ROLEPLAYING IN ANOTHER
DM'S OR GM'S WORLD
Reality can be a confusing thing, but game reality can be even more confusing. Naturally one would expect huge differences from one game system to the next, or from differing genres in general, but the differences between games within the same genre while using the same system can be quite large as well. This even assumes all dungeon masters or game masters use the same standard rules without modifications. Even when following exactly the same rules, different DM's interpretations can vary widely. Alas, we needn't worry about them following identical rules so much since, more often than not, it has been my experience that every DM uses at least slightly different rules to accommodate their own world anyway. Whether it be a slightly different combat system, different rulings based on different understandings of why the book does certain things, or basing things on his own innate sense of reality when it deviates from the written word, there can be a remarkably wide range of possibilities. Thus, the differences between any two given dungeon masters can be extraordinary even though both may be playing the same game.
How, then, does a wondering player fit in? At first glance it may seem impossible to know what the rules are in another DM's game when they differ from your former DM's game. And without knowing the rules, you'll never know where your character stands and you'll be unable to cope with the new reality. Right? It seems right, doesn't it? And yet, I think a little reflection upon our own world reality (that which we call real life) will bring us to the conclusion that we don't have all that firm a grasp on the rules of this world (earth). I'm not suggesting we're clueless, you understand, but that we don't have tables and graphs broken down for us in such a way that we can mini max through life. Real life is mostly played by trial and error, and so too, I believe, most roleplaying games should also be played.
NOTE: Mini maxing is a term used to describe how one may put in minimum effort to achieve maximum results. This can be accomplished by carefully examining tables and charts and various rules and basing all your character's decisions almost solely upon what will give them the largest advantages. For example, you may have your character become an elf because its 18 dexterity will become 19 with that race (and not because you had an interest in playing an elf), or the character may use a long sword rather than a scimitar because a long sword does more damage against large creatures (according to some weapon table in the PHB or something). The point is, your character is making decisions based upon rules (sometimes quite arbitrary rules) in a book they do not even have access to, coming immediately to the conclusion of which rules they may use and exploit without the benefit of their character having to roleplay any trial or error within the game world to reach these conclusions. This is not a horrible thing to do, you understand, but it is not the height of good roleplaying either. And though everyone may do this to a certain extent, when one learns the game rules so well and bases a fantastic number of their character's decisions upon rules the characters themselves should not really know, it starts to be at odds with "In Game Reality" and such a player may easily be described as a mini-maxer.
Trial and error, feeling our way into the unknown, back stepping when we make serious mistakes (for we can do such things in a game after all), or dealing with the consequences of our little mistakes while playing the role of our character, this is how we do it; this is how we play the game.
But most of our characters grew up in our new DM's world and had the benefit of a lifetime (albeit usually a young life so far) of hearing about and seeing the DM's world, the society they grew up in, and the local color that enriched their lives. Doing this would give them fears and joys, concerns and desires, and wants and ambitions that reflect this upbringing. It is a strange thing, but it is true. To grow up in a family within a small village in a particular country sort of naturally makes one inclined to care a great deal about that family, that village, or that country, and the character easily envisions their entire life in terms of that setting with those people. But the players of these characters do not have this advantage, this cultural mind set from which to spring. Maybe the player can do a reasonable approximation if they grew up in a similar family, village, or country, but I think you will agree this is hardly ever the case when playing in a magical fantasy (at least I hope you are nodding your head).
Of course, if your character comes ready made with experiences from another world (and another DM), they may be clueless about this new world after all and maybe should act a bit like a fish out of water, feeling their way through society with trial and error. Mind you, they needn't be penalized when the DM uses different game rules, so they should garner some game rule wisdom from talking to their new DM first wherever possible, but as far as society is concerned, it may be best they learn things the hard way. This is the most realistic way to do it. The DM should bear in mind, however, that the new character spends the entire 24/7 (or whatever) of his time learning and observing and living in this new society, so it is fair to start supplementing the player's knowledge with answers to questions before and after each game session rather than forcing them to roleplay and learn everything.
