I was recently invited to sit in and play at a friend's long-running Pathfinder game. Everyone just made it to 14th level, without milestones, so they've been playing for awhile.
A well-established group who have spent enough time through some amazing adventures to achieve a high-level sense of play and a complete lack of resistance for the DM in charge. It's clear the group and their DM have a lot of love for the game, their story, and the individual players and characters.
They ran like a well-oiled machine, with clearly defined roles for the players to help each other out as well as a strong idea of their functionality in combat, AS WELL as a justified means to protect each other and trust each other's abilities and agency when stuff gets real. Remember what I said about that lack of resistance...we'll be swinging back to that.
So I'm coming into this after a long stint of running Pathfinder, then falling headfirst into becoming a professional GM for a company who has helped foster the creative, and soul-driving endeavor of offering unique opportunities for players and game masters to become their best selves through tabletop gaming experiences. I write this blog, publish fiction, make custom content, and record show after show of an online campaign and a kick-ass podcast. NONE OF THIS is to pat myself on the back, but to illustrate that, more often than not, I'm not the player at the table - I'm the one behind the screen managing this chaos.
Which means on those rare occasions where I'm offered an opportunity NOT to do that, I tend to take distinct care to create something functional, fitting, and, for the love of Sauron, to KNOW WHAT I'M DOING. I have a certain calm to my preparation nowadays, and in Pathfinder you've got to know (or at least have the reference ready) what your stuff does to keep things moving and ask the right questions to clarify. I had the honor of working with the DM beforehand, hashing out a backstory that fits inside the awesome steampunk 1840's Yukon Gold Rush with subtle magic elements and a weird freaking train, then set to work chaining feats and working the numbers to stay competitive with this established crew. Not everyone knew I'd be coming, so I didn't want to bog anything down, nor arrive with no concept of my character (NEVER ARRIVE without your character already done. I mean it. If you are familiar with the system, there is no excuse. Do your damn homework).
So, life runs a little later than intended and I roll in a bit late with food and drinks as penance, say my hellos and mark my place. I like to be compact; character sheet and all accompanying abilities/spells/etc on a clipboard, selected dice in my rolling box, pencils at the ready, and spare paper in the clipboard. I even came with a coaster for my caffeine, just in case! The session begins shortly, and the team as is has some planning to do, so while they converse in character directly next to me, I turn toward our DM and we work through some short interactions to set up my individual plan and then... I wait.
And I loved it. True, every now and then there might have been a quick interaction where I could investigate something, look around, listen (I was being smuggled in a coffin surrounded by a den of vampires, by the way), but until actual combat began - I needed to literally wait. It was splendid.
I got to watch these people work. The few I knew in the party came over to check on me, apologizing that it was "taking so long," but if it was, I didn't notice. It was an honor just to watch, adding to the scene with my silence, with subtle actions here and there. No one knew what I was; I didn't announce any of my character or my mechanics when I arrived - they weren't sure if I'd be friend, foe, or something more, only that I was playing...at some point. And no one asked; not out of ignorance, or dismissal, but out of respect. I'd like to believe that they, too, understood what I was reveling in.
I was enjoying the subtle power of Silence.
Space To Listen - Space To Exist
Actively listening to the players, the party, and the game master.
This is a skill, and often I feel we forget it. We replace it with a need to be heard constantly, eager to be listened to rather than to allow others a similar space. By literally shutting our mouths and opening our ears, we begin to engage with the world around us in new and dynamic ways. I was ENTHRALLED by the antics of this party, and though I think that was in no small part due to their own nature, I'd like to entertain that my own active listening helped just a tad in holding my attention. I was consistently fully engaged in everything that WASN'T my turn, and I was remarkably happy to, well, WAIT.
Space where I wasn't flapping my jaws also allowed my active brain to shut up for a second, and just exist for a time. Errant thoughts - like looking up a feat, making sure that random mechanic worked the way I thought it did, checking my numbers quickly - can still occur, and I can quietly take care of them without interrupting flow (what a concept), but for most of that preamble, I am 100% engaged with everyone's story that IS NOT MY OWN. I am excited and energized by their cool powers, interesting ideas, and role-playing. It gave me a moment to read the room, and to appreciate the beautiful world that the DM had made with these players - take note of the great care with which they've crafted this experience, and sit in awe of seeing it all work, like controlled chaos.
Space To Reveal - At The Opportune Moment
Wait for your mechanics to shine before they are revealed.
This one I have to be careful with, because rules are important. The GM needs to know that you are not taking advantage of something/cheating/fudging your numbers/etc; trust is important, so the GM needs to know what you are and what you can do, and you MUST make sure that everything you can do is well within the rules you are operating with.
