Part 2½ – How to be a better gamer

By on 17 June 2011

Spoiler Alert: How to be a Better Roleplayer

My better half recently asked me if I had any plans to write another game, a follow-up to Umlaut if you like.  At first I said that I didn’t really have any time to write another game, but it occurred to me later that I was writing this column and should probably compile it once it’s done into a book.  When I do that, people encountering it for the first time in that way will be able to read the whole thing in one go and hopefully get something more out of it in a shorter time.  The book will be an international best-seller and my inevitable interview with Paxman will be so infamous that Steven Soderberg will make a movie about it that’ll put Frost/Nixon ( to shame.  I’ll be played by Ving Rhames.

OK, that last bit might not be true.  I’ll probably be played by Sam Rockwell.

When I first started writing this column, the feedback I received both privately and publicly was very interesting.  Mostly, people said pretty much the same thing:

“This is really interesting, but how does it actually help me?”

Ah, if only it was that simple!  God bless the internet, but for all the awesome it brings, it creates 50 times as many problems.  I can’t just tell you how to make your games better, for a variety of reasons.  For a start, everyone’s games are different (Can you imagine how boring this hobby would be if that wasn’t true? Yuck!) and what works for me might not work for you.  I’ve gamed with a bunch of people and seen a lot of stuff: different games, systems, playstyles etc and there’s nothing which makes me think that there’s a one-size-fits-all formula for a good game.  In short, the whole hobby is too diverse, too varied for snappy and easy to digest “do it like this and it’ll be great!” type things.

Hopefully, once you read and understood the whole of what I have to say, you’ll have a deeper understanding of how the hobby works and that will lead to a more enlightened approach to gaming in general.  At least, that is if I don’t make an arse of it.  It’s a big subject, and that’s going to take a while to cover.

But I realise that’s a bit of a big ask.  “Stick with me for a while and this stuff will have a pay-off at the end that’ll make it worth it.”  Like LOST*, you mean?  Well, hopefully it won’t take 7 years and won’t end with me saying that the RPG hobby was dead all along.

For the mean time though, here is what advice I can give people in order to get more out of your games.

  • Read (in full, don’t just skim and disagree with!) and understand the Five Geek Social Fallacies.  These are relevant to all Roleplayers and many of us suffer from them.  Understanding them will help you see and avoid dysfunctions within gaming groups.
  • Read the columns which are up and get the hang of stances.  Think about which ones are important to you.  You’ll probably find you enjoy them all, but the chances are that some are more important to you than others.
  • Find people compatible with you getting those stances and game with them.  Avoid gaming with people who are incompatible with you getting the stances you like.  (Understanding and avoiding Geek Social Fallacy #5 is important here)
  • Find games and systems which support you in getting those stances.  A system which just “doesn’t get in the way” is not helping or supporting you, it’s simply permitting you to do all the work yourself.  Nothing wrong with running, but you’ll get there a lot quicker and waste less energy on a bike.
  • Understand that any RPG is a group activity, that everyone involved is expected to contribute (to a greater or lesser degree) and that the result of the game will be strongly reliant on the sum of these contributions.  Understand especially that everyone else at the table will be relying on you for their Audience stance at least some of the time, so if the spotlight is on you, make it either brief or entertaining.  If you just want to sit back and be entertained by the other people at the table, make sure they’re all OK with that before you start.  Some GMs are fine with that, they expect (and want) to do all the work.  If you can’t or don’t want to contribute, consider a different hobby.
  • If you’re running “Trad” games with strong GM Authority, understand that it’s yours by consent of the players and respect that.
  • A roleplaying session is first-and-foremost, a gathering of people.  The usual social rules for gatherings must be respected: if you’re going to someone’s house to play WFRP, is that really any different from going to their house to have dinner or watch a movie?  Be clean, polite to any non-gamers or family members present and don’t make a mess.  If you’re gaming on neutral ground, like a store, convention or club, remember that this is a public place to a certain degree and that again, the usual social rules on behaviour and hygene must be obeyed. (Geek Fallacy #1 is especially important to avoid here.)
  • Roleplaying is a hobby, not a way of life.  Remember that ultimately, you’re people sitting around a table, trading your spare-time for fun. While it’s great to lose yourself in a game or character, you can (and should) drop back to reality when the need arises.  Never be afraid to discuss something with your fellow players, out of character.  If it’s minor, you can wait for a natural break in the game, but if someone is doing something which you (as a player) genuinely object to, you really have got to just stop what you’re doing and discuss the issue like adults.  Most of the time, if you’re gaming with people you’re largely compatible with, this will take a tiny moment and you’re all back on track within seconds, obstacle removed and all having fun.  Do you really want to let problems fester for hours (or even sessions!) because you don’t want to stop pretending to be an elf for 20 seconds?  If something isn’t working (and I mean, really not working, rather than just not 100% perfect) you’ve got to either fix it or stop wasting your valuable spare time on it!

* Is it just me, or does LOST have basically the same plot as that great BBC drama masterpiece series Charlie Chalk?  The main difference is that the cast (and budget) is smaller and the protagonist gets to the island by being shipwrecked rather than in a plane crash, but other than that the similarities are quite striking.  With both having surreal and reality-bending adventures along with the introspection of character and the slow (painfully slow, in the case of LOST) revealing of what’s really happened to them, you really could take scripts from one show and transpose them into the other just by changing the names of the characters.

About Rich Stokes

Rich has been gaming for over 25 years and during that time has played or run more-or-less everything. Having spent his early years as a recruitment consultant, web designer and videogames reviewer, Rich eventually settled down and got a proper job in the IT industry. More recently, he's responsible for writing Umläut: Game of Metal and running semi-annual Pubcon events, as well as writing for Cubicle 7's Starblazer Adventures and Legends of Anglerre. He clearly spends too much time thinking about this stuff because he's writing this column. He currently lives in Southampton with his partner, Claire and an elderly cat called Charlie.

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