Updated: Oct 23
By R. Nelson Bailey
This article explores the duties and responsibilities of the players in a Dungeons & Dragons gaming group.
Anyone who has played Dungeons & Dragons — or any table-top role-playing game for that matter — knows that the Dungeon Master (or Game Master, as the case may be) has an outsized role compared to the players. In addition to managing the game, the DM must prepare an adventure or scenario ahead of time. This often means a few hours finding and reading a published adventure, or creating one of their own, be it fully written or simply a page of hastily-written notes. The DM has other roles, too. They control all the monsters and NPCs; they might gather props, terrain, or miniatures for use in the game; they guide the direction of the campaign; and so on. That the DM has the largest role in the game is indisputable. Less obvious, however, is that the players — both individually and collectively — also have a number of important roles to play. Player involvement goes beyond periodically rolling an attack die or saving throw. That the players in a role-playing group are merely passive participants is anything but the truth. This article examines the five most important roles for players in a D&D group. Players who follow these guidelines will help keep their gaming group alive and vibrant.
1. Show Up
This means actually showing up and being on time for the gaming session. Clearly, if you are not present, you are not participating and contributing to the game. Too often, players show up ten, fifteen, or thirty minutes late to a game. Or, they just don’t show up for the game at all. Often, there is a legitimate pressing issue that demands the player’s attention.* This is understandable. Life happens. However, it becomes a problem when a player is chronically absent or late. Often, the player knows that the game will carry on without them, so being absent is no big deal in their mind. They have to get some food, finish a movie, or they just didn’t feel like showing up.** Sadly, this behavior just robs the other players and DM of valuable game time. Either everyone must wait for the player to show up, or they start playing and must fill them in on what they missed. Either way, it eats up everyone’s time. Furthermore, it signals to others in the group that the game is just not that important to the tardy/absent player. This might not be how the player actually feels, but it is how others view them. A lack of dedication can have a corrosive effect on the morale of a gaming group. The group can easily fall apart if one or more players habitually blow off the scheduled game.
* A player in my game failed to show up for a session because his VW Microbus caught on fire on a hot, summer day right in the middle of the Narrows Bridge. He texted us a photo of the bus engulfed in flames. Backed up traffic for miles. That is a legit life thwart.
** Another player left in the middle of our game for two hours to meet up with someone who wanted to buy his car. Jeez.
2. Know the Rules
That a player in a game — any game — should know its rules seems like an obvious point. If you don’t know the rules, it is harder for you to meaningfully function in the game. You are fighting with one hand tied behind your back. To be clear, players need not know all the rules, nor must they be an expert in them. No one can expect a novice, or player new to a group, to be immediately familiar with the rules. However, veteran players should know all the rules that pertain to their character. They should know their character’s ability scores, saving throws, combat rules, equipment, skills, powers, spells, and how their magic items function. All too often, a player running a character — in some cases, for years — does not know how their abilities function or what is even on their character sheet. These players will exclaim, “Hey, I didn’t know my character had that magic item!” Usually, one that would have been of great use in the previous adventure. One example from my game group is a player who never had his cleric cast the 2nd-level spell, silence, 15’ radius, when an enemy spellcasters appeared. When someone asked why he didn’t cast it, the player said that his character didn’t have the spell. His character did have access to the spell for nearly two years. He just never bothered to look over his list of spells, or read the spell descriptions.
An effective player knows all of their character's abilities and skills, and what equipment is listed on their character sheet. They know what to do when they must make an attack roll or saving throw. A player who neglects to know the rules only slows down the game. It then places the burden of keeping the game going on the other players, who must stop everything to coach the player. Moreover, these players signal to the DM and other players that they are not really invested in the game. This can be a serious detriment, since invested players, like an invested DM, makes for a stronger gaming experience. Also, that silence spell would have come in handy last adventure when that wizard fireballed the entire party!
Role-playing games require players to be present in the moment.
Participation means being present and involved in the game in a meaningful way. These types of players are an active participant who gives their undivided attention to what is happening in the game, actively contributes to party discussions, and acts decisively when their character needs to. These types of players contribute and engage beyond simply reacting to cues from the DM.
When a player does not do this, they usually do one of two things — they either under-participate or over-participate. With the under-participant, the player is simply a spectator to the events that unfold around them, letting others play the game for them. They often do not act decisively or contribute anything to party planning. Conversely, the over-participant disrupts the game by dominating the play space, not allowing others a chance to comment or act. This person keeps their character at the center of attention, usually at the expense of the other players.
Players and the DM want to feel that everyone playing in their group is working together. That everyone is participating and contributing to make the game a success. This cannot happen when one or more players are not fully participating. Instead, it forces others to take on a greater burden to keep the gaming moving along. Moreover, this type of attitude is detrimental to the overall vitality of the game, and disrespectful to the dedicated players who have invested their time into creating a full, expansive gaming experience.
