Introduction to being an rpg player

A player in my games who is new to rpgs has asked for recommended reading for how to be a good player. This is hard, because I have been playing rpgs longer than almost anything else — I started when I was 8 or 9, and I’m 40 this Autumn.

I tried searching the web for articles, but many of them bored or annoyed me. Perhaps unsurprising, since I’m not their target audience. However they have other problems. One common tendency is to be patronising, to talk down to the newcomer. Another is to assume a very low baseline of ordinary social skills — in contrast, what most people need is for the article to assume that and to explicitly demarcate those challenges that are distinctive to rpgs (or to common rpg subcultures).

So, despite me being a bad choice to write something on this, I have done it anyway.

Key message

Every game is different, every group is different. Some groups override the rules completely with a local version, and sometimes that’s implicit (just local practice and custom). Some groups do that for some games but not others.

“Being a good player” thus always needs to be caveated “for this group playing this game”.

Key advices

First, recognise that rpgs are quite a weird activity — they are not quite like anything else. They look like boardgames, but they are mostly not. In particular, the importance of the rules, and the respect the group gives the written rules, varies a great deal. And in multi-session games (which are the norm) most groups modify rules over time, either explicitly or implicitly.

(This is an artefact of how much time the group’s giving to playing (nominally) under that ruleset — they’re giving it a lot of time, so they have to adapt it to them.)

As a corollary of the above, you will mostly learn by trying, try to read the table, like you would in another semi-structured social situation.

Figure what authority structures there are at this table. This varies a lot by group, and may do so by game as well. Quite possibly the authority structures are quite weird, by normal social standards, with a lot of authority resting on a single person who is always the GM.

For everyone to have a good time, you’ll need to buy in to the premise, style and goals of the game. You can, in theory, choose to do anything, but the game will stand or fall on how well everybody works together. Often, this means that your characters will need to work together, but that’s not true in every game. Sometimes the game is about inter-PC drama, and the trick is working together as players while you enact that. (thanks to /u/clawclawbite on Reddit for emphasising this point)

Ask for advice, ask how this group works. but don’t be surprised if you get confusing answers. Now, I want to say here “If you get a funny reaction, like you shouldn’t be asking questions, maybe think about not playing with those people”. And that’s valid to an extent. But OTOH it’s tricky because answering some of these questions is really hard. So don’t be surprised if people struggle to articulate why the do things this way, or get embarrassed or a bit awkward.

Most people don’t have the conceptual vocabulary for this, and although the internet has made it a bit better is a steep learning curve the whole way. Describing how social practices is work is hard in the general case, and ttrpgs are a niche activity, not a well-studied or widely-discussed one. And, to compound this, quite a lot of players and GMs haven’t played in many games or in many different groups (this is especially common in mainstream D&D circles, because that’s so dominant).

Some further advice

A traditional-role GM may have put a lot of effort into game prep, and perhaps put a lot of themselves on the line/on display (it’s their mind you’re playing in, after all). It is not an easy task, especially if you set high standards for yourself. So be sensitive with your criticism and complaints. On the other hand, it’s really hard for most GMs to get meaningful feedback from their players, even unlikely-to-offend stuff like what bits they particularly liked. So please do give some feedback.

Everyone in the game contributes how everyone else perceives the imaginary world. So think about how you can contribute to that — have your character act in ways that imbues the imagined world with desirable properties. Make things be frightening by being afraid of them, make NPCs be sympathetic by acting out caring about them. Many of us have learned to do this intuitively, but I was recently pointed to an article that gives that a name — “playing to lift”:

For example, if I want to play an intimidating and mysterious prophet, the characters of the other players will “lift my play” in their interactions with me, being fearful and respectful towards my character and believing in her prophecies.

Other reading

As I said above, most “how to be a better player” articles annoy me. However I did find one that was a cut above the rest, and that gives more specific advice than I do above —

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