50 Lessons About Roleplaying

It was my 50th birthday last week, so here are 50 lessons I’ve learned about roleplaying. Some of them might be short lessons! If one of these jumps out as interesting, let me know and I’ll write a longer piece about it.

  1. You can’t fix real-world problems between players in your make-believe space.
  2. Enthusiasm will paper over any hiccups you may have about formal procedures.
  3. No idea is so great that you can’t rewind and do something different. Ideas are cheap and easy.
  4. Play as many different kinds of games as you can to learn more about your favorites.
  5. Nothing hits your players harder than reincorporating their ideas in surprising ways.
  6. Game designers are usually middling-fair GMs at best, and discovering they’re downright terrible (even at their own games!) should not come as a surprise. Every designer I’ve met is perfectly nice and talented! But actually running a game is a different core competency.
  7. Always roll out in the open.
  8. Be transparent about your intent, both as a player and a facilitator. If transparency fucks up your game then something weird is probably going on.
  9. Streamed games are a related but different activity than games played at home for nobody but you. You can enjoy both separately.
  10. When it’s time to spotlight a character, reframe the game situation so they’re clearly, obviously the primary protagonist. Treat every player like a star when it’s their turn.
  11. Playing, engaging, evaluating and listening in good faith is a skill worth practicing and mastering.
  12. If you want to get better at playing, facilitate more. Feel the freedom of playing your NPCs to lose, and bring that back to your own playing.
  13. If you want to get better at facilitating, play more. Feel the constraints around you when you’re a player, and think about how to address those constraints next time you run.
  14. Always have a visual focus in the middle of your table is powerful: a map, a prop, a relationship map, anything. Everyone stays more focused on the game when they have something to look at together.
  15. Change your seating arrangements to manipulate your social space. I sit at the end of the table when I want to project authority and at a long side when I want to invite collaboration. Break up the players who are thick as thieves. Arrange players to be near who they’re emotionally closest to in the game.
  16. To learn a new game: read through, cover to cover, once. Make two different kinds of characters (if it’s that kind of game), without looking up answers to your questions. Read a second time, keeping your unanswered questions in mind. Play the first session. Afterword, read through a third time with actual play context.
  17. To understand a game: synopsize the rules for your players in the clearest, shortest cheat sheet possible. Teaching is learning.
  18. To master a game, pay attention to: reward cycles (ie what incentives the players receive for various intentional actions), fulfillment cycles (ie what patterns the players complete through play), and the frequency of intermittent rewards (ie random prizes). Sketch it out if you need to.
  19. Recognize that not everyone is incentivized by the same things. Advancement and empowerment aren’t the only incentives! Sometimes folks are so surprised when players don’t chase obvious carrots.
  20. If you’re the type of gamer who reads blogs like this, or Twitter, or fan communities, or publisher forums, understand that you’re 100x more invested in this activity than anyone who doesn’t. That is, most players. Don’t be disappointed that they’re not up on the latest talk, theory, design, etc.
  21. The best part about going to conventions, for me, is being reminded of how good my home game situation is. The creative and social challenge of playing with strangers or friendly acquaintances is fun! But it’s not as consistently good as playing with the folks I know.
  22. “I don’t play board games” is the roleplayer’s version of “I don’t watch television” snobbery. Board games are orders of magnitude bigger than all of roleplaying. Indie games are a rounding error under the D&D umbrella. Storygames are a tiny subset of indie gaming. This thing we’re talking about is a fringe of a fringe activity. We have so much to learn from the wider gaming world.
  23. The absolute best players you’ll ever have at your table are the ones who have never played before. Old calcified gamers are the literal worst. Deprogramming bad habits is a lot of work.
  24. Occasionally recontextualize the abhorrent acts players put their characters through. Go ahead, yes, put this village to the sword. Later, remind them how civilians feel about genocide. Go ahead, yes, tromp around your fantasy village strapped for war. Remind them of how folks react when someone open-carries an assault rifle into a grocery store.
  25. Children are part of any believable make-believe world. It is startling how many folks forget this.
  26. When you’re facilitating and get creatively fatigued, ask the players for ideas. It’s really okay. You don’t need to be infallible. Everyone knows we’re all just making this stuff up anyway.
  27. Do not fucking make fun of anyone’s play. Ever. Don’t draw attention to their inconsistencies, or hand/body/facial gestures, or anything. The magic circle we draw around our game relies on trust. You will have a devil of a time redrawing your magic circle once you’ve lost it.
