Monday night, after I finished running my bi-weekly Rhune game, one of my players asked me to hang back for a bit so he could get some feedback on his roleplaying; he also wanted to offer me a few explanations for his character's actions. After listening to his concerns (many of which were very common), I decided to type up this post.
Like a lot of gamers, he wanted to be better at the game, and wanted his actions to "make sense" in the context of the character he was developing. He also wanted to define his character apart from the others; he wanted incentives, aims, and a real reason for his character's departure from a "normal" life. Why would a simple farmer start summoning celestial allies and living on the open road, anyway?
Jaye's Gaming Guidelines
Generally speaking, I like to keep my rules light and fast at my tables. There's a number of reasons for this, but for the most part, my reasoning is simple - I prefer to focus on story and narrative. As a result, I'll bend the occasional 'rule' if it makes for a better story. That said, I'm not one for doing so arbitrarily. When I deviate from core "rules", it's because: 1) I already know the rule well and understand how it impacts other aspects of the game, 2) I have a good work around or alternative to that rule, or 3) my table has agreed that rule doesn't serve a purpose for our games(s).
That said, I still have some guidelines I go by, and when and where I get the chance, I like to share these with my players. So, I'm inviting you to my table and sharing these accordingly.
So, what are my guidelines for gaming?
Guideline One - Have Fun
While this may sound cliché, I think this is something folks forget time to time, especially when a campaign runs for any serious length of time. People develop goals in game for their characters or for their groups, and forget to have fun. Believe it or not, I've actually seen folks stress over games, over LARPs, and over countless MMOs. People get caught up in the grind, or chasing gear, or blah blah you missed the raid blah blah.
We have enough things in life that add unnecessary stress; don't make your games one of them. There are countless things that can sneak in the way of that fun, so I always keep one on the top of my mental stack.
So when I address a problem, I'm always internally asking "But is it fun?" This naturally leads me to "How can I make this fun?" Or, in retrospect, "How could I have made that more fun?" All in all, when I keep fun in mind, I think the overall play experience improves for everyone involved.
And that keeps you young and me immortal. Or something.
Guideline Two - Hey Players.... Ask Questions!
While there are certainly exceptions, my experience with gamers has been largely positive. I've gamed all over the world; at one point, my table in Kuwait was dominated by women and I've run more than my fair share of multicultural games. And of course, every year I attend countless cons, as well. In short, I've gamed with a lot of people. I've taught a lot of people Pathfinder.
You know what I learned while doing this? I learned some of the most effective people I know ask the most questions. Of course, this makes perfect sense; most of us learn new things by asking questions and roleplaying games are no different. So, while you're learning to play, ask plenty of questions. When you do, ask questions that empower you as a player; ask where to find something, for instance, instead of a ruling on something.
Mind you, there are two general types of questions you get in an RPG. These are: 1) technical questions (you want to do something with your character, but you're not sure how) or 2) questions about the environment your character exists in (is it cold, dark, or dangerous where your character is?). When gamers are learning, they tend to ask a lot of both. However, as newer gamers learn how to play the game, the questions about "how to play" generally taper off and are (hopefully) replaced by the second set of questions.
I've noticed a lot of players shy away from asking questions, either because they don't want to slow down play or because they're somehow embarrassed by their lack of knowledge or understanding. I can promise you, that's rarely the case. So, what does asking questions do?
1) Asking questions helps you learn the game you're playing.
2) Asking questions helps you learn additional rules or guidelines that might apply to your game or session.
3) Asking questions shows the GM/DM you're invested in the game.
4) Asking questions shows the GM/DM you're invested in the story he or she prepared for you.
While that may not seem like a lot, all of those things are important, both to your GM, as well as your other players.
Guideline Three - Clearly State Your Objective!
Now before I dive into this, let me be perfectly clear - I always want players to ask questions (see above)! So please don't read this as a guideline that discourages that. Players - ask your GMs all the questions. Except for the questions about dinosaurs. Those go to my buddy David. ;)
In fact, most GGMs (Good Game Masters) encourage players to ask plenty of questions, especially when it comes to investigating the surrounding world or while learning a particular gaming system. As a player gains proficiency with a particular gaming system, however, that same player is doing to need to ask fewer questions. However, if a GM doesn't encourage a player to grow, or if a GM is just being a toxic, authoritarian type, this trait could become a big barrier to having actual fun while gaming.
That said, you don't need to know the rules. Sure, it makes doing this easier and learning the particulars of a given game can make your GM's life a whole lot easier.... but that doesn't mean you should let being new stop you from having fun.
