– MASSIVE ARTICLE ABOUT TABLETOP ROLEPLAYING ALERT –
I have read a LOT of articles online about how to be a good Gamesmaster. It’s something that fascinates me. I get a really good buzz off a game gone well that’s hard to replicate without sex or drugs, and getting hold of those both often involves more effort than I’m willing to put in. I want to get better at running games; I strive towards it. It is a passion. I have read more books on Gamesmastery than I have on, say, the subject of my degree.
But it’s incredibly rare to find an article that teaches you how to play, and surely that’s more common? Surely for every GM there are, on average, four players? There’s this weird disconnect, that the responsibility to entertain lies squarely with the person behind the screen, and that the players just turn up and absorb it. And that’s bollocks, clearly.
So this is a thing I have written, because there is not enough of it online. It is a handful of tips on becoming a better player. I have absorbed and stolen it from a few sources, such as this thread that I started on Reddit and from my friends on Facebook, this video on Improv and Graham Walmsley’s book Playing Unsafe. Thanks to everyone for your wisdom.
A note: I am not perfect! Obviously. Looking at my face would tell you that. But I cannot pretend that I embody all of these things all at once all the time; they’re just advice, I guess, extrapolated from more than my fair share of time spent playing RPGs on both sides of the screen, and looking at players and seeing what I like and what I dislike. Hopefully you can get something useful out of it, if you play a lot of games.
ONE. Do stuff.
Job One for you as a player is to do stuff; you should be thinking, at all times – “What are my goals? And what can I do to achieve them?” You are the stars of a very personal universe, and you are not going to get anywhere by sitting on your arse and waiting for adventure to come and knock on your door.
Investigate stuff. Ask questions. Follow leads. No-one needs you to point out that this is an obvious plot thread while you do it. Mix up scenes, talk to people, get up in their grill. If you’re not playing the sort of character that would do such a thing, find something you can affect, and affect it.
If you keep finding yourself pushed to the back of scenes and twiddling your thumbs – why is such a boring character hanging around with the sort of people that Get Shit Done?
Be active, not passive. If you learn nothing else from this article, bloody learn this.
TWO. Realise that your character does not exist outside of the things you have said.
You can write as many pages of backstory as you like, mate, but they don’t factor in one bit to the game unless you show them happening. Are you a shrewd businessman? Cool. Do some business, shrewdly, in front of everyone else. Are you a hot jazz saxophonist? Play the saxophone. Are you a wild elf struggling through social interactions with civilised people? Struggle through those interactions! Don’t go off and sit in a tree, you prick!
This ties back into the first point, really; you only exist through your actions. It is not the responsibility of other players to read your backstory, and their characters cannot read minds. Well. Some of them can, but you know what I mean. They shouldn’t have to.
So display your talents, your traits, your weaknesses, your connections. Take every opportunity to show, and not tell, the other people at the table what your character is about.
THREE. Don’t try to stop things.
Negating another player’s actions is fairly useless play; it takes two possible story-changing elements and whacks them against each other so hard that neither of them works. For example, your fighter wants to punch some jerk, but your monk’s against it, so he grabs the fighter’s hand. In game terms, nothing’s happened. All you’ve done is waste time, and we don’t have infinite supplies of that.
Instead, go with the flow. Build. If the fighter wants to break someone’s nose, what happens after that? Does your monk rush to help the jerk up? To admonish the fighter? To apologise to the jerk’s friends, before shit really kicks off? To save the fighter in the big brawl that ensues, even though he was going against your will? Or to throw the biggest guy in the tavern right at him, to really teach him a lesson? Those are all examples of interesting stories. Stopping him from doing anything whatsoever isn’t.
Don’t negate, extrapolate. (See, that rhymes, so it’s easier to remember)
FOUR. Take full control of your character.
“My character wouldn’t do that” is a boring excuse, a massive NO to the game’s story on a fundamental level. It’s a point-blank refusal to participate.
Instead of being bound by pre-conceived notions of what your character would and would not do, embrace complications and do it, but try to work out why. Why is your Rogue doing this mission for the church? Does he have ulterior motives? Is it out of a sense of companionship with the rest of the party? Characters in uncomfortable situations are the meat and drink of drama.
