Important Thoughts on Characters, Role-Playing, and Plot

Most of you have heard me talk about most of this stuff before, but when a group of people sit down at a table to have fun creating a cooperative story, there is a social contract that is established. There are a few extremely important components to this contract that I want to share with everyone. Please know that I’m not trying to be pushy or heavy-handed in any way. Whenever something breaks down at the table, I am repeatedly told by players to let them know what I expect and hold people to it. This is my attempt to make my expectations clear in advance.

Yes, I definitely expect you to read this and game by it!

1.) Respect: Everyone at the table needs to show respect for each other and the game. Personally, I put a ton of my scarce free time into creating and running games because I enjoy doing it and mostly because I enjoy the results of that effort and don’t want to see it go to waste. I’m sure there are others at the table who put a lot of effort into character development as well. Showing respect is as simple as following the Table Rules on the Main Page of this Wiki:

Table Rules

1.) NO PHONES: There will be no cell phone use at the gaming table. If you get a call and you have to take it, just excuse yourself and step away from the table. The gaming table isn’t the place to surf Facebook or YouTube or use any other social media, apps or other functions.

2.) AT THE TABLE MEANS IN THE GAME: If you’re at the gaming table, you’re in the game. That means all conversation is directly related to the current game. If you want to talk about a movie or video game, including SW:TOR, you need to step away from the table at an appropriate time.

3.) TENT-UP MEANS IN-CHARACTER: I will be making everyone tent cards for their characters with pertinent character information on them and the photo you select for your character on the front (GM facing) side. If your tent card is up and visible, you are in-character. You should speak from your character’s point-of-view and mindset and in the first-person. When I am portraying an NPC, I will have their photo visible on my GM’s screen.

By the same token, I shared some thoughts during the last game I ran about respecting the character creation process. This is an excerpt from an article on Gaming Tonic:

I know the GM is trying to tell a story about the characters. I feel it my responsibility to give the GM a character that fits in their campaign and that also isn’t a hassle or distraction to the GM or my fellow players. They all want to have fun as well.

Right from the initial pitch from the GM about the game or campaign they wish to run, I try to make sure that the character that I am creating first and foremost fits into the game. If my GM says “no”, for whatever reason I listen to their feedback and go back to alter that character or if they character was all wrong for that particular game I might start from scratch.

You will notice that I said if my initial idea is rejected by my GM I do not whine, cajole, harass, or otherwise tell the GM why they are wrong and my character is right for the game. My reason for this is simple, I enjoy it when the story has some relevance to my character personally. If I make a character that my GM likes and that fits neatly in the game then the chances of increasing my character’s story time in the game is increased. This doesn’t only apply to builds, it also applies to my character’s goals and attitudes. Some characters quirks, alignments, or personality traits can be a detriment to the game as well.

There are two problems with a character that doesn’t fit well into a game because of some role-played character trait. The first is that the character will inevitably take spotlight time from the other characters. A good GM will make sure that all characters have spotlight time, so let this play out naturally. The second problem is that the game will be slowed, derailed, or clunky if the GM is always having to adjust to a bizarre personality.

I feel that it is incredibly important that the players work WITH the GM not only by creating characters that mesh well with the game world, but also by role-playing those characters in a way that fits the style and tone of the game. Implicit cooperation is assumed. If you’re not sure what the style and tone are, ask the GM.

Respect is also a part of character creation. The following is from an excellent article on the now-defunct piece of web awesome known as Major Spoilers:

It’s important to be flexible as a player. When you make a character for a game you have to keep the concept somewhat malleable, not just to fit with the game master’s world, but also to fit with the rest of the party. This can apply to any part of the character, including the stats. Does your character do the exact same thing as another character? Does your character do the same thing as all the other characters combined? Do you have better stealth than the guy who based his concept around stealth? Then maybe you should consider changing up your stats to better fit the party.

Finally, on the topic of respect, I have one more very short article to share from the amazing Berin Kinsman:

A friend of mine is an active roleplayer, but says he’ll probably never be a gamemaster again. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy doing it. He stopped because a number of his players kept expressing the sentiment that they were there mainly for the social activity, for the excuse to hang out with friends, and weren’t particularly into the game for its own sake. That offended him to a degree, which I can understand. It also made him evaluate why he was carving time out of his busy schedule to prepare for games. If people just wanted to hang out, why couldn’t they just do dinner, watch a movie, grab some drinks and shoot the breeze? The time he invested in the game, he felt, had little value to his friends. It was time he could be spending with his wife, his kids, his other hobbies. So he quietly stepped down and quit running games.

