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It's Your Turn to Play

Depending on the game, the GM/DM may have the most responsibility for preparing and running the game. But players have responsibilities too.

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Picture courtesy of Unsplash.
There are plenty of pages dedicated to advising gamemasters about how to run a game, but not too many aimed at players. I thought I’d offer some tips for not only how to help out the GM, but also get a little more out of the game from the other side of the screen.

Enthusiasm Matters​

This has come up before, but it’s worth repeating. From a GM’s point of view, players zoning out or not really participating is disheartening. If you look up and everyone is checking their phone they are not paying attention. Constantly having to ask people to pay attention makes plenty of GMs give up. After all, no one is forcing anyone to play so if no one can be bothered, why not just stop?

It doesn’t matter if “you can listen and still check your messages” or “it’s not your turn yet.” If you aren’t listening then the GM (or other players) has to take time to fill you in when it gets to your turn to act. Even if you are listening, you aren’t doing it as well as you think you are, and you still look as if you are not paying any attention.

Sure, we all know important stuff does come up, and it’s fair to deal with it. If you can’t do without a gadget for more than an hour or so, call a break for everyone to check their phones and then carry on without them.

I’d also add that this applies at the start of a game too. Don’t wait for the GM to call the game “to order.” When you arrive, get out your dice and character sheet and look ready. If anyone else hasn’t done so, don’t wait for the GM to ask, you can do that too.

Know Your Character​

While part of the joy of being a player is not needing to know the whole of the rules system, you should at least know how your character and their abilities work. If you have a bonus +1 for something, you shouldn’t always ask the GM if it applies or how it works. Sure, you may need to ask if you’re close enough to use point blank shot on an attack, but you shouldn’t be asking every combat what Close Fighting Reflex is and how to use it. Looking up your character’s abilities each combat slows the game for everyone and is unnecessary extra stress for the GM. So read up on your class and species abilities and know how to use them, at least at a basic level.

It’s actually to your advantage to know the rules and system that pertain to your character. In many games, timing and clever use of abilities can grant huge advantages. These small details are often the ones the GM will forget. So you may read up on an ability and discover that if coupled with another it grants extra damage or can be used even when surprised. While I’m not suggesting you become a rules lawyer, these rules are written this way for a reason and to not take advantage of some of them is usually making your character less competent than they should be. Sure, games designers do make mistakes, so the GM may ban some things, but knowing about them is still the first step.

Embrace Failure​

In most role-playing games, characters are meant to be heroes … but even heroes have a bad day. Failure is a part of life and without it, success is a bit meaningless. So, if the dice are against you, go with it. Your character can be upset about their failure to pick a lock, but don’t start growling that it’s unfair or the GM made it too difficult. Instead wonder why you failed. It may not be just because your character sucked – in fact it’s very unlikely if you have a lot of expertise. Is the lock of a type you’ve never seen? Did a strange movement out of the corner of your eye distract you and could it be dangerous? None of these reasons mean “your character is rubbish” and all of them can create new story and sub-plot for the adventure.

Failure is also a role-playing opportunity. When your character fails, they can can have an opinion about this too. They can still wake up the next morning horrified about what they have done and try to make amends. People make mistakes, and often only realise them in the cold light of day. What they do next to make recompense will be interesting character development.

I’d even go as far as to say good gaming is impossible without failure of at least some form. It is these moments that up the ante and make characters more human. Most of the best heroes take a beating or suffer a huge setback before coming back to win the day. It’s what makes their story exciting.

Be Proactive​

As a player you should regularly ask yourself if you are playing the character or just reacting to what the GM throws at you (Lew Pulsipher covered this topic in a two-part series about Active vs. Passive players). While the GM will give you situations and story, it is not just up to them to fit your character into them. If the GM is having trouble figuring out why your group might take a job in the next kingdom (where they swore they’d never set foot again) then help them out. Decide for yourself why you’d go on that particular quest and tell the GM.

A part of being focused is pushing forward the story. Sure, you shouldn’t be trying to derail the campaign by going off at a tangent. However, having your character decide to do something, rather than wait for the adventure to come knocking, will make things much easier for the GM.