(Do you remember that great story about that hobbit who told Gandalf to fuck off, and sat at home picking his hairy toes all day before his entire village was swallowed up by the armies of darkness? No. No you bloody don’t. So put on your backpack and get out there, Frodo)
If you keep finding yourself having to explain your actions, or not wanting to go along with group decisions because of your character’s motives… well, sweetheart, maybe your character’s motives are wrong. They’re not written in stone. The group’s the thing, not your snowflake character, and if they’re not working, drop them off at the next village and maybe try playing someone more open to new ideas. Maybe work with the group to build a character that fits in.
Your character is part of the story; this is not your character’s story.
FIVE. Don’t harm other players.
Oh ho, here’s a jolly thief that nicks stuff from the other party members! And their Sleight of Hand roll is so high that no-one will ever notice! Gosh, what a jape.
Fuck that guy. No-one likes that guy. (That guy generally plays Kender, and I am fully of the opinion that Kender should be promptly genocided out of all RPGs. I don’t think genocide is a crime if we’re talking about Kender.) If you steal from other players, you are exerting power over them in a really messy, underhanded sort of way. If they find out, what are they going to do? Are you going to force them to escalate? Is it fair if they kill you for it? Is that fun for them?
Similarly, attacking other players is awful, too. I’m okay with this where systems fully support and encourage this, of course – something like Paranoia or Dogs in the Vineyard – but, Christ guys, give it a rest. I am hard-pressed to think of a way where such a thing improves the game; if your group is fine with it, discuss it beforehand. But keep me out of it.
There are a whole load of things out there to steal from and beat up and kill that won’t get offended when you do it to them, so go bother them first.
SIX. Know the system, don’t be a dick about it.
If you know a system, you are easier to GM for, because you know your character’s limitations. You can calculate the rough odds of a particular action succeeding or failing, just like in real life. You can make prompt assessments of situations and act accordingly, because you understand the rules of the world.
(New players, of course, get a free pass on this one. But do make an effort to learn the rules, obviously, if you’re keen on sticking around in the hobby.)
But for the love of God, don’t rules-lawyer. Do not do that. It is not hard to work out, because here is a simple guide – if you are arguing over a rule for more than twenty seconds, you are a rules lawyer. You are the Health and Safety Inspector of roleplaying games, and you need to stop talking, because you are sucking the fun out of the game.
There are times when the rules are wrong, and that’s fine, but I’m hard-pressed to think of that time the guy remembered the rule and we all laughed and had a great time because he made the GM change it.
SEVEN. Give the game your attention. If you can’t give your full attention, step away from the table.
Hey! What’s that you’re playing, on your phone there? Oh, is it Candy Crush Saga? That’s funny, all these dice and character sheets gave me the impression that we were playing Dungeons and Fucking Dragons, I must be terribly mistaken.
It is hard to think of a way to be more dismissive of someone’s game than playing a different game during it. If you find yourself getting so bored by what’s going on you’re resorting to playing a game on your phone, or reading a book, or checking Facebook, then step away from the game. You are draining the group with your very presence. I would rather have an empty chair than someone who wasn’t paying attention, because I don’t have to entertain an empty chair.
And of course, it’s up to the GM to offer an entertaining game. This is not one-sided. But going back to point one, act whenever you can. Give them something to work with. Unless you’re paying them money to do this, they are under no obligation to dance like a monkey for you just because they’re behind the screen.
EIGHT. If you make someone uncomfortable, apologise and talk to them about it.
I have a rule in my games, and that rule is: “Nothing fucks anything else.” Simple. Clean. Elegant. No sexual conduct; it’s weird, often. I’ve had seduction attempts, obviously, and that’s fine. I’ve had characters deeply affected by rape. I’ve even had someone negotiate time with a skin-thief alien to reanimate a cat for the purposes of sexual pleasure as part of a heist. But, and this is the crucial thing here, nothing fucked anything else “onscreen.” And if you’re thinking, “Ha ha, okay then, but is fisting all right?” then fuck off out my game, sunshine.
And that’s the point; in situations like the ones we find ourselves in on a weekly basis, it’s easy to make people feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s as blatant as discussing dead babies or bestiality; maybe it’s something much more benign, like being rude or chatting them up in-character.
If you think you might have upset someone, then ask ‘em, quietly. And if you have, apologise, and stop talking about that particular thing. It’s not rocket science; that’s how existing as a functioning social human being works, and somehow because we’re pretending to be a halfling for a bit, we often forget how to do it.
So, you know, be nice. Be extra nice. No-one’s going to think any less of you for it.