This brings us to the player's ideas of reality and how they differ from the DM's own ideas. To fit into another DM's world, it is mostly incumbent upon the players to correct themselves when their idea of game reality veers away from their new dungeon master's. It is his world, after all, though the game belongs to both player and DM, the world belongs to the DM alone. So how can you do this in the best possible way?
First, get an idea of any of the major changes your new DM has made from the standard rules found within the book(s). It is, of course, assumed you are either familiar with the book or you can always read the pertinent sections of it when necessary (It may be possible to approach a game without the books or this knowledge, but it is harder and more time consuming). Except during actual game time, the DM frequently loves to tell you of his world and his "In World Rules" where they differ from the norm. Since he's almost certainly spent many hours laboring over his baby, he'll probably even be happy tell you why he uses these rules and why he thinks they are superior to standard play, so don't be afraid to ask before a session begins, after a session ends, or during the week between sessions if you can get together.
NOTE: This is one of the reasons I think email can greatly enhance the roleplaying experience. If your DM has an email address and reads his email regularly, simple questions that stop you in your tracks until you can get the go ahead from the DM are just a quick letter away. Without having to wait all week to get a simple answer, you can develop your character much further since you will have more time to think about it after you quickly hurdle these little road blocks.
After you've gotten a good idea of the major rule changes, you next want to enhance your understanding of your new dungeon master's world. He may have maps for example, and histories, political concerns and structures, societal information or a slew of other game related materials concerning his creation. Sometimes this may be a box set or other prefabricated world in which the DM is writing his scenarios. If this is the case, you may wish to read this (or at least part of it, unless the DM tells you not to). This will supplement your understanding of your character's upbringing and give them a feel for the lay of the land. And if this is not a prefabricated world, then a good DM will probably have generated this material on his own (or is in the process of doing so as the game develops), and he'll usually be happy to share what he has with you (except for the secret things your character should not know about yet).
My favorite method of sharing game world information is with my Web Pages on the Internet. True, maybe not everybody is hooked up to the internet, but as the future comes it will one day be almost unthinkable to get along without internet access the same way we'd think it awful not to have a phone or a television. For now, however, if the DM can put his material out there, each of his players can be directed to it and read it as they wish or not. (Remember gentle reader, the DM may spend a great deal of time creating minute details of his world, but trying to force this information on their players is wrong, and it should never be necessary for them to read a mountain of material just to fit into a world. If they wish to explore, that's wonderful, but if not, forcing them to do so will ruin their fun and make you a bad DM).
And even without the DM having an Internet Web Pages, you can always talk to him for 30 minutes here or there, always gleaning additional information of his vision so you may more thoroughly share in it. The more you know, the better your chance of a shared vision with your DM, and this does tend to make the game more enjoyable for everybody. Remember that the more you bring to a game, the more you will get out of it. (As a truism, this law applies anywhere).
Now that you've supplemented your understanding of your character's upbringing, your next step is to remember the DM will always know more of his world than you do. Even if it is a prefab you have thoroughly read and he hasn't, since he can alter the stuff found therein or simply have different interpretations of some of it, you may not know as much as you think. The same is even true of the core rules of the basic game since the DM may alter them. They are, after all, guidelines and not dogma. So respect what the DM has to say. You can mention what seems like a mistake, but remember that it may not be a mistake, but only a change, so be careful as some DMs really hate being told by a player that the player thinks they know more about the DM's world than the DM does.
Also, beware the pitfalls of having your character base his actions on rules or information that your character does not know (even though you have it as a player, your character may not). If you find your character did something inconsistent with the DM's reality, do not bicker or argue about it, but accept it, back up, go with the ruling, and expand upon it. Part of your job is to help create the reality in which you play. It isn't just the DM's vision, but a shared vision between the DM and his or her players. In a good roleplaying game, it is also a shared vision between players that adds to the game. And though a complete understanding of the rules and background are not necessary to thrive, the more you know, the further you go (which is also sort of like real life).
