What Is Good Roleplaying?

Last night, while trying to get sleep, this topic popped into my head. I came upstairs to write the title down, so that I could write about it. Can’t really remember what my thoughts were last night, but we’ll see where this goes.

In a recent episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff (Episode 114: Don’t Read Books) they discuss “chasing story”. Its a term used by a documentary filmmaker Neil Berkeley and it means that even though there might be a script in his particular style of documentary film (according to Jouko Aaltonen’s Seikkailu todellisuuteen: Dokumenttielokuvan tekijän opas, or roughly translated Adventure in Reality: Documentary Filmmaker’s Guide, the script is mostly there as a wishlist you can present to financiers), mostly the filmmaker is following his subject opportunistically to find moments they can edit into a movie.

The point of discussing the subject is to compare this to GMing. According to Hite and Laws (and I tend to agree) this is a much better metaphor for the GM than Storyteller. Why? Because calling the GM a storyteller leads to the players being an audience, whereas this “chasing story” approach puts the GM into the position where he is giving room for the players and mostly reacting to their decisions, leading to truly cooperative story.

Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (and all of its hacks I’ve read enough to know for sure) have pretty much the same GM advice. One of the points is to be a fan of the characters. You want to know what they are going to do and what they become.

If we subscribe to this (and we probably should), where does that leave the players?

First, players can’t be reactive. They can (and should) react when appropriate, but most of the time they should be active and work towards whatever their goal is. Players shouldn’t just sit back and wait for something to happen. They should be allowed to add things to the world they can use. Its the GMs job to keep this in check, but in my experience, the GM doesn’t need to kill any ideas.

Second, players shouldn’t not do things because they are roleplaying. I have heard of situations (or horror stories) where the GM has instructed the players to make characters who are normal people (often a mistake on GMs part) and the players take this to heart, making characters with families and histories, and then when the GM tries to hook them into an adventure, they’d rather have their characters spend that time with their families. Why not? That’s what their characters would do. True, but that’s not what people in stories do. Its your responsibility to keep the story going and make it interesting, preferably for everyone around the table. Don’t give the GM excuses not to be a fan of your character.

I haven’t personally witnessed anyone going quite so far. What I have seen is players, who will never compromise on what they feel their character is about. It might not be a big deal, but sometimes certain players would rather have their character go to a library while everyone else is going out to confront the big bad. Unless you have a really strong reason to take yourself out of the story in this way, you shouldn’t.

Admittedly, I don’t always compromise this way either. However, usually my unwillingness to compromise stems from other players going too far out from the social contract. Generally, I do compromise. I try to make them character moments, at least in my head. Why is my character going against what he believes? Hopefully for some interesting reason.

So, what should the players be doing?

Well, what do characters you like in fiction do? For one thing, they are active. They come up with plans, go out to find clues, talk to their contacts, break the rules, act against the instructions from their bosses and so forth.

Sherlock Holmes goes out and finds clues, if not enough are freely available. We often don’t even know everything he does, because Watson is not there to witness everything he does. He will often manipulate the situation to get the bad guy to budge, so he can bust him.

When Holmes can’t do that for some reason, he’ll sit around, and its depressing to him. He needs the stimulus. Keep this in mind. When you think about your character, maybe you should want your character to need that stimulus. All of the characters you like crave it. Think James Bond, Batman, Indiana Jones, Han Solo… Sure some of them will occasionally suggest sitting back, but they won’t actually do it. They’ll get into the mix of things.

Even if we forget such iconic, adventurous characters, and think about good dramatic characters, being active is the key.

Seize the moment. Not doing so is just missing an opportunity. I remember a couple of years back (and I might have told this story before), in a Con game, a couple of us guild members were taking part in a game. I won’t go into details, but it was a high-fantasy game and the situation was that the bad guys had just gone through a portal. Now, I made a speech, then and there. It was a pretty good one. Better than I would have expected when I began. And I was ready to go, as was one of the other players, but the two other players decided to plan instead.

Sure, that’s often a good thing, but in this case, as this was a one-shot game with a time-limit, and the momentum of the story was to push forward and rush in. That could have backfired, but if so, it would have been a mistake with gloriously funny results. At least potentially. Gladly, what happened next was really entertaining anyhow.

(Later I heard from the GM that his test group wouldn’t even enter the portal without a lot of nudging. If this was his experience, I don’t really get why he decided to run it as is, but I guess he didn’t trust his test group, then.)

All-in-all, most importantly, remember that you aren’t alone at the table. Its a cooperative situation and the end result is much better if you work with the other players and the GM to find the story. You do have the instinct for it. Your years, or often decades of watching and reading fiction has prepared you for it.

One thought on “What Is Good Roleplaying?

  1. Pingback: What Is Good Roleplaying? Part 3 | Guild Blog

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