Much of my writing here focuses on the GM’s role or the designer’s skills. This time, let’s take a look instead at improving the experience of playing games rather than running or building them.
Be Attentive and Participate
This one’s free and easy. It’s probably the reason you play games to begin with, to take part in something, right? Indulge that. Lose yourself in it. Let go of the outside world and immerse yourself in the game. Put your phone on Do Not Disturb and close every browser tab that isn’t a game aid — assuming you have any tech at the table at all. Give your attention to the game, the GM, and your fellow players.
Remember what distinguishes games from traditional consumable media: the interactivity! Take your turn. Discuss your plans and actions. Coordinate. Reply. Act, if that’s your style. Be a part of the unique story you and your group are creating.
Note that this isn’t an excuse to bully someone into taking action. Some players genuinely play just to have a seat at the table, to share time with friends, so yanking them into a more active role might actually compromise their enjoyment. Invite, don’t browbeat.
Generate Evocative Detail
Part of experiencing an imaginary world is imagining its details. Ask questions of the GM. Sensory detail goes a long way. Beyond what you see, what do you smell, touch, and hear? The GM has a lot to keep track of, and offering them a chance to enrich the immersive detail by asking an evocative question is an opportunity few GMs will decline.
Many GMs are willing to share the description duties of sensory detail, as well, since it takes some of the work off their plates at the same time it helps build authenticity in the shared world. Offer up detail — the GM can overrule it if it’s not contiguous with the world, but more likely they’ll embrace it as part of the whole. Describe your billowing breath in the cold air, the scent you’re wearing in order to entice your lover, the sound of your stylus as you write the damning confession implicating the Prince, the aroma of the spices as you cook your fellows a meal. Remember, you’re not stealing the spotlight, you’re revealing your perspective on the world.
When you have the chance, involve another player in your actions. As a ranger, scout ahead with the wizard. As an investigative reporter, take the soldier to search for clues in the study. “Combos” don’t have to reside solely within the realm of combat tactics. When you take game actions with other players’ characters, not only do you probably increase the chances of their success, you strengthen relationships with those players and characters. And whether your action succeds or fails, you have another player to help you effect the success (or share the consequences…). In terms of game flow, a single player monopolizing the GM’s time can bog down the pacing of what the rest of the table’s doing. Abating that with character groupings can maintain the game flow as well as sustaining player attention during a time that they might be tempted to check out.
Most often, players undertake game actions with the intent to succeed at them. This makes sense, as tabletop RPGs frame player actions as part of a continuous narrative, usually seeking the accomplishment of certain goals. And that’s all fine and good.
As a player, however, you can engage in a bit of positive metagaming, because you know that there’s a distinction between player-you and character-you. Character-you wants to succeed (probably). Player-you, however, aims to be entertained and engaged by the activity at the gaming table. This means that failure in a game action is actually an opportunity to take further game action, to set the course right. If the reward for success is narrative progression toward the goal and systemic progress toward character improvement, the reward for failure is an endogenous chance for more gameplay. It’s all a question of how you look at it.
Since most players seek an improvement to mastery during play, failure is a chance to grow knowledge — it’s proof that a certain tactic is unreliable, a certain approach to dealing with an enemy isn’t fruitful, or that the incriminating letter isn’t in the drawer of the desk in the library. Learning how not to face a challenge informs how to face it effectively. Narratively, failure is a chance to do more: to dig yourself out of a worsening negotiation, seek new aid against a common enemy, or otherwise emerge from the failure into accomplishment.
Success means you’ve accomplished your goal. Failure means you get to keep playing as you continue to pursue it. Either way, game on.
Propose Solutions and Approaches
A character sheet is a set of limitations. It’s a list of constraints in which your character operates. Hang on a minute — that’s a good thing.
It’s good because those limitations provoke your creativity. If nothing else, games are a venue in which you creatively solve problems represented by the limitations of your character.
With that in mind, creatively solve problems! If you assume the standard solutions to problems, you’re letting the rules hold you back rather than propel you forward. Talk things through with your GM, especially when proposing an unorthodox approach. Maybe the GM assumes the hobgoblin guard is there to be fought, but what if you bribe him? Negotiate with him? Cut him in on a share of what’s beyond the gate in exchange for taking all the heat if it’s an even greater challenge? “W want to purchase the house where the witches’ coven convenes and let it fall into foreclosure” is perhaps a more viable solution than burning the damn place down, especially since it leaves the witches alive and having to account for themselves at the solstice tribunal. Become credentialed as a press agent to walk past the security guards instead of sneaking or knocking them out. Give a gift to the executive assistant instead of ambushing the bigwig in the parking garage. Buy a half-dozen pigs at the stockyards and deliver them to the kitchens of the hotel before the reception begins. (This also works to disrupt a high-school biology class, or so I’m, uh, told.)
This isn’t to say you should expect to be successful every time (see “Fail Interestingly,” above). Nor should every crackpot combination of game inputs even have a chance of success — you can’t seduce a stake into the Ventrue Elder’s heart with Charisma + Manipulation. But neither should that prevent you from bringing to bear your character’s attributes and features to bear in satisfying ways that may be a bit unorthodox. You’re not getting away with anything, you’re flexing creative muscles to solve the challenges the game puts before you.