Dear Players: There’s a Better Way to Play

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I’m really going to change this crap up today. First, there’s no Long, Rambling Introduction™ today. Just a short little introduction. This introduction. Second, this article probably isn’t for you. At least, it’s not for you to read. Because it’s not really for Game Masters at all. Not for them to read. It’s for them to print out and hand to their players. See, my recent article about combat narration started with a conversation about how players weren’t declaring actions properly during combat. And after I posted the article, I ended up in even more discussions about how players don’t seem to understand how this game works and how it makes it really hard to run games for them. And, after running a few recent games for some new people and attending a convention, recently, I’ve observed some really troublesome behavior from players. So, in my infinite magnanimity – because I am pretty much the most magnanimous gamer in the entire freaking community – in my magnanimity, I’ve decided to provide a public service to all the GMs out there who are struggling with players who can’t play worth a damn. Probably because someone taught them wrong. Or because they are just, well, stupid. They are players, after all. If they were so smart, they’d be GMs.

So, feel free to print this article out and hand it to any of your problem players so they can understand how to suck a little less at role-playing and declaring actions. You probably want to leave off that above paragraph though.

Introducing: The Angry GM

Hi there. My name is The Angry GM. You probably don’t know me. But you probably do know my work. Have you noticed how your GM’s games have gotten much better lately? That’s because they started reading my website. Or maybe they even bought my book. And if they didn’t buy my book yet, it’d make a perfect gift for them. Much better than the dice you’re always buying them. Trust me, GMs have dice. We have plenty of dice. So, buy your GM a copy of my book.

Now, I know that name is pretty scary. The ANGRY GM. But don’t worry. I’m actually a really nice guy. I’m not the sort of person who would call players stupid or suggest they are playing the game wrong or anything like that. I just want everyone to have a really fun time playing table-top RPGs any fun way they want. Except for wrong ways. But there aren’t any wrong ways. That’s what terrible, mean GMs would say. And I’m not that. No. I’m nice.

Look, I’m here because your GM asked me to talk to you. Sort of. I mean, I volunteered. Because your GM wouldn’t actually ask me to talk to you. Your GM doesn’t want to make you feel bad or imply you’ve been doing anything wrong. Your GM just wants you to have a good time. But, it turns out, you’ve been making your GM’s life a little harder than it needs to be. Because, even though there’s no wrong way to play RPGs, you’ve been doing some stuff that isn’t… the… uh… best way to play. For everyone. Including your GM. Who also wants to have fun. Your GM doesn’t want to leave every game and have to bang their head against a brick wall for an hour to erase the memory of the four hours of torture you put them through because you don’t understand basic concepts like how… I mean… uh. Excuse me.

So, I just want to lay out some basic, fundamental ideas about how role-playing games are supposed to work and dispel some misunderstandings. So that everyone can have fun. Don’t think of this as me correcting you. Think of this as me showing an even more fun way of playing than the perfectly not wrong way you’ve been playing so far. Okay? Good.

Playing a Role

Let’s start by talking about what role-playing actually is. Which is not to imply there is one true, correct definition of that phrase and that words actually have meanings you can’t just change to suit your own whims or whatever internet argument you’re making at the time. Of course, words can mean anything you need them to mean and there are no fixed definitions for anything. That wouldn’t completely ruin 50,000 years of human communication. But, just for fun, let’s look at one specific definition of role-playing that is just as correct as all the others, but happens to be super useful in not driving your GM completely bonkers.

The idea behind role-playing is that you play a role. You adopt a persona. You pretend to be someone you’re not in a fantasy world. And you pretend all of it is real. Like, it’s an alternate reality or something. There really is a world where people can be elves or werewolves or part dragons. And no, not like Tumblr.

Now, the GM is going to present you with a situation. And your job is to imagine the situation they describe is actually real. And it’s happening to your character. And then, you decide what your character would do if that situation were real and if you were your character. Now, that might seem a little remedial. But I feel like we have to start there because it lays a foundation for everything else you’re totally screwing up. I mean every other better way I’m going to discuss below. And I – and your GM – feel like maybe you’re missing some part of this idea.

Why? Well, for lots of reasons, which I’ll discuss below. But for one reason in particular. And that’s that some of you tend to do things that are a little gonzo. A little bonkers. A little strange. Especially if you’re a little new to the game. Or if you’ve been reading the wrong gaming blogs. See, sometimes, you’ll do some absolutely crazy stuff just to test the limits of what you can do or because crazy, bonkers stuff is more fun. And sometimes, it is. Some games are crazy and bonkers. And that’s fine. But that’s not what most GMs want to do. Most GMs want to create a satisfying story that is also a satisfying game. Like a good movie combined with a good video game. So, if the party is exploring an ancient ruin and everything is all tense and stuff and suddenly a young dragon flies down from hole in the ceiling and roars and confronts the party and it’s about to be a really exciting boss fight, it kind of ruins things when you say you want to seduce the dragon.

See, when you tell the GM what you want to do – unless your GM is crazy and bonkers, and if they are, they didn’t give you this article to read – when you tell the GM what you want to do, the first thing the GM is going to do is imagine the world as a real place, imagine your action in the world, and try to decide if it’s possible or not. And stupid, crazy actions short circuit your GM’s brain. Remember this part, by the way. I’m going to come back to this idea later.

The thing is, it just seems like some of you tend to choose your actions to finish a sentence that starts “wouldn’t it be really funny if my character…” And yes. It would be funny. But funny isn’t always fun. Funny is fun if you’re watching a cartoon or telling a joke. But if you’re watching a drama or telling a serious story, funny isn’t fun. And if everyone at the table who isn’t you is involved in the drama, funny makes everyone else stop having fun. It has to do with something called tone, but don’t worry about that. It’s something GMs worry about. A lot. Which is why your silliness – especially if you are the only silly person at the table – gives your GM an ulcer and makes them want to quit running games forever.

Remember, the sentence you should be completing is: “if this situation were real and I was my character, I would…” And likely, the correct way to finish that sentence very rarely involves seducing anything that isn’t human. Or, at least, humanoid. Unless you’re on Tumblr. And you’re not.

