Monday 1 May 2017


On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

Simple things to remember so that your games run smoother.

Everyone relies on the GM to provide a solid, enjoyable adventure with memorable NPCs and fantastic settings. What can players and GMs do to make the game better? What responsibilities can a GM and player have other than simply sitting at the table and playing that game?

The tips below are for GMs and players to identify potential problems and nip them in the bud. With all the new-fangled technology, silicon chips, and such, a roleplayer's problems can only get bigger. Of course, not all these tips apply to every group, but there are always exceptions and if you game with a lot of people in a lot of groups then the chances of coming across these incidents are higher.

(All the tips are references to personal incidents that were probably some of the worst times I ever had as a GM or player during my long tenure as a roleplayer. I've included some of the worst ones I remember in italics. Names have been omitted to protect the innocent. Just call me Jonathan "axe to grind" Hicks).

1. Punctuality Is Politeness And Consideration In One

The GM may have a limited amount of time to play the game or have a set sequence of events he/she wants to play out before the night is over. To aid this, be punctual. If the GM says 7:00, then try your best to get there for 7:00. Arriving an hour late can be awkward for the GM and the other players, as time will be wasted with greetings and filling in the latecomer with game details and plot events.

It's understandable that certain occurrences may cause you to be late, and these incidents are well out of your control, but if there is no other reason to be late then try your best. There's more than one person at that gaming table to keep happy.

Case: I once ran a game in which the night's scenario was going to be the finale of the Warhammer campaign before friends returned to university. Only one player had the knowledge of how to progress and he was an hour and a half late getting there for no other reason than he was watching a film he had bought that day, which left me only an hour and a half to finish a Summer campaign. Hmmm...

2. Turn Off Phones And Pagers

I don't know how many games I've run where I got to the plot-bursting, emotionally dazzling finale and then someone's mobile phone or pager went off. Precious moments, even minutes, are wasted when a player is distracted by a call, and then the atmosphere is lost and cannot be reclaimed.

Switch off those mobiles unless there's a good reason why they should be on!

Case: Halfway through an intense MechWarrior game, just at the point when the bullets were flying and enemy 'Mechs were advancing on our position, the GM's mobile went off. He was gone for nearly half an hour. Frustrating or what? To compound the problem, when the GM came back and the game resumed, a player's mobile went off. It wouldn't have been so bad if it had been anything other than a social call.

3. The Items In The Room Are Not Always Part Of The Game

So, we got to a turning point in the game. Do the players turn north to the Eaglenest Range or do they head east to the Skaven Breeding Halls. What do they care? There's a PlayStation/Gameboy/PC in the room and they're having an ace time!

It may be up to the GM to remove or make unavailable anything in the room that may provide a distraction, but this is not always the case. A little self-control would be handy.

Case: Whilst running an enjoyable game set in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, we realised that two of the players, who had left the room for a secret discussion, had been gone for quite a while. Upon investigation, we found said players in the other room playing Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation which, whilst an enjoyable game, had absolutely nothing to do with the scenario.

4. Paying Attention Is The Core Of A Game

Well it is isn't it? How can you expect to progress if you've hardly listened to anything the players or the GM has said?

Let's say the last five minutes has seen the PCs decide on their tactics and strategy and declare their intentions, then they go flying into the demon's cave with swords high and plan ready. You're not going to be much use if you spent those five important minutes with your nose in a magazine, are you?

What if the GM has explained a vital clue or piece of information? What use is that to you or the group if you didn't give due attention? Prick up your ears when the GM is speaking to you and/or the group.

Case: Whilst running a Twilight 2000 game I spent a good while explaining in-character the PCs' covert requirements. Their mission was to meet the corrupt President of Sunken Madagascar, find out why he has increased his military output, and try to support a coup that had been growing. Upon arrival at the President's, two of the four players asked, "So, what are we doing here?" Much shaking of heads ensued.

5. Being Funny Is One Thing, Being Annoying Is Quite Another

We've all had those moments in games where something has happened that just had us rolling on the floor. There's always comments and events which illicit a laugh or a chuckle from the players and GM alike. These are good moments, especially during a non-serious game, and can be great fun. But let's not overdo it, eh?

Continuous jokes and remarks, especially during a serious game, can be a little annoying. Repeating the same joke over and over again to get the same laugh...can you imagine such a thing? Jokes and having fun are part of the game, but there is a time and a place for such things and, depending on what the game is being played for, players and GMs alike should realise their limits.

Case: A long time ago, in a Star Wars game far, far away, there were five players and a GM. One of the players would wait until a critical part of the game, pretend to drop his pencil, and then re-emerge from under the table with the wraparound sticker off a large Coca-Cola bottle over his face and declare "Coca-Cola Man has come to save the day". Every week, on cue. No, really, I’m not making this shit up.

6. Being Loud Does Not Mean You're Right

We've all got something to add to a game such as ideas, tactics, revelations, and character stuff. It's a sign of a good roleplayer when they can put forward their own opinions and thoughts, and deal with any arguments "in character", PC-to-PC instead of player-to-player.

Some gamers find it necessary to raise their voices however, talking over the other people at the table so that their opinions are heard and acted upon. With players it's annoying because it's as if the one viewpoint is the be-all and end-all of group decisions. With GMs it's annoying because constant interruptions and opinions can disrupt good roleplaying and make the game feel linear.

