Lessons From the Dinner Table 3: Expanding Muncie

It’s time for another entry in my occasional little series where I look at old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and consider what lessons for actual play we can learn from the dysfunctional situations the comic presents. By this point in the series it’s really gotten into its groove, and the characters more defined – which means that there’ll arise some stories which, whilst funny enough to merit being in the comic, don’t really fit the cast we’re used to. So Jolly and his colleagues took the obvious step of introducing some new characters…

Bundle of Trouble 6

This Bundle includes the story that introduces the Black Hands – the gang of misfits who play in renegade referee Nitro’s campaign in the back room of local shop The Games Pit. Introducing a different group into the mix at this stage of the comics makes a lot of sense, because it means that any particular issue can if necessary have a “B”-plot – if the Knights have gone deep into a long-running story the Black Hands can be used to deliver something more self-contained and vice versa. The comic has not always followed an A-plot/B-plot structure since – sometimes events have been sufficiently major that they’ve dominated entire issues or strings of issues – but it often has.

Another thing the Black Hands do is allow Jolly and colleagues to develop their fictionalised gaming community of Muncie, Indiana further, both through the simple means of populating it with more characters and through the more subtle means of providing another gaming group with a different table culture from that of the Knights but who also exist in the same local scene as them.

The biggest contrast that these introductory strips establish is that, on a fundamental level, the Black Hands don’t like each other and have no sense of party loyalty. The Knights can be dysfunctional at times and have their quarrels, but their characters have each others’ backs way more than the Black Hands’ PCs do, and it’s established and regularly reinforced that they genuinely care about each other.

That’s not the case with the Black Hands, which lends a different dynamic to their stories but also creates a narrative quandary – namely, why do they stick around with each other? Part of the explanation is that they’re the rejects that nobody else will play with, though over subsequent stories this seems to be more true of some group members than others – Nitro, Newt, and Stevil all seem to have genuinely shitty reputations, but Gordo and Weird Pete are established as having other gaming avenues too, so there must be another reason for the Black Hands to stick together.

That’s also neatly established in these early stories with references to the fact that they’re preparing for upcoming Hackmaster tournaments. We don’t know much about the tournament format at this stage, but we do learn that they are team-based. Thus it’s established that the Black Hands play Hackmaster from a competitive perspective with an eye on winning tournament glory – but they’re so competitive that it sabotages their ability to play well with others.

This both provides a good recurring basis for jokes and is an astute observation on tournament culture and organised play as a venue in which, unlike a friendly home campaign between people who are basically pals, folk end up playing at the same table who don’t really have anything in common beyond their interest in the game – and sometimes, the result is a group like the Hands.

The competitive nature of the group is exemplified by their attitude to Gordo’s pixie-fairy PC, and their attempt to convince him to play a different character for the purposes of the tournament. This, of course, is a riff on the infamous rules for wacky monster player characters in The Complete Book of Humanoids, and the way their stats were so often absurdly suboptimal that they just didn’t play well as part of a more conventional party, as well as the way very competitive or character optimisation-focused groups can involve a lot of annoying backseat character generation.

In the bonus material we get the debut of the Jackson Document, a legendary bit of rules text which provides the cosmological basis of “Bag World”. The essential gist of it is that in Hackmaster there’s two types of Bag of Holding-style magic item: the more common sort which just opens to an entirely enclosed extradimensional space, and a rarer variety which opens out into an extradimensional realm common to all containers of that type. The Bag of Holding that Barringer’s fortress resides in is the latter type, allowing Barringer and crew to gain recruits and resources by raiding other “bag zones”.

This is a great example of game world metaphysics done right: as well as adding some worldbuilding detail which, to some, is fun in its own right, the Jackson Document also provides a settled basis for adjudicating questions about Bag World metaphysics and the like – which means it’s possible for players to come up with interesting ways to interact with it without it solely coming down to whether the referee thinks it’s cool or not. Having an established metaphysic also helps make it feel like the PCs exist in a real world that kicks back and has an existence beyond being a backdrop for their adventures, which many find critically important for their sense of immersion. (Compare to more storygame-influenced stuff, where players and referees have more scope to just invent stuff on the spot without worrying about deep worldbuilding concerns – whilst liberating, the risk there is the sense that nothing means anything because it’s all slightly too obviously made up on the spot.)