The same basic logic applies to players who purposefully take stupid actions, useless actions, or actions that are likely to fail because they think it will make the story more interesting. In fact, let’s talk about that “story” thing. After we talk about dice.

Brains Before Dice

Admittedly, most players get over being silly, ridiculous, or purposely seeking failure after a few games with the right GM. So, that may not be your problem. And, let’s be honest, if your GM handed you this to read: you are causing a problem. But not in any way that should make you feel criticized. Remember, I’m nice. I would never judge you. I’m just showing you a different way to think about things.

For example, let’s talk about dice. To you, the dice are very powerful things. They rule your fate. Or the fate of your character. Though, let’s be honest, there’s no real difference in the game between you and your character. You’re thinking for them. You’re acting for them. And if they die, you die. Ha ha ha. Just kidding. Very few GMs use that optional rule anymore.

The rules of the game say that every time you try to do something in the game, you roll some dice. And if you roll a good roll, whatever you wanted to happen happens. And if you roll a bad roll, whatever you wanted to happen doesn’t happen. Makes sense, right? And it makes so much sense that you might even think that it’s the dice rolls that are making thing happen. As long as some dice get rolled, things might or might not happen.

Now, this leads to some very bad behavior that drives GMs absolutely frigging bonkers. I mean, this leads to some perfectly fine behaviors that can nonetheless cause your GMs some stress for reasons you may not quite understand. For example, you might find your way in the game barred by a stern guardsman. And you might snatch up your die, roll it, and say, “I Persuade him. 20.” And you might think that because you rolled a really good result on a Persuasion check skill, that’s enough. But it isn’t.

You can succeed without rolling a die. You can fail without rolling a die. You can go a whole game session without rolling a die. Not that I recommend that. It isn’t fun. I know some GMs who actually brag that they ran an entire session without rolling dice. And I’ve told them why they are wrong in previous articles. But now, I have to explain why always rolling dice is also wrong.

Remember what I said above: when you say you want to do something, the first thing your GM does is to think about the action and think about the world and decide if your action can actually work. And then the GM has to decide if the action can actually fail. And only if the action can succeed and if it can fail does the GM actually need a die roll. Think about it, if you jumped off a cliff and flapped your arms, there is no way you’d actually start flying. You’d just end up dead. Or with a pair of broken legs and a ruptured spleen at the very least. There is no way in hell that flapping your arms – if you’re a human and not a wizard with a flying spell – there is no way flapping your arms can make you fly. We don’t need a die roll to determine that.

Likewise, if you try to open a completely normal door that isn’t locked or stuck or anything, there’s really no way you’d fail. I mean, sure, there’s a chance your hand with slip off the doorknob and you’d end up bonking into the door because you started walking as you were opening the door, but that’s a really slim chance. Too slim to worry about. There’s no reason to roll a die to open a door.

The thing is, the dice and the rules are tools. The GM uses them to figure out the results of stuff that could go either way. But the action has to be possible first. The dice don’t make everything possible.

Tips Do Have Magical Powers, You Can Leave One by Clicking My Tip Jar

Moreover, the dice don’t have magical powers to change reality. They can resolve questions about whether something possible happens, but they can’t make the impossible possible. Even if you rolled a 20. If you try to talk your way past a guard, you might be able to persuade the guard to look the other way and let you sneak in, but a 20 on the die roll won’t make the guard fall madly in love with you and become a goo-goo eyed love slave.

Did you know, in most versions of Dungeons & Dragons, a roll of a natural 1 or a natural 20 on the die actually doesn’t mean anything except on attack rolls? They mean “automatic miss” and “critical hit” respectfully when it comes to swinging a sword, but on all other die rolls, they don’t actually mean anything. Not even automatic success.

My point is two-fold. First, don’t roll dice until your GM asks you to roll dice. Your GM may not need a die roll. Your GM might already know if the action succeeds or fails because it can’t go any other way. Not logically. Second, you should always start trying to decide what to do with the question of whether something is actually reasonably possible or not. Because no amount of die rolling will make the impossible possible.

But there ARE ways you can hedge your bet.

Dual Wielding Detail and Clarity

Let’s go back to that guard situation. You and your friends are trying to get into the palace in the middle of the night. And there’s a guard on the door. Which makes perfect sense. So, you decide you want to persuade the guard to let you in.

Let’s just think about that a second. Think about it from the guard’s perspective. You have one job: guard. Here come a bunch of armed adventurers and they want to get into the palace. Your job is not to let anyone into the palace. You’re about to turn them away, but then they… what? What do they do? They are really friendly to you? They say please? They make creepy sexual advances at you? Is any of that really going to sway you? No.

And here’s the problem, when all you – as a player – do is say “I persuade the guard,” that leaves a lot of vagaries. If all you’re doing is saying please, that’s not going to work. And a good GM will say, “umm, no.” But what if you are actually really trying to prevent a plot to assassinate the king. What if you have some evidence and you’re in a hurry to stop the king from getting killed. And what if one of you is a lawful-good paladin of a known religious order. If that’s the case you make, well, the guard might actually buy that. If the guard thinks the king is actually in danger, well, part of his job is protecting the king. He might let you in. He might even help.

And that’s where the most important weapons you have as a player have to come out: detail and clarity. Don’t be vague. Be clear. Be detailed. Give the GM as much information as you can about what you’re trying to do and how you’re trying to do it. Because that’s what the GM is using to determine whether you even get to roll the dice, let alone what will happen based on that die roll. In fact, those two things are very specifically what every GM needs to hear to properly decide how to handle an action: WHAT is your character trying to accomplish; HOW are they trying to accomplish it. Your character is trying to talk his way past the guard by convincing the guard that the king is in danger and that the party is here to help.

And the best way to keep all of this in mind is not to think about the rules at all.

