Play Boldly

Following up on my last post, I intend to disparage no one, including my players past and present, but a malaise sets in on me occasionally when I’m playing a D&D game. Players seem lethargic. They don’t respond to the information given to them. Their characters act far different than the intrepid adventurers those characters should and must be.

Players should be as bold in game action as their characters are in the game world. Why? Because it pays off in fun and energy at the table.

I don’t mean that you should be the type of player who opens a closed door in the middle of combat or pushes every shiny, red button. Don’t go your own way at everyone else’s expense, despite what a certain famous D&D-playing author has said to the contrary. That’s jackassery rather than boldness. (Rule X: Don’t be a jackass!)

Instead, decide how the happenings in your game present opportunities for your character. Can you take cooperative actions that also work toward your character’s goals or display your character’s personality? If not, might you help further define the narrative or push the game onward? This can be as simple as making a deal with another character in a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” way. At other times, it’s a no-brainer how your character acts. Although some events in a game might fail to fit your character’s aims, think of how the smaller picture of the current situation might fit into the larger frame.

Whatever you do, don’t be afraid to take actions that make for a great game. Several bits of boldness follow.

Have Fun

Playing a D&D game is all about having fun. If you’re not having fun, say so constructively. Try to help figure out what’s going wrong. Maybe the subject of the game makes you uncomfortable. Perhaps play has bogged down. It could be you just crave some action. If you do say something (again, constructively), the game can be altered to accommodate your desires. A good DM wants you to have fun.

Ask Questions

Whenever you want more information, ask. A detail might be important to you or your character, and that’s fine. The game is about exploration and investigation, as well as fighting and character interaction. If you fail to ask questions, you might not receive some information you want or, worse, need. It’s not the DM’s job to give you every bit of information—sometimes you have to work for the goods. Further, detail should be built based on player interest rather than dumped by the DM in a way that slows the action. The DM is justified in assuming no one’s interested in details if no one asks any questions. By asking, you’re also telling the DM what you’re interested in.

Use Powers, Rituals, and Skills

Be familiar with your character’s abilities, and then use them whenever it seems appropriate. Suitability of use can be defined tactically, like the right spell for the right moment, or by roleplaying, such as how your character reacts to a situation. Most adventures are constructed assuming that a party has particular skills and abilities. If you have those abilities but don’t use them, the game might just go nowhere fast. Think about problems in terms of how your character’s abilities can solve them. It’s not the DM’s job to remind you of a ritual you have or to make sure you use your other abilities wisely. Know then do, bold one.

Have a Hunch

It’s the DM’s job to provide a situation, but few complex situations have clear-cut answers. Maybe you have an idea–it’s out there but it seems like a possibility.  You might just be right, even if evidence suggests otherwise. Sharing your idea is always good for the game. If you have an opinion, then, voice it.

And don’t keep ideas to yourself just because your character might not know. Although your game might vary from mine, I see player discussion as the collective cleverness of the party. It’s fine to roleplay, after out-of-character discussion, that the wizard came up with the idea. It’s also possible that your barbarian just had an amazing flash of insight. (That could even become a permanent and regularly appearing character trait. How does she do it?)

The caveat here is that you avoid using knowledge the party has no way to know, such as verbatim attributes from Monster Manual. In my games, especially, relying on such player knowledge is a sure way to end up in trouble. Instead, use your player knowledge as a reason to use character skills and other abilities. It’s fine to ask for an Arcana check to learn about a monster, even though you, the player, think you already know some of the creature’s attributes. Perhaps it’s even fine to roleplay what your character assumes about a monster from details the DM has given. (“Careful with fire around this beast . . .”) Such roleplaying might even lead the DM to grant a bonus to your skill check.

Ham It Up

We all game to have fun creating a story about a group of awesome characters in fantastic situations. Part of the fun is the personalities of characters and how they interact with their world. As a DM, I use accents, changes in voice, scare tactics, and all sorts of theatrics to get across the situation or person I’m portraying. I do the same with my PCs when I’m on the other side of the table. You can too. Don’t be shy. Only a jackass would ridicule you for increasing the fun. (Rule X.1: Don’t game with jackasses.)

When in a game situation, consider how your character might react. Even if you try to focus on the cooperative alternatives, this can result in actions that seem inappropriate to the situation. Don’t worry about what other players think, unless their characters have a chance to react. (Try not to coach others on their own actions, as well.) Sometimes, however, your portrayal will rub another character the wrong way. This can lead to appropriate drama as long as everyone’s comfortable with that course of play.

A druid I play is very bold with her sense of righteousness and proper authority, and she also refuses to take any crap. She has to back down at times to please or appease her comrades. Her boldness has become part of the way the whole group plays. Something happens, and everyone wonders how she’s going to respond. It adds fun.

