Recently, I have been in a conversation with a GM, whose game I play in, who wants to incorporate more RP into his game – and that made me start thinking about what I have learned about the subject, over the years. Which brought me to the point of ‘What is Roleplay’, along with thoughts of ‘As a DM, what do I do that encourages Roleplay’. And, of course, which of those things actually work. If you don’t know already, I have spent my working like swapping around between academic and analytical roles. This is what happen to you.
Face to Face games.
Back in the day, back when face-2-face AD&D 1 was king, we had very few Roleplaying tools – basically Class and Alignment. Class gave you a very limited set of skills to work with, and Alignment gave you a behavioural perspective. There was the chaotic hanging off the back of the party sulking because they hadn’t got their own way or going off on their own in the middle of a perfectly good team plan. The fighter beating is sword against his shield to attract attention, the cleric preaching to the peasants, and sometimes the other characters as well.
Add in the limited class abilities, everyone was a specialist, you had to learn how to perform your role in the group and play that out. Fighters needed to understand combat tactics, Wizards needed to know their spells – did you know that the 1st ed rules suggests that aren’t allowed to check a spell’s description mid-game? Unpopular with modern character classes and endless spell lists – but certainly an element of Role Playing that was available to (forced on) us back in the day.
That was complemented by bits of in-character banter, generally quite short, and taking place in the context of the adventure. There was never any deep Role Play, interactions with shopkeepers and other NPCs were rarely played out in any depth – and for good reason. If there are six people sitting around a table waiting to play, and one gets involved in a 15-minute negotiation with a shopkeeper, the others get bored. That might be a tenth of their game time for the evening gone up in smoke.
Role play is simple, quick and often behavioural. Even today, face to face sessions at my gaming table are like that. Interspersed with a lot of banter, in jokes, bad smells, bad food and great fun. My tabletop game is played by good friends who I have known for years – and who (now) have known each other for years. They trust each other, don’t need to be the leader, don’t need to be the best … it is a communal game played by a bunch of RL friends for communal entertainment. TBH, I could run any old crap (and I have) as it is the players who make the game.
I think of that as Behavioural Roleplay because it is exhibited in the character’s day-to-day behaviour.
There is another type of behavioural roleplay on RPoL as well – descriptive writing. Just recently, for example, I have seen a cleric trying to work out how badly he was affected by an ability drain. He made a good entertaining IC post, as he tried to check out his mental faculties. Then backed it up with an OOC comment. Other examples include: priests explaining their deity’s ‘take’ on something (The religious forum comes in to its own, occasionally); a strong argument to defend the waterway south of Tusk; an habitual drunk being drunk; characters negotiating business deals and bards singing songs.
And that, for some people, is enough. And that is absolutely fine. It adds greatly to the game. It is so important, in my view, that I give XP awards for good roleplay in adventure posts. It isn’t much, and it isn’t every time, but characters who have a lot of roleplay elements in their posts, advance a bit more quickly than those who don’t.
There is still in-character banter between characters, as anyone who has seen the Roths playing, can confirm. But that doesn’t always come easy – I have gamed with the other players behind the Roths for 20 years or so (on and off) and even then it took a while to build a joint background we were all happy with. But we finished up with characters who trust each other and players who trust each other … almost the same as those friends sitting around the table, having fun.
Why did I bring the Roths into it? Because I wanted to tell you that we had to work on it. For inter character banter to work properly, characters have to know each other and have some trust in the other player. How does that happen on RPoL? Well, more role play, of course. And that is where the DM comes in – we have to make time and space for that roleplaying.
When do characters get the chance to just chat, in a way that doesn’t hold the rest of the party up? Even on RPOL an IC chat, between two characters in an adventure thread, holds the game up for the other players. There certainly isn’t time, in adventure threads, for meaningful relationships, ‘get to know you’ chats, or even an extended conversation. Somehow, the DM needs to make time for these conversations, if we want to encourage more extensive roleplay.
Fuzzy Time: While there are other techniques, I use a concept called Fuzzy Time. Some threads, and most PMs, are conducted in Fuzzy Time. That means no one is quite sure when that conversation took place – it happened sometime during the characters’ downtime – although the precise time (and sometimes place) isn’t known. The prime rule for Fuzzy Threads are that characters can talk about anything that happened before they left town last. Current adventures are off limits. But this means that parties can be thrown, a duelling league can be played out, committees can meet, lovers can love – etc etc. It lets us have conversations between parties, for friendships across groups, maintain relationships while characters are in different group. It is, I think, the main enabler of intercharacter RP in the Stolen Lands game.
