Everyone has a different idea of what it means to be a good roleplayer. For some, a good roleplayer is someone who can immerse themselves in a story and embrace their character; for others, a good roleplayer is someone who can solve all the puzzles and defeat all the encounters. For me, a good roleplayer isn’t someone who is defined by their skills in acting or problem solving – that is just a bonus. Instead, a good roleplayer is someone who remembers that roleplaying is a social experience. In this section, I will discuss five things that I think are important for all roleplayers to remember. A good roleplayer is defined by the rest of the group more than by their own accomplishments as a player. It is someone who is fun to play with and that makes the other players feel valuable and appreciated. Everyone can become a good roleplayer.
A good roleplayer should be attentive and interested; they should want to be there. You can easily tell when someone is bored because that is when they lose focus of the game and start fiddling with their phone. There can be situations when the player is genuinely bored, and much of that could be the GM’s fault because they may be the one not attentive to others’ interests and needs. However, being attentive means more than simply showing interest in the scenes. It is also about being aware of the other participants in the room. An attentive player knows that the game is about more than themselves. By showing interest in what other players are doing and what is happening outside of your own self goes a long way to make the other players enjoy your presence at the table. I want to address three aspects of attentiveness that is good to keep in mind when wanting to improve your roleplaying. These can also be general social tips for situations other than roleplaying.
First, you can become more attentive of the GM and their narrative by taking notes throughout the game. By reminding yourself of the fact that there could come up information important to the narrative, you can train yourself to be more perceptive of that information – and to take notes of things as they come up. Tell yourself before the game that “I will take notes this session,” and check in on yourself with regular intervals to see if you live up to the statement. If you know that you are easily bored or distracted, you can train yourself to be more attentive of the story by taking notes of things that other players are doing as well – even if it is unrelated to your own character’s experience. Remember that it is important that you have fun as well, though, so do not force yourself to take a bunch of notes if you feel that it is ruining your own roleplaying experience. It is a good way to practice awareness, though, if you feel that your thoughts often drift off and you forget things from the game.
Second, you can become more attentive of the social cues around the table. By reminding yourself that you are one individual in a group of several, take note of the other players’ affects – their body languages, the things they say, and the things they do. Have eye contact. If you are attentive of your fellow players’ experience at the table, you will be more aware of when they are having fun or when they are being bored. You do not have to be a social guru to train yourself to be more socially aware. You only need to remind yourself in the moment to look outwards more instead of getting lost in your own thoughts. If you are aware of how other players are feeling, you can tailor your roleplay in a way that gives them a good experience. For example, if you notice another player being distracted or bored, you can approach them in game to share a scene with them. If you notice a player being uncomfortable by something that is happening in the game, you can give them support both in game and out of game to better their experience. If you know that you are bad at reading social cues in general, and you know that you often miss or misinterpret other people’s affects, it can be helpful to be honest about that and ask outright how someone is feeling about a scene and what you can do to support them.
Third, you can become more attentive of your own actions, thoughts, and feelings. If you know that you are easily impulsive, that you are too shy to take risks, that you tend to interrupt other people’s roleplay to blurt out unrelated anecdotes, or that you get easily distracted, angry, upset, or anything else that you know can be problematic, then remind yourself to be on the lookout for these quirks. By telling yourself before the game to not be as impulsive as you often are, you can become more attentive to the signs that your impulsiveness will surface. Have these kinds of traits and quirks are what makes you into you, though, so do not feel shy or guilty for having them. Only if you believe that they can be disruptive in a way that prevents others from having a good experience, then attempting to rationalize them in the moment can help you to channel those traits in ways that are healthier for the social setting; or to suppress them if they would be problematic outright. If you know and accept that you have a quirk that could be disruptive, but you do not trust your own ability to rationalize or suppress it, then invite your fellow players to help you out. “Hey, I know that I can be a bit loud at times. Just tell me if I am, okay.” And do not be upset when they tell you to quiet down.
A good roleplayer is also someone who takes the initiative to interact with the scene and the other characters. Initiative, in this context, does not mean that you must be socially outgoing and constantly asserting yourself. It is perfectly fine to be withdrawn or socially anxious and still be able to take initiatives that help shape the narrative. In this context, taking initiatives means that you are aware of your character’s presence in the scene and what the circumstances are for the scene – this keys off your attentiveness. If you have been attentive to the narrative, taken note of certain details, and are aware of your own character’s abilities, “taking initiatives” means that you are able to come up with approaches that can further the narrative of the scene without having to be prompted or guided towards those conclusions. This initiative could be something more direct, such as piecing the clues together and suggesting a solution that could overcome a challenge. It could be something more dramatic, such as approaching another character for an interaction. It could be something more reflective, such as recognizing that you do not have all the knowledge you need to proceed and taking initiatives to change things in your favor – such as investigating something. It could also be something productive, such as aiding the worldbuilding by responding to the GM’s cues as well as providing your own additions to the scene and the situation.
