Ten Lessons From 2018: Becoming a Better Gamer

It's that time of year again. The one where we push out the old, reflect on it (if we're brave) and usher in the new. We look at our game shelves, wonder what games will be under the tree (or in our inbox) and if we're very lucky, schedule a game or two before 2019 hits us. It's the time of year many of us spend thinking about our 2018 Game of the Year and what we're looking forward to next year.

I have to admit that this year I have barely played anything. I counted the other day, and save a few conventions games, I've played about 8 game sessions. It makes me really sad. I did a fair bit of convention gaming, but mostly my gaming year has been spent organizing game rooms and conventions, getting Crossroads out, working on Robot Dreams, and becoming a better human.

Yet through all of that, I've been doing a lot of listening. I've been talking to people at conventions about their struggles, through online mediums, and in my daily game life about what they've encountered that's made their 2018 a little more difficult. While some of these have been from the GM perspective, most have actually been from a player's point of view. We have countless advice on how to be a good GM, but what makes a good player?

I always think that being a good player doesn't come down to just how skilled you are at a game. We all know that each player has their own strengths, weaknesses, and familiarities with the game. Knowing rules certainly helps, but some of the greatest players I know only have a passing familiarity with the rules. Some don't have any.

When I asked folks what made a good player, some really great answers came up. Good roleplay skills, like being charming or really embodying the character were mentioned, even system mastery. Surprisingly, more and more answers came back as qualities about the person, not how they played their characters, that made them great to play with.

As I thought about the lessons I looked back on from this year, so much of it revolved around playing games. The difference between being someone considered a good player and someone considered a bad player. Through the GM Masterclass and my own presence on panels, I've given a lot of advice on how to GM the shit out of a game.

A lot of that advice is on how to handle not great players. No one has ever asked me: "How do I be a good player?"

It's almost like seeing and dealing with the bad players makes us forget that good players deserve celebrating. With many a nod to the play cultures I exist in and the many players I know who bring their A-Game to the table, I'm going to talk about the the ten things I've noticed this year that make players fabulous.

1: Really Buy In

Whether it's the genre, the plot, the game, or the setting, players who come to the table ready to jump in and totally buy into the experience are a joy to play with. They're eager to embrace the game in its entirety, from the parameters of who they can play to the world they will inhabit, they're in. They make appropriate characters that fit in with the world they're going to be playing in and they take actions in the fiction that make sense for the game. Good players consistently jump in with eagerness, radical curiosity, and a willingness to follow the game, GM's, and player's leads. This can look like excitement, enthusiasm, or even quiet contemplation and active listening.

Bad buy in happens when a player pushes back against the game, plot, setting, or GM and players by wanting to do something else. They could be trying to make a goofy or gonzo character in a serious game, or trying to play a fish in a game about sharks. Often, they will be out of synch with what the rest of the group is doing, and will push to have it their way instead of buying into what the entire group is doing. Bad playing doesn't buy into what the game or the setting or the GM are trying to do, and demands that everything change to accommodate a single player's ideas.

2: Practice Good Communication Skills

I don't mean this in the truest sense. What I mean is the idea behind good communication. Not all good players can talk pretty, but they all definitely listen carefully, try to understand where others are coming from, ask thoughtful questions, and wait their turn to speak. Good players are thoughtful and present, like a good conversationalist would be. They're eager to hear everyone and be heard, using kindness and compassion in their communication.

What they don't do is interrupt, talk over, and talk for other players or the GM. When a player talks over or interrupts another player, they're saying that what they have to say is more important than anyone else. It takes up space, it's rude, and it silences other people at the table. When they talk for someone, they're removing that player's agency and instead playing for them. None of these are what good players do, although sometimes we slip up when we're excited and talk over someone or interrupt by accident. That's okay. Try again!

3: Hold and Give Space

The table can become a place of vulnerability and sharing. Good gamers know how to hold space and how to give space. They know how to listen with compassion, engage the people around them in meaningful ways, and really listen when others are speaking. They know to be empathetic. Players who don't need to hog the spotlight fall into this style of good play too, where they value everyone having screen time, a say, and a voice at the table. When they see someone being quiet, they know to try to help that person come back to the game with gentle questions or check ins, and they respect what other people say about their ability in the moment.

Taking space means not sharing the spotlight. It's jumping into scenes without asking first, struggling to let scenes happen without their character involved, and hoarding scenes to make them about their character. Less than stellar gamers shut down other players instead of engage them, ignore people who are quiet or not participating, and struggle to be empathetic to those they're sharing the table with. Instead of everyone playing the games as equals, the game becomes centred around them.

4: Trust the GM and Players

A huge part of gaming together is giving trust to one another. We have to trust each other to have best intentions, to want to be at the game, and to engage each other with compassion. Trusting that we all have the best of intentions and using that trust to navigate conflicts is integral to being a good player. Emotions can run high in gaming, so believing the best of your fellow players and GMs can do a world of good. You also need to trust that everyone is doing their best to be present and engaged in the game.

It certainly isn't our job to interrogate each other's motives. When players don't trust, they question each other, invalidate each other, and demand explanations for behaviours that aren't their business. They assume that people are trying to screw them over, hurt them, or take away their agency. They don't try to resolve conflicts, but instead avoid it and let tension grow. They blame other people instead of being self critical and they refuse to believe others or try to have empathy for them.

