Recently I sat down at the table to play a marathon session of FFG’s Edge of the Empire. The session had all of the trappings of a typical tabletop session: crude jokes, soda, cheetos, and a distinct odor that only 5 people sitting in a hot room for over six hours can create. But there was much more going on in the game; there was tension between the players as the story unfolded before us, there was genuine joy when my character saved his wife (another PC in the party) from toppling off of a train, and there was a deep real sense of shock and sadness when the big reveal came near the end of Act Two. There was genuine silence at the table, no jokes or snarky remarks.
I have played at and ran games for my fair share of tables that would find this behavior impossible and/or laughable. Many gaming groups come together simply to have fun, eat junk food, and roll some dice, and to those table I say, “This article is not for you.” But what if I told you that your games could be so much more? You could tell stories with the emotional weight of Tolkien, Martin, or Lewis; well….at least in your player’s minds anyway. That is a real and achievable goal that only requires a few small tweaks to your game and, more importantly, the culture at your table.
1. When everyone tries to be funny, nobody is.
We’ve all been at that table. The one where Monty Python quotes flow freely and every enemy “killed my father, prepare to die”. It is a certain kind of table that works well for some groups, but after an hour and half at one I am exhausted and ready to burn my character sheet. Games like these reek of a fear of emotion. They want to simply have fun in the most superficial of ways without risking the required vulnerability of going deeper, and generally speaking these games don’t last. When everyone is attempting to be the funniest guy in the room it creates a weird aura of one-upmanship, and everyone is racing to the top of the funny hill while leaving the story behind in the process.
But there is a way out of this trap (aside from finding a new game table) that leads to a more nuanced, fulfilling, and rich experience for both the DM and the players: vulnerability. Obviously this is not for your average convention game, but when you have been playing with the same group for months, years, decades then there is a certain level of trust that has been built up over time. This is one of the greatest resources that a game table can have, trust, because it opens up the possibility of truly special gaming moments because you can be vulnerable in front of each other. I have seen players cry at the table over the death of an NPC, light up with pure joy at an unexpected reunion, and sit in solemn silence as their character fails their final death save; and none of these occurrences would have been possible without the capacity to be vulnerable with each other and fully buy-in to the story we were telling together. Now vulnerability sounds like a pretty hokey thing to bring to your tabletop experience, but we need to reexamine the word to truly use it in our games. To be vulnerable in this context, it means being okay with not “winning”. Your PC does not need to have a happy ending, in fact some of my most memorable characters are memorable precisely because they didn’t end up happily ever after.
One instance was a droid I was playing in FFG’s Star Wars system at a convention. I won’t get into recounting the whole adventure, but my droid was an agent of the burgeoning Rebel Alliance on a secret mission to the planet Jedha before the events of Rogue One. In the closing moments of the one shot we saw my beloved droid’s head sitting amongst a scrap heap in Saw Guerrera’s hideout, and this was not even the saddest fate examined in the epilogue of the session. It was pretty incredible that most of the players at the table decided in the final act that this mission we were on was not going to end happily, and we leaned into it. Not in the “which one can have the craziest or most heroic death” kind of way, we just simply started being a little more risky in the midst of a firefight. My character’s undoing was not encrypting a message he was desperately trying to get to the Rebellion, it was an intention decision on my part to reflect how bad everything was going and I was not the only one at the table doing these things. It is because we made the choice to be vulnerable, not only with each other but with the story as well.
All of us regarding the 4 hour long con game as a highlight of our gaming lives, and our GM was blown away by what happened. All of this happened because no one wanted to be regarded as the funniest, smartest, or best at the table; we all bought into the collective story we were telling because we trusted each other.
2. There are no “teams”
One of the most common terms are a game table that makes me cringe is when a player earnest exclaims “SAME TEAM!” It is such a loaded phrase that is meant to chastise another player for acting against the interest of “winning the game”. My tables will yell it as a joke when a player points out a rule that the DM overlooked but none of us actually have any malice when we do it, so if that describes your table then the following does not apply to you.
