How to be a Player
Being a Player in a roleplaying game is pretty straight forward: imagine you are someone else, decide what you want and how you’re going to get it, and then describe those things. And indeed it really is that simple! However, there are a few things that a Player can do to really get the most out of, and give the most back to, a roleplaying game. These things include — but are certainly not limited to:
- Creating a compelling Character,
- Interrogating the Fiction,
- Being a fan of each others’ Characters,
- Leaving room for your Character to grow,
- Building connections with the other Characters,
- And sharing the spotlight with the other Players.
Let’s examine each one, shall we?
Create a Compelling Character
Every roleplaying game you pick up will tell you how to make your Player Character (PC): what statistics you need to define, what equipment you need to have, what your name is, and so on. But there’s more to creating a Character than the words and numbers on your Character Sheet. The true character behind Player Characters comes from their goals, motivations, and their methods.
To put it simply:
- What does your Character want?
- Why does your Character want it?
- And how does your Character intend to get it?
Two Characters who are statistically identical can be wildly different depending on their answers to these three questions. Let’s look at an example, shall we?
Imagine two Inventors — Tobias and Persephone — who are as smart, strong, tough, and quick as each other. In almost every way, they are identical. However, Tobias wants to invent a time machine, so that he can stop a tyrant before they rise to power, and is willing to take as many risks as necessary to achieve his goals. On the other hand, Persephone wants to invent a spaceship, so she can fly the free people of Earth to a new home among the stars, and refuses to break any laws in the process (even those created by the tyrant).
Here we can see two very different Characters, despite them being mechanically identical.
We can get even more interesting if two or more Characters share a common element, but the other two are at odds. This creates strong tension — either in the party, if they’re both Player Characters, or outside the party, if one is a Non-Player Character (NPC). For example:
Imagine two Knights — Gwen and Orion — both with the goal of finding the Holy Grail. Gwen wants the Grail so that she can heal her sick little sister with its life-giving water. Orion wants the Grail so that he can unite his disparate order of Knights, and become their Grandmaster. Gwen intends to get the Grail by fighting — and perhaps killing — anyone who gets in her way. Orion intends to get the Grail by subterfuge — by infiltrating the dark cult who has stolen it, and escaping under cover of darkness.
Gwen’s motivation is at odds with Orion’s: she will not be able to heal her sister if Orion takes it to his order’s monastery, and vice versa. Furthermore, Orion’s methods might seem cowardly to the other members of his order should the discover them, whilst Gwen’s appear to be at odds with her desire to heal…
By creating a compelling Character, you not only make the GM’s job easier, but you also make your own job easier. You no longer have to worry about the question of what you should do next, because the Character’s goal, motivation, and method will tell you!
Interrogate the Fiction
At the table, each Player’s main job is to interrogate the situation — the Fiction — as presented by the GM. Whilst the GM’s job is to present situations and challenges for your Characters to overcome, a GM can’t be expected to think of everything — and nor should that be the case! Your job is to ask questions, build on the answers, and come up with exciting and dramatic solutions.
The GM describes a dusty library through which the street urchins fled. Olivia — Orion’s Player — asks the GM if her Character sees any footprints in the dust that might indicate where they’ve gone. The GM replies that there are none, other than those Orion and Gwen have just made. Orion points this detail out to Gwen, and Gus — Gwen’s Player — asks the GM if Gwen knows of any levitation spells that the urchins might have access to. The GM responds that it’s possible, but such magic is jealously guarded by the wizard guilds… which has curious connotations for who the urchins really are, if they do in fact possess such power.
Think outside the box, ask the unexpected, and don’t be afraid to ask leading questions. The GM, and the other Players at the table, are playing the game to be surprised, and to find out what happens just as much as you are!
For more details on the Fiction, check out How to be a Gamemaster
Leave Room to Grow
A great Player Character doesn’t come to the table in a finished state, just as a main character on a TV show doesn’t start episode 1 with all their backstory and personality quirks established. One of the best ways to be a great Player — and to improve your skills as a Player — is to leave yourself room to grow at the table. Feel free to improvise, or to make strange choices with your Character. Don’t let what we already know about them constrict what you choose to do, and certain don’t worry about fitting to someone else’s opinion on what your Character would do.
