How To Be a Good Roleplayer, Part 1

Did you watch Stranger Things when Netflix released it last October? I did. I didn’t even know what it was going into it, I just happened to see it pop up in my “Recently Released” queue and put it on as something to have on in the background as I edited some audio. Nine hours later the sun was coming up, I hadn’t slept, and I was a weeping, emotional mess (to be fair, I’m often a weeping, emotional mess) having just watched all 8 episodes of what would go on to be one of the most lauded, award-winning shows, in any format, of 2016.

Even more unexpected than this gem of a show that I just happened to stumble across was the sudden interest many of my more mainstream Hollywood friends developed for Dungeons & Dragons, the game that formed the basis for so much of the lore of the show. It was a very welcome surprise because, as I’ve mentioned before, I have both played and run D&D games for a very long time. A year later, as I await season 2 with eager anticipation, I’m playing more than ever on both sides of the DM’s screen.

Something that I’ve discovered now that I’m playing with newcomers to the genre for the first time in what feels like forever, is that they sometimes think that either a) I, as the DM, will hold their hand all the time and guide them through my adventure, effectively taking the responsibility of role-playing away from them, or b) they don’t have to do anything that the DM presents them with, instead choosing to go off in their own direction, negating all the many hours a good DM put into creating an enjoyable adventure.

Admittedly, while both of these are a problem, the first is far more prevalent than the second. The root of the problem, as far as I’ve been able to decipher, is twofold, but it is often a combination of both that leads to some of the gaming disasters I’ve seen and heard about recently.

The first issue is not necessarily an inexperienced DM, but probably one who is not used to having to teach the game or work with players with little to no experience, but it is the second that I want to address at the moment. This issue is that nobody has ever laid out for these newcomers to the genre how to actually be a player beyond the basic rules of the game. So, please, allow me to lay out a few rules of etiquette to remember when you come to the role-playing table.

Rule 1 is to actually read the rule book. This should go without saying, but I wouldn’t bring it up if I didn’t see it happen time and time again. Yes, it is thick, it is heavy, some are more colorful and entertaining than others, but that does not change the fact that, at the very least, this is information that you need to read before you start. If you don’t, you won’t know how to play the game, and you’ll wind up having to constantly ask your DM. Here’s the harsh reality though, Rule 1 for DM’s is that everyone’s enjoyment and fun is their absolute top priority. If they are having to hold your hand, they aren’t able to provide the attention to the other players they your companions deserve. If you’re asking your fellow players for help, they may provide it for a time as you’re actually getting the hang of it, but will quickly grow tired of holding your hand when they realize you don’t actually care enough to learn the game.

This brings me to the second rule of etiquette: respect the game. Every game is different. Some games will have you crawling through the Underdark, hunting drow and fighting their demonic servants before they can invade the surface. Others will have you skipping through otherworldly forests on a quest for unicorn semen because the king wants to breed the ultimate show horse (yes, I speak from experience). As you might imagine, both of these games have vastly different tones. One is going to be more serious. There might be the occasional quip, or some banter during combat, but the players are mostly focused on the game, intent on their mission, in the other, everybody is relaxed, joking about the ridiculousness of their mission and making plans for all of the grand designs they have for their reward when they return. Neither is wrong, and it’s all on a sliding scale, but you don’t want to show up to a serious game and start making jokes the whole time, nor do you want to show up to the relaxed game and be a dour jerk. It’s disrespectful to everybody playing whose experience is interrupted and lessened by your presence, and the DM, who has worked hard to create an immersive experience for his players. Now, ultimately, it is the DM’s responsibility to set the tone for the adventure, which he should do in collaboration with his players, but it is everybody’s job to respect it once it’s set.

The third rule is to respect your DM. Even if you think your DM sucks at DM’ing, remember that they have a difficult and often thankless job. The Dungeon/Game Master has to wear many hats: author, organizer, referee, encyclopedia, actor, and more. The DM has to know everything there is to know about the setting in which the story takes place. Many times, the DM has also written the adventure that you’re enjoying. Even if they’re taking you through a pre-generated adventure, such as the D&D Adventurer’s League, they have to be able to improvise on the spot when you deviate from the scenario provided. No matter what kind of a game you’re playing in, chances are your DM has put in about twice as much time preparing the game than you will actually spend at the gaming table, and deserves your respect. Sure, DM’s mess up, they get a call wrong, sometimes they do something more egregious or unfair. Well, that’s life. If you have a problem with it, bring it up in a polite, respectful manner, and see if they don’t make a change. If it continues to happen, don’t be afraid to have a conversation with them outside of the game. If you can’t work things out or make it right you may wind up having to leave the group, but at least you can do it with some dignity and self-respect, and you can be assured everyone will remember you positively next time you’re gaming together.

Rule number 4 should be obvious at this point: respect the other players. Regardless of your own experience level, every other player at the table has a different level of experience than you do, but everybody is there for the same thing: to immerse themselves in the game for a couple of hours and just enjoy the story and experience. It is important to remember that they, like you, are playing a character. Sometimes that character will do good things that benefit the party, like finding a way to lure the dragon away from his cave so that you can snatch the enchanted sword he was using for a pillow, and sometimes they will screw up, having pick-pocketed and sold that magical ring of invisibility you had stashed in case of emergencies. Remember, it’s easy to get angry at your fellow players, but they’re just playing their characters. If you get angry at them and start bickering, you pull everybody out of the game and ruin the fun for everyone.

The final rule I will get into is one that not many players often think about, but stems from all of the others: respect time; the DM’s time, the other players’ time, your time. When I run a game, I typically plan between 2-3 hours of playtime per session. This means that I’m spending between 4-6 hours, minimum, on top of the time playing. All told, that’s a full work-day of work for me that goes into a single session each week. Then, there are the players. My primary weekly game at the moment has 5 players. They’re students, professionals, parents. Busy people with busy lives and full schedules, one night per week of which they carve out for the purpose of playing Dungeons and Dragons. If just one person decides that they don’t want to show up, it throws off the entire game. When this happens in any game, the DM has to adjust his plans to account for the missing person; carefully planned encounters must be redone, planned tasks that might rely on that PC’s skill set must be altered, and potential experience earnings must be recalculated. When the DM has to worry about these things, especially on the fly, it takes away from everybody’s experience. Don’t be that person who puts everybody in that position. The second part of this is to be willing to bow out of a game if keeping the same kind of schedule that everybody else wants is a problem. Now, obviously D&D and other TTRPG’s are not very important in the grand scheme of things, and stuff happens. No DM will hold it against you if you say you can’t make it to a game night, especially with a good reason. If it is going to be a regular issue however, you should respect the time of everybody else to be willing to bow out. Being willing to admit when you’re more of a hamper to a game than an asset will engender respect back to you, and make that group more willing to play with you again in the future should the opportunity present itself.

Once you know and can follow these rules, you’re playing experience and enjoyment of the game will drastically improve. You will know when and where you can and should try to bend (and sometimes break) the rules, your DM will have enough respect for you and your knowledge to actually let you try, and you and your fellow players will be able to spend more time in-character, actually participating in the role-playing part of a role-playing game. I have some good tips for this, as well, and I’ll delve into those next time.

Joshua is a musician, audio/lighting engineer, and career nerd. He's been playing RPG's for 20 years, and DM'ing for 15.

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