Don’t Think About the Rules; The GM Sure Isn’t

A well-trained GM doesn’t think about the rules of the game – about die rolls and skills and stuff – until their brain has had a go at the situation first. They only use the rules when they absolutely need them. Brains before dice, right? Well, that’s how you should think too. I mean, look, you know what your character is good at. You know what your character is bad at. You don’t really need to think about the specific skills and attributes to know what they can and can’t do.

How would a strong, athletic, intimidating fighter open a stuck door? How would they deal with a guard getting in their way? How would they deal with an open pit in their path? You KNOW the answers. You know the guard would break down the door, scare the guard or beat him up, and just get a good, running start and jump over the pit. You don’t need to tell the GM that you want to make a Strength check to bash down the door, make an Intimidate check to scare the guard, or make an Athletics check to jump the pit. The GM knows all that stuff too. But the GM might also know the guard is a coward and won’t actually stand his ground and so no die roll is needed. Or he might know the pit is an illusion. Or that the door is secretly made of titanium and painted to look wooden.

The worst example, the worst thing you players do, is lock yourselves out of options and lock your GM out of interpreting things the best way possible. For example, if I describe a strange symbol and you say “I’ll use my Religion skill” to interpret the symbol, well, maybe it’s not a religious symbol. You can roll the check, but it’s going to fail. If, instead, you say “do I recognize the symbol,” I might say, “no, but your friend the wizard might because it’s a magic symbol, he should roll an Arcana check.” If you just start telling me what skills to use and chucking dice, you’re wasting my time.

And let me tell you something else: some of us GMs actually like to change things up and apply different skill modifiers to different ability checks to give the players an edge. Like, if your fighter is really strong and powerful and decides to start shoving someone around, we might make let you make an Intimidate check with Strength instead of Charisma. Why not? Makes sense. If you’re actually physically assaulting someone to scare them, Strength beats Charisma.

We can’t do that if you start telling us which rules to use and chucking dice at us.

And that’s what we really want from you. We want you to think about the situation you find yourself in, think about your character, and tell us how your character responds to the situation. Clearly. And then, after we all understand what your character is doing in the situation, then we’ll use the rules we need to work things out.

Which brings us around to the other thing I wanted to talk about: story.

No, It’s Not a Storytelling Game

Now, I know some of you have heard that Dungeons and Dragons and other table-top role-playing games are storytelling games. Or worse, collaborative storytelling experiences. And, again, I’m not going to tell you anything is wrong because nothing is every wrong and anything can be anything to anyone, obviously, but I am going to tell you that there’s another way to look at this that is less… more…

Look, it’s wrong. I’m sorry. RPGs are not storytelling games or collaborative storytelling experiences. They are games. They are games in which you take on the role of a character in an imaginary world, decide what that character does, resolve those actions, and deal with the consequences. But because they are games about the choices people make and the consequences of those choices, well, good stories come out of them. Because that’s what makes a good story: things happen, people make choices, and then everyone has to live with the results.

I don’t want to throw a lot of jargon at you, but the story in a role-playing game is an emergent thing. It comes out of playing, but it’s not part of playing. The stories that come out of RPGs are really cool things – I am not saying they are not – but they are cool because they emerge from people making choices in difficult situations. And unlike a book or movie or whatever, the story doesn’t follow a single path that is determined by what the author thinks will make the “best” story. The story that emerges from an RPG is an organic story. It’s a story that grows of the situations the GM – the author – creates and the choices the players – the protagonists – make. The stories are exciting because they are unexpected and unpredictable. They grow out of what happens at the game table. Now, the GM does do some stuff to make sure the story follows certain patterns, but I don’t want to go into all of that. My point is that the minute you stop making organic decisions that the characters would make if they were real and the story was real, you’re ruining what makes the stories that come out of RPGs so great. You’re forcing them.

See, some players like to have their characters screw things up on purpose because they think it would make a “better story.” Some players think failure is more exciting than success because the story gets complicated. Some players seek complication. And that’s all artificial. Your job is not to mess up the life of your character, so it makes for an interesting story, your job isn’t to craft a story at all, your job is to BE the character and EXPERIENCE the story that results from that character being who are they and dealing with what they deal with.

Honestly, thinking about the game as a story first is just as bad as thinking about it as rules first. Because it makes for a bad story. How? Look, stories are – first and foremost – about people and the choices people make. And the reasons they make them. And the consequences of their choices. That’s the essence of all drama. Drama is about people in conflicts and the choices they make to resolve those conflicts. Conflicts with each other, with the world, with supernatural forces, or even with their own desires.

If your character doesn’t behave like a person, if their actions don’t make sense, the story sucks. It just sucks. It’s gibberish. It’s nonsense. It’s crap. And the moment you start making decisions based on anything other than what the character would do, you’re wrecking the story. You’re wrecking it for yourself, for your friends, and for your poor GM. Especially your poor GM. Because your GM has to make sense of everything that happens at the game and keep it going. And if your GM can’t figure out what you’re going to do because you always behave in the most contrary way possible, your GM is going to have a nervous breakdown. Trust me. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your GM has literally had a nervous breakdown at me. That’s why I’m here.

And that leads me to my last point when it comes to declaring actions.

You Can’t Just Say How Your Characters Feel; That Makes Me Feel Angry

I don’t know when this started, but it has to stop. Because it’s wrong. Well, not wrong, but it’s not the best way to play. Because it’s the worst way to play. Because it’s wrong. Stop telling everyone at the table what your character is thinking. Stop. Just stop.

I know you are very proud of your very creative character and their complex and detailed backstory and you want to share that information with everyone. But if you start every action by detailing your characters motives, feelings, and thoughts, you’re actually wrecking the fun of discovering it. And you’re ruining any sort of meaningful interaction you might be able to have. Let me explain:

Suppose your character is an otherwise brave, stalwart fighter. The battle is going badly, your allies have been disabled, the monster only needs one hit to kill them, everyone is cheering for you to take the attack. But, you say, “my character remembers the time, on the battlefield, when they ran forward to engage the enemy and left their best friend behind and their best friend died. So, I don’t attack. Instead, I run over to my friend, the wizard, and pour a healing potion down their throat.”

