A lot of weight is put on the GM to run a great game but that’s not entirely fair to the GM. Sure, the GM is a huge part of why a campaign rocks or fizzles but they are only one person and probably only half of the equation. The other half consists entirely of the players. These tips won’t be for every table, some tables will have mastered one or more of these tips but hopefully some players will benefit from this advice.
Five Tricks to Improve a Campaign Every Player Can Do Right Now
Have goals and know them.
Parties should have goals, both personal goals for each character and group goals. Each player should be aware of their goals and the goals for the group, it’s even better if you have at least an inkling of what the other character’s goals might be, even if it is only out of character. The key here is to communicate important information to the other players so the whole group can accurately prioritize what they need to do. Knowing everyone’s goals will help the party function as a team.
Meta-gaming with knowledge that keeps your character out of immediate danger is different from meta-gaming to advance the story for the whole group. However, meta-game thinking is a hot button topic so be sure to discuss it with your GM and the other players before letting out-of-character knowledge of your allies goals affect your actions in game. Just opening this sort of discussion can help players decide what exactly they would keep secret and what they’ve kept secret inadvertently. If your group is willing to allow players to coordinate out-of-character the in-game stories may be more satisfying. Consider this, in a recent campaign a player in the party decided their character would keep a particular goal that would benefit the whole party secret. We knew they had a mission that would benefit us all but we didn’t know anything else. So no one else on the team prioritized the secret goal and by the time we accomplished the mission nearly a year had passed in-game and the outcome was not half as satisfying as it might have been if we’d accomplished it earlier. Had we known out of character what the goal was, the character’s still would have been surprised but we’d probably jumped the easy task it turned out to be much higher on the to-do list.
A good time to talk about all of these goals is often after your game. When I played in a Masquerade LARP we’d sometimes refer to this as a post-mortem. I cannot recommend the practice highly enough when you are playing tabletop games. A good post-mortem allows players to make plans, reflect out of character on what has happened, what they’d like to happen, and just talk through events. You can either do it right after the game, on social media platforms such as Obsidian Portal, Slack, Discord or even a group on Facebook.
Role-play everything, or at least most everything. I’ve played with groups where there was lots of role-playing and in games where players after years of playing had trouble remembering the all the character names. And while we had fun in nearly all of those instances, the games with more and immersive role-playing at the table were significantly more fun. And to this day tend to be the ones we talk about fondly. Now while I love all the 3rd era and Pathfinder rules, I’ve noticed a number of conversations blaming Pathfinder’s emphasis on tactical play for curtailing some of the role-playing aspects. Now, on one hand, this argument isn’t entirely unfounded. Unlike narrative RPGs like FATE and the Cypher System, Pathfinder has few mechanics that reward good role-playing. While I certainly encourage GMs to step-up and reward role-playing, the truth is great role-playing moments are (at least in part) their own reward.
If your group has become more invested in the tactical play but misses the role-playing aspects you can each do little things to liven up the game. In the midst of combat, don’t just trade blows and roll dice, taunt and banter with your enemies, holler out advice to the other PCs, get melodramatic, deliver epic war cries… Role-play it all in character. Same goes for camping and other mundane moments if you have something to discuss before you go forward, do it in-character describe what your PC is doing. Maybe you’re the cook, talk about what you’ve fixed describe the food describe passing around the bowls as you begin the conversation. Chances are if you start with these sorts of descriptions the other players will too.
Remember you are a storyteller, too.
This piece of advice runs hand-in-hand with the previous piece of advice about role-playing more. The GM is often equated to the storyteller with the players portraying characters in the story but that may not be the best analogy. I prefer to think of the campaign as a TV show with the GM and players collaborating as writers. The GM acts as showrunner plotting out the major turns in the story but each player controls how events of the main plot affect their character on the show. Everyone at the table is simultaneously a storyteller and a viewer waiting to be entertained as the campaign progresses.