A GM wants the players to interact with the setting because doing so means that they acknowledge it and are willing to place themselves within this world of the GM’s making. To see players roleplay and problem-solve freely and without prompting is one of the most rewarding things of being a GM. If you are the kind of player who often wait for others to take the initiative and drive the narrative forward, challenging yourself to test your own ideas without prompting signals your engagement to the GM. That can be easier said than done, though. It is possible that you are an introverted player who do not feel comfortable or safe taking initiatives without prompting. In that case, there are different ways of taking initiatives that may help you improve as a roleplayer without triggering your social anxiety too much. If the GM is unsure if you are engaged because you do not show it as openly as other players in the group, try telling them that you enjoy the game but find it hard to compete with the other players, and that more prompting from the GM as well as from the other players could be helpful. If you have ideas on things you want to do in the game but are not comfortable to just decide to do them, because you think that other players may dislike your initiative – then step out from the game for a moment and tell the other players out of character what your idea is. In this case, you took the initiative to present a solution without having to feel like you put the scene or the characters at risk through your decision. Even if roleplaying can be very immersive, it is not real life, and you have the right to pause the game to reflect. There could be moments when the GM wants to pressure you for time to either keep the game going or to add suspense and intensity to a scene – and that is okay too – but that does not take precedence over your own ability to feel comfortable and safe at the table.
We have so far mentioned attentiveness and taking initiatives as two factors that could make you improve as a roleplayer. Something that keys off both of those factors is your ability to encourage other players by ceding the spotlight to them. While it is important to be able to take your own initiatives to drive the narrative forward, it’s also important to help improve your fellow players’ experiences at the table. If you are the only one taking initiatives, or if you are too assertive taking your initiatives, then other players can feel ignored or put down. Another way of taking an initiative is to actively encourage other players in the game by helping them take advantage of their strengths and letting them become the center of attention.
A self-centered player always wants to be the one with the coolest character that does all the coolest things. But while this self-centered player may think that they are a great roleplayer because of all of the cool things they get to do, they often forget that roleplaying is a social experience. A good roleplayer recognizes other people and their strengths, as well as recognizes how other people and their strengths can elevate a scene. If you are the kind of player who do not want to cede the spotlight at all, then you are better off playing the game solo – the other players will not enjoy playing with you anyway. There are roleplayers who want a personal experience instead of a social experience, and they are free to approach the game that way. They are not wrong for wanting that because all roleplayers strive for immersive personal experiences as well. However, if their need for a good personal experience is greater than their recognition of other people’s right to a good personal experience, then perhaps they should not be playing with a group. Being able to encourage others should also mean that you are ready and willing to set aside your own favored thing for the benefit of another player, and instead having to settle with a less favored thing as a result. This does not mean that you have to deliberately make the game worse for yourself. You should want to encourage the other players because them having a good time means that you are having a good time.
Part of ceding the spotlight is also about being a good person, and by promoting your friends in addition to promoting yourself. You should not cede the spotlight every time, because you have the right to it as well, and if your friends are good roleplayers too, then they will be ceding it for you at times as well. So when should you cede the spotlight, and how do you know when it is appropriate to not cede the spotlight? If you are attentive of the other players and their roleplay, you will be aware of their strengths and weaknesses. If you are playing a fighter who specializes in Strength and Constitution and another player is a bard who specializes in Charisma, then it would often be appropriate for you to let the bard handle delicate social situations because that is their specialty. That does not mean that you can never have social situations of your own as a fighter. All it means is that you recognize in the moment that “this is a good moment for our bard to shine,” and encourage them to do so. In return, you have the right to expect that when it is time for fisticuffs, your bard will sing your praises and tell your foes that “watch out for our Gregory here, because he will take you out – and not for dinner.”
When you interact with another individual, such as encouraging another player to take certain actions in game, you also need to respect that there could be moments when a person does not want to have the spotlight shone on them, or they may feel like your so-called encouragement is railroading them towards certain actions that they have not chosen themselves. Consent is important in all interactions, and roleplaying games are no different. The bard’s player could be having a bad day and not want to step up to handle the delicate social situation – because their player does not feel comfortable doing that in the moment. That is their right, and you need to respect that.