Next, it's time to explore this New World. This is where the trial and error really pays off (especially if you've learned the DM's rules and his world's background, most of your trials may end up as something other than errors or false starts). For example, my character may say "I have some concerns about fighting a tribe of gnolls since my older brother died at the hands of a gnoll." Sure, the DM may blink at you since he never said you did or did not have a brother, let alone a dead one, let alone mentioning how he may have died, but unless you "create" something that seriously violates the DM's world reality, he'll probably adopt it (maybe he'll adapt it slightly too, if need be), and this point becomes a point of reality and a part of your character and a fact of the DM's world (even giving the DM something to consider about your character that he may actually use in future scenarios). On the other hand, saying something like "My father the king will not allow you to harm me" will stop the game in its tracks while the DM does more than just blink at you. You are probably not royalty (unless he said you were beforehand). There may not be a king, let alone a kingdom, or even if you are the child of the king, you may be making some erroneous assumptions about what the king will and will not do.
Other things to look out for are larger, more noticeable changes. You mention a tavern you like in one of the DM's cities (this tavern has never been mentioned before or created by you or DM), but this may be small enough a ripple for the DM to accommodate it. You mention coming from the vast magical city of high wizards with a population of millions and the DM will probably cringe. A lot of what may or may not be allowed can be gleaned from the DM's maps and information that may already be available to you.
Thus, if you take baby steps you can reasonably hope to both explore the world and build in it, but if you take giant leaps you'll probably bring it to a halt until the DM corrects your erroneous assumption AND makes sure the other players are not confused by what your character just said. (All of this assumes your character was not just trying to lie through their teeth for some reason, for you should be able to do that no matter what the reality is).
Adding things without prior DM consent is a wonderful way to roleplay, but the watchword is "REASONABLE." You do something that conforms to what already is, wonderful, if it stretches the limits, maybe it will work or maybe it won't, but if you go outside the bounds of common sense, the DM will have no choice but to reign you in. As a general rule of thumb, trying to increase your character's actual power (whether political, social, magical, or whatever) will give the DM pause, but trying to increase your character's depth, ah, that's the stuff of roleplaying.
Character development, then, is for many the primary goal of roleplaying. To be sure a general increase in power and skill is important, it may even be predominant, but finding out more about who your character is, what they want out of life, their hopes, their fears, their aspirations, this is what gives a character that certain something to set them apart from other, more 2 dimensional characters any old fool can whip up in one afternoon; this is what makes your character special.
As the game proceeds, try to color in your character while staying inside the lines. (I know it may be difficult to see the lines at first, but your DM will help you see them if you pay attention and ask questions). For example, you may learn the DM's style is for a lower powered game than your previous DM's game (that is, his game world has less raw power, less magic, and lower levels or slower advancement than in your previous gaming experiences). Yet, the game may be much richer in roleplaying, character development, interpersonal relationships with other PCs and NPCs, or in some other way different. True, this game has a different flavor than the one you tried before, but you may end up liking this new flavor if you give it a chance.
Now, once you realize this game is lower in power, your character should be trying to do things on this level rather than more grandiose things. For example, he may be trying to get together enough cash to open and run an apothecary shop rather than questing for artifacts dropped by fallen gods. To ask for and expect something on a more epic scale in this game is trying to color outside the lines, and this will usually result in frustration. Your 1st level mage may wish to find a staff of power, but he'll probably not find one for years to come, if ever. (In fact, most veteran DMs won't give you magic items significantly more powerful than your own character's innate power, so asking for them is usually a waste of time). But if you accept and then expect the new power level and try to work within it, you'll be a lot happier than trying to go out of bounds and being repeatedly called off sides.
