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Tuesday, 1 September 2015

The etiquette of roleplaying

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.

Don’t block
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.


  1. Great post. Succinct and passionate.
    Now to find a gaming group! It's been too long. My rpg career these days has devolved into dreaming about future games and/or remembering old ones. Argh!

    (nice touch on the Tékumel photo)

    1. If the group is too geographically scattered to meet up, there's always Skype and/or We use them both when necessary, but nothing beats face to face.

  2. Meh. I'll make a defense for pre-scripted adventures. This doesn't mean necessarily straight-jacketed adventures where players have no opportunity for creative play, but rather an adventure where the DM has thought about each location and the logical consequences of potential choices. Preparation is the key to a great adventure experience.

    I've played in games where the DM "wings it," and the experience is nearly always horrible. The adventure is aimless, the encounters clichéd, the entire experience like a session of grade-school make-believe but with alcohol (that's the only thing that makes it tolerable).

    Now this is just my taste, and I know reasonable minds may differ. But for the same reason I find stand up comedy superior to improv comedy, for the same reason a symphony of Beethoven is superior to jazz, and the same reason a scripted play is superior to actors making it up as they go along, I find that a written-out and thoroughly thought-through adventure is better than having players do "whatever they want." If I say to players that I've written an adventure about storming a castle, and they tell me that they'd rather take a ship on the high seas to seek unknown lands, I'll tell them to find another DM (preferably one who wrote such a scenario ahead of time).

    1. De gustibus non est disputandum, of course, Anon, so questions such as whether jazz is preferable to Beethoven depend on individual taste, and also on the quality of the performers. If your gaming group are imaginative, inspired and committed then the improv style of play will sing. If not (as your experience seems to have been) then you might indeed just as well ask the referee to pre-plan everything - although in that case I'd just as soon play The Witcher.

      When freeform roleplaying works, it beats everything else. The best way I can explain this is to point out that we all find non-scripted stories infinitely more compelling than scripted ones. I'm not talking about actors on stage, I'm talking about life. That isn't scripted and it is funnier, sadder, more engaging, more moving and more surprising than anything a writer can come up with. A good roleplaying campaign approaches the experience of living an alternate life. Pre-scripted adventures approach the experience of an interactive movie. So I advise you to keep trying. You might be pleasantly surprised.

    2. That goes for comedy too. How often have you sat around having a real belly-laugh with friends? That's improvised humour in a group, and it's much more rewarding that sitting and watching a funny movie for all sorts of reasons.

  3. Well, there you are, Anon: the perfect analogy. That's a spontaneous group interaction that is enjoyed precisely because it arises out of the dynamic between everyone present. Somebody sitting at the end of the table with a list of prepared humorous topics wouldn't make it better.

  4. Oh, I understand the social aspect of it. But if the social part is the only draw, why bother with the game at all? Why not just throw a party? Go out to dinner, go to a club. Why deal with dice and skill checks, silly names and accents, and all the other trappings of role-playing? Hell, if you want real life, just live real life, without playing make-believe.

    I think what you would respond is that it’s fun to play games. I agree. But games need rules. Think of poker – there are only certain combinations of hands that will win, and according to a pre-agreed hierarchy. If someone decided that a straight no longer beats a three-of-a-kind, we wouldn’t play poker with that guy.

    Role-playing games don’t cease being games simply because we also socialize. And as games they require rules. I don’t think it’s outside the realm of reasonableness to say that I, as a DM, created a scenario involving a certain set of events during a certain time and geographical (fantasy) area, and that we stay within that context. Within the scope of the adventure, they are free to do whatever they want. But if they want to abandon all that and explore life as dairy farmers rather than swashbuckling adventurers, count me out. I’m going to the local bar (a.k.a, real life).

    1. Actually my answer wouldn't be, "It's fun to play games." I do also enjoy boardgames for the social aspect, but roleplaying is on a whole other level. What I get out of that is the experience of trying on another persona and being part of a shared, emergent narrative. The kind of scenario-driven roleplay you're describing sounds more like boardgaming - which is fine if you like that, and surely more fun than just sitting around in the pub, but does fall short of what roleplaying can be.

  5. “What I get out of that is the experience of trying another persona and being part of a shared, emergent narrative.” And why do you do this? What purpose does it serve? I think the answer is pretty clear – because you enjoy the experience. And that comports with a common-sense definition of having fun, “engagement in an activity for the enjoyment of said activity.” Ask people who roleplay whether or not they play for fun, and you’ll get a queer look. Of course they play for fun.

