Metagame – What Makes a Good Player?

You always see the term “good player” bandied about, but what exactly makes a good player? One camp might come up with “someone who is experienced at a given game/gaming in general,” but from past experience, some of the best players have been utter newbs. Another camp may say the best roleplayer, or the best actor, best comedian, or the player who comes up with the most successful/powerful character.

All of those are wrong.

My viewpoint comes at the question from a pure metagame angle, and that those are gauging players by the wrong values. A good player isn’t always experienced, isn’t always knowledgeable, and isn’t always great at roleplaying or building power characters. From my perspective as a GM, being a good player does include part of all those—but good players also have some qualities that go far beyond that.

Entertains the GM. If it’s the one thing to take from Paranoia, it’s entertaining the GM. Some players are entertaining because they roleplay so damn well. Matt can take the most worthless character and turn it into a hilarious roleplay-a-thon; even if the character contributes nothing to the game but some laughs, it makes even a letdown interesting. Certain players are entertaining in how they play off other characters, bouncing ideas or actions back and forth with great cohesion. And even the opposite of that is true. I had to institute assigned seating for my Weird Wars game because two characters spent a great deal of time essentially arguing back and forth, which became a focal point of the party dynamic. (That’s probably not the best way to sell it, but trust me, it was loving fantastic to watch.) In short, entertaining the GM makes the game move forward, somehow.

Actually, entertaining the GM also translates into keeping things fun. I’ve been in quite a number of games that were not “fun”—a few weeks ago I incorporated my old Blogger posts, which include a few “GM Workshop” entries where I attempted to analyze why certain games sucked so much. All three were with systems I liked—Shadowrun 4, 3.5 D&D, and Scion—and all three games were eye-gougingly painful.  Yet I’ve played some of the worst systems devised by the hands of man, and managed to have fun with them, because of fellow players; one game was termed “Calculus: The Roleplaying” because of its frequent accounting sessions, but thanks to some good players, it had some awesome moments which are now permanent anecdotes.

Actively participate. If a player is invested in the game, connects with other characters, interacts with the plot, and generally does stuff… then they can share the spotlight with the other characters who are doing the same. I know focusing on only the active players falls under “sloppy GMing,” but let’s face it: when you wear the GM hat, you have a lot on your plate, and rewarding the players who speak up comes natural.  The people who jump into the action are the people who get rewarded, simply by the fact that they’re acting. It’s demanding, but honestly, it’s not terribly hard to voice an opinion or two, or attempt something dramatic (without prompting) once in a while. Barring that…

Responding to GM nudging. Participation can be a big problem, specifically with larger player groups and groups of new people, for a number of reasons. Some people are shy. Some people don’t speak up if someone else is already in the spotlight, or if they think they’re not “important” enough to the current plot. If I throw you a hook, in an attempt to draw you into the inner “People Doing Things” circle, I expect you to bite. Nothing is worse for a GM than to have players sitting there like lumps, taking up otherwise valuable oxygen and responding to GM-initiated rolls. I’m currently in a game where half-dozen people show up and say nothing—literally—for the entire session, making me wonder why they even bother showing up, yet some of them complain that they’re not “primary characters.” The quickest route to becoming a primary character is by acting.

As part of the above… Challenge the GM. Or, rather, take some agency. I’m not talking about writing a fancy background: for all intents and purposes, what’s most important is what happens in-game, not before it started. Take all the interesting things about yourself from your background and roleplay them out in your character. I’m not talking about funny accents here. If you were an orphan beggar of the Night Stalls, and you’re rooting around there now, randomly run into an old acquaintance of yours, give them a name, and bam, you’ve just added some verisimilitude to your character. At the same time, expect that anything you add in will crop up again: if you give yourself a nagging wife and two infant children, don’t be surprised if they show up again, however infrequently. Anything you add in as a player is a glaring neon sign advising the GM “Exploit Me!”, and the GM should be expected to run with it, develop it, and use it to its full potential.

Be Helpful. If another player doesn’t understand the rules, inform them. Help people understand the rules, offer suggestions if asked, put in some constructive criticism. If someone needs dice or a pencil or whatever, loan it to them. Don’t be a dick. Getting in some friendly jibes is fine, giving people crap is okay. In general, acting superior or snide or whatnot makes other players interact with you less, and personally I’m less likely to focus on a player who spends their time griefing the other PCs… unless it’s Rich, in which case see the first point.

Doesn’t tell other players how to play the game. Players with an ego never work out well; a game group is a social setting, with dynamics like other social activities, and you don’t walk into a literary book discussion and flex your e-wang there, either. At one point, we invited an experienced D&D player into my Legacy of Fire game, partly because the group was just two people and partly because we knew said player was free that night. This player was nearly insufferable: his character largely stood around and watched, soaking up spare XP, and the player spent hours yammering to my other players about how their character builds should be. What made it so insufferable was that they managed to tune him out, whereas I had to listen to him shuffling through his complete D&D library to find the one feat that made Muji an unstoppable bastion of Saranrae. (It was worthless for the character since it had nothing to do with summoning badgers, thanks for asking.)