  28.  I GM at my best when I start prioritizing good questions over good answers.
  29. Good, engaging facilitation is as much about table theatrics as it is about knowing the rules and maintaining pacing. I don’t mean funny voices (please no)! I mean drawing new additions on the relationship map with a flourish, or dramatically dropping a new clock on the table, or quietly placing a sad index card somewhere prominent. Everything a facilitator does is a show.
  30. An oldie but a goodie worth repeating: finding the right matches of system, players, and runner is an art. If any of those things is a mismatch, it’s going to be more work. System matters (but it’s not the only thing that matters).
  31. Play with as diverse a range of players as you can find: gender, age, culture, disability, anything and everything. Go to conventions if you don’t live in a place conducive to variety and can afford it. Play online if you can’t go to conventions. Challenge yourself and your play will improve, because roleplaying is a fundamentally human activity and being a better human makes you a better player. You’ll make mistakes and that’s okay. Nobody is going to cancel you if you’re playing in good faith.
  32. Give folks at least 30 minutes to bullshit before settling down to play. Try to get them gathered early to make that happen.
  33. Debriefs after sessions are so important that you’re better off cutting the game short 30 minutes just to fit it in. Probably most of my adjustments and ideas come from debriefing, not the session.
  34. Give everyone at your table the explicit privilege to stop the campaign at any time for any reason. Life is too short to be bored, or frustrated, or angry about games…
  35. …but don’t give up too easily. My biggest gaming regrets always involve stopping a game too soon.
  36. No matter how deep in the weeds you get with procedures, no matter how antsy you get to get through a scene or a moment, always ask: what does this look like? The minute you decouple the rules from the fiction, things get weird. Even if the players slip into a planning fugue, ask: where is this taking place? What is going on around you? Grounding everything in the shared fiction enriches everything, even if it takes more time.
  37. Tent cards for character names and pronouns, every game, no matter what. Put the names on the back as well so the folks next to you can see too.
  38. A break every hour works magic. Not sure why we think we need to muscle through every minute of a session. Take a break, let things percolate in your brain.
  39. Unless you’re playing in a morally stark setting (like our current campaign, Band of Blades), villains and heroes are super boring. Anti-heroes are the worst! Relatable people with incompatible goals, that’s where the good stuff is.
  40. Don’t run a game when you’re not feeling it. Take breaks. A week or two won’t let the fizz out of the bottle, but if it does then maybe there wasn’t that much fizz to begin with.
  41. I used to get really upset about folks fiddling with non-game stuff at the game table (phones, doodles, knitting for crying out loud), but I’ve made peace with the fact that sometimes players need small distractions. Still, check in and make sure they’re still engaged.
  42. If I don’t have an RPG in my head – if I’m not thinking about it, chewing on it, obsessing – in a couple weeks I start feeling uncentered. Like the gyroscope of my life has tipped over. Weird! But it’s proven to be true over and over, even when I’m feeling burned out.
  43. If I want to generate interpersonal heat or a big reveal, sometimes I’ll just start tossing in topics and ideas that are just adjacent to the characters’ backgrounds, cultures, affiliations, existing relationships, whatever. You don’t need to set up the heat right out of the gate! Once that ingredient is on the table, the table takes over. The heat will reveal itself. The fact you look like a genius who knew what was going to happen all along is a bonus.
  44. Bait and switch in RPGs! Just … no. It never works. It doesn’t work out the way you think it will. The players resent it. Don’t hit them where they’re weakest.
  45. Players, thank your GM and each other. GMs, thank your players. Recognition is rare but so nice. Splash it around! It’s free!
  46. Biggest red flag at new tables: when a player acts squirrelly about the inclusion of sexual relationships as a factor in the game setting. Not even the sex itself! Just repulsion or fear of the idea that fictional characters have intimate relationships.
  47. As a player, I find procedure and embodiment are a zero sum game. The more procedurally intense the game, the less embodiment I feel, and vice versa. As a GM I anticipate that behavior from the players as well.
  48. Try running sessions of an ongoing campaign with the same intensity as you would a one-shot. Play for keeps! Don’t be afraid to crank the stakes up!
  49. Try running one-shots with the same intensity as you would a campaign session. Play for investment and satisfaction! Not every one-shot needs to end in a blood opera!
  50. GM from the bottom of the org chart, not the top. You’re there to support your players. Give until it hurts.
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