Friday, January 24, 2014

Principled Playing

I got Apocalypse World and Dungeon World through the Bundle of Holding back in November and since then I have been in love with them, especially the advice they provide for GM'ing games. Setting aside the idea of Fronts, which are excellent (see Sly Flourish for a nice concise article about how they could be hacked into D&D) what I'm most excited about working into the games I run are the Principles. Now for both Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, the Principles are there to tell the GM explicitly how to run the game. The game designers are pretty explicit that they think the game's other rules will run best and after running Apocalypse World on Sunday, I think in their original games they do just that. But if you take them out of their original games, they work fantastically as well focused general GM advice. Let's take the Principles of Dungeon World that I'm trying to incorporate, more or less intact, into both of my D&D Next campaigns.

  • Draw maps, leave blanks 
  • Address the characters, not the players 
  • Embrace the fantastic 
  • Make a move that follows 
  • Never speak the name of your move 
  • Give every monster life 
  • Name every person 
  • Ask questions and use the answers 
  • Be a fan of the characters 
  • Think dangerous 
  • Begin and end with the fiction 
  • Think offscreen, too
Aside from "Make a move that follows" and "Never speak the name of your move" which reference the Powered by The Apocalypse "Move" rule specifically, the other Principles read as great general GM advice.   I've already made good use of the "Draw maps, leave blanks" principle in my new Shattered Lands D&D Next campaign as a reminder not to create too much of the setting and to leave plenty to be discovered with the players during actual play sessions.

While I could write a post or two about how I intend to make use of the Dungeon World Principles in my D&D Next campaigns, a couple of things have happened in the 4E games I play in that have gotten me thinking about writing a similar list of Player Principles that a RPG player could use to guide how they play the game.  So here is my attempt at a list of Player Principles that I'll use to help guide me as I play in the two 4E D&D games that I'm currently in.  Keep in mind that these Principals I've come up with are mostly a reflections of the things I want to make sure I'm focusing on as a player and not just a list of the ways other players disappoint me.

  • Respect the conceit(s) of the game
  • Address the characters, not the players 
  • Know your sheet and your character
  • Have goals and strive to meet them
  • Have a couple back up actions
  • Respect the GM and the table
  • Always help the GM
  • Be descriptive
  • Be a fan of the other player characters 
  • Remember the world is dangerous, make your failures interesting
  • Characters have secrets, Players don't
  • Think off sheet, too
Respect the conceit(s) of the game
Apocalypse World is a story telling game about life after the 'End of the World', Call of Cthulhu is a game where player characters go insane or die, Type IV D&D is a game where combats are very tactical.  Just as it's bad form to complain about scarcity of resources in AW or to whine about your character going insane after encounter Cthulhu, so too should it be uncouth to complain about combats being tactical or players attempting to be tactical in Type IV.  Respect the conceit of the game, one of the conceits of Type IV is that combat is tactical, many players build characters who invest in powers and feats that take advantage of that tactical combat.  Respect the time the GM put into making the encounter and the investment other players made in creating/crafting tactical characters, you don't have to always try and take the most tactically maximized move, but you're only annoying other players and possibly risking the party's survival as the GM probably planned the encounter thinking the party would work together.  If you're not tactical, why not pair with a player/PC who is and outside of combat (and the game session too, if possible, but definitely outside of combat) work with that player to come up with some good combos or moves that your PC can make to support the more tactical player.  You shouldn't just hand your sheet over to be played by the other player but instead have a few ideas of ways, general or specific, that your character can enhance the tactical advantages of the other player.  Similarly, it sounds like I'll soon be playing in a Gamma World game, and no matter how cruddy my mutation/power combinations are, when they're compared to other player's, I'll respect the conceit of the random mutation/power mechanic and work to make lemonade out of the lemons, or possible just add the lemons to gin, delicious gin. 

Address the characters, not the players 
Stolen whole-cloth from the GM principles, and why not?  You'll only be helping the GM keep in the habit of addressing the characters and not the players, but it's also a fantastic way to help distinguish between in-character and out of character discussions.

