The GM’s Art: Instructions for Better Players, Part I

These next two lessons in the Downes’ School of the Gamemaster’s Art are about how players can learn to stop shitting on this noble and glorious pastime.

The first thing a player needs to do is to make a commitment to the game. The second thing a player needs to do is to make a commitment to the game. The other players have dedicated their time to the campaign. The other players have set aside their jobs, their lovers, their children, the car that needs vacuuming, the tub that needs regrouting, the adoration of their religion and the study of their science to spend time on the game. The gamemaster has spent hours creating the adventure. And they do all this, in part, to entertain you. When you fail to prepare, when you fail to show up on time or at all, when you make no effort, you sabotage their plans and insult their efforts. So you must make a commitment. In order for this to work, you have to treat it at least like a job; better yet, as a mission.

Here are two bad examples.

In the late 1990s, in college, I knew this imbecile who wanted to play in my Earthdawn campaign. I had my doubts; he was a famous imbecile. But he was in my social circle, and I needed players, so I said yes.

We took two hours to create his character. He was an experienced gamer, and he weighed every decision minutely. Then I prepared an adventure on the assumption that he would be there.

But on game day he didn’t appear. He didn’t warn me that he wasn’t coming, either, so I delayed the start of the game – until someone told me that he had gone to the mall with a woman named Heather that afternoon. So I had to improvise how to proceed out of the wreck of my plans, which had included his character. That put me on the run and degraded the experience for the other players.

When I bumped into this imbecile a few days later, he apologized, in an offhanded way, and explained that if it was a choice between gaming and going out to the mall with Heather, of course he was going to go out to the mall.

If he thought that I was going to wait patiently for the malls to burn down and for all the Heathers in America to move to the Yukon Territory so that his schedule could deliver him to the lowest priority in his whole world, which was my campaign, he was decisively mistaken. I never invited him back again.

More recently, in my last 4th edition Shadowrun campaign, this one nimrod who had once been my friend said he would play. He was the fourth, so I needed him; it’s hard to keep the energy up with only three players.

Then he said he needed to make a character before he could play. I offered him my library of pre-gens to keep things moving, and he selected one. Then he came to games late. Then he complained that he didn’t know what his character could do, because it was a pre-gen. He was an experienced gamer with access to both the books and the GM, so that was a limp excuse.

Then he missed two games out of three – he would even tell me on the day that he would be there that night, but still fail to appear, leaving me with only three players, which was too small a number to be easy.

To make matters worse, he was playing the magician, and I never knew if he was coming or not. It’s almost impossible to prepare a Shadowrun adventure that works equally well for a team with magic as one without, but I had to do it. It became such a burden on the quality of the game that the campaign finally gasped its last, and that was the sad end of 4th edition.

Imbecile and Nimrod were both players who did not commit to the game. They did not make the game their priority, and so they disrespected their fellow players and wasted their time. It would have been better if they had never sat down at the table at all. They weren’t players, they were saboteurs. A campaign cannot function like that. Every session that fails is a wound to the campaign, another bad and discouraging time, and every campaign that fails is shrapnel in the heart of the hobby. If you can’t make a commitment, then stay home, because you are the problem.

This guy is a goddamned problem.

This guy is a goddamned problem.

Of course, you will sometimes have to miss a game. Maybe your mom is getting married, or you’re defending your dissertation – some people even have kids. In which case, you inform the gamemaster as early as possible. If you know on April 5th that you can’t attend on the 26th, then tell the GM. And remind them on the 19th. It is your job to cause as little disruption to the game as possible. It is your job to be an asset, not a liability. Ask yourself, “Is my behavior helping this campaign to be more fun for everyone?”, and if you can’t answer yes, then do what you need to do to get to yes. Because you are destroying it for everyone otherwise.

Next month’s GM’s Art will be tips and tricks for being a better player during gameplay; how to be an asset to the group when you’re actually in it.

Author: Brian Downes View all posts by
Brian Downes is a writer who lives in Orlando, Florida. His novel, The Berlin Fraternity, about a man who hunts vampires for the Third Reich, is available on the Kindle and through He enjoys pen and paper roleplaying games and geek culture. He clearly remembers waiting for The Empire Strikes Back to hit theaters, and vindicate his opinion that of course Vader was not Luke's father. You can't trust Vader's word!

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