5: Use Safety and Support Tools

While I firmly believe all games benefit from having a safety net or escape hatch as a gm, good players ask for them and use them when they need them. When shit gets uncomfortable, they use the safety tools provided and they ensure that they're heard. Not only that, but they support when other people use them and help navigate the situation to make sure everyone feels cared for and heard. They ask for safety tools when they haven't been given any or help explain them if the GM asks.

Crappy player behaviour comes when safety tools are treated with disdain. Making fun of the safety tool will make others feel unsafe. Laughing at it will make people feel they can't use it. Mocking it by fake using it further makes the safety tool seem unsafe to use. Any player who ignores someone using a safety tool or makes fun of them for it is making people feel unheard and creating a toxic game environment. Not cool.

6: Set and Follow Boundaries

Sometimes people use lines and veils as a way to set boundaries. Other times, they just mention it casually in game that they don't want a certain thing at the table. Good players listen to those moments and know the person speaking means it. They make sure that what they add to the game is stuff people are comfortable with and they speak up when something happens that makes them uncomfortable. They also ask before touching anyone, like before giving a hug, and they're honest about what touch and conversation make them uncomfortable.

Things go south when a player touches people without asking, adds stuff to the game that people have clearly said no to, and push against the boundaries others have set. Worse, when a player deliberately steamrolls over a boundary, adding something to a game because it will bother someone else, or breaking those boundaries to make someone uncomfortable because they think it's funny or that the other person is being too sensitive.

7: There for the Story

Really great players understand that they are part of a team of people making a great story together. Whether this is action packed and simulationist or only uses index cards and lots of improv, they're there to tell a compelling, evocative, and badass story. They understand that sometimes that means needing to rewind, to pause to talk it out, and most importantly, to work with the group to make sure everyone gets to do cool stuff and is enjoying the story. Good players know their character is just one piece of the story and that their character should add to the story, not take away from it.

When things start to break down into only out of character chatter, arguments about what to do next, or when role playing stops to make way for just dice rolls and no story around it, bad play is happening. It's easy to let happen in games with heavy combat, but not having story and cool moments makes it a board game bunch of rolls. These players don't care about other people's cool moments and don't care about the story so much as they care about what new equipment they get. They forget that the story is why we're here. Or they try to control the story to their advantage instead of letting it unfold as it will or as the group needs.

8: Remain Present

A good player remains present with the group. They listen to scenes not about them, stay focused on the fiction, and if they have a habit of mind wandering, they find ways to mitigate that. Some players may draw or knit or do something to keep their hands busy, but have learned to use that to help stay present. They are a rapt audience to the table and know what's happening when the scene bounces back to them. Often they will have a cool idea when things stall and will always ask if they can suggest something.

It's so easy to not be fully present in a game. Bad play behaviour can be using phones or chatting with friends on the side while other people are having scenes (unless this is done out of necessity for mental health check outs/coping or emergencies). Being somewhere else mentally in game will result in not knowing what's going on, stalling the game when called on, and shows not valuing people's time or stories other than their own. If you struggle with being present, find ways to keep yourself in the moment like drawing, doodling, or a craft hobby that let you listen while keeping your hands busy.

9: Game for Anything (within reason)

This is a hard one for most people. I'm not asking that we love all the games. I'm asking that we try all the games and embrace the experiences and skills we gain through playing different things. Good players will jump into anything and do their best to make it a fun experience. They'll try anything at least once and know that a game is about the people at the table, not the mechanics in the book. They are excited to try a variety of games, have a lot of different experiences, and learn what works for them and what doesn't without decrying the game or its type of game. This doesn't mean playing games that push against your ethics, morals, or will be harmful to you emotionally.

Where this falls apart is where players say they hate x kind of game, community, or style of game and therefore won't engage with it. They ignore the value that those "kinds" of games add to gaming culture, and they get entrenched in that perspective. These players will often decry the whole community that likes those games, like trad players or indie players or OSR players rather than see each individual game for its own merits and each player for their own merits. They're stuck in their way of thinking and refuse to try new and different things.

10: Loving AF

This shouldn't surprise anyone. Love is an action. It's a choice. In gaming, it's the driving force behind everything listed above. That we move and take up space with love. We love harder. We are empathetic instead of distant. We show our love with compassion and consideration, both at the table and away from the table. We assume the best of intentions and offer a loving, supportive space for those we game with and exist in a community with. We offer love instead of hate, we go high instead of going low, and we use open communication to settle conflicts rather then escalate them.

Players that struggle with being loving are often people who need our love the most. They shut people down, seem lonely or distant, are struggling with their own wars in silence, and lash out when they get too stressed. They don't apologize or take accountability. They demonize and encourage community hate towards other people. They don't call in when something goes awry. They use threats of violence and cruelty to get their way. They spread hate and divisiveness instead of compassion and understanding.

There were other options that came up as I made this list. Things like system familiarity, doing cool acting while in character, being emotionally invested in their characters so they feel real, and engaging in character mannerisms. Most of those are superficial. They don't get to the core of what makes a player awesome. What makes a player awesome is how they treat others at the table and how they engage in that space in a meaningful way.

We can't all be perfect all the time. I know there are a number of these I struggle with, too. When I slip, I try to notice, to listen when people tell me I've slipped, and then to correct the behaviour. I don't beat myself up about it. I apologize and do better. We can't be on point all the time. All we can do is try and let ourselves screw it up without shame. Being loving AF also means loving yourself.

If you only choose one to work on, choose 10. Be love. 
Act with love. Listen with love. Speak with love. 

Game with love.