Bundle of Trouble 7

This Bundle has two examples of B.A. hosing the player characters, one of which is entirely justifiable and one of which is appallingly bad gamemastering.

The first one is in Dances With Pit Bulls, and sows the seeds of a major future plotline in the comic – an apocalyptically huge pack of wild pitbull terriers that, due to their appallingly mishandled training by the Knights, end up rampaging around uncontrollably terrorising all and sundry. The action is set up by the Knights falling foul of some hunting dogs, and Dave realising that as per the rulebook pit bulls can be bought at an astonishingly cheap price. B.A. warns the party that the price in the book is for an entirely untrained dog, and that trained hounds cost much more, but they buy masses of the cheap ones anyway – and then fall afoul of their own lack of skill in training them.

This all seems entirely sensible to me – B.A. didn’t just squash the players’ idea but introduced a “yes, but…” complication in the form of the training issues and the expense of acquiring trained dogs, the players pressed ahead with buying masses of untrained dogs despite lacking appropriate skills, hilarity ensued. Seems good to me.

The second instance comes in the ongoing Bag Wars story in the bonus section. Here, using the information in the Jackson Document, the players try to carve out their own route into Bag World by performing a simple test outlined in the Document to see if any of their mega-capacity magic items are of the type that links into Bag World, and B.A. tries to overrule this by fiat.

Now, if B.A. had done this on the grounds that the player characters had no way of knowing any of that information, that would be one thing, but it seems to be a convention of the strip (and therefore a convention of the gaming scene depicted in it) that rules information, even when it conveys setting information, is fair game for players to use. B.A.’s actual gambit is to declare that he isn’t applying the Jackson Document rules to the rest of the party’s items, and so there’s no need to apply the percentile roll to see if any of them open out to Bag World.

Brian overcomes this using some arguments based on legal cases brought before the Hackmaster Players’ Association arbitration process, but beneath the comically hyperbolic legalese he makes a simple point: that if B.A. could use the rules in the Jackson Document to make obstacles to the players but they couldn’t make use of the same rules to respond to it, that’s inherently unfair.

In this instance I’d say Brian is 100% right, and in addition such inconsistency is damaging to the game regardless of what you’re looking for in your tabletop RPGs. If you see the point as being to provide a strategically or tactically interesting game, fair play is obviously essential. Likewise, if you are here for the immersion or the worldbuilding, such inconsistency is invariably damaging to it. And if you are here for the story, inconsistencies like this make the story worse by introducing a plot hole. If you can’t explain the actions and decisions of a character in a story without reference to external constraints the character wasn’t aware of and which have no basis in the character’s world, that character’s story no longer makes sense. “Why didn’t the hero do X?” is a question where the answer really needs to be more convincing than “The GM refused to allow the hero to try”.

Bundle of Trouble 8

A good chunk of this Bundle is taken up with a storyline based around the Black Hands mounting another ill-fated LARP in the university steam tunnels, with Newt faking a disappearance for the sake of getting the rest of the Black Hands in trouble. This is obviously a parody of the James Dallas Egbert case, which feels in retrospect to be in slightly bad taste given that Egbert committed suicide a while after his initial disappearance was resolved.

I suspect the crew at Kenzer & Company simply had never heard the facts of the original case – the Satanic Panic having rather muddled them – and might indeed have not been aware that there actually was an original case, assuming that all the stories of D&D players losing their mind and getting lost in steam tunnels under universities were based on people’s garbled recollections of Mazes & Monsters and other sources of rumourmongering.

Either way, being one of the strip’s more major diversions from realism, it doesn’t exactly give us many useful lessons for use in actual play, though it does set up a strip where Bob sits in on a session of the Black Hands. It’s notable that whilst he’s perturbed by some of the abusive dynamics within the group – Newt’s being forced to wear the “Hubcap of Shame” around his neck for his prank – the straw which breaks the camel’s back and prompts Bob to skip out on the game is Nitro’s surreal approach to deities, with his campaign world’s gods all being bizarre versions of real-world celebrities.

