The intricate relationships in tabletop RPGs
In my first flirtation with tabletop role-playing games, specifically 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I didn’t have to be some gallant hero or mustache-twirling villain — I could be whoever I wanted and do whatever I wanted! … Right?
Characters Are Not Made in a Vacuum
Our first meeting was for character creation, and my high school-aged brain was buzzing with excitement. I had pre-planned my character: Nikolas Wright, the dwarven bard. He was hedonistic, self-centered and painfully charismatic. Visions of lute-strumming and loot-pocketing danced in my head. I worked closely with the game master (GM), the storyteller behind the campaign, to ensure that I started with a garish, poofy outfit and a gold-decorated lute. I eagerly watched the others as they puzzled their characters out — a druid who spent most of his life as a hermit, a shy cleric and a rogue elven assassin who fit the alignment “chaotic evil” to a T.
At the time, I was naively fine with all of this. Looking back, blaring alarms should have been going off. None of us had talked to each other about our character ideas, and it showed. How the hell was our party going to stand each other, much less stick together? When our edgy-grimdark rogue wasn’t brooding in a corner, he’d probably be trying to steal candy from a baby — something literally everybody else in the group was opposed to. Even Nikolas, the greedy fatso he was, had a few principles. If we’d communicated as a group and thought about how our characters would interact, we might have had a scrap of cohesion, but at that point, it was up to the GM to keep us together.
Know thy GM
It’s not necessarily bad to throw a handful of disparate characters at the GM with the expectation they’ll keep the players working together via narrative intrigue. Expecting that of a first-timer, though, was not realistic. As we were dropped into our first session, we were tied together by a tacit sense of “please don’t split up, guys” and mutual inexperience.
Actions Have Consequences
Our characters were unceremoniously plopped down in a medieval city’s outskirts, a few feet outside a rather large business building. As the rest of the party hemmed and hawed about whether to enter or not, our rogue decided to climb the building.
“What? Climb the building?” “Yeah, I want to climb the building.” “W-why?” “’Cause I wanna.”
Begrudgingly, the GM rolled the dice, and the rogue managed to scale the building, which had a hatch at the top. As he dropped down, making some errant comment about “hoping it’s a brothel,” the rest of us walked through the doors into a waiting room. As the rogue fell in through a hatch in the ceiling, we found out that it was something of an open mercenary’s guild. In other words, it was a place where people could go to be told to do adventure-y things for money. The rogue immediately took out a dagger and tried to stick up the receptionist, who then transformed into a firebreathing demon and threatened to roast him alive. As we feigned dissociation, he put the knife away and begrudgingly accepted the party’s first hamfisted mission.
In improv, Never Say No
As we set off to stop some nondescript evildoers, we chartered a boat to take us downstream to our destination. The GM made some offhanded comment about the helmsman’s unmoving stare forward, which provoked the interest of our henceforth-silent druid.
“I go up to the helmsman and ask him what his name is.” Behind his barricade of rulebooks and papers, everyone could see the GM freeze in panic. Pupils dilated, he stuttered for a few seconds. “M-my name is… Tellme.” The table burst into laughter, except for the druid, who continued. “Why did you become a helmsman, Tellme?”
This conversation continued for roughly half an hour and continued until the end of the session. Even if Tellme was never supposed to be anything more than scenery, quick thinking and willingness to deviate from the plan turned Tellme into one of the group’s favorite characters.
Fun Trumps Rules
As we approached the generic bad guy camp, we prepared for battle. Our rogue drew his shurikens, our druid and cleric prepared their magic and I had a little chat with the GM. As we decided how we’d take turns in battle, I started furiously scribbling on a piece of paper under the table. Things began predictably: Our druid transformed into a bear, our cleric cast protective spells and our rogue tried to throw his shurikens as fast as his wiry wrists would let him. On the off chance one would hit, it would be about as damaging as wet bread.
My turn rolled around, and I announced I intended to attack with the spell Vicious Mockery, targeted on the same enemy the rogue failed to hurt. I turned to the GM and nodded, and he nodded back. At that, I produced a slip of paper and read aloud: “There once was an orc who was dumb. He was ugly and smelled of cheap rum. So disgusting and fat! It was so bad that You could conflate his face and his bum!”
It nearly doubled the damage of the spell and ended up killing him in one hit. Even though it was nowhere in the rules, the GM knew it would be fun to let me make up limericks to enhance the spell’s power. Because of that, I was able to emasculate the rogue and help the party significantly.
Will Uhl is a sophomore journalism major who always allocates his skill points into lute playing. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.