A Little Info Up Front
With the new semester just around the corner, we've got more players interested than ever before, and a few spots here and there available for folks to come play with us.
However, many of the parties with openings have been adventuring with each other some time, a few nearly two years. They've built strong bonds with one another, some fighting literal gods together... So how does one join into that kind of dynamic? Well, in short, slowly. But here's some more detail!
1. Read the Room
I put this one first because it is the most important life skill I have ever picked up in my years of teaching, performing, and just plain existing among other people.
Each of us possesses an ability to "read the room;" to gauge how others react to our presence early on in an interaction, the things we say and how we say them, and feed ourselves information on how to react in a way that isn't obtrusive to the other. It arrives in the form of that feeling at the base of your neck when you realize "I said something wrong" or "That joke didn't hit the way I wanted it to." This amazing superpower is frustrating, because it relies on immediate hindsight, but one can also address it immediately in public and help assure the others that nothing ill was intended. "That sounded better in my own head, sorry" or "That joke didn't land well, did it?" The trick is listening and learning to how the room reacts to your speech, mannerisms, and characterization and make slight adjustments as you go to keep everybody in a good place.
Unfortunately, there are many role-players so obsessed up front with the idea of their character and how they feel they want to express themselves that they end up ignoring the remaining people in the room, and their level of comfort, which can quickly lead to even the best people feeling frustrated with the "new guy."
So, when joining an established adventuring party (or work group, study group, livestream, podcast, social brunch, or any new social group), try this: imagine your character (you) at their highest level of expression...then scale it back to half power. I don't say this to CRUSH YOUR CREATIVITY and single you out; I say this to allow space for the others to allow YOU to grow a part of THEIR party. Because let's face it, you're the "new guy." A strong adventuring group is a delicate thing; too many are broken by internal strife, misunderstanding, destruction of boundaries, and feelings of isolation - so allow yourself and the others in the room time to get to know you, instead of explaining your entire backstory the moment they meet you. ;)
2. Find Your Niche
Established parties have established skill sets for each member. When things get nasty (combat or not), everybody knows what their job is and how to support each other. You've got to find where you can fit. Often, with a group that's been together a while, there isn't necessarily a gaping hole for you to fill - they've gotten this far without you, you know. So you need to find how you can augment their current establishment; do things that others struggle with, bringing something new to the table.
3. Take Your Space, But Respect Theirs
They won't trust you right away. To let you in, I mean really let you in, is a huge rarity first thing. You're going to have to earn your place, and respect their distance. This means not being offended if they're unsure how to work with you in the beginning. A new person is ALWAYS jarring.
If they cross a line with you, let them know, so you can establish boundaries, BUT if you do this, you MUST respect theirs in turn. If it's not okay for someone to reach out and pat your head, maybe you shouldn't poke the Rogue with a mage hand the first time you meet him...
Again, this is interaction with an already established group. They've wrecked bandits together, bonded over the corpse of a spider lich, done tavern crawls, and survived many a bar fight. They're friends, in some cases, even considered family. Being new is difficult. Be patient. Respecting boundaries goes a long way toward building trust early (in fantasy and out).
And often, establishing that level of mutual player respect, will speed up that whole trust thing exponentially.
4. Slowly Blossom
It's easy to get excited, you're playing an awesome game with awesome people... But take a deep breath. Feed them your personal story in small snippets; if they ask for more, reveal only what is comfortable. You don't have to fish through your bag for your handwritten backstory and then slam poem it to all of us - you can keep it vague.
This also allows you to edit your character as you go. You don't have to feel pressured about all of the intricate details in your backstory making perfect sense right away; it's YOUR character, you can make changes to the things no one knows yet, and that is extremely powerful to your own agency. You choose what to reveal and when; mystery can go a long way in building a bond based on what you can DO first, rather than focusing on where you came from.
Much like #2, you can find stronger connections to the party by finding (and editing) how your story intertwines with their values, desires, and skeletons.
5. Challenge Yourself - Create Agency - Reflect
Maybe you've never played before, and this is your first experience with a tabletop RPG; maybe you played a long time ago and want to see how the new edition of the game functions; maybe you've come from eons of playing the best games in the universe and you want to see how we lowly mortals function; maybe you're coming from a bad experience and are just trying to find your place.
Breathe. Just take a deep breath. Then take another one, and remember that no entity in the universe begins perfect.
GMs have a difficult job. They need to balance conflict with success, and provide contextual hooks for the players to help drive a narrative without railroading them. In other words, give the players agency of choice while also telling a story.
If you take damage, heal. If you get cursed, find a cure. Random demon possession? Something to overcome - maybe even an awesome side quest toward redemption where you discover the mystery of your bloodline. Not sure what to do? Improvise! Still not sure what to do? Engage your AGENCY.
Make a goal, and pursue it. And share this goal with the GM so they can find better ways to support your personal development as a player and a character. And, as the group gets to know you, they'll understand your goal(s) as well; able to back you up, as you have backed them up I'm sure.
Conflicts that arise in the game's world are opportunities for you, and your character, to persevere and grow - not personal attacks for you to complain about. Challenges to overcome, and stepping stones toward that goal. Reflect on what these steps mean to your character, and to you, the player. Doing this puts everything else into perspective and helps remind us that not everything can go our way every time. Sometimes settings are not kind places, and we must rise to the challenge, rather than complain of our hand dealt.
In closing, you can learn a lot by scaling back at the onset. It keeps you from looking as if you're trying to derail or "steal" their thunder, while allowing you time to read the room, find your niche, take your space, and align a goal on your own.
A good party is a delicate thing, and people can be very protective of it. Please remember and respect that perspective if you're jumping into a group that's been together for awhile. If you grant them that respect at the beginning, you WILL grow into the group easily and quickly.
BUT...if you don't grant them that space, there can be hurdles to overcome later; boundaries that have already been crossed, messages already sent. Not impossible to overcome, of course, especially with good people, but it will take longer to find one's place.
Hopefully that didn't meander too much. Here at QW we always try to foster positive gaming experiences with a high measure of patience, understanding, and teaching; none of us are ever perfect, so benefit of the doubt is great. But at other social game scenarios, new players may not be given that breadth of allowance.
Looking forward to the new faces already at the door.
I'll see you at the table.
Professional Game Master musician, music teacher, game designer, and aspiring fiction author.