All participants in a roleplaying game have the agency over their own characters. That means that just like how someone else cannot force you or your character to do something you are not comfortable doing, you cannot force someone else or their character to do something they are not comfortable doing. The key word here is “comfortable.” Roleplaying games can and often include things like social influence, mind control, magic, and other things that could compel characters to act in certain ways. But when your character is influenced into certain actions, and you are happy to abide to those actions, you consent to that as a player. You do not have to consent to that. You could take a step back and say that the scene is making you uncomfortable. A game is supposed to be fun. Playing around with magic and mind control in a game can be fun for as long as you accept it as fun – you’re still having agency in that moment. It is when those scenarios trickle through the membrane that separates fictional you from real you, and real you starts to experience unwelcomed thoughts and feelings, when it is no longer a game. That is when it becomes real. And you, just like your fellow players, have the right to protest that.
Playing a roleplaying game is a remarkably interesting activity because something happens in your brain when you do so. Your character and your real self are like ocean and land, but there is a shore in between where ocean and land meet. When immersing yourself in the game, you are walking along that shore, and there are moments when the ocean becomes as real as the land is. Depending on what is happening in the game, the ocean could come rushing over you like a wave. You can suddenly start feeling real emotions associated with the fictional events. When good things happen to your character, you can become genuinely happy. When bad things happen to them, you can become genuinely sad, or angry, or even traumatized. Every player has their own personal boundaries, and they have the right to control what is allowed near those boundaries. A good roleplayer recognizes that this phenomenon is real and respects their fellow players accordingly. If you are the kind of person who claims that “consent is not important” because “it is just a game,” then I question if you have actually played roleplaying games. Because you seem to be missing the point. The fact of the matter is that those people are either fact-resistant or lack empathy, but they would probably be quick to anger if their own consent or agency is questioned. They are better off playing solo, or not at all, because not getting past that silly idea that it is just a game completely defeats the purpose of roleplaying games – and the real experiences you create while playing them.
The final topic for this section is metagaming. This is part of the absolute basics of roleplaying, but people often underestimate how difficult it can be to avoid metagaming, and even the best roleplayers metagame to some degree. Metagaming refers to when the player lets out of character knowledge affect in character decisions. This could manifest in several different ways, and to different degrees. I also find that players who mostly GM and only rarely get to play often metagame the most because they often have deep setting knowledge. Someone who is awfully familiar with a game’s setting will have a hard time not letting themselves be influenced by their knowledge of that setting. Even if your character is completely unaware that a particular creature is deadly, your knowledge of that creature as a player will most likely affect your character’s decisions in some way. You want to avoid harm, so you are being cautious, even though you have no real reason to be based on the information your character should have.
This kind of metagaming can be minimized through conscious effort, but it is minimal enough to be mostly inconsequential – and you could probably justify your character’s caution without blaming it on your player knowledge if you really want to. Metagaming is only a problem when it is disruptive in a negative way. For example, if you have knowledge of an in-game conversation two other player characters had in private – and that your character should not know anything about – it can be disruptive if you start making in game decisions based on that knowledge even though you should not have it. The other players will not enjoy that. The GM will likely not enjoy that. And you acting on that information could take away roleplaying opportunities from the other players. Some level of metagaming can add levity to a scene as well depending on how you use it. If you apply your knowledge in a way that you are certain will elevate the enjoyment of the scene, even at the expense of yourself, then it is likely that it will be well-received. Metagaming is problematic when you use it to reward yourself and to make you out on top, even if it is undeserved or irrational. However, if you know that another player wants to play a prank on your character, and you both consent to it and agree that it would make for a funny scene, you could apply your metagaming in a way that encourages the other player to succeed at your own expense.
So, the answer to the question about metagaming is that you could metagame but should do so wisely. You should not metagame in ways that disrupt the game for the players or the GM, or that solely rewards yourself. When you decide to metagame, it should be to elevate the game, to encourage another player, and it should be a level of metagaming that the others are okay with. Others will respond very differently to your metagaming if you are doing it at your own expense and not to reward yourself or somehow make you out to be excellent. The fundamental rule is still to avoid metagaming, but a good roleplayer can metagame in a positive way.
Art by © Jaroslaw Brzychcy / Adobe Stock