Now, that’s pretty neat. And that’s thinking like your character and considering the situation and the choice before considering the rules. All good. I’m one hundred percent on board. But you should have just taken the action. Just say “I run over the wizard and revive him with a healing potion, saying ‘I won’t let you die!’” And let everyone wonder why.

Here’s the thing: we learn about people – even fictional characters – by observing their actions and by interacting with them. We can’t read people’s thoughts. So other people are a mystery to us. Sure, sometimes, in a book, we get to listen in to one character’s particular thoughts, but our viewpoint is usually limited. So, we can’t read everyone else’s thoughts. And books in which everyone’s thoughts are always spelled out… well… the reason you can’t think of any is because they aren’t very good.

Imagine if, in the first book of the Harry Potter series, at Harry’s first potions class, we’d gotten the following:

“Ah yes,” Snape said softly, “Harry Potter. Our new – celebrity.” Looking down on the young wizard, Snape was struck immediately by Potter’s eyes. So much like his mother, Lily’s. And Snape felt a powerful mix of love and loss and regret at remembering her, the witch he had loved, who he would always love, though she rejected him. She chose him. James Potter. And suddenly, in Harry’s face, all he could see was James Potter. James. Everyone’s favorite. Beloved. Egomaniacal. Bully. This boy was so much like his father. Snape could already see it. Famous before he could speak, beloved by all, there was nothing of Lily in this little brat. But perhaps. Perhaps there was something. After all, the eyes. And perhaps Snape could help. If he could quash the boy’s ego before it got any bigger, bring the boy down a peg, perhaps Lily could emerge. Yes. Snape would do that for her. Crush the James out of him and let the Lily emerge. Yes. That would be better than merely protecting the boy from the agents of the Dark Lord, as Dumbledore had asked him to do. Snape knew, as a double-agent, that Voldemort still had loyal followers and they believed – or knew, perhaps – that they could bring the Dark Lord back if they could just kill Harry Potter. And Snape had taken a secret oath to serve Dumbledore and protect Harry. But if he could keep Harry’s ego in check, well, then the boy might be spared following in his bullying father’s footsteps. Yes, that’s just what Snape would do. He resolved then and there.

That would ruin a few books worth of surprises, wouldn’t it? It would ruin everything that made Snape such a compelling character. It would ruin all the twists and turns. All the revelations. The character’s every action would just be carrying out a plan. And all of those scenes later that revealed Snape’s real motives would be robbed of their power.

If you’re not a Harry Potter fan and none of that makes sense, just imagine in the first Star Wars movie – Episode IV – when Darth Vader captured Leia, if he had said, “now, listen young lady. I, Anakin Skywalker, am your father and you will tell me where the Rebel Base is right now. And then we’ll go find that twin brother of yours; Luke.”

Now, you might be thinking, “yes, that’s true, but my character is the protagonist, the viewpoint character, people get to know what I’m thinking.” Now, look around at the other five people at the table with you. See them? Notice how your character is only YOUR viewpoint character. The other players have their own viewpoint characters. And the GM doesn’t necessarily have any idea. You are robbing them of the fun of discovering what an amazing character you made. Moreover, by telling them what you’re thinking, you’re also making any scene in which one of the players questions you about your past completely pointless. The wizard can’t walk over to you later and ask, in a private moment, why you saved them instead of just finishing off the ogre. You can’t have that touching scene. Or evade the question and leave them wondering. Because you broadcast your thoughts to the table.

And that’s also why it’s so important for you to make the decisions your character would make. Because every action you take, every choice you make, becomes a clue about your character’s motives and backstory and personality. Just like the story emerges from all of the different things that happen in the game, for everyone else, your character emerges from their actions and choices. And that’s a fun bit of discovery for everyone. The most interesting characters in any story are the ones we learn about little by little. The ones we have to understand gradually. One choice, one action at a time.

So, for the love of all that is good and holy, stop broadcasting your character’s thoughts to the entire table. Use some frigging subtlety and let us gradually come to understand your character over time as you come to understand ours.

And learn to declare a proper action, stop putting the rules first, don’t ascribe any magical powers to the dice, and learn what role-playing actually is dammit. Because your GM wants to strangle you and I’m the only thing holding them back right now.

In short: stop playing wrong stupid.

47 thoughts on “Dear Players: There’s a Better Way to Play

  1. Players obviously need to take responsibility for making reasonable choices that align with the tone of the game.

    But it’s also incumbent upon the GM to set and manage the tone. This is done on different levels. One level is outside the game, during session zero and then by taking players aside as needed (or handing them this blog).

    The second level is how the world reacts to player choice. When NPCs respond to goofiness with a “What the fuck are you talking about?” or by exploiting goofiness and going in for the (literal) kill, most players will quickly learn that you’re going for a more immersive experience.

    Of course there are problem players who refuse to adapt, even when pulled aside. But I think many GM’s have had “fail forward” or “say yes” pounded into their heads so much they’re afraid to have the world react as it should to goofiness, which, in high fantasy or gritty settings, would often be by ripping its head off.

  2. For last section, I miss “what to do”. In my experience this problem stems from players unhappy that noone cares about their past, about their motives, about their character story.

    What question they miss is “What I as player do to reveal stories and motivations of other characters?” Because if they do not care about others, how can they be surprised that others do not care about them.

    And remedy is simple – they should lead by example, use situation at campfire and poke into history and characters of others. Not to much, it should not take whole game. But simply show they care and give others the feeling and hopefully push them to repay the kindness.

    • I think some of this comes from shared character creation sessions. I am currently running a game in which one character’s wife was murdered by another in backstory, but neither character knows the other was involved.

      The problem is that both players know this, so the characters never mention it because it’s no longer worth mentionning. Any attempt I make to get an NPC to engage players about their past is met with accusations that I forgot, rather than acknowledging that I’m trying to bring it into the game.

    • Campfire scenes are some of my favourite. Now a days I tend to use an adaptation of the Savage Worlds system of giving a player a prompt and having them give a 1-3 minute tale from their past tied around a theme.

