Gaming vs. Social Graces

Over on Twitter this morning, someone asked the question “Is it OK to leave my D&D group if I’m not having fun?” What a great question! I really sympathize with the poster, leaving a game in the middle really grates against most people’s senses of social politeness. But here’s the thing: if you’re not having fun, you’re not only having a bad time yourself, but you’re making everyone else’s time at the table a little worse. You should absolutely leave, and not feel bad about it at all.

I feel like this situation is most common at convention games. I myself have sat through games that I felt were boring, tedious, or just not very fun. The social pressure to stay though was too much, my personal level of social grace insisted that I put on a glad face and sit through it. But now that I have time to reflect, I have to ask myself, what impact was I having on the game? Imagine the person sitting next to me is having a grand old time and absolutely loves the game. Is having a player sitting there not reacting positively and not engaging fully with the game making it more or less enjoyable for them?

Leaving a game is tough. I’ve heard all kinds of stories about how folks how gotten out of a game, including one who faked a phone call with his pregnant wife claiming she was going into labor and he had to leave right now. Sure, this little white lie probably made everyone feel a little better about his sudden disappearance, and perhaps gave them a funny anecdote about their convention experience to tell later. But personally, I admire even more someone who can calmly and maturely simply state “this game is just not for me, the rest of you look to be having a great time, and I don’t want to bring the table down, so I’m going to step away.”

It definitely feels like a negative critique of the DM’s abilities, so I get why doing it feels bad to us. In this particular case, a safety tool has emerged that happily encompasses the issue called Open Door. I’ve seen this one written out at conventions, it basically just says that anyone can leave the game at any time without judgement. Now of course the purpose of this tool is to protect the emotional well being of players who find themselves roleplaying a situation that is personally traumatic. But I think by happy accident it also covers this situation, and that speaking aloud or writing down in advance that it’s OK to leave if you’re not having a good time might feel weird in the moment but overall is going to have a positive impact on the game should it be invoked.

There’s another situation though that lands squarely on the DM’s shoulders which I’ve fallen prey to myself: allowing too many players to join the game. When someone is interested enough to show up at the table and ask to join in the fun, it feels cruel to turn them away. But again, if you’re pushing your own ability to manage a table and/or the ability of the content to handle that many players, then you’re just making the game worse for yourself and everyone in the game, including the newcomer.

Yes, I have had success adding just one more, and in one notable case that player was so grateful to join in they really brought their A-game and elevated the experience for everyone. But that’s the exception. Far more common is that everyone gets less table time, the DM becomes more distracted, the chaos level rises, and the overall experience is a little worse for everyone. I’m not saying it necessarily kills the game, but I do think it has a high probability of moving the needle from “convention highlight” to “it was fine” for more than one person.

I respect and admire DMs who turn away a player when their table is full, as I do players who stand up and leave a game part way through when they’re not having fun. It is difficult in the moment to remove the knee-jerk negative reaction to these actions, but I encourage everyone to take a step back and see them for what they actually are: a sacrifice made for the good of the whole. If you find yourself in one of the above situations, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect, find the right words to announce your actions in as polite a way as possible, and then make the leap.

8 thoughts on “Gaming vs. Social Graces

  1. I think leaving a game in the middle of a session is going to drag it down. A DM would have to be completely self-absorbed not to wonder what was that about? Even the other players are going to be spending some of their time thinking was it something I said? Something the DM said? Sure, there may be reasons why you just have to bail in the middle, but unless you just can’t help yourself riding it out is almost certain to be the more polite, less disruptive option, even when there’s an “Open Door” policy in place. That goes double for a face-to-face game among friends. If you’re not having fun and everybody else is, then absolutely you should feel free to find something else to do and let your friends know politely that your not going to be making it to the game in the future … but the presumption should be that you don’t do that in the middle of the session unless the reason is more serious than you’re not having fun at that moment.

    I actually just experienced this recently in my face-to-face group, so I can attest to the fact that it really sucks the energy out of the room.

    1. I’m sure there are no absolutes here. There are a lot of variables to consider – for example can the group continue to play without you? Is your character serving some important function to the game that will be very difficult for the GM to figure out how to proceed once you leave? And did you announce your departure in a way that minimizes the perceived slight?

      I’m sure you’re right, that someone leaving in the middle of a session can suck the energy out of the room. But will it recoup, or did you just nuke the remainder of the session? Assuming it can recoup, I would argue though painful in the moment, it was probably the right choice. I’m sure a lot depends though on the game you’re playing, the role you’re playing in that game, and how well you communicated your choice to depart.

      I’d be curious to hear more about the circumstances you experienced, if you’re willing to share. Totally understand if it’s something you’d rather not get into.

      1. There’s not a lot to the story. One of our players was really only playing at all because she’s another player’s wife; she’d never played RPGs before she started with us a few years back (though they’d met playing WoW so she knew the general idea), and she never really enjoyed them. One evening, just before we all went into lock-down, we were playing (OED, as a matter of fact) I asked her some question, I think it was what was her Armor Class and she just said something like I can’t do this any more. I hate RPGs, I’m no good at them, and walked away from the table.

