Steve is the co-creator of QAGS, Hobomancer, and many other RPGs from Hex Games.
When people talk about being a good role-player, they can mean a lot of different things. Creating believable characters, telling interesting stories, seeing the world from the character’s point of view and acting accordingly, and mastering the game rules are just a few of the topics that might come up if you ask someone for advice about playing RPGs. Each of those subjects is worth its own article, but this one isn’t about any of them, which is why I used “RPG Player” rather than “Role-Player” in the title. This article is about much more basic, universal stuff that rarely gets mentioned in rulebooks and gaming articles, but comes up constantly in convention panels and forums where people ask for advice about dealing with problems that arise during games.
A lot of these things seem so obvious that they go without saying, but over and over again I’ve seen gamers asking for advice about dealing with problems that are rooted in someone’s failure to live up to very basic social expectations. While nerd fallacies and social awkwardness can certainly exacerbate these kind of problems, they’re not completely to blame. Role-playing is one of those activities that doesn’t quite fit any of the situations we’re taught from birth to deal with, so the social norms and expectations aren’t as immediately obvious as those for interviewing for a job or having dinner with your significant other’s parents. This is a problem for any group that does something that doesn’t fit a standard social scenario, but usually these expectations are codified and given their own jargon and explained to newcomers right up front. Every internet community has a list of rules that you’re supposed to read before posting, improv groups teach newbies about things like blocking and avoiding questions on their first day, and more and more restaurants apparently feel that ordering food is such a tricky procedure that diners can only grasp its intricacies after a brief orientation presentation from the server.
Most gaming groups, if they have an orientation process at all, focus mostly on topics directly related to the game rules: what character types are allowed or forbidden and which optional rules will be used, for example. New players have to figure the non-game “rules” out for themselves, and some people never quite catch on. This article attempts to provide the basic rules and responsibilities that will prevent the other members of your gaming group from asking people like me how to deal with you. Those questions usually don’t get asked until after the damage is done, and, to be honest, repeating the same advice over and over again lost its novelty for me about 75 convention panels ago.
Rules Every RPG Player Should Follow
- Different People Like Different Things (And That’s Ok)
- Respect the Other Players’ Time
- Be an Active Player
- Share the Spotlight
- Help Keep the Game Moving
- Be a Good Guest
Rule #1: Communicate
Roughly 423.25%  of problems within gaming groups are due to lack of communication. People are often afraid of confrontation or of hurting someone’s feelings, so they let things that annoy them pass without comment, getting angrier and angrier each time it happens. Eventually the anger can’t be internalized any longer, which usually results in a much more heated confrontation than the one the aggrieved-feeling party was trying to avoid.
Rather than suffering in silence or just talking to the person who’s causing problems, some gamers attempt to teach the offending party a lesson, often through manipulation of plot events or game rules. This is essentially the “I’ll show them! I’LL SHOW THEM ALL!” line of thinking that’s usually reserved for mad scientists in genre fiction, and it tends to work about as well for gamers as it does for those guys. Object lessons never work, and usually just make things worse.
If there’s something you’re not enjoying about the game, talk to the other players about it like a grown-up. Different players often have different expectations from a game, and if those expectations are contradictory, somebody’s going to feel left out. The only way to solve these kinds of problems is to talk about it, and contrary to the popular nerd fallacy, disagreeing with someone or giving them constructive criticism doesn’t mean you think they’re a terrible person. It just means you disagree or see room for improvement, and as long as you’re not a jerk about it most people will respect your opinion and try to work things out.
Good communication shouldn’t be limited to complaints. If somebody’s doing something that’s improving your enjoyment of the game, say so. The positive reinforcement will let them know they should keep doing it. If you have ideas, questions, or concerns about where the game is going, talk to the other players and the GM. A big part of role-playing is telling stories, so occasionally the members of the group need to discuss what’s going on as co-authors of the story rather than players of the game.
