If you’ve already read my post about how to be a decent GM, then you could have expected I would also write a post on how to be a decent player. Without both roles doing what they can to make the role playing experience fun, it may be a complete waste of time. That would be a damn, dirty shame.
Role-playing games are a shared experience for both the guide (GM) and the guided (players) and it requires that both parties participate in the telling of the story. While the GM provides history and setting (among other things), they do not really make too many decisions that influence the story. What makes the story move forward is the players’ interaction with the world the GM has presented.
Since I play Dungeons and Dragons 5e the most, I’m going to tailor this post accordingly to the rules of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, but my counsel can really apply to any table top role-playing game from Blades in the Dark to Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars games (click the links to take a look-see – I’m not getting paid for that).
So here we go with another blog post on how to do something you’ve already been doing and probably have been doing really well. In no particular order:
Create a Backstory
This is not so much of an issue in later editions of D&D, but in older editions it was all about killing monsters and getting loot. The gaming industry as a whole has moved passed this as a primary motivator for any character. Nowadays, there are actually three pillars of role-playing, according to Dungeons & Dragons – exploration, social interaction and combat. Two of those three pillars largely depend on your character’s backstory as it guides them to explore and determines how the interact with other players and non-player characters.
For example, my halfling monk, Carl Codwallop, was displaced from his village, his parents killed, by a horde of goblins. He was saved by an old monk who trained him in the martial arts. It’s kind of a trite storyline, but it works on a couple of levels.
First, we now have an enemy for Carl. He hates them fucking goblins, so when he interacts with them, it’s most likely gonna turn bloody. However, if he meets a good goblin (or verdant), there may be no shedding of blood and, instead, there is a deep distrust which, through time, can become a friendship. That changes the story dynamically.
Carl may also choose to search the land for the goblin chieftain, Grobnob, responsible for destroying his childhood. He will go out and search, explore, the world to find him. What poor Carl experiences on the way to his ultimate goal – killing Grobnob – will shape his character I ways he has yet to know. It’s a mystery to be solved without even knowing it’s a mystery at all.
Also, as a bonus, development of a character history will also help you choose what lineage and occupation (class) that you want your character to be. This is often a tough choice for some, so the story sets the stage quite well.
Don’t Get Trapped by Min-Maxing
Min-Maxing is a way to minimize weaknesses and maximize strengths. To me, this results in creating a boring character that is oftentimes one-dimensional.
An example of min-maxing is a rogue who bulks up his stats in Dexterity and Intelligence and mostly ignores other characteristics like Charisma and Wisdom. Sure, this makes them a more effective rogue, but not necessarily a more effective character. A less effective character makes for a less enjoyable player experience.
My halfling rogue (I love halflings), Jimmy Strychnine, has the necessary high Dexterity, but he also has a high Intelligence and Charisma. I chose this combination because of my backstory. Jimmy liked to read books as a child and he also became an expert liar. This led me to beef up these secondary rogue abilities. Now, he can use his book smarts to outwit some poor sap and effectively deceive a simpleton into giving up valuable information. As a result of his experience, he’s not very wise and, therefore, he’s an unnecessary risk taker, and he’s not very strong, so he can’t really lift as much loot as his greedy hands would like. This often puts him in precarious positions that may yield very little reward.
Jimmy is one of my favorite characters to play because every decision he makes generates an unknown result. He slowly unravels the mystery of who he is without knowing it was a mystery to begin with. That is exciting.
Do the Research (Know your Character)
As a part-time GM, I cannot tell you how many times I’ve sat at a table and a player doesn’t know what abilities their character has, what their spells do or what benefits from their lineage they have at their disposal. With newer players, I am glad to give them a nudge, but with more experienced players, I give them nothing. If you snooze, you lose. It’s not my job as a GM to tell you what your character can or cannot do in any situation. Likewise, I don’t expect a GM to tell me what my characters can do.
Petyr Lindon is my shadar-kai Hexblade Warlock (not a halfling) and he is awesome. One time, he was on a ship in the Sea of Swords that was attacked by a group of Kuo-toa. In the first round of combat he was grappled, which essentially made him useless since his strength was so low so he couldn’t easily break free. As combat progressed, he could not cast spells or attack and almost got himself thrown overboard. Luckily, one of his compadres came to his rescue and killed the little fish stick that held him, but it was too late for him to really do anything of value.
