July 24, 2020 4:20 PM   Subscribe

I really like so much about tabletop rpgs - the worldbuilding, the systems, the shared inventiveness - but the actual role-playing is really difficult! Help?

I've been increasingly interested in TTRPG stuff -- first with little bits of the Adventure Zone and Friends at the Table, and more recently with actually playing! A little while back, I had a really wonderful and positive experience with The Quiet Year. Our group really focused on the world-building aspects and dynamics between groups, as opposed to individual characters. This gave me space to relax, feel comfortable, contribute, and play off of others' contributions. Yay!

Now I'm trying a longer The Sprawl campaign (cyberpunk indie rpg based on the Apocalypse World engine) with a new group of folks. I really like them and I even like aspects of the character I've created. BUT. I'm re-encountering an old nemesis of mine - roleplaying. Since I was a kid, I've always had a real cognitive block around play-acting as specific people. I've never been good at voicing text, acting, Halloween costumes (they stress me out!!), writing fiction, etc. I'm familiar with some techniques about fleshing out the day-to-day sense of a character - make a mix CD for them!, etc. - but I'm realizing the issue is really with understanding and inhabiting them. It's to a degree that I feel like I kind of just don't... get it, fundamentally?

The practical result of this is that my character appeared in an early scene in our game - not my own scene, just the semblane of a scene - and I just kind of.. froze up I guess. We were winding down anyways, so the game wrapped up, and I've been perserverating a bit over what to Do Next - or rather, just even understanding possibilities for how my character could react, and why. I don't want to add undue anxiety to the group, and I'm also in some sense okay having a growth/beginner mindset here (the "why is it so hard for me to approach characterization?" question now fascinates me, actually!) But! I don't know, I feel stuck!

If you've overcome this hurdle of role-playing in any aspect of your life (learning to love costume parties or voicing characters or whatever it may be!), how did you do it? What would you recommend? Is there in fact some kind of RP-deficiency-disorder you can point me to in myself!? (I'm not being serious, but I do wonder if something fundamental here going on, akin to how some people verbalize text when reading [i do this, in my own voice] and some people don't). I'm also open to the reaction that maybe this style of TTRPG isn't great for me and I'd do better with more systems like The Quiet Year. OR even if there's another part of the TTRPG world (DMing?) that would be a better fit for me. But I'm open to focusing on the roleplaying aspect and improving it, as I think it would just be a helpful skill to develop generally...

Any thoughts welcome, thank you!

PS: On preview, I see that answers to this 2013 Ask do a great job surfacing a lot about designing and planning a character well. I will explore this as I find it useful, but I would describe my point of difficulty(/panic) slightly downstream of this process (although surely related!) in that I feel blocked from inhabiting and understanding internally a character. Hope that helps.
posted by elephantsvanish to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It sounds like your group really thinks in terms of scenes / dramatization, etc., which with respect to the 'another part of the TTRPG world ... that would be a better fit' part of your question calls to mind the old Threefold Model: like, you might consider instead a game and/or gaming group that emphasizes either playing characters more like 'pawns' you're moving on a board or 'models' of persons you're simply making decisions for. It's still role-playing and can be interestingly dramatic, even if you're not inhabiting the character. Either way, Keith Johnstone's Impro has advice and limbering exercises that could be worth contemplating--it's a fun read anyhow.
posted by Wobbuffet at 4:44 PM on July 24, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Talk to your dog or cat or houseplants or hat rack or corner spiders or other pets to practice role play. And if you don’t have any of those maybe consider getting one :)
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:03 PM on July 24, 2020

Best answer: Part of it is just (easier said than done I know) being okay with doing it badly. This can be easier in a game that doesn't take itself too seriously.

The other part is basically what wobbuffet mentions, trying different ways of conceptualizing the situation like taking a more directorial stance instead of inhabiting the role. Thinking in terms of saying charactername does suchandsuch instead of I do suchandsuch might be helpful.

Another conceptual frame to try might be instead of thinking of your character as someone with an interior life/history from which decisions emerge as a consequence, instead pick decisions that seem interesting in the moment and backfill after the fact what that might suggest about underlying interiority.
posted by juv3nal at 6:01 PM on July 24, 2020 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I stronlgy agree with juv3nal. Jumping straight into 'acting' as a character can be a lot more than directing a character. Another thought is that a lot of situations in a role playing game are fairly predictable, so you can consider ahead of time what sort of reaction your character might have. I don't know the specifics of The Sprawl, but a few scenarios might be:
* Encounters a hostile NPC who physically threatens them
* Encounters someone in clear distress asking for help
* Is ambushed or attacked in overwhelming manner
* Is attacked by an intelligent enemy that could be reasoned with
* Has a particular skill that could really help the team, but involves personal risk

Even if they don't specifically come up, having thought of what your character could do in scenarios like this really helps during the game. And remember, there are no right answers here! Sometimes the more outrageous responses become the most interesting.

