Saturday, July 10, 2021

How to be a Joy at the Table

Perhaps it is just the landscape of the culture in general, but I am finding the discourse online about TTRPG is painfully one-sided about how to make a gaming session fun. GMs are inundated with an endless stream of often unsolicited advice on how to make their tables 'fun', 'safe', 'inclusive' 'exciting,' etc. Only about a quarter of which is actually decent advice. Players, and their role in creating a better experience at the table is largely ignored.

But here's the thing: it only takes one person to ruin the fun for everyone else, and every player has the capacity to make the table more or less enjoyable for everyone else. Also, as you are either the guest or ost in someone else's space, part of your job is to make yourself welcome.  At the end of the day, a wise player will have left their host and their GM thinking "I really enjoyed my time with X, and could tell they appreciated it, too. I would like to play with them again.

Know What You Want

One thing we don't generally pay attention to when we are thinking about role-playing games is what kind of experience we specifically want. Lots of people say they want to play D&D... but what kind?

Knowing what kind of experience you want, meaning not just it's genre, but what kind of table culture you want to be a part of, what themes you want to explore, whether you want a casual beer and pretzels game, online social gathering, or an elaborate and improv heavy game of intrigue will make a huge difference to which tables you will be comfortable at.

Communicating what you are looking for both helps the GM provide for you, but also will help you figure out whether the table you are considering joining is the one for you. I think that, as a whole, the TTRPG community could stand to develop a language to help express what they want to play, and develop a custom of GMs both displaying openly what kind of game they want to run, and players learning to look for that information, express what they want, and ask about what goes on at a given table.

Once you know what you want, it also helps to know what games can best give you that experience. Dungeons & Dragons can do a lot, but it doesn't necessarily do everything well. If you want a weird cyberpunk experience with some magic and supernatural elements, you would be better off seeking a Shadowrun or Lowlife 2090 game than a futuristic game of D&D. And if you are looking for short and engaging intrigue, you'd be better off playing Fiasco than either.

Take Responsibility for Your Enjoyment

As a corollary to this, I think it is important to remember that the GM's job is not to make sure you have fun. The GM's job is to give you every opportunity to have fun by providing you with the scenario, and the gameplay environment to experience it.

At the end of the day, however, no one can make you have fun. That is your job. It means making sure you are playing the game in a way that is enjoyable both to you and the people at your table.

It means making sure you are psyched up and have the right attitude going to the table. And it means choosing not to play if you are not in the mood to enjoy it.

It means making sure to find a table that provides the culture of play you want. Rather than expecting an existing table to accommodate you.

As a pro tip: the best way to make sure you were having fun at the table is not to play as an individual, but to see every game as a team exercise. Even an oppositional game like Fiasco works best if everybody is working together to make sure everyone else has a turn, gets to shine, and that you pick a role that complements or supplements the group. Then you play that rold to the hilt.

In Dungeons & Dragons that means building a specialized character who does one thing well that the party needs, for example. And focusing on doing that one thing to the best of your ability rather than trying to make a "well-rounded" character.

Communicate Authentically 

I have a lot of issues with the way tabletop role-playing games are talked about. Almost too many to fit into a small medium like a blog. However, there are a few trends in particular lately that not only misrepresent the hobby too people outside of it, but also destroy communication within it.

The so-called safety tools are a big one for me. Especially consent forms and checklists. My biggest gripe is that they don't work, but that's beside the point here. What is important is that they are creating a bureaucratic divide between people which dehumanizes the GM. It puts them in a subordinate position. They're not even seen as an equal game or at the table but rather a service provider. That might be all good and fine if you're paying them, but if you are a guest in someone's home you should treat them as such. More to the point, I don't even consider it very good behavior to treat someone you're paying with with bureaucratic officiousness payment or no.

If you want to talk about a sensitive topic the best thing to do is take someone aside in person.

And, I find it is also good to be upfront whenever you can when communicating. If you really have a problem and you are willing to disclose it sit down with your GM and talk to them about what bothers you and what you need to see or not see in a campaign. And if you are not comfortable disclosing it, don't be surprised when it shows up.

A good GM of course will, in turn, let you know what is going to be in their campaign when it comes to uncomfortable territory. I always tell people that my big limits are harmed to children and racism or naked bigotry dressed up as heroic in PC behaviors.

Racism and sexism are for the bad guys.

I also tell them that I have a sense of good taste and basic decency that governs my conduct.

So, you know what there won't be at my table. By extension, you know what there might be within the limits of good taste at my table, too.

