Cooperation means working together to make the game better. This might mean working with the GM but it also means working with the other players around the table. An important starting point here is that WE are working TOGETHER. So it’s not just one person being a cooperative player and helping everyone else, it’s a collective effort, and you get to look after yourself as well as the others. Ok? Let’s go.
The first step in cooperation to make the game better is understanding what would make the game better, and that is mainly about understanding what the people around the table want. So this means three things:
- Listening to what other people want;
- Actively soliciting people to better communicate what they want; and
- Being clear yourself on what you want and signalling it to the other players.
Obviously it will be hard for anyone to cooperate if they don’t understand what each other want. “What you want” means: what you’re interested in; what kind of story you want to tell; what kind of themes you want to address; what kind of things you want to do; what kind of character you want to play; and so on. Some games do a great job of helping to structure and codify these things, greasing the wheels of the conversation. But even if your particular game doesn’t do that, you can do it for yourself. One part of that is getting the information from the other players, by paying close attention and listening to what they’re saying and doing. If they’re not communicating or you’re not clear, or if you think there’s more to know, you ASK them.
The other half of this is playing your part by being clear about what you like. Don’t wait to be asked – the more you share of your preferences, the better other people can help you to enjoy the game. Plus you’re leading by example and likely encouraging others to reciprocate by telling you what they like.
Now that we understand what each other want, we can work to give each other the game we’re looking for. This means consciously and positively:
- Engaging with the direction and themes of the story
- Playing towards the role and image of the characters
- Building connections and synergies with the rest of the group
Engaging with the direction and themes of the story is what, in a traditional GM’d game, would often mean “following the GM’s plot hooks”. In other words, the GM has prepared a story, therefore you engage with that story. You swim with the current rather than against it. But also, whether you’re in a GMless game or a GM’d game where the group are more closely involved in setting the direction, you follow the other player’s “plot hooks” too. If the players have said they want to engage with particular themes, then it’s just as important (maybe more so) to help them do that as it is to follow where the GM is pointing the story. If we’re all here interested in romantic rivalries, then we can have fun playing into that space by flirting, showing jealousy, opening up new relationships, and so on. And we might choose to ignore the GM’s plot hooks to do this, if it seems like that’s what the group are most interested in. In fact it’s just as much the GM’s role, as a cooperative player (the GM is a player too), to step back and take their foot off the gas, making space for us to address these themes.
Of course even better is if we can cleverly make the GM’s plot hooks and our desire for (in this example) romantic rivalries fit together. A really skilled GM will find out about this interest at the start of the game and build their plot hooks around it. And then we as a group will skilfully use the GM’s plot hooks to get the juicy romance plot we wanted. That is what cooperation looks like: everyone striving together towards the story they want.
Playing towards the role and image of the characters is what has been called elsewhere “playing to lift up”. It means having a clear idea of what each of the characters want to do, and how they want to be seen, and taking action to support that. A really basic approach to this is sharing and (where appropriate) ceding the spotlight so they can have their time in the sun. But you can be much more pro-active than that. For example, if another player describes their character as a leader, then that means they want to lead. A leader has to have people who look up to them, who listen to them, who follow them. As a cooperative player, you can help with that by portraying your character looking up to them, listening to them and following them. You might even at times step away from situations where you are naturally inclined to lead, to make space for them to do so. You might give them explicit encouragement when required, saying “these people need your leadership” to prompt the player to push the character into the role they wanted.
You’re like a backing singer or supporting actor working to make the main character look good. This doesn’t have to mean “look good” in the sense of “look like a badass” – if the player wants their character to be comic relief, you can help them do that too. If the player wants tragedy and pain, you can be the one dishing it out. The point is to know what they’re after (again, if you aren’t clear, ask) and help to give it to them. This may mean you have to tweak your own idea of what your character would be like. Hold your ideas about your character loosely, making space to adjust them to be a better supporting act for other people. Perhaps you didn’t really envisage your character as someone’s follower. But take a moment to think – could they follow another person? Maybe they are a leader in some contexts and a follower in others? Try to keep your character malleable enough that they can fit in with what is going on at the gaming table.
As with the story themes, this is a job for everyone, including of course the GM. And it’s also important to say that you get to have your time in the sun too. Sometimes you’ll be stepping back to make space for someone else’s preferred role to play out, but sometimes you should claim your space in the spotlight.
You can be even more cooperative here by inviting others into your spotlight time: if you’re the leader, ask if anyone wants to be your follower right now. If you’re the protector, ask if anyone wants to be protected. This is where building connections and synergies begins to become important. Right at the start of the game, you can look for roles that are complimentary (leader/follower; mentor/student; unrequited lover/oblivious object of desire). You can also do this in real time during the game, identifying where your cool action in the spotlight could involve someone else. Invite others into what you’re doing. You can come up with any pretext you like: perhaps there’s a genuine logical reason why you’d want a wingman for this mission, or perhaps your character just feels like some company.
The reverse also applies. Don’t be shy in asking if you can get involved in what other people are doing. Having two people in the spotlight at a time means twice as many people are having fun, but also potentially they’re having fun in ways they couldn’t otherwise. Sure, the sneakthief could just go off and do a cool stealth mission on their own. But might it be even more fun for them if there’s another character (you) tagging along, permitting the action to be peppered with conversation, perhaps allowing them to rescue you from a tight spot.
Stepping into someone else’s spotlight is a bit risky, because it could feel like you’re hogging the spotlight or treading on their toes. This is a good time to take the conversation out of character and ask the player whether they would enjoy having you along rather than just having your character ask theirs. Once they’ve said yes you can continue to exercise your judgement about how best to support them and lift them up, enhancing their enjoyment rather than crowding them out.
You can weave the whole of this together into the most beautiful connections and synergies if you want to. The themes of the story can support the desired roles and relationships, and vice versa. That’s what a really tight design can do, by the way – some games dish out character archetypes, relationships and mechanics that are all mutually reinforcing. But you don’t necessarily need the game to do that for you if you are actively working together to do it yourselves. There’s probably such a thing as a too tightly-woven mesh of themes, roles and relationships; you may be going too far if you’re just pre-deciding everything that’s going to happen in the game. But definitely having awareness of what everyone around the table wants and consciously working to play into those things, will create a more cohesive and fulfilling game for everyone.
I personally think that cooperation is the apex skill for roleplayers. You can be an amazing character actor, a genius at deploying the game’s mechanics, an incredibly evocative narrator, a brilliant problem solver, and many more besides. These all can make a contribution to a great game. But if you’re taking those skills and pointing them at the other people at your table, positioning yourself to connect with them and support them in what they’re doing, you’re going to come off as a much better roleplayer, and get a much richer game to boot.