Let’s take a closer look at the three qualities of an active player:
1) Pay Attention: Role-playing games require players to be present in the moment. Nothing says, “I am not present”, like not paying attention to what happens during the game. This can be anything from reading a book to looking at a phone (this happens a lot), to having non-game conversations or just zoning out. Some more extreme examples that I have personally witnessed during a game session have been players falling asleep for hours at a time, running their side business, watching a movie, or getting into an argument with their spouse. Distractions happen. However, players who are constantly unfocused negatively affect the game. Other players must fill in the player about what they missed. This eats up time for everyone. Moreover, it is discourteous to the other players who are actively participating in the game. Successful players actively listen to what the DM and other players say even when their character is not personally involved in the events. As such, they can make better decisions when it comes time for their character to act. Further, paying attention signals to the other players that you are interested and dedicated to the game and its outcome.
2) Actively Contribute: Dungeons & Dragons is a cooperative game.* Most groups do not have a “party leader” who makes executive decisions for the players as a whole. Instead, 99% of groups make their decisions democratically. Players discuss the matter at hand and come to a consensus about what to do. As such, all players must contribute to the discussion and execution of a plan. This can be anything from where the party should rest for the night, to assaulting a hobgoblin stronghold. Often what happens is that one or two players dominate the planning discussion while the others sit back and say nothing. Keep in mind that a decision by the party is going to be made whether you contribute or not, and you might not like the decision. You can contribute even if it is to listen to others and agree with their plans. Ideally, all players should throw out some ideas and engage with their fellow players. This also means asking the DM essential questions that advance the game.
3) Act Decisively: This quality is essential to keeping everything moving forward. All players must act in a decisive and timely manner otherwise the game will stagnate. This does not mean players should act recklessly, as this is what the over-participant does. All too often the DM describes a situation and asks the players, “What do you want to do?”, only to be met by silence and blank stares. This form of action paralysis often infects players when the stakes are high or there are too many options, mostly bad ones. Game stagnation creates frustration for the players and DM alike, creating a tedious experience for all involved. I have seen players take over an hour of game time to decide what door to open in a dungeon. Typically, this is caused by the players over-analyzing every possible bad outcome that might occur. Once this happens, one frustrated player forces the rest of the party into action by having their character act rashly (“Screw it. My character kicks in the door.”). Keeping the game moving by making a decision is everyone’s job — not just the DM or other players.
* Unless you play in a game where the DM pits party member against party member. A couple of players I know played in this type of campaign. The DM encouraged party members to plot, scheme, and kill other player characters. Their campaigns last three months, tops.
Players must take an active role and not let others play the game for them.
4. Be Respectful
Frankly, it is sad that this point even needs to be mentioned. No one wants to play D&D with a jerk. When a player acts like a jerk towards the other players, it deprives everyone else of an enjoyable gaming experience. Since D&D is a cooperative game, rude or disrespectful behavior puts a palpable damper on teamwork and working towards a goal. This type of behavior runs from the slight, like talking over other people, or telling others how to play their characters; to moderate, like refusing to participate with the other players, or making snide comments; to the downright hostile, such as bullying, yelling, or throwing dice at other players. (By the way, I have witnessed all of these and more occur firsthand from “adult” players.) Players should always be mindful of their attitude. This is especially true if you are in a bad mood, irritable, or tired. Maybe you’re having a bad time at work or home. In these states, it is much easier to slip into negative behavior directed towards the other players.
5. Respect DM Rulings
Most players don’t like it when a ruling from the DM does not go in their favor. This reaction is only natural. When it does occur, the player has every right to contest the ruling. They can present rules to support their case, or point out any modifying factors the DM may have overlooked. A reasonable DM will explain how they came to the ruling, and how it fits the current set of circumstances. (Keep in mind that this is an ideal situation. We all know that DMs can be jerks, incompetent, or flat-out wrong at times. I have played with these DMs. It is never fun.) If the ruling doesn’t change in their favor, sometimes the player refuses to accept it. They become resentful. They simmer, sulk, and throw backhanded comments towards the DM. Needless to say, this kind of behavior only serves to add to a (probably) already tense environment. It also has a negative effect on the game experience for all involved since no one wants to play with a person who behaves this way. The player must accept the ruling to let the game move on. Belaboring the point any further solves nothing.
As you can see, the player’s role in a D&D game is far greater than idly sitting back and chilling. Players must take an active role and not let others play the game for them. Players must show up for the game, they must know the rules pertinent to their character, they must participate in the game (the most important rule, in my opinion), they must be respectful to other players, and they must respect the DMs rulings. If all players follow these guidelines, they will help create a fuller, more dynamic gaming experience for everyone in their group.
I almost forgot. There is a sixth guideline for a successful player: bring snacks.