(Edit: Since I published this piece a few months ago, an awful lot of people have looked at it and several of them have complained about the swear words in it. To apologise to the jerk’s friends, before shit really kicks off? (See, that rhymes, so it’s easier to remember) FOUR. “My character wouldn’t do that” is a boring excuse, a massive NO to the game’s story on a fundamental level. Instead of being bound by pre-conceived notions of what your character would and would not do, embrace complications and do it, but try to work out why. I’m okay with this where systems fully support and encourage this, of course – something like Paranoia or Dogs in the Vineyard – but, Christ guys, give it a rest. If you know a system, you are easier to GM for, because you know your character’s limitations. We need to view failures as setbacks and explain why our character didn’t achieve their goal, and we need to understand that failure is not the end of the world.
If you’re upset by profanity, I’ve written a version with all the rude bits removed that you can read and share instead.) I have read a LOT of articles online about how to be a good Gamesmaster. I get a really good buzz off a game gone well that’s hard to replicate without sex or drugs, and getting hold of those both often involves more effort than I’m willing to put in. So display your talents, your traits, your weaknesses, your connections. Negating another player’s actions is fairly useless play; it takes two possible story-changing elements and whacks them against each other so hard that neither of them works. If the fighter wants to break someone’s nose, what happens after that? To save the fighter in the big brawl that ensues, even though he was going against your will? Why is your Rogue doing this mission for the church? Is it out of a sense of companionship with the rest of the party? I am hard-pressed to think of a way where such a thing improves the game; if your group is fine with it, discuss it beforehand. There are a whole load of things out there to steal from and beat up and kill that won’t get offended when you do it to them, so go bother them first. You can calculate the rough odds of a particular action succeeding or failing, just like in real life.
I want to get better at running games; I strive towards it. I have read more books on Gamesmastery than I have on, say, the subject of my degree. No-one needs you to point out that this is an obvious plot thread while you do it. This ties back into the first point, really; you only exist through your actions. Take every opportunity to show, and not tell, the other people at the table what your character is about. For example, your fighter wants to punch some jerk, but your monk’s against it, so he grabs the fighter’s hand. All you’ve done is waste time, and we don’t have infinite supplies of that. Or to throw the biggest guy in the tavern right at him, to really teach him a lesson? Characters in uncomfortable situations are the meat and drink of drama. So put on your backpack and get out there, Frodo) If you keep finding yourself having to explain your actions, or not wanting to go along with group decisions because of your character’s motives… You can make prompt assessments of situations and act accordingly, because you understand the rules of the world.
But it’s incredibly rare to find an article that teaches you how to play, and surely that’s more common? Mix up scenes, talk to people, get up in their grill. Are you a wild elf struggling through social interactions with civilised people? It is not the responsibility of other players to read your backstory, and their characters cannot read minds. (Do you remember that great story about that hobbit who told Gandalf to fuck off, and sat at home picking his hairy toes all day before his entire village was swallowed up by the armies of darkness? well, sweetheart, maybe your character’s motives are wrong. The group’s the thing, not your snowflake character, and if they’re not working, drop them off at the next village and maybe try playing someone more open to new ideas. (That guy generally plays Kender, and I am fully of the opinion that Kender should be promptly genocided out of all RPGs. (New players, of course, get a free pass on this one. That’s funny, all these dice and character sheets gave me the impression that we were playing Dungeons and Fucking Dragons, I must be terribly mistaken. Work out a level of agency with the GM so you can chip into wider descriptions, or just make assumptions and describe it and see if it sticks.
