I’ve been gaming, with a couple fairly large gaps, since I was in early junior high. Oh, sure, I’d tried a couple things before that, but not with any serious success. My dad and one of my brothers were both gamers, and I’d seen the evidence around the house, been curious, but not been old enough to really give it a go. My early days as a writer changed this. My father showed me roleplaying as a way to explore my storytelling skills. Those days were pretty dark. Lots of combat, lots of monsters. Obsession with doing it right, according to the rules. Not a lot of character development or complex storytelling. Still, it was a taste of things to come.
Over next 25ish years, I was exposed to many different games, many different philosophies of game mastering, and many different styles of play and player. While I never reached the levels of the best game masters, I think I learned some pretty useful skills and ran several very successful games (alongside many not so successful games). I also played in many, many different games and gained skills as a player, too. What follows are a few observations on playing a roleplaying game, what it means and what one should do. This comes both from a selfish place, as a frequent game master, and from the heart (or lump of coal I have in place of one), from one player to another, as a means of improving the experience.
Most games contain a chapter, essay, or paragraph that answers the question ‘what is roleplaying.’ I’m not going to go too far into that issue. Suffice to say, it’s a form of communal storytelling mixed with concepts from more traditional tabletop games. Generally, one person takes the role of game master (or referee, Dungeon Master, or any number of other titles). This person takes on the responsibility of shaping the story, driving the action, peopling the world outside of the players’ characters, and many other odds and ends and sometimes quite difficult tasks. Depending on the game and game style, this person might have a lot or very little control over the overall progress of the game. The players then take on the roles of characters who interact with the greater world, stories, and ‘non-player’ characters. The exact details, levels of control, etc. vary with game and with group. I won’t go into that, but know that what I’m writing comes from my way of doing/thinking, and might not hold true for every game or every group.
Running a game is hard work. When I put together a session that is planned for between 3 and 4 hours, I often put in between 8 and 16 hours of preparation in the week leading up to the session. The exact amount depends on many factors, but think about that time. We’re talking a shift or two worth of work that I’m not being paid for. And then, half a shift spent actually presenting that work, during which all sorts of nerve wracking things might happen, including but not limited to, skipping over some or even all of that work, going off the prepared map and into free-formed improvisation. To say the very least, it’s a stressful thing to do. However, the rewards can be great and can be more than worth the stress.
As players, many people simply show up at the appointed time (or thereabouts), sit down, chat a bit, respond to a few things the game master says, quote The Holy Grail a couple times, role the dice a bunch, and then go home, not to think about the game again until the following session. Having run games that included many such players, I can say that with few exceptions, these folks can be soul crushing. All that work, pouring your heart and soul into preparing for a grand story, and you get someone who might as well have stayed home and watched the Simpsons for all the engagement you get. Ouch. (I’m not even going to bring up the people who actively work against you. I have had a couple of them over the years, and they’ll outright kill a game).
So, here’s the thing. Roleplaying games are a group effort. It’s a game. A group game. If you don’t want to be social, to be part of a group, to forge a story in the grandest sense that will be remembered and retold, then why are you playing? Why not just do what most people did 15 years ago, and switch to online video games? Roleplaying feeds a specific hunger in us, and I really do think it’s a great one. But, it’s not the hunger that is fed by a movie, book, or a video game. It may be related, but it’s not the same. As a player, you have unprecedented control over how the story is told. It’s not like reading a book or watching a movie or playing a video game, where everything has already been written down, filmed, or programmed. Where at best, you have a very limited variety of options to direct events. Roleplaying lets you make a difference. It lets you answer those questions. What would I do? What’s behind that other door? What happens next? What if I let this guy live? What if I don’t help her? If you’re just showing up and letting the story happen at you for a few hours, you’re not really playing and chances are, you’re wasting your time and that of the game master.
You get out what you put in. Actually, you can get out a LOT more than you put in, but you won’t get much of anything if you don’t put in any effort. The more time and energy and thought you put into the game, the more you’ll get out of it. The best games I’ve played were the ones where I was most engaged, hungry to do more, and excited about the game outside of the actual session. I think back to a game of Ars Magica where I would spend my high school study hall time writing feverishly in my character’s lab notebook (a journal of sorts), hatching plans and exploring ideas. I was always excited to show the lab notebook to my game master, to get his thoughts, and yes, to get a few experience points for my effort (like gold for character improvement). The game was exciting for me, not just during the four hours on Sunday night that we were playing, but for many hours over the course of the week, when I’d be thinking about the previous session, planning for the next, and making grand plans for the months to come.