Rule #2: Different People Like Different Things (And That’s Ok)
There are a lot of different styles of role-playing, and they don’t always mix well. If you’re looking for a game with intense role-playing and character development but the game mostly consists of killing things and taking their stuff, you probably won’t enjoy yourself. In this case, you should talk to the other players (see Rule #1). It’s entirely possible that the other players would like (or at least wouldn’t be opposed) to more role-playing and are just playing the hack and slash game because it’s what the GM is giving them, so it’s the path of least resistance. If that’s what’s happening, the GM should focus more on character interaction and story. Communication saves the day again.
If everyone else just wants to kill things, you can either adjust your expectations of the game and enjoy the senseless murder, or you can leave the game. You shouldn’t expect everyone else to play a game they’re not going to enjoy for your benefit. A lot of gamers stay in games they don’t enjoy out of loyalty to their friends, but just because you’re friends who like gaming doesn’t mean you always have to play the same games. You probably don’t feel obligated to watch a TV show you hate just because your friends enjoy it, so why would you feel obligated to stay in a game you’re not enjoying? Leaving a game that isn’t fun for you doesn’t mean you’ve turned your back on your friends. You can still hang out and do other things, you’re just skipping one particular activity. If your friends feel betrayed because you’re unwilling to spend several hours a month being miserable for their benefit, you probably need to find better friends anyway.
Rule #3: Respect the Other Players’ Time
Since RPGs are storytelling games, continuity is important. If a player is late or can’t make it to a game, the other players and GM either have to explain why the character isn’t doing anything or play the character on the missing player’s behalf. If a particular character is important to the current story or the gaming group is small, the other players might prefer to postpone or delay the game until everyone can show up. Unless you’ve got a really good reason, make sure you always arrive to the game at the agreed-upon time. If for some reason you can’t make it to a game or are going to be late, let the other players know as soon as possible so they can adjust their plans accordingly.
Along the same lines, if you know you’re going to be late or unavailable regularly due to work or other obligations, let the other players know that when the game begins. The advance warning will allow them to come up with a plan for handling your character when you’re not around. It also gives the GM a chance to structure the game in a way that will allow your character to come and go based on your availability and lets her know to avoid setting up situations that can’t be resolved without your character’s skills and knowledge.
You’re a busy person with a hectic life and lots of important things to do, but communications technology is so ubiquitous today that there are very few valid excuses to make people wonder where you are. The other player are also busy people with hectic lives, and they’ve got better things to do than sitting around wondering when or if you’re going to show up. Don’t waste their time.
Rule #4: Be an Active Player
Aside from The Dude and the occasional hobbit, very few protagonist in fiction just drift along reacting to things. Sure, there’s often something beyond the hero’s control that kicks things off, but once the hero gets an idea of what’s going on he stops reacting and starts acting. Heroes come up with elaborate plans, make bold decisions, and turn the tables on the bad guys. Your character should do the same.
Since RPGs don’t have a script, being active extends beyond just making sure your character does interesting things. You’ll also have a chance to help shape the world and the story by introducing supporting characters, pursuing character goals outside of the main story, and helping the GM set the scene and describe the world. When you’re playing, always be on the lookout for ways to make your character and the world around him more interesting. If you have an idea, put it out there. The worst thing that can happen is that the GM will say “No.”
Rule #5: Share the Spotlight
While you should play your character like a hero, you’ve also got to remember that an RPG isn’t a star vehicle, it’s a movie with an ensemble cast. There will be plenty of scenes that focus on your character (especially if you’re an active player), but there will also be a lot of scenes where one of the other characters is in the spotlight. Recognize when your character is playing a supporting role and don’t steal other players’ scenes. In scenes where your character is the focus or there’s not specific character in the spotlight, try to avoid situations that monopolize the game master’s time and look for ways to encourage the other characters to take action: start in-character conversations, come up with plans that make use of their special skills, play the straight man to their jokes, and do anything else you can think of to make sure the other players have something to do beyond watching you soliloquize.
