Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Player's Guide: how to win at RPGS!

If that's not the clickbait-iest title I've ever thrown out, I'm not sure what is.

But with all the GM-facing advice that exists, I feel there's plenty of room for more player-focused content in the RPG blogosphere. Having said that, I'm going to break the biggest rule of clickbaiting, and answer the question right off the bat. As a player, how do you win at RPGs? By participating in, and contributing to, an enjoyable experience.

Thanks for coming!

Best Post Ever!
Still here? Dang, guess I better elaborate then.

Some Elaboration

As I talked about back here, one of the distinctive ways that RPGs differ from their peers (to name a few; performing arts, entertainment media, and video games) is that the performer and the audience are the same person. This has a lot of effects, and it forms the cornerstone of the hobby. It provides an experience unlike any other, but it also presents fairly unique challenges for all involved.

So let's talk about that some more.

Ok, so I'm some kind of performer. What do I perform?

Actors get scripts. Improv is its own, incredibly difficult, beast. It's also a lot of fun, especially when it's going well. Ever read a novel to lose yourself in a character? Well, here's an opportunity to really get that experience. 

Now for the downside. You're performing without a net -- if something falls flat, it falls flat, and everyone will know it -- and the temptation to be funny, clever, memorable or dramatic can be overwhelming. Likewise, it's easy to get into a feedback loop of "my character would/would not do x," that begs the question why said character is a part of this story in the first place1.

But regardless of your preferred play style, there's two main components that go into being a player; and that's Enjoying Yourself, and Helping Others to Enjoy Themselves. Simple, right? If only. There's a lot that goes into both of those, but ultimately this forms the foundation of what we're doing in the hobby. I mean, if it's not fun, why are we doing it?

Now, that doesn't mean that everything has to be super-happy all the time; Game of Thrones would not necessarily be improved by Monte Python jokes. Having said that, if that's what everybody wants, then do that, that's fine. What might be disruptive in one game can be a major asset in another. But to do that, you first have to know what kind of game you're in.

How do we do that, you ask?


Pretty sure talking about mindfulness requires HD photos
Or maybe this is just a kickass RPG location! Either way, we're good.
Now, I'm not trying to go all corporate-meditation-buzzword on you here, but check it out. A lot of ink -- digital and otherwise -- has been spilled about mindfulness, and a lot of it is worth checking out. Still, that's what google is for. For our purposes, when I'm talking about mindfulness, I mean the act of seeing things as they are, not as we want them to be, as well as acknowledging things outside ourselves as being real, and worthy of consideration

Basically, don't kid yourself, and remember that your friends matter too. 

Simple enough, though that doesn't make it easy to do. Still, if our goals are for everybody to have fun, it's not just about ourselves; we've got to take everybody on the ride with us. And whether it's the hilariously unexpected crackpot scheme, the incredibly unlikely combat encounter, or the deep, cutting, and memorable dramatic scene, that's how we get to those awesome, memorable experiences that get re-told for years to come. 

We get there together2. RPGs are a team sport, and even if characters and environment are antagonistic, it's all in service of those two goals. Which means that you can't get there without your fellow gamers.

You can't do it yourself.

The GM can't do it for you.

But guess what; if everybody's on the same page, then it doesn't matter if you're not the most entertaining, knowledgeable, experienced gamer in the world; all you have to do is contribute to team success.


So, what does everybody want to do? To figure that out, we've got to talk about it. There are some great tools for this -- Christopher Chinn's Same Page Tool is arguably the most popular, and for good reason -- but what's important is that we talk about the kind of game we want to have. 

As a brief aside: if this seems elementary; it's really not. There are a lot of subcultures in gaming, and one player's idea of what a game is/should be can be radically different than another's. Sometimes this can even lead to incompatibilities, where two folks just don't gel in a gaming sense, but in most cases, there's some middle ground to find. 

Think about it like starting a band, let's say a rock band. Ok, what's a rock band? If the drummer's thinking Rush, one guitarist is thinking Rage Against the Machine, while the other is thinking Goo Goo Dolls, the bassist thinks Metallica, and the singer's going for Bon Iver -- well, it's not to say it can't work out3, but it's going to take an awful lot of effort to get everybody on the same page. Even though they're all here to play rock music.

Same thing with RPGs. 

So with that in mind, even if you've decided on genre and game system, some conversations can go a long way. This is probably best done before the game starts, but it can certainly prove useful to in-progress games as well. 

Anyway, some things to talk about:
  • What kinds of scenes do people enjoy? This can include, but isn't limited to:
    • Combat
    • Planning
    • Unstructured roleplaying 
    • Structured roleplaying
    • Investigation
    • etc.
  • What tone(s) do people want to see in the game? You can have more than one!
    • Dramatic
    • Grounded
    • Whimsical
    • Comedic
    • Tragic
    • Horrifying
  • What role should mechanics play in the game?
  • How do we feel about character death, player absences, loot, etc.
And especially important once a game is underway:
  • What's working? What isn't? Do we have any idea why?
The point of this is not the questions, nor is it the answers. The most important aspect of this is, in my opinion, the introduction of ideas. There's some communication theory4 behind this, but the basic idea is that by talking about different ways to engage gaming, we introduce that concept, and get ourselves thinking about it.

This can be hard. Human beings tend to view their own experiences as absolute. There's nothing wrong with the instinct, but it's incomplete. I love snacking on jalapeno peppers -- to me, they're not that spicy -- and I flat-out can't do olives or goat cheese. But man, I'll forget that when recommending restaurants. 

Same thing with gaming preferences. We don't to question why we like something; most folks break it down into Fun v. Not Fun. Talking about it gets us to stretch our legs a little. So even if folks aren't the most forthcoming with feedback, that's fine; they should still be more likely to consider the context of other players than if we'd never had the discussion.

In Conclusion

There's a lot to unpack here -- there's at least a Part II, and if folks like these, plenty more -- but the big takeaway is pretty simple. 

RPGs are a team sport. By being mindful of our teammates, we'll have a much better chance of winning; that is to say, having a damn good time. 

You know. Winning.

All of you.

See you soon for Pt. II, where I'll ramble incoherently about making a character.

Much love,

* * *

1 - To be clear, I'm not attempting to disparage any particular playstyle here. For example, I have a more theatrical, narrative style - I can trend towards trying too hard - whereas my S/O has a very simulationist, single-point immersion-based style, and tends toward the latter problem.

Different styles bring different challenges, as well as different strengths. 

2 - Yeah, so maybe that's cheesy. still true. 

3 - If this band existed, I would almost certainly love them to death. I guess Dream Theatre gets kinda close sometimes?

4 - Short version; Priming and Agenda Setting go into how we interact with stuff that's been previously introduced (as opposed to new information,) and how the mass media isn't very good at telling us what to think, but is super good at telling us what to think about. For our purposes here, we want players and GMs thinking about not just what they like, but what the other folks in the group like.