The world of RPGs brims with advice to GMs about GMing, and that's hardly surprising. For one thing, GMing takes a lot of work, and thus there's a lot to discuss, and a lot of people want to learn to GM better. For another thing, us GMs tend to get really good at planning, thinking and writing, and thus we're more likely than, say, a more casual player, to write about what we know. But being a good player is just as important as being a good GM, and it's a topic that doesn't get much attention.
So that's what I want to address. How can you be a better player?
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
Do you know who is ultimately responsible for the success of a game? Go on, I'll wait while you answer for yourself. Did you say GM? Yeah, a lot of people say that too, and I'm not going to say that you're wrong. I happen to agree with you, though there are some other people who make interesting counter arguments ("A good ruleset is ultimately responsible for the success of a game" or "we're all in this together" or what have you).
But I want you to consider the fact that if you didn't answer "Me, I do," you're abdicating a certain level of power to someone else. You're arguing that someone outside of you, the world, is responsible for your happiness. That makes you dependent on others. If the reason all your games are bad is because of everyone else, then there's nothing you can do because the world just hates you. Now, there's certainly some truth to this, as external factors definitely impact how events turn out, but there's always something we can do. What I want to do with this advice is direct your attention to that: What can you, as a player, do to improve the game you're in? If you gain that mindset, if you assume responsibility and proactively try to improve your game, you're already 90% of the way to being a top-notch player.
Whenever I see these sorts of discussions, a certain class of would-be player seems to be staring longingly at RPG books, or listening jealously to awesome stories about great groups, thinking "If only..." If only they could find a GM who would run that sort of game for them; if only they could meet players like that. These things don't just happen, people carefully and proactively build them. If you want to be in that sort of game, you need to be making it happen, because in the best games, everyone is working hard to make it happen. To be in an all-star game, you yourself need to be willing to be an all-star. That means taking responsibility for yourself, and for the game.
Who is most responsible for the success of a game? I don't know... but I do know that you have a role to play.
Play the game everyone else is playing
We can learn that reward comes in creation... not just in consumption of the world around us
So, you've got a game, and you're now focused on taking responsibility for your own happiness, your first inclination might be to steer the game in your direction. After all, you want to get the game you want. On the other hand, this sounds selfish, and you don't want to be selfish. What should you do?
The answer is to stop worrying about the game you want and worry more about building on the game everyone is already playing. I say this not because selfishness is wrong. It's important to know what you want and to go after it! I say it because building the game is a better way to ultimately get what you want, which is a good game.
Chasing the game "that you want" is a narrow, consumptive activity. You're hoping to get exactly what you want. But what would you do if you did? If the game you envisioned when you read a book unfolded before your eyes? Wouldn't it ultimately be a little... predictable? One of the key elements of a role-playing game is other players, and the game master. They have interests too, and when a game is firing on all cylinders, it's like a jazz session, which each person adding their own notes that creates this crazy harmony! If people aren't working with one another, playing off one another, and expanding on the central themes of the game, then the game will become discordant and turn inwards as everyone starts to look out for themselves. Games played this way become broad and creative activities. One of the important aspects for creativity is an openness to new ideas. By playing the game that other people are, you might discover things you never expected, while if you're fixated on the game that you want, you might miss something you didn't know you might like better.
Creativity is a skill, a muscle that you exercise and when you've mastered it, it becomes nearly effortless to spill forth interesting ideas, or to adapt your ideas to what everyone else is doing. By learning to play the game that everyone else is playing, by being flexible and being open to new ideas, you'll have a nice experience far more often than if you narrowly hunt after one specific thing. That's why it's superior.
If you don't understand the game people are playing, ask questions. Maybe something seems weird and counter-productive. So, ask (ideally in a neutral "I genuinely want to know" sort of way, rather than antagonistically grinding an axe). It might turn out that the GM never considered a different way. Or it might be that you've made a bad assumption! One of the central pieces of advice that people will give when a game goes sour is "Communicate." This is definitely key to playing the game everyone else is, because you need to know what it is you should be doing.
What if the game everyone is playing isn't the game you want? I might suggest you remain open-minded, but sometimes, people know what they like and dislike. I just can't seem to get into LARPing no matter how much I try, and I had a friend who really, really disliked playing a vampire ("I just don't want to put myself in a mindset where the only way to survive is to harm others"). When I suggested that he could play something like a mortal occultist, he responded by saying "I appreciate that, and I'd like that sort of character, but I think it's inevitable that I'd start to undermine the core themes of your game, given my distaste for them." He was exactly right, and he walked. If you're certain you won't enjoy a game, just walk away. Don't try to change it, don't sabotage it, just let it go. Play with your group, or don't play. That's not to say that you need to be a snob or a jerk, just know what works for you, and if you're not willing to invest in a game, it's better to pass gracefully.