One of the basic tenets of a healthy game table is that the game is not the players versus the DM, and most tables I have played at adhere to this tenet fairly well. But there is an ugly unspoken rule between the players that nobody will do anything that is detrimental to the group, which is complete nonsense. Characters making mistakes are one of the most important parts of storytelling, and expecting the heroes to be perfect in a story is a quick path to a boring story.
You have written your backstory, and included the fact that your family died (of course they did) because of an orc attack only 6 months before the start of the campaign. The first time I as a DM throw a orc warband at you, if your character doesn’t either fly into a rage or run away to hide then I will question how truthfully your playing your character. Especially if your character is very calm and methodical, stop it! Don’t be afraid to let your character make a mistake! More importantly, encourage and cheer on your fellow players when they do so.
And if you are a DM, you should be psyched if you have players at your table who a ready and willing to throw their character through the ringer based upon the flaws of their backstories and personalities. And you should make things more difficult because of their mistakes, that’s part of the story, but…BUT if you find yourself want to make comments like: “That sure was a boneheaded move!,” “Man, you guys need to work on your planning skills”, or “Geez that sure was stupid!” then I want you to stop. Before the words come out of your mouth you need to take a pencil, put it between your middle and ring fingers right at the base where the fingers meet, and then use your other hand to squeeze your fingers together. That’s what you get for discouraging player engagement with their characters!
3. Listen to Each Other!
The key to any good interaction with another person is the ability and capacity to truly listen and hear each other. This is wholly applicable to game tables, and is a skill that is easy to overlook amongst players. I was playing a elf rogue in a campaign years ago, and I hit a point where the character had really done everything he was going to do and had ceased being fun to play. He hadn’t developed any strong relationships with any of the other PC’s and I was ready to see him move on. I had expressed these feeling rather vaguely with my DM, but didn’t tell any of my fellow players; so when I decided mid-fight that this was my opportunity to see my elf die a hero’s death as he held off a massive threat while the rest of the party escaped, I was concerned because no one else at the table knew my head space.
But that’s the beauty of playing with a regular group, they can read what your mindset is through how you are playing. And, fortunately, that’s exactly what happened: as the rest of the party ran for the exit, I looked around and simply said “I attack.” They all knew, and they all let it happen. It was very satisfying for me and the rest of the table, and it fit with the story we were telling. But there are a number of ways this moment could have gone awry if I didn’t know my fellow players and DM well enough to trust them to let me have my moment.
It would have been so simple for one of the fellow PC’s to turn back. We had a high level Paladin in the group that was basically untouchable given the skill set of the monster we were fighting, she could have come back to help me fight. Our wizard could have done a number of spells to assist my character, the cleric could have healed me, etc. But none of that happened because my fellow players listened to me and allowed my character to have his moment.
This is a situation I have seen come up at so many tables over the years, but the result has been quite the opposite. A duelist PC wants to have an epic one-on-one duel with a fencing bad guy who has been goading his character for the past 6 levels, and then begin exchanging verbal barbs as well as skilled rapier combat only for the party’s fighter to stomp over into flanking and take the bad guy out without a second thought. The party’s rogue wants to sneak off ahead and scout out the enemy forces, potentially landing an amazing assassination in the process only for the ranger to voice that they are going to join them, not noticing the look of disappointment on the look of the rogue’s player as the words leave their mouth.
I am not saying their shouldn’t be teamwork at the table, far from it. This is a form a teamwork, the kind that creates great stories. An amazing D&D campaign is made up of moments. When a group of friends recall their campaign, very rarely will it be tales of combats in which everyone worked together strategically to eliminate all the enemies quickly and without incident. They will talk about the epic duel in which the swashbuckling rogue waved off the party because he wanted to finish this fight on his own, the rogue that snuck up all alone along the ridge and took out the orc general with a single blow, or the elf rogue that held the line so his companions could fight another day. When one of your fellow players wants to have a “moment”, let them because when time comes for your character’s “moment” everyone will be more likely to listen to you.