Anyone who’s ever been a gamemaster should be able to relate to that. At the last minute, a player calls to cancel. People arrive late. When everyone does get there, they spend a lot of time chatting and catching up. Wrangling everyone to actually play can be frustrating. Even as a player, it’s disappointing to get to the game to find out that it’s been called off, or to look forward to certain encounters or the resolution of particular plot points only to not get there by the end of the session because you started late.

To be sure, it is just a game, and some people do take their roleplaying way too seriously. There is a balance, though, and that does include respecting the work the gamemaster has put into preparing the game, and respecting other players who are there for the game first and the social interaction as a happy dividend. It’s like going to a movie and having one person decide that instead of going in and sitting down, it would be just as fun to hang out in the lobby and drink soda. You have to ask, why did we come to the movies to do that?

If you’re going to be part of a regular gaming group, commit to it. Respect that the gamemaster, and the other players, have invested time into this hobby. Understand that other people are there for a purpose. Be mindful that you could all be doing other things, yes, but you’ve collectively chosen this. Appreciate that others arranged their schedules around work and family and other hobbies specifically to engage in this activity. If you can’t do that, tabletop roleplaying may not be the social outlet for you.

2.) Trust: The flip side of the Respect coin is Trust. No game can be successful without both of these important ingredients. Once you know that the other people at the table with you are going to respect you, the GM, and each other, you can begin to build a level of trust with them that allows you to actually engage in “role-playing.”

Contrary to what is portrayed by World of Warcraft and other popular MMO’s (notice I left off the RPG), “role-playing” games aren’t just about endlessly increasing levels of power or acquiring more and fancier shiny gizmos. They are about playing a role, becoming someone that isn’t you, and telling a cooperative story with a group of people who share mutual respect and trust. Without out the “playing of roles” we are now just playing a tactical strategy game, not a role-playing game.

Some of you may have noticed that over the past few years, I have seemingly flitted from campaign idea to campaign idea, never finishing anything, always moving to the next thing. You’re right. I’m guilty as charged. Actually, I haven’t played a campaign lasting for more than 8 months or coming anywhere close to a conclusion since 2004. That game was a homebrewed D20 Modern campaign based on Stephen King’s Dark Tower novels beginning with Insomnia (not the Robin Williams movie, that is completely unrelated) and Black House. I consider that the best game I’ve ever run, and it is what inspired me to start this one.

I’ve actually done a lot of self-examination to search for a cause for my condition, and I believe I have finally hit on the reason for my recent flightiness.

I participate in gaming for two main reasons. The first is to lose myself, for just a few hours every week, in portraying a character (or multiple characters if I’m GMing) who is not me. The second is to create a cooperative story with a group of people who are also engaging in the first thing.

When a game doesn’t satisfy those two needs, I tend to lose interest, and eventually to stop the game. There were a whole string of games (a D20 Modern and 2 World of Darkness games) that I stopped because one or two players hijacked the game by creating characters that were completely unsuitable for the game and then having the goals of those characters totally incompatible with the story we were trying to tell (see the above article under Respect). There have also been a game or two, including the most recent one, where there was very little, if any, actual role-playing going on at all. The game was mostly focused on endlessly increasing power levels, clearing dungeons, grinding out experience to get more flashy abilities, and acquiring more and better shiny toys. Few players tried to contribute to the shared story, though some did make an effort. There were also times when I felt that some players would rather just “hang out in the lobby instead of going in to see the movie” (see Berin’s article above) and weren’t really interested in the game. When you come to gaming to tell jokes, watch YouTube videos, or surf Facebook, then I feel the effort I put into preparation was a waste of my time.

Before I end this wall of text, please take a few moments to read Vanir’s excellent article on the creation of drama, story, and intelligent role-playing from Critical Hits.

Important Thoughts on Characters, Role-Playing, and Plot

Beyond the Sea DarrenGMiller