Describe, React, Narrate, Repeat

I’ve written a lot of criticism about boardgames over the years. From reviews to thought pieces, to interviews and industry critique, I’ve done my best to really dive into the hobby: what makes it tick, what games are good, bad, or indifferent. We need criticism to talk about how games are created, how they affect us, to record the past, and embrace the future. 

I’ve played a lot of tabletop role-playing games (RPGs) over the years as well, and haven’t written nearly enough about them and I would like to change that. To my mind that state of RPG criticism isn’t that great right now. There is a lot of ‘I’ve read this here is what I think’ much less of ‘I’ve actually used this here is what I think’. I’ve covered this before. I’m going to be using this article as a jumping off point to dive further into RPG criticism: reviews, interviews, and of course straight critique of how and why we play RPGs. 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how more traditional games, like Dungeons and Dragons (DnD) structure themselves in comparison to more modern titles, like Blades in the Dark (I know, I love it but I will keep going back to that well). In DnD the GM is fundamentally responsible for everything around the table: they keep track of the rules, they bring the scenario, populate the world with NPCs, describe the setting, bring maps, miniatures, music (if they are so inclined). The players just bring themselves. 

There is a huge amount of pressure put on the GM from session to session. It feels like that pressure has only gotten worse since the dawn of fifth edition DnD. As it has risen and risen, streamers have taken up the game and contributed to that rise. What GM can compete with players who are professional voice actors and a full studio to put your game on film? 

On top of the expectation game, most roleplaying books come dense with GM advice, but little in the way of player advice: what should you as a player do during a session? The Dungeons and Dragons player’s handbook is 322 pages long. There are 7 paragraphs on ‘How to play’ and ⅔ of those describe the GM’s responsibilities. Let’s look at the overview of that model:

  1. GM describes
  2. Player’s react – usually invoking the mechanics of the game
  3. GM narrates outcome

More responsibility for the GM! Yay! Oh no wait, that’s bad. What can we do as players to make the GM’s job easier. Since the model above is pretty prevalent in a lot of RPGs let’s work around that and see if we can’t improve things. 

Let’s start with this. The GM is a player as well. They are just as entitled to have fun around the table as you are so let’s see if we can’t make sure that happens. 

GM Describes

Let’s put this simply. PAY ATTETION! Whilst the GM is actually telling you what is going on, don’t look at your phone, doodle on your character sheet, or do anything other than listen. Nothing breaks up the flow of a game more than the GM having to repeat themselves. 

As a player you can ask for more detail here as well and in doing so give the GM and other players ideas for actions and narration. You don’t have to be passive, you can bring detail to scenes by making suggestions. 

Players React

The previous paragraph mentions not being passive and this is even more the case when it actually comes to you interacting with the game. You shouldn’t only react to the situation the GM presents, you have to ‘actively’ push for drama and cool situations. 

If you want to do something awesome that doesn’t quite fit the scene, suggest a way to make it happen. If another player is struggling to think of a way to contribute, how about teaming up with them in the fiction, or giving them some ideas as to how their character can help. This is a group activity and there is nothing to stop you collaborating on the fiction, even if your character isn’t present. 

Lots of games will also, either naturally or by design, have ‘highlight’ episodes or scene, where it should be pretty obvious that one or two characters are going to be the focus of the action. You can still contribute to the game, suggesting ways that those characters can shine if the players stumble for ideas. This is a group activity!

Let’s talk about character for just a moment, though this could be an article all by itself. You might have the best character story, background worked out to the nth degree, and motviations all sorted out. If your portrayal of that character means that you don’t contribute to the game, what does it matter? 

For example in the Vaesen game I’m playing right now, it is not subtly implied that my character thinks he is a werewolf or similar. When the full moon comes round he finds somewhere to lock himself up and gets blind drunk beforehand. The game we just played had a full moon coming up and we were pursuing our quarry. If I had locked myself up back at the inn, what was the point in me being there? Instead my character got blind drunk, behaved like an animal (he isn’t really a werewolf) and tackled a mermaid underwater! Isn’t that cooler than ‘being true to the character’ and locking myself up in a dank room? Don’t prioritise your character over the narrative of the whole game. 

Of course part of reacting and acting in any RPG is understanding how the rules work. You should have a good grasp of the basics of the rules, at least after the first session or two if we are talking about a longer campaign. When it comes to a game like DnD with hundreds of character building options, be kind to the GM and learn what all your class features, spells and so on actually do. Be ready to help the GM out with your own little corner of the ruleset. 

GM Narrates

This is the part I have the biggest problem with. To me this feels like disenfranchising the player. They’ve spent time describing their action, adding to the fiction of the game, they’ve made the roll and maybe they have an idea in their head of what success and failure looks like. Doesn’t matter, here comes the GM to tell them what’s what. 

Why shouldn’t players describe the outcome of their actions, for better or worse? Sure the GM has control over NPCs and should be involved in describing how enemies fight back, or the situation worsens for the characters, but to wrestle complete control from the player at such a crucial moment seems to pushback against the collaborative nature of the medium. 

This is also another chance for the players to contribute to the narrative of the game and push the story forward. It allows them to embrace failure, something I think that every player should learn. It is unfortunate that the DnD model has such a straight succeed/fail model. I much prefer games where a lot of the outcome basically boils down to ‘yes you succeed, but how much does it cost?’.

I could, and will eventually, write more about players and RPGs. I wanted to start this off with DnD as it is the behemoth that straddles the hobby, and many of us will have learnt about RPGs through that lens. It is not the only way and it frustrates me to think that there may be loads of players out there who have never discovered the joy of contributing to the story, describing their own successes and failures, and collaborating with everyone around the table to tell a better story. 


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Iain McAllister

Tabletop games reviewer and podcaster based in Dalkeith, Scotland.

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