Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Five ways to be a better - and more considerate - roleplayer



Last week, my Facebook wall was made a better place when a long-time reader and dear friend sent me an article on 11 ways to be a better (tabletop) roleplayer.

The article was spot-on for most of its advice, and it should be required reader for any mother's son (or father's daughter) who fancies themselves a dice-chuckin', character sheet makin', old school Roleplayer.

After reading it, I decided to draw on my twenty-someodd years of tabletop roleplaying experience on both sides of the DM screen (yes, kiddies, I'm old) to provide a few tips on how you can become a more considerate roleplayer.

Why?  Because as the author of the excellent article states, there are hundreds - if not thousands - of posts, blogs, and podcasts devoted to ways of improving yourself as a Dungeon Master / Game Master / Storyteller, but there aren't that many resources for players looking to improve themselves.

Here's to hoping that I can offer something to help with that.

1) Don't be afraid to step outside of your comfort zone

Some of the best roleplaying I've ever seen happens when players rolls a character that they're not used to playing.  Whether it's a character of the opposite gender or simply one that's markedly older or younger than the average adventurer, there's a lot of fun to be had in playing an atypical hero.

Doing so not only challenges you as a player, it keeps you focused on your character and what they'd be doing at almost all times.  In other words, you'll be kept on your toes as a roleplayer which translates to more attention being paid to the game and - thus - your contributions to it.

This doesn't have to be a huge departure in terms of raw character classess, mind.  If you always playing hulking fighters with bulging muscles, you don't have to try playing a coquettish pre-teen bard or bookish mage if you don't find it fun.  Instead, try to stretch the definition of what a typical fighter is.  On paper, a standard fighter can use a massive axe or slender longbow - so give the Conan-type characters a rest and try playing a slender archer for a change.

2) Always give other players (and the DM) something to work with

Neither you nor your character should ever be content to sit and watch.

As with basic theatrical improvisation, you should always strive to give your scene partners something to build off of.  The only difference at the gaming table is that your fellow players and the DM's NPCs are your scene partners.  If you character is a taciturn no-nonsense type, that's perfectly fine, but don't just have them stick their hands in their pockets while the more talkative members of your group run the scene.

Would that be fun to watch on screen? No, and it's not too fun to deal with at a gaming table either.

Aside from the fact that most armor doesn't have pockets, if you allow yourself to be in the background of every scene, you'll eventually be ignored by the other players and the DM and will have less of an opportunity to affect change on the direction the adventure is taking.

Try to find interesting and engaging ways to communicate what your character's doing in-game, even if it's not the most social of activities.  For example, if the group decides to chat up a tavern wench for information and you don't find that interesting don't say "I'll just wait and watch".  Instead, have your character play darts, whittle, pray silently, or flip through their spellbook so the DM can keep you involved and us you in the scene.

Finally, it's worth noting that the other players at the table will only know your character by their actions and by the words you give them at the table.  If you have a rich and complex backstory about your character's fear of losing those close to him, you better make damn sure your character leaps to the defense of any of his friends at the first sign of danger or shows genuine concern and panic when it looks like a party member might die.

Otherwise, no one will know what your character's overall motivations are and that awesome backstory you have is ultimately meaningless to the game.

3) Put the fucking phone away

I had a friend take a picture of me browsing on my phone once and it was horrifying, so I don't care who you are or what type of phone you're using - it's obvious when you're glassy-eyed with your nose buried in Facebook and you look like a tool while you're doing it.

Worse, you're also being incredibly rude and disrespectful to your other friends if you do this at the gaming table, and nothing makes a DM stop caring about his game faster than competing for their player's attention when they're texting or playing mindless 'twitch' games on their phones.

Admittedly, family and work often require us to keep our phones nearby - but do yourself and your friends a favor and leave your phone in a bag, in your jacket pocket, or - better yet - with the DM so it's nearby if you need it but not a temptation to use.

One of the most strict and story-focused DMs I ever played with required all players to surrender their phones to him before a game and would only give them back if they rang and he was told ahead of time if an important call was expected.  This was a bit extreme - especially considering it was way back in 2005, before smartphones were really a thing - but the message he sent to the group was clear: if you're here, you're here to game.

Now obviously, there's a problem if the DM isn't delivering a story tight enough to keep you interested and you feel the urge to slack off on your phone... but should that situation arise, talk to the DM about it after game rather than contributing to the problem.

4) That said, find a way to keep yourself busy during downtime

Of course, it'd be silly to think that there won't be any downtime in a game.  With 2-5 other players in a group, chances are good that you'll spend some time waiting while they decide what their characters are doing.

Make the absolute best use of this time to look over your character sheet and prepare yourself for your next action.  If you're in combat, make sure you know the attack and damage roles you'll need when your turn comes up.  If you're thinking to cast a spell, leaf over to that page in your rulebook and make sure the information's readily at hand.  Outside of combat, you can familiarize yourself with some alternate uses for your existing skills or look up some less conventional ways to play your class.

Doing so will not only keep you engaged with the game, it will also set a good example for your friends to follow and will help combat and the game flow more smoothly.

Just don't be a rules lawyer.  Nobody likes those tools.

5) Be a team player or, never wander off on your own

This is a difficult one to include on the list, but it's every bit as important as the other items here: don't go sulking off on your own when the other players decide to go do something that you don't want to do.

Going solo like this forces the DM to split his attention between two groups of characters, and can create a very real rift between the other players and yourself.  If you're all in favor of investigating an abandoned house when the group is ready to proceed to the next (probable) plot point, go along with the group first and then consider checking out the house.


I really can't think of an epic ever quest that featured a mousy character simpering off to do their own thing while the rest of the group went on to do awesome hero stuff together.

Gimli might have nearly pissed himself while going into The Paths of the Dead with Aragorn and Legolas, but you better believe that he fucking went along on the journey.  Why?  Because he's a hero in a fantasy setting... and I like to think he knew that he knew the great DM in the sky was smiling down on him for his decision and would reward him with experience points.

All of this said, there will always be times when it's necessary to split the group up to achieve a goal, but make sure you're splitting up for the right reasons and that you aren't throwing a passive aggressive tantrum because you're not getting your way.

If your character is fundamentally opposed to compromise and believes that going along with the group is strictly optional, maybe you should consider shelving them and rolling up a more cooperative PC for the group to interact with.

6) Stop playing the game if you're not having fun

Ok, this is technically a sixth point but it's one worth mentioning - stop going to game if you're not having fun.

As with everything in life, if you're not getting what you expected out of a tabletop RPG - stop doing it and do something else. I've stayed in games that I wasn't interested in and did a piss poor job of being a good player as a result.

In these examples, I was worse than dead weight - I was actively making the DM's job harder by being at the table and not being invested in the game.  In my years of running games, I've had a handful of players like this hang on to campaigns that I was running out of some misguided sense of obligation or friendship and I wish - in all cases - that they weren't at the gaming table.

Ideally, if you're feeling like you need a break you should talk to the DM first and see if it's possible to work something out that will renew your interest in the game... but if that doesn't work and you're still not having fun, it might be time to move on.

(banner image source: Dead Gentlemen Productions)