Walk a Mile in Their Dice: The practical limitations of “Don’t be a dick”

“Don’t be a dick” has become something of go-to gaming advice, like a social Rule Zero.

As a general truth, it’s great. I mean yeah, don’t be a dick. As advice or a rule, it’s useless. Why? There are two cases where someone is being a dick in a game:

1) Malice: The person is intentionally being a dick. Will giving them advice help? No. Someone who is knowingly being a dick is pretty unlikely to say “oh, gee, you’re right, I should stop.” That’s part of the definition of being a dick. If you could just tell jerks to stop being jerks and they listened, the world would be a far simpler place. q.v. Trolls.

Fortunately, real malice is a vanishingly small subset of the gaming world, at least where I game. You may be gaming with a lot more jerks than me, in which case my best advice is to go hang out with a better class of people.

Far, far, far more common is the second case:

2) Misunderstanding: The person being a dick actually thinks they’re the victim, that other people are being dicks to them. They’re just defending themselves. Reflecting “ah, right ‘Don’t be a dick'” doesn’t help, because they don’t think they’re the problem: those other guys are being dicks, not me!

Before you know it the dick-spiral feeds back upon itself, rapidly becoming a nigh unstoppable dick-juggernaut: you feel the sting of an unintentional insult, behave like a dick to defend yourself (all while thinking the other person is the dick, not you), so others dickishly respond to your (seemingly spontaneous) dickishness thinking they’re defending themselves… Dick dick dick dick dick dick. Where does it all end?

This is the great quagmire, the root of most hostility at the table. It can happen to anyone, even the nicest, most perceptive person. Parroting “don’t be a dick” doesn’t untie this knot, because it ignores the cause. It winds up being smug criticism instead of helping you do the right thing.

My advice: stop saying “don’t be a dick.” Start thinking about why people are being dicks (or seem to be dicks). Start with the extremely magnanimous assumption that someone being a dick doesn’t intend to be one. Assume there’s a misunderstanding. Walk a mile in their dice.

    Ben Robbins | January 15th, 2012 | | hide comments
  1. […] WHY “DON’T BE A D$#&!” IS BAD ADVICE. […]

  2. #14 Laithoron says:

    “Don’t be a dick,” isn’t ‘advice’ you give at-the-table after problems have started. It’s meant as a preemptive statement meant to foster the proper cooperative mindset needed for group harmony.

    The article mentions DBAD as ‘Social Rule 0’, which I’d say is accurate. However the author’s argument almost seems off-track as they instead frame their argument as if DBAD was ‘Diplomacy Step 0’ — it’s not.

    To use a d20 gaming analogy, DBAD is sort of like a modifier that helps determine the initial attitude of a Diplomacy encounter. If the ‘encounter’ (i.e. problem player) has been heeding DBAD, then their starting attitude may be indifferent or better. If not, it is likely unfriendly or worse. Only after that initial attitude has been determined, can the *actual advice* come into play as an attempt to adjust attitudes and diplomatically resolve the situation.

    Therefore, while the author is absolutely right that DBAD is terrible advice in terms of resolving conflict, it’s a flawed argument because DBAD is not intended to be a statement to resolve conflict at all. “Talk to your players” is ‘Diplomacy Rule 0’ for resolving a player conflict, DBAD is just general advice for the attitude with which everyone should approach the table.

  3. #13 Mr. Blue says:

    I was writing a comment on this great topic but started writing so much I instead opted for my own blog response. I offer it here with respect, even though I disagree with some of your points.

    Apologies for the shameless plug:

  4. #12 ben robbins says:

    We are in agreement! :)

  5. #11 Ben Finney says:

    On the use of “don’t be a dick”, I agree completely that it’s not a helpful phrase. We can all agree that undesirable conduct is undesirable – but that’s tautological.

    To people who like that phrase, I ask: What, specifically, is the behaviour that person in our group just did that was undesirable, and why? Tell them about that, then, and stop pretending everyone automatically understands what behaviour you mean by “dick”.

    “Don’t be a dick” is dismissive and lazy, and I want it gone. If we value our social groups and actually want behaviour to change, we need to step up and communicate about it, not throw down a pat phrase.

  6. #10 ben robbins says:

    Someone being a dick can be doing it because they feel they have a social license – either because they assume this is the norm in this social group, or because they have observed others being dicks and the group fails to chastise it.

    That’s a fair case and I agree completely that we wind up with the social norms we demand. But I think this mantra teaches a behavior we shouldn’t want.