    “The kind of scenario-driven roleplay you’re describing sounds more like boardgaming.” No, it’s nothing like boardgaming. In a boardgame you have a very limited number of allowed moves, you’re usually constrained by a set board or boards, and it’s often designed to be started and ended in an evening (yes, I know there are exceptions to all these). But you don’t have NPCs in boardgaming, you don’t have fluid plots and narratives, you don’t have character development, you (usually) don’t put on persona while playing, you don’t have the “game” presented to you orally or otherwise by a referee, you (usually) don't have extended campaigns, and you don’t have creative problem solving.

    The kind of scenario-driven roleplaying I’m describing is not some outre invention of mine. I would argue that it is the original type of roleplaying, if we’re talking about the D&D origins of modern games. Just because someone writes an adventure or uses a module doesn’t transform it into a boardgame. It is still very much roleplaying.

    I think a fundamental disagreement is where you say in the original article, “It’s not your campaign, it’s theirs.” Actually, it’s not “their” campaign. It not “my” (the DM’s) campaign, either. It’s “our” campaign. Great roleplaying, to me, results from the players intelligently and cleverly overcoming the obstacles and twists a DM throws their way – often in ways the DM never expected. It is the synthesis of the work of the DM and the actions of the players. That we speak in silly accents and put on personae and have amateur acting night is also an integral part of the fun.

    Look, I’m not arguing that your way of roleplaying is bad or wrong or this or that. Personally, I find it stultifying. But if the scenario-less, wing-it-as-you-go-along experience floats your boat, then go for it. And there is an equally valid way to play, where the players tacitly agree not to derail the plot. Not better, not worse, not more intellectual, not less intellectual. Still roleplaying.

    1. I have played in scenario-driven roleplaying games, of course. Even a couple of dungeon adventures back in the '70s, and they don't come more scenario-driven than that. Personally I'd prefer a good boardgame, as that style of play doesn't deliver what I look for in a roleplaying game. It feels like too much of an ego-trip for the "Dungeon Master" when usually around our table we have plenty of equally creative folk. By keeping it democratic and open, I get to participate in something bigger than just my imagination. (Which I have to live in when doing my day job, remember.)

      I'm kind of amazed that you find a freer form of roleplaying more stultifying. That's why I'm tempted to say you haven't been doing it right. I've played in all kinds of different games over the last (yikes) 39 years and some of the most amazing moments in real or imaginary life have just arisen spontaneously out of our game sessions. It's really very rewarding - but if you never found it so, and if you like the Gygax approach, I guess stick with it. I just think of it as a totally different hobby, is all.

      Btw I think I've been talking to more than one Anon here, right? I only just got that.

    2. Well, the problem, again, is that when the referee wings it, the encounters and plot twists become all the more vapid without some forethought. There is little or no opportunity to think things through, so the experience seems aimless. I’d say it’s the same reason 99% of the improv comedy I’ve seen is just not funny, or not as funny as other, scripted comedy.

      But it's a matter of taste, and I don't consider one objectively better or worse, less or more authentic. I suppose I could say that merely playing "a couple" of scenario-driven games is insufficient to experience it, and that "you haven't been doing it right," but that would just be projecting my tastes onto you. I received the distinct impression from your article and posts that the Gygax method is somehow a lower or less authentic way of roleplaying (e.g., references to a "thatched" game; the (mis)classification as "a boardgame” or “interactive movie”; that “freedom roleplaying” “beats everything else.”). For you, sure. Not for everyone. And one isn’t an objectively higher or more pure form of roleplaying than the other. Just different. And again, both are valid ways of roleplaying.

    3. I'm afraid if you come to my blog you are going to hear my opinions, lol. It's true that I do think the scenario-driven approach is less rewarding, and have played enough to know, but if your players have experienced both styles and prefer to be less free about it then keep right on doing it that way with my blessing. No absolute dictatorships in gaming, nor absolute truths in anything.

      As for the comedy question, didn't you already give the perfect counter-argument to that? Or wait... was that the other Anon?

  6. Yup - Another Anon. To which I responded, essentially, "so just go and hang out with your friends and have a good time; ditch the make-believe."

    Thanks for hearing me out. My comments notwithstanding, I enjoy your work and look forward to seeing some more...particularly the Fabled Lands (which, by the way, is very much Gygaxian and scenario driven, as there are only pre-planned responses to a finite set of choices!)

