I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the threshold between roleplaying that feels like it’s going through the motions and roleplaying that feels like it takes on a life of its own. That distinction will mean a lot of different things to different people, as much as two people can disagree about whether the characters in a book or TV show work or fall flat. I’m talking about my tastes across multiple games, but debating those aesthetics is largely missing the forest for the trees.
The players are both the protagonists and the audience. The GM is simultaneously the antagonists and another audience member. Now that actual plays have become phenomenally popular, there’s a kind of audience that is just the audience. Players presumably have an easy in when it comes to investing in their own characters, and the GM is expected to make whatever effort is necessary to invest in the protagonists. If this were a book, TV show, or movie, though, you wouldn’t generally say it’s enough to care about one character, unless you really don’t have anything better to read or watch. We’d like to do better than feeling like we’re trudging through the game for lack of an alternative.
Of course, you can invest in a lot more than just individual characters, as an audience member of a piece of media. From the audience’s perspective, the relationship between two characters can be more important than the characters themselves. For example, romantic tension sometimes turns out to be what the audience was invested in all along. Consider also how the Harry Potter fandom engages with slash – a relationship that is, at most, implicit in the text. (To be clear, in the rest of this article, I’m mostly not talking about romantic relationships.)
These are things that Apocalypse World understands and emphasizes in its text, so let me not pretend that this is a unique idea. One of the MC Principles – one that I’d be surprised to see any PBTA game drop – is “Be a fan of the players’ characters.” The text that unpacks this simple sentence is a treatise on the mindset of game-running in itself. The highlighting of stats is about getting players to think about what other characters will do in the course of play. The highlighting player is paying the receiving player XP for using certain actions. You can be just as much of a fan by wanting to see them work within their wheelhouse as outside it. The game is asking players to think about those other characters and their narrative. That’s pretty unusual in itself, I’d say.
The two sides to this, then, are making it easy for the audience to invest in your character (including relationships tied to your character), and teaching yourself to think as a fan of other characters and their connections. Giving this advice doesn’t mean that I’ve mastered its implementation – I’m a work in progress too.
Providing examples that mean anything to a significant segment of my readers is hard. Even for people who played a given LARP, perspectives vary widely on a character, relationship, or incident. My blog, so you’re stuck with my views.
First off, Critical Role’s Vox Machina campaign is a huge part of my thinking here. I’ve just finished podcast episode 48, which means I’ve listened to approximately 17 million hours of the game – 42% of the way through. Now, the podcast opens with the characters already at mid-high levels, with established relationships: Grog basically only cares about Pike, Scanlan is super into (getting brushed off by) Pike, and Vex and Vax basically only care about each other. Percy, Keyleth, and Tiberius don’t demonstrate a ton of connections other than general team loyalty in the first several episodes.
The Underdark adventures that lead to the Horn of Orcus are… fine? We get a sense of who the characters are generally, but they’re in the midst of a mission and the characterization stays fairly superficial. It’s not until they’re driving the Briarwoods out of Whitestone that the nuance of the relationships becomes more obvious to the audience. This happens in two main forms – Percy’s struggles with the shadow demon, and Vax expressing his interest in Keyleth. I think that the vulnerability in their roleplay was hugely important, and those scenes much greater depth. (Vax’s long flirtation with Gilmore was good too, but didn’t demonstrate vulnerability in the moment until later on.)
I also think back to times in my own campaigns that characters have seemed to take on a life of their own. One Forgotten Realms campaign involved a PC who was a pompous, largely unlikable Cormyrean noble. Everyone at the table was clear ahead of time that the player was aiming to be unlikable, basically a heel. The player handled that without being a jerk to the other players. Unbeknownst to that player, another character in the group was a long-lost half-brother (I think – it’s almost 15 years ago). This second character was friendly, loyal, and easygoing, especially once his lineage came out in play. This led to the kind of friction that generates more light than heat, including a sequence where the party split up. The characters who accompanied the unlikable character did so mostly out of feudal obligation.
