11 ways to be a better roleplayer, the Safe for Work version

This is the “safe” version of the 11 ways text with all the rude bits removed if you want to share it with someone who’s upset by profanity. The original rude version, complete with swear words, is available here.

ONE. Do stuff.
Job One for you as a player is to do stuff; you should be thinking, at all times – “What are my goals? And what can I do to achieve them?” You are the stars of a very personal universe, and you are not going to get anywhere by sitting on your butt and waiting for adventure to come and knock on your door.
Investigate stuff. Ask questions. Follow leads. No-one needs you to point out that this is an obvious plot thread while you do it. Mix up scenes, talk to people, get up in their grill. If you’re not playing the sort of character that would do such a thing, find something you can affect, and affect it.
If you keep finding yourself pushed to the back of scenes and twiddling your thumbs – why is such a boring character hanging around with the sort of people that Get Stuff Done?
Be active, not passive. If you learn nothing else from this article, bloody learn this.

TWO. Realise that your character does not exist outside of the things you have said.
You can write as many pages of backstory as you like, mate, but they don’t factor in one bit to the game unless you show them happening. Are you a shrewd businessman? Cool. Do some business, shrewdly, in front of everyone else. Are you a hot jazz saxophonist? Play the saxophone. Are you a wild elf struggling through social interactions with civilised people? Struggle through those interactions! Don’t go off and sit in a tree!
This ties back into the first point, really; you only exist through your actions. It is not the responsibility of other players to read your backstory, and their characters cannot read minds. Well. Some of them can, but you know what I mean. They shouldn’t have to.
So display your talents, your traits, your weaknesses, your connections. Take every opportunity to show, and not tell, the other people at the table what your character is about.

THREE. Don’t try to stop things.
Negating another player’s actions is fairly useless play; it takes two possible story-changing elements and whacks them against each other so hard that neither of them works. For example, your fighter wants to punch some jerk, but your monk’s against it, so he grabs the fighter’s hand. In game terms, nothing’s happened. All you’ve done is waste time, and we don’t have infinite supplies of that.
Instead, go with the flow. Build. If the fighter wants to break someone’s nose, what happens after that? Does your monk rush to help the jerk up? To admonish the fighter? To apologise to the jerk’s friends, before shit really kicks off? To save the fighter in the big brawl that ensues, even though he was going against your will? Or to throw the biggest guy in the tavern right at him, to really teach him a lesson? Those are all examples of interesting stories. Stopping him from doing anything whatsoever isn’t.
Don’t negate, extrapolate. (See, that rhymes, so it’s easier to remember)

FOUR. Take full control of your character.
“My character wouldn’t do that” is a boring excuse, a massive NO to the game’s story on a fundamental level. It’s a point-blank refusal to participate.
Instead of being bound by pre-conceived notions of what your character would and would not do, embrace complications and do it, but try to work out why. Why is your Rogue doing this mission for the church? Does he have ulterior motives? Is it out of a sense of companionship with the rest of the party? Characters in uncomfortable situations are the meat and drink of drama.
(Do you remember that great story about that hobbit who told Gandalf to go away, and sat at home picking his hairy toes all day before his entire village was swallowed up by the armies of darkness? No. No you bloody don’t. So put on your backpack and get out there, Frodo)
If you keep finding yourself having to explain your actions, or not wanting to go along with group decisions because of your character’s motives… well, maybe your character’s motives are wrong. They’re not written in stone. The group’s the thing, not your snowflake character, and if they’re not working, drop them off at the next village and maybe try playing someone more open to new ideas. Maybe work with the group to build a character that fits in.
Your character is part of the story; this is not your character’s story.
FIVE. Don’t harm other players.
Oh ho, here’s a jolly thief that nicks stuff from the other party members! And their Sleight of Hand roll is so high that no-one will ever notice! Gosh, what a jape.
No-one likes that guy. (That guy generally plays Kender, and I am fully of the opinion that Kender should be promptly genocided out of all RPGs. I don’t think genocide is a crime if we’re talking about Kender.) If you steal from other players, you are exerting power over them in a really messy, underhanded sort of way. If they find out, what are they going to do? Are you going to force them to escalate? Is it fair if they kill you for it? Is that fun for them?
Similarly, attacking other players is awful, too. I’m okay with this where systems fully support and encourage this, of course – something like Paranoia or Dogs in the Vineyard – but, hey, give it a rest. I am hard-pressed to think of a way where such a thing improves the game; if your group is fine with it, discuss it beforehand. But keep me out of it.
There are a whole load of things out there to steal from and beat up and kill that won’t get offended when you do it to them, so go bother them first.
SIX. Know the system, don’t be a jerk about it.
If you know a system, you are easier to GM for, because you know your character’s limitations. You can calculate the rough odds of a particular action succeeding or failing, just like in real life. You can make prompt assessments of situations and act accordingly, because you understand the rules of the world.
(New players, of course, get a free pass on this one. But do make an effort to learn the rules, obviously, if you’re keen on sticking around in the hobby.)
But for the love of God, don’t rules-lawyer. Do not do that. It is not hard to work out, because here is a simple guide – if you are arguing over a rule for more than twenty seconds, you are a rules lawyer. You are the Health and Safety Inspector of roleplaying games, and you need to stop talking, because you are sucking the fun out of the game.
There are times when the rules are wrong, and that’s fine, but I’m hard-pressed to think of that time the guy remembered the rule and we all laughed and had a great time because he made the GM change it.

