I am a Bad Player

This title is somewhat tongue-in-cheek / click-baity. I don’t actually think I’m a “bad player” in the sense of being a “that guy”, or even in the sense of detracting from the game. I don’t think I detract from the game as a player. I generally put in a good faith effort and try to engage, and I do think my actions are minimally sufficient to move the game forward. I know there have been times where I felt, as a player, that I had accomplished more than that, but even at my best, I don’t think I’ve ever truly been a good player.

What do I mean by that?

I don’t know exactly, and I think that’s part of the problem.

I am currently involved as a player in Semiurge’s game Beyond the Bizarre Armoire where I play Mr. Fox and the War Dogs, a reskin of the Many Goblins GLOG class, where the character is based loosely on my idea for a War Dogs character class.

Admittedly this is the first time I’ve been a player in a long time, let alone a player in a campaign as opposed to just dropping in or for a one-shot. But I think lack of recent experience is only part of the problem.

One thing I have struggled with as a player in the past is where what I want out of the game differs from how the GM is running the game or the setting. As you all know, I love Weird and complex settings, where the game is itself more about having an experience of wonderment, like performance art. I am quite picky and if I don’t find the world sufficiently compelling, I will lose focus easily. Likewise, if I am both uninspired by the setting per se, and feel stifled by the GM or other players from injecting or evoking Weirdness, I will also lose focus.

Although as anyone who is aware of Semiurge’s work might imagine, neither of these things are a problem in this case.

To a large extent, I just get too caught up in my own head, to the point that I shut down. Even though GMing is in many ways rightfully considered the more involved role in an RPG, because it plays into my skillsets and interests, and because I have much more interest in it, I can do it much more easily under pressure, and get into a flow state. And also, because I’ve designed the world and the setting and done the prep and thought it all through so thoroughly and meticulously, even if the players deviate heavily from my expectations, I can spin it on the fly, I know how to control it in a way that hopefully mostly doesn’t feel like I am controlling anything, or I guess really it’s not that I’m controlling it, but I’ve designed it in such a way that it is self-generative, and I’m just the computer executing my own code on the fly.

As a player, I feel almost blind, or in some other way limited in my senses. Even if is a setting I’m intimately familiar with or that’s so generic that I don’t have to be familiar with it, the moment-to-moment still requires me to visualize and extrapolate from limited information, and to maintain a mental model not just of the world, but of my own character, and all the other players, and NPCs, and sequences of events, let alone the mechanics of the game per se, and then on top of that to be clever, or funny, or do voices, or be tactical, or whatever else. To anticipate what is coming and react to it in a way that moves the game forward.

There’s a certain activation energy I need, a certain threshold that must be crossed, before I can feel engaged with the game and meaningfully contribute at a level that would satisfy me.

Clearly, I am capable of doing this, because I do it as a GM. I know to some extent that practice alone will help, but in the same way that reading so many blog posts or books or watching videos or listening to podcasts over the years about GMing or worldbuilding has taught me unique design patterns that have greatly facilitated my ability to GM above and beyond experience per se, I have seen far fewer resources for how to be a good player, or what that means, or how to make it work for me, let alone for a player with my particular sensibilities, although maybe that doesn’t matter as much as I think it does.

How does one learn to parse and internalize all the game components as a player? How does one meaningfully interact with a game as a player, independent of the GM’s style per se, or barring that, how does one identify different styles of GMing as a player and how to interact with them? How does one manage to do all of that not in the moment, but predictively, so that when it comes, rather than having to perform these mental feats, one can actually be clever and engaging and so on, and move the game forward? How does one cross that threshold to engage with a game as a player meaningfully and at a level that the GM and the game as a whole deserves?


How does one learn to parse and internalize all the game components as a player?

My suggestion is to read the rulebook or ask meaningful questions when encountering something confusing. If you want a deeper level of understanding for the game beyond what comes out of the GM’s mouth (as I personally do not expect players to read a rulebook, so I teach it always), reading the rulebook is a great way to get that. However, that won’t completely solve the problem. There will still be problems encountered that you can’t quite wrap your head around, at least at first. My suggestion when that happens is to make sure to ask follow-up questions to ensure that you truly understand not only the how, but the why. For example, let’s say you came to your GM with the following question:

“It says on page 24 that spell attacks always are 1d20 + level of the spell. However, in this particular spell, it says that the attack has a different modifier. Do I still add the level of the spell or not?”

