Part Two of an interview where I talk with close friend Daniel McDeavitt. We dive into his DM experience, expectations around the gaming table and events within our home game – Critical Role based – Tales of the Take!
For someone just testing out the waters of running their own role-playing game, I’ve boiled down the top 5 things (in my opinion) you can focus on in order to run a successful session. I’ve skipped over the obvious ones like “know the rules” and “have dice handy for players.” These focus on more non-obvious elements of the craft. Keep them in mind and it will be very hard to go wrong. The numbering of these means little. None are more important than the other and each of them, individually, actually work hand-in-hand with the other 4.
As a side note, I actually don’t like the word “master” in these titles because I think it separates that player out from the other players at the table. I prefer to use Gamehost and will use this interchangeably throughout the article.
One of the best ways to get a handle on a character for a role-playing game is to fill out their back story. Where did they grow up? Who were their parents? How did they do in school or their apprenticeship? Did they get in a lot of fights? Did they keep to themselves and read? Did they steal something? Did their first love break their heart? What events led them to where they are now as the game starts?
Some games, and gamers, more focused on the hack and slash elements do not need this exercise. You roll or pick your stats, grab your equipment and go. I’m a wizard. I have spells. I’m taking my fighter buddy and we are walking into that hole in the ground to look for treasure. My first game consisted of this level of play and it worked just fine! Sometimes games will start this way and then later a player creates a back story to fill their character out more fully.
I’ve been guilty myself of writing up a 2, 3 or 5 page back story for a character to help me understand them and their choices in a game after I had played a session or two. Sometimes a character will stand out before the first session and the back story comes easily. Other times, it takes a bit of work. Regardless, it’s always a good idea to get a feel where the character is coming from in their past. Even in real life we go back, review our life and look to see what made us who we are in the present. It’s a tried and true method.
I would suggest, however, this is only a half of the creation process. There is another layer that is often overlooked. I would suggest it is just as important to look at a character’s front story, their future. Take a bit more time and understand why your character wants to go forward.
This should not take long and should not require too much more time. I feel it helps give your character momentum and drive when it’s time to get the game rolling. I would even argue that you can run with a character’s front story a lot easier than you can with a back story.
How do you push a character into their future? Like a back story, start with some questions. Here are a few questions to get you started.
What do they want to accomplish immediately?
Maybe it’s just to go into a dark hole and get some treasure? Cool. Maybe they want to punch that merchant? Fine. Maybe it’s to get off the out-of-control train they’ve found themselves on? As long as they have some idea of what they want to do NEXT then you’re good to go.
If your game is not starting out with immediate action, like a dungeon crawl or a train rushing to its doom, perhaps a character just wants to go into that tavern for a drink? Even though this is simple enough and often used, it’s important to move on to the next question.
Why do they want to accomplish it?
We know what they want but now let’s answer why. Why are they mad at the merchant? Why are they so determined to get into that dark hole in the ground? Why are they on the out-of-control train in the first place?
And if they are just going into that tavern for a drink then why? Are they bored? Thirsty? Looking for someone? Any answer works.
What is it your character desires in the next month or so and why? How do they hope to accomplish it?
What does your character plan to do with the next few weeks or months of their future. Sure, they are going into a dungeon, going to kill a few monsters, grab some loot but is there something they are working towards in the short-term?
When you start to answer these questions it raises the stakes for the character and gives them some powerful momentum. Perhaps a character is going into that dark hole to find something valuable so they can help their aging parents who are about to be evicted?
What if a character, born into nobility with training as an excellent negotiator, is on that train to go to peace negotiations with an age-old enemy? If they don’t arrive the peace talks will certainly fail and thousands of his countrymen will be killed in the fighting. If so, well, it’s time to find a way off that train.
What are the character’s “big picture” goals? When will they feel like they “made it?”
Does your character have something they are striving towards which will take an extended period of time? Something which will take years and a collection of experiences and quests to complete to reach the goal? Look at your character and think, “What does this character want to be when they grow up?” This is the character’s larger aspirations and hopes. What is the legacy your character wants to create? When you fill this part in you are tapping into the real energy of why the character will make the choices they make and what drives them forward.