In all cases, though, it’s important to distinguish between what your character says in a scene and what you, as a player, are saying at the game table. It’s remarkably easy to become confused. (This is why I, as DM, try to use accents and voice changes when speaking as a non-player character.) One misunderstanding in this vein can send a whole scene awry.

Repeat: Be Bold

It happens that all it takes to get things going in a game is bold action on the part of one or more players through their characters. Player characters are supposed to be heroes, after all. Although the DM does provide the scenario, background characters, and plots, the game requires player (and thereby character) boldness to keep things moving. Like in life, timidity or inaction can be the worst choice. Lack of boldness can leave you with little but regret to nurse your wounds. Regret is a terrible bandage and a bitter medicine.

In a recent game, one player decided her male rogue character was too wounded to go toe-to-toe with the villain. He timidly hid, taking pot shots with shuriken, sans combat advantage. But he could have taken his mace, the clever strike power, and a little boldness to hit that guy dead in his face, with combat advantage, ending the battle dramatically and covering his wounded self in the glory. Instead, he just made me (the DM) sad and seemed a lot more like a punk than the tough guy he really is. Circumstances dictate that this might be the character’s final impression on the game. Double sad.

Don’t play to make others sad. To adhere to this point, you have a simple creed: when in doubt, just do something. Whenever possible, make that something audacious, cooperative, and entertaining. You won’t regret it.

20 thoughts on “Play Boldly

  1. […] Chris Sims joined this year, and brought with him a wealth of knowledge about the inner workings of D&D. His mailbag series answers burning questions from you, the reader, and featured a five part series on solos (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), advice on pitching to Dragon magazine, and how to play your character boldly at the table. […]


  2. I don’t leave comments very often, but I had to chime in and say this one was awesome. I just sent it to all my players. Great job.


  3. While I love playing D&D, my biggest problem with 4E is how looooooong combat can take, especially if you are playing with more than 5 PCs. After the 2nd hour of being in combat against the same band of monsters, mobs, etc, it can be challenging to be anything but lethargic. I currently play in Dave’s game and we’ve had extensive discussions about this.

    You make a good point Chris and it does serve as a good reminder. Hell, it can be looked at as advice to spice up those multi-hour combats! 🙂


  4. Great article! You hit on a very important distinction in your have a hunch section. I love it when the players put their heads together and create a cool plan for dealing with the scenario. Occasionally, however, they stray into the other territory and, I’ll admit, when they do I get a little angry. For instance, I once had a player question me on whether or not a dragon could use it’s breath weapon again. I think he saw the anger flash in my eyes because he quickly added, “unless it recharged.” I know it’s really hard for people who DM to keep that sort of information separate, particularly if they are a power gamer, but, it kills a bit of the fun for me.

    Obviously all DMs are different. But unless your DM totally hates role playing, I think the easiest way to get more role playing into the game is for a player to lead the charge. We’re social animals and it takes a lot of energy to constantly be separate from the pack, so a DM who is trying to role play with a group that lacks the energy is going to have a really rough time. However, if one or two other people really get into it, the DM can usually build off that energy and make cool stuff happen. And once two people do it, you might be surprised who else will let their closeted role playing side come out and play.
    .-= Sarah Darkmagic´s last blog ..Designing a Street Fight =-.


  5. Erebus: Nice!

    Geek Ken: This is absolutely right. I allow my players to creatively bend the rules all the time. Sometimes what’s good for the PCs is good for the monsters, too. But that just ends up creating a dynamic field of play.

    Scott: Sounds like the way I play 4e, which is loads of fun. Thanks!

    Federico Figueredo: Excellent points. Everyone should read Federico’s comment.

    Michelle: The rogue wasn’t really in danger–the villain had two defenders on him. Although the rogue was wounded, the player was just playing the character with uncharacteristic timidity. The uncharacteristic part made me saddest.

    You’re right on when you suggest the rogue didn’t have as much emotion tied up in the fight, though. It’s a strong point.

    The creativity you displayed with your character’s background being meaningful to play is exactly what I’m talking about. Cool! Thanks for sharing.

    Yan: That’s what I’m talking about, but see Unwinder’s comment and my response.

    Unwinder: Thanks for making these points. The article assumes a default style of 4e D&D play. (It’s also too short to make every point I might have made.) And the word “hero” isn’t intended to mean “paragon of goodness” or “superhero with powers far beyond those of mortal persons.”

    Replace hero with the word protagonist if you like, and the semantics might work better for you. It really does seem like a semantic issue, so I’ll try to keep that in mind in future posts. The word “hero” has too much baggage, perhaps.

    Even in the campaigns you describe, decisive action is good. That’s the point of the post, more than “heroics.” The PCs are still the central protagonists. The players’ boldness will pay off.

    I think you and I actually agree. Even a timid or cowardly character can be played boldly. As you rightly point out, “Playing with gusto is always appropriate, and always makes a session more fun.”