Moreover, once you get in the habit of saying, "I want my character to do X, Y, or Z," moving between gaming systems becomes much less of a pain, especially if you have a GGM. Why? Because chances are, if you know what you want your character to do, your GM will tell you what steps you need to try and accomplish your task.... even if you don't know the gaming system you're playing at all. That doesn't mean you're going to win or even succeed, but it does mean you'll get a chance to try (if you want to).
Guideline Four - Invest a Little! (Or, Invest a Lot).
If you're going to take the 4-6 hours a week it takes to play a tabletop RPG, you might as well spend some time investing in it. Get to know the NPCs. Ask questions about the world around you. Give your character a back story or some connections to the larger plot.
If you've played any of Paizo's 20+ adventure paths, you already know that each time they release a new AP, they include a free Player's Guide for that AP. This guide will include traits, background info for PCs, Feats, special gear, and a whole bunch of additional items that players can use to better tie their new characters into the AP.
Mind you, you don't need a player's guide to accomplish this - most of this can be handled between the GM and the players in the first session. This is sometimes referred to as Session Zero and if you ask me, it's an absolute must.
My point, of course, is that GMs invest hours every week writing plots, designing NPCs, building monsters, arming traps, and in general, preparing encounters and stories that are aimed at engaging you. If you're planning on playing in a particular campaign for any length of time, do them a square and spend half that time preparing so that you know what your character can and cannot do.
Guideline Five - Don't Get Bogged Down in the Minutiae.
You may not know it, but the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook is a long, long 578 pages. That's just the main book. When you add the dozens of additional books, and hundreds of supplements, you're bound to get overwhelmed. If you added the thousands of third party products, well, that list of options, ideas, and other material gets even bigger.
I've been gaming for over 27 years and you know what? I've learned that I can never know everything. There are still things in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Core Rulebook that I look up. So, unless you have an eidetic memory, plan on going back to the book time and time again.
Guideline Six - Session Zero is a Must!
l mentioned it above, but it's worth repeating; session zero is an absolute must. So, what is session zero? Essentially, this is the verbal contract between the players and the GM. It's the GMs chance to float ideas, guidelines, and hopes before launching into a full campaign; it's part mission briefing, part prologue, part ToS (terms of service), and part movie trailer. It should also be completely casual and GGM's will use this as an opportunity to answer all of the players' collective questions.
Of course, you don't need to limit yourself to a single session zero, either. In fact, I'm very fond of the idea of having update gaming sessions, where everyone goes over their characters, discusses the campaign, and shares their ideas and concerns. And you know what? You can do this whenever you want. So, have your session zero.... but don't think that's the last time it has to happen.
Guideline Seven - Use Character Names
I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm horrible with names.
So, unless I repeatedly use a name, it takes me a while to learn it (sorry Boomer). That extends to character names, as well. So, when I'm sitting at the table, I make a point to use character names instead of player names. It's a simple enough act, and when all the players do it, I've found it helps all of us stay in character longer, and by extension, make better decisions as those characters. In short, this helps both the GM and the players establish and maintain immersion; that's pretty important in my book.
The best part? I don't have to address meta-gaming as often.
Guideline Eight - Record Your Sessions!
When it comes to my growing list of guidelines, this is arguably the newest addition. But it's incredibly important. Let me tell you why.
I started making audio recordings of my sessions about a year ago when we started to play test episodes of Bloodlines & Black Magic. You know what I learned? I quickly discovered that players tended to stay "in character" more often, and for longer periods of time. Each player knew they'd have an audience, so we made the effort - every time we sat down - to stay in character. After about three sessions like this, I knew I'd be recording all of my gaming sessions going forward.
Of course, once we started recording sessions, a simple but effective benefit also revealed itself. Provided we weren't hitting pause too frequently (for side bars and the like), we were developing an audio record of the whole campaign - one we could reference if we had questions or concerns. If we missed a few weeks of gaming, I could also go back to the previous recording and take notes, getting back up to speed quickly while I worked on other tasks (I could listen to my sessions like I would a podcast).
Guideline Nine - Respect Each Other
Each of us have our own reasons for gaming.
For some folks, gaming is an escape. For others, it's a chance to explore any number of concepts, roles, or ideas. The characters players create in RPGs often represent their interests, even when those interests (whether fleeting or firmly rooted in the individual's psyche) are unpopular, illegal, or otherwise inaccessible. RPGs are just great places to explore concepts and ideas; individual players need to remember that the dude playing a female elven bard isn't doing so to annoy you, but because they have a need or want to explore that identity.
Some gamers are only at the table for combat, while others are at the table because they love acting, while others just want to solve puzzles or solve mysteries.
When we sit down at the table, we need to respect each other, regardless of our reasons for playing.
And there you have it folks... my Nine Guidelines for Awesome Gaming.