Learning to Roleplay

Reposted from Gametime

One of the major strands I keep tugging at in my own mind is how you teach someone to roleplay. I guess, really broadly, the attitude I’ve generally encountered is that “how” someone roleplays is a function of their personality, something that can’t be changed in fundamentals. Running counter to this is a current of thought relating to gaming theory – how people roleplay, why they roleplay, what the mechanics are. Usually my experience is that theory becomes somewhat divorced from practice, or becomes a generic archetype that never seems to quite translate back into real life.

IME, a good example of this failure in practical application is probably GDS/GNS/Big Model. I’ve spent quite a bit of time using it, and you can pluck on threads to partially explain some phenomena, but on the whole it fails in a generic or total sense to explain what’s going on at the table. YMMV, obviously, but that’s been my experience.

As a result, some of the big thinkers I’ve talked to have become very focused on roleplaying as craft. This is, essentially, a list of techniques that you can apply in specific situations. In a modest way, quite a bit of my writing here and on my own blog has been aimed at that kind of approach. And I think that this approach does yield some good results, and eventually you can synthesize large chunks of it into specific-game theories. In large part, my interlocution on Long Term Games is aimed at this kind of approach – what specific things have Ivan and Steve done and seen that worked to sustain a game into “Long Term”.

Recently though, my thinking has been turning away from this methodology to look towards analagous human experiences, and not surprisingly given the proportion of time I spend doing it, I’ve struck on the notion of roleplaying as a team sport.

This should probably conjure images of “gamist” play in your mind, since I took the time to foreshadow it in my introduction. And if you compare a highly structured sport like American Football to the way 4e explicitely provides for different tactical roles, the analogy I’m making seems so obvious you’d wonder why I even bothered posting it on an obscure antipodian RPG blog. Well, the reason is to see whether we can look at the way a sports team structures and trains to see whether there’s anything useful there for becoming a better roleplayer.

In no particular order…

One thing that strikes me immediately about the top level sportsmen I know, is that they aren’t confused about the rules of their game, and they are well informed about the numerous points of application. When was the last time you were watching the English Primiership and one of the players asked “what’s the off-side rule again?” Yet in comparison, this happens all the time in games I’ve played.

Why would it be important for someone to have grappled with the minutae of the rules to roleplay well? In traditional games I think you can make the argument that as the game mechanics largely deal with the material world, while the game interest lies with the characters’ emotional reality. But I think that Indie games have shown that the mechanics for a game have a powerful influence on the available emotional realities and establish a set of world laws which will crucially affect those inside the game. I cannot imagine playing in a M:TA game, for example, without having a solid grip on the magic system. All your choices would devolve down into those of an ordinary mortal, and then what’s the point of playing M:TA?

Another thing which is obvious about skilled competitors is that they prepare for the sport they play. This takes a number of forms, but the two most common would be

* practicing isolated skills
* focused/coached practice games

The difficulty with practicing an isolated skill in RPGs is that we have difficulty isolating what those skills are. What are the core skills? I doubt any two commenters would agree. Whereas in almost all sports, there are easily identified physical actions which you can distinctly practice. Kicking a soccer ball, throwing a big pile of discs at a cone, doing fitness training to increase your endurance, and so on.

Certain games to allow something akin to this: Min/Maxing. One of the most poorly regarded activities in our hobby is optimizing your character. If you’re playing an Old School D&D game, the main activity you’ll be doing is fighting. To make decisions which don’t buy in to the game’s premise that you should become good at fighting things is counter-intuitive at best.

Where the problem comes is that many people use the wrong tool for the job they want done. If you want a game where fighting doesn’t matter, and people should learn to knit instead of hack, why are you playing D&D? Isn’t there a better game for what you want?

How about practice games then? Well, here on Gametime we’ve seen it attempted. Luke ran With Great Power as a training exercise for his group so that he could run Mutants and Masterminds. Without wanting to understate the value of Indie games, I think that they are often very good at isolating particular environments and story shapes. After my own tangle with With Great Power I felt like I understood how you could implement kickers and scene framing a lot better than before, even though the game itself was disappointing on many levels.

To some extent, every game you play is practice for the next game you play. I think there needs to be an element of reflection in the aftermath of any game. When my Ultimate team wins, I come back to my house and think about how we won: was it just luck? Was it quick passsing or long throws? Was it our defence? And when I come back from a loss, I do so but with efforts redoubled. So every game I take a bit of wisdom with me to the next game: it was practice.

More generally, there is preparation that you can do for any game. The basic view that “planning doesn’t help” is also counter intuitive to me. My Ultiamte team wins more when I have a game plan and structure our attack than when we simply rock up and see how things fall out. Where the problem comes is that I think most people don’t really know how to prepare. And let’s not forget that preparation can be abandonned if circumstances change – it can’t be done spontaneously.

The sporting analogy can be as drastic as a soccer team practicing rugby. You need to prepare in the right way for it to be beneficial. I was recently doing some Ultimate coaching and one player was practicing stepping with the wrong foot: no wonder I’d seen them do is wrong on the field!

What would constitute good preparation then? I think one key thing I’ve always neglected is talking about the game. My Ultimate team don’t try and make detailed plans and discuss tactics in the middle of the game: we do that beforehand, so that when we’re in the thick of it, we’ve got a road-map.

Not all pre-game discussion is that useful. The main thing I find is that people are able to talk about gaming a lot better than they actually do it. I had one player in my M:TA game who had this awesomely creepy picture of his character in his mind. He’d always be scheming about this or other morally shady thing she’d be attempting to further her understanding of death. But, when it came to the game proper… it was underwhelming. His mental picture was too difficult to execute. The sports analogy here would be a bunch of school kids talking about how in this week’s match they’ll bust past the defence, then put a cross to a header into the top right corner: it’s just plainly not on the cards.

Game discussion, like sports discussion, should be focused around what actually happened: the good and the bad. Goals should be general, discussion of likes and dislikes should be specific and grounded in the events in the game. When coaching one of my C-graders, I don’t say “you played well on Offence” I say “your feint to get free was well executed”. Keep analysis specific, keep it recent, and above all, keep it positive.

In conclusion… roleplaying is like everything else we Humans do. It’s done well by a lot of people using nothing but raw talent and intuition. It’s also done well by a lot of people who dedicate real time and effort to mastering the skills involved in the game.

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