Being a good sport: how to ‘play fair’ at the table

D&D is many things: creative, imaginative, social, collaborative, and immersive. But it’s also a game. And as with any game, good sportsmanship is essential.

Although D&D is neither a physical nor competitive game, the principles of fair play still apply. The 2014 Player’s Handbook states:

There’s no winning and losing in the Dungeons & Dragons game—at least, not the way those terms are usually understood. Together, the DM and the players create an exciting story of bold adventurers who confront deadly perils. Sometimes an adventurer might come to a grisly end, torn apart by ferocious monsters or done in by a nefarious villain. Even so, the other adventurers can search for powerful magic to revive their fallen comrade, or the player might choose to create a new character to carry on. The group might fail to complete an adventure successfully, but if everyone had a good time and created a memorable story, they all win.

(Historically, D&D originated from wargaming, and many early modules were designed for tournament play, where groups competed to see how far they could get in an adventure. This style has recently been revived with The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, one of the adventures in the forthcoming Quests from the Infinite Staircase.)

While D&D is a game and not a sport, the concept of sportsmanship remains relevant. In this article, I will look at it from a player perspective and DM perspective and try to unpick why understanding sportsmanship can help us run better games.

Defining sportsmanship

While dictionary definitions can feel clichéd, they provide a useful starting point. According to Wikipedia:

Sportsmanship is an aspiration or ethos that a sport or activity will be enjoyed for its own sake, and with proper consideration for fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship with one’s competitors. A ‘sore loser’ refers to one who does not take defeat well, whereas a ‘good sport’ means being a ‘good winner’ as well as being a ‘good loser.’

D&D, as we have said, is not about ‘winning’ and ‘losing.’ But much of the rest of this still applies. Consider ‘fairness, ethics, respect, and a sense of fellowship’: how can we apply these to tabletop RPGs? The most important word, I would argue, is fairness, but it’s more than that, too.

We might also consider what it means to be unsporting. There’s no such thing as a ‘foul’ in D&D, but there are definitely behaviours that are considered to be ‘poor conduct.’ Let’s think about those, too.  

Fair play as a DM

Be a fan of the players. I think Dungeon World is usually credited for this approach, and it’s a good one. Celebrate players’ successes and ensure everyone gets a chance to shine. As a DM, you will ‘lose’ most battles. If you don’t enjoy players winning, it might be time to let someone else DM.

Don’t railroad. It’s anathema to what RPGs are all about. If you don’t want players to have control over the story then write a novel instead. You’ve already got the rest of the game world to control; their one character is all they have. Take that away, and what’s the point? This isn’t just about fairness—it’s about respect. If you’re not giving players choices, you’re not respecting their role in the story. Massive red flag.

Balance combats. What does ‘balanced’ mean, though? Every group will have their own personal taste here, but I would suggest that many DMs run far too many challenging encounters and not enough easy ones, and this can start to feel unsporting. The 3rd-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide suggested a balance of 30 percent easy, 50 percent medium, 15 percent hard, and five percent deadly; 20 years later, this still holds up well.  

Honour the rules. As DM, you’re not just the lead storyteller and the person who plays the rest of the world: you’re the referee. This is quite the responsibility. Maybe this is controversial, but in my opinion, this means you should honour the rules as written as far as possible. Why? Because this way you are under the same working assumptions as the players, and as a result, you are more likely to be consistent. If, for whatever reason, you want to change something in the rules, this should be clearly communicated, ideally in advance, and ideally with some kind of narrative justification. Consider these scenarios:

  • ‘The Mists of Ravenloft don’t allow passage to other planes, so spells like banishment won’t work here.’ This is clearly communicated and ultimately rooted in the fiction.
  • ‘I’m not letting you use locate object because it makes the adventure too easy.’ Is there a narrative justification for this? Or are you just taking away a player’s options?

As a player, it is distinctly un-fun to have rules changed on the fly, for arbitrary reasons, in a way that sucks for your character. Don’t do this.

Give fair warning. ‘Players understand about half of what we describe to them,’ Mike Shea writes. So, if they’re facing a monster with legendary resistance, or the fight might be beyond them, or there’s a reason why their spell won’t work in a particular situation—be a good sport and tell them. But try not to do it in a way that breaks their immersion.

Roll in the open. A simple enough premise, yet many DMs still feel the urge to fudge dice occasionally. Let the dice fall where they fall. Roll in the open so players can trust you, especially for important roles like death saves.

Sam Keiser

Fair play as a player

Don’t set out to break the game. The sorcererdin, the one-level warlock dip, the fighter with an AC of 30, the tabaxi barbarian/monk/fighter with action surge and the Mobile feat: ‘you know it when you see it.’ Optimizing is where many D&D players get their fun, but if you’re looking to exploit rules loopholes to this kind of extent, have a good look in the mirror and consider whether this is really ‘sporting.’ What would the game be like if everyone played like that?

Lean in and make things happen. To me, this is all part of being ‘a good sport.’ Take the quest hook! Speak to the suspicious NPC! Open that chest! I see a lot of extremely risk-averse play, and to some extent the game rewards it. But there comes a point—you know it when you see it—where it slips into being a bad sport. You’re meant to be a hero!

Be open with the DM about what you want to do. A good DM will try to make it happen. There’s no need to catch them out. In the same way that a DM should be open with the players and bear in mind that they don’t necessarily understand everything that’s happening in a situation, players should probably remember that DMs have a lot going on.

Don’t cheat. So obvious that it almost doesn’t need to be said, yet it does. Lying about dice rolls, looking up monster stat blocks, reading published adventures ahead of time: this kind of stuff really sucks and completely undermines the social contract of the game. Just don’t do it.   

Focus on the fiction. I almost wrote ‘don’t metagame’ or ‘don’t be a rules lawyer’ here, but there’s considerable disagreement about what these terms actually mean. Besides, this version is more positive. Being a good sport means buying into the story unfolding at the table. (Fate Core calls this the silver rule: ‘never let the rules get in the way of what makes narrative sense.’)

Respect the DM’s decision. It won’t always be right, but someone has to keep the game moving, and that person is the DM. If you have a problem with it, you can always talk about it after the game, but once a decision has been made, a good sport will move on.  

Share the spotlight. Main character syndrome is a thing. Sportsmanship isn’t just about ‘fairness’: it’s about respect and fellowship. Give other players a chance to shine! (And by the way, that’s not the same thing as ‘dragging them into your orbit.’)

Thank your DM. We say ‘be a fan of the players,’ but it goes both ways! DMs almost certainly put in a heck of a lot more work than you do to make a session fun. Appreciate them. DM burnout is real, and they want to know you had fun.

When fair play goes wrong

There’s no such thing as the perfect ruleset, the perfect DM, or the perfect group. At some point, intentionally or accidentally, someone is going to do something that feels unsporting. So what do we do about it?

I have three suggestions, some proactive, some reactive:

  1. Run a thorough session zero so that everyone is working from the same starting point.
  2. Check in with your players and see if they’re still having fun.
  3. If things get really heated, use ‘pause for a minute’ to talk things through.

There are definitely degrees of ‘being a bad sport,’ and in most cases, a good conversation is enough to smooth things over. But persistent bad sportsmanship can ruin a game. At that point, you have two options: ask the player to leave, or leave yourself. It’s not a situation I’d like to end up in, but it does happen.

What have I missed? Have you experienced good (or bad) sportsmanship at the table? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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2 thoughts on “Being a good sport: how to ‘play fair’ at the table

  1. What a lovely article! I don’t have much to add, but just wanted to say thank you for sharing. I’ll be printing this off and adding it to my DM folder.


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