I can’t remember where I first heard it, but at some point I began to internalize the idea that, when answering a GM’s question about your character in a TTRPG, you should “go with the easy answer.” It’s a good piece of advice, and when most people give it, they are doing so in order to take the pressure off players to be on-the-spot, creative geniuses. We’ve all been in this situation: the GM has just finished describing something very cool and detailed and exciting, and then they turn to you and say “So, what do you do?” That moment can be very anxiety-inducing, especially for people who are new to TTRPGs. The pressure is even more intense if everyone else at the table is being cool and detailed and exciting. You want to say the right thing, you want to come off as creative and engaged, and you don’t want to fuck it up.
And so, in that sense, “go with the easy answer” is permission to keep it simple. But in this post, I’d like to talk about some of the ways the “easy answer” is actually the best answer when it comes to creating a great experience at the TTRPG table.
Tropes are your friend!
In almost any other form of media, tropes can be overused, to the point they become cliche. How many more times can we hear the story of the orphan who is secretly the heir to the throne or the farmhand who rises above his station to achieve greatness? But in TTRPGs, tropes can be very powerful.
One of the big challenges in a TTRPG session is getting everybody into a shared headspace. Things like pictures of characters, vibrant descriptions at the table, and pop culture references go a long way toward painting a picture in everyone’s mind. The human tendency to fill in the gaps is also very powerful here. But the tricky thing about TTRPGs is that you don’t have to simply picture the world and its characters in your head, you also have to do a lot of creative improvising. You have to portray your character and describe details on the fly. And you have to stay engaged with what everyone else at the table is doing so your contributions feel coherent to the overall story. It’s a high level of cognitive load, and particularly so if your setting is strange and ornate.
But a trope (or “the easy answer”) can be a powerful way of lightening the cognitive load and bridging the gaps in everyone’s shared understanding. Put another way, it makes space for creativity to flourish. The orphan who is secretly royalty may be a tired concept in books and film, but in a TTRPG, it’s a concept everyone can easily understand and work with because it’s so familiar. And you can build on it: maybe your character starts as a basic-ass farm boy who is actually the Chosen One, but through answering further questions about them and inviting other players to contribute to their story, they become something much more interesting as the campaign progresses.
The “easy answer” works at a more granular level, too. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, you need to just say... something. If the GM describes a monster bearing down on you and then asks “what do you do?”, it’s ok to simply say “I go for my sword.” Sure, there might be something more interesting you could do than simply swinging your sword (“I try to use the monster’s momentum to push them into the crevasse behind me!”), but you’re keeping the momentum going at the table by not dwelling on your action, and depending on the game you are playing, the mechanics might get you to a more interesting result than what you initially answered (perhaps the game has Apocalypse World-style complications, or perhaps there are tables of results the GM relies on).
Be mindful of problematic tropes
Tropes can be great, but be careful you don’t fall into the trap of repeating problematic ones. If you’re playing a horror game, for example—horror being a genre loaded with problematic content—you could very easily slip into portraying the “slutty cheerleader,” the “wiz-kid Asian,” or the “black best friend.” If you’re playing in a fantasy game, watch out for the “damsel in distress.” There are many other examples, of course, and you’re not always going to get it right, but start cultivating a mindfulness about problematic tropes and you’re on your way to better gaming.