Your GM answers by saying that you would not, because the ruling the spell provides overlaps the general rule, thus replacing it. What you should do, as a player, in order to fully internalize the answer, is to interact with the answer. Asking a follow up question, in this case something like, “Is this something that always applies, spells replacing a general rule?” Which would then be answered by the GM saying that, yes, it does, because in the book it mentions specific rulings granted by features or spells replace general rules, and should be applied instead of, not in addition to. Now, since you have interacted with the answer, it should stick with you in the future, as well as that you have now just expressed interest in the mechanics, something that many GMs (including myself) appreciate.

How does one meaningfully interact with a game as a player, independent of the GM’s style?

When I look for a group of players, I look for people that mesh well together and each have a specific role in the game in how they interact with it. For example, my group has someone that’s interested in lore, someone that’s interested in fighting, someone that’s interested in exploring, etc. Regardless of whether or not your GM does similar, you as a player should be cognizant of the fact that everyone interacts with the game differently, and that your uniqueness between each other should be encouraged rather than squandered. Try to take some time to look within yourself, and ask, “how do I play?” How you answer that, at least, the positive parts, should be the parts that you should narrow down on and try to improve.

how does one identify different styles of GMing as a player and how to interact with them?

Takes notes. Not on the story as much as the GM. You could do both, but for the purposes of improving yourself as a player, look at situations where a player is rewarded or punished. What were they rewarded for? What were they punished for? Try to put these either literally or in your mind in categories. Was it a reward in combat? Was it a reward in a dungeon? Was it a social reward? Was it a mechanically laid out reward? When looking at a bunch of bullet points, it’s much easier to find the over-arching themes than just trying to remember stuff and put it together in your head. Failing taking notes, just ask. Have a discussion with your GM about how you want to interact with the game properly and how you want to know how you can do that without stepping on the toes of their style.

How does one manage to do all of that not in the moment, but predictively, so that when it comes, rather than having to perform these mental feats, one can actually be clever and engaging and so on, and move the game forward?

You know when you asked yourself “how do I play?” Take an index card. Write down before the session or whenever some brief text that describes your values as a player, what you like to interact with, how you respond to the spotlight, or anything else that you think would be fun or important to act on during the session. When you’re in the middle of the session, glance down to remind yourself of these values and such. Then, it might pop into your head that, “hey, it’d be cool to do [X] because I wrote down I like to do [Y]!”

How does one cross that threshold to engage with a game as a player meaningfully and at a level that the GM and the game as a whole deserves?

I think this is a question you won’t really get a good answer to. You won’t? Or at least, you won’t really feel it. Remember that the game is about having fun. What I said previously might sound convoluted, but it should revolve around what is fun for you. When you’re having fun, your fun will spread to others. Basically, the key to being a player is to find what allows you to have the most fun, since that will make the GM happy as well as the other players. When that one player I have proposes something absolutely crazy for no real reason but then I see him smile and chuckle, I don’t sit stone-faced and say “no,” I let it slide and play out the consequences as he does some crazy stuff and everyone has a good time.

Tl;Dr: Find what’s fun for you. Hone in on it. Sharpen it to be stronger than the metal forged from the center of the earth by ancient dwarves. Once you’ve found that, and really leaned all in, you’ll find that everyone else will start to follow suit and have a really good time.


Thanks for the reply, that was a very involved response :). I’m less so worried about mechanics really, but I liked the idea of an index card for keeping track of character motivations and details. I also liked the idea of not just taking notes about the game per se, but quantifying the GMs behaviors to understand / deconstruct their process.

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The easiest way to become a good player is to

  1. Have character motivations

  2. Listen and

  3. Take notes

You’ve played NPCs before as a game master, so you’re familiar with the concept of character motivations (“what do they want?”) so ensure your player character has motivations as well. Then, listen to your game master as they describe the world and take notes on it.

Any time something pops up that aligns with your character motivations you interact with it. Sometimes they’ll be tied together (check the notes) sometimes they won’t. It’s ok to be indifferent to things that don’t interest your character as long as you’re not detracting from other player’s fun.