      They get 1XP out of it (that’s 20% towards an advancement in SW), I get a chance to get the next scenario all lined up, and the group gets a much tighter bond formed between them.

      • You could award dm inspiration for doing this if playing 5e. I almost always forget to award it, so there might be a tip for myself.

  3. What I find interesting about goofy players is that they always point to goofy characters in movies and books, such as Donkey, Jar Jar, Merry & Pippin or Jack Sparrow, yet fail to recognise two points.

    1) The goofy character is the sidekick, not the main character. Focusing on a goofy character quickly becomes unfunny (see Pirates of the Carribean 4). The otherwise serious character can be funny and goofy when the situation allows it, but the goofy character is often removed for intense scenes because goofiness doesn’t work with emotion, tension or intrigue.

    2) Goofy characters often rely on Deus Ex Machina to survive their hijinks, and that becomes stale when it happens to the main character. Nobody wants to play with a character that gets the party killed unless the GM removes all obstacles and threats.

    As an example, I have a player whose character claims great feats and tells ridiculous stories, but is actually a coward. He would be the perfect excuse to play a goofy character that does things “for the story”. However, he tends to role-play well, not fleeing from every small noise but also not taking any real risks. The other players have yet to notice that he never gets in close combat with the rapier he wears so proudly and flourishes every chance he gets, because he hasn’t drawn attention to it and always finds other ways to contribute in combat.

    • Your point 2) is precisely why the DM needs to keep her composure, have the world react appropriately to the goofiness, and let the player reap what he sews.

      • The problem with point 2 is that no character exists within a vacuum. If the team is trying to flatter a dragon to escape with their lives, one character deciding to insult, flirt or attack results in the dragon attacking. This ruins the party plan, and likely several character deaths.

        The only fair way to treat a player like that is to warn them that goofing around inappropriately results in getting kicked from the table, and following through if needed. No reason for to punish everyone for one player’s deluded sense of grandeur or comedy.

        I know it sounds harsh, but some players develop a real attachment to their characters. My beastmaster ranger player was near tears when her companion died. Risking killing them all because one player doesn’t care about the story, characters or world is incredibly selfish.

        Obviously characters can and should die occassionally, but that should happen as a result of player specific or team foolishness, not for a laugh.

        • Dragon to the party: “This one amuses me. Leave him with me, along with his share of any treasure, and I will let you live.”

          • Admittedly, choosing a creature as intelligent as a dragon makes a bad example here. Perhaps players sneaking through an overrun dungeon with minimal remaining resources (spells, hp), with a player wanting to play his bass drum, would be a more fitting example.

      • Being able to do point 2) means a character has plot armor. Fix that, and as theplanardm said, “let the player reap what he sows.”

        • As I replied to theplanardm, I have no problem letting the player reap what he sows. The problem is that one player’s actions affect every player at the table.

          All attempts to interact with the world are ruined by a goofball “having fun”. If you just let things happen as they should (which I’m not against), the players think you’re punishing them for his hijinks.

          It’s far better to have a quick word outside of the game. That way, when the dragon swallows Stabby McStabStab, or the guards specifically go after Sue Parman, he or she can’t miss the point.

          • Yes, but if the other characters are letting the fool play the drum then they should all get “punished”. What character(s) would just twiddle their thumbs when they are low in resources, in a dangerous environment, and just let someone beat on a drum?

    • Look at the 13th age in Glorantha. There is an actual Trickster class which has a theme of you being a failure so that other heroes look good (make an attack, don’t deal damage, look like an idiot, other PC deals extra damage you’d deal). This is an option for these PCs.

  4. Ironically, there’s one of my players that would massively appreciate the humour in this article, but I can’t share it with him because he’s a good player!

    • Show it to him anyways. You can just say something like, “I’m sharing this article with you because I thought you’d find it entertaining, not because I have a problem with your roleplaying. In fact, your roleplaying is superb. I hope you like this.”

      Besides, it might sharpen him up even a little bit more.

  5. Wow, my players must be mutants because the challenges at my table are almost the exact opposite of those being treated here. Instead of jumping straight to a dice roll, my players are more likely to faff about and get analysis paralysis. Instead of broadcasting their emotions, they are more likely to create intricate and convoluted backstories with too much nuance, meaning it never comes to life at the table.

    That said, Dual Wielding Detail and Clarity is so spot on I might take the risk and share it anyway…

  6. Amazing article, Angry. As always. Alliteration aside – I love the way you break things down. Would you consider (or is it in the book?) a companion/mirror piece for first time players? This assumes a lot of bad habits (which are definitely important to break), but would you think about a primer for first timers?

    • It’s basically in the book (though more directed at newbies who will be GMs than newbies who will be players, so it’s written less like this and more like his other articles but without the pseudo-swearing)

  7. Marvelojs article. Only problem is my players will never read it; any chance you could add a new patreon tier where you personally come by and smack players in the face with it?

    I have (fortunately) never seen players declaring their character’s motivations. I have, however, seen a number of online advice articles stating that character backstory and motivation doesn’t actually exist until it is spoken outloud at the table, maybe this is the further evolution of the same line of thinking?

  8. I like your essay, but I have a quibble: part of the contract of the game is that the DM sets up scenarios as invitations to the PCs. It might be “realistic” for the PC to decline the invitation of a particular setup (DM: “a beanstalk climbs into the clouds” Player: “no way would I climb that, too risky”), but it sure is boring. Saying “yes” to the DM’s invitations is a central part of being a good player.

    • The player’s obligation is to make a character who’s interested in adventure. The DM’s obligation is to make an adventure that reasonable characters would partake in.

      At no point should players feel like they have to do something to further the plot. They should feel the desire to go find the princess, rescue the magic sword or slay the townsfolk to save the dragon*.

      * Joke style blatantly stolen from TheAngryGM. He retains ownership unless he stole it from someone else, and may remove this plagarism from his site if he so please.