NINE. Be a Storyteller.
The World of Darkness books call their GM a Storyteller, because they are very obviously unable to call a spade a spade. But they have a point; a GM is telling stories. It’s easy to forget that the players are doing that too.
So put some effort in, eh? Say some words. Develop a character voice and stance. Describe your actions. Work out a level of agency with the GM so you can chip into wider descriptions, or just make assumptions and describe it and see if it sticks. A good GM should go with what you’re saying, anyway, unless it really goes against their plan.
Similarly, brevity = soul of wit, and all that. A good GM doesn’t monologue, or have their NPCs have long discussions, or make players sit back and watch while their world plays out. So know when to shut up, and to keep your descriptions short – unless you’re an incredible storyteller, of course. But short and punchy is always better than long and flowery.
TEN. Embrace failure.
Failure can be embarrassing. I know that I get pretty het up when the dice don’t favour me – when I’ve spent ages waiting to have my turn in a large game, say, or when I’m using some special power, or when I’ve been talking a big talk for a while or described some fancy action – and I use some pretty bad language, too. And not “fun” bad language, like we all do when we’re gaming. Like threatening “is this guy okay” bad.
And that’s not cool. I need to learn to treat failure as a story branch, not a block. Why did I miss? Why didn’t my intimidation roll work? Why didn’t I pick the lock? Why was I seen? Who worked out that I’m the traitor? What other options can I explore?
Some systems build this in by default – Apocalypse World, for example – and they give you the ability to somehow affect the world whenever you roll the dice, not just fail to affect someone’s Hit Points. That’s great! We need to get ourselves into that mindset by default. We need to view failures as setbacks and explain why our character didn’t achieve their goal, and we need to understand that failure is not the end of the world.
ELEVEN. Play the game.
This is a game. This is not a challenge that exists solely in the head of your GM. This is not your character’s personal story arc. This is not your blog. This is not an excuse to chat up one of the other players. This is not a table to sit at in silence. This is a game.
We have signed up to play a game together. We are all telling a story with each other, to each other, and the story comes first. Step back from the heat of combat; step back from your character’s difficult relationship with their half-Drow mother; step back from the way that the Paladin’s player keeps stealing your dice.
This is a game. Respect the other players. Respect the story, and act in service of it. Respect that you will not always get your way, and that not getting your way can be interesting.
Do what is best for the game. Do what is best for the story. Be active! Be positive! Be interesting! Change things! If you can’t walk away at the end of the night with a good memory, with something that you could talk about in the pub in years to come, then everyone at the table has failed.
Update: I have written more about the topics raised in points 3 and 4 – and wrapped them around Stanislavski and Brecht – in this follow-up post.
This comes from: http://lookrobot.co.uk/2013/06/20/11-ways-to-be-a-better-roleplayer/
A continuation—acting classes ??
This is going to get pretty wanky, here, so brace yourselves. Also, you should brace yourselves for the fact that my knowledge of both Brecht and Stanislavski is based on a half-remembered theatre studies module, conversations with my much-smarter wife and a quick scan over Wikipedia, so don’t expect bold theatre criticism or anything above loose interpretation.
Anyway; Stanislavki and Brecht were pretty important theatre types and they both approached at the principle of characterisation from two different angles which I’ll inaccurately distil for you below:
Iiiiiin the Red Corner
There’s a face to haunt your nightmares
Stanislavski was all about method acting, in that the actor should try to inhabit the character, to absorb themselves in the imagined role and act how their character would act in any given scene. The stereotypical Hollywood phrase “Yeah, but what’s my motivation?” is Stanislavskian – it endorses the idea that the character is more than what’s being shown onstage, that the audience is privy to just the tip of the dramatic iceberg. He’d encourage actors to ask “What if I was in the character’s situation?” and try to channel that emotion, that instinct, through their performance. Emotion. Feeling. Understanding that there was more to a character than could be portrayed. All that good stuff.
(He also did some cool stuff with physicality and embodying emotions through actions, but that doesn’t really factor in here. That’s excellent stuff for roleplay, though, remembering that you can stand up and move your limbs and, you know, act)
We can all understand that, even if we can’t embody it to the full when we’re roleplaying. (I can’t.) That’s kind of what the Player’s Handbooks tell us to do across the board; imagine what your chap (or chapess) would do in response to any given situation, and tell the GM that you’re doing it to make it happen. We can all do that. We’ve been doing that since we first picked up the dice and decided that what best suited our Fighter’s motivations right now was to go hit that goblin in the face with a dirty great axe.
