A typical session of Dungeons and Dragons is a strange event where a group of nerds take time out of their week to participate in a shared fantasy world. The players use their various imaginary personas to engage with conflicts and characters that the GM has prepared, working together to solve problems that none of them could face on their own.
There can be competitive moments in a session – sometimes a GM will run a Battle-Royale-style one-shot, or some temporary conflict will grip a group member and pit them against the others. But at its heart, D&D is a cooperative game where the players all work together to face whatever malignant force is threatening their fantasy world.
This may sound like common sense, but players can sometimes get caught up in their character or their own personal agenda to the point that they lose sight of the game’s cooperative construction. And, to be honest, the game is so much more pleasant when everyone works together.
I should mention that I have nothing inherently against character v. character conflict, on two conditions: all players involved must be on board, and it must build a narrative arc.
Here are some behaviors to avoid as a player, because they can get in the way of a pleasant session.
Prohibitive Character Traits
Garrett already wrote a piece detailing the difficulties of having a character with problematic character traits, but I’d like to build on his thoughts with what I think is a particularly good example of a character flaw.
Having characters that are reluctant to work together can be a really fun experience. In the last adventure that I played, my super-goth High-Elf wizard Varis didn’t much get along with the Goliath War-domain Cleric/Paladin in the group. Titus, the Paladin, had the infamous character trait “I have difficulty trusting others,” but he’d communicated it to the party early on. This helped keep me as a player from getting my feelings hurt when he’d disagree or give my character a hard time.
But Titus also never tried to prohibit my actions. I usually just jabbed at him with some snide, muttered comments about empiricism and rationalism, and he’d usually just mutter a comically passive-aggressive prayer to Torm. Even when I used Necromancy to raise a zombie, he didn’t directly destroy it or attack me. Instead, he just quietly deepened his mistrust. Rather than trying to control my actions, he chose to let my actions inform the way he felt.
But our relationship changed during a particularly deadly fight with a beholder. Another party member got full-on disintegrated, other party members were unconscious, and we were both quickly petrifying. My character had a choice to save either himself or Titus, and (in a pretty metagamey decision) chose to help Titus, because he could eventually cure petrification. With his last breath before turning to stone, Varis locked eyes with Titus and said simply, “You’d better kill this thing.” The Goliath ended up reviving a couple party members and carried us to a slim victory. After leveling up, Titus got the spell Greater Restoration and used it to bring back Varis. They embraced (no-homo), and from then on they had a strong bond.
When you have a pretty strict flaw like that, try to envision how your character might grow past it. What possible situations could lead to them pushing past a phobia, or acting against their usual nature?
Problematic Table Talk
“Table talk” is pretty much all side chatter and discussion among people who are playing in the session, and it usually doesn’t have any direct bearing on stuff happening in-game.
GMs should try to lay out the table etiquette very early on in a campaign – like before the first session, during the first session, and beyond. Some groups have a basket or box where everyone deposits their phones at the start of the session to reduce distractions. Just be very open and clear when your players side discussions are making the game difficult to play.
My advice to players: keep it to a minimum. Everyone’s here to have fun and relax, but if your personal discussions are becoming an obstacle to the game at hand, then you’re undermining the whole reason they are here. And the longer that I spend playing this game, the more I realize that scheduling conflicts are far more dangerous to a gaming group than any dragon.
Dungeons and Dragons is often pitched to new players as a game of complete freedom. People who only have experienced linear video games are often blown away at the prospect of playing as whoever they want, and doing whatever they want. I know that was one of the things that excited me the most when I first discovered the game.
When a player comes to D&D with that mindset, they’ll inevitably feel disappointed when the GM says that a particular action doesn’t yield the expected result. Sometimes, players come to resent their GM because they feel like they’re limiting the creative freedoms that were promised to them early on.
Years ago, I was scouring some forums, looking for advice on D&D, and I came across a certain thread about character creation. Some guy was asking for advice about what he could and couldn’t do in his game, and one guy cynically responded that “in D&D, your only limitation is the imagination of your GM.”
Now, I don’t think that’s quite fair. It’s definitely true that players are limited by what the GM is willing to do, but there are other factors than the GM’s imagination at play. There are the other players at the table, who also have to feel engaged by the story and setting.
GMs are responsible for maintaining a completely fabricated fantasy for a few hours, transporting the players into a different world. They’ve got a lot invested into this world, and they’ve invited you to join them.
Just keep in mind that you’re not the only person at the table, and that while you can do way more in this game than you can in Skyrim or Fallout, don’t let your thirst for agency come at the expense of everyone else’s fun.