Fuzzy Threads: If Fuzzy Time enables RP, then you have to have public threads that allow characters to meet and sets the scene for that Roleplay. Characters are like people in RL, some make friends easily, other less so. Some people are happy walking up to complete strangers and saying ‘Hi, I want to talk to you’ – other people (and their characters) will never say anything like that, and are happy going through life with a series of casual acquaintances. It is also a gender thing (don’t shout at me yet) many more women have ‘best friends’ and hold deep meaningful conversations with them, than men do. *shrug* That is as it is. But many players and their characters are men – and in my experience, they don’t socialize as easily. I rarely see private threads without at least one female character who (appears to be) played by a female. I see quite a few threads where female characters form a personal bond and do stuff together.
However, I digress, almost all of those RP interactions have come from seed threads that I have started. I start regular fuzzy threads all over the stolen lands game. There have been parties, weddings, religious councils, development planning meetings, shopping trips, boat trips, duelling competitins, road trips huge meetings, small meetings – all sorts of Fuzzy Threads. They serve two purposes – the first is to encourage a bit of non-adventure RP – while the second is to throw people together.
Religious Meetings, for example, encourage players of ‘divine’ characters to think about their deity’s position on a subject and put t forward. Shopping trips, encourage players develop a ‘style’ for their character. I give players the chance to politic, cut deals, meet helpful NPCs etc. Small scale, perhaps, but all different aspects of Roleplaying a character. (What do you mean? You didn’t know I was that devious? I am a DM! Of course I am that devious!)
In multi-group games, the Fuzzy Threads have a second purpose as well. Just as in RL, Characters have to meet and have a reason to spend time together – ie RP in any depth. Those fuzzy threads are the bars, gyms and clubs of the real world. Fuzzy Threads are where Characters first meet with characters from other adventuring parties. If they don’t meet, there is no chance of any RP between them – but if they do meet – sometimes there is a chemistry … (But I’ll get to that later).
The fuzzy threads have a third use as well, I seed them with RP hooks for characters to follow. Some fall by the wayside, but some bear fruit. The last trip to East Rostland saw a couple dating, two women go out shopping (and deal with social inequality via a tipping quandary), a character make a declaration of political support, while another character negotiated a business deal. That was a good thread for RP :]
One of the best I have seen was in Valarez, when the DM put on a whole ‘country fair’, with music, dancing, competitions and all sorts for a multi-party game. That was fun to play.
Started by the DM, initial direction given by the DM – but then let the characters take over and respond to their actions. Just normal DMing really, but in a context that highlights RP possibilities, rather than an ‘adventure’.
Spontaneous RP: There are times when inter-character RP happens without much intervention from the DM, although it still needs enabling. In the Stolen Lands, we have had people meeting it the inns, in the temple, and a couple of other laces, off their own back. That led to short RP episodes – one of which caused a bit of a ‘falling out’ between characters. But even then, the DM has to facilitate those meetings by creating places for them to happen. There are any number of location threads scattered around the Stolen Lands. It doesn’t take much to find one and resurrect it. So long as characters use them according to the Fuzzy Time rules, that isn’t a problem.
In Valerez, the DM went about things a different way, by encouraging player to run NPC merchants using the Paizo Downtime rules. We used the simpler system of cash values for rooms, buildings and developments – and it worked reasonably well. However, it only ever led to sporadic RP sessions. That was fun, although there can be a lot of admin involved, keeping track of the gold you earn, seeing which extra rooms, or staff, you can buy.
I ran a low level magic shop. It started off doing paper-based stuff, started off with scrolls, drawings, translations, scribing services etc. Then added Potions and Alchemy, and finally Wands. Scrolls are a pain in the butt. As an Adept, Jahi could only make divine scrolls, and there aren’t all that many scrolls that are on both of the Adept and Cleric spell lists – They didn’t really take off until I got a wizard as an assistant. Potions came from a L1 Witch assistant.
RP interaction came from three sources
- first was when PCs came in during downtime between adventures. It tended to be short, and fairly concise – but there was some RP involved. Then it stopped until the next down time.
- Then there were the general RP sessions that the DM ran, and the down time sessions at the Inn, which formed the centrepiece of the player downtime experience. So the Craft got to chat to the PCs for a while.
- Then there was some interaction between the crafter, townsfolk. Mainly discussions on how we were going to arrange things between us, trading services and carving up new business opportunities.
It became obvious that we all needed something unique to distinguish us from the other NPC crafters. In some ways it was almost archetypes/ caricature / melodrama level – but it helped distinguish us and make us memorable from / during quick visits between long adventures.
The longest running, and most intense RP threads have all be romantic. Carried out in Private Messages (within the RPoL guidelines) Romances can go on for a long long time. I have seen them delve into house furnishings, where go for dinner, what to wear, whether to be seen together in public … all the everyday dating /living together stuff :} But fade to black before there is any Jiggy-Jiggy, because the stolen lands is not an adult game.
Interestingly, they can continue working after marriage. There are conversations about business, setting up a house, how to manage the holdings, how many babies to have …
Relationships are the RP source that just keep on giving.