Iiiiin the even Redder Corner
I like a man who enjoys a good coat and a fine cigar and a dizzyingly strange theatre performance
Now, on the other hand, you have Brecht. Brecht was weird. Brecht was a Marxist and tried to build the sensation of revolutionary outrage into his work. Brecht pioneered the Verfremdungseffekt, a word I had to copy and paste because there’s no way I’m learning how to spell it, which translates roughly as “defamiliarisation effect.” He created stark reminders that what was happening onstage was not real, that it was a play; characters would address the audience, stage lighting would be dazzling and unreal, stage directions would be read aloud. Characters were nothing more than masks that actors wore as long as they were of use; wear them well, for sure, wear them beautifully, but realise they are nothing but story components.
It was designed to shock the audience and get them thinking; to move away from striving towards realism and telling traditional stories and into something new and upsetting, that spurred people into action. Your characters don’t have motivation. Your characters are characters in a story; they do not exist in any way once the curtain drops. They are nothing but tools.
That’s strange. (Inherently.) Most of us, myself included, don’t really understand what the hell he was talking about on anything but the most basic level and our interaction with the style is being appropriately shocked and unsettled by watching it, by coming close. But I think, as role-players, we need to think a little less like Stanislavski and a little more like Brecht. Not in the weirdness aspect, but in that we have to always remember that we are part of a game.
It’s like that Natasha Bedingfield song, really
Stanislavki’s method is incredibly good if your script is already written. If your dramatic arcs are pre-planned by a trained playwright and your behaviour is overseen by a director, great. By offering a more thorough, naturalistic performance you can let the characters shine through. You can play to the audience. Nothing is going to stop the drama, because you can’t say “Well, I don’t think my character would like this, so he’s going to stop following the plot of the play.” Characters are tossed by the winds of fate and it’s up to the actor to interpret that, to make the best with what they have.
Our scripts are not written. We are flying by the seat of our pants. We are operating in a strange land; we take the detailed characters one might find in a novel or a film and then put them into this semi-random world of improvisation, moving through it one step at a time, never preparing what we are going to say or do past a couple of lines ahead. Sometimes those two concepts don’t sit hand in hand.
We can play our characters to the hilt, and they can subsequently ignore each other and do nothing. We can have arguments that go nowhere. We can slope off in different directions and achieve our own private goals, out of sight of the rest of the players. And, to me, that sounds awful. For sure, it’s an extreme situation, but it’s not unimaginable. I’ve certainly been in games where that’s happened.
You are not your bloody character
Good roleplaying requires you, as a player, to be aware that you are in a game; and not just in a “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more” sort of way. It means you have to understand what’s best for the story as a whole, because we are all performing for one another whether we want to or not. Just because our audience is small doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be catered to. This is all basic improv stuff that I’m cribbing, here. Say “Yes and,” or “Yes but,” and don’t say “No.” There are plenty of guides that can help you improvise more satisfying stories, and I suggest that you read them.
A lot of Player’s Handbooks talk about separating your character from your self; they are not you, and vice versa. Mainly this comes under the advice of not getting pissed off when the GM beats your character up with one of their characters, or when another character is rude to you. But there’s more to it than that. Your character is just a mask; your character is a story construct, not a person with thoughts and feelings and emotions. They are fully under your control. It is your responsibility to use that control not only over their thoughts, feelings and actions, but their position in the story.
I’ve given advice that advocates ceding control of your character, in the past – things like going along with plots even though your character wouldn’t enjoy doing so, letting other characters act against your will, and so on. And there seems to be a lot of argument against that advice, too. What I’m encouraging here is meta-gaming.
I googled “Cleric and Thief” and this came up, which is pretty much what I wanted. Credit to Dkuang on Deviantart
Meta-gaming is not a dirty word
I don’t mean “meta-gaming” in the sense that you’re flicking through the Monster Manual to discover what gorgons are weak versus, or having your character act on knowledge that they don’t have. I’m saying… well, I’ll say it with an example.