SEVEN. Give the game your attention. If you can’t give your full attention, step away from the table.

Hey! What’s that you’re playing, on your phone there? Oh, is it Candy Crush Saga? That’s funny, all these dice and character sheets gave me the impression that we were playing Dungeons and Bloody Dragons, I must be terribly mistaken.
It is hard to think of a way to be more dismissive of someone’s game than playing a different game during it. If you find yourself getting so bored by what’s going on you’re resorting to playing a game on your phone, or reading a book, or checking Facebook, then step away from the game. You are draining the group with your very presence. I would rather have an empty chair than someone who wasn’t paying attention, because I don’t have to entertain an empty chair.
And of course, it’s up to the GM to offer an entertaining game. This is not one-sided. But going back to point one, act whenever you can. Give them something to work with. Unless you’re paying them money to do this, they are under no obligation to dance like a monkey for you just because they’re behind the screen.
EIGHT. If you make someone uncomfortable, apologise and talk to them about it.
I have a rule in my games, and that rule is: “Nothing has sex with anything else.” Simple. Clean. Elegant. No sexual conduct; it’s weird, often. I’ve had seduction attempts, obviously, and that’s fine. I’ve had characters deeply affected by sexual assault. But, and this is the crucial thing here, nothing had sex with anything else “onscreen.”
In situations like the ones we find ourselves in on a weekly basis, it’s easy to make people feel uncomfortable. Maybe it’s as blatant as discussing dead babies; maybe it’s something much more benign, like being rude or chatting them up in-character.
If you think you might have upset someone, then ask ‘em, quietly. And if you have, apologise, and stop talking about that particular thing. It’s not rocket science; that’s how existing as a functioning social human being works, and somehow because we’re pretending to be a halfling for a bit, we often forget how to do it.

So, you know, be nice. Be extra nice. No-one’s going to think any less of you for it.

NINE. Be a Storyteller.

The World of Darkness books call their GM a Storyteller, because they are very obviously unable to call a spade a spade. But they have a point; a GM is telling stories. It’s easy to forget that the players are doing that too.
So put some effort in, eh? Say some words. Develop a character voice and stance. Describe your actions. Work out a level of agency with the GM so you can chip into wider descriptions, or just make assumptions and describe it and see if it sticks. A good GM should go with what you’re saying, anyway, unless it really goes against their plan.
Similarly, brevity = soul of wit, and all that. A good GM doesn’t monologue, or have their NPCs have long discussions, or make players sit back and watch while their world plays out. So know when to shut up, and to keep your descriptions short – unless you’re an incredible storyteller, of course. But short and punchy is always better than long and flowery.

