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.