Let’s say your Thief needs to steal something vital for your save-the-world plot from a the house of a wealthy collector. He could do it fine by himself, but he notices that the Cleric’s player hasn’t been up to much this game and is sitting quietly while the other players plan. Your character – a construct that doesn’t exist, that you made up, that doesn’t have feelings – sure as shit wouldn’t want the Cleric to come along. She’s noisy. She frowns on theft. She gets on your character’s nerves.
So what’s a better story? Is it the story of the time your Thief went off on his own and achieved the objectives quickly and cleanly? Or is it the story that you told after you asked the Cleric’s player if she can come up with a way for the pair of you to go together, and you end up odd-coupling your way through the mission? Maybe the Cleric insists that she comes with you to keep an eye on your light hands. Maybe she wants to learn how to be stealthy. Maybe she wants to learn more about the collector’s motivations. Cracking. Whatever. You have two characters not entirely in their element together. Go tell some stories.
You haven’t made your character any less of a character by doing so. All you’ve done is use your full control over them to put them in a more interesting position.
Play your PC like an NPC
If you’ve never NPCed in someone else’s game, do it. Do it as soon as you can. There is no better way to understand what the hell I’m talking about here.
As an NPC, you’re freed from long-term considerations of your actions. You’re an element of the plot. Your development is secondary to that of the PC’s. You’re not only thinking about how you would react to any given situation that comes up, but you’re trying to let the PCs shine. You’re steering them towards trouble, towards entertainment, towards adventure. You don’t have to worry about the grand motivations of being a GM; you are playing that character in that moment in that situation, you are using them as a tool to help the players tell stories.
I guarantee you that if you begin to treat your PC in the same way – separating them from your self, acting with one eye on being entertaining and story-focused and the other on playing them as a story tool – then you’ll start having more fun. You’ll find yourself in more difficult situations, interacting with characters you might not otherwise interact with. You will push up against your own comfort zone AND their comfort zone. You will triumph over adversity, or fail to triumph, and that’s what you’re after, right?
Don’t compromise your character’s motivations, but do get them into trouble
Throughout all this, I don’t want to encourage people to destroy the core of their characters. I don’t want them to become faceless, motivationless, shifting bags of rules that merely follow the whim of the GM. I do want people to realise that what’s much more exciting than the “traditional” Stanislavskian method of roleplaying is to position their character in difficult situations and role-play appropriately. To be aware of their existence within a game and control them appropriately.
The most contentious point of my previous piece on roleplaying – the 11 ways one – was one where I told players to extrapolate rather than negate, to build on the actions of others rather than try to block them. It’s not a be-all and end-all. I certainly can’t say I do it all the time, and perhaps I presented it wrongly. But:
Imagine your Thief needs to get information about saving the world from a prisoner, and he decides that torture is the way forward. Imagine the Cleric is against this. If you say – “Right, to hell with this, I’m torturing the guy.” The Cleric could stop you then and there, saying that she overpowers you and ties you to a post overnight until the guard come to collect the prisoner. If she succeeds, no-one gets any information; you don’t get to act.
Or! The Cleric’s player realises that this is an interesting thing to happen, for their morals to get in the way of the investigation, so they have their Cleric arrive halfway through your torture, rather than turn up before it starts. Maybe she’s got God stuff to do. Or she can’t make up her mind on it. Or she’s trying to persuade herself that it’s for the good of the world, but she just can’t. By the time she arrives, the guy’s a mess; but the GM realises that this is a good opportunity for some roleplaying, so he has the prisoner tell you half of what you need to know. Is the Cleric going to let you finish, now you’ve started? Does she heal away the pain you’ve inflicted? Are you going to listen to her? Does she call the church? Do you try and abscond with the prisoner?
That’s a conflict I can buy into. That hasn’t weakened either of your character motivations, but pushed a negation into a full-blown conflict because Bad Things Have Already Happened. Both of your characters get to do what they want and hold true to their morals, but both of the players realise that it’s more interesting for this to happen after the torture has begun. “Yes and,” not “No.” (my thanks to user Eskidell on the RPGnet for asking the torture question on this discussion thread)
Imagine the stories
Remember that time you had fought your way down to the bottom of the dungeon, and you were low on healing potions and all injured and you saw a dragon in front of you, laying on its hoard, eyes glinting through the thick darkness? And collectively, even though your characters and tired and beaten up and abused and could easily go home, hire an army, come back and kill this thing with minimum risk, you say – “Fuck it, let’s do this. Imagine the stories.”
Strive to be like that at all times. Imagine the stories, great and small, and help each other tell them.