What I found particularly interesting about the strip is that whilst Bob gets weirded out by the entire thing, the Black Hand regulars themselves are clearly into it; certainly, they seem to muster more enthusiasm for the encounter and engage in it with more good faith than we’re used to seeing them do. The lesson, then, is that even within your own home town different roleplaying groups are going to have different internal cultures and ways of doing things, and what they might find awesome you might find a dealbreaker.

Another fun self-contained strip here is the Knights’ attempt to play B.A.’s Dawg indie game. They’re persuaded to give it an honest try by Brian’s pitch, in which he uncharacteristically cuts past matters of system to get to the heart of what the game is supposed to be about – namely, dogs struggling to overcome their domestication and reconnect with their more primal instincts. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t survive the rigours of actual play, because the “canine compulsion” mechanic which overrules players’ actions when they try to act in a manner contrary to their domestication is far too intrustive. It just goes to show that a game mechanic can be perfect for reflecting the core themes of a game but still end up being miserable to experience in actual play. Reflecting your game’s core premise is only half the job of a system: the other half is providing a play experience people actually want to attempt, and without that it won’t see any actual play.

Much of the rest of the Bundle, particularly the bonus content, revolves around the usual series of unforced errors on the part of the characters; B.A. keeps allowing the players to undertake actions which they didn’t inform him of at the time, the party keep mistreating NPCs and then being surprised when people treat them like shit. The culmination of the Bag War saga arises as a result of Bob and Dave making a mistake which they could have avoided had they paid better attention to the Jackson Document, which perhaps offers the most significant lesson of all: no matter how keen a group of players you have, there’ll always be someone who pays attention less than they might do.

Bundle of Trouble 9

Much of the action of these issues consists of B.A.’s attempts to retcon away the results of a particularly profitable session for the Knights, in which selling the set dressing of an otherwise empty ruined settlement earned them an absurd amount of money. Then he has to retcon away the consequences of his retcon, which involved briefly reviving his Spacehack campaign and tricking the Knights’ PCs in that into blowing up their Hackmaster PCs, only to realise that letting them loose on his Hackmaster setting with a fully functioning starship is even more of a headache than letting them have the money.

There’s a lot to unpack here, with the action representing perhaps the worst of the Knights’ highly adversarial playing style; the game largely boils down to B.A. determinedly trying to stop the PCs from accomplishing anything, which means it’s no surprise that when his players (usually Brian) do spot a loophole they can use to make an impact on the world despite B.A.’s obstruction, as happens with the starship, they exploit it to the hilt. In general, attempting a retcon is near-fatal to the well-being of an ongoing tabletop campaign; I’d only consider it myself if the retcon was to remove content from a game which one of the players found genuinely distressing on an OOC level, like if we accidentally included something that triggered someone’s PTSD or something, and that’s clearly not the case here.

B.A. is being especially daft here because there’s no better IC prompt for shenanigans than PCs suddenly becoming very rich. After all, the merchants who bought all those antiques off them are going to gossip; player characters known to be in possession of a big pile of loose cash should be the target of every thief, pickpocket, burglar, second-story artist, snake oil seller, scammer, con artist, flatterer, flunky, would-be hireling, and general cash enthusiast who learns of their situation. There should be a regular stream of people showing up intending to rob, fleece, scam, skim, misappropriate, embezzle, or genuinely earn themselves a cut of that cheddar.

This is particularly the case here, where it seems like the PCs sudden windfall is of such a magnitude that it should have an effect on the local economy comparable to that of the famed pilgrimage of Mansa Musa, who was so ridiculously rich that he crashed the economy of everywhere he passed until he realised what he was doing and tried to fix it by borrowing back much of the gold he’d spent at interest so as to take back out of the local economy. People historically generally didn’t walk around with such absurd amount of liquid assets, so when the PCs do folk should sit up and take notice.

And of course, should the PCs decide to invest that money, then B.A. is getting what he wants: his players are proactively entangling their interests with the well-being of whatever they’ve invested in, giving them an investment in the setting which will increase their engagement with it on a level beyond random violence. In particular, that amount of money strikes me as being the right amount to make a really exciting stronghold for the player characters, giving them a home base to hang adventures on. (Later issues of the comic would give the Knights just such a headquarters, with B.A. deriving much shenanigans from their ownership of it.)

