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Keeping Kosher

Being a Good Player

by Walt Ciechanowski
Dec 06,2005


Keeping Kosher

By Walt Ciechanowski

Being a Good Player

Due to outside factors, my weekly game was forced to take a two session hiatus. Since I'd ended the final session at the climax of the campaign, I had a lot of time to decide what to do next. After much debate, I decided to run a new campaign in the same "campaign world."

Friday came with much anticipation. I'd spent a lot of time defining the style and tone of the new campaign and. In the few hours between the end of the workday and the start of the session, I worked feverishly to iron out the opening adventure. I also ran to the supermarket to grab some things for dinner (as GM and host, I usually provide dinner for my players), and I set up the campaign table. The final action required lighting a few candles as part of the ambiance and setting up my laptop and flat screen monitor. With less than an hour to go, I'd barely lit the last candle when the phone rang. One of my players was sick and couldn't make it.

Let me say up front that I'm not angry with the player. While he felt miserable, he made a Herculean effort to get to the game. In the end, he was just too sick to come. Since we have a small group (three players and one GM), it made sense to cancel rather than play without him. Unfortunately, my other traveling player had his cell phone off, so he didn't get the news until he knocked on my door.

I'm sure you all know that frustrated, disappointed feeling I had when I hung up the phone. I'd wasted the entire evening getting ready and gave up opportunities for alternate plans, opportunities that had disappeared by the time I did get the message. I would much rather have gotten the message in the afternoon.

Anyway, this anecdote inspired me to write a column on something that I've been considering writing for a while. There's a lot of advice out there for being a good GM, but not so much on being a good player. Even then, the focus on "being a good player" often revolves around character design and execution, rather than as a human being. The following list is compiled from many anecdotes over the years, and I hope some of you will find it useful.

Note: The term "Host" refers to the gamer(s) hosting the game. This may or may not be the GM.

1. Don't wait until the eleventh hour to tell the GM you may not be coming to the game.

Gaming requires a time investment. It's common courtesy to give everyone enough time to make alternative plans and not ruin the evening. Even if the group has a contingency plan (such as breaking out a DVD or a board game), there may be some players who would rather not come if the game is cancelled.

Note the "may." If you're feeling sick or if there's the possibility you can't make it, let the GM or Host know early, even if you ultimately come. The GM may decide it's not worth it to have a shivering, tired, sweating player at the table and cancel anyway. Also, there are times when a second player is sitting on the fence as well, and this may encourage her to speak out and ask for a cancellation.

2. Be on time.

I game with a thirty-something crowd. We all have jobs and most of us have spouses and families. Keeping a weekly game together is often a challenge and requires much accommodation. Many of my players enjoy having a few hours to relax and retreat into a fantasy world.

If you've made the commitment to play, make sure you show up within a reasonable time, especially if the session window is short. It is far more damaging to show up 20 minutes late to a three-hour session than a five-hour one. Ask the Host how early you can show up and plan to get there before the game starts.

Some of you may reference my old column on "Accommodating Real Life" and see a contradiction here. There isn't. It's one thing for a group to get together and procrastinate because they want to socialize; it's another for the group to be forced to "kill time" as they wait for you to show up. And while I don't want to waste this on another point, it should go without saying that you shouldn't blow off a session entirely without telling someone.

3. Share the costs.

I've run games out of my apartment/house for years. Some of these campaigns have lasted more than a year. Oddly, while I have consistently offered food and drinks to my players, I can count on one hand the number of times a player has entered my house with drinks and snacks to share.

On a related note, being the GM often means that I have to put out all the money for the latest supplements. My players rarely even purchase the core rulebook, preferring to leaf through my copy. In today's dollars (I'm American), this often means that I have to spend over a $100 for the privilege of entertaining my friends.