    • This is the point of session 0 (in part). You give the players an idea of what’s involved in the adventure and they build characters who would participate in that adventure. If you tell your players you’re going to be adventuring on the high seas battling pirates and sea creatures, you’re far more likely to get characters with a desire to travel and see the world than ones who want to protect hearth and home for example.

  9. If D&D is an RPG, and by definition those are games where the players immerse in fictional characters, make choices and live with consequences, it is possible the first cause of ruined immersion are the rules and mechanics themselves?

    Mechanics like Hit Points, Hit Dice and the combat structure itself, with effect lasting only one round, suggest me that D&D doesn’t want anymore to replicate a fictional story, but a videogame.

    And i’m not even mentioning arbitrary mechanics likes Barbarian Rage and Heroic Action.

    I’m not saying that all of this is wrong, i like D&D, combat and mechanics.

    What I meant is that sometimes is very hard to understand the spectrum between a videogame and a story in a specific scene.

    If the RPG core mechanics is about choices, maybe the best we can do is roll back edition to the 80’s era, before advent of MMO, when ispiration comes from books instead of online games.

    Simple rules and faster gameplay make the RPG core mechanics shine, in my honest opinion

    Someone had the same “immersion” problem? How you solve this dichotomy at your table?

    • Those are the physics of the fictional setting. Do you have trouble watching movies about magic or predictive fiction because they speculate on things that don’t exist yet or may not even be possible? Mechanics are a method of streamlining problem resolutions, not a physics simulator (though 3e will still be my favorite attempt at a physics simulator).

  10. I have had good luck with encouraging players to declare approaches rather than jumping to the dice by advising them of two things about my game:

    1. Usually, if they choose the right approach, there is a way to automatically achieve the result, or at least automatically improve your chances.

    2. DCs for many things, like finding or removing traps and opening locks, are higher than the designers would usually recommend. So search rolls are an unreliable safety net.

    For example, if your dungeon exploration SOP includes constantly probing the floor ahead with a stick, you automatically find any pits; but the DC for locating the pit without this precaution is higher than anyone’s passive perception could possibly be at that level. (And to head off comments, I don’t ask my players to declare they are tapping the floor every time they move a square, I just need to know that someone in the party is responsible for doing this.)

    Also, I have had a few players whose need to use backstory to explain their decisions came from their experience with DMs who vetoed their actions because “your character wouldn’t do that.” Fixing that was just an exercise in building trust.

    And while it is not good play to explain your approach in relation to your backstory, it IS good play to explain an unusual approach by stating what you think the approach is likely to accomplish. That way, if you chose your approach because of a misunderstanding regarding the DM’s description of the situation, the DM has a chance to correct the misunderstanding.

    • >It is good play to explain an unusual approach by stating what you think the approach is likely to accomplish. That way, if you chose your approach because of a misunderstanding regarding the DM’s description of the situation, the DM has a chance to correct the misunderstanding.

      On top of the reduced likelihood of miscommunication, it’s very helpful in general as a GM to know what the character is trying to achieve. There’s very little as unfulfulling as having a player’s plan go awry because the GM didn’t understand the intended goal.

      When I GM, i hate the idea of “always say yes”. But if the players come up with an idea I hadn’t considered that could reasonably work, I’m more than happy to rejig NPC characterisations, room layout or similar to make it possible.

      For instance, if a player says he wants to climb a tree to look over the castle wall and get a sense of the guard’s movements, I’m happy to add a suitably tall structure (not necessarily a tree) to the game, because that’s fun. If the same player said he just wanted to climb a tree, I might think he wants to climb directly into the castle, and tell him there’s no tree available.

      • I come back to this article with a particular reflection.

        The problems addressed are specific yet common problems with specific players. These problems are headed off in a well executed session zero and the desired behaviors reinforced and undesirable behaviors ignored or punished.

        I speculate that Angry’s current game has a player who went for LULZ at some point. This attempt to take his highly thought out approaches and intents and turn it into “GTA5:Medieval Setting” inspired the article as Angry generalize the problem. His open letter to players everywhere is his adjudication.

        Always yes? Hardly. That’s in the “not possible” pile.

        “No, there is no tree near the castle suitable to viewing inside. That tells you the occupants are not fools. But you might be able to loiter about and observe, ask locals for information, or come up with something else.”

        • I admit that my example was a bit weak, but I’m sure you understand what I mean. There are levels of detail in any game that are not important, and therefore can be changed as appropriate.

          For instance, a character searching a dead guard’s pockets hoping to find keys is going to find keys only if I’d previously decided they were there. However, a search for something more unconventional but plausible (such as flint to light torches) will be determined on the spot, possibly by dice roll.

          The point is, unless a player makes the character intentions clear, I probably wouldn’t think to put flint in the guard’s pocket. Being clear about intentions can therefore help players.

  11. I did not mean to criticize your example. In fact, I liked it because it’s the kind of thing that players think up due to an incomplete visualization of the scene. That in itself is a common problem as DMs are not all equally gifted in describing a scene in a way that balances the need for specifics and the need for brevity.

    I myself am in the in-gifted category and rely on scripts written against checklists generated by reading other articles on this blog.

  12. To be honest I disagree with AngryGM here on the last part of this article regarding revealing the thoughts/feelings of the character. I’ve decided myself as a GM that I would like more to get into the thoughts and feelings of characters because this to me really represented what roleplaying was about when it came to choices – not only motivations or “My guy’s clever, so I’ll be clever”.
    I felt otherwise that if players just sat and remained silent the entire game, occasionally saying “I choose this, I choose this” interspersed with “We choose this.” that it wouldn’t have been as much roleplaying as might’ve happened if thoughts or feelings were explained.

    To take your example, I see no reason why the example above with Snape would not be more roleplaying than this…
    “Mr.Potter, our famous celebrity….What is a bezoar my potter?!”
    The example you put above actually shows me why Snape did what he did, and I’ve read Harry Potter loads of times too. I still don’t know why Snape did what he did, so I knew nothing about Snape’s character in that situation without any other explanation.

