One question that comes up a lot on RPG forums goes something like this:
My players won’t roleplay their characters! They all just talk in their own voices! What can I do to get them to start acting as their characters?
I see it all the time – and I’m sure you do too – and the same answers come up time and time again. I’ve even dispensed some of this advice myself, in the past. Things like, “not everybody is comfortable doing voices, and you should try to engage them in other ways”; things like, “have NPCs ask them direct questions, in character”; things like, “you’ll have to force them to roleplay” (which is a direct quote from one of the forums I frequent, by the way).
The first two pieces of advice are good. The last one is not. I could spend thousands of work providing my own answers to these questions, but I’m not going to do that. Instead – as the title of this post suggests – I’m going to talk about a game I recently played in. I learned a lot from it, and I came away from it with some thoughts and realisations that I think will make the games I run much better in the future.
Let’s talk about that.
The Play’s The Thing
A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to audition for the upcoming Open Legend podcast. I never expected to get the gig – and I didn’t get it, in the end, but that’s fine – but then I also never expected to get an audition, either. When I was asked to try out, the thing I was most excited about was that I had an opportunity to actually play in a game rather than run one, for the first time in years.
This is a problem a lot of GMs have. Once people know that you run games, that tends to be all you get asked to do. That’s not a complaint – I love running games, and I’m (mostly) good at it, and I love that people want me to build worlds and stories for them. But when all you do is GM, rather than play, you actually miss out on a lot of what makes RPGs great.
It’s important to remember that, while everybody at the table is playing a game called D&D, or Open Legend, or GURPs, or whatever, not everybody is actually playing the same game. It’s obvious, really, when you think about it. The GM isn’t playing the same game as the players. The GM has access to every scrap of information about the game and the world, has the ability (and the obligation, sometimes) to make up or change or ignore rules on the spot, to completely invent rules and situations and monsters, and to impose situations on the other people at the table. Nobody else playing has that power; nobody else is playing that game.
I went into the Open Legend audition full of confidence. I was playing online, where I normally play in meatspace with people I can see. I was only playing one character, rather than the world. I wouldn’t have to summon a multitude of voices and personalities on the spot – I could focus on one, and one alone, and nail it. For a GM used to embodying multiple characters every single session while juggling storylines and rules and everything else, sitting down with a character sheet and letting somebody else worry about everything else was going to be easy.
Spoiler alert: it wasn’t easy. It was much, much harder than I expected it to be, much harder than I remembered it being, and I very quickly realised that I’d spent so long running games that I’d forgotten what it felt like to be a player in a game.
A Tale of Two Games
I’ve already touched on the differences between running a game and playing a game. The DM knows everything there is to know about the game, the world, the story. They can even make educated guesses about how players will react to certain situations (although that last bit comes with time, with running games for the same group over and over again and seeing how they deal with things over the course of many games). I know, for example, that my group tend to be suspicious and argumentative with new people, that they always expect ulterior motives, and that they’re mercenary to a fault. More often than not they will push for bigger rewards than were initially agreed upon, even though this has a habit of going badly for them.
When I build adventures for my group, I make use of this information. I prepare for them to welch on deals, building my NPCs with reactions to this kind of situation in mind already so I don’t have to improv it at the table. Because they ask if they can make Insight checks on practically everything that people say to them, I build DC tables for those checks so I know how much to reveal based on what they roll (if there is anything to reveal) ahead of time. I’ve spent a huge amount of time building law enforcement systems and guidelines for how different areas respond to different crimes, because I know my party are going to interact with those systems.
As a player, I had access to none of that information, and initially I felt quite adrift in the world of the game. I’m used to knowing everything about my world and my NPCs. Even though I went into the Open Legend game knowing as much about my character as I do about every NPC I build, I knew nothing about the world. The immediate result of that was that even though I knew my character, I didn’t know how he fitted into the game and the setting.
Honestly, that threw me for a loop a little. If you regularly play (as a player, not a GM) then this is probably very obvious to you – you’re probably shaking your head at me right now. But this wasn’t obvious to me, due to the fact that it’s been so long since I sat down to play a character, and based on the answers that crop up on threads about getting players to roleplay, I have a hunch that a lot of GMs don’t get to play much, and that it isn’t obvious to them.
Not knowing anything about the world, the people in it, or the events that were about to transpire made me question absolutely every decision I made. As a GM I’m used to being in control. Even when my players do something wholly unexpected, I know enough about the world and the mechanics of the game to be able to deal with it without effort. As a player, all I could do was act the way I thought my character would act and then see what happened.
Being a player in a game is a much more reactive experience than running a game, and that’s a hard thing to get comfortable with.
So, you may be wondering what this has to do with people roleplaying their characters. And in my head, the answer is obvious – but that’s because I know where I’m going with this. I’m GMing this article. You’re playing in it, and thus far you don’t have enough information to reach the same conclusion as me.
When I GM, as I’ve already said, I already know what my NPCs know about the situation and the world that they’re in. Even though the NPC might know nothing about the players’ characters and how they’ll respond to things, I do. That makes it very easy to know how to act in a manner that fits the character I’m portraying, how to respond to the things the players say. I also know what information is significant and what isn’t. In a lot of cases, I might have prewritten answers to certain questions that I can read out in character.