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I do really like the note-taking idea, but it does make the mental integration part of things more complicated, but I know in the long run it will help.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think I’m a very good player either, but I was Referee for almost all the games I participated in since the age of 11. (That’s a long time ago.) I think it’s probably like most things we do: the more you do it, the better you get. Since I have been confined to a single PC role so infrequently, I think I’m not as good at it.

Sometimes, though, as SageDaMage pointed out, it can be about the group. Some people play better together than others. I once played in a long game run by a dear friend but his style of GMing really rubbed me the wrong way. (I got to observe the drama of his powerful NPCs, mostly, and feel powerless before them.) The question I had to ask was, is it worth it to stick this out? The answer was yes, because I enjoyed just being with my friends.

My adventures tend to be more about discovery, peeling the layers of the onion away, than about mind-blowing stuff. Probably you’d feel like a bad player in a game of mine! But it wouldn’t be your fault. You’d just be not getting what you really want. You are entitled to your preferences, but the pickier we are, the lonelier we will be.

So, I’d venture to say that you might be better as a Ref, and you might do better with another mix of participants. … Or maybe you’re just a bad player! :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye: Like me!

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In this particular group it’s definitely me because the GM is somebody who I really respect creatively and am loving his world and all the stuff that’s happened so far has been cool. I just don’t feel like I have been able to bring a level of value to the game that it deserves. I haven’t played with any of these people before though, and didn’t know the other players, so maybe we just need a few more sessions before things gel. We had a good talk after the game last time and I feel like I got to know them better.

But ya, to reiterate, while often for me it’s as you say, wrong GM or wrong group, that’s definitely not the case here!

I think that’s a big reason why I made this post, because it really is the perfect case where everything else is great, and I feel like it is primarily on me to step up my game. Not that I think anyone besides me is thinking I’m not, but since I am thinking that way, I want to step it up…

But also as you say, I may just be a bad player :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

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Hm! :thinking: What will it mean for you to step it up?

That’s what I’m asking :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: !? That was part of why I preemptively made the point of saying “yes I understand experience will resolve a lot of this but I think there are other factors”.

There are things I know about game design and GMing, because I’ve read so many RPG books or blogs or youtube videos or podcasts or whatever. There are DESIGN PATTERNS for how to think about a game. These are things you can intuit through experience, but its circumstantial and not everyone will, or more than that, having a learned framework to anchor your experience off of or to give you a means of systematically approaching it is USEFUL.

There are few, if any to my knowledge, similar guidelines or patterns for how to think about being a better player. I can keep playing in games and sure that will be useful, but if I have some framework or frameworks to guide my approach or experiment with, I think it would just be much more useful to me or at least make me feel better about it and get excited about it, rather than feeling aimless and anxious about it.

This is getting interesting!

So, I guess it depends on player skill. And I don’t mean Finch’s “player skill” (like, knowing how to narrate how your character searches a room more effectively). I mean being good at adding to the game.

Most players, it seems, expect to be entertained. They bring their unspoken preferences and the Referee tries to figure those out and provide them. (Or not.) But you are being conscientious. How can you improve the game as a player? That’s a good kind of player to have, in a way. Maybe the question is what you want to get out of the game, and how to stimulate that.

One thing you can do is to tell the Referee what qualities you enjoy most in the game, instead of making him guess (without seeming to make rude demands).

I’ve known some players who appear to see themselves as “assistant GMs.” That is, they are trying to help everybody else have enjoyment. Like, they see their PCs as guest NPCs, in a way. When a whole table of players approaches it that way, things can get atypical in an interesting way.

Beyond that, though, as I see it, you should provide a well-rounded character who has an intrinsic motivation to engage with the fictionarl world, whose story adds to the larger story without hogging center stage, who tries to do stuff without being disruptive.

As the GM wants to provide fun for the players, you can try to provide fun for the Ref by figuring out what sort of adventure he or she is really providing and to bring the character needed to fulfill that adventure. I’m guessing your Ref doesn’t want a rules lawyer. He just wants to see what happens.

What do you think of these ideas?

I’m sure other folks will have plenty more ideas about how to be a good player, and they should chime in.

Maybe this thread should be renamed: Help us to be better players.

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Ya these are all good points :)!.

I do think the GM and I are understanding each other; I think in this particular case, it really is just a case of me not knowing how to do the mental management of the game as a player in the way that I can as a GM.

I do think experience will help, and further communication and goal alignment as you discuss. I also think though, I really need actual “player design patterns”- ways to help me think about the game itself and my character’s place in it, to help me just mentally track everything efficiently in the way that I can as a GM.

