October 13, 2020

How to Play a Story: A Simple Step-By-Step Overview In Making Choices For New Players

When I’m out and about in my normal day-to-day life – and somehow the subject turns to StoryTogether or tabletop RPGs in general – for most folks, the natural first question is “how do I play a story?”

So today’s Newbie Tuesday post is geared toward all of you who are curious about what this whole ‘playing a story’ thing is all all about!

The Foundation

At their core, tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs) are about making choices. As in life, some are easy and some quite difficult. But all of these decisions come with consequences, good, bad, or otherwise. Naturally, it’s important for new players to understand the order of operations in making that choice. That way, you’ll feel much more comfortable living in the moment and can focus on truly enjoying the story.

Making Choices – A Step-By-Step:

  1. Choices Are Prompted By The GM/DM (the story facilitator)
  2. You May Ask Clarifying Questions
  3. You Have A Reasonable Time to Consider Your Options
  4. You Choose!

Decisions Are Prompted By The GM

The GM (Game Master) or DM (Dungeon Master) is the story facilitator. It’s ultimately their responsibility to conduct the story’s proceedings – and provide a common story world for you and your fellow players. They routinely narrate the story’s events and establish its context at any given time.

Take, for example, some popular stories you and your friends/family might play: the fellowship of the ring at the Council of Elrond as Frodo accepts the ring as his burden. Or perhaps Obi-Wan, Luke, Han, Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 as the Millennium Falcon is being tractor-beamed into the Death Star. As a player in those stories, you can picture yourself as your character in those various moments. You’re in essence living within the context/narration the GM/DM is describing.

At various points in that narration, there will be spaces for you and your fellow players to make choices on your characters’ behalves. Crucially important for news players is that you should never have to worry about making a decision without a prompt from the GM/DM. Oftentimes, they’ll say something like “What do you do?” or perhaps something more specific to the situation at-hand like “What do you say?” or “Where do you go?”

Using that famous Star Wars scene as an example, let’s say the GM/DM tells your group that the Millennium Falcon has landed in the Death Star’s hangar bay and that stormtroopers are preparing to board & search the ship. They then look to you all, the players, and naturally ask “what do you do?” The onus is then on you to make a choice: what will your character do in this situation? Cleverly hide in the ship’s hold? Run outside guns-a-blazing? The options are limitless.

So while it’s your responsibility as the player though to follow the narration – and be ready for these prompts from the GM – you should always be given the courtesy of knowing when it’s time to make a decision. New players especially should know you always have that step to fall back on if you find yourselves lost or confused about what to do next!

You May Ask Clarifying Questions

When the GM prompts a decision such as “What do you do?” “What do you say?” or “Where do you go?”, you may ask reasonable clarifying questions. If the GM asks “Where do you go?” you could ask “Where is the nearest city?” or perhaps “Which path is the most well lit?” prior to making your choice. Whatever you need to appropriately set the stage to make your choice.

That interchange between player and GM prior to making a decision is oftentimes some of the most critical part of making the right choice – you’re gaining the information you need in order to make an informed decision. Just because you’ve been following the lead-up narration, doesn’t mean that you’re not allowed to clarify the context. It’s important to fill in those crucial missing details!

So as a new player, don’t feel like you have to answer the GM’s prompt right then and there. Ask a few reasonable questions to better get your bearings before making your choice.

You Have A Reasonable Time to Consider Your Options

Unless for story reasons the GM/DM imposes a strict timer on your decision-making, know that you have a reasonable amount of time to consider your options. The most compelling prompts don’t have obvious black and white consequences. There is a degree of nuance the player will need to sift through in order to make their choice. And in played stories, that process can be some of the most fun!

Net-net, new players should understand that unreasonably rushing this process takes away from the story and from the experience. Give yourself some breathing room and have fun with the process. Don’t sweat it!