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Opportunity Actions: A Roleplaying Primer

Lately, I’ve been looking into the way people role-play. There are many different ways of doing it. Some are great. Some don’t work as well. Some rely on the player in question making the most of the conditions. When one is getting into roleplaying, or looking to inject a little more color into the game by boosting roleplaying, it can seem a daunting task. I’m going to address a few issues I’ve seen crop up, and maybe help make your roleplaying better.

Let it be known. A lot of this is my opinion, based on many years of roleplaying, acting, and improvisation. What I say here may work for some of you, but not for others. If you try something, and decide it’s not for you, try the opposite. Roleplaying is a very personal experience, and telling anyone that it’s being done wrong is wrong by its very suggestion. Please remember that, and take what I say with the proper grain of salt.

Getting Into Character

Think about who your character is. Often, there will be things on your character sheet (or other character-tracking thing) that tell you things about your character. You may have background information, powers, particular weapons, or other such things that help define a personality. If you have a high Intelligence (or whatever) score, maybe that informs the way this person speaks. If it’s lower, perhaps that can affect things as well.

Who You Are

In terms of the game, you are your character. Be that person. Look at these two examples:

  • “Sterculious swings his +2 blade at the orc leader”

-OR-

  • “I raise my blade, anger coursing through my veins, and use it to separate the orcish monster’s head from his shoulders.”

The first statement is very effective. It tells you what the character is doing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take any ownership of what’s happening. The second statement, however, along with being rather long, owns the act. Whoever is attacking here clearly defines what he is attacking, how he’s attacking it, and, most importantly suggests why he’s attacking it.

Note also the colorful difference in language. The second part is very strongly worded, adding tension to what would otherwise be a ‘pointy end goes in the bad guy’ sort of statement. It’s not always easy to be terribly colorful when describing things. That’s ok. With practice, these things can get easier to do. Also, you don’t have to describe EVERY attack this way. When you do that, you become ‘that guy’, the over-actor that treats every gaming session like his nomination piece for the Academy Awards. Not necessarily cool. So, be judicious. Once in a while, describe an action in a fun way, and you’ll feel your character beginning to breathe between your words.

How You Speak Is Important

I have heard people have dialogue between characters by applying signal statements to the things characters say. In a novel, that’s fine, but when play-acting, it sounds kind of weird, and divorces the speaker from what the character is saying. Two more examples:

  • “Sterculious says to the innkeeper, “We need lodging and a place to tie our horses overnight.”

-OR-

  • “My fine slinger of quality ales, we need lodging, and our horses must make use of your stables.”

To be fair, I fluffed out the second one a little, but there’s a good reason for that. In the first example, Sterculious’s player throws out a line of dialogue by describing what Sterculious does. In the second example, he *is* Sterculious, and in that moment, he needs to get the innkeeper’s attention. I imagine that after such a start, he might be moved to describe the need for stable space with a bit more of a vibrant touch.

The Dos/Don’ts

 So, it seems appropriate that, given where I’m going with this, I should put up a list of the particluar dos and don’ts of bringing more flavor to your game:

DOs

  • DO speak as your character, using words they’d use.
  • DO use a voice you think works for the character. Sometimes a character might talk like you, but not always. Explore that.
  • DO use evocative language to suggest more lying just beneath the surface of your character’s actions.
  • DO be conversational. If someone is speaking to your character, let that character respond in the way that feels right.

DON’Ts

  • DON’T speak in a matter of fact manner, unless that’s a vital part of who your character is.
  • DON’T feel confined by yourself and your own voice.
  • DON’T use plain language. Plain bread is nice, but a nice meaty sandwich has a lot more going on inside it.
  • DON’T use signal statements. If your character is speaking, then you should make sure that we hear the character talking, not your description of it.

and, most importantly,

  • DON’T OVERDO IT. This is roleplaying, not Shakespeare.

Summary

So, let me sum up by saying that roleplaying is a team sport. You’re in it to have fun, and so’s everyone else. Make it fun for yourself, but also make it fun for others, and it’s a guaranteed win.

Have I missed anything? I’m sure I have, and I’m sure some of you out there disagree with me. I’d love your input.

Watch your threatened squares.

IMAGE NOTES: The image of Master Thespian was found at Democratic Underground.

About

The Opportunist (a.k.a Seamus) has been playing D&D and/or some other form of RPG for the last 24 years. For the past two years he has been at the head of the table, behind a screen, in the role of the DM. He began at Cub Scout Camp, played through high school, and still enjoys gaming today. Seamus is a graphic designer by day, a devoted husband and father of two all the time, and an all around good guy. That is, until you get him behind the DMing screen, then he can be a nightmare (in a good way, no, really!).

7 Responses to “Opportunity Actions: A Roleplaying Primer”

  • Great advice. Obviously it wouldn’t work for an introvert, but for anyone who has a desire to participate (my preferred player type) this is exactly how I like to see it done.