If you choose to act out of the ordinary, maybe you can spend a few moments explaining why you acted differently in this circumstance. If you choose to act according to your method (as described above), even if it harms your Character, maybe spend some time describing why, and letting the other Players around the table into your Character’s mind.
Gwen the Grail Knight stands face to face with a great dragon who guards the gold chalice. It breathes fire, and in the flames, Gwen sees it is trying to communicate. It shows her a vision that reveals this dragon is the last of her kind, and currently nursing a clutch of eggs… If Gwen were to kill or injure the dragon, she would be wiping out the dragons for good.
Gwen’s method says she’ll do whatever it takes to get the Grail...but Gus — Gwen’s Player — decides she’s not willing to wipe out an entire species to attain her goal, and explains this to the table. Gwen sheaths her sword, and sits down to talk to the dragon.
Orion, on the other hand, is not willing to compromise. Whilst Gwen and the dragon commune, Orion overhears that the dragon needs the Grail to extend her life long enough to raise her clutch, otherwise they will perish. Olivia states that Orion maintains his convictions, and whilst the dragon is distracted, sneaks into the nest and steals the Grail.
One of the best things Players can do to make their — and their fellow players’ — job easier is to build connections between their Player Character and the other PCs. These connections can be before the game begins — perhaps your two Characters are related, old friends, previous rivals, lovers, etc. — as well as during play. It’s a good idea to build both kinds of connections, and to pay close attention to the emerging story for added moments when your Characters can become intertwined. For example:
Before play begins, Gus and Olivia decide on the following: Gwen and Orion are siblings, with Orion being the eldest, and grew up together during their earliest years, but were separated at a young age when they both went into the service of different knightly orders.
During their adventures, Orion attempts a risky plan which ends up getting some of their friends injured. Gwen decides to have a quiet moment with Orion around the fire that night, and calmly explains to Orion that his brashness was what caused the problem. Orion begins to see his little sister as wiser than him, and starts to confide in her his plans before he enacts them from then on.
These connections allow your fellow Players to express more of their own Character’s inner thoughts, and ultimately serves to grow the story. They also give the GM more details to place in the spotlight, and to build drama around, making your Character’s journey that much more exciting!
Be a Fan of the Other Characters
Just like the characters on a TV show, all of the Player Characters at the table are the main cast. And whilst you might have a favourite character on a show, everyone at the table should be fans of each others’ Characters. When they succeed, you should cheer. When they fail, you should gasp, and wait with baited breath for what happens next!
Players should feel free to enthuse with each other about their favourite things another PC has done during a session, or to ask probing questions of the other Players. Why did Gwen not attack the dragon? Why does Orion believe his quest for control over his order is more important than an entire species?
This support should be true whether your Character supports the actions of another Character or not. Any conflict between Characters should remain just that — between the Characters. If a Character’s actions upset you as a Player, however, mention that to the other Player. Make sure to pause the action until everyone is happy. No action is set in stone, and everything can be rewritten, because it’s all imagined anyway!
It is important to remember that, whilst you should be a fan of your fellow Player Characters, that you should never try to control them. You should play your PC, and play to find out what the others do in the scenes you share with each other.
Share the Spotlight
Lastly, and tied to being a fan of the other Characters, as a Player you should keep an eye out for who at the table hasn’t acted in a while. Maybe a Character isn’t important to a scene, so their Player is taking a back seat. Maybe the action is moving too fast, and a Player is getting left behind…
The GM’s hands are often very full juggling all the roles they have to fill, so if you notice that the spotlight hasn’t shined on one of the Players in a while — or that it has been shining on you a lot — actively hand it off to another Player. Ask that Player what their Character is doing, or for them to help you. Draw the PC into the current action, and then get their input.
Playing is as Important as GMing
The Players around the table are just as important as the GM, and share equal ownership over the unfolding story. That being said, one of the best ways to better understand the role of the Player is to try out the role of the Gamemaster, at least once! If you feel comfortable — and maybe you’ll feel better after reading How to be a Gamemaster - you should try your hand at being on the other side of the table.
And just like being a GM, being a Player is a skill you learn with time. You won’t be perfect right away, but that’s okay! Keep playing roleplaying games, and you’ll have more and more fun with every session.