I also introduced a magic item to lean into the party’s troubled relationships. It was a helm of telepathy that let the wearer choose just one person they could contact telepathically. As the wearer continued using it, they gradually got to add a second, third, and so on. It was, of course, designed to make the character play favorites within the party. This campaign dissolved for unrelated reasons before this had a chance to unfold, but it definitely got that player thinking about who he needed and trusted most.
For Your Character
First off, this approach to play is a major reason not to play a loner. If you reject connection to other characters, it’s a lot harder for other players to even imagine the line of a compelling relationship between yours and theirs. There are a lot of good reasons not to play a loner, but the advice works in this context too. The end goal of playing a loner (other than being a deep introvert with no other choice) is to enjoy the mystique of being powerful and independent. You’ve got to understand, though, that it’s difficult – even paradoxical – for other players to buy into your coolness if that coolness depends on rejecting interaction.
I think there’s a trend – call it a stereotype, maybe – among gamers to be cagey and cautious. GMs have been beating this style into players since time immemorial, with Gygax’s “gotcha” style as a founding example. Part of it, too, is that characters in myth and legend make drastically bad or risky decisions. One of the promises of roleplaying is the fanfic of re-running those decision points with someone more genre-savvy. On the other hand, it’s really hard to do anything interesting while staying cagey and cautious. Keep it up long enough and you wind up milquetoast. I’m not saying to play recklessly, as if no danger or consequence could ever matter. False binary is false, y’all! Just look for chances to do something that is simultaneously in-character for you and dramatic.
Look for times that your character can be vulnerable. If your character has a problem, decide to trust another PC and seek their advice about it. If you and another character are in the same class or build progression, offer your assistance (if you’re the more advanced) or seek apprenticeship (if they’re the more advanced). This would be an unusual, if not unprecedented, situation in tabletop play, but it’s quite common in boffer LARPing. Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you don’t have a baseline of trust with the other player. I hope I don’t need to tell you not to use your high rank in a build path or a game’s social order to browbeat another player or offer them unwelcome advice. If it’s a OOC safe situation for social PvP conflict, on the other hand, then ham it up, I guess.
Become a Fan
This is definitely a more unfamiliar mindset in gaming. Do it anyway. Try to think about the other characters as something completely separate from your own character, and ideally as something separate from their players. If that feels weird or daunting, then start with just thinking about the other players or characters that are your closer friends. Brainstorm little ways to make the game more entertaining for them, or at least clear away things that might be roadblocks in their gameplay. Think about their adventures and relationships as if you’re reading them in a book or listening to them in your favorite actual play podcast.
If fan art is your thing, it feels like a huge compliment to get a piece of artwork from another player. Fanfic is a much trickier subject, so make sure you really know what the other player(s) will be okay with before you pursue this. Some Altera Awakens players have taken it upon themselves to make beautiful weapons and shields for some of the newer players, so that they look as polished as people who have been LARPing for 20+ years. That is an incredibly awesome and generous way to support other players and the coolness of their characters.
Even if you don’t overtly act on it, though, I think you can take a step back from your character mindset and the naturally self-involved player mindset to imagine interesting things that could happen for other characters. This is about teaching yourself to wonder about them, to consider possible narrative tension around them – to ask questions that might get resolved. Depending on the situation, you could show that you’re a fan by talking to that player about the cool or exciting-but-awful things that you imagine for their character. Thus far in Altera Awakens, I’m mostly only doing this with a few of my character’s closest friends, but as I learn more about the other characters, maybe I can expand that. Share your ideas with the GM(s), too – if it’s a LARP, maybe you can play an NPC that connects to that other player in some way.
When Nothing Works
I’ve got a real clear idea of how much harder this is if you’re feeling left out of a game’s story and spotlight, though. I can think of times in LARP and tabletop games when trying this would have sent me into a spiral of envy and bitterness. Feeling like no one is a fan of your character and story is tough, especially if you’ve had the previous experience of the players and GMs being fans of your character and story. I have to wonder how that changes when there’s a non-participating audience engaging with the game.