    The reasons you say to me seem to amount to be similar to “Because I think the story of your character is better if you don’t explain your thoughts and feelings on things.”
    Regarding the other one about other people playing the game with you, I would actually support the position that thoughts & feelings explained enhances the roleplaying aspect of the game, because it allows people to think what they might do with that character as well. Otherwise it would be roleplaying with only the character that the player has themself, and that roleplaying would be interspersed with moments of not roleplaying.

    Why does anyone think that the story of a character in a D&D game would be better without explaining thoughts and feelings?
    Does anyone think that players explaining their character’s thoughts when it pertains to the situation ruins any roleplaying aspect of the game, or enhances it?

    • “Knock knock”
      “Who’s there?”
      “orange you glad to see me”

      The problem is misplaced exposition. Like telling the punchline of a joke before the setup is done, it takes away the “punch” of a given moment.

      Misplacing that exposition answers questions nobody at the table asked (yet!!), robbing them of the tension and desire to know. Robbing them of the question itself, the mystery, existing. Robbing them of the reveal. Robbing them of discovery. The drama is ruined because someone couldn’t hold it in until it was going to be satisfying to anyone but them.

      And it’s cyclical in it’s theft. Now a player knows something about another player’s character that they can’t start an organic conversation about. That question never got to exist, and nobody had the chance to care. That’s supposed to be the stuff that creates bonding between characters, saved for those campfire moments that seem like the right time to ask and share and roleplay camaraderie. This is the metagaming stuff that actually takes fun away from roleplaying. Because it removes an opportunity to roleplay, and replaces it with facts prematurely exposited all over the rest of the table.


      • I’m with you. What’s better at the table, using Angry’s example:
        “my character remembers the time, on the battlefield, when they ran forward to engage the enemy and left their best friend behind and their best friend died. So, I don’t attack. Instead, I run over to my friend, the wizard, and pour a healing potion down their throat.”
        “I go heal the wizard”
        or, my choice:
        “I look at the ogre, raise my sword, and pause, looking back at [Wizard]. Torn, I sheathe my sword and run to the wizard and pour a health potion down his throat”

        You don’t want to simply say “I do this”. You want to leave a pause that invites other players to join in the scene with you at a later time.

  13. Pardon me about this, but I’m not sure who you are with in the conversation Tony?
    Okay so my previous post was the gut reaction after reading, and it was more explanation. I do admit my position could be wrong, but I consider this essential so imo we should discuss it.

    With Tony’s post I would like to consider that last statement alone. Does it actually explain anything besides that the character was “torn” for reasons that are not explained? I don’t think so, without any other information. In contrast, the first explains the character.
    This goes to a point I think from reading Angry at least seems to agree with (I don’t know exactly of course) -> That explaining thoughts and feelings leads to more of what we consider to be roleplaying.
    I think in general people seem to agree with this. Mephorta went on about exposition, not about whether or not it might indicate more roleplaying.

    The arguments thus far seem to be something like this to me, if I’m wrong excuse me.
    My argument:
    1. Thoughts and feelings are in general more likely to be roleplaying than actions alone.
    2. This is a roleplaying game.
    3. Thus, we should explain characters thoughts and feelings at decision points.

    Counter argument:
    1. Thoughts and feelings are in general more likely to be roleplaying than actions alone.
    2. This is a roleplaying game.
    3. For simulationist or narrative reasons, we should not fully explain characters thoughts and actions, instead saying only actions or something else.

    To Mephorta firstly, I would assert that it doesn’t in total remove the benefits of the conversation put forth. If I explained, what would the other characters think about this? Even though the players know, there is still fun conversation to be had.

    As above, I believe it enhances roleplaying more because I get the chance to roleplay others characters or see their thinking. Otherwise, we end up with something similar to “I do this, tell me when it’s my turn next.”
    I also think this is a roleplaying game, rather than a storytelling game of other players characters. Why believe those concerns are relevant?

    An important aside, how is this different than characters keeping secrets again?

    I sincerely believe this, and that it enhances the game if we explain thoughts etc. I think now that the enhanced roleplaying and understanding it brings is a stronger reasoning than -> because of reveals. I’d enjoy seeing the arguments presented.

  14. Pardon me about this, but I’m not sure who you are with in the conversation Tony?
    Okay so my previous post was the gut reaction after reading, and it was more explanation. I do admit my position could be wrong, but I consider this essential so imo we should discuss it.

    With Tony’s post I would like to consider that last statement alone. Does it actually explain anything besides that the character was “torn” for reasons that are not explained? I don’t think so, without any other information. In contrast, the first explains the character.
    This goes to a point I think from reading Angry at least seems to agree with (I don’t know exactly of course) -> That explaining thoughts and feelings leads to more of what we consider to be roleplaying.
    I think in general people seem to agree with this. Mephorta went on about exposition, not about whether or not it might indicate more roleplaying.

    The arguments thus far seem to be something like this to me, if I’m wrong excuse me.
    My argument:
    1. Thoughts and feelings are in general more likely to be roleplaying than actions alone.
    2. This is a roleplaying game.
    3. Thus, we should explain characters thoughts and feelings at decision points.

    Counter argument:
    1. Thoughts and feelings are in general more likely to be roleplaying than actions alone.
    2. This is a roleplaying game.
    3. For simulationist or narrative reasons, we should not fully explain characters thoughts and actions, instead saying only actions or something else.

  15. Thanks again to Angry for hosting the website and everything, I’ve learned loads and wish to discuss these things. I apologize about lengthy posts if anyone is concerned.

    To Mephorta firstly, I would assert that it doesn’t in total remove the benefits of the conversation put forth. If I explained, what would the other characters think about this? Even though the players know, there is still fun conversation to be had. Does anyone disagree?

    As above, I believe it enhances roleplaying more because I get the chance to roleplay others characters or see their thinking. Otherwise, we end up with something similar to “I do this, tell me when it’s my turn next.”
    I also think this is a roleplaying game, rather than a storytelling game of other players characters. Why believe those concerns are relevant?

    An important aside, how is this different than characters keeping secrets again?