Perhaps a fighter is going into several dungeons because they are trying to build up wealth to hold some political power, settle down with a small estate and raise a family? Perhaps a cleric wants to eventually form his own temple somewhere or build a charitable organization?
Even if the character, at game start, is going into that tavern to get a drink because they are bored and uncertain about what is coming next I would still inquire what the character’s deeper motivations and goals might be. Everyone is powered by something internal. Find it and use it.
As an example, I once ran a character who started as a pretty basic thief. You know, a pickpocketing 2nd story guy with a dark cloak and a knife. That was it. However, one thing came up in the back story. The current head of the thieves guild had been particularly cruel to my character. So, for my long-term aspiration, I decided my character was going to eventually take over the thieves guild or build another one to dethrone the current leader. It was going to take several game sessions. The goal ended up being a nice lodestone for the character to come back to and work towards in every single game regardless of the plot going on with the overall party.
Once you answer these few questions I think you will find that your character will begin to take a life of their own. These questions do not need to be completed in full nor are any of them permanent. They can be quickly jotted down as notes or guidelines. Some empty or vague answers are perfectly welcome and you should leave some room for when inspiration or events in the game work to help you fill in those blanks.
Finally, review the character’s front story every time they progress, finish a quest or level up. In the real world, people change. Events may take place during the course of the game, or games, which causes the character’s internal trajectory to change.
Keep some notes and allow your character to move forward on their new aspirations. I think, when you look back, you’ll find it has added deeper levels to the character and made them even more enjoyable to play.
I recently read a post on Twitter from a younger player who had just started and ran his first session as the Dungeon Master in a game of D&D. It caused a reminiscing smile since I can still remember how it was to kick off my first game while not being sure I was doing it right. On the other side of the screen, I can also recall sitting down at my first “real” game at GenCon and being pretty unsteady. The Twitter post got me thinking about how many new players might be out there and feeling the same way.
This is the first post in a series for new players to the tabletop game community who might be a little unsure about this stuff called “role-playing.” There seems to be a lot more people coming into the hobby these days and, whether it’s the interest from shows like Stranger Things or the increasing popularity of streamed live games and podcasts, there is no doubt we are seeing a surge in interest.
In order to kick this series off, I’ve put together a list of top 5 things you might want to practice as a player in any role-playing game you might be playing.
I’m not saying this is the be-all-end-all of tips or advice. This is just my opinion on the things I have found are important items to keep in the forefront of your mind when you play. If you’re coming here for the first time I also recommend my article about the contracts around a role-playing game table. Many of the points below can be considered sub-clauses of that contract.
I firmly believe role-playing, whether you are game mastering or playing, is more of an art form than a skill. If you keep these 5 things in mind you will be on your way to having a memorable time at the table with the other players.
5 Ways to Be A Better Roleplayer
1.) Be Flexible
There is an adage in improvisational acting circles, “Never say no.” Improvisational acting (and roleplaying) has a particular energy or flow to it. By saying no, you run the risk of negating that energy or blocking it. Always be willing to take what is thrown at you and then toss it back out to your fellow actors. By doing this you stay flexible and allow yourself to interact with the story instead of trying to always shape it to your will. You are not blocking anything coming your way. This allows you to build the story instead of negating it. Don’t worry, your chance at imposing your will to the story will come in Tip #3.
Part of playing in a role-playing game is knowing that bad things are going to happen to your character. See Tip #4. Let them happen. Learn to roll with them. Say yes to them and see how it moves the story along.
This concept might be difficult at first and definitely takes practice. Pay attention next time you play and try to notice when you can add to the story by being flexible.
2.) It’s Not About You…
You don’t have to be in every scene. You don’t need to have a say in every situation. Learn to sit back and let your co-players have their scenes and their moments. Let them have their time in the spotlight. Your time will come around. If the GM is focusing on another character’s back story this means you need to chill for a few minutes while a few scenes get played out.
When I played a lot of sportsball my coach used to say, “Just because you’re on the bench doesn’t mean you’re out of the game.” This meant to keep watching the game and to have an understanding of the flow of the game when you got put back into it. Use down time to think about what you might want to do next with your character or to think about your own back story. Even better, pay attention because it gives you a chance to learn about your fellow players and their characters in the story. That knowledge will help form a richer tapestry with each passing game.