More generally, trying to undo your players’ achievements – rather than playing with the consequences of those achievements, good or bad – sends a message to your players that nothing they do in your campaign matters, because if something happens which doesn’t fit your plan you’ll just undo it. That’s not a recipe for strong investment in a game.

The bundle ends in a rather infamous strip in which, due to being off on a date, Sara doesn’t show up to the evening’s game – leaving her character Thorina to be played by Dave at the direction of Bob and Brian. Between Brian’s rules exploits (leveraging the bonuses to her acrobatic abilities the character gets if she’s less encumbered) and the group’s well-established tendency to prioritise their own PCs’ survival over those of absent parties, this ends poorly, with Thorina stripped naked (in a non-lecherous but still deeply unfortunate fashion to maximise the low encumbrance bonuses), divested of all her treasure (because of course the other characters had to carry it), and placed in harm’s way.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction from some readers to this was furious, with angry letters denouncing the Knights’ behaviour. On the one hand, I think the strip manages to avoid coming across as misogynistic in terms of authorial intent – the Knights are being assholes, it’s abundantly clear that they’re being assholes, their behaviour isn’t presented as something to admire or emulate, and I don’t really think there’s much more that Blackburn and colleagues could have done to emphasise the point that the Knights, at least at this point in the comic’s run do not represent best practice or the sort of gaming they endorse.

On the other hand, the behaviour being exhibited by the Knights in this strip is pretty vile – with B.A. being just as culpable because he could step in any time to stop this but doesn’t. Done to any player, it’d be humiliating, on the verge of bullying (indeed, earlier in the collection we see the consequences of the Black Hands engaging in just such behaviour). It’s unusually nasty for a group of characters we’ve come to grudgingly like at this point; and when the victim happens to be the only woman in the group, it’s no surprise that many readers were uncomfortably reminded of toxic behaviour from gamer dudes they’d encountered in real life. (If nothing else, the strip actually makes an excellent demonstration of how a highly misogynistic outcome can arise even though no one dude involved is specifically trying to do something beastly to Sara, simply because the group members fail to consider how their behaviour sits in a wider context.)

So there was controversy for a good few issues over the strip, heightened by concerns that Sara might be being written out of the strip altogether. (In hindsight, of course, that was just a plotline they were running, but you could be forgiven for wondering whether her departure would stick in the long run.) With the benefit of a couple of decades of hindsight, I think it would be very unlikely that Kenzer would run a similar strip today.

Part of that is down to the fact that, either through character development on the part of the Knights or through shifts in writing style on the part of Kenzer & Company, the Knights have become if not an ideal gaming group – after all, a certain amount of dysfunction is necessary for a lot of the comedy – but at the very least a much less toxic one than they used to be. B.A.’s refereeing style has gone from the blithering incompetence of these early bundles to the point where Gary Jackson himself compliments him on his work, Bob and Dave have had some of their rough edges smoothed off and are hitting a slightly healthier gaming/life balance; Sara is less burdened with always being the “straight” character whose role is to set up the jokes and is allowed to do things which prompt comedy more often (especially where her conscience is involved); Brian remains Brian, but there’s an edge to some of the stuff he does that suggests that Kenzer & Company have realised that on some levels, despite also having the most troubling backstory, Brian’s behaviour is the most toxic of all the Knights.

I don’t know whether that development was specifically down to this strip, but I think it may have been a contributing factor, which gets me around to the other reasons why I don’t think Kenzer would run a strip like this today. My theory is that at least part of the reason this strip was so controversial at the time was that, with the Black Hands now well-established in the comic, readers had become used to seeing the Black Hands as the “bad” group and the Knights as the “good” group. This wasn’t really the case – Blackburn and his colleagues were still writing the Knights as the “bad” group and the Black Hands as the “worse” group – but it’s hard not to get to know those characters over the course of some two dozen issues and not to develop some affection for them, especially since the writers had always made sure to give the Knights more of a benign side than any of the Black Hands exhibited.

Had the strip run as a Black Hand story, I think the gender angle would have still made it uncomfortable, but I don’t think it would have caused quite the same controversy: readers fully expected the Black Hands to do terrible things, their strips essentially being a peep behind the veil at some truly toxic interpersonal interactions as a caution to readers. Running as a Knights story, however, it was an awkward reminder that readers had inevitably come to expect more of the Knights by sheer fact of them not being the Black Hands, even though the Knights still had some nasty internal culture issues to deal with.