As a good player, you must be fully engaged in the game. This doesn’t mean showing up and having someone talk at you for a while. It doesn’t mean simply sitting back and being entertained. It means becoming a part of the story, taking control of it (at least in part), and putting forth real effort (yes, sometimes outside of the 3 or 4 hour game session). While I believe the game master will likely always be the hardest working member of the team, because he or she has the most balls to juggle, the most pans on burners, the player can make it all worth while if they pitch in their fair share.
This means a few simple things first:
1. Show up on time. Sounds simple enough, but over the years I’ve had many a player who can’t be bothered to show up at the appointed time. Sure, once in a while something happens. But stopping off at McDonalds every week before the game, then showing up a half hour late doesn’t count. It’s rude and its disrespectful to everyone. Honestly, showing up a touch early is a good rule of thumb. Maybe help is needed in setting things up. But whatever the case, being there a bit early is better than being there a bit late.
2. Stay on task. Tabletop roleplaying is a social activity, often done among friends. It’s likely you’ll want to catch up with folks about how their week(s) has gone, or what new developments have happened at their job or home. Heck, you might just want to gab about the new episode of that show you both like, or about the new RPG website you’re reading. That’s all great. But, do it before the game or save it until the end. A bit of friendly talk is one thing, but constantly jabbering about non-game related things during the game session is distracting, annoying, and again, disrespectful. Just don’t do it, or at the very least, keep it to a minimum. Again, another reason to show up early is that you can catch up with folks BEFORE the session begins. Though it’s not always an option, planning dinner as part of the evening can be a nice way to take care of both issues 1 and 2. Everyone eating together gives folks a chance to settle in, be ready on time, and get a lot of the non-game related talk out of the way.
3. Get involved. As I said above, the more you put in to a game, the more you’ll take out of it. So many people I’ve gamed with have refused to do any extracurricular work for whatever game they’ve been playing. No to lab notebooks or journals. No to outside research or writing. No to anything that requires any effort at all, much less effort outside of the actual session. This is sad. And coming at it from both angles, as a player and as a game master, it’s frustrating in the extreme. As a player, sitting next to someone who refuses to fully engage in the game is like being in a class you really enjoy and being partnered with someone who doesn’t care one bit. Nothing you can do or say will get that person to help with projects or participate in class. They’re a weight around your neck. As a game master, these folks are nothing short of a soul crushing negative. Often with blank stares, forgetful of previous events, unwilling to take notes or pay close attention, and then upset when they miss important details…Ugh. Why even come to the game?
4. Feed your game master (and fellow players). OK, you can take this literally. I can tell you that few things make me happier than players showing up with snacks or dinner. If said food can be tied into the game session in some way…Wow. Great. Playing Ars Magica? How about some authentic medieval cooking. Playing Star Wars? How about blue milk. Characters on the open range? Some jerky wouldn’t hurt. Food is awesome, but more, it shows that you’re thinking about the game and care about it. This can go a long way. But, while food is great, I’m not talking literally. Feed the creativity of the game master and your fellow players by being creative and thoughtful. You’re not viewing a film or even a play. You’re taking on the role of an active, vibrant character within the greater story. Nobody wants to read about passive characters who just let things happen to them (well, the Twilight novels may prove me wrong there). So, don’t be passive. Don’t be quiet. Think and participate. Once again, it’s a group effort and if you’re not putting the effort in, you’re leaching it from everyone else. Believe me, the game master needs your input more than anything else. So give it.
5. Bring supplies and take notes. Make sure you bring a dedicated notebook, a pen, and maybe your own set of dice (or whatever). And anything else you think you might need. Calculator. Ruler. Whatever. What you might need depends greatly on the game and group. But a notebook and pen should be with you EVERY time. And use them. Take notes. Make notes of non-player characters you meet. Rumors you hear. Locations you visit. Plans you devise. Take notes. And, before you go to a session, read over your notes from the previous week(s) as a refresher.
I’m sure there are plenty more observations that can be made, more advice given. But that’s a start. Be mindful of your fellow players, especially the game master. It’s one thing if you’re all playing some beer & pretzel game where everyone’s just screwing around. But, if you’re playing anything with any meat to it, chances are, the person running the game is putting a great deal of effort into each and every session. If you’re not reciprocating with some effort of your own, you’re doing the game master and yourself a disservice. Be a better player. Play better games. Have more fun.