Friday, April 8, 2016

The Role of self in RPGS, part 2: Players

Part of a series. See the intro here, part 1 (on songwriting) here, 2 (on fiction) here, and part 3a (on GMing, or otherwise creating scenarios) here

And we're back! After a brief aside for some art, it's back to the salt mines, wherein salt is a metaphor for delightful insights for your RPG experience, and mines are understood to mean my laptop, Kaiju. 

Yes, I name my laptops.

Yes, I named this one Kaiju. 

It might not look like much, but it guarantees your defeat in pretty much any online gaming contest.1
Still Wheaton's Law
It's important! (Image courtesy

Regardless, we're here to talk about The Role of Self in RPGs, and in particular, in playing them. The internet is awash in advice for GMs, but when it comes to players, there's not actually a ton there. The beginning of most RPG books has something akin to a "how to do this roleplaying thing" section, that mentions that you control your character's actions (like in a video game) and act out their interactions (like in a film).

Some even go the extra mile, and invoke Wheaton's Law.

But that's usually it. Grant Howitt wrote a highly amusing blog about it a few years back, and while I strongly disagree with some of his pointsit's an incredibly entertaining and informative read, and one of the few such articles aimed at players, and not GMs. I think it's quite lovely; just remember to take it with your Daily Recommended Serving of Salt, and all should be well.

Still, it seems that there's a relative dearth of content for players, doesn't it? And considering that in the aggregate, players likely outnumber GMs by at least a 3/1 ratio in any given game, that seems like an odd distribution of resources. Sure, GMing is a pretty resources-intensive activity, and the demand for GM advice is likely to remain strong because of it. But that doesn't mean that the art of playing an RPG is simple, easily ignored, or unworthy of further discourse.

So. Discourse!

Discourse Into the Night, 1891.
I like to think that they were discussing movement bonuses to AC, or somesuch.
In an RPG, players portray a single Player Character, or PC (troupe-style games are A Whole Thing, with their own challenges, but even then, a lot of the same techniques still apply.) This gives us one of the unique things about RPGs as an art form, in that the audience and the performers are the same group. I'mma say that again, in a different font:

The Audience and the Performers are the same group.

Other than perhaps at a Radiohead concert3, this phenomena is unique to our hobby. That means unique challenges, but also unique opportunities. It's the thrill of performing improv onstage, combined with the joy of being in a jam band, merged with the intimacy and immediate feedback of telling a well-crafted joke to your mates.

When it's going well, there is truly no other experience quite like it.

So how do we get at those moments? Well, there are a lot of things that go into portraying a PC:

  • Improv/acting skills. Players must be able to respond to stimuli in real-time; if somebody asks a question, they're expected to be able to answer.
  • Tactical/strategic skills, or the "game" part of a roleplaying game. Most games -- and indeed, most stories -- revolve around protagonists overcoming challenges, and RPGs thrive on this.
  • Group skills. RPGs are, by nature, collaborative endeavors, and they don't happen in a vacuum; whether face-to-face, or via telecommunications, you're part of an ensemble. 
  • Technical skills. Whether the game is rules-light or crunchier than a bag of rocks, players need to be familiar with what their character is capable of, and how to go about realizing that in play
  • Concentration skills. Yeah, I consider focus a skill. Having attended -- and later taught -- college courses, I get that this is difficult! But unfocused players = no game.

And that's before we get into things that players maybe should be doing. That's a lot! It certainly requires more effort than watching a TV show, or even video games or novels. But that's a huge part of what makes it work so well. This ties in a little bit with equity theory -- the idea that people get motivated when they feel that what they're getting is at least commensurate with what they're putting in -- but without going into theoretical underpinnings, people tend to feel invested when they have input.

That feeling of investment is huge in storytelling. A dramatic death sequence is only dramatic if you care about the person dying, yes? RPGs get at that feeling of investment largely via collaboration. It's one of the (many) reasons why games like Fate and Apocalypse World are so successful at getting people invested in the game world; everybody's had a hand in building it.

As a player, whether you're playing in a shared-narrative game or not, you've already got a head start, an overwhelming advantage in getting invested in the game. Your character. You'll be portraying them, walking in their shoes. Unless it's a one-shot, you've probably written them, and even if you are using a pre-generated character, you'll still be providing your unique interpretation of the character, just like actors have been doing for thousands of years.

You'll make it yours.

Ok, but I thought we were going to talk about the role of self here? 

