Storytelling, Tabletop and Pop Culture
We’re back! And now that you’ve gone through the basics and you’ve built that character concept out into a playable character it’s time to sit down at the table. It’s all been leading up to this. It’s time for rubber to hit the road! For dice to hit the table! So what do you need to know about actually being a player at the game table? How do you make sure that you and your party will have a fun session of D&D together? Here are some tips that will help you out.
The first thing to remember is: Relax. It’s a game. It’s having fun with your friends. As long as you all have fun you have won at D&D. You could honestly stop here and be fine for the game. But let us press on anyway.
Know Your Style
There is not one right way to play D&D. We talked about this somewhat earlier in some of our Session 0 conversations. Some folks want to save the world. Some want to rack up those combat kills. Others want to hoard Scrooge McDuck piles of money. Some people want to build castles. Or run inns. Or find secrets. Or have a complex emotional arc for their character. Or just gather a menagerie of adorable pets and orphan children that become found families. Maybe all of these at once!
In the same way, some people will actually play differently. Some folks will play from a more detached third person perspective. My character does X. Some folks might use in-game terminology more. I use my Attack action on the monster. Other people might be more comfortable in first person and really get into the roleplay. I charge the snarling beast and with a flash of steel I draw my sword and cut twice into the creature! Both of those are fine.
Don’t feel stressed if you’re not playing your character like someone on a professional stream or podcast. Don’t feel stressed if you’re not doing it exactly like the person next to you. Do what is satisfying for you.
So in the very next breath I’ll say, challenge yourself. Once you have found your comfort zone, find little ways to step out of it. There are skills related to playing D&D that you can grow in over time. Try a different sort of character or playstyle. Use a little more flair or add some descriptions to your combat. Take the lead in a roleplay scene. Adding and honing these tools will help you tell the stories you want to tell. But there’s also no rush, find that balance of comfort and growth for yourself.
Know your character
So this is a little less general, know how your character works. You don’t have to be a master who understands every aspect of the game. But do your best to try and figure out the basic mechanics of the class you have chosen. Most characters will eventually have a pretty obvious combat flow you’ll learn. To get started I highly recommend Keith Ammann’s “Live to Tell the Tale.” It covers these basic flows for each class. This helps you know what you’re doing when your turn comes around.
For example, when in doubt, a Warlock is almost always going to use their powerful Eldritch Blast cantrip. It does a ton of damage and they only get a few spell slots per short rest so they aren’t going to blow them on just anything. If there’s going to be a big combat, my Forge Cleric, Errant, will almost always cast Spiritual Weapon and a cantrip on his first turn and then close to melee range and cast Spirit Guardians on the second turn (using his bonus action to attack again with Spiritual Weapon). This isn’t what he always does but I’ve always got a game plan that will be relatively helpful in most situations.
This little bit of prep can help you avoid the decision paralysis that sometimes hits folks at the table. Especially before level 10 or so, you really only have so many spells and abilities to choose from and only some of those will make sense in a given situation. Know your character and don't panic and a solid plan will present itself.
This sounds so basic but you wouldn’t believe how often games get derailed over it. Know when your game is scheduled and have the stuff you need ready to go. If you’re playing in person, get there at least 10 minutes early so you can have all your stuff out and arranged. If you’re playing online, hop in chat and make sure your mic and tech is working. Have your dice and character sheets ready to roll. You could even take a minute or two and look over last session’s notes so you remember where you were and what was going on.
Take at least some notes. Unless you’re playing a one shot, there is probably going to be some time between sessions and you won’t retain everything that your character would know (even in a one shot it can help you remember key details!). This can be especially important when it comes to plot lines, mysteries and big reveals. If you’re not retaining any information, it won’t mean anything to you when the Big Bad turns out to be someone you met earlier (because you don’t even remember meeting them!). It also means that you’re missing all sorts of foreshadowing, hints and helps that the DM is dropping for you. It can also really undercut other PC’s stories. If they tell you all about their fractured relationship with their brother and then you all discover the brother working with your enemies, having to stop and say “wait who is that?” can really puncture the scene and let all the tension out.
This goes along with taking notes. Stay plugged into the game when the spotlight isn’t on you. This raises the fun factor for everybody. Not only are you not missing out on important info but you’re also being a good audience when someone else takes center stage. An encouraging and excited table that can emote and engage alongside the action helps the cool moments feel cooler for the people involved. Being shocked when a PC makes a backstory reveal. Cheering when that epic crit hits at just the right moment in combat. Some good natured heckling when something silly happens. All of these things help make the game feel cooperative and not just folks taking turns independently of each other.
Interact with other PCs and be interested in them
This is a major way to make your table a better place. Talk to the other PCs. Ask them about themselves just like you would a real person. Ask where they’re from, what they were doing before this. Where they learned their skills. Ask what they’re thinking about the current situation. Share a campfire watch or go hit up a tavern during downtime. These moments create character bonds that make the game a lot more fulfilling. To take this to an expert level: these are great filler while the DM is looking something up or preparing something. And honestly I’ve never met a DM who wasn’t thrilled when players took the initiative and had conversations with each other without any prompting.
Share the Work
Your DM is already doing a lot of work in preparing and running the game. Unfortunately a lot of side tasks tend to get dumped on the DM as well that aren’t critical to that. As players, you can split up some of this work. It helps you plug into the game and helps your DM work in a sustainable way (so your campaign can keep going!). Here are some things other folks could help out with:
All of these little things add up to a lot for your DM, taking on a piece or two is a great way to contribute to the game atmosphere.
Read the Player's Handbook
If you've made it this far and you're still looking for more assistance, go back and read the Player's Handbook. It's still the bedrock tool for learning how to play the game. You'll come away better informed and ready to play at the table.
In these tips we've tried to focus on what isn't covered in the PHB. Beyond knowing your own Race/Class/Equipment, reading chapters 7-10 about how abilities/skills, adventuring, combat and spells work will go a long way in making sure you are up to speed at the table!
Wrapping it all up (for now...)
Hopefully these player tips (and this series as a whole!) have helped you make the transition from interested party to party member. We're signing off on our New Players series for now but you can always feel free to leave a comment, shoot an email or drop by and say hi on Twitter with any further questions. I'm always glad to help folks get started and answer any questions we didn't cover here.
Hi! I'm Colby. DM, Nerd, IRL Cleric and Writer.