    1. That is true! Maybe next Kickstarter we'll have a pledge level to have me or Jamie come round and run a game :-)

  7. Actually, Dave is being slightly disingenuous. When he's refereeing a campaign he never starts without a scenario having been prepared. There's always a plot or scenario. It's just that he doesn't then force the players to follow the plot. He lets it go where ever the players want to take it. Eventually that can lead to the players driving the plot because they've come up with their own schemes and goals which makes life a bit easier for the referee but in general, there's nearly always something going on that Dave has prepared before hand. But it isn't set in stone. Some rpg rule systems actually say what you should do with players who don't want to follow the plot and so on (heretics and deviants :-)), the so called 'disruptive' player. Forcing them out, or trying to marginalize them isn't the way. That's when it becomes more like a prescriptive board game. Letting them in and running with it for everyone, even if it means the party is split into warring faction - that's what leads to the most fun. There's also the style of DMing, which is a different issue, where the DM wants to win or sees the players as the enemy in a way. We've probably all experienced that before in our lives, but the DM shouldn't be an obstacle or a challenge to be overcome. He/she should be a facilitator to an unfolding narrative created by the players and the referee together.

  8. Ta, Jamie. I see you've bought into the myth that those sheets of paper I'm looking at actually have a scenario written on them :-)

    The best comparison I can make is that the pre-planned material is a safety net. If imagination flags (sometimes the players are tired, sometimes the Muse doesn't show up) then you can always fling yourselves into the net. But if your players are self-starters, I find nothing more exhilarating than abandoning the fall-back of the scenario notes and soaring along with whatever leads they want to follow.

    An illustration from television: just this week I saw an episode of a drama show where I happen to know several pages of the script were torn out on the day because the actors and director came up with something much better.

    Wrt the assertion that scripted drama makes more rewarding viewing than improvized drama, I would generally agree. But that misses the point that roleplaying is not a spectator sport. From the participants' point of view, improv can be a lot more rewarding than following a script, just as we all (hopefully) get a lot more out of spontaneous humour with our friends than sitting watching a comedy show.

  9. Still, could be worse.

    1. Some serious thatching stories among that bunch.

  10. I agree, except for being authorial. Some players prefer that "voice" and that's fine as long as they follow the other points. I also find people sometimes feel constrained, so that otherwise dramatic moments or good plans are ruined because the players force a "voice" (e.g. somebody in a 1920s game tries an otherwise pursuasive argument which is ruined because they don't know exactly how somebody in the 1920s would put the argument). Finally, some indie games encourage it.

    1. Nobody knows exactly how people in the past would speak. The answer is just to do what scriptwriters do: find an idiom that everyone is happy with and go with that. Our current campaign is set in 1890, for instance, and if I refer to somebody being blotto - well, okay, it's anachronistic, but I didn't say arseholed. You can apply a bit of poetic licence.

      When I'm playing and somebody refers to themselves in the third person, I just react to it as you would if somebody spoke like that in real life.

  11. Don't usually comment here, but I think I have a clarification to contribute. I run my campaigns very much like what's described here (leaving players a ton of freedom, rolling with the punches) and it tends to work really well, but there's an important ingredient that Anon may be forgetting: allowing for improvisation doesn't mean going in unprepared, it just means not scripting the story. I think of it as "the players play the characters, I run the world" - and that means knowing that world. Knowing its people, its politics, its culture, and so on.

    So really, if done properly, the improvised stuff isn't coming out of nowhere, it's not just "you meet... uh... a merchant... called.... Legolas?" It's about being familiar with the setting and being able to extrapolate new events on the fly, which is essential to running a campaign anyway.

  12. Since you asked on Twitter: here is my response. My main point was that different groups like different things, and you come off as a oneTrueWay-ist. It's good that you found out what you like, but less so when implying that others are doing it wrong.
    First, let me take some of the tips one by one:

    Focus: yes, you're there to play. You're also there to be among friends. Some of the most memorable moments in our games came from out-of-character banter. Also, deep-immersion games aren't to everybody's taste.

    Don’t be authorial: Same thing: full immersion is not for everybody. You can play in third person. You can not roll for reactions, but still take into account the disadvantages bought by your PCs. Whatever the group prefers.

    Further: about the 'thatched' games: this is also determined by taste, since it's not binary. There is a huge middle between full-sandbox and single-track railroad. My group prefers to play closer to the open plot style than the full sand-box. We tried sand-box, it never works. I have no idea why, but after so many tries, why try to play in a way no-one likes?

    1. Just like etiquette, these aren't the laws of physics. My argument against out-of-character, for example, is not that you can never make a comment out of game, but that when several of the players are trying to maintain the atmosphere and one keeps jumping out of character to comment on the action, it's plain bad manners. Hence I described this as etiquette and not a set of rules that you absolutely have to follow. I have indeed seen groups who like to talk in third person, comment ironically throughout, and who prefer to be given the plot at the start. If they enjoy it, they should do it. But imagine if drama had stayed like that since the dawn of time. There must have been a point where one of the actors said, "Look here, if we put in a bit more commitment it will be miles better." And so it was.

      Incidentally, I find the best way to deal with third-person players is to assume that they do indeed refer to themselves in the third person. "Kanye West hands you a scroll." At least that makes for a memorable character!