Recently a gamer friend sent me a message asking for my perspective about a situation that unfolded at a game table where they were a player. In the situation, some players and the game master were directing a player on how to spend her turn. Shortly afterwards, an article began circulating on social media that covered an extreme case of the same topic, titled “Honey, Let the Real Gamers Play.” The confluence of these two events inspired me to share my perspective on what can generously be referred to as providing unsolicited advice but can be more directly referred to as taking away a player’s agency.
Note that this article is not about the intention of the people offering unsolicited advice. This is about catching people, including yourself, on the edge of overwhelming another players agency and how to move forward in game.
In the aforementioned article, the writer shares a situation in which the GM and other players take away the writer’s sense of control by taking her turns for her. In the ultimate denial of agency, she was not allowed to select her own actions or even roll dice to determine the outcome. In my friend’s situation, the game master and several players at the table “helped” the player (playing a caster with some healing capabilities) to choose how to play her character by collectively suggesting what action she take or what spell she cast. By the end of the game the player called out the other participants for effectively taking over her turns.
It sucks to be the player on the receiving end of unsolicited advice. It makes assumptions both about the character’s personality and the player’s ability to bring that character to life. Unsolicited advice tells a player in not so many words that their fellow players – often their friends – think they are better at playing the character than the player herself.
It can feel like bullying to be on the receiving end of even well-intentioned, excited, or enthusiastic suggestions. A player may feel like they are disappointing a friend or the team if they don’t use the idea, and that’s basically the best outcome. Bottom line: It is not fun.
Here’s one of the golden rules in role playing: Let the other players do their thing.
Transforming Unsolicited Advice into Help
Don’t get me wrong, cooperation is great – this is a team game after all. But that has to be a two way conversation. A person’s control over their character’s decisions is absolute – otherwise it’s not truly their character.
If a player is stumped and needs ideas or rules clarification I hope that player speaks up and asks for help. But silence doesn’t always mean someone needs or wants help. They may just be trying to decide their reaction to the prior player’s actions. That’s part of the collaborative nature of RPGs, the story evolves as we play – contemplation is part of responding effectively.
If a player seems to be floundering but remains silent, go ahead and ask, “Do you want a suggestion?” Full Stop. Wait for consent before offering advice, that’s the magic that transforms the unsolicited advice into help.
Why shouldn’t I freely voice my awesome ideas?
I’ve done this. I’ve got a big personality and when I have ideas bubble up I want to share them with the world. But when I realized how much I hate it when people tell me how to play my character, I started making a conscious effort to rein myself in. Part of being an all-star player is passing the spotlight to your fellow players and helping everyone to have fun.
Tables where everyone feels like their ideas are enthusiastically encouraged are where players thrive and surprise us with their ingenuity. It is the starting place for games that are pure magic. It would be absolutely boring to play an RPG with a table full of people who think exactly the same way as each other. No one would ever be able to surprise anyone. That’s the beauty of role playing, the story unfolds in unexpected ways for the players and facilitator alike.
How can I help tamp down on unsolicited advice at the game table?
As the player offering unsolicited advice:
- Always get permission from a player to give them advice before doing so. If they do not want your advice, do not voice it. Kick some ass on your turn.
- Charge yourself an in game resource to give advice. Spend your action role playing to persuade your counterpart to take an action. Spend a Benny or a Fate Chip to offer advice. In essence you are potentially getting a second turn, so yes it should cost you enough that you consider whether it’s worth doing.
As the Game Master at a table where unsolicited advice is flying:
- Take control of the situation and shut down people who are overwhelming another player. Part of the role of game facilitator is to create a space where everyone shares in having fun. If players don’t feel in control of their own character they are not going to have fun.
- Regardless of if the player takes the suggested action, charge the player(s) giving the unsolicited advice an in-game resource: an action, a Benny, an Advantage, or something else. Make the cost matter.
- Ask the player directly “What do you want to do?” Make eye contact and use other body language to make it clear you are giving the spotlight to the current player.
As the player on the receiving end of unsolicited and unwanted advice:
- If you are comfortable being assertive, tell the other player(s) “I’ve got this.”
- Ask if they are spending their action trying to persuade you in character.
- If not, tell them if they aren’t keeping it in game your character would have no idea what they want and move forward with your turn.
- If so, have them role play it. Accept the suggestion or not as best suits you and your character.
- Above all, remember: you are playing pretend. Your ideas are equally as right as anyone else’s, and you are always right when it comes to your own character. If anyone takes away your sense of agency in the game, don’t play with that person anymore.
Power dynamics come into play when offering advice. Before voicing advice, consider if the person you are advising may see themselves as having a different status within the gaming community. If so, you may unintentionally be creating a situation in which it is hard for them to say no.
- are a more vocal player
- are a more experienced player
- know other participants in the group better
- have a different gender identity, cultural heritage, age, etc.
- are a gaming celebrity, game master, game event staff, or otherwise well-known member of the gaming community
Then you may have a perceived higher status, and you should be especially careful about offering unsolicited advice. This is tough because it means flipping a switch in your own mind to try see how other people may view you as having higher status even when you like to think “I’m just a regular person.”
Whatever the situation may be: always assume the other person is equally as adept at playing pretend as you are and act accordingly.
As either a player or the game facilitator, make a conscious decision to support and encourage all of the players at your table. Challenge yourself to build off of other players’ ideas by employing the improvisational technique of “Yes, and…!” Your enthusiasm for what someone else brings to the table will help them to feel valued and your own role playing ability will grow.
Here’s my wish for everyone at the game table: assume you and all your companions have an equal level of creativity. Then together, play a game that surprises everyone.
Have you received unsolicited advice at the game table? How did you deal with it? As a game master how do you support and uplift the ideas of players who seem unsure or hesitant? What are some other ideas for how to rein yourself in or others who are offering unsolicited advice?