How To Be a Good Player
Have you ever looked back after a game and been amazed by what a great time you had? Usually, it is the people sitting around the table who have made the experience unforgettable. We are turning to the best players we know: Jenn Martin, Nicole Winchester, Mo, and Rachel E. S. Walton, to get the lowdown on how to play the very best character you can and make the game fun for everyone!
What’s your mindset when you sit down to play?
Jenn: I want everyone to have fun- GM and players! I like to build on ideas or recall them later on- the look on people’s faces when you bring back a thing they created is awesome. If someone is stuck on picking a name/option/etc, I ask if they would like a suggestion before I say it. If they seem really stuck on something I suggest the GM move to someone else to give them time to think. I was once a newbie GM, so I like to support the GM, too.
Nicole: I generally just want to have fun, and like Jenn, I want everyone to have fun too. I think Mo actually introduced me to the phrase ‘Maximum Fun’ and so I usually try to work for that in most games I play, especially larger ones - Maximum Fun for all involved. It’s almost like a mission statement. I am also a little weird, so my mindset in most games, even serious ones, tends towards finding absurdities and things to laugh at in even horrible situations. So I like to make jokes or do things in-character purely for entertainment purposes on occasion. (Ok. Perhaps more than occasionally.)
Mo: I sit down to play ready to go somewhere. It’s not unlike getting in the car at the beginning of a road trip - there’s a fair bit of thought and prep that goes into getting everybody ready to drive. There’s music cued and snacks and drinks prepped, lighting adjusted, and all the stuff we’ll need for playing - no matter whether we’re playing around a table or live up on our feet - or both. I feel like the game is where we go to make something together, and that something will transport us somewhere and someone else if that makes sense. I aim to be as present as possible, and as tuned in as possible to the other people I’m playing with.
Rachel: The first thing I usually do is try to understand some of the mechanics or structure of the game so I have a better idea of what I’m getting into or an easier time targeting the good stuff. If I’ve already played the game before, I’ll often still glance over mechanics stuff quickly to remind myself of interesting possibilities that I might not have explored last time. Then as I create or review my character, I pay attention to what’s being said about the setting and other characters. I try to hook into some of that. Even if I’m creating misfit character, I want them to fit into that world in some way and defy that particular setting in a way that is meaningful.
I try to start with existing relationships to some of the other PCs if possible. In one-shots especially, I like to go for relationships that have more emotional punch, because there’s not going to be much time to ease into things. Romantic, sibling, oath-sworn, best friend, and “buddy-cop” relationships are my favorites. Even if I don’t have great sense for how it’s all going to work, having a couple of really particular details to start with makes the world and characters more real and meaningful for me and the others I’m gaming with. I try to riff off what they’re coming up with and I invite them into my creative space as well.
What skills are needed to be a good player?
Jenn: Listening, first and foremost, along with patience. I’ve played in games where I didn’t get any spotlight time and while that can be disappointing, it can also be really fun to watch other characters shine.
Nicole: I think along with that ability to listen and be patient, good players should have some confidence in speaking up for other players. If another player is being cool and patient and enjoying everyone else’s scenes, it doesn’t hurt to say ‘hey, what’s up with so-and-so?’ just to make sure the other players and the GM are on top of it. Be generous with that time in multiple ways. All around generosity is good. Being willing to give and take, to bend and build a story together.
Rachel: I think the skills that the best players possess are skills that reinforce and enhance the experience as a collaborative one. Everything else, like interesting characterizations and rules mastery, are icing on the cake, which isn’t nothing, but isn’t as crucial. We’ve gathered here to do this thing—to tell this story or explore this situation—together. Sometimes we talk about how brand new players can be the best players, and I think one reason why that’s sometimes the case is because in their uncertainty, they’re playing closer attention to cues from everybody else. That is an excellent thing for collaboration.
So Jenn mentioned listening and patience and Nicole mentioned speaking up for others—those are great collaborative skills. I would add that speaking up for yourself is also a collaborative skill because your contribution matters and if it doesn’t get added, the game suffers for the lack of you in it, and the clever details, irresistible hooks, creatively, and personality you bring.
Speaking up for yourself includes voicing concerns or questions before the experience becomes unenjoyable for you. It includes finding ways to tie into the situation and characters or asking for help if you can’t find a way. It includes being more obvious about your intents or ideas or internal character musings because a lot of people aren’t good at reading subtle things or they might be shy or reserved too. In the same way that it is generous to give your attention to someone else’s scenes, it is also an act of generosity to invite other players and their characters into your space. You can do this by including them in your scenes, by seeking out their characters, and by making your character seem human, vulnerable, funny, curious, or approachable in some way. You can play a badass, but if you also focus on the moments when your character is not one, you leave more room for someone else to be part of your story. In a collaborative game, that is a kindness.