By way of example, one Gen Con I found myself running The One Ring for a group of Vikings (long story). The adventure involved going into the misty mountains to find a lost hobbit caravan. But upon discovering this, the dwarf in the group loudly declared “Finding a lost Hobbit is no task for heroes, we should seek the helm of Durin!” To which my answer was “Mate, I’ve run this adventure three times already, you want to seek the helm of Durin, be my guest. But where are you going to start looking?” Now, I’ll grant you, this is an extreme version as it involved a lot of improvising on my part. But the player thought about it and began driving the adventure on a new quest.

This new quest was something they were invested in, as it was their character’s idea. But the important part is that they were helping create the adventure because they had to invent at least the first clues to start the quest. The GM need not make it easy and be forced to come up with a starting point. You want the helm of Durin, lost for centuries, the clues aren’t going to just fall into your lap. Even if “a stranger hands you a map” it’s up to the player to tell you what the map looks like and where it leads.

This obviously leads to longer examples about improvising whole adventures and that’s not quite where I’m going here. But minor quests, such as where the party will be sleeping that night, how they will make amends for upsetting the Baron and what they will do now the thief has been caught picking pockets again, are all things they can drive rather than wait for the GM to create.

In case you're wondering, I'm sorry to report the lost hobbit got eaten.

Contribute to the Setting​

Part of being proactive is also taking part in creating the setting. Check with your GM on this: some might welcome it, but others might hate it. Instead of merely going to an inn, explaining that your character stares down any orcs before taking his seat gives the GM a hook to play with. The GM may not bite (there may be no orcs), but it’s an opportunity to make the GM’s job a little easier by having your character ready to interact with the game world.

Obviously, this can be taken a little too far: unless the game involves sharing narrative control, players could easily abuse their own narrative voice to give their characters legendary artifacts at a whim. The GM is of course free to tell players some extra improvisations and details just won’t work in the setting. In which case you just describe something different or ignore that detail. But if the players stick to the small stuff it is rarely an issue and it helps them get invested in the setting as well as the adventure.

Now, not every player is really good at this sort of thing. So the easiest way to introduce it is just for the GM to throw their questions back at them: Does the swordsman look tough? Have I upset the noble? Can all be responded to with, “You tell me.” If the GM lets the player figure these things out, it takes the work off them and lets the player create story themselves to add to the campaign. But part of being a better player is working with the GM to make a better story rather than just trying to make your character the hero all the time.

Be the GM of Your Own Story​

Being a better player is about being more like a GM in many ways. To focus on a story that is great for everyone, including your character. It is very easy to see the GM and the dice and system as adversaries you need to defeat for your precious character to survive and prosper. But that’s not really what the game is about (and shame on the GM that made you think that way!). While you are allowed to be biased (you are a player and that’s your character after all) you can do a lot to influence the setting, push the story and develop a more realistic persona. Doing so will not only take the weight off the GM but give you a greater hand in your character’s destiny.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Andrew Peregrine

overgeeked

B/X Known World
Yup, the comments of ADD are very fair and something I should have considered in the article.
I love hearing the ways people have talked about dealing with it though, awesome.
To be clear, typing while playing doesn’t work for me. Nor does journaling. The only thing that does is being on my phone. I’m still listening and most times I keep better track of what’s going on than the rest of the players at the table.
 

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I do that, too. Touch typing something while making eye contact and having conversations unrelated to what I’m typing. Don’t know why that freaks people out.
They never paid attention in typing class.

I'm a teacher, and when I have a bad bout of laryngitis, I just hook my computer up to the tv and type my answers out to the students. It weirded out my principal, but it didn't phase my students at all.
 

Inchoroi

Adventurer
I do that, too. Touch typing something while making eye contact and having conversations unrelated to what I’m typing. Don’t know why that freaks people out.

I thought I was the only one!

My wife, who also has ADHD, can't do it; in fact, if she's typing, she will type out what she hears if I try talking to her, whether she wants to or not.
 

OptionalRule

Adventurer
Good article. Like a lot of DMs this kind of hits home. I've had a few games where players just walk away at the end of a game, particularly a VTT, leaving everything where they left it like a bunch of 3 year olds. Next week they come back at the late minute confused and it takes them 10 (or 30) min to sort through everything and be ready to play again. Not always, but when it happens it's an enthusiasm killer for me.
 


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