That is common courtesy and respect. And likewise, I expect the same from people who have things they do not wish to confront to their game. That should be a matter of courtesy and mutual respect.

You cannot establish this mutual respect or show and respect at all if you're going to rely on forum letters to do your communicating for you or expect other people to mind read. After all, you are the one responsible for your own enjoyment.

Accept That Your PC is a Pawn

One of the things that has emerged as role-playing game culture has changed is the noton of what player characters are and how valuable they are. It's very easy to have custom miniatures made, hire artists to portray, and build a very complex and engaging set of media around a player character.

This has coincided with a rise of a culture that sees the player character as a sacred expression of the Self. And with it, ideas such as one where in the player characters should not be changed or killed without player permission.

If that is part of your table culture, that is good and fine. But it is not part of most table cultures, and not an entirely comfortable one for the GMs at the majority of tables. In fact the elevation of the PC can create an extraordinarily thorny experience. One that is not pleasant for everyone at the table.

It is far better and far more helpful to most tables for you to remember that, ultimately, your player character is just a game piece - - not much different from a pawn, albeit a very elaborate one, in a game. And one that can be replaced. 

If your character is changed or killed, it is a result of the rules of the game. And it is only good sportsmanship to accept that.

In early iterations of Dungeons & Dragons it was seen as in a mark of incredible player skill to have kept your playing piece together long enough for to have develop the personality, background, and gain levels. That is a great perspective to take as your default.

In fact, I highly recommend players at least once try a game where death is considered part of the fun, be that Call of Cthulhu, Goblin Quest, or Fiasco.

Reduce the Cognitive Load on the GM

GMing  can be a difficult job. There are a lot of moving parts and a lot of planning to be done. Players can help in a lot of different ways to reduce the strain on the GM without stepping on their toes.

Pitching Characters 

One of the first ways is to make sure you understand just what your GM is looking for from you when you build a character. Generally speaking, presenting something in eight or fewer bullet points is going to be way more welcome than multiple page backstories.. . Unless, that is specifically what the GM is looking for.

It pays to ask ahead of time what format they prefer a character proposal to be in, if they want one at all. Many Old School tables prefer that a character's backstory emerge organically once you have played the character for a while. And some games, like Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG as soon that your character leads a fairly humdrum and boring life until the events of the level zero adventure.


Likewise, you may find that your GM welcomes frontloading. This is where you create people, places, things, of cultural nuances in a campaign world as part of your character generation. For example, when I was working with a first-time GM and wanted to play a dwarf, she wasn't sure how they would fit into her campaign setting. I asked her if I was welcome to make some things up with the understanding that she could change anything about my character's background.

I then went on to create the basics of a dwarven clan, its profession, and its family structure in a way that said more about the dwarves than about my specific character and his role in it. She found this very helpful because it let her take most of my ideas and integrate them into her campaign world without too much difficulty.

Good Player Character Design

Another way you can lift the cognitive load on the GM is to make it easy for them to plan for your character. There are two really simple ways to do this in Dungeons & Dragons: either make your character heroic and quick to jump to the aid of others who have sob story, or make them extremely greedy. The idea is to make sure your characters pick up hooks and run with them so that your GM doesn't have to invent a lot of new ways to get your character to take up the adventure.

Limit Resources 

In sophisticated games like Pathfinder, being careful about how many resources you use is also important. A good rule is that your GM should not have to check more than a couple of books to understand your character's abilities or spells beyond The core book.

I tend to compile PDFs with all the spells, feats, and abilities those characters use and put them in one place so that the GM has quick and easy access to my characters abilities.

Note Sharing 

I also find sharing your notes is really handy. I tend to post mine online every once in awhile. I have even written summaries of adventures in the form of a character journal so that myFellow players can keep up, and my GM can check my journal if it's more convenient than their notes.

Know the Rules

People expect the GM to be a master of the rules. To know every nuance of a system. The fact of the matter is that this simply not possible. Demanding they guide you through the rules beyond the first few sessions is simply unfair to them. 

I am not saying that you need perfect comprehension, but I tis ideal for you to know all the player-facing rules. You don't need to be able to run a game, but you should know everything that is important for a player to know, including things like saving throws, spells, the majority of the combat rules. And have a broad picture of the overarching game mechanic. Most games are easy, in that they all use one single die roll handle everything, or possibly two. Combat and the like are simply fiddly expansions on that. Know your core mechanic.

I tend to make myself a cheat sheet when I learn a game. If you can do that, you are well set. (I have developed a number of tools other to help me learn systems over time, but the cheat sheed has remained my primary tool of choice.) 