Nicole: Thanks for that, Rachel! It’s actually quite beautiful. *sniff* I think, personally, I forget that because I worry about everyone else.
Mo: Focus and commitment. To each other, and to the endeavor of the game. To take the time to really learn - and to help people express when they can’t on their own - what it is you all collectively come to game for, and make sure everybody’s on the same page. A willingness to be vulnerable with each other, and to build a circle of trust and respect where others can be vulnerable with us; People who feel like they can fall safely, get things wrong, or be emotionally bare to each other play harder, better, and more honestly, and make better games - at least for me.
This is also commitment to the character and to the story, and to the group as an entity. I come from a theatre background, and I see roleplaying as an activity where we are both performers and producers for ourselves and each other, and where we are also audience to ourselves and each other. This is committing to make characters real-feeling people with complexity and wholeness, and an aim to develop the character in ways we all find fascinating. This is also steering those characters towards making the best stories we can - also full of complexity and wholeness. And doing it all with a level of focus on playcraft.
Do you have any advice on what not to do?
Nicole: Something I can be bad about, and that wasn’t a problem when I started gaming, is getting distracted by phones or whatever - texts, Twitter messages, something else I’m worrying about. (Actually, honestly, something else likely distracted me before smartphones.) It’s something I know is crappy (and disrespectful to everyone else at the table), so I’m working on it. Putting aside that time to game should mean you can avoid checking your phone every 10 minutes, unless you know there’s something you absolutely have to watch out for. Don’t be distracted with other things. It makes your GMs and fellow players annoyed.
Jenn: I’ll second Nicole- I try to concentrate on what’s happening and discourage side conversations. My character doesn’t have to be in a scene for me to contribute to it. Another big one for me is to not play against the system- if you want to play PVP, Heroine or InSpectres probably aren’t the right games for that.
Nicole: One of my favourite things about gaming is watching other people’s scenes and reacting to them! If you don’t pay attention, you miss good stuff.
Rachel: Right! Of course there are times when someone has to step away, but if you routinely check out when other people are having their scenes, their stories become even less interesting because you don’t understand what’s going on, and you miss wonderful details that could be reincorporated or addressed later.
The big thing I would add is: don’t handle player tensions in-character. This isn’t always as obvious as it seems because player tensions can arise from what’s happening in the game. But I have made this mistake more than once, and it is awkward, passive-aggressive, and it makes it hard to address the problem productively or take care of it before it becomes a really big deal. If tense stuff is happening, and you’re not sure it’s all in-character, check with everyone, or take a little break. Maybe it’s nothing and everyone’s having a blast: great! It’s doesn’t hurt to check in.
Mo: Don’t play without knowing what you need out of it. Don’t play without knowing what’s critical to you, and what’s just gravy, and don’t play if you can’t find a critical thing that you can live with that can’t be met by the needs of the group you’re playing with. Don’t play with people who you don’t like or who don’t respect you…. you know, all that common sense life stuff. :)
And this harder thing: try to let go of the idea of getting things right.
Nicole: Yes. I am currently communicating with a lot of first-time live-action roleplayers and they’ve all expressed the same concern about ‘screwing it up’ or ‘doing it right’. I keep telling them that there is no ‘right’ way to roleplay, and I really hope that sinks in. I don’t want them to spend their fun time worrying!
I also very much agree with knowing what you want and need from a game. It can all feel very aimless otherwise.
What do you do if there’s a bad (attention hog, rules lawyer, wet blanket, etc) at the table? Do you work around them, or with them?
Jenn: I think it depends on the situation? If they seem well-intentioned (ie spotlight hogging because they are super excited) then I try to work with them- gently suggesting other players get input/turns/actions/etc. If they seem interested in ‘winning’ I put my effort into supporting other players.
Nicole: I feel like the best thing you can do as a group - more of those collaborative skills Rachel mentioned - is ensure that you don’t start out with those sorts of players, or if you have them, have ways to mitigate their difficult tendencies. We all know which of our gaming friends are a little too into the rules, or a little too into their NPCs, or a little too into their smartphone. ;) If you know what kind of game you want to create together, you probably know which people would be into that game and which people might end up being a wet blanket because it’s not their thing. Building the group for the game initially can help with that - then just keeping each other’s foibles in mind, lovingly, so as to ignore them when it’s not important and help manage them when it is.
