I’ve tackled this topic before but only at its most basic level. The previous article “How to Be a Better Player” offered ten suggestions for how to be a better player. I intended those suggestions for novice players, but what about the intermediate or advanced player who wants to improve. Storytellers, Dungeon Masters and Game Masters have an overwhelming number of resources available including podcasts, articles, books, and videos that offer advice on how to improve their GM skills. Yet, the most comprehensive advice that I’ve found on how to improve one’s skills on the other side of the GM screen is no more in depth than “Bring your dice” and “Try other classes.”
Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Adventurers League recently published an article with a similar lack of useful information for intermediate players. Their article offered two pieces of advice for players in the Adventurers League Organized Play Events. First they suggested that players try a wide variety of character classes and archetypes. The rules for D&D 5E Adventurers League allows players to change their characters’ classes, archetypes, and many other attributes until their characters reach 5th level. The second suggestion is that players should take advantage of the opportunity to meet and game with new players. The intent of this suggestion is that players will become better roleplayers by observing and mimicking others. Specifically, the article references tactics and combat situations.
Neither my article nor the Adventurers League article offer bad advice, but the focus is obviously on either rule comprehension or material that is obvious to anyone except beginning players. I’ve been mulling this topic for several weeks and I have found very little information on how to be a better roleplayer. Before I get further into this topic, I should clarify what I mean by a “roleplayer.” For the purposes of this article “a roleplayer” or “roleplaying” will be used as system neutral terms that refer only to the aspect of the game that involves a player (or GM) “assumingthe attitudes, actions, and discourse” of a character. Mechanics, systems, and other rules, although important, will not be central to this article. Unfortunately, I am not an expert roleplayer, and I have more questions than answers. I hope that by asking these questions I can discover some answers myself and inspire others to look for those answers as well.
|From: Young Wolf Deviant Art|
How good of a roleplayer are you? Do you find it easy to get into character and stay in character during a game? Are your characters fully developed, three-dimensional personae? Do you act in character regardless of whether or not the actions taken will result in negative consequences? Do you play against type? Do you play characters with a gender different of your own or sexuality? Do you try to exercise your roleplaying skills by playing difficult characters?
These questions and many others represent the metacognitive thinking that I have been considering recently in regards to roleplaying. The origin of these thoughts was a player in a D&D Adventurers League game that I was running late last year. The player, who I will call Jon, plays a Lawful Evil, Drow, Wizard agent of the Zhentarum whose own personal goal have very little to do with stopping the evils of the Cult of the Dragon along the Sword Coast. Instead Jon’s character acts an agent for a variety of merchants and traders, and he hopes to build connections in the towns that he visits. His fight against the Cult of the Dragon is almost incidental, and his exploits in battle against the Cult serve to create a reputation that he exploits in his business dealings. More so than Jon’s actions, he brings joy, fun, and excitement to the table. He’s violent and mercenary and frequently argues with the other party members, but he inherently knows how much to argue without upsetting the other players. He is the kind of roleplayer that I want to emulate and inspire other players to emulate.
Having had the realization that my skills as a roleplayer are lacking, how can I or anyone else become a better roleplayer? I suppose the easy answer is practice. The Adventurers League article isn’t wrong. The only way to improve is through practice and playing different characters. Where that article’s intent is improving tactical play, improving roleplaying requires more than understanding the fundamentals of a D&D cleric or choosing the best Disciplines for a Toreador in Vampire: The Masquerade. Mastery of character optimization is no longer difficult due to the prevalence of message boards dedicated solely to building a better character or ranking character classes. Reading through threads on a message board is not going to improve one’s skill at roleplaying.
Like being a Dungeon Master or Storyteller, the more time that a player spends playing the game should improve their roleplaying. But how often can a person play an RPG? Most of tabletop RPG players can only dedicate one night a week to gaming and usually no more than three or four hours. Those hours are typically spent in one campaign playing one character. Yet, the best way to improve is to play multiple characters with a wide array of attitudes and motivations.
The first step in becoming a better roleplayer is to build a better character emphasizing strong motivations, goals, and other characteristics that make the character more than a set of a statistics on a character sheet. Roleplaying is also a collaborative game, it’s important not to allow your character’s motivations to disrupt the game or detract from the fun of other players. So the character must fit in with the party and help advance the story rather than selfishly advancing his or her own goals to detriment of the adventuring party.
If the goal of this article was to provide information on how to become a better roleplayer, then I quite obviously failed. So far all I’ve accomplished is admitting that I am not a great roleplayer and that I have noticed a lack of information for players. I’ve suggested that practice and trial and error are obvious keys to improving roleplaying, but to fully explore this subject is beyond the scope of a single article. So, that will be the focus of my blog over the next year: ways to improve roleplaying with an emphasis on helping the intermediate gamer improve. Future articles will include discussions of goals and motivations for characters, building better backstories, and some stories about my own failures and successes.
If you have any suggestions, stories or other comments about improving roleplaying please leave them in comments below. I will also greatly appreciate any suggestions for books, materials, or other information regarding roleplaying. As usual you can contact me on Twitter @Anthony_RTDB or email me firstname.lastname@example.org