The answer to this question is a complicated one. We have to look at what “playing wrong” means. Unfortunately, the English language doesn’t like being very exact in its use of adjectives, so we have to make do with specifics. There’s a few different directions this question can go, so let’s be specific. You can play a tabletop roleplaying game wrong. How you manage to do that is more complicated than not knowing the rules, or making poor choices. You can do either of those things and play a game “right”. The cardinal way to play a game wrong is to play to the opposite of the game’s tone, the players’ interests, and the goal of the table. To be more succinct, you can play in a way that is wrong for the game you are in. As far as tabletop roleplaying games though, you can find almost any type of game and it will suit you, however, that doesn’t mean that any game you join will automatically be right for you; this goes for both players and DMs.
How Did We Get Here?
Generally, when a game goes wrong, at least one player deviates from what the goal of the game is. The goal of the game itself is not the same as the goals or objectives of the characters. The most obvious example of this when a group of players agree to play a pre-written adventure. They are deciding on a set narrative and details to run. If your module is set in The Forgotten Realms, making a warforged from Eberron might be a little off-kilter for the setting, but not a deal breaker. You haven’t crossed into “wrong” territory yet. Let’s suppose that a few players from your group say to the DM, “Can you run Curse of Strahd for us?” The DM agrees, does their prep, has session 0, and are all ready to go. It is day one of Curse of Strahd, everyone agreed on playing Curse of Strahd, and the DM has picked a plot hook, a traveler approaches the party for help, bearing a letter imploring them to go to Barovia. The entire party says, “Lol, nope,” and leaves. They then proceed to merrily go on about their lives in Waterdeep. Thinking fast, the DM tries another plot hook. And another, and another. Until eventually, the players are all dodging plothooks like arrow traps, and the DM is fed up, burnt out, and over it. So, they do something drastic. The mists of Barovia swallow them up, and “Good Evening”, they’re in Barovia. Players might get angry with this development, and feel that the DM is railroading them. This entire situation has gone on too long, and is ultimately wrong.
The players (DM included) agreed to play Curse of Strahd in the first place. The DM was only trying to get them into the start of the campaign. Only the very beginning of Curse of Strahd happens outside of Barovia, unless the DM chooses otherwise. By choosing to not interact with any plot hook, or furthering the game, the players are making the choice of not playing the game that they set out to engage with. The DM has probably prepared to run only that game and is trying to do what their prep has offered them. When it fails, none of their prep is going to ready them for having to chase the group around the City of Splendors with new plot hooks because they are just trying to do what the players asked: Run Curse of Strahd.
Wrong Turn at Candlekeep
The “playing wrong” didn’t happen until the players started doing what was contrary to the goal they originally agreed on. This discord only came about because the table wasn’t one cohesive unit. If the players had wanted a sandbox game, they could have very well asked for it. In fact, many players are just interested in playing their character and doing something. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting a game like that. Getting the chance to go and do something else as someone else in a fantasy world is a great one, and it is perfectly fine to ask for that.
This isn’t the only example; what happens when the group agrees on playing a game with a more serious tone and then one player decides to make a completely ridiculous character that only exists to be a joke? It’s the equivalent of agreeing to play a Lord of the Rings style game, and someone decides to play Mike Wizowski from Monster’s Inc. and it all goes awry. Some players might not care, but for those that do, they might have been excited to play a game that was going to be more serious, for some real roleplaying, but now Mike Wizowski is making another lame joke and getting the party killed again.
Despite the DM politely asking Mike Wizowski to play a character more inline with the rest of the group, Mike Wizowski made the decision to do what they want over the interest of the rest of the group and made the conscious or unconscious decision to expect the party and the DM to cater to their wants, rather than cooperating with the rest of the party. At their core, tabletop roleplaying games are cooperative. That isn’t to say you can’t agree to have elements of competition, or make that cooperation challenging, but the spirit of the game is based on harmony. Even while disagreeing in character, or disagreeing about approaches, we as players often are trying to come together to complete the same in game objectives. “It’s what my character would do” is often used for excuses that disrupt the game, disappoint the players, or create any form of strife. Some players enjoy trying to frustrate and irritate others through their actions in the game, and take active steps to undercut the efforts and enjoyment of other players for their own fun. Unless this behavior has been agreed on as okay for whatever reason, it is far from acceptable by any means.
To answer our initial question, in order to play a TTRPG wrong, you have to wholly disregard what the group agreed on doing. How do you avoid it? Find a group you can play well with, that has similar tastes, goals, and interests that you can coincide with. You can’t play TTRPGs wrong with the right group.
The Fellowship of the Ring copyright New Line Cinema
Monsters Inc. copyright Disney.