With all that information, throwing on a voice and acting as that character becomes easy.
Without all that information, playing as a character who knew nothing about anything, that became incredibly hard.
Really, it’s the difference between traditional acting and – and anybody with any acting experience will tell you just how difficult improv is, even when you account for things like “never say no”, or “yes, and…”, or whatever.
When we run games and ask our players to roleplay their characters, what we’re asking them to do is spend 4-6 hours doing nothing but pure improv, riffing off the ideas and hooks that you throw out at them. There’s an element of improv to GMing, but again it’s a very different game. The information and power that you have as a GM makes it almost trivial.
So that’s the first thing I learned. Reacting to a game is much, much harder than following a script, even if that script is just a note that says “treasure in the crypt”.
A Matter of Consistency
The second thing I learned is that there’s a lot self-inflicted pressure to get it right when you’re playing one character.
When I GM, it often doesn’t matter if my NPCs sound and act the same each time the party meet them. A lot of NPCs don’t show up more than once or twice ever, and when they do they reappear there’s usually been a decent amount of real-life time that has passed between appearances. This means that players probably won’t notice if the voice I’m doing isn’t the same, or if their personality has changed somewhat while the party were adventuring.
I also get to flit between characters, jumping between races, genders, professions, whatevers – and, crucially, voices. If this voice I’m doing right now doesn’t work, that doesn’t really matter. There’ll be another one along soon, and I can nail it that time.
On the flip side, as a player you’re expected to, well, play the same character. Even though your personality might shift and change as the game goes on, it’s usually expected that you act “in character” – which means maintaining a level of consistency that’s not often asked of when it comes to GMs playing NPCs (unless you’re Matt Mercer – but there’s only one Matt Mercer). If my NPCs is Irish this session, but suddenly Scottish next session, my players probably won’t remember. They’ll remember that I did an accent for him, but unless they wrote down “Irish” they probably won’t remember exactly what it was – especially if it’s been a few weeks since we played, or since they last met that character. I’ve even got away with it slipping in the same session.
Players, for obvious reasons, don’t really have that luxury.
That pressure to “get it right” can be almost crippling. Forced to choose between trying something and having it fail, or simply using your own voice to describe the actions of your character, it’s not surprising that many players will choose the easier option.
What’s The Point of All This?
That’s a very good question, and it’s one I don’t quite have the answer to. I certainly won’t be ending this article by providing a handy list with a title like “5 Simple Tricks To Make Your Players Improv Brilliantly!” (although if I used that as a title for this post I’d probably get a lot more traffic). All I can offer is what I’m going to do with this new insight, and hope that it’s of some use to you.
As I said at the beginning of this article, I often see people asking for tips to make their players roleplay ‘better’, and I’ve been more than willing to chime in with my advice in the past. But it’s clear to me now that my advice has always missed one key thing – an understanding of what it’s like to be a player in a game.
My group has a real mix of roleplayers. Thorak’s player really enjoys roleplaying; she throws on a deep, hulking voice, she plays to Thorak’s intelligence really well, and she really gets into the role of being a 7-foot-tall half-orc barbarian. Manbearpig’s player is similar, though his character often tends to sound a lot like him. The rest of the group will refer to their characters in the first person for the most part, but they don’t do voices and their manner of speaking doesn’t change.
I’ve never had an issue with this. I’ve always understood that people have different levels of comfort with roleplaying, and I’ve never wanted any of my players to feel forced to do something they don’t want to do. What I have done is subtly tried to encourage them to get “into character” more – by doing voices for my NPCs, asking them questions in character, etc., etc., – without any real understanding of what might be making them hesitant to do that. It hasn’t been an issue for me, per se, but it has been something I’ve been thinking about and trying to ‘improve’.
What I’ve realised now is that there’s nothing to improve. Sure, it would be amazing to have a group full of voice actors who get fully into character, but who really gets to run that game? Even Chris Perkins doesn’t run that game. Seriously, go listen to any episode of Acquisitions Incorporated and tell me that game doesn’t sound just like the one that you’re running. It certainly sounds more like my game than Critical Role ever will.
My point, really, is that while it’s nice to dream of a game like Critical Role, where players have incredibly personal RP moments, talk in voices that are quite far removed from the way they really speak, and all that good stuff, it should remain a dream. It’s much, much easier for a GM to do that stuff than it is for a player, and while we can lead by example to try and encourage that kind of playing, that should be the extent of it.
Let your players have fun the way they want to have fun, and stop focussing on something as ultimately trivial to the game as whether somebody puts on an accent when they talk in character. Take the energy you’re spending trying to ‘fix’ something that doesn’t need fixing, and put it into making the game you’re running even more awesome than it already is on your end. Spend time making your players feel like they know your world and can trust you to run a consistent, fun game, with no judgement for playing the way they want to play. Your players might not ever talk in character or ‘roleplay’ as much as you want them to – but if you understand the game they’re playing, and how it differs to the game you’re playing, that should stop being a problem for you.
One last thing. Playing Open Legend was a huge amount of fun, and I’m looking forward to playing around with it a little more. This site has always leaned heavily towards 5th edition D&D or system neutral content. I’m keen to do more with Open Legend, though, so please let me know if you’re interested in seeing some Open Legend-specific content in the future!