The golden rule: Have fun
The golden rule for
tabletop RPGs: Have fun
We all play pen & paper roleplaying games for fun. Some groups enjoy tactical combat, while others prefer personal drama and storytelling. But it is always about experiencing an entertaining gaming session together with friends. That’s why the Golden Rule for playing roleplaying games is: Have fun.
It seems like a straightforward principle. But some GMs suffer from a burn-out, or some players get into an argument over different play styles. So, what constitutes fun for a roleplaying session? Let’s take a look at this topic from both the players’ and the GM’s perspective.
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Time to read: 9 min
WhEre’s the fun IN tabletop
RPG games for the players?
In a roleplaying game, most players enjoy facing challenges and overcoming them together as a team. For this there are three major influence factors: the level of difficulty, the personal motivation of the player character, and the consequences on the story setting.
A. Difficulty level
The tougher the foe your players need to defeat or the conflict they need to solve, the more meaningful it feels for them to achieve success. A challenge that is too easy feels insignificant. One that is too hard is frustrating. When in doubt about the difficulty level of a situation, try leaning toward the easier end. If the flow of a story comes to a halt because you give your players a nut that’s too hard to crack (e.g. a riddle that’s too difficult, or a missing piece of evidence), this can be a real show-stopper. Always keep the flow of your game running.
B. Personal motivation
As a GM, you should always link your stories with the backstories of your players’ characters. In case your story is about saving a kidnapped person, try to connect this person to the player characters (e.g. a relative, a dear friend) instead of using an unrelated NPC. This will raise the stakes for your players and will emotionally bind them to your story, as the outcome will have an impact on their player characters.
C. Impact of player actions on your story
Your players’ actions should result in visible consequences for your setting. They are supposed to hunt down a marauding monster? Then tell them about the village the beast has destroyed after they failed in their quest. Or ensure the villagers celebrate them as heroes after they defeat the monster. Show them that their actions are meaningful and that they are changing the course of your story.
Signs that your players
are not satisfied
This can happen to every tabletop gaming group: A game night that’s not as fun as it used to be. The session feels kind of tedious, the players are not in the mood for adventures and character play. There are several signals showing that your session is not as fun as it used to be. It’s important to see these signs in time to prevent the group from splitting up. Let’s go through the most common issues that can ruin the gaming experience.
1. The players are too passive
Are your players very passive and not actively participating in the story? Are they not going for your carefully laid-out plot hooks? Maybe they lack in-game motivation for why their characters should get involved with your story. The best way to solve this is to link their backstories with your plot. Instead of fighting a band of highwaymen for the king, have the highwaymen kidnap the wife or son of one of the play characters. This should get them going.
Or perhaps your players just don’t like the storyline you’ve prepared. You’ve planned several hours of investigative scenes, but your players are struggling to find the clues? Maybe throw in a thrilling chase to get them excited. Your villain could send out his henchmen to steal that important piece of evidence right in front of your players’ noses…
2. The players are struggling
to find the clues
“How in the world could someone miss this obvious clue?” some GMs might have thought after a game. There will always be situations in which the players won’t find the one essential clue to progress the story. If so, then do not let them struggle for too long. Everyone’s spare time is just too valuable for this. And it’s really annoying trying to solve a riddle or question for more than 30 minutes of playtime. Such standstills will kill the flow of the entire game session. Always keep the story running, even if this means helping your players out a bit.
If your subtle in-game cues won’t do, then don’t be afraid to give them a straightforward hint like, “You have not asked the innkeeper yet, have you?” The flow of your story must not come to a halt. Just make sure your players are the ones to eventually solve the vital clue and not one of your NPCs. Because it’s about them being in the spotlight.
3. Played in a single campaign
or setting for too long
Having a long campaign with a steady group of players might sound tempting. Epic plots, developing the characters over a long time, etc. But surprisingly few campaigns manage to maintain tension for more than 3-4 gaming sessions. The setting wears off quickly, or the plot is artificially extended by pointless or boring parts. Everybody who has played the Cthulhu campaign “At the Mountains of Madness” knows what I’m talking about (a full gaming session for travel preparations? Not sure about that).
