You know, the bulk of roleplaying discussion falls into only a few different categories. Most common seems to be misty-eyed nostalgia, people rambling about games they’ve played and things their characters have achieved. Also popular are discussions of what I call “Game Management”, which is GMs seeking advice about using monsters, items, story devices and the like. In certain circles, the discussion of game design, either system or campaign, is popular. But one thing which is commonly not discussed in detail is how to be a good player.
I am not absolutely certain what causes this lack, but one probable explanation is that we instinctively recognise that the single most important factor in how a character is played is in the construction and presentation of the game: which is in the hands of the GM. Advice on how to play within any particular genre that might be identified for a spot of GM advice is not more forthcoming, because personalities vary so widely amongst both real and imaginary people that the kinds of things which make playing an amiable nurturer fun will be disruptive if you’re playing a highly strung go-getter. We are less comfortable with dividing people into genres, though this is unarguably useful in real life too.
“Reciprocity, Mr Hudgens, is the key to every relationship.”
As a player, your best and simplest tool for engaging with your character, the game and the other players, is to look at the game environment and give back what you get. This simply means that you should pay attention, and act accordingly.
Once this basic approach is understood, its limitations start to become apparent. This kind of play positions the player as dependant on the GM and as a more-or-less reactive figure. So the vital second step in playing well is to push back: to enter into a dialogue of action with your GM and your fellow players. This is where things start to get specific. As a player, there are four relationships that you need to constantly bear in mind, and weigh up in your planning.
The central relationship is between you and the character. Perhaps it is overly dramatic to conceive of your character as being in some way detached from yourself, but as your representative in the game the character’s importance cannot be understated. Constructing a character should therefore be one of the cornerstones of your approach to the game. Every game book on the market has a section of advice on how to construct a character, some of which are next to useless, and some overly comprehensive, but most of which are adequate. For my part, I would list as vital only a few strands of thought:
1. The character must be someone that you can be interested in and care about
2. You should have in mind some kind of future for the character
3. The mechanics of the character should reflect its nature
Which of the various aspects you consider next most important is a meta-game decision that can’t be gainsaid here. But I would suggest that the next important thing to keep an eye on is the meta-plot or meta-game. These form a kind of backdrop for the world your character interacts with. When you make decisions in character, these will either move you in accordance with the meta-game requirements, will leave you floundering, or will cut against the fabric of the game. Ideally, your actions should always be in a kind of general accordance with the meta-game requirements for your campaign.
In <a href=http://mashugenah.livejournal.com/tag/lace+and+steelLace and Steel the nominal game focus was finding a husband for our patron’s daughter and heir, so ‘s character set about organizing balls and social functions. Her actions helped to develop and unfold the meta-game of intrigue relating to inheritance and marriage. G’s character undertook almost no independent activity, preferring to act in an ancillary capacity. His actions neither helped, nor hindered, the game’s progress. My initial failing as a player in that game was to play an eligible young lady actively opposing the usual courting processes; at least until she fell in love, re-aligning my meta-game play with that of the main story without sacrificing my character’s core identity.
In line with the rule of reciprocity, finding the meta-game can be an iterative and interactive process: I am not simply suggesting players must toe the line set out by the GM. As a player, you should have your character take steps towards stories that interest you, but you should be sensitive to whether these steps are being adopted by the GM.
Possibly a greater challenge than finding the meta-plot and working within its confines is in developing intra-group relationships. Provided that all the characters are generally agreeable and are working within the same general agenda, this problem largely solves itself. This is the traditional “party” model in heavily meta-gamed systems like Dungeons and Dragons; a mode of play which is becoming less popular over time, as people inculcate the supremacy of “character” in opposition to the “meta-game”. Despite that philosophical ideal, the logistical demands of running a game require that for each player to receive adequate spotlight time that characters are in each other’s company to the largest plausible and convenient extent. Usually the GM will strive to provide some plausible initial connections, but it is firmly in the hands of the players to develop the working relationships that are necessary for this to succeed.
Approaching this development can be very difficult when characters’ goals are in opposition, or where there are obvious mismatches in capabilities or personalities. Perhaps the easiest way to come to terms with this is to mentally assign a story role to each character in the group. This is an approach intuitive and familiar to those raised in the old school atmosphere of Dungeons and Dragons where any party needs: 2 fighting characters, a wise character, a sneaky character and a leader. It will also be familiar to those raised in the new World of Darkness range, where groups of characters are expected to be made up of 5 characters, each pursuing a different development route. A more general approach is to watch the strengths and weaknesses of the other characters and try to develop complementary characteristics over time.
In Dale’s WFRP game, is playing Wallace, whose modus operandi is to be such an expert on things that he offends those who keep company with him, and gets into trouble. My character, Johann, is someone who always gives people the benefit of the doubt, and is naturally caring and friendly. The two characters make a convenient pairing, as Johann is on hand to help out his friend Wallace at the inevitable onset of trouble, while always having a purpose in someone to look out for.
It’s important to realise too that the relationships needn’t be universally positive.
In my Victorian Buffy game, Nick C’s character did not trust that ‘s character wouldn’t turn to evil if given the chance so provided a challenge and foil for her partial descent, and an impetus to recover the remains of her morality.
The final relationship that a player must bear in mind is that with the GM. Roleplaying is a very personal activity, even at a beer-and-pretzels level, the GM will put in vast amounts more time and energy than any of the players. Moreover, even in explicitly shared narrative games, they shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for ensuring that the game runs well. The lion’s share of this work is consumed in the actual game itself: plotting adventures, running test fights, fleshing NPCs; but at the end of the day, the GM is also the social arbiter of the game. I know of several games that have ended or had upheavals because of personality conflicts between the players, which the GM is inevitably dragged into. Moreover, it is important to realise that the game in which you play is in large part an expression of the GM’s personality. So comments and feedback made as player “about the game” can never be totally divorced in the mind of a GM from the value of the GM themself.
All of these guidelines can accurately be called “meta-gaming”, a term which has usually been reserved for abusing bad players: the players who min/max character stats, solve puzzles by reading the GM’s poker face or interpolating history, the players who bring up rules queries at inappropriate times, or simply play to “win”. But if there is one benefit I hope has been brought into wider acceptance by the Indie game movement it is that the meta-game is an inherent part of the experience, and cannot be excised. The best players I’ve played with have managed to utilize this awareness for the benefit of the game, not for selfish ends: and perhaps if there is a fifth principal it should be that you must always bear in mind the needs of others in your roleplaying.
So there is my provisional guide to being a good player, and at this stage I think it’s important to confess that I have discovered almost all of these principals the hard way: by getting them wrong. Wish me better luck in my next game.