Mar 17, 2023
This is a topic I see brought up a lot in the TTRPG community. For some reason it has been seen as taboo to talk to your GM about rules during play, either because you’re asking questions about specific rulings, how a certain mechanic works, or what have you...
Communication is Key
This is a topic I see brought up a lot in the TTRPG community. For some reason it has been seen as taboo to talk to your GM about rules during play, either because you’re asking questions about specific rulings, how a certain mechanic works, or what have you. This can sometimes be confused for rules lawyering, which is a very different issue altogether. So, instead of pointing fingers, let’s address the issue here.
When I run or play games, it feels like things are split into three different parts or pillars of gameplay—and I’m not talking about Encounter, Exploration, and Downtime. These pillars are: Explanation, Roleplay, and Meta Talk and they all happen interchangeably and interweave with one another.
Explanation is the GM explaining something to the players. This can be anything from describing a scene, telling players about an encounter, forming a narrative, setting a mood, or giving exposition. This is where the GM talks to the players rather than with the players and is entirely in character or rooted in making a narrative. Players might be able to pop in and say, “Hey, I pet the cat,” after the GM mentioned there’s a cat wandering through the alley, but generally this is uninterrupted dialogue from the GM to the players to set up what is going on in their current location or even in the story as a whole.
A few notes for Explanation though. Explanation should always involve the players. You don’t need to tell the players about something that’s going on in a castle 200 miles away that they don’t know exists yet—or even one that they do know exists 2 miles away—because that isn’t necessarily relevant or even known to the players currently, and there are better ways to convey that narrative down the line through other methods such as environmental storytelling. You also don’t need to do explanations often, and I personally like to end my explanations with, “What do you do?” As a way to hand off my hat as narrator to the players and give them power. I just gave them the information, now it’s up to them to do something with it.
You can also cut back into Explanation whenever the need arises. Again, these aren’t like modes of play, these are just ways to categorise these methods of interaction to better understand them. In the middle of roleplay someone might ask if they know any rumours in the area or jobs that are hiring. That’s the GM’s time to give them an explanation.
Where Explanation is the GM talking to the players, Roleplay is about the players (and potentially the GM) talking with the players as their characters. Note that if you’re a GM you don’t need to horseshoe in some NPC for them to interact with. It can be a lot of fun to just sit back, relax, and let the players talk and roleplay amongst themselves. You can chime in at any point to give them information they might know and are currently talking about, but don’t potentially know out of character. This can also involve roleplay with NPCs when a player interacts with a shopkeeper, a quest giver, or quest-based character.
One thing to prioritise here is fun. I’ve seen this said a thousand times and I’m gonna also be one to say it: you don’t need to be perfectly in character with a funny accent mimicking every movement of your character. My main group often shifts between talking directly as their character, paraphrasing what their character says, or even just completely shattering the fourth wall to discuss what their character would do. The latter can annoy some groups, but personally as long as it’s not derailing the game I’m fine with it. Not everyone is comfortable talking as their character all the time. It bridges the gap between this being an in depth collaborative story and a game that we play.
Here’s where things get controversial. I have seen many people say how it is absolutely blasphemous to break the fourth wall and ask about abilities, mechanics, rules, or what have you. Don’t let those people scare you off from asking questions. If you have a question on how an ability works or how an ability interacts with another ability, it’s perfectly okay to go into Meta Talk, pull out the rulebook, and discuss it. People want combat to be quick and snappy so they can get on with playing the game, but combat is a part of the game and if the question is tied to either a player ability or even a creature ability sounding a little weird, then you shouldn’t be afraid to pause the game and look into it.
I feel this is a pillar of gameplay that needs to especially be in games with new players. They see how the rules work on paper, but in play they might freeze up, get things wrong, or realise they didn’t take as good of notes as they thought they did on their abilities. Rather than breeze right by the player and go off some arbitrary ruling, let the spotlight stay on that player, help them dig through the rulebook to find the answer to their question, and figure it out together. This might not progress the game itself or form any bonds in character, but out of character you’ll feel more like a team working together. The GM isn’t the enemy after all, they’re another player and they’re on your side.
I’m also sure you’ve all heard about the infamous Rules Lawyer (not the YouTuber), and I’ll be honest, I am a Rules Lawyer at the table. The thing about Rules Lawyers is that they aren’t (usually) as evil or stubborn as people think. How I Rules Lawyer is if something comes up that doesn’t sound right to me or a rule comes up that isn’t immediately known, I’ll either look it up, or voice how the rule works if I know it by heart. However, this isn’t necessarily me saying, “This is how it should be done,” and is instead me saying how it is done by rules as written (RAW)/rules as intended (RAI), as in how the rules are written in the rulebook of whatever game you’re playing or Rules as Intended where, even through the rulebook could imply something works a certain way, it is definitely intended to work this other specific way. If something doesn’t sound right I’ll voice that it doesn’t sound right and I will look it up, but if it’s not immediately pressing I won’t ask for the game to be paused (if I’m the player), and if I’m the GM I’ll be quick about looking it up so it doesn’t impede the game or I’ll just wing based off of the situation. After the session I will then voice how the rule is written, as it is written in the book, and further explain how it works. If the GM says, “Ah that’s right, but I want to do it this way,” I won’t stomp my feet and scream, “How DARE you go against the rulebook!” I’ll instead nod and agree with them unless it’s something that I personally find pretty outrageous and will voice my opinion on how to handle it better. When doing this sort of Rules Lawyering you want to treat it not as a lawyer defending their client (like the name implies) but instead treat it like how it actually is: a group of friends wanting to make sure everyone is on the same page.