Otherwise, ‘bad player’ situations can sometimes stem from another problem or unhappiness with the game, so it’s a good idea to check in with the ‘problem player’ to see if there’s some other issue. Sometimes the wet blanket is just feeling unappreciated and useless in the game space, and needs some help finding fun in the game again. Checking in is always good!
Generally, I’d always rather work with people than around them, but as Jenn says, it depends on the situation. If you’re in a short con game, well. Live and let live, it’s four hours of your life.
Mo: Don’t play with what you’re not willing to play with, enough said. As Nic said, if you’re playing a game at a con, you have low stakes and low investment. You just deal with it. If you’re going long term you work with what you can work with. I tend to put everything on the table in general: “This is how I feel about this behaviour. This is how it makes me feel. Is there a way that we can adapt to meet both our needs here?” and if there is, we go for it, and if not, then we go to a movie or something.
Rachel: I agree with all of the above. With players that seem unhappy, it’s usually worth giving them a little space to talk about it. I’ve seen players completely turn around and start having a great time with a few small adjustments made. There’s no sense in suffering in silence! It’s also entirely possible that the player is never going to be happy and should be allowed a graceful exit. It can be tough to create a welcome space that is also up front about what is or isn’t going to work or be appropriate, but engaging that tension is usually worthwhile.
I try to watch out for people getting talked over or not being given enough spotlight time. (And when I’m GMing, I appreciate when other players are looking out for this too.) If someone gets interrupted, I try to draw attention back to them when the other person finishes (or if I’ve accidentally interrupted someone, I try to turn my attention back to them when I’m finished, with a: “sorry! You were saying…?”). If it happens a lot or there’s a lot of excitement at the table, I may use body language to make it clear where the attention should go - say, an open hand extended towards the person I want to hear from, or a finger raised like “just a minute” toward the chatter with my eyes on the person I’m asking something from.
I also do what I can to prevent people from getting left out before it becomes a problem. I ask other players questions that indicate my interest in what their character is doing, saying, feeling, or thinking. I want them to feel like they matter because they do! And if someone is getting left out of the action, I try to bring them into my scene or just say outright, “lets find a way to loop you in more.”
What can the GM do to help people play well?
Jenn: Give the players niche protection- it’s super disappointing to think you are the badass rogue who’s best at stabbing and stealing and then another player comes along and does it better than you. I’m also a big fan of the GM asking players what they want more or less of- Monsterhearts may mean romance to some and slayers to others. Talking up front about what everyone wants out of the game means you get more of those things.
Nicole: Yes to niche protection - it is the worst to have a biter on the team. Everyone should be cool in their own way.
I think another thing is to make the conditions of death very clear. If you want a game where people take big risks and do amazing things with their characters, let them know that they won’t die unless… If you want a game where consequences are serious and real, tell them they will certainly die nine times out of ten when doing something ill advised. It’s more to talk upfront about - I think talking upfront about as much as possible is great, right down to what’s happening with food.
Mo: Be honest and upfront about your own needs, articulate them and attend to them. Be as transparent as you can with the goals and stories you’re making. Keep an eye on who gets to talk and act and who doesn’t, especially if there are social reasons. Don’t over-prepare and come to the table prepared to kill your darlings. Remember that everyone’s fun is everyone’s responsibility not just yours. Strive to be a movie director more than a puppeteer, and remember to be a fan of your players and your story.
Rachel: Yes - being a fan of the players and story is huge! Without exception, the best games I’ve played are ones where everyone is openly expressing their enthusiasm for what’s happening. That will look and sound different for different people, but if everyone knows you’re really digging what’s happening, the enthusiasm is contagious. Don’t hide this stuff! Don’t be cool or fearful that others will despise your interruption or think you foolish for feeling something. It feels awesome when someone’s eyes widen with delight at what I’ve said, or if they laugh or groan or otherwise indicate that what’s happening is meaningful. And I have seen people perk up and play harder when I have done the same for them. It’s even good to talk about it afterwards or to send an email if it’s something you’ve been thinking about but missed the chance to say in the moment. We all want to matter! Make your fellow players feel like they matter. And more than anyone else, the GM or facilitator can set the tone for this.
Any favorite stories you’d like to share?
Nicole: Anytime I tell a story, it ends up being a ‘you had to be there’ thing, so I won’t try to recount anything specific. But basically, any time I make people at the table laugh, or get deep into their feels, or any time I make the GM take a minute, then ask me ‘Are you sure you want to do that?’, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. I’m not sure what, but it makes me happy.