I’d like for you to think back on your first time ever roleplaying. For most of us, this experience was one met with equal parts excitement and nervousness, and I am no stranger to having new players pop in an out of my games. I see this all the time. Players walk through the threshold, arms heavy laden with books and dice and paper, but as soon as they sit at the table, something shifts. When play begins, they are expected to know how to transport themselves into a fictitious world full of unfamiliarities. Strangely enough, however, actually playing the game is something that most green players have a pretty decent handle on. It is the unwritten rules that catch them. You will notice that across tables, games, and engines, there are some terms of agreement and etiquette that are simply understood by the seasoned players. By their very nature, these unwritten (sometimes even unspoken) rules have to picked up along the way as one progresses through their roleplaying career, but that is just not good enough now-a-days. So, whether you are a DM wanting gameplay to go a bit smoother with your newbies or you are a fresh player yourself feeling like you just are quite getting it, here are the 10 Commandments for Players.
1) Thy DM Is God
Sometimes referred to as “rule 0,” understanding that your Dungeon Master has the final say on virtually everything is the first step towards becoming a good player. If you have never DMed before, I will be the first to tell you that it is a lot of work. However hard you think it is, multiply that times ten. Dungeon Masters are not only facilitators for gameplay, but also the storyteller, mediator, and godhand. It is crucial to remember that your host is wearing a lot of hats in their best attempt to give you a couple hours of fun and diversion. Their job is hard; don’t make it any harder than it has to be. That is not to say that you always have to agree with your Dungeon Master, but qualms need to be brought up in a respectful, constructive way. Saying something like, “Well that’s not what the rules say,” is not a valid argument. Dungeon Masters are, just as their name implies, masters. They are skilled artists, no matter how new. Often times, Dungeon Masters will bend or even break rules to help facilitate new mechanics or ideas, essentially creating their own variation on the engine they are working with. They have a lot of power, and yes, they have to treat it with caution. But mid-game is no time to start vocalizing your distaste for your god. DMs are omnipotent, and it would behoove you to come to terms with that.
2) Thou Shalt Respect The Table
Now here is something close to my heart. The metaphor of the table is an intriguing one. Think about it: tables represent gathering, discussion, sharing, cooperation, and unity. When you come to the table, you should be coming with the purpose of sharing in mind. Sharing ideas, sharing a collective story, sharing parts of you that you express through your character are all things that crop up at the table. The table is, in this way, a kind of sanctuary. Roleplayers play this particular breed of game for the transcendent experiences that so often accompany them. For the length of your session, you have the privilege to zip out of the world of the mundane to slay beasties, sit on mountains of treasure, and be as extraordinary as your imagination will allow. The table is the foundation for all of this. When you sit down in this sanctuary, the time of real life is put on pause. The stressors of life suddenly have no more consequence. That rent that you are worried about paying is not in your Dungeon Master’s world. Whether they realize it or not, when players arrive to the table, they are often looking for something inside themselves. Their unconscious brain builds a simulation that it can toy with and experiment on things that it normally wouldn’t have access to. I’ve seen players learn some pretty deep things about themselves through role playing games. I have even taken some life lessons away myself. I will never forget a moment in one of my campaigns when one of the beloved NPCs, Hugo, was about to fake his death in order to protect the PCs. Obviously, the players had no idea what was about to happen, but Hugo went about saying his goodbye’s without tipping his hand. Moments before he steps out into an arena to do the deed, something hits me. A lump in my throat. The players look at me kind of confused. I knew that I was literally about to hurt these people in a real way. I had to give them something. Hugo takes one step into the dusty arena, turns around, and says, “No matter what happens, I’m so glad we had this adventure.” They knew then that something was up for sure. That day, there were real tears at the table from everyone, myself included. Tears from them, because they didn’t give the farewells that they would have, if they had known. Tears from me, because I had just broke the hearts of my friends. Moments like that are why I respect the table. Respect the table, and it will always give back.
3) Thou Shalt Not Be Distracted
Get off your cellphones. Can I move on now, Josh? What? That’s not good enough?
Hey folks, get off your cellphones, dammit! Unless you are doing something that pertains to the game at hand, how about we stop everything else. Once things are ready to go for your game night, that is not the time to make a call, make dinner, talk to the dog, dress a child, engage in coitus (... I shouldn’t even have to say that one), and basically anything else that pulls your attention away from the awesome game before you. Here is a little test to tell if you’re engaging in distracting behavior, and it comes to you completely free. Ahem. Did you say any permutation of the question, “What did you say?” If so, you were being distracted. That is not okay, friend. As mentioned previously, your Dungeon Master works tirelessly to make an engaging game for you to play; don’t let a text from your boyfriend disrespect that. This rule is high on the list of commandments, because it can be a real game changer. The minute one person decides to buckle down and cut out distractions, gameplay remarkably starts moving much smoother. Distractions are like a virus. One person gets the “pet the cat” strain, and it quickly becomes an infection. Sooner or later, the person seated next to them catches the “watch them pet the cat” strain. Oh no! The whole table is infected with Feline Distractyitus! If one person would have had a bit of self control and said, “Hey, why don’t we keep the cat off the table?” this whole plague could have been avoided. Everyone at the table is responsible for minimizing distractions during play, not just the DM. Do your part in keeping people engaged; your Dungeon Master will appreciate it. Who knows, maybe you will get that +2 flaming battle axe you have always wanted as a reward.