So how can we improve a seemingly boring campaign plot? There are two ways to do this: (A) Shorten the plot, or – if you’re already in the middle of the campaign – (B) stop playing the campaign and start a new game. For most people out there, spare time is just too precious to spend on boring gaming sessions. So you should always be very critical when checking campaign plots for their long-term viability. Recklessly cut out all boring parts. Shorten journeys, throw away gap-fillers. And if this won’t help to improve the plot, you’d better play a different game.
Where’s the fun for the game masters?
What’s fun for a GM differs a lot from what the players enjoy. First and foremost, it’s the positive feedback from the players during and after the gaming session that’s fun. Seeing the excitement on your players’ faces (or dread in horror settings) is a huge reward for the GM’s efforts. This is the main reason why gamemasters spend hours preparing their game sessions. So please do praise your GMs once in a while to keep them entertaining you with their stories 🙂
Another lesser-known source of joy for GMs is being able to express oneself creatively during game preparation. Writing the story, anticipating the players’ actions, designing handouts and props, choosing the background music – this all adds up to an entertaining creative experience. It also increases the GM’s anticipation for the actual gaming session, at which the GM can then present his Opus Magnum to his players. “For the GM, the gaming experience happens during session preparation,” says Daniel from the System Matters RPG podcast. This pretty much nails it.
When GMs are having a hard time
Whenever session preparation or writing a story feels more like work than fun, you should probably change something. Otherwise, you might experience GM burnout and won’t feel like playing tabletop RPGs for quite a while. Sometimes taking a break from roleplaying games for a few weeks will do the trick. For this, have someone else GM several sessions for you. It can also help to play with a completely different group of people. This change of perspective lets you experience how other people play roleplaying games.
When playing with different people, you’ll probably start thinking about your next GM session. And once you got the feeling of “I would do this differently, if I were the GM,” you’re ready to play again.
It also helps to talk shop and exchange ideas with roleplaying gamers outside of your regular group. Conventions are a great space to do so, as they are a great opportunity to meet new people in the TTRPG community. Or try to listen to RPG-specific podcasts. This will get you a new perspective on your hobby and often comes with enough stimulus and inspiration to sit down and start writing your next adventure.
Get feedback from your
players and other GMs
Your group is not enjoying your game sessions anymore, but you just can’t tell why. In any case, the other players in your group should be the first ones you ask. Ask them why it’s not as fun as it used to be. Maybe they have some ideas for improving your games.
I also recommend asking other GMs for advice. They will certainly share some funny or bad experiences they’ve had in their RPG past. Forums can also help in your search for new ideas or inspiration. The RPG community might be small, but its members are very active and ready to support each other. For example, there are always new threads on RPG.net and other forums, and there is a great number of active contributors to take care of your questions.
If a single player is the issue
The most critical and most debated problem is single players who place their own entertainment above the whole group’s fun. I’m talking about somebody who is always radiating a bad mood, always showing up late for a session,or who always takes the spotlight for themselves without considering the other players. This is a so-called problematic player.
The only thing that helps here is taking this person aside and addressing the issue directly. What really complicates things is if friendship is involved. In this case, such a problem quickly escalates from criticizing a certain behavior at the gaming table to questioning interpersonal relationships. Still, the best solution lies in a thorough discussion.
For more details check out our article on “How to handle toxic players.”
Summary: It’s just a game, so relax
Sure, we’re all investing a lot of time and effort into our beloved tabletop roleplaying games. But at the end of the day, it’s still just a game. A hobby to share with friends and to have a good time with. Most problems can be solved with some common sense and by showing consideration toward the other players at the table. And if there is an issue, try to address it respectfully with the other players. In the end, we’re all just trying to have fun.