    Dixon Trimline: One must play to the group, it is true. But hamming it up might get others to do so, too.

    DrJones: Without going into too much detail, she is forthright even if it might offend. She needles people who are rude or insulting. She hurls barbs at braggart enemies. She does what she what she thinks is right, even if the other PCs disagree. She ignores options she thinks of as cowardly, and so on. Flip side, she (boldly) follows the customs of her people. This includes deference and humbleness when appropriate, but it also includes openly questioning those who fail to uphold the tried and true. Her boldness has kept the PCs in fights from which others had suggested flight. The results have been beneficial, so far. Also, as I suggested, the other players seem to really like it.


  6. Could you give some examples of how your Druid is bold?

    It is easy for people to fall into Roll vs Role playing during combat. I’ve found that usually if I, or the DM, instigate the Roleplaying, or encourage and reward boldness, the players are more than willing to take the hint and push those boundaries as well.


  7. Oh, this is a grand article, and Geek Ken has it exactly right about timidity caused by our “Save or Die” experiences. There is also the difficulty of being the only roleplayer at the table, and not wanting to 1) look like a total dork, and 2) do something comprehensively stupid in front of the group.


  8. I think that I disagree with the viewpoint this article takes on roleplaying as a whole. Comments like “PCs are supposed to be heroes” really only apply to a certain kind of game in a certain kind of system.

    Even if we assume we’re playing heroic fantasy, combat oriented, 4E games, it’s not always like that. Players love playing an evil campaign once in a while. A good story often requires the PCs to be everymen tossed into rough circumstances rather than superheroes. Even in the grittiest, most action packed games, it’s quite common to have one player who’d rather be the cowardly comic relief than the Chosen One.

    That said, while it’s sometimes fun to play a timid character, there’s nothing to be gained from being a timid player. Playing with gusto is always appropriate, and always makes a session more fun.


  9. The adage by which I’ve played for years… 😉 I’ve jumped on the back of dragon, jumped through a barrier blade to strike at a mid flight angel, etc… Daring and in your face bravado makes for memorable character. I’ve had more then my share of death but they never felt meaningless because I was there doing decisive action.


  10. I’m not quite sure what your point is about the rogue who didn’t hit the villain in the face. Self-preservation would be a top priority for most rogues. Is it possible that the character didn’t have much emotion tied up in the fight — that it was not his fight, so to speak? Role-playing shouldn’t stop when the dice start rolling.

    In our last campaign, my dwarven cleric “had a hunch” that an airship would be both more defensible and safer to ride around in if we added boarding nets around the sides. She had never been aboard a waterborne vessel or an airship previously, so I said the idea was inspired by the nets her clan used to quickly (though temporarily) block off passageways during running skirmishes in cave systems. Sadly, the nets were not deployed the one time when they would have been truly helpful…


  11. Whenever players are lethargic ask yourselves and themselves these questions:

    1- Do you know what your character dramatic needs is? (what is his purpose, his most present goal)
    2- Do you know what the next obstacle to achieve that purpose is?
    3- Do you know why your character is chasing after that goal? (what does he believe that makes him act so?)

    In most cases, the problem lies within one of those questions.

    Note: If the player knows what to do, but doesn’t know how, I always recommend either setting a scene with the goal of finding out, or just testing the character (rather than the player) for ideas. Stopping the game dead is not an option.
    .-= Federico Figueredo´s last blog ..Gaming News – April 14-10 =-.


  12. Great post. I’ve run for many groups over the years and the best experiences always occur when people are active and engaged. Nothing turns me off as a GM more than having players that won’t involve themselves in the game. Thanks for writing this.


  13. This is exactly the type of creed i implore my players to use.

    I’m running a system at the moment with the catchphrase “Not what you can do, but what you want to do.”

    Basically any cool idea i run with, any idea i work with. Everything about the game is pointed to making the players feel ‘cool’ about their amazingly heroic cahracters and what they can do.

    Thanks for this Chris, i will be printing this article off and handing a copy to each of my players.

    Awesome article.



  14. Great post. I’d add a viewpoint that I think most players have been through the ‘save or die’ mechanic and ‘not being clever or careful enough’ of past D&D games to latch onto the timid, paranoid, hit-everything-with-a-10′-pole playstyle.

    I implore DMs out there. Let your players do cool stuff. Encourage them to be heroes. Sometimes there is a fine line between being heroic and reckless, but don’t grind them down in the dirt because they tried to have fun.
    .-= Geek Ken´s last blog ..Thoughts: Player’s Handbook 3 =-.


  15. Yeah i often give my characters quirks based on the situations of the world, my rogue recently had his world turned upside down by a demonic contract. So he’s collecting demon trophies to scare off his otherworldly debt collector.


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