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Being a Better TTRPG Player part 3: Read Between the Lines

December 21, 2023

(Read part 2 here)

This is going to sound like metagaming, but if done in good faith, it isn’t.

When you get engrossed in a game world, it’s easy to forget that it’s not a real place–it only exists in the game master’s head. You don’t get information from that world like you would from the real world, or even a video game world.

The GM has their own incentives for how they present information to you.

A good GM knows they don’t get anything by faking you out or playing gotcha games. (Unless you have a Wish spell of course, where it’s traditional to be painfully detail-oriented.)

For the story to progress, they have to get you the information you need. That might involve some light misdirection, but actively blocking players at every turn is… not fun, it turns out.

If the GM says you don’t find something, or no effect happens, or otherwise tells you “no” after a few attempts, you have to realize there’s no resolution down that path. The GM knows where that path leads. They aren’t blocking the path just to spite you. (Or they shouldn’t be–that wouldn’t make for a fun game, and in extreme cases it damages trust.)

In the real world, there’s sometimes a reason to search with a fine-toothed comb or try multiple persuasive approaches. But in-game, it’s helpful to learn when a GM (or another player, in some cases) is trying to direct your attention elsewhere.

Following those out-of-game cues isn’t cheating–it can often be the best way to respect everyone’s time.

Now, of course, following the GM’s or other players’ cues requires some trust, and we’ll talk about that in part 4.

The only good Chaos Gremlin is a Chaos Gremlin that reads between the lines

This post assumes that you want to read and follow cues. I think we all know players who… well, don’t. (We’ll talk a bit about the rallying cry of some Chaos Gremlins–“but it’s what my character would do”–in part 4.)

I don’t think all Chaos Gremlining is bad. It can create some pretty funny and memorable moments by taking the game (momentarily) off-track and introducing new twists.

The problem is you cannot tell whether a gag is going to be brilliant or obnoxious in advance. You might ruin multiple game sessions just to get one bright, shining jewel of a memory. (And that memory will probably won’t be as funny until everyone forgets the obnoxious parts of the session.)

If you want to Chaos Gremlin without being That Guy, you need to be paying careful attention to what’s going on. Like most art forms, it’s a case where you need to know the rules before you can break the rules, so that you break them in an effective way.

You need to think about some factors before you introduce some wacky antics:

  • Is anyone else at the table really focused? As in, more than normal. If so, you’re probably going to ruin someone else’s moment. You should probably dial it back a bit until things get a little less serious.
  • How much time do you have? If you’re very short on time (whether that’s a short campaign, a one-shot, or a short session), the cost of taking things off-track might be greater than your gag’s payoff. The GM and players should be aware of the cut-off point, and a Chaos Gremlin can throw a wrench into that was. There’s nothing more disappointing than a game just fizzling mid-sentence as time runs out (especially if it’s a one-shot).
  • Is the GM playing along? If the GM isn’t taking your bait, it’s not necessarily because they’re no fun. Maybe they don’t have anything planned in that direction. Maybe they’re setting the scene as a short transition. Or, maybe it’s just an extreme difference in play style between the two of you. Whatever the reason, if they’re not playing along they probably feel heckled, and that’s a sure path to burnout.

Someone who regularly ignores those things in the process of Chaos Gremlining might be a jerk, and we’re going to talk about playing with jerks (or… not) in part 4.