4) Thou Shalt Honor Thy Commitments
Never, ever, under any circumstances put your friends in the position of asking you to stop coming to game night due to repeated tardiness or absence. I cannot stress this enough. There is no greater awkwardness then having to dismiss a player, because often, the reason for their absence would be a legitimate one under other circumstances. It is vital to remember that when you don’t arrive on time, especially if you gave no heads up, you inconvenience everyone at the table. I once had to ask a couple players to discontinue their characters due to repeat offenses like this. We had a scheduled date and time every single week, and this schedule was clearly communicated to everyone. Strangely enough, these players always managed to double book and plan something for that date and time. A lot of the time, that time was spent with their family members. I totally get this. I even tell my players to remember that Pathfinder (our game of choice) is just a game and should never get in the way of important, real life happenings. Funerals, holidays, unexpected emergencies, vacation, getting called into work, etc. are all legitimate reasons to not be at my table. Wanting to swim with your other friends, playing golf with your dad, having brunch, and what not are absolutely not legitimate events to plan over your scheduled roleplay time. This goes doubly if you did not even have the decency to give everyone some notice. It might just be a game, but if you made a commitment, you made a commitment. Honor that. You are an adult and should be more than adept at honoring your word, and if you are not an adult, this is a good exercise in following through with an agreement. If you have other things that you would rather be doing, please for the love of the nine, just excuse yourself from the campaign. Do not be so selfish as to assume that everyone else is okay with skipping a session for you again, because I can tell you this: they might be now, but they won’t always be.
5) Thou Shalt Do Thy Homework
I won’t harp on this one too much, but it is important nonetheless. As a player, you have a handful of things that need to be in order before each session. Most of the time, this will just mean arriving punctually with your dice, papers, and what-have-you, but other times, your list may bit a bit larger. On days where you are to be leveled up, make sure you are squared away before play begins. If you have spells that need to be prepared, at the very least give them some thought and have a general idea of the arcane wonders you would like to sling. Everyone else at the table has their own homework to do; don’t wait until people are ready to play to whip out your core rule book. Here is a million dollar idea. Someone needs to make a dunce hat with the words “Hold on a second” written on it. If you feel like your DM would want to put that hat on you, adjust how you prep. Most of the time, level up takes ten minutes tops if you have done it before, and there are tons of online resources to give you hand if you feel like getting creative. The more time you give yourself to do your homework, the more room you give yourself to come up with cool ideas for your character. Think of your homework as an investment that you are putting into the game. Almost always, the people who do their homework and don’t rush to finish it minutes before the game are more satisfied with their characters abilities and quirks. Homework forces you think about your character and how they are constructed. Don’t cheat yourself out of that.
6) Thou Shalt Not Fudge
Fudging is the quiet, often unseen, bending or breaking of a rule in your favor. Dungeon Masters have quite a bit license to fudge as long as it is well meant. Honestly as a DM, sometimes fudging is just more convenient. It is less work to just tell your players to roll 2d10 when they get hit by a spike trap than to calculate the damage of every single spike and the force that they hit the player with. Fudging is also tactically useful when trying to tell a cohesive narrative. This privilege is not afforded to players though. In the Dungeon Mastering community, we have a word for players who like to fudge. Cheaters. If you roll a three but you really wanted a five, you do not have the license to quickly pick up your dice and turn it to show that you rolled a five. I have had several players that do this. They roll, wait for it to stop, but as soon as it stop, they quickly snatch it up to “look at it” then tell me what the result was. This fudging technique is easy to spot, but there are some more complex fudges that DMs and players miss. Falsifying character sheet information is one of the main offenders. Often times, your DM will not scrutinize your sheet for errors very often. You are expected to have enough integrity to operate within the designated rules of your station as a player. Games are rules. When you break the rules, you break the game.
7) Thou Shalt Encourage Thy Neighbor
If you were to have me write this list a year ago, this commandment probably wouldn’t have been here. I like this one a lot though, and it warms my heart to see my players follow it. I hope I can speak for all hosts out there when I say that watching players help one another to complete a task, check rules, give helpful suggestions for play style, and generally encourage good roleplay are some of the most rewarding times in all of gaming. Even if you are brand spanking new at roleplaying, you will never be in the wrong if you encourage a fellow player to join you in battle or help you solve a mystery. Telling players they did a good job. Giving high fives. Cheering when your neighbor rolls well. All of these things not only bolster commandment number 2 but also build an atmosphere where that kind of behavior is not only accepted but encouraged. Parties that encourage one another always wind up having more fun than the parties that don’t. If a player at the table seems like they are down or confused, give them a hand. Some of the greatest adventures I have ever had the privilege to master have been the result of a couple players scheming with one another. If you feel like your table is getting toxic or even awkward, throw out a thanks or a good job. You will be surprised at how far that will go.
