5 Things players shouldn't do at the table
Updated: Aug 13, 2020
Welcome to the gaming table! Dungeon Masters (DMs) juggle a lot to keep a table running smoothly throughout the session. As #players who appreciate having a great place to game, there are a few ways we can help out our DMs. Be aware of good table etiquette and avoid doing these five things!
To save everyone time, here is the quick and dirty version. Keep reading for why we shouldn't be doing these things. I'll provide helpful alternatives we can implement instead.
Play on phones, tablets, laptops, or other distracting digital devices
Make fun of NPC and location names
Interrupt the DM, or another player, while they are trying to set the scene or convey information
Compare the DM to Matthew Mercer or other prominent Dungeon Masters
Look up monster stat blocks
Bonus: Don't read campaign books while the DM is running the session! Dungeon Masters put a lot of work into their game. It's disrespectful and distracting to see a player delving into the pages of an entirely different game world mid-session. Don't do this!
Don't play on phones or other distracting devices. This includes browsing the internet, texting back and forth with people, and hanging out on Discord. I get it. Lengthily combat encounters and long-running roleplay can bring the game to a halt for some players. We all have varying attention spans and for some folks, it is genuinely difficult to focus on one thing for an extended period. That's okay! There are other ways to fill that need to be doing when there are lulls between the action. Try these alternatives to messing around online:
Stitch, knit, or crochet to keep those hands busy and creativity flowing, while still tuning into the game. I have a kickass "Beware the Smiling DM" cross-stitch a player made for me over a few sessions. It brings me joy.
Doodle, take game notes, or write side stories about what's happening in-game. One of my players does this to help stay engaged. The Halfling Rogue I play with, in another game, keeps an in-universe journal to great effect!
Offer to help the DM keep track of initiative and other menial tasks.
But why can't we be using the internet if it's not our turn in combat? Sure, combat isn't everyone's cup of tea. However, battles are as interesting as we make them. When I stay engaged and focused, even when it's not my turn in combat, I craft interesting strategies, coordinate with other players, and use my abilities effectively. When I pay attention I experience first-hand all of the threat and fear that comes from combat. I notice when the Halfling Rogue goes down and my Bard reacts with immediate concern. When my turn rolls around I'm all caught up on the current events and that enables me to act quickly. As a side-effect, this helps to speed combat along.
More important is that messing around online during the session can be distracting to the Dungeon Master and fellow players. It's disrespectful of the DM's time and to the other players trying to engage. Some DMs may take this disruption personally, internalize it emotionally, and that can strain friendships. An attentive player should only use their device at the table for character sheets, spells, and game-related lookups. Sometimes, the occasional meme is perfectly acceptable when in direct response to what's going on. One of my players recounts in-game scenes via video game animations. I recognize it is his way of engaging. It shows he was paying attention when the Rogue Barbarian triple-lutz flip spin kicked someone in the face.
Don't make fun of NPC and location names. Okay, this is fine once in a while. We can't help ourselves. For the most part, avoid intentionally botching an NPC's name or the name of a location. I know it can be difficult to remember names, especially long made up fantasy-ish names. Not being able to remember or correctly pronounce a difficult name is natural. Particularly if it was a name from three sessions ago and what was for breakfast is a mystery. The important part is that we don't intentionally butcher names in retaliation or for the funnies. But why, CritCat, it's too easy to do! It can be fun every so often, or the first couple times, but it breaks immersion and can wear some Dungeon Masters down. Keep in mind that some DMs craft denizens and destinations with thought and care. There can be hints and meanings in those names or cultural significance. Be kind!
If it is difficult to remember a name start writing the names down. If the DM comes up with ridiculous names try asking them to use more simple names. It is perfectly fine to admit, "I don't remember how to say this name, but I need to talk with the wizard NPC we met yesterday."
That being said, the player of the aforementioned Halfling Rogue has taken this "don't" and turned it on its head. As a player, he remembers the names of NPCs and can reference them out of character. While in character, his semi-illiterate low-intelligence Halfling Rogue struggles to remember how to say names and botches them constantly. It's in-universe behavior and supported by the character's backstory and personality. Beautiful.