    I sincerely believe this, and that it enhances the game if we explain thoughts etc. I think now that the enhanced roleplaying and understanding it brings is a stronger reasoning than -> because of reveals. I’d enjoy seeing the arguments presented.

    • Nobody in a real fight or other life-or-death situation wastes any time or breath telling the world about their angst over past decisions. “You killed my father” is about as lengthy as any battle cry gets. [Yaaahhh! is more likely] Adding “Prepare to die!” is pushing it – even if it does make good theater when no lives are actually at risk.

      “I’ll heal Tom, you get the ogre!” or vice versa is reasonable. Trying to insert the history behind choices interrupts/defuses the tension of the situation, rather than enhancing it. Why would a DM want to encourage the players to destroy the dramatic tension s/he worked hard to build? That’s making it less real, not more real. And in my experience, most players aren’t going to want to listen to another player taking up combat time by presenting their back story. After-the-battle chat around the campfire or tavern table is the place for that stuff.

      Perhaps I should add that real people don’t spout off back story in the middle of negotiations with an NPC-equivalent, either, whether it’s for the next day’s supply of food or a sensitive negotiation for crucial information.

      If a DM wants back story to help frame future adventures, ask about it away from the table. And hope your player manages to remember it later on when you present that special adventure.

  16. I feel like the “Do what your character would do, not what makes for a ‘good story'” thing is a false dichotomy.

    Most of the time, there are probably several things that your character could do. Sure, yeah, sometimes there’s a clear-and-obvious choice, but most of the time? If the game has interesting choices? Not so much.

    So yeah, by all means, do something that your character would do. But choosing which one based on what makes the most interesting story is the best way I can think of for deciding between them. The classic is the old chestnut about “My character isn’t sure if he wants to go on this adventure.” — your character could easily go either way, because it’s just a quest to go steal gold from a dragon and not to, I dunno, rescue their child or something. So is it worth it to them? It’s not necessarily clear… so you pick the option that “makes the better story” and go on the quest. This is a decision that everyone who makes a “reluctant adventurer” character needs to make, and even though the character “would” make either choice, the RIGHT choice is the one that doesn’t suck.

    So by all means, do what your character ‘would’ do, but keep in mind whether your choices are interesting or not.

    • It is not a false dichotomy. You don’t know what that phrase means. Sometimes, what your character will do will be interesting. Great. No problem. But there are times when you have to choose between the two. And when you choose, go for the one that actually involves playing a character and not creating drama for drama’s sake. I can’t believe I have to explain how priorities and decision making work on such a fundamental level.

  17. Reading this in a voice that is a combination of Mr Rogers and Dolores Umbridge is positively chilling. o_o

  18. If I might speculate about where the whole describing-characters’-emotions-in-detail thing started, my best guess is forum role-playing. Most forum RP boards seem steeped in a culture that mistakes quantity for quality. Sometimes this means that there’s a minimum required post length of two or three paragraphs; sometimes that’s more of a soft requirement that will reap terrible social consequences if you ignore it. The thing is, it’s completely stupid, because sometimes there’s nothing left to describe, or all the description that’s required is a single brief reference to a gesture or facial expression. So what do these people often wind up doing instead? Writing up paragraphs of introspection to justify every singular line of dialogue, generally wrecking any kind of pacing in the process. Worst of all, these types seem to be under the mistaken impression that this kind of overwhelming verbal fluff is how books are actually written.

    This is why I gave up on forum RP.

  19. I had a session as a player with one of those “let’s make a good story” players last night in an adventurers league (organized play) game. From the GM’s perspective it sucks, but it’s even worse from the *player’s* side if the antagonist pushes the NPCs into a fight when you’re drastically outnumbered (and they know that), sitting in melee range, but in the middle of a business negotiation.

    Dealing with these gonzo players is frustrating enough as a GM because they don’t take things seriously, but it’s even worse as a player because their gonzo actions threaten the lives of the entire party *without their consent*. Especially in an organized play setting where I couldn’t just restrain / kill the offending character, the other players’ options for responding for this kind of “let’s poke the hornet’s nest because there are no real life consequences” playstyle are extremely limited. If someone wants to ruin things for everyone at the table, they’re empowered to do so, and there’s little others can do to respond. I left my party to die down in Undermountain and I do not feel one ounce of regret.

    Please don’t play that way. Remember that not everyone shares your idea of fun, and your idea of fun tends to make life miserable for everyone else at the table.

  20. On not revealing your character’s feelings or intentions:

    This can be taken too far in the other direction as well. You don’t want your character to be a robot who simply declares choices and then sits and waits for the next decision.

    Being clear and providing detail is the remedy for this. Someone above talked about the example with the fighter choosing between killing the dragon and saving his wizard friend. The fighter doesn’t have to narrate why he does what he does. But simply declaring the choice and going silent is equally boring.

    The fighter can roleplay any number of things that we see in real life that we often don’t in RPGs. Facial expressions. Moments of hesitation. Breathlessness. A shaky voice. Choices tell the story, but how those choices are made can also come through with narration.

    Like someone wrote above, the fighter can raise his sword, and then maybe hear the wizard groaning from his wounds, hesitate, and go back to help the wizard. It’s a moment that gives a clue to the motivation, but is more than just “my friend Chris doesn’t want to write a new character sheet so I’ll save his wizard.” it still leaves room for (and does more to invite) a moment where the wizard thanks the fighter, and ask him why he made that decision.

    Narrating your character’s thoughts and feelings is a band-aid for not revealing them through roleplay. I think a lot of group can sometimes behave like one character. No individual can make a choice before everyone at the table has had an opportunity to discuss what the best option is.

    Players need space to make their own decisions, and then need to take the time to narrate in detail how those decisions are carried out. Otherwise, characters who make decisions for themselves seem disruptive and incoherent. But if those same players roleplay some of their decision making process (again, only with outward facing signals that people can sense in the world. No telepathy.) then the rest of the group can appreciate the story being told without feeling slighted by the “chaotic” and “uncooperative” player.

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