It’s easy for your vision to narrow and to only focus on what is going on in the game that is relevant to your character. You’re playing a mage and you get “zeroed in” when the rival spell caster shows up with the spell book you have tried to find. You’re playing a ranger and your favored enemy arrives on the battlefield. You’re playing a cleric and the undead finally show up. When those situations come up it can feel urgent to get in there and “show them what I do best!”
However, be patient. It’s not about you. It will be better if you can take a breath and wait for your moment without interrupting someone else’s.
Which leads to…
3.) When It Is About You, Go For It
Has the spotlight come your way? Is it finally your turn in an 8 character initiative order after you rolled a 3? Hooray! It’s time and, at this moment, it’s all about YOU! Don’t hold back. Run with the ball and make it count for all it’s worth.
Maybe you’ve waited fifteen minutes for your character to act. Do you really just want to go with, “I try to hit the orc with my sword.” Try to think what it would look like on the movie screen when it’s your character’s turn and play it out, describe it, even if it really only boils down to “I hit him with my sword” within the mechanics of the rules.
An example – In a current Dungeons and Dragons game, I’m playing a rogue dwarf who does not like to get into close, physical combat. He prefers to stay near the edges of the fight, using his perception, stealth and range weapon to help with team tactics and to pick off targets as he can. After finding himself in the middle of a melee he had just dodged into another room to gain some space and some cover. I sat for some time while the other players took their turns but for my character the only action was to stay put and shoot one of the enemies. It’s the only thing that made sense.
But, when it came to my turn, I didn’t just say, “I shoot the bad guy.” I tried to think what it might look like “on camera” and then gave a short description of how he edged around the corner of the doorway, watching the fight as he brushed stray hair from his eyes, yelling out a warning to another player and then finally took his shot at the bad guy.
Bonus points – find a way to bring in other characters or combine your actions with other player’s character during your scene or moment. Remember, keep the flow between everyone going.
4.) Do Bad Things to Your Character.
This one is pretty easy but I’m always surprised how many people resist it.
Be willing to have your character do things that will be bad for them and allow the game master to do bad things to them. Of course, you could argue having a character go into a dark dungeon filled with creepy monsters matches this definition already but I am talking about something a little different. I’m focusing on actions you KNOW are going to turn out poorly for your character but they are things your character would do.
Part of the fun of these games is playing out a situation involving an action or an attitude you might never do in real life. Is your character a hot-headed firebrand that would slap the city guardsman for having an attitude? Then go for it! Is your character a bit too curious for their own good and would sneak out in the middle of the night to investigate the manor house where they are staying? Go for it!
Of course, this should be tempered with Tip #2 above, right? This one requires balance because not every scene at the table is about your character doing something bad to themselves. You’ll have to learn the rhythm going at the table but the only way to do that is with practice.
5.)Respect What the Game Master is Trying To Do.
This is a bit of a repeat of the Contracts Around the Table post but I’m mentioning it because it is very important. Always keep in mind the person who has invited you to their game has spent a lot of time creating and setting the stage you are now running around on. It’s very possible that for every hour of game play you are enjoying they have put twice that amount into making maps, building nasty villains, placing slimy monsters and trying to plan ahead, as best they can, for you and the other players.
They are trying to tell a story for, and with, you and I feel that deserves a bit of respect. Show them that respect by not making fun of the story, try to read what kind of story they are telling and see how you can add to it. For many game masters this is why they do what they do. They want to see how the characters are going to apply tip #1 above and throw it back at them. Make sure you tell them if you are enjoying the scene, the surprises, the tension or maybe just loving the whole game. Did you notice some subtle thing the game master slid into the scene that effected a character’s story? Tell them you noticed. As hard as it is to imagine, game masters are not psychic and knowing a player is enjoying their game is a super fuel for them. It will inspire them to go even further on their next session for you.
Each of these tips should add to the energy at the table and help make the game become more memorable for you and everyone else. All of these requires practice and you are not going to get it all right every time. However, if you keep these 5 tips in mind and reflect on them both during and after the game, you are going to find yourself getting better and better at them every time you sit down.
Just remember, after the last die roll, it’s about telling a story and having fun with your friends.