Sharks...And How To Avoid Them
July 27, 2010

I can pretty much guarantee that in the days following WBC the internet will serve up at least one report about what a dreadful time someone had at WBC. It is almost a given that among the 1500 players and thousands of games played in Lancaster next month that someone is going to come face to face with a jerk - or their definition of one - and then share with the world how unpleasant it all was. Why?

Two stories: A. Cat has kittens. B. Man microwaves Kitten.

Guess which one is accompanied by "film at 11"?

If it "bleeds", it "leads" ... its true in the media business and its true on the internet. There will be thousands of untold stories of what a grand time was had by all in Lancaster but the one that WILL be told and retold ad nauseum is the one that ended in a shouting match between two folks who couldn't get along or how poor Dorothy retreated to her room in tears. This will be followed by all sorts of disparaging remarks from those who have never attended WBC who feel obliged to diss it because of those "win at any cost" types that gravitate there as if to justify their wisdom for not attending themselves. And once again, one incident among thousands paints the rest of us in the same unflattering light.

My response?

Are there people at WBC who take the games too seriously? Regretably, yes. Are they more in evidence at WBC than anywhere else where gamers congregate? No - and in my opinion - far less so - because such behavior is frowned upon and not tolerated by GOOD GMs. A good GM at WBC is more than an uninterested spectator who takes event tickets. He nurtures his event and is on the lookout for problems. I've personally encountered a far greater incidence of poor behavior elsewhere.

How do you avoid it altogether? Sadly, you don't. It's life and you take your chances. Oh, you can resort to just playing a close circle of friends in Open Gaming. But then, why bother to come to a game convention at all? Can't you do that at home? Just think of all the great people you'll never meet, the different playing styles and strategies you'll never see and the friendships you'll never make. I can't guarantee that you won't encounter a jerk any more than I can guarantee you won't be hit by a bus tomorrow, but I can offer you some advice that will greatly improve your odds.

1. Trust and rely on your Game Master. GM's, like players, come in all levels of experience and obviously some are more competent than others. But at WBC one rule trumps all - "The GM is always right, even when he is wrong", but he can't be right if he's never informed of the problem.  If the GM fails to correct the situation, then regrettably the last resort is to seek out a convention official such as myself or Kaarin. We'll listen attentively, nod our head sympathetically, and 99 times out of 100 back the GM's handling of the matter. But occasionally, we'll pull the GM aside and suggest how things could have been handled better. It may not be much, but it's better than suffering in silence and we can only improve through practice.

2. Play two-player games rather than multi-player games. This is more than a matter of my personal preference. Unfortunately, as WBC Convention Director, the "buck stops here" when it comes to behavior problems. I've had the questionable pleasure of dealing with the inevitable "personality problem" flare-ups first hand for the past 20 years. And you wonder why they call me grouchy? The indisputable truth is that multi-player games create 95% of the behavior problems at WBC. Whether done intentionally or through "poor" play, the ability to influence who will win without improving your own chances of doing so makes "kingmaking" a hazard of virtually every multi-player game I've ever played. With two-player games, you have only yourself or luck to blame for your demise. If you choose to play multi-player games, the poor sot to your left is an easy target to blame for your misfortunes.

A good player recognizes this as part and parcel of the multi-player landscape and uses it to his advantage as he tries to influence lesser players to bend to his will. The problem is that our problem player isn't as good a player as he thinks he is, and blames others for his misfortune. "It's a poor workman who blames his tools." For other players are the tools of the skilled multi-player gamer. The poor gamer who hasn't mastered flattery and sympathy as part of his arsenal of diplomatic tricks to get along with his neighbors tends to lean too heavily on the poor substitute of intimidation. If I'm sitting at a table with such a problem player, I will go out of my way to play against him - even at a cost to my own position. Better players realize this and understand that intimidation and rudeness are very poor tactics - regardless of the sportsmanship aspect. It's just not a winning strategy - regardless of how badly it makes you or others feel. However, we both know that's not going to stop you from playing multi-player games. Such games are especially popular at conventions because it can be more difficult to gather sufficient skilled players at home for such contests. So, if we're going to venture into the pool, how do we keep the sharks at bay?