Lead through Service
The servant-leader is servant first, it begins with a natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first, as opposed to, wanting power, influence, fame, or wealth.”-Robert Greenleaf
So, you've taken responsibility for your game, and you're focused on playing the game that everyone else is playing... but how do you do that? How do you make the game better?
Well, what would you do if you were a GM? You'd build something for people to interact with. You'd toss hooks to the players. You'd create interesting situations for them. You'd lead the game through service to your fellow players.
A player can lead just as well, but not by shaping the world to give gameplay to the other players, but shaping their own play and their own character to give gameplay to other players. Your actions in a game, whether in how you play your character, or you how carry yourself as a player, can impact others in the game. If there's a brooding loner who's just looking for an argument, argue with him! If you have two courses of action and one of them would really create some interesting game play for a fellow player, do that! If you're having a great scene that doesn't really involve anyone else, see if you can find a way to draw them into your spotlight.
I often tabletop with LARPers, and LARPers have a very different mindset from the average tabletop player. We seem to interface primarily with the GM. We talk with him more than we talk with each other, and we think more about his world than we think about the worlds created by the players (their backstory, etc). In a LARP, though, you might have one GM per 50 players! If you wait for the GM to give you gameplay, you'll be waiting for a very long time. So, they learn to play with each other. You can take a bunch of LARPers and sit them together in a tabletop game, give them a single cue and then sit back and watch them endlessly amuse one another. They do this by being more worried about one another than themselves. They look for ways to help draw one another out. If someone has a great idea, they hook as many people into that idea as they can, and if they think they might be overly dominant, they'll draw someone else into the spotlight.
Players who master the art of this don't need a GM, which does a wonderful thing for the GM: It frees him up from worrying about all the other players, and gives him a chance to do exactly what you're doing: weaving a grand story together with his players. The point here, of course, isn't to override the GM, or to usurp his authority (anymore than you should run roughshod over the quiet players). Remember, you're playing the game everyone else is playing, and that game has a GM in charge. What it does mean is that you should always be on the look out for a way to guide the less capable or shier players into the game, to help others shine.
A friend is someone who gives you total freedom to be yourself. -Jim MorrisonThe point of a role-playing game, more than anything else, is an excuse for friends to get together and have a good time. I know that's a controversial thing to say, but even if you disagree with that particular model of game, holding it in your mind still serves you well, because it focuses you on the other players and not just in the sense of supporting their game. When you begin to see the game as a get-together of friends, the context changes. What to get-togethers need? Good food! A nice place to hang out! Warmth and friendly chit-chat! A sense of mutual respect! If you have an environment like that, people are going to enjoy coming to the game. If you're involved in making it a nice experience for them, they may come to value your presence in the game. They might start to become your friend.
If you'll allow me to get a little mechanistic, every person you play with is a node in a social network. This is a little more obvious if you look at Facebook. Very few people have complete overlap on friends, thus every player who attends a game, every friend you make, has other friends they hang out with or other people they play with, or people they know. If you get to know those people, you'll find they have other friends/players, etc and so on. No matter how small or isolated your gaming circle, you'd be surprised how few steps there are between you and people like Gary Gygax, Kenneth Hite, Sean Punch.
If you really want to experience a top-notch game, one of your goals should be strengthening your network, and building your community. The better, and friendlier, your games are, the more people are going to hear about them and the more they'll want to participate, if not with your game directly, with that friendly community you're building. As more people join, play in good games, share ideas and become friends, your network will being to hit a critical mass and amazing things start to happen: that's when LARPs get arranged, or books get written, or killer games get run. Alternatively, the more people you know, the more opportunities you'll see, and the more ideas you'll be exposed to. The larger your network, the more opportunities you'll have to connect with like-minded players who enjoy the sorts of games you do, who are particularly compatible with your style, and the easier you are to get along with, the more likely they are to want to play with you too.
Oh, Is That All?
Yeah, basically. Oh, I mean, I'm sure I could go on for ages about what players can do, but I think that's the core of it:
- Be proactive in taking care of your own gaming experience, rather than abdicating responsibility to someone else
- Be open to new ideas, and try to be true to the game you are in, rather than fixating on the game you wish it was
- Involve other players in your play as much as possible, and involve yourself in others games when they invite you to join.
- Remember, these are people, people who want respect and companionship as much as you do. Role-playing games offer you an opportunity to form social ties. Use it!
Character counts, because the sort of person you are in a game shapes the game you are in. As you adjust how you behave, this will start to become habit and second nature. You'll start to see how bad old games weren't so bad, and how new games might be better than you expected. What looked like an insurmountable problem before starts to look like a minor stumbling block. Your outlook will change and with it, the circumstances you find yourself in. When you're inside a bad game, or a bad gaming group, it seems impossible to change it, but the truth is, you have far more power than you think when it comes to giving yourself a good game, even if you're "just" a player.