Players should feel free to narrate how their characters react to situations even giving the other players and GM an out of character glimpse into what they may be thinking. For example, say your party is being honored by a local noble for clearing a nearby dungeon of bandits and cut-throats but the players have recently come to suspect it was the same noble that has been employing the bandits to disrupt the king’s rule in the region. As you make you Bluff rolls to hide your character’s true feelings you might describe to the table at large how they react outwardly then describe the sense of betrayal they feel.
Chances are you’ve written a background or have a history in mind for your character. As the storyteller for your character, you can drop hints about your background. Owen KC Stephens recently wrote a blog about the magic of the little details in world-building. This advice is largely geared towards GMs but players can often employ such small details as effective character building. Perhaps you describe how you brew your tea strong and bitter then for color your character tells someone, “My father told me to never trust a man who drinks his tea weak and sweet.” A cagey GM might seize on such a detail and use it with an NPC leaving the players wondering if the fact that the (otherwise trustworthy) captain of the guard over-sweetens his thin tea is significant or not.
Don’t be afraid to fail.
Take risks. You won’t remember that time when you played it safe. You will remember the times you did something heroic and reckless. This doesn’t mean you should be stupid or put the rest of the party in harm’s way just because. The tactics of Pathfinder often means it’s risky to move around a bunch in combat but there are times when provoking that attack of opportunity means you’ll be a better position on the battlefield. Other times it means your party tries a frontal assault against a bandit fort such as our group attempted in our Kingmaker campaign. We were fairly certain we’d tempted fate and as the combat entered a second session several players came back to game with a backup character in tow. We knew the risks and were excited to see how it played out. Fortunately, we scraped by and now we’ll have an epic tale to reminisce over for years to come in-game and out.
Now your risks need not be so large but the excitement and drama predominately come from the possibility of failure. I honestly think many if not most players understand taking big risks. Playing heroes tends to do that. Sometimes it’s the small risks that paralyze players they don’t want to look foolish to which I like to remind those players that it happens to the best of heroes. Just embrace your failure or possible failure and roll with it. Your PC’s moment of embarrassment could be legendary for years to come.
Han Solo charges after a few retreating Stormtroopers then beats a hasty retreat when things go sideways.
The following exchange between Malcolm Reynolds and Jayne in Serenity:
Capt. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds: Do you want to run this ship?
Capt. Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds: [sputters] Well… you can’t…
Indiana Jones bested by Baloch in the first act of Raiders of the Lost Ark
Han Solo steps on a twig in Return of the Jedi
Tony Stark gets stuck in his armor in Iron Man
Keep good notes.
The phrase “good notes” is intentionally subjective, your notes don’t have to be comprehensive but they should jump-start your memory so as the GM kicks off the next session you know where you are and what’s going on. Some people are good note-takers, honestly, I’m not. I have a hard time paying attention and taking notes. So when I’m gaming my note-taking technique is maybe jotting down the odd name or location and one or two words to associate with it. There are (and have been) other people at our table who kept tons of information. My brother-in-law filled multiple large hardcover journals during our weekly d20 Star Wars game years ago. Since he left it at our house, as GM I’d occasionally mine the entries for names and place I’d dropped in for flavor that he and the other players thought were important and make them more prominent. Really, either style works so long as you can drop yourself back into the moment when the game starts or you meet that mysterious NPC for the second or third time.
Again, this is another way good post-mortem discussions can be useful. If you are like me and in-the-moment note-taking isn’t your strong suit, a good after game discussion can give you the opportunity to take the notes you need. As you and the other players discuss the session. Everyone can make notations on their impressions of various NPCs and events. People can also take the time to expand their in game notes, get proper spellings for NPCs and locations from the GM all without disrupting the flow at the table. Moreover, if you are making plans those can go into your notes as well, making it easier to remember the party goals.
I hope some of this advice inspires more players to take an active role in helping their GMs make their Pathfinder games the best they can.