I don't get to play as much as I want, certainly not as a player (been a very long time since I had my own character in a D&D game), and so I take advantage of the recent increase of live-stream gaming channels to troll other groups as they play.
From the quality production of the Acquisitions Incorporated games hosted at PAX (see the link above) to the casual, anonymous group playing and streaming using Twitch, I manage to see a lot of different playing styles and skill levels on both ends of the DM screen.
(There is even a group composed of actual voice actors running on Geek and Sundry Twitch channel - and it is simply a joy to watch them go about it. Check it out here.)
One thing that pops out immediately is the totally different vibe between the high-end D&D "shows" and the other, neighborhood-friendly D&D gaming groups.
The average gaming group (among those who stream their session) is not different than the groups I had along the years: just a bunch of friends who meet to play a game they love. Some sessions are good, some fail to make an impression, a few fall flat, and fewer still are outstanding. Some players are tired, some lose interest during the session and drift off to play with their laptop or mobile, and some try to be the living spirit of the game, with the DM usually doing whatever possible to keep the game going.
The high-end D&D "shows" are something totally different. No yawning, unfocused players here. If a scene falls short, someone will step in to make it shine - even if its just about the characters interacting with a guard. Jokes are cracked, each player role-plays with mimicry, intonation and character background in mind. Characters talk between themselves, and the DM is ever-full of ideas, NPCs, interesting locations and great plot twists.
It's like the difference between a Burger King advertisement, and the real dish that lands on the table.
Sad, isn't it?
You want your session to be the best 4 hours of the day, right? I mean - we invest in it so much, even if its "just" time and nothing else, why not make sure this investment pays off big time? A lot of players come to the table expecting a good time - and a lot of DMs are laboring between sessions to make sure it happens - so why our sessions fall flat sometimes? Why don't they all look like those D&D shows, with everything going smoothly under the spotlight?
Some might say "that's life". We don't live in a movie, and so things around us don't arrange themselves to make every thing we do perfect. But I think we can at least try to arrange some thing that will probably improve our experience around the table:
- Don't come to a session if you're dead tired. Simply don't. If you're wasted, and all you can do is sit, stare at the wall and yawn, you'll bring everyone down with you. It's a death spiral. We all have busy lives, and we all come to the table after our day's work. If one is wasted and two are "just" tired, it means 3/5 of the group is simply out. Sessions don't take off this way. They stall, and only luck prevents them from crashing down.
- Your characters are the heroes of the campaign, act accordingly. Sessions take off when players are in-character, moving the story forward. It doesn't matter if the campaign is humanistic, goofy, or laden with dark fantasy and grim action. Stay in-character, look at your background and character sheet, decide how you want to play your turn, think: "is this going to make for an interesting scene that will move the story forward?" and if the answer is YES, go for it. If the answer is "I don't know", "No", "Just let me roll the dice" or "C'mon...", then you might not be helping the session take off. If you need, communicate with your DM before hand. Some DMs don't take cues. or hints When a player asks a DM "is there a chandelier on the ceiling?", he means that he wants to pull of some cool stunt. Some DMs aren't aware of this, and answer "No" instead of helping you create a cool scene. Talk to your DM, tell him you want to help making the game better, and if he's trustworthy (see below), things will improve fast.
- Describe, Describe, Describe, Describe. Even if its a simple one liner. Even if its a regular scene you've played a hundred times, even if no one around you does it. It doesn't have to be first person. Say something like "My fighter enters the inn and looks at each of the patrons before choosing a private corner far from the fireplace", enough to get those imaginative juices flowing. I was once part of a group of 5 players, with 3 of them avoiding any descriptions of their characters whatsoever. "I attack" and "I'm down to 12 HP, I need healing" was all you heard from them. On the other end, I have players who role-play their character being wounded. ("The giant swats you for 23hp", "Damn! my fighter reels, shaking his head, wiping blood from his nose and shouting the name of the cleric!"). D&D is a game based on imagination. With out avid descriptions, we're not getting that feel of the scene that will make it memorable and vivid. The DM is describing as part of his job description, but help from the players will be most welcome.
- Trust your DM (unless you can't trust him). No one is perfect, and DMs are as diverse as players with regards to gaming styles, preferences and tendencies. But if your DM is trying his best to make everybody happy around the table, then support him, and trust him. Such a DM won't kill your character to punish you for something. If you blunder horribly, that DM might severely hit the party, but he won't make it a point to kill your characters for good (but if you press it, a TPK is a real consequence). If you say "My fighter challenge the merchant to a crossbow shooting contest, with 20 gold on the table" in order to get a discount in a cool way, such a DM won't make the merchant a retired level 18 ranger all of a sudden (he might make it a retired low level adventurer to make things fun, but that's it). A DM you can trust works with you, not for you, or against you. If you feel "cheated out of fun" then talk with your DM. A trustworthy DM will discuss it with you, and something will change (either on his side or on yours). If you don't think your DM is trustworthy (namely, it's his way or the highway), take the highway. Truest me (pun intended) - you're better off that way.
- Positive Feedback goes a long way. And I mean it in a PvP way. I was once an unexperienced player in a very experienced group, and I chose to play a "Raistlin" like wizard. One of the players was nasty about it, but the other two players hushed him, and at the first roleplaying scene I did (speaking in a low voice, saying enigmatic things, you know, Raistlin) - they had big, appreciative smiles on their faces. I sucked - but they realized I was in the right mindset, and it was more important than my selection of character theme. They gave me a mental "thumbs up", and the game just got better (and I got better) from session to session. Saying "good one" or "nicely done" to a player after a good swing, or role-playing scene can go a long way. For the same reasons, saying a nasty thing to a player and excusing it with "it's what my character would say" is bullshit and should be avoided. Help the other players shine by providing positive feedback to enhance good behaviors. Just like with kids. And like with kids, the only time you need to step in and stop what's happening is when they're about to get hurt, or hurt someone else.
So here you go. My 2-cents about how to make your next session memorable and exciting, as all D&D sessions ought to be!