Taming the Table

It takes a while to end up in a good TRPG group. If you’re lucky you have a group of friends and can persuade them to run a game with you. Often though, your friends just aren’t that into it, or aren’t into it enough to satiate your appetite. That’s when people end up at their local Meetup.com group. From this point the ‘quality’ of gamer is a mixed bag ranging from ultra-conservative rules lawyers to hyperactive murder hobos and tyrannical DMs.

Eventually though, and I hope this happens before you burn out, all these people – like you, the sane ones – will come together (fleeing their past groups) and make a very sensible game. Good players, smart characters, all of you involved in the world your DM is unravelling.

So, there you are, enjoying Faerun or Tal’Dorei when you come across a minion of the Big Bad. Finally! A lead! You grasp at the chance to gain a little more information about your villain. Your first couples of rolls are a bit so-so though, and not much information is gained. For all your yelling at him, he’s staying tight lipped. This is the situation my group found itself in recently.

I’d decided we had gotten all we could from this guy. He was at our mercy, we’d scared him enough. Our rogue felt differently. He first asked, “is there a bucket of water around?” It was an odd question that the DM narrowed his eyes at and said there was. The rogue then described holding his blade in one hand and the ganger’s ear in the other…

I’m unsure how everyone else around the table was feeling but personally I was wondering if we wanted to turn into a group that role plays this sort of thing. Totally ignoring the considerations of in-character morality, do I want to sit at a table with a bunch of guys ogling over a torture scene?

No, of course not. I’ve been with this group for well over a year now, playing weekly. Our humour has never centred around that type of gameplay. So, I felt safe saying, “how about we skip this scene and just say we roughed him up a little more?” (We still got a fairly detailed map out of the whole thing.)

I don’t blame the guy for trying this out. If it were a different game – a darker game like Shadow of the Demon Lord – maybe I’d feel different. Pushing these social boundaries is the only way to find out where they are. As one of the good, receptive players, our rogue picked up on the hint and dialled it back. He’d discovered our boundary. Paying attention to the table, and not just the DM, is vital to see everyone’s comfort levels.

Maybe there’s an official Code of Conduct for the Meetup group, but I have not read it, and don’t care for it beyond the obvious “don’t be a jerk”. A written code might come from an innocent place but may well be restrictive to the ambiance of certain stories.

I play on-and-off with three different groups and the boundaries in each are very different. A curse word in one group might drop like a deadweight, but the same word in another goes unashamed and even adding enough emphasis to add advantage to an Intimidation check. Generic codes of conducts don’t work from table to table. They should be prodded into shape by the people around them, changing and evolving with the group.

A natural, and concerning, conclusion to this method of self-regulation between tables is groups full of no-holds barred depravity. The good news is this isn’t something I’ve ever witnessed. There’s a certain cringe-worthiness that comes with those scenes which prevents most socially-minded creatures from roleplaying, especially whilst staring into the eyes of their friends.

If you do find yourself in such a group, you’re within your rights to ask them to tone it down – if someone is getting carried with an amorous NPC try interjecting with “and then we fade to black!”. I’ve seen this work at least twice. It diffuses the tension with a laugh and is a subtle nod to your boundaries.

The conventional wisdom here is to talk to the player after the game. I don’t know about you, but I’d find that far to awkward. Nip it in the bud as soon as it happens. With humour and grace, if possible.

If they still don’t get the message, and don’t adjust their boundaries, you may have to stand up and find another table. This sucks but you may have found yourself where your boundaries don’t align with the rest of the group. This isn’t a failing on your part – you’re probably a fine player. It was a failure of the group; either they should listen to your (even subtle) signs of discomfort or they mis-advertised their group to you before the start of the game. Of course, there’s a place for groups who want to be a little more edgy, but the onus is on them to let new players know before-hand.

Everyone has a right to feel comfortable at a gaming table. It’s all of our jobs to make sure that happens.

3 thoughts on “Taming the Table

  1. I’m often disturbed by the ease with which some players slip into in-game cruelty. It’s not that i can’t imagine a scenario that explores dark themes and even cruelty, but it’s disturbing to find out just how many people go there as soon as their imagination is set free. Damned disturbing, and it wrecks many of the more interesting stories you could tell. How do I play a hero or a good guy next to someone behaving like that? It just doesn’t work for me.

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  2. Good article Shane. Nice way of looking at it and I agree that every table is different with different behavioural thresholds. In fact I would go so far as to say the threshold varies not only from table to table but also from night to night.
    Wait for it…
    However… 😊
    … in my (or should we call the rogue Gerces Casiero-Pardelle’s) defence I refer you to your own article on boring spells. What I was doing was trying to intimidate the captive and rather than say “I intimidate him” I played it out, waiting for the DM to say “make an intimidation check” and even possibly with the magic addendum of “with advantage”. Did I go too far that night? Well clearly I did and I apologise for that. But tonight, on a night that we executed two captives, would it have been too far? I think not actually.
    I tend to play out my actions. For example, I have clothes similar to my victim’s made by a tailor and I put them on and adjust my hair to be like his. Then the D(ean)M says “make a disguise check”. Now isn’t that more fun than sayin that I disguise myself as Alvin?
    I put it to you that this is the exact flavour that you, quite rightly, want from your spell adjustments.
    Should I not also do this for intimidation?

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  3. I think you always handle these boundaries well! You’re one of the people I’d point to as an example of listening to the table.

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