Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Better Player Advice: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 26

Play on Target goes classic today with a perennial question: how can I be a better player? As with the last week’s episode, I think we hit some concrete and specific strategies. Certainly we do less name-checking of odd rpg systems and resources. As I mention in the podcast the discussion comes from four people who generally GM. That informs our position- though all of us play in campaigns (some online, some f2f, some Pbf). I think in the future we need to do a slightly tilted version of this topic: what do I want as a player? Ideally I want to play at the intersection of those two concepts: knowing what makes for enjoyable play and knowing what I like from a game. 

I think it's harder to judge your performance as a player; perhaps more particularly to accurately judge your performance. As a GM you’re out in front of everyone, watching the group and working to generate reactions. Enthusiasm, player participation, tension, attention, remembering details, taking initiative, playing off of the world- all of these are good benchmarks for a GM’s success. (That assumes the GM isn’t in the self-doubt death-spiral, which is a topic for another post). A good GM thrives and works with that feedback.

So how do you tell if you’re doing well as a player? You have some objective criteria. You get invited back, for one. Though you could also read that as socially mandated or based on the need to fill a seat. How about if the GM backs your character choices- though that may instead reflect the GM's style. You can’t necessarily judge it based on how much time a GM affords you at the table. A good GM spreads the spotlight around. You can't judge it on laughter you generate, since sometimes comedy breakouts slow a game down. I’ve had class-clown players who brought sessions to a halt. So much of what happens at the table is subjective- a player’s voice is one among many. If you’re good with judging social situations and responses, you probably have an easier time judging how well others enjoy your play at the table.


I’m not sure- I’ve seen some socially smooth folks who went to weird places in games. They’d clearly decided on an approach and didn’t connect that with others. I’ve seen players who absolutely can’t pick up on social cues or avoid confrontation play strong and solid characters at the table. Is that a factor of play style, a factor of their ability to judge their performance, or some combination of the two?

Some games award bonus points for good play- rp’ing or some other factor. You could take that as an indicator. I’ve almost never used that. My sense has always been to reward the group as a whole. I played in a Champions campaign where people could vote on a bonus point award for a particular player. As a newbie coming into that group, I always felt a little out of place. The system encouraged the players not to rock the boat with one another or with the GM.

A smart group tells the GM what they’ve liked and how much they’ve enjoyed the session. That keeps the GM happy (generally- death-spiral aside). I think it equally important for the GM and other players to talk about play that they’ve enjoyed. That’s one of the things I like about both online games I run- the players stop and take time to say how awesome a particular scene, choice, or interaction was. I need to be better about making clear when I enjoy someone’s play. The responsibility has to be on the whole group- not just the GM- to point to striking and fun moments at the table. We need to point out good play to the players who play it…(need a better phrase for that).

Does the reverse hold true? That’s more difficult. If you’re bothered by somone’s play your choices are more constrained. Obvious bad play- racism, sexism, interrupting, disrupting can be more easily pointed out. That’s still hard. I had to call a fellow player one time on the fact that whenever one of the women in the group spoke, he interrupted them. It took me some time to get the nerve up for that. How do you call out just not good or mediocre play? Criticism won’t work- you have to find some way to see if you can judge their interests, find a better role for them, or reinforce what they do well. I’ve had that work and not work. I think players should help one another. If someone has success in a niche, encourage that. But I think the GM has more responsibility on that side. If a player isn’t fitting in, if they’re bringing the group down, or if the GM just plain doesn’t enjoy running for them, that’s needs to be communicated.

Otherwise you could operate in a vacuum. You might not know if the other people at the table disliked your choices. I had this happen in a game. I may have posted this story before. I played in a Buffy-style game with three other players. We had a Slayer, a vampire, and a Voodoo Priestess. They all had interesting powers. I took a one-armed investigator who had a phantom arm. He could use it to break things from the inside, open doors, and do a modest amount of damage. The power was fairly light-weight in comparison to the others. But I liked my character- and I liked positioning myself as the normal person in a group devoted to high weirdness. I had decided to play the Zander/Zeppo figure in the team. I’d comment on that role- especially when they forgot I had any powers at all. I enjoyed it Until I found out the other players thought I was serious about my complaining. They’d taken it as me having sour-grapes for making a shitty character.

I hadn’t been clear about my play and the other players hadn’t given me feedback. We’d ended up in a loop. I felt like an idiot. I ended up quitting and the game stopped after that.

Yikes. Let’s hope I’m better at that now…

Related, but a little off topic, I want to do a player survey of some kind. About fifteen years ago I did one for my players- multi-page paper sheets using muitple question types. I suspect I wanted affirmation as much as information. The results did offer me a sense of some things: genre preference, game activities, system details. Of course all of this was stated preferences, which in my experience can be radically different from actual preferences. I’ve seen GMs and players who make a claim to wanting a certain amount of crunch, realism, and leathality but in practice really hate that. The survey was too big and clunky and wasted space. I did learn that at least one of my players had been cheating regularly and consistently, something I hadn’t known.

Now we have much easier tools for setting up surveys and actually getting that in a useful and anonymous format. By my count I have about two dozen players who have played at least four sessions in a campaign of mine over the last five years and who I still feel comfortable communicating with. That’s a pretty decent pool to draw on. Ideally I want to come up with a short, easily completed survey focused on getting useful information. I want to imagine it more like playtest feedback. 

Right now I’m thinking a quantitative section- with an agree/disagree continuum- and a short qualitative section. The former seems like the easier to come up with, although I really want to keep that short and reasonable. I’m imagining an optional section for rating genres and activities. The qualitative section’s more of a challenge. I have to ask myself what I want to find out. Ideally I want to know about moments where they thought something cool happened, moments/sessions that spring to mind when they think about the game, times when they felt stuck or helpless, times when they were confused, times when they felt their choices didn’t matter. I want to see if I can identify open or unsatisfied questions or moments for them.
I’ll post some details when I actually have something put together.

If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check out Play on Target. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at


  1. This is a very important article and highlights the difficulties in being a player. Since it's harder to get reliable feedback (especially about what you're doing right), and since seeking out negative feedback can easily leave you with damaged self confidence, the whole thing can prove really difficult. Asking other players, "What do you like about my roleplaying style?" can easily leave you with a few simple anecdotes without any real meat to it, as most folks probably haven't thought real deeply about it (sometimes as a defensive mechanism so that they *don't* get annoyed).

    1. That's on the mark. I'm defensive enough I hadn't considered the impact of negative responses (since I don't like to even think about them). And your point about some feedback being less useful is good as well. I have to think about what could/should be best practices for giving feedback. is there some structure which could be put in place (beyond a reward system) or some technique GMs might use to encourage it.

  2. I'm glad you folks have managed to put together something that is player-focused. I think you mentioned before that most blogs and content out there is for GMs, so this approach is very welcome. Looking forward to listening to the podcast!

    1. I'm pushing for another one of our upcoming recordings to be player centered again- that topic I mention above- figuring out what you like as a player.

  3. Your quitting that game aligned in beautiful harmony with things going on in the GMs life which lead to a perfect time to end the game.

    Or, there should be no guilt on your part. Shit was going down that lead to the marriage down the street from me and the end of the game was not your fault.

    1. I have to admit to being selfish about my guilt there. I feel bad that I managed to so badly communicate what my character was doing to the other players. I feel bad that they had a less enjoyable experience because of that. I feel like an idiot remembering scenes I thought were cool, but my have looked to everyone else like me bitching. I think that's why I'm really in favor of players sharing secrets and motivations with one another. While secret squirrel stuff can be fun, I think its more fun & more fun for more people to get that out there so other people can play off of it.