Last updated on September 11, 2020
There are discrete skills players can use to take their table top role playing games to the next level. I know you aren’t the game master, but these games are collaborative, which means you, yes you, directly shape the course and narrative of the story. I want to share 3 key skills you can use to level up your sessions: 1. Know your Rules; 2. Play along with the table; 3. Enable your peers.
1. Know your rules
The better you know the rules, the more meaningfully you can interact with a game. Your brain can only hold so much at any given time. It can be overwhelming to learn a new game. There can be so many rules, and it can be so hard to keep it all in your head. If you take the time to look up the rules in the book, though, it slows everything down. With games like DND, these pauses wreck immersion.
The Benefits to Learning
It won’t be hard forever though. When you take the time to learn the rules, to any game, things get easier to remember. In fact, when you really start to get the game, details and strategies open up that you didn’t see before. You start to really have fun.
Josh Waitzkin in his book, “The Art of Learning”, attributes this phenomenon to your awareness expanding as the game transitions from your conscious to your subconscious mind. Mastery becomes ingrained, leaving your mind free to see more. A novice may have a hard time remembering how to make an attack roll, while a seasoned veteran might know how to hold an action to fire an arrow from the high ground on a sneaking goblin.
Internalized Knowledge – an Example
Let’s illustrate this using a competitive card game. When you start it can be hard to keep all the rules in your head. As you practice playing, you learn how to use your deck and begin internalizing the basics. Once you start to understand the mechanics in your deck, you can use them to understand the decks of your competitors. Pretty soon you know how a number of popular decks leverage the rules to win.
As you continue to practice and play you begin to see patterns players use to leverage their resources to try to gain advantage. You start seeing tells in your opponent’s plays, and you find you can predict what they’re going to do. Pretty soon, the game becomes a thrilling battle of wits rather than just a complex set of rules.
Mastery and Meaningful Choice
Learning the rules of a TTRPG can lead to similar results. What begins as a complex set of rules will develop into a creative outlet for self-expression and dynamic storytelling. The better you learn the rules, the more deliberate, nuanced, and personal your actions become. In the end, you transcend the mechanics of the RPG, and the game becomes an outlet of self-expression.
How does this work? Well, Role Playing Games are in the business of providing the meaningful choices for the players to wrestle with. Often, the more meaningful the choice, the better the story. Making decisions take an immense amount of energy, though. In Gary Keller’s, “The One Thing”, he identified decision making as a highly taxing activity, requiring massive amounts of frontal cortex processing power. In fact, blood glucose was noted to drop significantly in subjects engaged in highly meaningful decision-making activities. If your frontal cortex is preoccupied with the basics, you may not have the mental energy to fully engage with the decisions and choices that make these games so meaningful.
How to Learn the Rules
First, take the time to read all the rules associated with your character in your game. Put together a single page reference sheet to help you as you practice using the rules in game. Each time you come to the table, you’ll find it become easier and easier to lose yourself in the game.
As you master the rules, use them to discover strategies and opportunities to express yourself more fully in the game. Pretty soon, the rules will be useful tools in your subconscious, freeing your conscious mind to dig deep into your character and the world, finding deeper meaning and unique perspectives as you express yourself while making meaningful decisions in game
2. Play Along with the Table
TTRPGs are a dialog between the players and the GM. The GM provides the scenario, then the players respond, creating an avenue of open communication.
Improv and “Yes, and…”
Improv Comedy has a concept known as “yes, and…”. Lots of advice on the internet encourages DMs to hold fast to this rule when engaging with the players. While I don’t believe this is a hard and fast rule, the spirit of the rule can be useful in both directions. The idea of “yes, and…” is used to develop the base reality during an improv sketch. The participants take turns developing aspects of the world, each one supporting the other by agreeing with the premise, then adding more to expand the scene. They continue until the reality is strong enough to support developing the absurd during the “game”.
RPGs work quite the same. The GM begins the scene and invites the players to explore the premise. Players and GM then take turns expanding the base reality of the session. The best tables work together in the spirit of “yes, and…”, with each participant supporting and meaningfully contributing to the established reality. The world continues to build until it is strong enough to support the game, in this case, the next meaningful choice.
Building a story together
In practice, the GM provides an interesting world, with consistent rules, interesting ideas, and unique locations and people to explore. The players then add to the story by accepting the world, then steering the narrative through the lenses of their characters’ perceptions. Back and forth the story develops, with the GM giving hooks and situations, while the players follow leads and actualize motivations. It is through this synergistic union that the medium’s unique stories unfold, creating structured narrative paths that can support the meaningful decisions that underline a great story.
GM’s can support this dialog by developing open ended situations that foster player participation. Players, you can contribute by accepting the world, then navigate authentically through it by using your character’s unique perspective and motivation.
How to Best Play Along
Develop your skill in playing along by first getting clear on what you contribute. Get to know your character. Understand their motivations, beliefs, goals, hopes, fears, and desires. Use this to navigate the established world and share what avenues would be most interesting to explore with your character. Find ways to say yes, while building a robust situation to support the meaningful choices worth exploring in your game.
3. Enable Your Peers
It’s not just about building a relationship with your GM, you’re also sitting at a table full of other players, just as excited to play the game as you are. Rich storytelling opportunities are available in the relationships you forge between you and the other player characters at the table.
Inter dialog between main characters are some of the most memorable moments of many fantastic stories. We want these events in our games. Engage with your fellow players’ characters. You know they all have backstories and motivations just as fully developed and complex as yours. Spend time learning about them at the table. Talk with other characters, in character. You will be amazed how interesting the game gets when you spend the time to listen to the stories of your peers. You are a legendary band of heroes, take the time to tell the personal story moments, and full narrative will become richer and more meaningful.
This wonderful game we play tells real stories through real time collaborative experiences. No two tables tell the exact same story. When you get a group of friends together to go after a similar goal, you create something truly special. The collective creative energies all blend together into a rich tapestry. Engage with your peers. Share the spotlight. Collaborate ideas, and cultivate the narratives that emerge.
How to Enable Others
To really develop this skill takes learning to share the spotlight. Find moments to encourage one of your friends to take the lead. As you get to know your party, you’ll find natural opportunities for your friends to take the lead. Maybe you support the bard as they charm an angry orc horde with their enchanting melodies. Spend time talking to other players in character and share the story from multiple perspectives.
I also recommend taking time to negotiate with your team before jumping straight into action. Next time you walk into a haunted mansion, or creep into orc territory, take a moment to plan with your team, in character, and see how it goes. People make decisions together all the time. We negotiate, fight, convince, and have complex dialogue all the time. It’s during these moments of interpersonal negotiation that great stories develop organically.
These are the skills that will make you a better player, and level up your games. First, learn your rules. The better you know the rules, the better you can engage with the game. Second, collaborate with the GM. Say yes to their scenarios and add your narrative to strengthen the story your table wants to tell. Third, engage, share, and explore the game with your peers, and watch the story flourish
Try these out and let me know how it goes. If you have any tips or player skills that improved your sessions, let me know.