Play Culture Three: Play Hard (with a Vengeance)

So you have prepared well for the session and you’ve got a good grasp on how to make the session a great experience for everyone else, but what about you? How can your play culture make sure that you have a good time? You would imagine that this would be a question that has an almost infinite number of answers, as many answers as there are players? However, I reckon that it boils down to the same thing for everyone – it doesn’t matter whether you are the most extrovert character actor, a detailed applier of the rules, or a quiet listener, who only intervenes when asked to – Principle Three applies: Be ready to Play Hard (with a Vengeance!)

Let’s start with the idea of visualising your gameplay? This is a technique I use a lot, to get into the feel of the character. I find media inputs linked to the game – so if I’m playing Star Trek, I might watch an episode or just listen to the music, or I’m playing a supers game I’ll read a graphic novel of the same genre. The aim of the game is to get into the groove of the genre and then think about the character – how do they look? How do they speak? How do they move? What would they do? By doing this, you build up a bank of imagined scenarios in your head that act as ammunition for your imagination at the table – sort of like a part-baked baguette, if you don’t mind me mixing my metaphors? When you come to a game with a menu of hooks, catchphrases, spell or power descriptions, technobabble or RP triggers, you’re already prepped to play hard.

The other way you can play hard is never be ashamed to bring ‘the awesome’. This might seem a little at odds with some of my other points in previous posts, but let me explain. As much as games are about sharing the spotlight with other players, and making sure you don’t hog it, when the game comes around to you, you need to grasp your chance to do something meaningful, fun and impactful. Think about it in terms of time? If you are playing, without interruption, for three hours, you have 180 minutes of potential play. If there are five of you, and a GM, and each person takes about three minutes to take their turn, and the GM takes two minutes to respond, at best you will have 6 ‘turns’ in any session that are wholly focused on you. That’s six opportunities to take that visualised gameplay and make it stand out. (Naturally, these numbers will vary, but you get the idea – even if you halved the times, 12 actions in a game might mean in D&D terms, four attacks over three encounters)

So don’t waste your opportunities. Get in there and make your actions memorable and impactful. Does your Starfleet Captain simply give an inspirational speech, or does she lean back in her chair, speak calmly over the ship wide inte torcom, and tell her crew that she is honoured to serve with them and despite being outnumbered and outgunned she knows they will find a way to beat those Romulans because they’re the best crew she has ever served with. Do the speech in first person if you like the play acting style, or in third person if you don’t but make it count. See also: I hit it with my axe.

(And there is an entire article I could write about matching your GMing style to a genre – but if you punish players with an extra skill test to do something because they have added a little detail in florid description, there is a special place in the Nine Hells for you!)

Following on from this is how you make decisions – Choose the most dramatic choice you can, you’ll never regret it. Now, this one really is dependent about your group’s gameplay, but don’t shy away from the exciting choices in a game. The genres our games emulate are chock full of examples of protaganists making sub-optimal choices for maximum drama. Why do this? Because these choices make for drama and conflict – two things our games need to thrive. It doesn’t mean being an idiot, or constantly risking death for thrills, but it does mean being proactive, moving towards the story rather than away from it, and making sure your character is a dramatic beacon, rather than a shadowed bystander.

Finally, one of the parts of playing hard is being aware of how other people play hard – listen to the play of others, and build on it. This is where your palette of half-baked ammunition from earlier comes in really handy. Let’s build an example? Fantasy game, you come upon a group of miscreants planning to attack a merchant. You, the rogue, have it in your head to disappear into the darkness and sneak around, flanking them. However, before you act, your valiant Paladin strides out and makes an impassioned speech about truth and justice and wades into them. What do you do? Do you still try to sneak around or do you realise that now the game’s afoot and you could instead acrobatically leap to your ally’s aid, guarding their back and slicing through the bandits. Which do you do? The one that drags you into the heroism of the Paladin, or the one that might take you out of the scene for a couple of turns?

Whilst both of these things are very rogue-esque play, one is you going off and doing your own thing, whilst the other is you building in the drama created by the other player. Now, astute readers might be thinking ‘Isn’t the Paladin forcing play upon the others?’ and I would argue that they are taking a situation from a passive stand-off to an active action and that is generally the best way to go.

My acid test for this situation is mind control. For years, I was a vehement opponent of mind control in games – infamously loosing it and throwing my character sheet at the GM once, telling him to play the game for me. Not a great look! After that I thought long and hard about it. Surely, the best person to play your mind controlled character is you! When we played a Fate game of Werewolf, and my werebear shaman was possessed, I used every trick in my arsenal to tear into my allies, brutally butchering another PC to the point of death! This was cool with the other player, but made the situation more poignant when my shaman came to and realised what they had done. Crucial moment in the game. Imagine if I had held back, or just faffed about and didn’t try? How utterly anodyne would that moment have been?

With all this in mind, what’s the emergent play? Well, I reckon that by visualising your gameplay and using that visualisation to inform the moments you are most able to make impact, you’re going to play a more memorable character that acts as a focus point for the drama of the game. If you make great dramatic choices, your game is going to me more exciting, more involved and far less frustrating as things are rarely going to stall. And if you choose to build on other people’s play when they do all of these things, you get a true sense of momentum gathering around the table and that’s what I reckon makes for a great game.

Playing hard is critical to my play culture, but for me there is one more that is as important – Principle Four: Play the Game, All of the Game!

You may also like...