The answer is simple: don't do it! Have a little patience. The players haven't gathered about the table just for your benefit.

Case: During a game of Rolemaster, an excitable GM decided that the players were not going in the direction he wanted them to go, so he decided to usher them onto the right path. He'd talk over every decision made, raising his voice if the players decided on a certain course of action with phrases such as "Why do you want to do that?" and "Oh, that's a stupid idea". When asked to allow a little latitude he would simply talk over the players until they followed his pointers. Strangely, nobody turned up for his next game. I won’t even tell you about the time we tried to kill an evil wizard by setting fire to his doorless tower, only to find we’d failed because he was ‘out shopping’.

7. The Rules May Be Guidelines, But They're Still Rules

Roleplaying games have a set of rules to adjudicate actions and abilities and these are reflected, in most cases, in the use of dice. So why do some roleplayers feel it necessary to cheat? The idea of a high adventure game is to inject a little of the chance and danger inherent in such things. If a bad roll is made, it does not reflect badly on the player, it's just the way things turned out and it's a sign of good roleplaying to take the rough with the smooth.

There are five general types of cheaters:

1) The "Pooper Scooper" who will roll their dice and pick them up straight away before anyone else has a chance to see the result and claim they succeeded.
2) The "Ready-To-Rumble Roller" who will claim they succeeded with the dice that are already lying on decent numbers on the table, which were not actually rolled.
3) The "Bombardier" who will roll their dice one at a time, and every time a low dice comes up they will slam their next roll into the previous dice in the hope of knocking it onto a better number.
4) The "Houdini Skills" players who suddenly acquire a skill or increased ability to help them out of a situation, usually added to the character sheet secretly during play.
5) The "Phantom Equipment" player who will suddenly have an item or tool appear on their character sheet, again added during play.

There is no sure way to guard against these cheaters, especially in large group games where there is a lot to be aware of. There are some precautions you can take, however. Make sure that, before play starts, the group is aware that all rolls are to made in the open and watched by others. (The GM may be exempt from this, depending on their use of GM screens and wanting to have the chance to have more control over the game). Then the player/GM has no choice but to make the roll. Also, rolls must be made with all the required dice thrown at the same time. This way, the group is aware that rolls are being monitored and pre-warning them means that players don't feel picked on.

Don't worry too much about weighted dice. These little monsters are easy to spot as they don't roll naturally and have a tendency to spin when landing on their set number. You can check most of the dice before play, anyway. Have photocopies of the PC character sheets to hand to the GM, and make sure as a player that you've had a good look over other player's sheets (group style/policy permitting). This way you'll have an idea what each player is capable of and what they own, and have an insight into the possibility of cheating.

Case: During a strange game of Call of Cthulhu, the group was skulking about a sunken church in the Black Forest of the Rhine when they were suddenly attacked by ghouls. Single handed, one of the weakest characters in the group managed to hold off the ghouls with a machete and pistol while the others grabbed artefacts and made a run for it. He was hailed the hero of the encounter...until it was realised that no-one had actually seen any of the rolls made, and that the items "pistol" and "machete" were not actually on the player's character sheet equipment list.

8. Arguments May Be Healthy, But Stress Is A Killer

There can be many discussions during a game regarding the interpretation or application of rules, and this is a good thing in many respects. It clearly defines capabilities and limitations of PC and NPC alike, and it can result in well-conceived House Rules.

Unfortunately, there are situations that arise when disagreements on rules and capabilities grow from discussion to heated debate to full-blown shouting matches. Both players and GMs alike have their own idea how certain things should be utilised from the rulebook and how things should be played out.

The answer is simple: chill out! When playing a game remember two things:

1) It's a game.
2) The idea of the game is to socialise and have fun.

If you can't agree on an aspect then defer to the GM after making your point. After all, the GM's word should be final. If an honest mistake has been made, then make a note of the problem and carry on, backtrack if necessary then continue. Always be ready to have an opinion, but don't think that arguing the point will make it any better. Discuss the problem, come to a compromise, then make a note on the problem and how it can be solved.

Failing that, the GM's word is final, if that's the only way to stop it. And don't take the disagreement out of the confines of the game. Getting cranky afterwards or during other activities because of the argument is pointless because, as in the concept of the game, it has nothing to do with real life at all. Ask yourself the question is it really worth it? Raised voices make for raised blood pressure - not good.

Case: A player in a game of Cyberpunk decided to steal a car after a firefight at the local casino, but his hotwiring skill wasn't good enough. There was a long drawn out argument about the technicalities of stealing a car, but the GM basically said that regardless of what the player knew, the PC couldn't do it. After the argument (which got a little out of hand) the player sulked, made stupid comments, and generally disrupted the game. Towards the end of the night, the GM took the player's character sheet, crumpled it up and popped it in the garbage. "What was that?" asked the player. "Random psycho sniper in a church tower just took you out", said the GM. "Don't I get to roll?" asked the player. The GM just smiled. "He's a really good shot." The player got the point.

I hope these tips have given you some ideas and a few things to think about. Most of these are intended to help you deal with those incidents that crop up during the actual act of gaming and will hopefully help you to have a smoother, happier experience.