Know your sheet and your character
I know I've touched on this before in my "So You're Playing D&D for the First Time" post, but it bears repeating, especially since I'll be debuting a new 13th level hybrid warlock/psion soon and will have a whole new sheet and nearly three dozen powers and feats to learn.  You'll get a free pass the first time that you play a new character or if you're new to the game, but if you're playing a character you've played before and/or you've been playing the edition/game for more than a few sessions then your fellow player's patience will soon turn into annoyance if you're unable to take your turn in under a minute or so.  It's really worth it to take the time to audit your sheet a day or so before the game and to do a 5 minute sheet meditation right before the game start (covered in the "So You're Playing D&D for the First Time" post).  The GM puts in hours of prep, you can put in 30 minutes.  This also extends to knowing where things are on your sheet, especially if you're using a non-standard sheet or an electronic copy where the other players won't be familiar with where things are.  You should also know your character, know enough about your characters motivations, quirks and personality that you can quickly decide what they would do in a situation.  No 40 page backgrounds needed, but you shouldn't be paralyzed by decision making whenever your character is faced with something.  That's what the GM's Catoblepas is for.

Have goals and strive to meet them
They don't need to be earth shattering, and they don't need to be in character, but you should have goals each session, whether it's working on a longer term character goal (amass power) or a short term player goal (this session I'm only going to use player names when I'm speaking out of character).  I'm going to try to have one of each goal, that is one in character goal (learn a secret about the treasure horde the party is searching for) and one out of character goal (find ways to bring other PCs into the spotlight).

Have a couple back up actions
It's inevitable that at some point you'll have been good, spent all the other initiative rounds plotting out your perfect turn where you'll get to do something fantastic and cool and then right before you go some other player will get that critical hit and kill the monster you were going to target.  So why not plan for it?  You don't need to plan back up actions for each and every turn, just have a few that will work generally when you're best laid plans are spoiled by the actions of dice and DM.  Knowing that absent any better action you'll use your Second Wind if you're bloodied or use your at-will attack at the enemy nearest your character can save you (and the rest of the group) the agony of spending three more minutes and you frantically flip through character sheet pages to come up with something just as cool as what you had previously planned.

Respect the table and the GM
Whether or not you're playing around actual table, when you play a RPG you're at a table if your fellow players, who include the GM who is also a player, though that's often forgotten.  Just like going to a family dinner, which calls for a certain set of table manners, playing a RPG requires its own set of table manners.  This could be a much longer post all on its own, so I'm just going to throw down some bullet points.
  • Accept the GM's rulings and move on. It's the GM's job to adjudicate and tell the story and organize the game and keep the action moving and... and... and...  The GM has enough on their plate without a player contesting any time a rule goes against them.  If a GM wants they'll ask for a second opinion or ask someone to look up a rule in a book, but ultimately when the GM makes the call, be gracious, accept it, keep the game moving and be respectful of the GM and the other players by letting the game continue.
  • Let the GM and other players know if you're going to be late or need to leave early.  This also includes being respectful and polite if you're not feeling well or if the game is running over on time and you need to bow out unexpectedly.  If you're in a bad mood or tired or ill and you're not having fun it's a much more considerate move to politely let the group know that you're bowing out instead of sulking or working to make the game less fun for everyone else.
  • For Frak's sake put the gorram electronic devices away.  I know this is one sin I've been especially guilty of in the past and so it's one that I'm very focused on now.  It's one thing if you need to answer the occasional text but if you're playing the confectionery-based game that shall not be named instead of paying attention to the RPG you're "playing" then you need to leave the table.  Missing details of plot or not being ready for your initiative because you're checking your social network or playing a different game only condemns you to the darkest, deepest pits of the Inferno where you will eat naught but burning hot coals and drink naught but burning hot cola. I'm serious about this, if you're bored when it's not your combat initiative turn then you should help make the game more enjoyable for all instead of giving in to the shiny screen of damnation.
  • Respect the comfort level of others and let others know when you're uncomfortable.  I like edgy games, I have no problem with evil characters doing vile things, but that's me.  If another player is uncomfortable with the content of the game, I and all the other players, should respect that and rein things in.  If the player is consistently uncomfortable then maybe they need to consider if it's really the game for them, but if things just get out of hand, as they sometimes do, then the other players should be respectful and tone things down.  This only works, though, if players speak up when they're uncomfortable, even if they just ask for a break and tell the GM privately.
  • Bring a snack to share.  Even if you stop at the gas station and bring a $1 bag of chips, it's the thought that counts.  Don't be a moocher or Mitt Romney will come and give you 47 whoopin's.
Always help the GM
As mentioned above, the GM has a ton on their plate.  Be helpful, remind the GM where things left off, offer to help keep track of initiative or move miniatures.  But you can do more, if you notice things are going off track or staying out of character, help bring the group back in so that it's not always something that's left to the GM.  The more you help the GM keep things moving, the more gaming you'll get in and the more fun you'll probably have.