Things like good communication, goal-alignment, or even the tips that have been suggested like notecards, are all super useful, but I don’t know if any of these things really get at that particular side of things, of how to actually digest the information as a player. Like the notecards are a useful way to help do that, but are there actually ways of thinking about the information on those notecards or notes, both of my character and of the world itself, a pattern or abstraction to anchor my understanding, a way for me to tag the information and mentally process it? Almost like the Aspect notecards in FATE, but something I can do that is independent of the system per se?

As a GM, I can create flowcharts of my factions, I can design the components of any given session in a modular fashion, I can create NPCs whose relationships to each other or to the world facilitate organic play, and all of these components make it easier for me to track everything and run the game organically. I can think of the Fail Forward, or the Three Clue Rule, or I hate to acknowledge it, but the Hunter/Hunted model. We have abstractions like Dungeon Crawl, Hex Crawl, Point Crawl, all of these mechanisms of facilitating design and game management. But there are no player-side equivalents, to the best of my knowledge, or at least none so formalized, besides the sort of general tips we’ve already discussed, which I appreciate, but is not quite the same thing. I guess the closest equivalent I can think of is the character sheet itself.

Just got out of the game. I gotta say, I think it went really well!

I tried to be a bit better about taking notes, and also the GM of the game did end up reading this (I didn’t realize or had forgotten he was even in The Pit…) and he said he’s going to try to put together NPC notecard kinds of things.

I also gave up on doing voices. Maybe I’ll come back to it, but I realized it was just taking too much out of me cognitively and I need to get my footing first.

I think partially what changed here, and my realization basically was happening in real-time as I was playing which was kind of wild; so I’ve written on my blog before about how I like to have lots of factions in my campaigns, and all of these moving parts and machinations, and I like to do these games of intrigue rather than just like murder-hoboing around and stuff.

So… I basically just did that as a player. I started scheming up stuff, talking to all the NPCs but with an agenda, with a purpose. I do think that’s important to state, it’s not about just messing around, it really is all in the hopes of drumming up exciting stuff.

But anyway, the thing is, it’s not just that I like to do this, or at least I don’t think it’s just that, but I think that by having these agendas, and interacting with the NPCs with these agendas, that’s how I’m able to visualize the world and the surroundings. I felt so much more clear-headed this session than in the past, because now all of the information that was coming my way could be mentally tagged in my mental model of this web of intrigue. If anything, there was actually significantly more “stuff” in this session with regards to number of NPCs and plot points, but it all seemed so much clearer to me than anything that came before it and I was able to keep it all mostly straight in a way that I was largely failing to do before.

I will say, and again some of this was happening in real-time so it was hard for me to take all considerations into account, but I was a little worried at first / still to some extent about the other players. One of the other players seemed not into it at first, but once they started to see what I was going for they seemed to actually get into it as well and were taking just as much initiative on this front as I was. The other player didn’t seem as into it but was still a good sport about it, but I hope we can kind of meet in the middle. I tried at one point in the middle of the session, after I had realized what all was happening, to sort of explain what I was going for and give us a chance as a group to think about things, and I also reiterated the point at the end. Frankly, if we had done things the way it was looking like things were originally going to play out, I would have probably been disappointed and frustrated, so I wouldn’t want to put that on someone else, so hopefully our interests are reconcilable.

To be honest, in retrospect, I’m realizing now that I don’t necessarily know what exactly that other player wants. If I were a GM, I know I’d try to talk to them and see how I could make all the things work for everyone, because I don’t have reason to think our interests are mutually exclusive, but I don’t know what I can do as a player or if it’s my place to do anything, besides what I’ve already done, which is state explicitly how I was approaching the game and what I wanted out of it and why.

So ya, I appreciate the GM for rolling with it, although we discussed at the end that that was more so the GMs intent in the first place anyway, and I appreciate the other players being into trying to do things a little different (the player that was skeptical at first but came around said that this was the first time they had played in a game like this, which I thought was cool). I hope the GM takes the machinations we put into place and does something interesting with them that pushes things forward, but is also able to balance that out with the things that the other player(s) want and tie them all together in a way that satisfies everyone. But I think bottom line, at least in terms of how I, as a player, engaged in the game, I feel really good about things.