Inigo Hartas, who is the son of my dear friend and long-time colleague Leo, is a roleplayer. My position as Inigo’s godfather is ironic, given that I’m not religious (if you don't count an atavistic reverence for Odin - or maybe I mean Alan Moore, if indeed they're not one and the same on the mythago level), but perhaps I can take credit for having helped inspire his favourite hobby at least.
I began roleplaying when I was a little older than Inigo is now. He often says things that are a lot smarter than I would have come out with at his age. The hobby wasn’t invented back then, that’s my excuse. We had to work it all out from first principles.
There are a few pointers I’ve learned over the years that are de rigueur for a good roleplaying campaign. I don’t think players like Inigo need me to tell them this stuff; they’re breathed it in as they played since their pre-teen years. But it’s the nature of experience to want to share itself around, so here goes.
Oh, first a couple of preambles. I don’t use the term games-master or dungeon-master. The role has too much control anyway, and that just makes it an excuse to boss players around with your sublimated ambitions as a frustrated novelist. Call them referees or umpires.
Also, when a referee foists a plot on the players and has them jump through all his or her story hoops, I call that a “thatched” game, after the way the late and unlamented British prime minister ran her Cabinet. If you want to write a novel, please go right ahead – it’s easier today than it has ever been. But don’t co-opt me to be one of your shoe-horned characters. I’m here to roleplay.
Okay, to the tips:
Keep your mind on the game, stay in character, don’t suddenly start yakking on about how something that happened in the game reminds you of a trailer on YouTube. Honestly, you can natter any time, but to do it during the game is rude to the other players. Also, it wastes 90% of the power of what a roleplaying campaign can deliver. Imagine a play if the actors kept running to the front of the stage to tell you about their day. Commit to the experience, remain in character throughout, and you will go places no movie or novel or videogame will ever take you.
This is from improv, and it’s about keeping a smooth flow. If a player says, ‘I call my butler,’ the referee shouldn’t say, ‘You don’t have a butler.’ That’s jarring. If the player-character’s finances don’t stretch to manservants, now there’s a plot thread to develop. What happens when the butler asks to be paid? If the character can’t afford it, maybe the butler goes off disgruntled – and he’s armed with the secrets that have been discussed among the PCs while he poured their drinks. Thus the plot will thicken.
Don’t be authorial
Players need to think about the character from the inside. It should be, ‘I do this,’ not, ‘Geralt does this.’ For this reason I dislike the mental disadvantage rules you find in games like GURPS where being shy, for instance, or sadistic gives you extra points to spend on your character build. The rationale is that NPCs’ reaction rolls will be adversely affected by knowing you’re prone to get off on watching toenails being pulled out. Well, balderdash. First because no referee makes a habit of rolling NPC reactions, second because most of those authored traits will get forgotten in play because they were only taken for the points bonus, and third because all that character stuff should come across in the roleplaying anyway.
Maintain the atmosphere
This is for the referee. You are your players’ eyes and ears. Evoke the scene for them. This isn’t about purple description, it’s about clarity and verisimilitude. As a corollary, don’t lie to players about what they would know. ‘The axe chops you in half. Only kidding, you get to roll dodge,’ is not much funnier than telling a blind man that the kerb he’s stepping off is a ten foot drop. Don’t abuse the power you have as referee, instead help everyone to immerse themselves seamlessly in the events of the game.
Respect the rules
Like Hammurabi, I don’t want to be ruled by whims but by laws. The rules are the court of appeal that allow the players to know that the game world is fair and that they really have agency and aren’t just getting to sit in on the referee’s thatched storyline. You can have house rules, of course, but make sure everybody is aware of those before the game starts.In short, dear referee, don't be arbitrary. People came to play a game and participate in the creation of an emergent narrative, not to give your ego a stroking.
An example: I ran a Dark Ages scenario where the characters were up against a near-immortal time-travelling foe who had a thousand years’ greater experience and skill than they did. At one point, a lone player crept into the enemy base. Unknown to him, this immortal foe was there. The player-character came across him, facing the other way along a passageway. On his own, he stood no chance. But he rolled for stealth, the immortal rolled for perception and – against the odds, he tiptoed right up behind him and killed the guy before he could react. Was I tempted to thatch it, having devised this top bad guy only to see him cut down by one surprise attack? Sure, but I knew that we were now in unplanned territory, and that always makes for a more interesting game. Trust the dice and the rules to be the wings of inspiration.Freedom is everything
A roleplaying game is not a scripted story. Regardless of what the referee may have planned, the players should feel at liberty to act however they feel their characters really would. That’s why we call it roleplaying, not boardgaming. ‘But what if they ignore my plot?’ you cry. ‘What if they split the party? What if they do something that ends my campaign?’ My reply: they can’t. Because it’s not your campaign, it’s theirs. If they become wanted fugitives, that’s the campaign now. If they split into factions that want to kill each other, go with that and see where it leads. This has happened in my own games and because of that we’ve had experiences (such as a Tsolyani civil war and a long plan to drive a character mad) that none of us could have foreseen. To roleplay well, you must delight in the unexpected. (Control freaks sent into a panic by this concept, please see above re the ease of publishing your own novel.)
For the best advice on roleplaying, I recommend Paul Mason’s articles in this Imazine freeware archive.And for all the truly transformative experiences I've had in four decades of roleplaying, I'd like to thank those I've played with - including, but not limited to: Paul Mason, Steve Foster, Oliver Johnson, Robert Dale, Jack Bramah, Mark Smith, Mike Polling, Sheldon Bacon, Frazer Payne, Les Binet, Pauline Ashall, Penny Newman, Gail Baker, David Bailey, Dermot Bolton, Mark Wigoder Daniels, Tim Harford, Paul Gilham, Aaron Fortune, Zelah Meyer, Andrew Mounstephen, Tim Savin, Simone Cooper, Nathan Cubitt, Nick Henfrey, Andy Murdin, John Whitbourn, Steve Wilshire, Patrick Brady, Mark Wilkinson, Paul Deacon, Roz Morris, and of course Jamie Thomson. It was because of all the years we've spent in imaginary realities that Fabled Lands exists at all.