Friday, December 28, 2012

Making Yourself Welcome at a D&D Game Table


You’d think that it was easy to portray a character that would be welcomed in a role-playing game. Based on my own practical experience, you’d be wrong. How hard can it be? It can be hard enough that I’m writing this article about it.

What follows is like religion, and nobody agrees on religion. Even so, that doesn't stop anybody talking about religion, and it isn't going to stop me from talking about how to make yourself more welcome at a D&D game table.

The first thing that you need to know about D&D is that the game is forward facing fiction. By this, I mean that a character’s back story doesn't matter a whole lot. What matters most is the front story. That is, what matters is the current adventure where something is challenging your group or something is actively trying to kill you. Some players LOVE their back stories, and those back stories can be useful, but back stories are ultimately your own private playground while the nature of an RPGs is a shared.

How can you orient yourself to the forward facing story? Ask yourself some questions. Where do you want your character to go? What do you want her to see? Who do you want him to be? Those are the questions that D&D inherently asks. Have some of those answers ready, and your DM will love you. Be willing to discover those answers as your go and you will love the game.

The center of D&D is ultimately characters reacting to difficult situations. What does your character think or do in the uncertain situation before him? Sometimes that’s an easy question to answer: there’s an orc trying to kill you and you happily kill it first with no remorse. Sometimes the question are not easy. Who do you rescue first? When do you balk at the party's plans? Where are your moral boundaries? These questions are a constant, ongoing character development skirmish running through the game. Engage in those questions and you find the game.

I like to think of D&D as the willingness to lean into uncertainty. Where a situation is certain, you have neither challenge nor doubt. You can smash a thousand ants and gain nothing but boredom. You can also fight an impossibly lethal dragon and find the true meaning of charcoal. Between those two extreme, you have uncertainty, and by your own action, influence that uncertainty. Will you be successful? Will you screw up? What will go wrong? What surprises may happen? What opportunities may arrives? That’s where the game dwells strongest and best.

The stories that get remembered in D&D are not the stories of stomping on bugs. You most often hear the stories of mistakes, desperation, pulling victories out of your ass, and how somebody died a truly stupid death. Those are the things that make impressions upon the players. Those are the things that make for memories.

Most people don’t like dwelling in doubt and uncertainty. As children, we all want to win and win decisively. We want our teams to dominate. We want clear victory. We act to keep ourselves in that state of certainty. That’s natural. In D&D, you must put that natural state aside. If you are to be an adventurer, you must be willing to go into the uncertainty and engage with whatever you find there. What’s there? Doubt, moral quandaries, puzzles, certain harm, and possibly death. There’s no answer in the back of the book. In fact, you are creating the book as you go along.

A unifying theme to character/player unpopularity is the elimination of uncertainty. They do this in a variety of ways. Some players make super-powerful characters, some cheat, some derail the game, or some enjoy that feeling of beating the DM. Whatever the case, these players eliminate uncertainty, which eliminates the fun for most others at the table.

If you want to be welcome, then embrace uncertainty. Do these two things: express your characters personality in the situation before him and lean into uncertainty. If you dare to do this, then you should be well rewarded and find yourself very welcomed.