Let me be clear here: I am fully behind helping players out if they ask for advice. See the “be helpful” and all. Nearly all—somewhere around 75%—of my group had a year or less of roleplaying experience by the time I met them. (A number of them were very quick learners, and now fall into the “experienced gamer” demographic.) I still double-check their stats to check minor things, like adding in their Strength bonus to attack rolls, but it’s largely unnecessary at this point. Asking for help is probably the best thing a player can do when he’s confused, because that informs the GM to focus in on helping said character. Wanting help is a perfectly fine option for a player, and contrary to popular belief, it is not emasculating. It allows you to play a character who is not an abject utter retard, because the GM and experienced players know to give you a leg up whenever you need it.

Going off “asking for help” would be knowing what or how to play, rather than just claiming you’re some kind of RPG grandmaster. If you don’t understand something, it won’t magically come to you in a dream; ask for help instead of making everyone suffer. For some reason, players who need the most help (and don’t ask for it) always pick the most complex character class to play: wizard. Wot wot, you say! Wizard is one of the easiest classes to play in d20! Think about it, and remove any personal knowledge from the equation; put yourself in the shoes of someone who doesn’t know BAB from a hole in the ground. Learning a wizard from the ground up, with no knowledge of how D&D/Pathfinder works, is labor-intensive, with familiars and preparing spells and whatnot. Spell effects take time to learn; those of us who play a lot of wizards may know the HD affected by sleep or the radius for web, but the average newbie doesn’t, and tends to pick spells by name instead of by reading the spell entries.

My current Legacy of Fire “Wizard” is a good example. After explaining how familiar he is with roleplaying—he writes for an indie RPG, you know—he decides to play a wizard “to trick people.” Pointing him toward rogue doesn’t work, and he now fills the much-vaunted role of party wizard. (You can see where this is going when the other players loudly proclaim they have no wizard.) Some of his hilarious antics include:

  • Casting sleep on himself to get a full night’s rest. (He has over 4 HD. The spell doesn’t work.)
  • Managed to be caught in an ambush, with only two of the other PCs. Valiantly attempting to do something useful, he casts web. While not technically his fault, all this accomplishes is to web one of the other PCs, who breaks the hold with a Strength check.
  • Asked for some d8’s to roll for damage when he cast Magic Missile, since it did 44 damage. (Still stretching for an answer on that one.)
  • He casts Fly to (smartly) avoid a set-piece, then worries about how long his Fly will last. Another PC asks him which 3rd level spells he has prepared. Wizard says he prepared three Fly spells. Said other PC bitches him out later when he tries to cast fireball, leading to the next point.
  • At one point, Rayhan the NPC Diviner went off to rest for 8 hours to prepare his Useful Non-Divining Spells, during a 10-12 hour boat trip beyond reality. A few (real life) hours later, the PC wizard says he’s preparing new spells, the aforementioned fireball, at which another PC tells him it takes 8 full hours. His response was a scoffing “Yeah, unless you’re an NPC!” Amazingly, most of the other party members heard me when I’d mentioned Rayhan telling everyone he was going off to rest for 8 hours. The wizard’s player sits closest to me, about two feet away.
  • After creating his character, helping him factor all his saves and spell DCs and spells per day, explaining as we went along, he tells me he’s preparing his 4th level spells for the day since they’re the most powerful. And he sounds sad, because he only has two 4th level spells at this level. I explain about how he can prepare all of the spell slots he has open to him, for all levels simultaneously. “But I just want to do the 4th-level ones since they’re the most powerful.” Another explanation, where I explain using specific spells as an example. “Well I’ll just prepare my 1st and 4th level spells then.” At this point, we give up, and let him cast all the spells to his heart’s content (which would be about thirty Magic Missiles and the Fly).

All of the problems boil down to the player not knowing the rules, which isn’t a crime; heck, two years ago I never thought I’d be running d20, since I was too enmeshed in other systems to bother learning all of it. What makes this worse is he refuses to accept help, and when we explain things to him, he stares blankly back and repeats his original question. In and out of game, the player spends half his time being completely silent, and the other half of the time informing us of how we should do things, game-wise and not, because he’s more knowledgeable than the rest of us. (For example, the best way to access the internet is to buy two laptops, network their wireless cards together, and use this mega-laptop to hack your neighbor’s WPA-encrypted wireless network. Duh. Free internet only costs two $500 laptops.) It may explain things when I say he’s a freshman.

Beginning to think I’m being trolled.

Roll with it. Bickering about rules with the GM never works; the GM always wins. Like it or not, the Golden Rule and the GM have the final say, and unless the GM’s a total wanker, there’s probably a good reason why they’re ruling against popular opinion.  Seeing other players attempt to out-logic another GM (and failing) was entertaining and all, but at the end of the day, it’s best to just cut your losses and roll with it: if the game’s worth playing, things will work out in the end, and if the game isn’t worth playing… why the hell are you still playing it? I’ve never seen the point in arguing for argument’s sake; there have been cases where I’ve challenged GMs myself, but there always comes a point when it’s best to stop arguing and move on. Otherwise you’ll never get any gaming done.

There’s probably a few more I’m forgetting about, but

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