I really encourage you to take the 3rd person description perspective as you gain comfort.
posted by meinvt at 6:39 PM on July 24, 2020

Best answer: I used to have that problem, then I changed the way I approached RP. Now, rather than inhabit the character from the inside, I find it easier to give a character 2-3 strong, interesting personality traits and try to play off of those. Emphasize the ones the table likes and drop the ones that don't get a good reaction or that you don't end up finding fun. Sure, my characters do have deep inner lives, formative experiences, nagging doubts, whatever, just because I enjoy thinking about that stuff -- but they aren't the main thing that comes into play at the table. Instead, my last character would have been described by the rest of the party as "savage" or "loves nature waay to much". My current character mostly comes across as a devoted wife and mother (or, as the party notes describe her, "a nice lady").

Heck, one technique is to base characters off of fictional or historical characters or celebrities, and as long as you're not *completely* transparent about it, nobody will even realize it, especially if your source is even the tiniest bit obscure. (My current character is based heavily on Molly Solverson and Marge Gunderson from Fargo, right down to the accent. Nobody has noticed.) These characters are already well-developed, and it can be easier to think "what would Elon Musk do?" or "what would Lisa Simpson do?" than what would (my character) do? I know it sounds very derivative, but the original character is only a base. You'll end up diverging from the character anyway -- both intentionally and not -- and coming up with something that's your own.
posted by phoenixy at 12:31 AM on July 25, 2020

Best answer: I used to really freeze up trying to figure out what to do, what my character would do, etc and it helped a lot to make simpler characters. They grow to be complex over time, as you have experiences in game. I find it very helpful to have a couple of clear anchors about what my character wants to do.

For example, I had one character who was a fortune teller and very clever and very good at sleight of hand and had a whole backstory around diplomacy, but in hindsight I realize was really just a list of talents that didn't have any motivating force. I ended up replacing that character with a character whose motivation was to show off her fighting skills and get stronger. That sounds kind of dumb and cliched but it was much easier and more fun to role play, both for me and for the rest of the party too.
posted by Lady Li at 7:23 AM on July 25, 2020

Best answer: While I haven't had your specific issue, I have a few adjacent observations which I think overlap and may be helpful.

The first is that there isn't a single "correct" way to roleplay, even at the same table with the same group. Some people like to do an accent, or emote a lot, or lovingly describe their actions in great specific detail, and other people don't. Some people like to do a lot of detailed real-time dialogue with the GM, and some people prefer to summarise the content and desired outcome of dialogue without actually stepping through it in real time. You can also prefer doing these things differently under different circumstances -- for example, it's common to want to fast forward through a relatively routine and uninteresting conversation while focusing in more detail on a more meaningful dialogue with an important NPC. And while I personally find third-person narration odd, and it's not the norm in the groups I play with, if that's something that feels more natural and less awkward to you than first person, you do you!

The second is that you don't have to be "on" all the time. In every game I've been in recently there are typically multiple conversations going on in parallel at the same time: "real" in-character talk (descriptions and dialogue that "really count" and that the GM acknowledges and takes seriously as what you're actually doing in the game), in-character meta humour (things that you say ostensibly in character, but which you're not serious about and which the GM does not interpret as your genuine intent within the game), out-of-character meta discussion about the game, and miscellaneous out-of-character chatter (which is just pure distraction and is in theory kept to a minimum). What I think is particularly relevant here is that the unserious but in-character layer can be a sort of liminal space where you can explore and play around with your character concept, sometimes in an exaggerated way, before incorporating more toned-down and serious versions of the ideas that you come up with in the serious play layer. But your whole group needs to have a shared understanding of how this works, and not be the kind of people who think that anything you say in character counts and there are no take-backsies, so every stupid joke is immediately incorporated into the game. But I've only really encountered that kind of gameplay among teens who think that potty humour is hilarious, so you are probably safe.

The third is that sometimes you just don't feel a character concept, even if it sounded good on paper. And that's fine, and there should be room within the game for you to retire one character and make a new one if you come up with a better character idea that you're more excited about. I often do this when the idea I had for a character doesn't end up working because the idea of the campaign that I had before the campaign started does not match the reality. You can also heavily modify your original character concept during the game to make the character work better, either using some kind of retcon, or via an in-game event that affects your character somehow. Try to analyse on a meta level what you find fun and not fun within the game -- what kinds of things would you like your character to do in the game? What kinds of storylines, what kinds of interactions, etc.. What do you think is preventing you from participating in those kinds of game elements? Conversely, what kinds of things do you find boring and want to minimise? You don't have to come up with all the ideas for this yourself -- speak to the GM and the other players. A lot of good character design depends on relationships that your character has with other player characters and NPCs. So someone else may have a good suggestion.

The fourth is that if you're at all introverted (or maybe that's not even a requirement; I don't know), you will probably feel weird and self-conscious and awkward the first [several] times that you roleplay. I think that's pretty normal. This is not a common mode of conversation, and it can feel strange and embarrassing. I still feel like this sometimes, particularly during the first five minutes of a LARP, or when I'm playing with lots of new people. But it passes, because at some point the immersion kicks in, and because I recognise that everyone around me is engaging in the same shared activity. We are all essentially giving each other permission to do this weird thing together and not feel weird about it. It may help if you think of a roleplaying game as an unscripted play which you are all putting on for each other, because on some level that is exactly what it is.
posted by confluency at 3:31 PM on July 25, 2020

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