Surely for every GM there are, on average, four players? But I cannot pretend that I embody all of these things all at once all the time; they’re just advice, I guess, extrapolated from more than my fair share of time spent playing RPGs on both sides of the screen, and looking at players and seeing what I like and what I dislike. Job One for you as a player is to do stuff; you should be thinking, at all times – “What are my goals? ” You are the stars of a very personal universe, and you are not going to get anywhere by sitting on your arse and waiting for adventure to come and knock on your door. If you’re not playing the sort of character that would do such a thing, find something you can affect, and affect it. Realise that your character does not exist outside of the things you have said. Do some business, shrewdly, in front of everyone else. Maybe work with the group to build a character that fits in. Oh ho, here’s a jolly thief that nicks stuff from the other party members! I don’t think genocide is a crime if we’re talking about Kender.) If you steal from other players, you are exerting power over them in a really messy, underhanded sort of way. But do make an effort to learn the rules, obviously, if you’re keen on sticking around in the hobby.) But for the love of God, don’t rules-lawyer. It is not hard to work out, because here is a simple guide – if you are arguing over a rule for more than twenty seconds, you are a rules lawyer. It is hard to think of a way to be more dismissive of someone’s game than playing a different game during it. A good GM should go with what you’re saying, anyway, unless it really goes against their plan. A good GM doesn’t monologue, or have their NPCs have long discussions, or make players sit back and watch while their world plays out. I know that I get pretty het up when the dice don’t favour me – when I’ve spent ages waiting to have my turn in a large game, say, or when I’m using some special power, or when I’ve been talking a big talk for a while or described some fancy action – and I use some pretty bad language, too. I need to learn to treat failure as a story branch, not a block.
There’s this weird disconnect, that the responsibility to entertain lies squarely with the person behind the screen, and that the players just turn up and absorb it. So this is a thing I have written, because there is not enough of it online. Hopefully you can get something useful out of it, if you play a lot of games. If you keep finding yourself pushed to the back of scenes and twiddling your thumbs – why is such a boring character hanging around with the sort of people that Get Shit Done? You can write as many pages of backstory as you like, mate, but they don’t factor in one bit to the game unless you show them happening. Your character is part of the story; this is not your character’s story. And their Sleight of Hand roll is so high that no-one will ever notice! You are the Health and Safety Inspector of roleplaying games, and you need to stop talking, because you are sucking the fun out of the game. If you can’t give your full attention, step away from the table. If you find yourself getting so bored by what’s going on you’re resorting to playing a game on your phone, or reading a book, or checking Facebook, then step away from the game. I’ve had seduction attempts, obviously, and that’s fine. I’ve even had someone negotiate time with a skin-thief alien to reanimate a cat for the purposes of sexual pleasure as part of a heist. So know when to shut up, and to keep your descriptions short – unless you’re an incredible storyteller, of course. And not “fun” bad language, like we all do when we’re gaming.
It is a handful of tips on becoming a better player. There are times when the rules are wrong, and that’s fine, but I’m hard-pressed to think of that time the guy remembered the rule and we all laughed and had a great time because he made the GM change it. You are draining the group with your very presence. Unless you’re paying them money to do this, they are under no obligation to dance like a monkey for you just because they’re behind the screen. If you make someone uncomfortable, apologise and talk to them about it. But, and this is the crucial thing here, nothing fucked anything else “onscreen.” And if you’re thinking, “Ha ha, okay then, but is fisting all right? And that’s the point; in situations like the ones we find ourselves in on a weekly basis, it’s easy to make people feel uncomfortable. The World of Darkness books call their GM a Storyteller, because they are very obviously unable to call a spade a spade. It’s easy to forget that the players are doing that too. But short and punchy is always better than long and flowery.
I have absorbed and stolen it from a few sources, such as this thread that I started on Reddit and from my friends on Facebook, this video on Improv and Graham Walmsley’s book Playing Unsafe. I would rather have an empty chair than someone who wasn’t paying attention, because I don’t have to entertain an empty chair. I have a rule in my games, and that rule is: “Nothing fucks anything else.” Simple. Maybe it’s as blatant as discussing dead babies or bestiality; maybe it’s something much more benign, like being rude or chatting them up in-character.
And of course, it’s up to the GM to offer an entertaining game. If you think you might have upset someone, then ask ’em, quietly.
And if you have, apologise, and stop talking about that particular thing.
It’s not rocket science; that’s how existing as a functioning social human being works, and somehow because we’re pretending to be a halfling for a bit, we often forget how to do it.
Some systems build this in by default – Apocalypse World, for example – and they give you the ability to somehow affect the world whenever you roll the dice, not just fail to affect someone’s Hit Points. We need to get ourselves into that mindset by default.