. A group like this can have hours of enjoyable treachery and intrigue over the discovery of a single healing potion.)

Me: OK. The gnoll is dead. Unfortunately, your attacks damaged its kevlar vest too much for it to be of use.
Player A: OK. We head west.
(I bend down behind my screen to see what comes next. As I look, someone slaps it with the palm of his or her hand, smacking me in the nose. I jump up.)
Me: Who did that?
Player B (pointing at C): It was her!
Player C: You sneak!
Player D: Huzzah!
Me: OK, Player B. You get 500 experience for helping.
(Always be polite and reward people who help you.)
Player D: Prithee, my liege!
Player C (to Player B): I'll get you for this.
Me: And Player C, your character catches tuberculosis.
Player C: I'm breaking up with you.
Me: OK, done. You also lose your paladin-hood.
Player C: OK. I become a chaotic-evil thief.
Me: Excellent! Done.
Player A: OK. Like I said, we head west.
Player C: I backstab Player B.
(All right! Now we're getting some interesting conflict! Now none of the players will find out that I forgot to design an adventure.)
Player B: Ow. Dang. I drink my healing potion.
Me: You look in your pouch and realize that it's gone.
Player B: OK, who has my healing potion?
Player C: I run behind player B and backstab her again.
(And so on. This goes on for about an hour of pure, scheming fun.)
Me: Suddenly, you are distracted by an explosion. You look up and see a dozen scum orcs on the crest of a nearby hill. One has a rocket launcher, and the rest are holding small metal canisters of some sort.
Player A: I pull out my wand and shoot a magic missile at them.
Me: Your wand is gone.
Player D (stands up, points at me, shouts): You're not the boss of me!

Great, huh? Like I said before, there is nothing like a little bit of good manners to create a lively, non-stop, action-packed gaming session. See you in the dungeon! Huzzah!


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  2. Ahahah i have that issue of the magazine. It was my only Dragon magazine as nobody sold that magazine in my country. I found it in a second-hand bookstore by sheer luck. It was a very funny april fools issue but your article was one of the best :).

  3. Which issue was this in? I stopped collecting Dragon around 1990.

  4. By the way, I still think your best work is the back of Girl Genius #1.

  5. That was you? I also have that issue.

    Why didn't you get paid?

  6. @Walker: I should post that article. It's funny.

    @SOyweiser: They just never sent a check. I asked them to look into it. They didn't. But since Dragon paid the ludicrously low rate of a penny a word (Literally!) I didn't sweat it too much. I was mainly interested in getting an article in Dragon. Lifelong dream sort of thing. Which makes me a sucker.

    - Jeff Vogel

  7. I absolutely love this! Sharing it with all of my RPing buddies immediately.

  8. @Walker: I should post that article. It's funny.

    I remember getting GG #2 and being disappointed that it was a not a regular column.

  9. I assume the jabs between the Wii and the PS3 weren't in the original ten years ago.

  10. Mr. Vogel, I heard playing D&D helped develop the Avernum universe, did you also use that setting when you were Dungeon Master?

  11. Wait a minute, you claim to have written this 10 years ago, but you reference PS3 which came out 4 years ago. Are you a sneaky evil thief, or can you see into the future?

  12. Well, you've gotten better, leastwise.

  13. I don't think firefly was released on DVD 10 years ago either. :-P

  14. Valve must be on the right track then. They reuse the source engine A LOT. With just minor tweaks and adjustments. Maybe sometimes major tweaks.

  15. @The Kranky Boy, and astrobia:
    You do realise this is the NEW UPDATED VERSION!!!1!, right?

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