Rule #6: Help Keep the Game Moving
RPGs can stall for a lot of different reasons, from story snags to rules confusion to outside distractions. Keeping the game moving is primarily the GM’s responsibility, but there are several ways you can help. For starters, you’re there to play the game, so play the game. Socializing and off-topic discussion is both inevitable and enjoyable, but too much of it can sidetrack the game. Every group develops its own comfort level for off-topic chatter. If you’ve got an anecdote, story, joke, or question that’s not related to the game, make sure to share it at an appropriate time and keep it brief enough that it doesn’t kill the momentum of the story. When in doubt, save it for later. Even when your character isn’t actively involved in the scene, make sure you know what’s happening. If the other players have to constantly stop the game to bring you up to speed about what’s going on, eventually they’re going to hate you.
While you don’t necessarily have to read all the background material and rulebooks, you do need to have a basic working knowledge of the game’s rules and setting, especially as it applies to your character. Many games are complicated, so don’t be afraid to ask questions and ask for more explanation if it’s needed, but pay attention and try your best to understand what’s going on. Nobody will mind explaining how things work the first few times, but if they have to explain the same things week after week they’re going to start wondering whether you’re trolling them or just really stupid. If necessary, make a cheat sheet to remind you of important information or of rules details that are difficult to remember. If you know ahead of time that you’re going to need to check a book for some piece of information, turn to or bookmark the relevant pages so the group doesn’t have to wait for you to find the information when it becomes relevant. If you have trouble remembering story information, take notes.
If you notice that a scene is starting to drag during play, do what you can to bring it to an end and move things along. For example, if the party continues to question a non-player character even though it’s obvious he doesn’t have any more information, let the other players know that you think further questioning is pointless. Recognizing when it’s time to bring a scene to an end is especially important if your character is the central or only character in that scene (see Rule #5). Even if you’re having fun role-playing your character, you need to end things before the other players start getting bored so the GM can move on to scenes that include the other players.
Last but not least, don’t argue about the rules during the game. If you think a rule has been used incorrectly or inconsistently, there’s nothing wrong with (politely) speaking up, but let it go once the GM has made a decision. If you strongly disagree with the ruling, you can debate it in more detail once the game’s over. If you convince the game master that your interpretation is better, she can use the new interpretation when the rule comes up in the future. Nine times out of ten, the fact that it was interpreted differently the first time isn’t going to have any game-changing repercussions.
Rules #7: Be a Good Guest
This is another one of those rules that everyone should know, but some people seem to forget. Whether you’re playing a game at someone’s home or at a public place like a local gaming store, be considerate of your host. If you want snacks and drinks for the game, bring them with you. The host is already giving you a place to play, he shouldn’t be expected to feed you as well. Don’t smoke, vape, drink, break into spontaneous musical routines, or engage in other potentially objectionable activity without making sure everyone’s ok with it first. If there are other people around who aren’t involved in the game, like a host’s family members or a store’s customers or employees, be polite and avoid doing anything that might annoy or inconvenience them. Before you leave, throw away your trash, clean up the gaming area, and generally try to make sure the place is at least as clean when you leave as when you arrived.
Following these rules won’t necessarily help you make better characters or optimize your character stats, but they will go a long way in keeping the game fun for everyone involved. Not only will they keep you from being the kind of player that gamers ask for advice about, they’ll make you the kind of player that other gamers invite back. Who knows? Mastering gaming might even give you the confidence boost you need to finally try to understand the bewildering world of Mongolian grill dining.
© 2015 Steve Johnson
Alexis on September 03, 2017:
Great article! Thankfully my current group has followed all of these guidelines from the beginning (we're all easy-going and have been friends for years). That said, I've been part of a group that had poor communication and it caused a lot of issues (even though everything else was there).
Charidimos Kleidis from Athens, Greece on October 24, 2016:
Great article. Especially the points in rule #6 bring a ton of memories to mind. I would say that the experience of the GM is crucial in minimizing tensions created by different attitudes and expectations of the players, and for bringing out the best of them. Of course, this doesn't absolve the players of their responsibilities towards the rest of the group and the game itself.
Kevin Debler from Expansive Highlands of Michigan on May 14, 2015:
"423.25%", ha! That's awesome!
And yes, I explain to my groups all the time how vitally important communication is for the group. Typically I take it as a logistical concern (e.g. how was I supposed to know you can't make it because you are getting your feet surgically rotated unless you tell me?)