  • I have to disagree. Almost completely.

    Clarity is also important, and mixing player and character is a great way to confuse things and lead to conflict of IC and OOC. If one player were to say to the other: “I think you’re doing it wrong”, is that the player to the player or the character to the character? On the other hand, “Bracklef snarls to Taszi, “I think you’re doing it wrong!”” is unambiguous.

    Another situation where In and Out of Character would collide is the system. “I roll a twenty, so I cleave into the goblin, resulting in blood splashing everywhere.” … Fail! And then the system gets fuzzy — The player can declare that the character is on a particular initiative count, but the character has no concept of “initiative” that determines when they act, they just act. And I’m sure that characters don’t have an IC understanding of “Encounter Power” versus “Daily Power”… they just do stuff.

    Tabletop RPGs, as opposed to LARPs, aren’t about acting out a character, as opposed to portraying a character. Third person in my opinion is just a good a portrayal as first person, especially when the immersion is broken up by an intrusive system.

  • @Rob
    I think you missed some of my point. I probably wasn’t totally clear.
    I’ll use your example, using what I’ve outlined:
    Taszi’s Player (T): I take a fistful of the sacred herbs, and begin the incantation.
    Bracklef’s Player (B): “I think you’re doing it wrong.”
    T: “What do you mean?”
    B: “You must eat the herbs before the incantation, then burn the offering.”

    That is totally unambiguous. I realize I threw in quotation marks. That’s more for the benefit of the reader, who might not get some of the nuance the players might be employing in a character’s voice.

    As for your combat example, you’re kind of smashing story and system together. Picture it more this way:

    Player: (Rolls dice. It’s a natural twenty. GM gives a nod, signifying the blow kills the target.) My faithful club comes down on the goblin’s head, chrushing its skull. Its body collapses into a lifeless pile of goblin parts on the floor as black blood pools around its corpse.

    No mention of dice or numbers needs to come into play. Obviously, a character knows nothing of turn order, names/types of powers (in some cases), etc., but the mechanics can be more understated if people are playing more to the story. In the case of D&D 4E, powers have names and fluff descriptions that not only suggest characterful ways to use them, but give an exact description of what happens when they’re activated.

    RPG’s, in any form, are about role-playing, or playing a role. Essentially, it’s collective storytelling. If you’re playing a character, and you want that character to leave a lasting impression, portraying that character is vital to the experience.

    Conversely, if you’re more interested in a strategy gaming experience, that’s totally up to you, the player/GM. Both styles are valid.

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  • I feel like roleplaying is the spice of D&D, and I feel as though you covered this very well. I’ve been accused of overdoing it before, but then again I play with other players who focus on the mechanics rather than the story.

    Going to the “Who you Are” aspect, I see both sides in my current weekly campaign (Dark Sun). About half of the players just say what they are doing, and the other half explain and put flavor into the powers given. For example, our assassin’s constant shifting and attacking is just that…shifting and attacking. When our DM-Ruled cleric (In Dark Sun, our DM ruled him to be the equivalent of a raving lunatic shouting “the end is near,” with people not believing him. And he loves every minute of it) heals, he just heals with nothing else aside from that. Yes, it gets things done, but it makes me feel as though the combat is lacking.

    Our Warden and I on the other hand, are rather different. Our Wilden Warden, for example, transforms into the Willow Sentiel (Try saying Willow Wilden Warden ten times fast…not intentional, either), and he describes it as his entire appearance changing. Instead of a dead-ish walking tree, he becomes a large walking willow, sprouting branches and leaves where dead ones once were. I do similarly with Finnian, my acrobatic halfling rogue, but on a different level. Since many of my powers involve charging, and I have the Acrobatics and Dexterity to pull it off, the DM is allowing me to essentially front-flip my way into the charge, rather than running to it. Yes, this does somewhat muddle up the idea of the charge (extra power from rushing in), but I think of it more as a “He aligns his blade to hit in a place it wouldn’t normally be able to hit, making up for the lack of power.” We don’t go in excessive detail each time we use these powers, but we do mention a small burb after the first time they were used.

    Of course, the first group mentioned complains that we take too long and the combat would flow much easier if we just did what we had to do. We do clash and poke fun at eachother, but it’s all in good humor. But the clashing still does exist.

    That may be the only thing I would really add to the article. The Clash between non-roleplayers and roleplayers is real, even more so when there’s about an even number on both sides of the fence. It’s not always serious or harmful to the game, but it can be.

    Then again, I’ve been known to talk for three hours straight in a Cockney-Australian hybrid of an accent (because I suck at accents) with bits of elvish thrown in just to show that a character’s common is spoken in a broken way. Thus, I probably be biased.

She Who Shouts Fluffy on June 3rd, 2011 at 3:46 am