Don't interrupt the DM and other players. This one is so difficult. As a Dungeon Master, it can be jarring when interrupted mid-sentence for a relatively unimportant reason. A player has a burning joke that's relevant at that moment or someone is fervently trying to let me know they have something they want to try in-game. The real problem is that DMs are human and not multi-threaded machines that can run multiple processes at once. Woe is the humble DM.
From the perspective of the player being heard is crucial, whether it is in character or out of character. I recognize this because when I play in my partner's campaign I get struck by that itch to blurt out what I want to do in the middle of her narration. I have to fight that urge and I don't always win against it.
What can we do to avoid interrupting each other? Step one is to become mindful of it. As an alternative to interrupting I recommend:
Jot down the idea so it doesn't get lost. Bring it up as soon as the speaker is done.
Pick and choose when it is worth talking over someone else. Only the best jokes and most urgent of matters! Keeping this in mind will reduce the frequency of it happening and we become more aware of the behavior.
Raise a hand to let the DM or other players know without having to interrupt.
There's an exception to this "don't." I'm of the mind that it is okay to interrupt characters while acting in-character. Interrupt NPCs. Interrupt cultist summonings while the Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG) is monologuing. Even interrupt another character if it reasonably adds to the moment. Just don't make this a habit and do not use it as a way to shutdown the DM or other players.
Don't compare the DM to other Dungeon Masters. There's a phenomenon called the "Matthew Mercer Effect" in which players (often inadvertently) compare their Dungeon Master to the legendary Matthew Mercer. For those who aren't aware, Matthew Mercer is a famous and talented voice actor that DMs for a group of famous voice actor friends in the incredibly popular live play series Critical Role. He is also the author of a recent official campaign setting book, the Explorer's Guide to Wildemount (amazon product link). Most hobbyist DMs don't have the time, experience, or voice acting chops to stand up to such a prominent figure in the industry. There's a slew of well known Dungeon Masters that players look up to and consume content from. Often players may site these DMs and creators as official, authoritative, or even "the gospel" and impress that upon their local DM. For example:
"Matthew Mercer did this on Critical Role and it was really cool, therefore..."
"Matt Colville uses this homebrew rule in combat, therefore..."
"Jeremy Crawford made this ruling in Sage Advice, therefore..."
In the setting of discussion or celebration of these industry powerhouses, these are innocuous statements. In the middle of a session, where the Dungeon Master is a whirlwind of notes, rules, and toggling personas, these comments can come across as manipulative, negative, or critical — regardless of intent. As a general rule of thumb, try not to compare DMs to each other. It can be daunting for the average hobbyist Dungeon Master to be a DM, let alone live up to the expectations of players who idolize the famed contemporaries. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with going to the DM and providing constructive feedback, even citing other Dungeon Masters, when it is in a relaxed setting.
Don't look up monster stat blocks. Not everyone realizes how big of a no-no this can be. Players should absolutely not be looking up stat blocks mid-session, immediately after the session, or in preparation for an upcoming session. In fact, if the player isn't interested in being a Dungeon Master it's best if they avoid absorbing too much mechanical information about how monsters work. I consider looking up stat blocks, particularly mid-session or in anticipation of a battle, to be a massive betrayal of trust.
Why is it such a big deal? Players shouldn't know how challenging a given monster will be. They shouldn't preemptively know a creature's weaknesses and strengths, spells and action economy, or hit points and armor class. Knowing this information detracts from the immersion, ruins suspense, and gives the party a meta-game advantage they haven't earned through experiencing the game. What's more, the Dungeon Master could have modified the stat block, changed spells, and tweaked abilities or damage. If players are observing the original stat block and comparing it to what is happening in-game the knee jerk reaction is that the DM is cheating or breaking the rules. I have seen this on r/dnd where a player used an official stat block to shame their DM, instead of conceding that a Dungeon Master is allowed to modify stat blocks and spells as needed.
Those are the five things I believe players shouldn't do at the gaming table! Every table is different. Not every DM will be put off by these five items and not every group of players will want to be restricted by them. That is okay. What's important is that the table is a happy and healthy gaming environment. I'd love to hear more ideas for what players shouldn't do at the table and related game stories. Have a differing opinion than what I have outlined? Comment below!