Getting into character
Actual Play shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone have done so much good for roleplaying games, and they have more people than ever excited about playing them. But while watching actors and other career performers ham it up in an RPG is fun, it can audiences with the impression that they have to be performers to really enjoy the game. Roleplaying simply uses a lot of the same skills and tools as other kinds of performance, skills that professionals have built up over time but ones that everyone can learn and put to use at the table.
I started playing RPGs as a shy, anxious wreck of a teenager, and after running roleplaying games for the better part of a decade, I still get nervous before most sessions. But here’s the thing—I have tools I use to prepare and cope with those nerves. I picked some of these up pursuing a degree in theatre, which left me with both a mountain of crippling debt and a—slightly smaller—mountain of strategies and structures to help build characters for all kinds of performance. So, here are some theatre-flavored tips to make getting into roleplaying easier.
Use the Third Person
Most “acting for roleplayers” advice—and, hell, some RPG rulebooks—explicitly tell you to only use first person, and to always speak as your character when you can. That advice is good when you’re up to taking it, but it can be overwhelming and put you on the spot as a new player. If it’s your turn to speak and you feel uncomfortable in your new character’s skin, it can help to put some distance between yourself and the action. Something like “Vel’eseth nods and says she agrees with the party that the Goblin King is too dangerous to let live,” moves the action along just as well as an impassioned in-character monologue about the menace of the Goblin King.
Do Your Homework
Just like reading up on your chosen spells and character abilities in Dungeons & Dragons helps you use those abilities more appropriately, you can do some acting exercises to prepare you to embody your character more easily. If you feel better winging it and seeing what happens in the moment, great! Go for it. If the idea of winging it makes you break out in hives, stick with me. Actors commonly work out three primary elements of a character’s inner life, which we can apply to roleplaying—We’ll be calling these objectives, superobjectives, and tactics.
Consider Your Objectives
An objective is a simple statement of what your character wants in a scene. The best way to phrase this is usually with a gerund, “to [action verb] something or someone”. For example, “To claim the dragon’s hoard”, “To destroy this horrible murder-circus”, or “to make out with the Galactic Ever-Queen”. It can be helpful to keep a piece of paper or a page in a notes app open, and to jot down what you think your character wants at the beginning of a scene or play session. This way, if you’re ever stuck on what your character would do in a situation, you can easily refer to what they want and work it out from there.
You may accomplish your objective within a scene or change what you want for another reason. That’s great! You don’t have to have a new objective immediately—-come up with it when you have a second, maybe when Todd is looking up the grappling rules for the third fucking time this session. Thanks, Todd.
Crucially, if you find that your objective is making you into an asshole toward your fellow players, change it. If it feels like the direction you’re taking is bumming people out or making them uncomfortable, change it. I might have a really fun concept for a fart-fetishist bog witch, but I’m going to need a very specific game and group of friends for that one to see the light of day (Someday, Griselda). There’s so much narrative territory to explore without hurting your friends’ feelings or grossing them out, so changing objectives is easy.
Plan Some Superobjectives
Speaking of easy stuff, superobjectives are just objectives but bigger and more broad. Character creation is the best time to think about superobjectives, since this will help guide the other decisions you make about your character. Superobjectives are usually something like “to kill my brother and avenge the Uchiha clan”, “to become the Hokage and gain the respect of the ninja world”, or “to pass on my knowledge and experience to a new generation of shinobi”.
If you were wondering where to start when coming up with your scene objectives, it’s here. “What helps me accomplish my super-objective?” is a great question to ask when shit hits the fan and you need to figure out how your character is going to react. A change in super-objective reflects a dramatic change in your character, so try not to make this one too easy to accomplish.
Tactics, Tactics, Tactics
The last acting homework tool I’m going to suggest is also the trickiest to apply to improvisational performances like roleplaying. Tactics are how you get what you want, and they tie pretty directly into your objectives. They also usually relate to the obstacles your character faces when trying to get what they want. A helpful way to phrase this is “to [objective] by [action verb]”, like “To claim the dragon’s hoard by sneaking” or “by lying” or “by attacking”.
To build on another example, you want to make out with the Galactic Ever-Queen and she wants to make out with you, but she is constantly attended by security on her fortress planet. You also have a well-deserved royal bounty on your head, and your spaceship is busted. Each of these obstacles would require a different tactic to overcome, and sometimes multiple tactics when the first one doesn’t work out. So, you might try any number of directions to elude capture and gain a private audience with Her Galactic Majesty. I can prepare a number of potential tactics in advance, and decide which one best fits or make up a new one as the situation demands.
In this case, I actually realize that my objective is a bit too big and works better as a superobjective. I cross some shit out and come up with new smaller goals in service to my guiding space-thirst. Now I have a bunch of objectives: “To repair my busted-ass ship”, “to Infiltrate the Ever-Queen’s fortress planet”, and “to escape the space-cops”. As my group plays out whatever story we build together, I can look for ways to accomplish my objectives and apply my tactics to try to get that shit done.
Now I’m not a passenger waiting for plot and story to happen, but a key player in a space opera I’m helping to write, and I didn’t really have to improvise the big important stuff.
But remember: the raddest shit that happens in roleplaying games is unexpected. The stories that stick with us after we pack up our dice and leave the table are never about the player characters’ plans going smoothly and perfectly—they’re always about their cyberpunk street gang triggering too many security alarms and having to blow up an office park, or the party’s bard failing to seduce the Grand Necromancer and the rest of them helping him escape an eldritch sex dungeon.
We love these games precisely because they defy our plans and demand that we sit in the moment to play. It might seem counterproductive to plan for something that is—at its best—batshit chaos, but actors do it all the time. Preparing for the parts of your game that you can control will help you react more naturally to the unpredictable twists your game will take. And in turn, feeling more comfortable in the moment will help everyone at the table get more into the action, and ultimately create a more compelling, less self-conscious game.
Header image by Frankie Fouganthin, CC-BY-SA