Your character is not an island. You have the freedom to choose who you want your character to be in any RPG. On the other side of the coin, you are also part of a group of characters. How can you be an effective team member?
Encourage every party member to be involved
There are some people who hate being the center of attention. As a teacher, I encounter students all of the time who are mortified of speaking in front of others because they are desperately afraid of public speaking. As educators, we walk a fine line between getting them involved and causing an anxiety attack. Many a well-meaning educator will not only force students who don’t want to participate to participate, but they do it in the worst possible ways for that person’s anxiety. You don’t “cure” someone of their anxiety by forcing them into anxious situations. Its easy for a person without anxiety to make that call. Teachers can use their creativity to involve students in ways that don’t induce panic attacks through creative participation techniques. You can get people involved in school in ways that allow them to simultaneously feel comfortable and have a manageable challenge to their anxiety. Trail by fire is not the way to go. For example, rather than using the popsicle stick method where any student could be called on (and embarrassed) at any time, how about we call on all students all the time? Crazy, I know.
Sometimes being a supportive player means finding ways to get the other players involved within their comfort zones. If you’re paying attention and watching other players, you’ll notice who has no problem participating, who is perfectly content to be in the background, and who just needs a little nudge to get them involved. This last group is the group that you have the greatest capacity to help. They want to participate, but they don’t know how. There are “unwritten rules” to role-playing. There are differences between how people speak in and out of character. There are things that one can propose that most role-players embrace, and others that seem crazy. When you first start role-playing, it is difficult to know what these unwritten rules are. Like with any new endeavor, people benefit from “being shown the ropes”. So, you can support your new or struggling players, who want to participate but don’t really know how, with three techniques:
a) Invite them to ask questions about the game, in a polite manner and then answer them. The most common question is “Can I do X?” New players to role-playing games think: “Games have boundaries, so I have to figure out what the boundaries are to this.” They aren’t wrong per se. There are some boundaries in role-playing games. But great role-players push those boundaries and you’ll really help a new player to shine by reminding them that role-playing games have far wider boundaries than other games.
b) Model engaging role-playing. What is it that role-players do? Show them how to have fun.
c) Ease them in by asking questions that gently encourage them to be involved. “Jillian, what do you think?” or “Dave can you…” are two examples.
I’ve used these techniques, in varying ways, with varying success, with every member of my usual gaming groups, from time to time.
Know your “type” and don’t let it take over the game
Robin D. Laws published a book in 2001 called Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering. In it, he postulates six types of role-players. Please read this article to know the types; it adds “casual gamer” as a seventh type.
I’m a combination of Storyteller (heaviest), Method Actor and Tactician. I like my game worlds to feel lived in. I want the characters to have personality quirks, motivations, and allegiances. I’ve gamed with a lot of people over the years and most people don’t like that about me. My breed is rare and I’ll admit that most of the time I try to metagame some balance between what I like about RPGs, and what others can tolerate that clashes with their desires.
As a player or a GM, you can’t please everyone all the time, so the only solution is to please everyone some of the time. If you don’t know what your fellow players like, ask them. If you’re the GM, try to make it happen for them. If you’re a player, support them in what they like. Never, ever whine about things you don’t like doing during the game. Other people are listening and they hear you when you call something that matters to them stupid. I may not like the dice rolling side of RPGs, but lots of people in my group do. I can tell because they use a lot of “so I should roll…?” language in our sessions. I assume I can do something until the GM tells me I have to roll for it. Heck, some people just like the rolling of dice, period, whether they’re the ones doing it or not. Have a powergamer? Let them crunch the numbers and find that uber combo. Be happy for them when they pull it off. You may know they haven’t really “broken” the game, but at least their getting enjoyment out of it. Which leads to number three.
Be encouraging and non-adversarial
No matter what your type, you can’t let the game devolve into a pissing match over whose style is better. You’re there to socialize. You’re there to have fun. You’re there for fellowship, for crying out loud! The fact is that there are many types of people in the world, with many types of damage. Their satisfaction in role-playing is governed by many different factors and everyone deserves a little bit of what they like.
Here’s an example: I believe in my heart of hearts that powergaming is bad for the hobby and sucks the fun out of role-playing. Powergamers would probably be more happy playing video games, but for whatever reason they prefer a tabletop game or just want to hang with people. Just because I have strong opinions about powergaming doesn’t mean I don’t gently (and with measure) support a powergamer at the table. They can be super useful. Yes, they work hard to discover broken combos: that can be used against your adversaries! Yes, there is the danger of them making the entire game about an arms race. It is important for you to gently and covertly prevent that from happening by questioning some of their extreme requests for house rules and detailed clarifications of how rules work. Rules clarifications should happen before or after session happen, not during. Be polite in requesting this and asking your GM for a quick ruling. The powergamer can sort that out to their hearts content over email or a private discussion. Powergamers don’t really want an arms race anyway. They want to be King of the Universe. Let them be King of the much smaller Universe that is their character, and they’ll be happy.
I could break down how to be supportive to every type, but maybe that’s another article. 😉
Work as a team
You can be a member of a team, yet do absolutely nothing to help the team. You can’t craft a story when the characters of the story are all trying to drag the story in the direction they want it to go. I have two tips here that are common examples of anti-team behavior in role-playing.
1) You play your alignment to the detriment of all.
Ok, I get it. You are the Method Actor and you want to play your alignment as close to the guidelines as possible. Here is the problem: every time you chaotically evilly kill the mayor of the town, you lose out on all sorts of quests that your GM was going to use to help everyone craft a story. Every time you lawfully goodly demand that every bandit you find must be brought to trial, you’re slowing down the game and making it about judicial proceedings. This is a shared story, not just your story, and you have to be flexible with that alignment so that everyone can enjoy themselves.
2) You can learn to make compromises for others.
Remember how we established that different role-players have different styles? You have to work to understand those styles and not make the game about me, me, me. There may be particular goals in the game that you want to accomplish. Other players may not have any goals at all. But just because you have goals, it doesn’t give you a free pass to dominate the action.
Compromise is key. You have to be willing to give everyone a chance to participate and get what they want out of the game. This especially goes for veteran players. When you go to Cons and role-play, one of the first things you’ll notice is veterans who think that their experience gives them the right to dominate the action and do what they want. They are incredibly crappy to role-play with. Their fun is all about them.
We’ve walked out of games at Cons that have been dominated by veteran players unwilling to see the forest for the trees and with GMs that were unwilling or incapable of enforcing a “fun for all” mentality of the game. You may interpret that as elitist, but the fact is that we are all working adults, many with professional careers, and we don’t have time to piss away our recreation time. Tacticon is in less than two weeks, and we are so serious about guaranteeing good table environments that we went back to last year’s schedule, decided who our best GM was, and scheduled a whole bunch of games with that GM for this year.
Merge your back stories
Do you need an excuse to work closely with the other players? Merging your back stories is a great way to create camaraderie, story conflict, and give GMs something to work with to make the story extra special. Are you rivals? Did you play together as children? Are you members of a guild or sharing a mutual professional goal? The sky’s the limit. We started this article with the idea of your character not being an island. Although common, there are no rules that say your characters have to be strangers when they team up with each other. Enrich your role-playing experience by using your character’s mutual experiences to drive interesting conversations and interactions in game!