This is very rough and very dashed off, but it reflects what I’ve learned over 30+ years of roleplaying, much – even most – of that time as the Games Master. You can think of the game table like a rollercoaster, the sensation and feeling of being in peril, while you’re actually almost perfectly safe. The idea that anyone can be harmed at the table, without stepping on a D4, is frankly silly. I wanted to write something positive though, something that shares responsibility and describes something much more like what the unspoken social contract around a good table really is.
As a player, it’s your responsibility to contribute to the overall health of the game. A game is always a compromise between the players and the Game Master and that requires give and take. You may encounter things that make you uncomfortable in play or concepts and ideas that – in your real life – you find offensive or stupid. Remember, these things are not real and only exist in the game space, they present opportunities for you to challenge and encounter these things safely. You can’t get hurt at the table. The gaming community has always been welcoming to minority and marginalised members, its success in this regard is largely down to caring more about each other as gamers, rather than a skin colour, a gender or a sexuality and (most) politics should be left away from the table to foster this spirit. You have ultimate control over what character you play, subject to the Game Master’s approval, but you should try to pick something that fits the setting and fulfils a role within the group. Advanced players can also experiment with playing villains or characters with belief systems wildly at odds with their own, it’s important to remember that the player and the character are two different things and that playing a villain or a bigot doesn’t mean that the player is one.
Respect the other players, and the Games Master, by not interrupting play when you do have issues or concerns, but raising them after the game or before the next game. Ultimately if the game or the table isn’t right for you, but is for everyone else, you’re the problem and you should remove yourself from that game and find one that better suits your needs. Gaming should be fun for everyone, but different people find different things fun! Some people like political machinations and lots of in-character conversation, some people like playing villains, some people enjoy a game inspired by real-world politics as catharsis. This is all valid, but concepts of fun differ and not every game needs to suit every player!
As a Game Master, you have a lot of responsibility and a lot of power over the game. The buck stops with you! At the same time, you are also a player and it’s important that you have as much fun (whatever you consider ‘fun’ to be’ as any other player. The role of Game Master takes more work, more commitment and even more money if you want all the latest material and sourcebooks for the game and as such your needs should – rightly – take priority. Don’t let players dictate your own game to you. This doesn’t mean that you should be arrogant or dictatorial, every game is a negotiation between all of the players (including you), just that in the end, without you, there’s no game.
Sometimes things in a game might make a player uncomfortable. Sometimes they’re supposed to. If you are playing a horror-oriented game then, ideally, you want the players to be horrified. Just as in other forms of fiction and games there are different genres that appeal to different people’s idea of fun, so it can be with roleplaying games. Players should know beforehand what they’re letting themselves in for, and you should make them aware – without being so explicit as to be spoilers. If the theme of your games is fine for most people at the table, but one person can’t grin and bear it until the game changes tone (or you play a different one) then it’s their responsibility to moderate their experience and to remove themselves from the game if they really don’t like it. That’s a polite and sensible thing to do and they shouldn’t be mocked for it, they’re allowing you your space to enjoy the game in a way you like, and you can always return the favour later.
The role of Game Master comes with the responsibility of ensuring that none of your players violates the game’s social contract, especially when playing in a public space. Be on the lookout for behaviour that’s inappropriate, whether intentional or inadvertent and pay careful attention to players’ body language during gameplay. If you notice a player becoming uncomfortable, you are empowered to pause the game, take it in a new direction, privately check in with your players during or after the session, or take any other action you think is appropriate to move the game toward a fun experience for everyone. That said, you should never let players who are uncomfortable with different identities or experiences derail your game. People of all identities and experiences have a right to be represented in the game, even if they’re not necessarily playing at your table.
Not every game has to be fun for every player, or even for you. What’s important is that over the course of a campaign of many individual games, everyone gets something that they can enjoy and that scratches their ‘itch’ of fun. One of the more advanced and sought-after goals in roleplaying is ‘immersion’, those moments where you almost become your character, acting through them in a believable and reactive world. That can come with hard choices, discomfort and even losses. Losing isn’t fun, but without losing from time to time, without being uncomfortable some of the time, winning just doesn’t feel so good. Great games have emotional moments, triumphs and losses. They’re about more than just ‘fun’, and that’s something to aspire to!
Presenting a believable, meaningful world and helping your players create engaging and captivating stories, helping them get to that sense of immersion is the Game Master’s ultimate prize.