8) Thou Shalt Ask Questions
Never be okay with not understanding. If you aren’t quite understanding a rule or something that your host is telling you, say something! Most players and Dungeon Masters don’t assume that you have memorized every page of the rule book. It is okay to not understand! This is especially important in situations where your Dungeon Master has homebrewed something. I, myself, am a pretty avid world builder. I am presently working on a whole new dictionary in my conlang, Driggan. I make up mythologies of heroes and villains. Different countries will have different customs and modes of doing things. Economy changes based on the kingdom and currency. I can hardly keep it all straight in my head, and I am the one making it up! I will be the first to admit that. I love when my players ask questions, especially if it is pertinent to their characters’ motivations. Once, I played with a tengu rogue character who loved stealing bones. Buried bones, burnt bones, bones still being used inside a creature, any bones would do! I loved when that player would look at me ask things like, “How structural does that dog appear to be?” or, “On a scale of 1 to 10, how much does that lady look like she is using her skeleton?” Asking questions like these or questions about rule clarification are only ever going to help you! Often times I will throw my players extra bones (hah… puns) by asking prying questions in this way. I want to encourage players to look through the eyes of their characters. One person might see a spooky animated skeleton trying to kill them, while another person may see it as the newest item in their collection. Ask questions, as it will give you a better understanding of the world around you and of how the game works in a mechanical way.
9) Thou Shalt Share
This goes back to commandment 2 in a way, but it is worth mentioning. Share your ideas. Share your plans. Share items. Share the spotlight. Share feelings. Everyone’s voice is equal at the table. If your character has a cool plan to thwart the machinations of the BBEG, don’t keep it to yourself just because you are afraid the others might not like it. Share your character’s thoughts, and don’t wait for your DM to ask for them. If your character walks into a room full of jewels, you have every right to gush and explain how awestruck they are! Sharing brings richness to the party like nothing else can. When you share with a player or NPC, imagine it as a little knot tying them to you. By the end of the campaign, that little knot should have turned into a massive net ready to catch any narrative salmon your DM throws at you. Also, don’t be afraid to share personal feeling with a NPC. This one sounds a little odd, but when players start divulging their character's motivations and convictions to an NPC something special happens. That NPC slowly rises in the ranks of priority in a DM’s mind. This is irresistible to a good DM, because so often they are crafting monsters and NPCs that want to kill you. It is a great change of pace to have a pocket full of fake fantasy friends that each interact with you in their special way. I am seeing that evolution happen in my present campaign between a kitsune character and a fantasy cyborg NPC. For one reason or another, she has grown really attached to that mechanized, dwarven misfit, and there is a real comradery developing. Do I know where it will lead? Nope. Am I thrilled to see where it will lead? Yep!
10) Thou Shalt Die With Grace
Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief said it best, “A small fact: You are going to die.” At some moment in time, your character will more than likely be hacked, mangled, chopped, screwed, broken, beaten, battered, mushed, mashed, flattened, filleted, scrambled, blended, sliced, crunched, crushed, or all of the above. Start every session knowing that fact. The most exciting parts about roleplaying games is the extraordinary ability for the players and their respective characters to cheat death. Characters leap from great heights. They plunge into hordes of baddies. They weather a flurry of blows with only a rusty sword in hand. Against all odds, they come out of these scuffles with little more than a few bumps and a big ego. Sometimes. Sometimes they die, though. Sometimes they die tragically and with a bang. Other times they die so ingloriously that it could make an onion cry. No matter how it goes down, know that death is the most vital mechanic to making most roleplaying games work. Believe it or not, the fear of death is a pretty good motivation. It can be discouraging or unsatisfying, and maybe you won’t want to make a new character for a while. That is just fine, friend. Mourn the loss of your character, but don’t let that be the end. There are more adventures to go on. There are more beasts to slay and plans to foil. If the death of your character is particularly difficult for you to cope with, ask you DM if your character can say some last words or do something iconic to them. I’ll put a link to it, but as a DM one of the hardest goodbyes to a PC ended with a flick of a coin. Allowing him that small gesture literally altered the world forever. It was tough to let him go, but death means something. It too deserves its place at the table.
Being a player is rough, especially when you are getting into a game full of seasoned adventures. With luck, you can implement these commandments into your play style to help for years to come. I am by no means the authority on how to play every roleplaying game, but I can say that I know the difference between a good table and a bad one. You will find that dissonance at the table or awkwardness often comes from the infraction of one of these commandments, but simple tweeks in attitude and perspective can have any group back on the fast track to kicking evil’s butt! In the end, the most important commandment of all is to have fun in a way that everyone else can have fun. These games mean so much to so many people in so many different ways, and finding a simple foundation like these ten commandments can be the first step to participating in something truly wonderful. Amen.
Andrew Pendragon is a veteran roleplayer, Dungeon Master, and story teller. His work can be seen featured on outlets like the Chilling Tales for Dark Nights podcast and the Youtube channel BlackEyedBlonde, but he takes the most pride in his High Level Games affiliate podcast The Dragon’s Horde where he, alongside his co host, answers listener submitted roleplay questions and weaves them into a false-actual-play adventure!
Picture Reference: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/468233692479236713/
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.