I’ve been gaming since 1980, and I’ve been working on D&D since 2004, and I’m happy to tell people that I don’t feel like I have any more insight into what makes the game work than anyone else. Because more so than any other creative form, what makes roleplaying games work happens in the moment, forged where the creative energies of a bunch of people crash together to tell a story that couldn’t ever exist in any other way.
In general, I’m not ever about giving advice. I can talk to you about things that work for me in the game, and things that have entered the lexicon of D&D’s design and philosophical foundations. I can and do talk about things that I’ve seen work for other people, because learning what works for other people always invariably teaches me something about my own approach to the game. And I like talking about the evolution the game has made in multiple areas, edition by edition, that make it better at certain things than it was before.
When it comes to regular advice, though, I try to avoid talking about things that other people have already talked about, unless I’ve got some specific insight or a fresh angle on it. Lots of D&D advice is pretty straightforward. And that’s totally cool. D&D and other RPGs rely on a constant stream of new players coming into their space, and every question that an experienced player has been collecting answers to for years is a question that a brand-new player somewhere is asking for the first time.
In my experience, though, there are certain less obvious pieces of gaming advice that don’t get talked about as often as they should. So for this initial entry in Missives From Mooncastle, I thought I would talk about three of those things.
Watch, Listen, Engage
Playing a roleplaying game is like no other kind of creativity or entertainment. An RPG is a storytelling machine, taking in the raw materials of narrative choices and dramatic possibilities that the GM and players create, and churning out amazing stories in emotionally resonant, finished form. But the fuel of that engine is you, the player — meaning your energy is the most important part of keeping the RPG engine running.
Watch the game before you, taking in all aspects of the narrative as it unfolds. Listen to what the other players are doing, especially when it’s not your turn. And engage in the story as strongly as you can while it develops. It’s easy sometimes for all of us to just want to focus on our own characters, especially when we’re roleplaying those characters well. But RPGs like D&D aren’t generally designed to spool the story thread of a single character. They weave story from multiple threads, and watching all those threads as they move, not just your own, puts you in the best position to help shape the pattern they create.
Failing for the Right Reasons
All RPGs are built around the idea of characters attempting actions, and resolving those actions as failure, success, or some relative degree of partial success in between. In the game, as in life, it’s much more fun to succeed than to fail. In real life, being in a position of never failing at anything would be pretty sweet, all things considered. But in the game, never failing can get boring pretty quickly, because without the risk of failure, the achievement of success can start to feel flat with nothing to judge it against.
One of the key aspects of D&D and games like it is the idea that failure shouldn’t be a static endpoint. A failed check should never mean that the adventure stops, just as a failed attack roll doesn’t mean a fight is unwinnable. All good GMs understand that when the characters fail, that just translates into an opportunity to succeed in a different way the next time. If an attempt to sneak in through the sally port of a castle fails, it gives you and the other characters a chance to think about other ways to make the same approach. A series of misses when attacking a heavily armored foe are an opportunity to think tactically about how to compromise that foes’ defenses with magic, by knocking them prone, or what have you.
This isn’t something a GM figures out automatically, of course. Like every part of running a game, understanding how to keep the game moving forward through failure takes time and practice. And one of the best ways for a GM to practice this is with the help of you and the other players as you focus on moving past failure with new ideas. Because every time you make a suggestion for a different approach to solving the problem at hand, you remind the GM that every problem can be solved in different ways — including ways the GM might not actually have thought about until you brought them up.
Empathy as Endgame
Empathy, as everyone knows, is the ability to mentally and emotionally put ourselves into someone else’s place in order to get a sense of how the world (or some specific aspect of it) looks and feels to them. By doing so, we gain understanding as we compare how the world looks and feels to others and how it looks and feels to us. Empathy is one of the core components of being human. Some (including me) might call it the most important component.
The concept of empathy is extremely important in fiction writing. It’s the foundation of our ability as readers to mentally and emotionally inhabit the characters we read in books or watch in movies, shows, and streams. And given that, it probably won’t surprise anyone when I say that empathy is one of the core foundations on which RPGs are built. When we create a character to portray in the game, we are putting ourselves emotionally and intellectually into that character’s place. We want to experience the world as they experience it — which becomes an even more exciting prospect the more different that world is than the world of our own lives.
As an added bonus, being cognizant of how empathy drives us while we’re within the game can make it easier to think about empathy in the space around the game. We can empathize with our fellow players, thinking about how the experience of playing the game feels to them, and how that experience might be different than our own. For experienced players, empathy helps make it clear when a newer player might need assistance that we can offer. As new players, empathy can help us remember that experienced players once had the same questions we have, as a means of making it easier to ask those questions without feeling self-conscious.
Understanding our own capacity for empathy is also the best way to recognize when certain players come up short in that department. The experienced players who make fun of newbies who ask questions. The players who insist that their experience of playing the game is the only legitimate one, as they make it clear they have no interest in the experience of anyone else. Those are players you want to avoid in your games, and engaging in empathy yourself lets you experience the game from those players’ point of view — and by doing so, makes it clear that the way they play the game isn’t worth your time.