    My criticism of “don’t be a dick” is that it destructively oversimplifies. It implies that if you tell someone else they are being a dick you’ve done your job. Sure, sometimes that might be good enough (like the case you mention, where someone is being a jerk but would stop if you told them) but when someone is only lashing out because they think they are the one being insulted, calling them a dick just throws gasoline on the fire. As a philosophy it encourages blanket judgment and dismissal instead of trying to really understand what is going on. It encourages you to call people dicks (or think other people are “just being dicks”) and think that’s a solution, because you’re just following the well-accepted “don’t be a dick” credo.

    I’m all for maintaining social standards of behavior, but I think sanctioning unfairly or rashly because you haven’t tried to understand what is going on causes more problems then it solves.

  7. #9 Ben Finney says:

    You dismiss the possibility of someone changing their “dick” behaviour when others tell them. That seems to ignore the role that social norms plays in these matters.

    Someone being a dick can be doing it because they feel they have a social license – either because they assume this is the norm in this social group, or because they have observed others being dicks and the group fails to chastise it.

    Telling someone “not cool, that’s not how we do things here” will tend to be effective in those cases. Doing it repeatedly can be more effective. I don’t think you are correct to dismiss the role of reinforcing our preferred social norms to change someone’s behaviour.

  8. #8 maciej sabat says:

    As always, there is a third option – person can become a dick and cheat in the game when in urge to tell a good story against the rules. I love when my characters swing on the chandelier with a knife in his teeth, above the swords of my enemies. And in some games (see: d&d) my character would fail at least five tests when trying to do so. So I have to cheat in order to make a good piece of a story.
    Is it a dickery? Definitely it’s playing anti-rule and therefore against the other, rule obiding, players. And of course – the solution. It’s easy – play the proper game. When in mood for swashbuckling, take 7th Sea. For personal horror – Annalise. For superheores – try Capes! Or Fiasco. Or Microscope, for all of that :-)

  9. #7 Guy says:

    I think the advice of “don’t be a dick” is good advice. The problem is that people assume it is advice for everyone else instead of taking it as advice for themselves. It’s easy to say “Ya. They shouldn’t do that.” It’s hard to see it in yourself but it’s important to realize that we all spend time as someone else’s jerk.

    If someone is a dick to you, just take it and move on. Do not retaliate. This is how wars start. They probably didn’t realize it or it was just a bit of crankiness or it just slipped out or something along those lines.

    That said, don’t be a doormat. If they are consistently a dick then address it. If it doesn’t end, kick ’em out or find a new group.

  10. #6 Dave M says:

    Honestly, just seeing the phrase “dick spiral” made my afternoon.

  11. #5 Xander says:

    I thin the rule is meant to deal with a seperate case: Ignorance. Someone is unaware of the effects of their behavior and it’s impact on the other people at the table. This MAY lead to a misunderstanding, but I’ve found simple blissful ignorance is usually the cause of dickishness.

  12. #4 Tavis says:

    The afterschool D&D class I teach has taught me a lot about all the separate social skills that go into “don’t be a dick”. Don’t cheat on the dice, for example, is huge for the kids and covers all kinds of “when do you call it a cocked dice” and “does it count if you rolled before the GM asked you to” edge cases. Share spotlight. Set your fellow players up for a pass, don’t always run for the goal yourself. Wait your turn. Cooperate.

    I was telling this story to a fellow parent and at each item he was like “we were still doing that in college! that was still a problem for my group ten years ago!” All these are things we learned over many, many years of gaming, and that some of us are still working on.

    “Be an adult?”

  13. #3 TheHydraDM says:

    Being a dick in real life is often why there are realistic villains – the villain doesn’t think they’re evil, they think they’re the good guy!

    While I like “don’t be a dick” as a catch phrase I find myself agreeing. As a catch phrase it’s definitely not that easy, but it’s a good paradigm to shoot for in a perfect world.

  14. #2 ben robbins says:

    However, I’d say that being a dick in retribution is still being a dick.

    That’s the point: you don’t think you’re being a dick in retribution. You think you’re being picked on (or insulted, or slighted, whatever) and are upset and defensive. Other people don’t see the source of your anger and think you’re the one starting trouble with them and they respond the same way. No one in the equation thinks they’re the dick. They think they’re justified.

  15. #1 pdunwin says:

    “How many dicks is that?”
    “A lot.”
    – Reservoir Dogs

    This is just good general advice.

    However, I’d say that being a dick in retribution is still being a dick. If one side can avoid being a dick, the cycle should stall.

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