Rob Lang, of the Free RPG Blog, has switched sides of the GM’s screen and asks for tips on becoming a better player, so here are some of my thoughts:
- Give your character a personality. It needn’t be anything elaborate, and you don’t have to put on an accent, change your speech patterns, or even speak in the first person (though all those can add something), but it’s more fun for everybody at the table when the characters are memorable, and people can derive a lot of satisfaction out of recognizing when a character is doing something that typifies the character’s established personality (“Oh, that’s sooo Merath!”) and even more when they manage to predict and take advantage of that (“I knew Merath would go along with that plan, because she gets to dress up as the princess and boss everybody around”).
- Don’t make your character a jerk, unless you’re absolutely sure of your ability to entertain the other players and GM with the character’s jerkiness. It’s ok to be the character that everybody loves to hate, but it’s not cool for anybody to actually hate it when you play that character. When you’re gaming with friends they’ll probably put up with your character making everything less fun for everybody but you, at least for a while, but that’s no excuse. Even if you are sure that it’s entertaining and not too disruptive, it would be wise to limit the jerk aspect to specific situations (the character goes on a bender after successful adventures) and not just be all-around unpleasant.
- Make your character a team-player, unless you’re playing solo. Loners aren’t necessarily jerks, but in almost all RPGs your character is going to be part of a team, even if it’s not a formal team, and it screws up the game if the character keeps going off away from everybody else and makes the GM split attention between what the loner is doing and then what the rest of the party is doing. Every team needs a Hawkeye, as Kurt Busiek once wrote, but the thing is even though he might have groused, or even quit, when it came time to act he was there and pulling his weight. If your character needs some alone time to be true to the character, see if your GM is amenable to doing that between play sessions…that might be brief play-by-email, or it might just be a couple of sentences at the start of the session “In the six months between the end of the last adventure and now, Doc Bronze went back to the monks of Lhassa Apso and meditated and trained,” “The Crimson Fox has been operating solo, striking terror into the drug gangs of Dockside,” or even just “My druid has been communing with nature.”
- Give your character in-game goals and make the character a self-starter. Everything is easier for the GM, even in a heavily-plotted campaign, if the character can be counted on to have goals and pursue them instead of having to be clubbed over the head and dragged along by the plot. On the flip side, don’t give the character goals that are incompatible with the plot or theme of the game, at least without consulting the GM and other players first, unless you’re quite prepared to play out how the character’s goals are frustrated. If the campaign is about the brutal war between the conquering Orcs and the rag-tag band of freedom-loving other races, playing a pacifist who just wants peace at any price is cool if you’re interested (or at least willing) to play out how he learns there are some things worth fighting for, but can amount to an attempted hijacking of the campaign if you dig in your heels.
- Don’t be a afraid to retire a character. If you’re a design-in-play player who can’t really set out to make a character with a given personality or approach, some of the above advice might seem hard to carry out…you might not have set out to create a jerk or a loner, but as play progressed you found that’s what the character has become. If that happens, and you can’t see a way to nudge the character you’ve envisioned into something the other players can enjoy playing with, it’s time to let that character go. The loner can go off and be alone, and you can create a new character and try again. And even if you’re not design-in-play, and have had the character all figured out with a ten-page backstory before you sat down at the first session, if you’re at all into thinking about the inner life of the character there may come a point where events in the game mean that what the character would do is leave the group. So let the character leave, and maybe you’ll pick it up again if in-game events bring the character’s goals or location and the party’s back in sync. Sometimes this will require some out-of-game finagling with the GM and other players (too many plots are written that make the party a sealed group with a common origin or the only ones in the world who can accomplish the overarching campaign goal), but it beats making yourself and everybody else miserable with your square peg in the round hole character.
- Stick to genre. Even in a setting without an explicit genre there are going to be certain assumptions as to what the game is “about”, and what sort of things it’s appropriate to do and what things aren’t, and what characters fit the setting and what don’t. Don’t push the boundaries, at least until you’re used to playing in that setting and with that group. Yeah, fine, a Warforged who thinks he’s a ninja might be a cool idea, but save it for when you’re sure you can carry it off without wrecking what everybody else is hoping to get out of the setting.
- Play the system appropriately. If your group is using a very crunchy tactically oriented system and expects everybody to play as optimally as they can, then you should learn how to do that…don’t slow everything down asking for yet another explanation of what exactly you’re allowed to do on your turn. On the other hand, even if they’re using such a system, if everybody else is happy just winging it and doing whatever they think their character would do, even if it’s not as big a bonus, don’t insist on breaking out the battle mat and planning your tactics for five minutes every turn. If it’s a very loose system with an expectation that the players will provide a lot of descriptive color even if there’s no mechanical benefit, do your best to entertain with genre-iffic actions. Contribute to the game in the spirit that everybody else is playing, even if it’s not your preferred style. If you have a real problem with the style that everybody else is enjoying, you can bring it up for discussion, but maybe you should be playing a different game.
- Don’t hog the spotlight, but don’t shun it either. The only real limitation in the game is not how powerful or effective the characters are, but how much time they get to strut their stuff and be the center of attention. That’s the real currency of the game: how much time do you get to show your character doing his stuff. If you suck up all the available time, that’s bad, but it’s also bad if your sole contribution to the group’s enjoyment is getting your turn out of the way as expediently as possible, whether out of shyness or boredom. If you’re not doing anything more than saying “I swing my sword” every time somebody points out it’s your turn, you’re not contributing as much to the entertainment as you could be.
- If your preferences aren’t being met, discuss that with the other players. Be open about what you want, they’re there to entertain you as much as you’re there to entertain them, but don’t try to unilaterally change things more to your liking. If you want more combat you can tell the other players that, or you can have your character grouse about inaction and lust for battle, but don’t just have him attack when they’re trying to negotiate to force their hand. If you can’t come to an accommodation, you can’t play their way or come up with a character that you’ll have a good time playing and they can’t enjoy your preferred style, then find a game that will satisfy you, don’t subvert theirs.
Ultimately, most of this advice boils down to a principle of courtesy. Keep in mind that everybody at the table shares the responsibility of making the game fun and entertaining for everybody involved. Be willing to make sacrifices as far as what would be your ideal ultimate solo gaming experience in order to keep everybody involved and having a good time. Be flexible in what and how you play, and don’t play if you’re not having fun.