And, as far as it goes, you don't even need an elaborate cheat sheet. Something that lists the page numbers in the rule book where you can find what you need at a moment's notice, plus a summary of the core mechanics and the notes on your own abilities should see you through most situations.

Embrace the Imperfections

No role-playing game experience is going to be perfect. Every GM has their quirks and their weaknesses. Every group has ways they tend to make a game absurd or silly.

Memes, inside jokes, over-planning, failing to follow through on your over-planning, ludicrous levels of paranoia all of these things our hallmarks a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

Just as overacting, campy overuse of tropes, and overblown dialogue are traits of Fate Core, and video-gamey over the top action are parts of Index Card RPG Core 2e.

New players in particular become annoyed with this, as they are looking for something a little more serious. They won't find it outside of Twitch streams. Real roleplaying game sessions are silly. And they are meant to be, because they are meant to be fun. Don't look for perfection you won't find it. Instead embrace the nonsense.

You will not only have more fun but be more fun to be around if you do not look for perfection but rather enjoy the session you have.

Calibrate to the Table Culture

Every table is going to have a different culture. A different way of thinking about the game. A different idea of what's fun in it. There is no Platonic ideal of a Dungeons & Dragons game.

Obviously you'll do better as a team player, have more fun, and get more of what you want - with the cooperation of the others - if you do your best to meet them halfway and try your best to enjoy the same things your fellows at the table do.

I am offten amazed at how often I hear stories about people who come to a game table and then demand significant changes, rather than walking away or trying to gently change the parts they don't like over time by building rapport.

Seriously, if something is happening at the table it's too offensive for you to tolerate, walk away if not, why not get to know people and wait for a bit to see if you enjoy what they enjoy. And, while you're at it, them to see why you enjoy what you do.

Endeavor to be a Skillful Player

In the early days of Dungeons & Dragons, and many other role-playing games there is a stronger focus on player skill. It took a cunning mind, lots of problem solving skills and tactical finesse to get a character to live to higher levels. It was seen as worthy of applause if you could play the same character through many dungeons without getting them killed.

And this wasn't just mastery of the rules. It was an ability to think in creative ways at the table. To be able to solve mysteries on the fly, to think you're way through puzzles and avoid traps. Often it involved carefully narrating what you were doing in a way to avoid dice rolls or make sure you had an advantage when they actually had to be rolled. The dice were always your enemy.

This has become less of the case as TTRPGs becomes more complex and elegant. Losing a PC now is actually quite difficult especially if the GM buys into the notion of "balanced encounters."  But that doesn't mean that skill doesn't count anymore. Quite the opposite:

In a system that is less lethal, a skillful player can truly shine by coming up with swift and elegant solutions to problems that minimize conflicts in the first place. You no longer lose your character if you engage in combat you lose time and in a game that relies more heavily on the dice, finding ways to stack advantages or avoid g having them rolled should be a point of pride.

This doesn't just serve the purpose of showing off. It serves the purpose of helping the other players also preserve their characters. It helps save time and maximize fun. It helps the other players reach their goals faster. Working towards being creative at the table and to avoid dicey situations is something other players will thank you for.

Be Hospitable

The rules of hospitality vary a little bit from culture to culture, but they are always important, thorough, and often held as sacred or divine. As for good reason. A person needs to feel safe and respected in their own home in order to feel safe and respected anywhere. Accordingly, it is absolutely imperative that you make sure you show the appropriate respect and protocol when visiting other people.

Look, I'm hardly Miss Manners here, and I don't think that knowing which potted plants to bring to a German dinner party is terribly helpful. But I do know that I'm heading into a social gathering that might not be a cocktail PARTY, but still needs to have rules just like them.

At the bare minimum, a person should know whether or not to take the shoes off, bring their share of the snacks or small gift for the host, be aware of the time, and not stay too late unless it's clear that the host it and hostess want you to stay, leaving when you are asked without a fuss, and thanking people for their time and hospitality is not exactly rocket science.

If you can go a step beyond this and really show some respect for the old-fashioned ways of being a good guest, it will do more than anything else in this article to make you welcome to come back for another game.

Personally, I've made it a point to always bring a snack, offer to make the coffee (as I know a few tricks,) and I always help to clean up. If my hosts get distracted by matters such as their children needing attention, I find a way to make the space more pleasant, such as tidying up the game table a little bit, taking some dishes out, or refreshing the hors d'oeuvre plate. A little courtesy goes a long way.

Addressing your hosts by name and dressing a little bit nicer than you would at your FLGS can't hurt either.

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