TEN. Embrace failure.
Failure can be embarrassing. I know that I get pretty het up when the dice don’t favour me – when I’ve spent ages waiting to have my turn in a large game, say, or when I’m using some special power, or when I’ve been talking a big talk for a while or described some fancy action – and I use some pretty bad language, too. And not “fun” bad language, like we all do when we’re gaming. Like threatening “is this guy okay” bad.
And that’s not cool. I need to learn to treat failure as a story branch, not a block. Why did I miss? Why didn’t my intimidation roll work? Why didn’t I pick the lock? Why was I seen? Who worked out that I’m the traitor? What other options can I explore?
Some systems build this in by default – Apocalypse World, for example – and they give you the ability to somehow affect the world whenever you roll the dice, not just fail to affect someone’s Hit Points. That’s great! We need to get ourselves into that mindset by default. We need to view failures as setbacks and explain why our character didn’t achieve their goal, and we need to understand that failure is not the end of the world.
ELEVEN. Play the game.
This is a game. This is not a challenge that exists solely in the head of your GM. This is not your character’s personal story arc. This is not your blog. This is not an excuse to chat up one of the other players. This is not a table to sit at in silence. This is a game.
We have signed up to play a game together. We are all telling a story with each other, to each other, and the story comes first. Step back from the heat of combat; step back from your character’s difficult relationship with their half-Drow mother; step back from the way that the Paladin’s player keeps stealing your dice.
This is a game. Respect the other players. Respect the story, and act in service of it. Respect that you will not always get your way, and that not getting your way can be interesting.
Do what is best for the game. Do what is best for the story. Be active! Be positive! Be interesting! Change things! If you can’t walk away at the end of the night with a good memory, with something that you could talk about in the pub in years to come, then everyone at the table has failed.


18 responses to “11 ways to be a better roleplayer, the Safe for Work version”

  1. Wizgang Avatar

    It is critical to remember the importance of teamwork. Most adventures are designed to be completed as a team. People who run off from the group to do things on their own or simply do things to create interest are just hurting the party and themselves. I am always amazed at how characters with a supposedly high (16) wisdom will open a door without checking anything, knowing that the party is not prepared for any combat, or a trap if one is present. Really? That is how someone with a 16 wisdom acts? Get real! Your wisdom just dropped 10 points!

  2. Delos Adamski Avatar

    Great read. I’m going to pass this out to any new members I get. I’m also gonna feature this in my blog.

  3. karina Avatar

    what is the 5 most important steps for a new player?

    1. grant Avatar

      Hm, good question! Here’s five off the top of my head:

      1) Pay attention to what’s going on at the table, even if it’s confusing at first
      2) Make a character that fits in with the group concept but make sure it’s one that you’re excited about playing (more: http://lookrobot.co.uk/2014/01/10/six-questions-will-help-make-better-character/)
      3) Don’t be afraid to ask for help or clarification with rules or setting, everyone had to learn this somehow
      4) Be brave, talk in character, make a fool of yourself; the other players will love it and follow suit (hopefully)
      5) If you’re not having fun, talk to your GM. And if you’re still not having fun, try to find (or make) a different group; each one is different

  4. James Corr Avatar
    James Corr

    Good article and really appreciate the cleaned up version. Too many people have the attitude “I can swear if I want to and if you don’t like it that’s too bad”. Unfortunately that attitude is self-centered and short-sighted. We live together as a society and need to get together whether we like it or not. It doesn’t hurt to be polite and have good manners. Swearing, obscenities and the use of foul language rarely adds to effective communication and usually detracts. Thanks for listening to my rant.

  5. Morgan hazel Avatar
    Morgan hazel

    This is a great piece! Thanks for taking the time to remove the profanity. I wanted to share this with some kiddos. Awesome stuff!

  6. Bo Vandenberg Avatar
    Bo Vandenberg

    Still needs some graphic. Give us something to share it with on Pinterest or whatever…

    1. Michelle Avatar

      Agreed, this article could use a snazzy preview pic.

  7. MegsFitness Avatar

    I, too, enjoyed the profanity-free version so that I could read it on my break at work 🙂

    I recently joined a campaign and as a newb I was guilty of some of these things (not telling a story, not acting in character, not contributing enough to the action, and *cringe* getting distracted by my phone). We’re starting a new campaign on Saturday and my new character will be much better at keeping the group dynamics..well.. dynamic!

  8. WildWiredWeasel Avatar

    When writing a guide, try to not come off as hostile. After reading the SFW version, I feel stressed, despite the fact I’m usually the gm, not a player. Players seeking self-improvement likely already lack confidence in their ability to role-play, and being blasted for making the mistakes they make is not the proper way to inspire the confidence in them to continue to seek improvement. I wish you luck in your future writings, and hope you improve this one.

  9. Michelle Avatar

    Hey, I just want to let you know how much I appreciate the swear-free rewrite! I personally can cope with the swearing, but I stay away from it for a couple of reasons. I’m a mom of two boys (10 and 12) who are just getting into RPGs and don’t have a habit of swearing (yet); I like to teach them that life is just as interesting without words that bruise the tender ear. Also, I am an educator living in a town where many people are wary of RPGs, and I have many Facebook friends who have tender ears; I want to be able to share RPG related articles that don’t make them fear that gaming leads to cursing leads to Satan worship, etc. So, thanks!