Pre Game Communication
This isn’t one of the three pillars, but this is a big part of communication. Pre Game Communication comes with discussing anything about the game before the game starts. How long before the game? Well that depends on the subject. With anything regarding builds, mechanics you find as you build your character, questions about ancestries, classes, and what have you, that can be discussed at pretty much any time before the game. Doing it directly before the game can maybe be a bit cheeky depending on how much prep time it’ll cause you, but even then it can be okay to bring up questions.
With game cancellations, this is a very subjective topic that depends on why you can’t make it to the game. If you’re with strangers, the sooner you know about conflicting plans, the sooner you should voice them. But, sometimes things don’t become an issue until the day of. Maybe you get a call from work asking you to come in during the time you’re usually playing a session with your group, or maybe on Friday you were feeling perfectly fine, but on Saturday you feel like your mental health got hit by a train that is currently on fire and about to crash into a ravine. When those days come, don’t be afraid to tell your group on the day of. If it’s the latter, then if you feel safe doing so, you can talk to your GM or someone else at the table who you trust about your mental health. It can be good to reach out and talk to someone, and if you need a day to have no commitments and just focus on yourself, that’s perfectly fine. You don’t need to tell your table about it if you don’t want to either, but you should tell your table that you won’t be able to attend the session. Remember, you come first, not the game.
Another issue might come from the cast you’re playing with. Maybe someone at the table is acting creepy, rude, or is in general acting like a troublemaker and no one seems to know but you. With these sorts of things, I always say that it’s best to talk to the GM directly and privately about the subject first before calling the person out for their behaviour. One of the most common tropes I see in new players is the realization that they can do anything, so they start stealing treasure from the group or hoarding it away because, “That’s what my character would do.” When problem players like this come about, it’s best to talk to your GM immediately with the intent of having them talk to the player and tell them why that sort of playstyle doesn’t work in most TTRPGs. The trouble player then doesn’t necessarily need to swap out their character, but can instead work with the GM and the other players to give the character some sort of moral code—or even a grey area of a mindset. My personal example of this when I play evil or chaotic characters in a party is, “I want the loot, but I also want to be alive, and I know I won’t be alive if I piss off the guys I’m partying with, so I won’t piss them off and I’ll let them get their share of the gear so that I don’t die because of them not having equipment.” The character is still a selfish asshole, but they are not a selfish asshole to the party.
One last thing I want to address among the infinite things I could talk about with this topic is character swapping. Don’t be afraid to swap out your character if you don’t like them, but talk to your GM about it. Explain to the GM why you don’t like the character, and from there you can find out what the actual issue is. For me, I often run into an issue with my characters for one of two reasons:
The build I went with has a gimmick, and that gimmick is a lot less fun than I thought it was going to be.
The personality of the character itself is just not meshing with me at all.
With the 1st option, I could potentially work with my GM to get free retraining into a class or a set of abilities that I’ll actually enjoy playing with, or maybe you just want to start from scratch.
With the 2nd option, you could either try working with your GM and the players at the table to help progress the character out of whatever personality you aren’t meshing with into one that you like more. Maybe you made a brooding, quiet knight character that sounded so cool on paper, but you realise that it isn’t all that fun to play in game. So, you work with your fellow players and your GM to try and get that character out of their shell and slowly create a new personality out of their interactions with the players. If you are too stuck on their personality though and are having trouble progressing it, there’s no sense forcing yourself through that and can just decide to make a new character.
These examples are why Session 0s are as important as they are because it gives a chance for a player to play their character before an actual session and see how they mesh with the party and with you.
So, with all this said, the most important thing is to communicate with one another, both as a player and as a GM. You want to make sure that everyone is on the same page. If something doesn’t seem right or you don’t know off the top of your head how a mechanic works, take the time to figure that out instead of brushing past it. It’s a good habit to get into actually looking up how mechanics work during play rather than after play so that way it sticks in your memory of how an ability works, otherwise if you do the same wrong thing over and over again because you keep forgetting to look in the rulebook for that specific ruling, it’ll just get to be an absolute mess as you do this with more and more rules and mechanics. Don’t be afraid of talking about things that are outside of the immediate game during play.
There are no books mentioned in today’s article, but I wanted to give a special shout out to my friend @EldritchDream on Twitter for the awesome logos he has made me twice now. He did an amazing job of both and he’s always been a pleasure to talk to. Go follow him, commission him, buy him a coffee, grab some of his books, or whatever strikes your fancy. He deserves it.