Be descriptive
Describe you moves, your powers, your character.  If the GM will allow it, describe how the goblin dies from your sword blow when you reduce him to 0 hit points.  Too often the task of maintaining the fantastic world is left entirely on the shoulders of the GM, help with that burden, even if it's just a little.  This is doubly important if you run a game of your own or plan on running a game in the future.  It's the immersive little descriptions and details that separate a good game from a great one.

Be a fan of the other player characters 
This is probably the most over-looked practice I decided to include among my principles.  Too many gamers get super focused on their PC, all the cool things their PC can do, their PCs goals, their PC's survival, the forty pages of back story they wrote about their PC.  Honestly, tabletop RPGs at their best are about the players as a group, if you sincerely only care about your own PC, then don't bring them to the table, go home and write a novel about them or masturbate thinking about them.  Seriously.  If, on the other hand, you just forget to be interested in the other player characters, then just remember to be a fan of their characters too.  Find out what's interesting about the other PCs and work to bring that out in the game.  Playing an easily bored halfling fighter?  Maybe you're fascinated by all the fire spells the mage can cast and you can constantly be encouraging them to unleash that burning hands or fireball spell.  Let the other player's have the spotlight, don't try and hog it all for yourself.  Be excited for the cool things they can do and celebrate their successes.  And a little teamwork goes a long way, don't be afraid of giving up "your" turn every once in a while to help out an ally.  Even if you don't kill the black dragon, if it's your throwing the grappling hook onto the ledge that lets the fighter swing down for the fatal blow you still get to be part of that story and then maybe that fighter will remember and distract the troll to set up the back stab your rogue needs.

Remember the world is dangerous, make your failures interesting
Remember that the world of the game is dangerous.  It wouldn't be any fun if your characters never fought a tough enemy, never came to the brink of calamity and fought past it.  If you never put your character in danger, you're also not letting your character shine. Yeah, rolling a 2 or a 1 sucks.  It especially sucks in D&D where it often means that it just wastes your turn and you watch the combat whirl past you.  Don't let it.  Describe your failures, maybe you slipped on the pool of blood from that last orc that you slew.  React to it and work it into the story, if you can't hit the evil Necromancer, maybe he used an Evil Eye on you and you need to take a turn to ward it off.  A good GM will give you a bonus to your next roll for something like that, though not if you try and abuse it and constantly try to wheedle for bonuses. 

Characters have secrets, Player's don't
So you have a tortured backstory for your character, something really cool.  Not worth a hill of beans if the other players don't know about it.  If you're playing a half-orc fighter trying to pass a human and you just tell all the players that you're human and then you're disappointed that they never figure out your dark secret... well, child, you're just doing it wrong.  Characters have secrets, player's don't.  Let the other players in on the story you want to tell with your character, how you're hiding that you're a half-orc and then the players can just in and raise the tension when you encounter orcs and you just happen to be the only member of the party who can speak Orcish.  If the players don't know, they can't have their characters ask "So, how'd you learn Orcish."  Yes, yes, I know, players will just Meta-game.  That is a bullshit excuse. Players will always be tempted to meta-game but the only way people get better at something is practice, so when another player meta-games too overtly about a secret your character has, you just gently remind them that they don't know in character.  Over-all the fun of getting to play out the story you want for your character will overcome the minor annoyances of the couple times you had to quash a little bit of meta-gaming.

Think off sheet, too
Don't forget that your character is more than your character sheet.  Don't forget that you're not just limited to the powers listed on your sheet.  Be creative, treat the game world as real and not just as a set of rulebooks, grids and sheets.

So that's it, those are the Principles I'm going to attempt to live up to as I continue to play in the two Type IV games I'm in.  I have no illusion about being able to live up to all of them all of the time, but having them in the back of my head will help me be a better player at the table. 


  1. This is fantastic, and should be required reading for all PC's.

  2. So much good stuff here! It makes me want to run a game!


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