The lesson to take away from this? Just because your group isn’t cartoonishly terrible, doesn’t mean you can pat yourselves on the back and assume you’re perfect. In particular, whenever someone joins the group and finds themselves in a minority in terms of gender, background, or whatever, you should be assiduous in avoiding giving even the impression that they’re being ganged up on; what is easy to take in your stride when you’re in the majority can be much more threatening if your social position is more precarious.

Bundle of Holding 10

This Bundle finds Sara deciding to ditch the Knights and join her boyfriend John Lee’s gaming group, having discovered that he was a roleplayer too. This kicked off a long plotline which, by my recollection, originally prompted me to give up on the comic back in the day because it just seemed to drag on for so long – it’s much easier to follow this stuff reading an entire Bundle of Trouble at a time, but 20 pages of story a month feels much more glacial when the story is being released bit by bit. So there’s a bit of a meta-lesson there: the pacing of a story always seems different when you know what’s coming from when you don’t, so if you find yourself thinking “my campaign’s going through a bit of a slack period but it’s really going to perk up once X happens”, maybe bring X forwards – because your players don’t know that they have that cool thing to look forward to so if you’re frustrated waiting for it to happen, they’re probably even more frustrated waiting for anything to happen.

But in terms of actual play, I’m actually more interested in the Black Hands’ plotline this time, in which as a result of their characters dying Bitter Stevil and Weird Pete need to roll up new PCs for Nitro’s Hackmaster campaign. Being a grognardy traditionalist, Nitro insists that new PCs must start off at first level, which is a nice way to shake up the dynamics of the group because it means that Newt and Gordo’s PCs have a level advantage over Stevil and Pete’s.

Now, it’s worth noting that in early editions of D&D, the way the experience chart was structured meant that this sort of situation wouldn’t necessarily last for all that long – if your 1st level character can survive adventuring with higher level characters, your share of the XP will tend to be sufficiently large as to cause you to level up rapidly. The problem is that you still need to survive in the meantime, and even if you can, being that far behind the rest of the party in terms of your capacity to contribute in system terms can be pretty miserable. People dislike the whole “linear fighter/quadratic wizard” thing enough as it stands already without the fighter and wizards being on different points in their progression aggravating the situation.

(If you must penalise death – and it feels like in some types of game it might be appropriate to get across the point that the party is diminished a little by the loss of an existing player character, even if a new buddy comes in to fill their place, and it will take a while before the party’s back to where they were – my inclination in a D&D-ish system would be to give new PCs an amount of XP equal to whichever party member – including the one who just died – has the least experience, minus 10% or so. That should put your starting character behind enough that it feels like a penalty but not so far behind that you’ll lag behind the rest of the party, and indeed often you’ll be at the same level as everyone else – you’ll just level up a little later than those who’ve managed to keep their characters alive, and a 1 level disparity within the party is not a big deal.)

Naturally, Nitro finds a way to make the situation worse by having their characters be henchmen to the existing PCs, and therefore bound by the henchman loyalty rules. This combines something many players hate (large power disparities in a party) with something many players hate (some PCs being in-character obligated to follow the orders of other PCs), adds something many players hate (losing control of their character to game mechanics). and mixes them all together into something which Stevil and Pete really, really hate.

All of those individually are concepts which have appeared in games, of course – rank structures exist in games like Only War or Twilight: 2000, game mechanics which affect behaviour exist in Pendragon and Call of Cthulhu, massive power disparity is possible within a party in Stormbringer or Rifts. All of those are games which have enjoyed a certain popularity and retain a fanbase to this day, in some cases quite an expansive fanbase. But the thing is, these are all examples of things you really need some amount of player buy-in for. In combination, you really need player buy-in to accept a situation where some PCs are expected to be the substantially less powerful lackeys of other PCs who are compelled by game mechanics to obey their bosses.

Fortunately, there’s an out: precisely because the game mechanics in question were originally intended to govern player character interactions with NPCs, janky results ensue if you apply them to PCs belonging to players – especially if those players are permitted to restat their new characters to take their henchman status into account – which is where the comedy comes in for much of this Bundle as far as this situation is concerned.

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