  10. Aaron Tyo-Dickerson Avatar

    Thanks for this great list of tips for players. I am sponsoring a new RPG Club at an international school in Ethiopia and have found this advice crucial for our new members. Thanks also for the “clean version”, which makes this advice more shareable with our younger students. (Our club is for grades 6 through 12). Keep up the great work!

  11. Ben Ostrowsky Avatar
    Ben Ostrowsky

    This isn’t as swear-free as you think, not yet. Check the sentence beginning “To apologise to the jerk’s friends, before”. Other than that, spot on and thank you!

  12. Pandaemoni Avatar

    So if a character is a shrewd businessman (and let’s say possesses a high charisma and wisdom to back it up) but the player are too shy (or too unimaginative) to roleplay that at the table, then it is *wrong* to imagine your character as being a shrewd businessman in your own brain on your own time. Characters do exist as much in your brain as they do in-game. It’s make-believe in both places. Don’t tell people they are enjoying themselves incorrectly.

    1. grant Avatar

      No, you’re wrong.

  13. Allan Norton Avatar

    Sorry about being late to the party, hopefully someone is still reading this.

    I think this is overall good advice, but it lends itself towards very specific style of play; one that is overall story driven rather than character or objective driven (narrativist / dramatist if you prefer) and with a very pro GM slant, and it comes across as very dismissive of people who prefer different gaming styles; although I am sure this is mostly a combination of me reading too much into it and the author overstating things for effect.

    I do have two questions though, about five and six.

    First, what do you consider “harm”? I have had plenty of games which disallowed actual violence toward other PCs, but have had no problem with one player robbing, bullying, insulting, or publicly embarrassing another PC or attacking one of their favorite NPCs. I have also had situations where the party members would exploit these rules to ruin someone’s character concept, for example forcing the paladin to sit back and watch while the rest of the party marched into the town square and went on a killing spree.
    Like many conflicts, it is hard to see the root cause, and things tend to escalate. I honestly am not sure how to address this without turning the game into something like a Kindergarten class where the players are constantly threatening to tell the DM on each other.

    Second, you say never to argue for more than 20 seconds or you are a rules lawyer. But, what do you do if after 20 seconds there is no resolution? I assume you would say “Let the GM make a final call,” but in that case this is less about rules lawyering than never questioning the DM.
    I know plenty of DMs who are themselves rules lawyers and will initiate rules arguments by trying to step in and stop the player’s fun by telling them they can’t do something. Now, sometimes this is necessary to keep the game on track, but not always, sometimes it just grinds the game to a halt and makes it less fun for everyone, which, afaict, is exactly the sort of thing rule six is meant to avoid.

    For example, I had one DM who ruled that in 3.5 that drawing or sheathing a weapon was always a standard action. This is objectively wrong, and I could point out where it says so in the book, but the DM wouldn’t even look at it and declared “I am the DM, my call is final, and if I actually allowed players to quote rules to me that would encourage rules lawyering, which is a behavior I can’t stand.”

    The thing is, the players knew the rules and were having fun with them, but the DM was constantly stepping in and enforcing his made up standard action rule to spoil our plans and make us go 3-5 rounds between attacks in fights with a lot of mobility. (For example, enemy climbs a wall, rather than spending a turn climbing after it and attacking the next I spend a turn sheathing my sword, a turn climbing, a turn drawing my sword, and then on the fourth turn I might get to attack, assuming the monster is still on top of the wall when I finally get there).

    1. Braden Avatar

      I agree. Most of the rules-lawyering trouble I have had is when the GM hasn’t got a firm grasp of why the rules are there. They are playtested and balanced, and they aren’t to be dismissed on whim, not by the players, and not by the GM. I had a game once that was stone-cold boring because the GM was new, and didn’t know things like “players are creatures.” So when we get attacked by wolves, they didn’t get to use their special ability to knock us prone because their stat block said it only affected creatures. So we steamrolled over them instead of having a challenging and interesting fight. I was too new to speak up, because I certainly didn’t want to imply to anyone that the GM wouldn’t know the rules of the game, but sheesh. Sometimes, rules-lawyering is necessary for people to have fun.

  14. […] time, I’m inspired by a post by Grant on his LookRobot blog. There’s a squeaky clean version and a naughty bits version. Read either one and then come back for the debrief, […]

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