After the session, I realized Petyr has the Misty Step ability and could have gotten out of that grapple using a bonus action. I banged my head against a wall, frustrated by my stupidity. The entire sequence of events that could have resulted in me using one of Petyr’s primary abilities became a lost opportunity and now impossible possibilities.
I learned my lesson. In another encounter, Petyr walked into an ambush. As four crossbow bolts headed towards him, he cast Shield. When his turn came, he took his movement, used Misty Step as a bonus action to get closer to one of his attackers, then swung is Hex Weapon (a rapier) and scored a critical hit with Green-Flame Blade. The rest of the party took care of the other three brigands. It was pretty cool and the rest of the players were impressed (and a little scared). All that and I only expended one precious warlock spell slot.
Tolerance is not Enough
If you want to sit at a table where racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotry is acceptable, find another table. I won’t have it. Moreso, if you only tolerate other people’s individuality, then find another table. This is not a political or religious issue for me. It is a matter of being a good human being.
Diversity in the game, as well as the table, makes the game more worth playing. Different points of view and experiences lead to a broader range of possibilities and that is, to me, a requirement for having fun in any table top role-playing game. We should embrace this and accept it as a new experience for ourselves, to make us better players and better people. Tolerance is simply not enough.
I don’t have an example to give here because I have been fortunate enough to play with folks that exemplify this quality. But, for you, you’ll know it when you see it or hear it. Stay clear of those in the community who want to limit the experience of others. ‘Nuff said.
This should go without saying, but I think it needs to be said anyway. Don’t fudge your rolls or try to convince the GM or another player that an ability or spell works differently than how it’s written. A GM will not necessarily know every spell or racial ability and how it works, so be honest about it.
Accept the results of a bad roll. It becomes an opportunity to role play and experience failure. For example, on an attack roll that results in a natural 1, I use a custom table I created to provide a fun result without changing the balance of the encounter. Here are a couple of examples:
You fart really loud, resulting in a missed opportunity and immense embarrassment. Make a DC 10 Charisma save or opponent gets advantage on next action.
A pretty butterfly passes by, distracting you. Make a DC Wisdom save or opponent has advantage on next action.
You can’t remember your own name. Is it “Bradley”? “Horatio?” “Janice?”. You are worried you’re getting stupid. Make a DC 10 Intelligence save or suffer disadvantage on your next action.
The same applies for skill checks. First, you don’t know what DC the GM has established as successful. As a DM for D&D5e, I set multiple DCs as thresholds for levels of success. The higher your roll, the more information you get. I know I have a laugh every time I fail a skill check for a skill I’m actually proficient in. It’s so much fun for everyone when the wizard fails an Arcana check when he’s +6 and then the barbarian rolls a natural 20 and has a -1 skill modifier.
Negotiating is Better than Nothing
GMs have a hard time as it is, so when a player proposes an action or sequence of actions that are a little out there, sometimes it takes a little compromise in order to keep the story flowing. As a GM, I love when players try some really weird shit, but, sometimes, it’s just way out there and cannot be done as easily as a player thinks it can be.
When I watch Critical Role or Acquisitions Incorporated videos, sometimes I wonder why the DM allows some of the stuff they do, but it’s normally done as a result of some negotiation and there are also clear consequences of failure. Sometimes the DM will let you try your hair-brained scheme, but increase the difficulty and make the result of a failure be near fatal. This is all part of joint storytelling and is a good experience for everyone at the table.
In Conclusion – Have Fun!
Sure, there are probably more tidbits I can share, but, really, it’s about having fun. This has been always the goal and it’s been said a kazillion times by more experienced players than me, but it is so important to remember.
If you aren’t having fun, you need to change something. Maybe it’s your play style, but it could also be the GM’s style of running a campaign or adventure, or maybe even other players in your group are making it difficult to enjoy yourself. None of this means the game itself isn’t fun, it just means that that experience isn’t.
Table top role-playing games are designed for you to have an immersive experience in a different reality than the one you live every day. If your real-life is shitty, you can use a TTRPG as a temporary escape, so don’t bring that shittiness to the table. But, it also can help you with problem solving, social interaction and team building which can be applied to your real life. Maybe that frown can be turned upside down!
I wish you nothing but natural 20s. Enjoy!