I would love to tell you that I had a secret formula to break out of a spiral of envy. If I did, I would bottle it, because fixing someone’s bad experience on demand would be amazing. My advice – at least, what I plan to try next time it’s a problem – is concentrating on being a fan of your own character and their relationships. Imagine the cool things you could do, make new plans, maybe draw or write something about your character. Best I’ve got. If you can set the awful feeling aside long enough (I personally find this hard), supporting someone else’s fun might give you something to do and think about while you wait for the rest of the situation to change.
If anything, this is even harder to fix in tabletop games than in LARPs. While the smaller group size of tabletop games means that you’re not likely to be out of the spotlight for long, if it does happen, there’s a lot more social pressure creating inertia in the situation.
I often have a tough time enjoying the first 1-2 full seasons of LARP campaigns. There are any number of reasons this might be the case, including reasons that are individual to each campaign. My guess, though, is that I don’t have enough connection to other characters or enough investment in our relationships. I miss out on enormous amounts of each game because my shyness stops my character from approaching people that I’m pretending are unfamiliar. For Altera Awakens, I’ve set out to fix the problem (and test the idea) by starting play with as many connections to other PCs as I can. Thus far, it’s short-circuiting my shyness. Imagine finding a single switch that cost nothing to use and stopped you from making yourself miserable. I’m recommending it to everyone.
GMs can take steps to encourage more meaningful character connections as well. I’ve spoken on questionable footing with a lot of the advice here, so let’s charge ahead.
In my own gamerunning, and in most of the games I’ve played in, I (or the GMs) feel a strong pressure to get to the next piece of action, and if things start to slow down, bring on some violence. We do this for the best reasons – it is good advice, especially with limited session length. It’s the kind of advice you can grow beyond, though. The contrary advice, then, is to let some scenes or whole sessions be more relaxed, letting the audience discover what the characters are like when they aren’t in danger. Especially in 3.x, we’ve all seen shopping scenes stretch on for hours and turn tedious, so take a page from Gilmore’s Glorious Goods and keep the focus on interactions that reveal character. The contrast in pacing and tension makes the fast-paced, tense scenes hit harder.
For LARP-runners, you don’t see a direct cognate of the shopping session. Instead, there are feasts, dances, and other kinds of in-play parties, as well as late-night wind-down time. I’ve mostly seen games use these very well for distributing information and presenting someone interesting to talk to. The thing that’s harder to do is to slow down and focus on seeing the PCs through your NPC’s eyes – to get a front-row seat to what it feels like to play your game, and what your game’s social structure looks like. I’m not saying this is always the best use of your time. I know as well as anyone that you might be running critical content right up through dawn on both nights, but scheduling time for this for one or more staff members can pay dividends. (To say nothing of helping your staff relax and enjoy the game.)
One more thing, probably intensely controversial. One of the things that I think worked best in Shattered Isles and Critical Role is that permanent character death is absolutely on the table as an outcome, and the system is a black box for the players. Raising the dead takes time (even revivify, in Critical Role) and requires a marshal in LARPing. This creates space for tension, grief, and bargaining, the last of which is another way to say “long-term consequences.” There are a ton of complicated conversations around this topic, and I don’t care to recapitulate them all here. The short form is that we haven’t created a sufficient alternate stakes to balance an absence of permanent death. I think that the strongest emotional roleplay requires player and character tension of permanent death, or a devastating cost that is more than cash on the nail in order to restore the dead.
This post is a collection of things I’ve been trying to figure out and phrase for a few years now, which is why it’s all over the place. The high school teachers that drilled the five-paragraph essay into my head are awfully disappointed with this meandering, I’ll tell you that right now. I don’t say that this is an endpoint in the development of this thinking, of course. You know that thing where your aesthetic sense and your ability to create are constantly surpassing one another? Right now I feel that we could be doing more and better with compelling characterization, relationships, and drama.