When we sit down to roleplay, we are usually concerned about our character, our goals over those of the other characters. Sure, we want to work with the party and make sure they stay alive, but that usually boils down to ‘I need them alive because they support me’. However, roleplaying is a group activity and we all have stories to tell, we all have put effort into making the characters we are playing and we want to tell their stories. This is why I love the book Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley, as it looks at roleplaying as an improv theater where the actors are also the audience. The same people we are playing with to tell our story are telling their own and we all are melding it into a world given shape by the gamemaster.
Recently, RPGs have been moving out of the ‘participatory theater’ style to be more akin to ‘performance art’ because of the internet. This is not to say that Conventions didn’t have D&D being played in front of large groups, like Acquisitions Inc. at Pax in this 2016 video or D20 Live at ConBravo in this 2012 episode. However, these were not a weekly thing like Critical Role and other groups has become and with this change, we start seeing the players and GM playing to the audience to make it interesting for viewers to watch. Sure, the players are still having fun and the story is going on, but the production values are amped up to make it greater to watch. However, this is setting an expectation that this is what to expect at every table. Now, to their credit, most GMs will provide advice videos or comments to help new players and GMs, but this is a lot like the CSI effect in trials where jurors expect high quality forensic evidence because its what they are used to seeing in the TV shows. With this post, I hope to provide a few acting tips to help develop your storytelling skills as a player or Gamemaster to help rival the expectations players will have.
First, any ‘How to be a Great Gamemaster’ or even ‘How to be a Great Roleplayer’ list of things will usually give some reference to making sure that everyone has a chance to shine. Your fighter gets to fight, your rogue gets to be a sneaky thief, your paladin has some noble cause to champion, and so forth. Everyone gets their moment in the light, a chance to take center stage and be the primary focus for that moment. This is a key for both players and gamemasters, working with the group to give them these moments, being willing to play their stories for a little while even if it takes the focus away from yours. Players will be more willing to help you further your own character’s story later if you’ve given them some stage time than if you had to fight for the attention like dogs fighting over a bone.
Of course, by assisting them with telling the story, this doesn’t mean that you can’t throw some twists into things. Don’t seek to actively derail their character, but find ways to make that story interesting. You might be able to come up with a fun twist they weren’t expecting. The paladin in your party is seeking who killed their father and you are helping them in a meet with a source for information? Go bad cop on the source, threaten to beat the information out of them if things are starting to go slow in the scene. In improv, you never want a scene to start losing any steam. You want things to keep going, so light a fire and give the scene some new life. Just be ready for when the players decide to add some extra twists into your story as well.
To do these great things, players need to trust the other players with their secrets. The other players don’t know the backstories for the other characters. They don’t know about their past experiences and the choices made before they started playing with this group. As a Gamemaster, give them time to do this in character by giving them some cues to set the scene. If they come into a new town and go to the tavern, have the bartender at the bar blatantly asking ‘What’s your story, stranger?‘ or maybe the city guard or mayor or other figure seeks out these newcomers to find out who exactly just came into their fair city. Another way is as the party camps for the night, just state something like ‘As the fire has been started and the tents are up, you have a few hours before it is time to turn in, how do you pass the time?‘ If you wanted to be more direct, actions like bringing an NPC into the limelight that knows the characters and then having the PC explain how they know this person for better or worse gives a bit of that backstory and lets other players work with it, build it into the narrative and find ways to make it interesting. If the player wants to play secretive, have the NPC be the one to break the ice, ‘Oh, I knew them when they were kneehigh to a grasshopper. There was this one time that they…’ and then let some backstory out.
Another great way to keep your story fueled is through inter-party drama, if handled right. In other media you have the disagreement moments when people have just had enough and reach a breaking point. That leads to scenes like that punch being thrown when two characters disagree over what should have been done, perhaps leading to a fist fight until one person yields. Another scene is the face slap usually given by romantic interests but also sometimes a female version of the punch being thrown. We also have the verbal ‘dressing down’, where one of the party members vents their frustrations about the actions taken, no physical confrontation involved. These are situations where they can heighten the dramatic tension of the scene, but all too often, if we bring these to the table someone will bring it down to dice and stats because they don’t want to be on the receiving end of a ‘beatdown’. You usually want to sit down and let the players know they should be willing to take their licks, pick themselves off the floor and then make peace with the player, even if they may not make peace with the PC. They shouldn’t be thinking about how to get even with them or wait for them to turn their back and kill them. These are people that they have to work with and if you’re all one step away from a room full of dead bodies, it isn’t going to work. Instead, they should be willing to vent their frustrations and have those moments to make the story that much more dramatic. This will build both understanding of the emotions, beliefs and lines of the characters as well as adding more fuel to the fire that is the roleplaying experience.
If you want to keep the fire in a game, let your players take risks. Let the players know that they don’t always have to do the safe thing, they should be willing to try something crazy and off the wall because it will add some energy to the table and it will keep the game interesting. A personal example of this recently comes from a game where I play a Dragonborn Paladin, on a boat being attacked by a huge fish. I had no real long range methods of attack beyond a crossbow, so I decided rather than doing that, I was going to tie a rope to the boat and swing out at the fish. The first time I was able to hit it and get back on board, the second time I lost the rope and ended up on the fish. I kept stabbing at it a few times before jumping back on the rope and pulling myself up. Later in the same game, we were fighting a giant snake and I decided rather than just standing around stabbing at it, I wanted to jump onto it and attack it that way. If you find your players are playing more cautious, try having NPCs do something flashy every now and then and try and use that to inspire the PCs to follow suit.
Gamemasters should be willing to do encourage players to take these risks, but they also need to be there to work with the players to fix whatever they did in case they make a mistake that could seriously derail the action and take more time to repair it than seems feasible. This is sort of a safety net to stop the player from completely ruining the game, by giving them a way to rebuild anything that they might have broken. Now, this safety net is not protecting them from the consequences of their actions, instead it could be seen as converting the consequences into something more interesting for the storyline. For example, by taking a risk and standing up to a superior who was dressing them down for actions taken on an adventure, the player could seriously have harmed the events of the story as this could end up in reprimand or even discharge if this was a military service, perhaps instead, the players have just made a powerful enemy. As gamemaster, you will want to give them an option to perhaps mitigate any damage done in some way so it is not an automatic failure, but still have that connection be changed by those experiences. Maybe the NPC will question all of their decisions, or the NPC will try to undermine them with others, you can have the NPC seek out a big bad to work with or slowly become one themselves. Those are options that make the story interesting as it leads to a confrontation in some way, perhaps the NPC being won over later or a diplomatic argument or a physical combat as those examples lead to.
With the Play Unsafe book, you will be able to make your game that much better a performance to watch and take part in, all because you’re using techniques designed to become better improv actors, which is what players and gamemasters are. It doesn’t matter if your story is told only to you and your friends or to the internet at large, you’ll have a plethora of tips and tricks to make things work for you.