        We all knew that she didn’t have fun playing with us, though she liked the socializing and having dinner part, so if anything when all was said and done we were a little relieved that she’d stop being a wet blanket… but even though it really was a no harm, no foul, don’t do what you don’t enjoy situation it pretty well crushed the rest of the night and we didn’t play much longer.

        1. Yeah, the interesting thing there that I’d point out is that in the long run, everyone felt relief. I guess what I’m trying to get at with my post is that it’s a shame she had to get to an emotional breaking point to make the decision to leave. I feel like if a departure can be delivered in a calm, dispassionate way, it doesn’t necessarily have to kill the remainder of the session.

          And it doesn’t have to end in a table flip or a screaming match to be emotionally draining. A simple cold “I hate this game” is enough to take the wind out of everyone’s sails. It’s too bad she didn’t have the comfort level earlier on to say “you know what, I gave it a try but this game just isn’t for me, you all keep playing I’m going to go do something else.” Though from the sounds of it, your player may have been dealing with some extra social pressure to participate in a shared activity with her spouse, which is a whole other ball of wax.

          And of course, campaign play vs. convention play is wildly different. In a campaign you’re probably more invested to give the game a chance to hook you, or willing to chalk up a boring session to an off night. Also potentially there’s more opportunity to discuss the game between sessions, find out if there are changes that can be made to make it more enjoyable for someone, and make sure they know it’s OK to leave if they’re not having a good time.

  2. I’m always interested to get your insights on the convention side of things since it is a part of the hobby I don’t really interact with.

  3. Yeah, sometimes I forget when posting topics like this just how different things are for campaign vs. convention play. At a convention everything is compressed into a much shorter time scale, and you become highly aware of just how precious your time is. You probably paid a lot for this mini-vacation, and have only two or three days to make the most of it. Sitting in a 4 hour game that you’re not enjoying can really ramp up the anxiety levels.

  4. I’ve had players leave campaigns I’ve run, and it wasn’t a big deal for me (admittedly, I’m sure it helped that they brought it up between sessions instead of during one). I take it with this mindset: if I cared enough about that person’s happiness to want to do something fun for them, then it’d be very selfish to get upset that they either found something more fun to do instead or had other, more important priorities take up what would’ve been their free time.

    I haven’t been in convention games (the closest I’ve gotten is running one-shots), but I’d like to believe I’d take it with similar grace.

    With all due respect, though, I don’t see the value of that “Open Door” tool. Even if it’s presented in good faith, I don’t think it’s reasonable to commit to not judge someone for leaving prior to and independent of the actual circumstances of their leaving. On a more conceptual level, understanding and consideration generally requires conversation, so I’m hesitant to support measures that try to skip to a result.

  5. @ Paul:

    Huh. This is an interesting topic of conversation. I’ve definitely stayed in (con) games where I wasn’t enjoying myself…but I had a couple reasons for doing so aside from politeness:

    A) Once the time slot started, my choice effectively became “play this game, play NO game, or wander about looking for some half-empty table to join in the middle of a session.” That last choice is a sucky one (in my opinion): while some kind souls are more than happy to allow people to join mid-time slot (especially if they’re lacking players), it’s a bit of an imposition to have them pause, bring the new player up to speed, give them a character, etc. etc.; if I was the GM, I’d be gritting my teeth at my own “politeness.” Thus, for me, it’s really a choice of “game or not game” …and since I paid money for the con, I might as well game.

    B) Often, the reason I’m sitting at the particular table is because I want to play This Particular Game that I don’t usually get to play. I’m not someone who plays Pathfinder or WotC’s latest greatest (3E, 4E, 5E…depending on the particular money grubbing issuance)…as such, it’s not like there’s 50 spare tables of people running Traveller or Boot Hill or B/X D&D or whatever. Again, I’m going to a con to game. If it happens the game is bad (because the GM is bad or there are obnoxious players or whatever)…well, that’s the peril of con gaming, right? Who’s to say that I’d have fun at a different table even if I *did* stand up and walk away…the next table could be just as obnoxious, right?

    I tend to be very proactive in my playing style anyway…I make my own fun (as much as I can) within the parameters of a system and the style of the GM. Later, I might feel grumpy about it and chalk it up as a con “low-light” …but the alternative is to run my own game, right? And then hoping folks show up to MY table to play some obscure game.

    But the Twitter question actually looks like the person is talking about leaving their regular (“home”) gaming group. That is a much stickier wicket, depending on the relationship of the players involved. Especially when you’re dealing with friends, significant others, spouses, coworkers, bosses/employees, children (your own or others’)…I mean, a lot of different social/group/relationship dynamics might be going on. “Is it okay?” What if you are the significant other (or parent!) of one of the players enjoying the game and you are his/her ride to the game? What if your spouse is the one running the game and committed to continuing the campaign every Friday night and you aren’t? I mean…sheesh. Things can get ugly.

    I’d certainly wait till a session is ended before walking away from the group (I’ve done that before…more than once) rather than storming out in the middle of an evening. At least if you’ve been participating in the game for more than a few sessions…if this is your first time at the table and you’re newly discovering the group is a bunch of prats than your leaving won’t make much of a difference. In the past, when I have left a long-time group (which I’ve done probably three or four times) it was always between sessions and with an honest explanation to the GM (and any players that might have asked).

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