3. Do not rise to the bait of the uncouth lout before you. It takes two to argue. Simply inform your protagonist that you do not care for his comments and to please keep them to himself. If he persists, inform the GM of the problem. A good GM will end it there but he can't do it if he is not informed of it as it happens. Above all, do not suffer in silence and do not let one jerk ruin your week. There are many others at WBC who would love to game with you. Put this guy in your rearview mirror and move on to better experiences. I would like to think that the preponderance of players at WBC would not tolerate a bully at their table. I know I would speak up to support any player who is being abused in this manner and I would hope others would also. A GM who does not take the side of the majority opinion of players at a table in disciplining a bad apple is not worthy of the job.

4. Exercise restraint (or put another way, put a cork in it!). What may be accepted practice in your local gaming group does not necessarily fly as proper etiquette out in the real world. You are now playing with people who bring different experiences and levels of expertise to the table. Their idea of what the situation calls for may be far different from your own - and they may very well be right. I've had my eyes opened more than once by different tactics of "lesser" opponents despite being a veteran of hundreds of plays of the same game. There is no such thing as knowing all there is to know about a game. Anyone who assumes he knows better than his opponent is a fool if he gives voice to those opinions. The proof is in the outcome - not in how you get there. However, be a move folly or pure genius, it is your opponent's move to make - not yours. He owes you nothing. He paid just as much as you for his seat at the table and he has the right to exercise that move as he sees fit - regardless of the consequences.  So before you open that pie hole to tongue lash someone for making a move that gave the game to X, remember what will happen as a result:
    A. Poor Dorothy will be scarred for life by your scathing comments and give up gaming forever.
    B. You will be branded the "win at any cost" jerk that will be the subject of demeaning internet commentary.
    C. You will have still lost. What's done is done.

In gaming terms, you have nothing to gain and everything to lose by flapping your gums and blaming someone else for your misfortune. WBC tournaments often function as a form of scheduled Open Gaming giving players an opportunity for quick entrance to a particular game who have no real desire to continue another round whether they win or lose. As such, the Preliminary Heats of Multi-Player tournaments often pit masters vs dabblers and there can be much groaning by the former as a result when an inexperienced player "throws" a game. Try as I might, I can't drum up much sympathy for their plight. This is simply another type of obstacle that one must manage in the gauntlet of advancing in tournament play and the availability of multiple heats provides ample second chances. The lesser players are usually weeded out in the Preliminaries, leaving the sharks to battle it out in the advanced rounds using more conventional strategies.

When you sit down to a Multi-Player game, you have chosen to put yourself in an environment where your opponents bring different strategies and skill levels to the contest. That is part of the challenge. You cannot expect the person to your left to do the "right" thing or the person to your right to sacrifice his position to play against the leader. You can - and doubtless will - lobby for such and provide "helpful" advice which may or may not be more advantageous to you than to the recipient. That is expected and part and parcel of the multi-player experience and social interaction of such games. What is not nearly as acceptable is where you may choose to draw the line between being "helpful" and associating blame or poor play to others' decisions. Ultimately, other players should be allowed to make their own decisions with no stigma attached to the outcome.

WIth all the emphasis on theme at the World Boardgaming Championships, it is easy for critics to seize on the opportunity for low hanging fruit to decry the emphasis on winning. And while it is true that some take the quest for wood too seriously, the vast majority of WBC veterans quickly come to the realization that it is preferable to both win and lose with class. It is far more satisfying to get up from the table with the respect of one's peers having mentored a less experienced player along the way, than to rise a despised victor having browbeaten one's way to the top. When all else fails, remember those wise words from your mother: "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all."

5. Finally, respect the Event Experience classifications. If you ignore the experience ratings of an event and enter a red (A) event without knowing the rules, or a yellow (B) event without at least attending the demo, then frankly you DESERVE to be made to feel unwelcome. You MAY be the problem. The other players have a right to play the game without having to teach it to you or to take twice as long as it should take to play. That's why many of them are there. Players seeking a challenging contest should be granted that right to do so. This is especially true again in multi-player games where you will be inconveniencing many others and distorting the balance of the game. However, if you've done your homework, you should not be reluctant to enter an appropriate classification event ... playing against experienced players is the quickest way to learn.

~Don Greenwood, WBC Convention Director

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