While I realize that many players are "starving gamers," I don't think it's too much to ask for a player to pick up a soft drink bottle or a large bag of chips once in a while. Ask the Host what she needs; chances are paper products will always be a welcome gift (in my games, a package of cheap candles are always welcome). Take up a collection if there's a new supplement that will benefit the group. Even if you can't meet the cost, the GM will appreciate the discount. If there's a new supplement that you can see yourself referencing a lot (like the "Totally Awesome Butt-Kicker's Guide" when you're playing a Butt-Kicker), offer to purchase it and loan it to the GM for the duration of the campaign.

4. Clean up.

Most Hosts don't have a dedicated gaming space. The play area usually has to be set up prior to the session and put away afterwards. While most gamers are pretty good about helping set up if they arrive early, many bolt when the game is over, leaving the Host to clean everything up.

Gamers have a notorious reputation for being messy. Make sure you help keep it clean. Offer to clean the table, wash the dishes, vacuum, or bundle up the trash during a slow moment in the session or immediately afterwards. Your Host will greatly appreciate this.

5. Be attentive.

There is nothing more damaging to a GM's confidence than to look over his screen and see one player flipping through a rulebook for a different game, another player recreating the Tower of Babel with dice, a third player consistently absent from the table, and a fourth player fast asleep. When you make a commitment to play a game, you also make a commitment to show your appreciation.

GMs want to be appreciated. Unlike players, they spend a lot of time preparing outside the game. Even if you really are tired or bored, there are better ways to express it than to let the GM "guess" while she's trying to run a game (see Point 8 below). Other players will also be affected by the behavior as the game pauses while the wandering or sleeping player is brought back up to speed before he can contribute.

6. Learn the rules.

I'm often surprised at the number of players I come across who don't know the rules of the game that they are playing. All players should have a working knowledge of the rules that apply to their own characters on a regular basis. It's one thing for the GM to refresh the players on acting in a zero-G environment when the campaign so far has been world-bound; it's another for the GM to re-educate the Wizard player for the 16th time which dice are used to determine the damage of a magic missile.

Some games have free rules PDFs that you can print. Print out the relevant rules sections and keep them with your characters. Reread them when it's not your turn. You can also make rules notes on your character sheet to help you figure out what your character can do. If you do have a rule book, tab the appropriate sections.

7. Work with the style and tone of the campaign, not against it.

Most GMs have a certain "feel" in mind when they create a campaign. They do their best to communicate this to the players in the hopes that they will create appropriate characters and have them behave appropriately during the game. For some reason, I've come across players who either ignore this or actively work against it when creating characters. They then get indignant when I balk at their latest creation.

Talk to the GM and be open to her suggestions. Don't take them as criticisms. Your jokester character may not be appropriate for her grim and gritty campaign (or, with minor tweaking and a bit of tragedy tossed in, it could). Don't make a grim, moody, tragic hero in a whimsical game about four-color superheroes fighting supervillains with ridiculous names and powers. Keep the campaign tone in mind while playing. If it's supposed to be a horror campaign, don't have your character respond to the monster oozing out of the well as "oh, that must be the Well-Dweller from p.85. Anybody have a flaming arrow?"

8. Be a team player.

This is probably the biggest guideline. As a player, you have the responsibility to ensure that everyone at the table has a good time playing. This is not purely the GM's domain. How do you be a team player?

First, recognize that every player has a contribution to make at the table. If you know that one player is supposed to be the Medic, don't give your character medical skills that rival hers or be the first one to offer medical assistance. How many Thieves lost an opportunity to show their stuff every time a Warrior simply bashed in a door or open a treasure chest with his axe? Compliment the other players and show them that you appreciate their contributions.

Second, play with the game, not against it. I've come across a few players who derive satisfaction from derailing an adventure rather than work through it. Often this is the result of boredom or frustration. If you feel the need to act out against the adventure, then there's probably an issue you need to discuss with the GM outside of the game. It may also be an issue shared by other players, and it is better to deal with it constructively.

Third, share the spotlight. The other players probably didn't free up their schedules to watch you play for four hours, especially if the subplots you are following have nothing to do with them. While player "screen time" is not an exact science, players should get roughly equal amounts of attention.

Keeping Kosher

Players have responsibilities, too! Acknowledging and following them will make the game a better experience for everyone.

Good Gaming!

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