Playing an RPG: Roles and Responsibilities

It’s been a long time since I actually talked about it on this blog, but some of you may remember that I’m developing a roleplaying game and campaign setting called One For All, a fantasy world that draws inspiration from The Three Musketeers and the historical period in which Alexandre Dumas’ famous novel is set.

The other day I was writing the book’s introduction, including a section advising players how to bring their best to the game and get the most back from it. I broke the section down into a number of roles that a player should aim to occupy while they are playing.

I think this advice would be a useful primer for newer players of any game, not just One For All, so I’ve decided to share it!

As always, feel free to leave your comments and share your own thoughts about what Game Masters and players need to bring to the game. And if you think I’ve missed an important role, I definitely want to hear it!

Roles and Responsibilities

A tabletop rpg is a game of collaborative imagination. It works best when everyone playing is combining their efforts to tell a fantastic tale, rather than playing against each other or with different goals in mind.

The following are summaries of the many roles and responsibilities of both the Game Master and other players.

Responsibilities of the Game Master

Be a Lead Writer

You are the primary author of the story being told. You invent the plots and scenarios in which the other players’ characters will become entangled.

You are not the only person in the game with a stake in its outcome, and because characters can attempt any task they like it is impossible for you to have complete control. Recognise that you are not writing a book, and that collaboration is key. Reward the creative efforts of your fellow players. Try to incorporate story details from the backstories invented by your players for their characters. Keep talking to your players about what their characters think about recent events and try to incorporate their goals into the ongoing plot. When players have ideas that you were not prepared for, think about how you can accommodate those ideas and weave them into a better collaborative story.

Be a Director

Not only do you invent the scenarios that the other players face , you also guide their outcomes at the table. You keep the other players on track with a light hand, but you also recognise and reward initiative and improvisation. If the direction your players are taking the game is an inspired one, you massage the plot to make it fit. If the only possible outcome is a dead end, you use in-game clues and prompts to nudge them back into a more productive direction.  You also decide how all non-player characters (the other people populating the world that aren’t under a player’s control) act, react, and what they say.

Be the Supporting Cast

Every other player controls a single character, one of the story’s protagonists, and decides what they do and say. What about everyone else in the world? They’re known as non-player characters (or npcs for short), but technically they do have a player—you. Based on a given non-player character’s personality and the things they know, you decide how they respond to the player characters. You also decide how on  npc’s choices might affect other npcs, and how those secondary npcs react, even when those events aren’t happening “on-screen” in the presence of the player characters. Based on your decisions, the world the player characters occupy appears to live and breathe.

Be a Referee

When the players attempt something, you’re the one who adjudicates how that action should be interpreted within the rules of the game. When there is a rules dispute between two players or a player and yourself, you’re the one who decides how the game should proceed. Your knowledge of the game’s rules should be good but needn’t be encyclopedic. You are not a dictator, and if you are yourself uncertain of a rule you can listen to the opinions of your players before deciding how to proceed. But make a ruling quickly and keep the game moving. There is no such thing as a bad call as long as there is a reason to make it and it advances the story. You can always look up the relevant rules later and use them going forward.

Be a Mediator

In the unfortunate event of a dispute between players (even when one of those players is you), as the person “in charge” it falls upon you to try and resolve the dispute in amicable fashion.  You become a mediator when the role of referee fails you, which might happen when there is no rule to look up to confirm which player is right, or no ruling you can make to simply eliminate whatever concern has been raised. In a case that can’t be solved by a simple adjudication, as in interpersonal issues, compromise is likely the best way forward.

Responsibilities of the Players

Be a Lead Actor

As a player you have control of one character—one of only a small number of main characters. The story your Game Master presents for you is designed to be interacted with, and the world reacts and changes according to your choices.

Since you only have to focus on one character, do your best to really immerse yourself in that role! Really engage with the world your Game Master is presenting you and the creatures that populate it. And remember that your character is not you—how would they react to the circumstance they are currently presented with.