IF you are fulfilling this already, here's a suggestion: try NOT telling everyone about what your character can do right away. Create nuance and mystery by NOT showing them your character sheet right away, so when you get an opportunity to show what you CAN do, the beat hits harder. Case in point:
Combat begins shortly after I hop out of a coffin and dust a vampire, catching the sniper rifle it was holding and loading it as a Free Action (hint, hint). We roll Initiative. The highest player is at 24...except me. I rolled a 33. 19+14. ...I will revel the look of awe at that table, just in a small way. Mechanically, it's all kosher. Dexterity is a 22 (+6). Inquisitor gives me my Wisdom modifier on top of Dex (another +5) for Initiative, Gunslinger Initiative +2 (HINT), and a trait at character creation that grants a +1 (6+5+2+1 = +14).
That's one small element, and a neat little moment. My turn rolls around, and I use Deadly Aim to take a full round of 4 shots (reloading for free), with a prayer of Judgment (attacks are now magical) with +16 damage on every hit, and +22 to hit most shots - to strike down a vampire that just got slammed by the barbarian in a surprise round for nearly 160 damage...which was heavily reduced by resistances...then he got my blessed bullets and took full damage.
Yeah. I'm a holy Gunslinger Inquisitor with a southern drawl and fantasy-themed bible verses. Take into account that I still work all of my mechanics in my own voice, that's a fun reveal in the first round of combat, and it helped establish my own schtick early on. Plus, EVERYONE at the table is now experiencing this character at the same time as their own characters - I didn't talk up his personality or his voice or his abilities beforehand. Add on that I spent some Grit (special skill points that create cool trick shots and targeting) to alter the battlefield and provide utility to the group, and it's pretty cool.
The best part? They haven't seen everything I can do yet. And they won't, unless the opportunity presents itself. There's no reason for me to brag about the cool things I can do. It's so much more fun to use them when the time is right.
There's a big difference between telling everyone all the cool spells you can do, and SHOWING everyone the awesome spells you can do at the best time. The impact of the latter is so much greater, and it creates something beautiful and refined from a cooperative story experience. Try it out, I dare you.
Giving Way - To Think, To Breathe, To Be
While I was in Bermuda, my friend Jesse and I went wandering. We witnessed a curious thing: they have a specific sign on the roads. A familiar white, upside-down triangle with a red border and black lettering. What we would immediately recognize as a Yield sign, instead read the words: "Give Way." Together, we were pleased to see this. Jesse was pleased because it changed the language to allow people to think of someone other than themselves while driving, but bringing the fact home, my podcast partner in crime, John, swung it a bit further. When you Give Way to someone, you're not actually giving up anything. Instead, you are "Gifting" space for another.
When we practice silence, we gift space to another to fill, or we can choose to not fill such space. Quiet moments do not HAVE to be filled with noise, or speech, or music. I like to think sometimes that in gifting my silence to another, I might have given them a sense of peace and quiet in a world inundated by distraction and stimulus; so loud and uncaring that we feel we must speak constantly lest we be drowned out by the void. But you don't have to. I give you space. Try filling it with BREATH instead of words; you'll be surprised what you discover.
You ever feel like you're the only one speaking? Try stopping for a moment and assessing the room. Spotlight is important, sure, but high-level play comes from everyone's willingness to share that spotlight. Being aware of our personal time, our character's spotlight, how much time that uses, how our role-play may miscommunicate because we're bored, and thousands of other miscommunications because we don't feel like becoming engaged in the stories of others. A party that hasn't already experienced a lot of adventuring together (like, years of it) can feel pretty delicate.
Our silence, coupled with active listening, can help communicate an absolute respect for a person's story, but this is a two-way road. Kind and patient people can use up that empathy on a person that fails to notice their own spotlight hogging over and over again. Try this little thought experiment: on a group chat, if the majority of the last 10 minutes of posts is you...STOP. Give someone else some space to speak. At a table, if the last 45 minutes have been your character's scene, try to find a way to wrap it up. Once in a while is fine - but all the time is obnoxious. That's tabletop 101, gents.
The Well-Oiled Machine
This group flows.
Not one moment came up where the DM had to hush the players, or argue a point, or fight to get something across. Everyone at the table was absolutely engaged with the stories of each other, mine included (thanks, guys and gals). We got up, wandered the room, had in-character conversations throughout the house, all within the world, and the DM was aware of all of it. It is abundantly clear the level of play that this group enjoys; they adore the world that has been constructed for them, and it is a joy to play within it. They respect each other's time with immaculate care and fun, and we were happy to play until the wee hours of the morning (I barely noticed).
Now, part of this is a product of the extensive amount of work that each of them has put into their character's mechanics, and for the fact that they've got a literal human encyclopedia at the ready in the form of the host (thanks, buddy), but those are the roles they've established over years of play, and they are clearly dedicated to this cooperative campfire story. Even if I didn't have years of experience in Pathfinder, as long as I didn't behave like an obnoxious jerk, I'm certain I still would have had a blast with these people.
If I ever get invited back, it would still be my honor to wait quietly for my turn. ;)
See you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, amateur bartender, and aspiring fiction author.
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