We are! (Nobody buries the lede like tBoD.) So all this leads up to your portrayal of the character, which is both like and unlike acting in other media. Actors have been handling the issue of how much of themselves goes into a given character, so the question isn't anything new. And yes, a player has a lot of stuff to juggle, but so does an actor on screen or stage. But at the end of the day, they've really got two big jobs:
  1. They need to portray a character who is interesting, and furthers the story.
  2. They need to portray the truth and meaning of the fiction honestly and relatably
It's worth noting that many film directors would rank point #2 as being far more important. Think about it; for every awesome character actor who can portray a wide array of individuals, there appear to be a dozen actors who seem to essentially be playing themselves. What's up with that? Why don't those roles go to good actors?

Because, those people are good actors, at least by the standards of point #2. 

James Devereaux talks about this in "The Great Acting Blog," where he posits that 
We express our art most powerfully then, when we accentuate our individuality.
People would disagree, sure. But for our purposes, it's worth noting that not everybody's going to be a great character actor, and that's ok! That doesn't mean that you shouldn't try playing characters who are different -- sometimes quite different -- from you in outlook, mannerisms, speech cadence, etc. You absolutely should! But if you don't have a voice actor's knack for accents, or find that your range of characters seems pretty narrow, that doesn't necessarily mean you're bad at the acting portion of RPGs.

You might not be a great character actor, sure. Congrats, you have that in common with a lot of Hollywoods top-billed stars. More importantly, can you contribute to the moment-by-moment storytelling of your game? Can you enable incredibly intense scenes, both agonizing and triumphant, simply by being "in the moment?" Can you elevate everyone's experience by making the world seem real, by virtue of your presence?

Hell yeah you can.

And you can do that pretty easily by keeping one principle in mind.

If we did Clickbait at the Blog of Doom, this article might have been called "Supercharge your RPG with this One Weird Trick!"

You ready for it? 

Don't drop the ball.

What do I mean by that? Well, in improv, the one thing, really the only thing, that absolutely has to happen for it to work, is for the participants to keep it moving. 

Think of improv like a tennis game; ping-pong or volleyball if you prefer. Side A sends the ball over the net. Side B needs to react to that, and send it back over the net. Keep that going, and you've got a match. Fail to do so, and we're not really playing.

Improv works the same way.

If someone asks a question in improv, there are a lot of ways to respond, but the thing they all have in common is that they keep the ball moving. There's a lot here -- and it's probably worth doing a deep dive on Improv for RPGs at some point -- but the basic idea is simple.

Keep the ball moving.

This keeps you present, in the moment, and enables story to happen. Sure, there might be times where somebody at the table is uncomfortable with what's happening in a scene - that's a different situation, and it's 100% ok to stop if people aren't comfortable with the subject matter. But aside from that, this is possibly the single strongest move in a player's arsenal; the ability to keep things moving.

Some players are super-comfortable with improv, and this just comes naturally to them. Others feel mortified at the thought of having to create details about their characters on the fly, and create extensive backstories as a foundation. Most players wind up somewhere in-between. But the point being, if presented with a situation in-game, acting as the character is almost never the wrong answer.

Your character might not be the most clever, witty, or memorable. That's ok. What you can do, what you can always do, is make the world seem real, simply by being there. Not only will this do wonders for your own investment in the game, but you'll be facilitating investment for everyone else at the table by the simple act of your attention, your focus. Your presence. 

You will be a goddamn hero. Welcome at tables across the land. And you've already got the skills necessary to pull it off.

Listening is hard. But it's freaking magic at the game table.4


1 - assuming you're on my team. I'm the only one who uses this thing, and I am pretty sure a grilled avocado sandwich would fare better in most video games than I. Note it!

2 - Howitt clearly feels pretty strongly about the shared storytelling aspect of RPGs - he advocate for what you might call a Narrativist paraidgm if you apply the Gamist/Simulationist/Narrativist typology - and kind of marginalizes people who are more invested in a single-point, immersive perspective. 

Which is fine, and good. He has an opinion, and his advice is both entertaining and useful! 

But he kind of violates Wheaton's Law, insofar as he pretty much implies that if you prefer a simulationist style, then you are  Doing It Wrong, and Might Be A Jerk. This is further complicated, as he posits his views in a fairly absolutist style, and when called out for stating opinions as though they were facts, proceeds to employ the "obviously the things I say are my opinion, I shouldn't have to spell it out for you" defense.

Seriously. That is -- in my opinion, ha -- such a lame defense. Don't state absolutes and then act as though you're not doing so, and I'd bet you could avoid about half of all flame wars. It's ok to not like things! It's ok to like different things!

3 - the Blog of Doom's got Jokes! Also, seriously Radiohead? I love you guys, but could you at least turn to face us once or twice?

4 - maybe you don't use a table? That's ok - Killstring tends to prefer couches whenever possible, so there isn't always a table proper to be had. It's a handy way to refer to a given play space though!