Be a Writer

Although the Game Master presents the plot of your game and decides key issues like what threats you might face, you have more control than you might think over the game’s story. You are one of multiple creatives pulling together, just like in the writers’ room of your favourite tv show. And just like that team of writers, you have a Lead Writer (your Game Master) who oversees your ideas and pulls them together to create the best story that is consistent with the larger narrative.

In the context of the game’s world, your character didn’t pop into existence out of nowhere. They have a back story, including relatives, friends, former comrades, loved ones, rivals and enemies, and of course significant events that occurred before the onset of the Game Master’s story. You can create as much or a little of this background as you are comfortable with up front—you can always add new embellishments to your character’s history as the game progresses, and your Game Master may even help you to fill in blanks by introducing non-player characters and details which don’t contradict the facts you have decided on. However, bear in mind that any information you do make available to the Game Master is a potential story hook that they can incorporate into the plot. A long lost family member, a mysterious benefactor, a crisis of faith, a deal with the proverbial devil, a well-publicised triumph or a devastating loss—all these and an infinite number of other possibilities are rich with golden story potential for your Game Master to mine.

As a player, you also have a significant voice in determining what parts of the world the party choose to invest their interest in, as well as deciding  whether or not to engage with a particular plot hook.Whenever you are faced with such a decision, ask yourself what would be the most exciting decision in terms of pushing the plot forward. If you were writing the story yourself for a novel or script, would one of the possible decisions move the story forward in an interesting way, or would the result of the decision be narratively unsatisfying? Pick the option that will make for the best story, not just for you and your character, but for everyone else involved in the game.

Sometimes, it might seem that your character would always choose one option, even when you know that the other options is the one that will best serve the needs of the game. For instance, imagine that the player characters are taking a meal at a roadside tavern before continuing on with their mission. Suddenly a farmer rushes in, screaming that his son has been kidnapped by a fey creature. Your character is an unfeeling sort who feels no empathy with the farmer, and would rather not delay the completion of his or her current task. Your first inclination in a situation like this might be to refuse to help and go on with your meal. If you do that, though, you’re not engaging with the story or moving it forward in an interesting direction.

With some thought, it should almost always be possible to take an action even when, at first, ot appears not to be in-character. It could be something simple—maybe they’re in an unusually generous mood right now. Perhaps they don’t care about helping, but they do care about their friends who do want to help. You could also come up with a new backstory element that explains the character’s reaction. For instance, perhaps they lost a child, sibling or childhood friend in similar circumstances. Or maybe they have a previously undisclosed reason to have a personal grudge against they fey?

Be Moderate

Always try to keep your cool and keep the peace. In the unfortunate event of a dispute between yourself and another player, rely on your Game Master to adjudicate fairly.

Remember that your Game Master is putting in a lot of work so that you can have a fun game experience, and during the game they have a lot of moving pieces to juggle. If you think they may have misinterpreted something you said or misremembered a rule, ask yourself if it really matters. If you think it does, can it wait to be discussed after the game? If not, it’s okay to politely question it. But when the Game Master responds, accept their ruling even if you disagree with it. A big debate (or worse an argument) at the table isn’t going to be fun for anyone. If you feel something is really important, try approaching the Game Master after the game when they are less preoccupied. That way they’ll be able to focus on what you’re saying and why it matters to you.

Be Helpful

Your Game Master spends a lot of time preparing for your game and has a lot to keep track of during play. Consider ways that you might lighten their load by taking on a task that generally falls to the Game Master. You could make it your responsibility to put out miniatures and tokens and to put them away when the game is done, volunteer to keep track of the Turn Order during combats, or take notes during the game and keep a campaign log. If you play at your Game Master’s home, they might be tempted to perform hosting duties like making drinks and preparing food. As long as they’re comfortable with you using their kitchen, you could volunteer to be on drink and snack duty instead.

Be Thankful

Running a game can be very rewarding, and your Game Master probably loves what they do. Even so, a lot of work goes into running and planning a game. Make sure to thank your Game Master after a game session, and don’t forget to let them know which parts you really loved!