Remember that a character's power should be considered relative, not absolute, so as long as you are comparable to the other PCs, you're doing fine (you need not and should not compare your current PC's power or abilities to your PCs from other game realities). You needn't be a giant amongst your fellow PCs in order to have fun, but just be one of the gang. That is frequently more enjoyable anyway, and it's far easier to find a game like that rather than one where the other players are happy you're so much better than they are. Please, get real.
And, not to make it sound like low powered games are necessarily the way to go, a counter example is in order. You learn your DM loves the exotic, the epic, the high powered things in life. This is the flavor of this game, and when coloring in your character this is where you must work - on that level. To stop a high powered epic game to pick flowers, make love, help an old lady across the street, or dig in the dirt with an archeologist to discover some ancient but unimportant fact is outside the lines when the other characters are making magic items to teleport themselves at will, building castles on the astral plane, discussing war plans with the king, or hot on the trail of a Titan who has escaped his astral confinement. This is what you should be doing, and taking time to make your own boots may actually be annoying to the DM and the other players who must wait for you while you complete these more mundane tasks.
Finally, there is another set of lines you should try to adhere to, though these may be outside of "In World Reality" and concern themselves mostly with real world gaming reality. You are in a game, playing a character in a game, with other players who are also in a game. The operative word there, in case you missed it, is game. The point of all this is to have fun, not just fun for you, but for everybody. Thus, another line you may wish your character to stay inside is that line where it detracts from the other player's fun when you cross it. Even when there are excellent roleplaying reasons for your character (PC) to treat another character (another player's PC) badly, you run the risk of hurting that player's feelings. This is especially true if you do not make it perfectly clear (player to player) that you, as a player, do not share similar feelings for the other player that your character has for his character. For example, we have Jim and George as players. If Jim's character (let's call him Jilerb) berates George's character (let's call him Orpene), George may get the feeling Jim didn't like him. If this ill treatment were lasting, George may even quit the game. Yet, if from the start Jim told George why Jilerb had a problem with Orpene with the clear understanding that Orpene doesn't know why Jilerb is ticked off at him, then it is much less likely George will quit. In fact, it becomes more likely Orpene and Jilerb can have great interaction, perhaps even at each other's throats, since Jim and George are not fighting, yelling, or quitting the game due to the ill treatment of one player to another player. Naturally, this does assume some roleplaying sophistication on both Jim's and George's part, for keeping player knowledge and character knowledge separate is an important aspect of the game.
This care is especially important in an irc Internet game. In a RL (real life, face to face game), the players often know each other; they may even be friends. Furthermore, they can see each other, have the opportunity to enjoy more table talk, and in general have a much greater chance not to confuse the attitude of a player with the attitude of his character. In irc, however, without such repeated interaction, it is often the case the ONLY contact between players is through their characters, and when one character abuses another character, it is easy, even common, for the player whose character is on the receiving end of this abuse to feel badly and take it personally. They may even feel compelled to leave the game, or worse, escalate a bad situation to such a level it will spill over into the game and ruin it for everybody. It is for this reason that, especially in irc, if one wishes to play a less than friendly character, they must maintain an almost constant communication with the other player so that player will never get the wrong impression and themselves feel abused or hated. Naturally, in irc it may even be more important to play friendlier characters than in RL just to avoid this difficulty, but if one insists on playing the more anti social types, please keep this danger in mind. People's feelings are important, and nobody plays a game in order to avoid having fun.
So you see, the lines could be anywhere, but will depend on your DM's world. This is why it's important to learn all you can about your DM's "In World Rules" and about his world in general. It will aid you in your character development and point the direction toward your mutual fun and shared vision. And though every flavor game is not for everyone, the more flavors you enjoy, the more likely it is you'll find a game you'll love.
So, that's about it in a nutshell. Try to have fun, try to help others have fun, and develop and expand upon your character within the limits of the DM's world. Remember that one small step for your character may be one giant leap for gaming in general.
© November of 1999
James L.R. Beach
Waterville, MN 56096