Putting the Actor In-Character

I read an interesting exchange of comments at Trollsmyth and even more at Wasted Lands ostensibly concerning ‘railroading,’ but drifting quickly into a discussion of  problems which can crop up in what has become known as ‘sandbox play.’ I cite these as problems of sandbox games as in a case of actual railroading, they essentially cannot happen. Since being directed to these threads by another post at The Rhetorical Gamer, I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what I want to say, but while I can think of a lot of comments and examples, I am finding it hard to narrow things down to a single, salient point.

One problem, much more common that actual railroading tends to be, is one of players trying to beat the GM, and/or each other, rather than trying to be successful – as their characters would define it – in the context of the story. There is a world of difference between trying to out-think the GM as a person and player, and trying to interact with the game world they are weaving with you in order to form a story that is entertaining for each participant. 

The other is one of players choosing to put their own immediate gratification before that of the group, using the freedom of this style of play as an excuse for doing whatever they want, when they want to do it.

I see both of these problems as having various unrelated causes, but being rooted to at least one common thing… not playing in-character.

So…part of what I wish to say lies in the player’s responsibility to stay in-character. A tremendous amount has been written on what a good GM should do, and how to properly prepare for players. It is a big challenge to undertake. Players who can be counted on to consider their actions and goal-setting consistently, and do so through the filter of what the character they have designed would think was the right thing to do, can immensely improve the success of the GM and the overall enjoyment of the game. It cannot overcome the failure to work of a lazy or ill-prepared GM, but it is the foundation on which a good game is built. A good game is built around what the players enjoy, and who their characters are. If the foundation is lacking, nothing can be built. Chaos ensues, and someone has to rein it in or the game ends. Does that person always have to be the GM? Isn’t it easier and less problematic if the problem is avoided before it even begins?

In an open game environment where various plots, story hooks and threads, rumours, quests, side quests, jobs, and implied duties abound, and the GM works to provide a framework of consistent and persistent setting interwoven with actions and reactions concerning the PCs, the group can and should feel free to ‘do anything.’ 

There is an implication that can be missed, however, which puts parameters around the anything: anything within reason.    Those parameters are defined by what the character would equate with reasonable behaviour were they a real person, and they delineate the difference between simple, impulse-driven wish-fulfilment, and participating in a roleplaying game.

Two classic examples of not following this approach are using one’s character as if there were no consequences, and treating the story and one’s part in it as inconsequential compared to a perceived opportunity for immediate gratification. These are classic in that they have happened to several other GMs that I know personally, and these examples in particular are classic because they happened in games I was running.

You can see this in the case where the character is suddenly made to mouth off to the King’s men rather than submit to a reasonable but annoying request, embroiling themselves, the party, and some NPCs in a pointless brawl which contributes nothing to the story except complications for all concerned. A hobby should let you relieve stress and let off steam, but since when does that mean pretending to be a psychotic, thin-skinned, homicidal hooligan? Does it not stand to reason that once you hear what the errand boys have to say, you can get on with the fun part of slaughtering and looting your way through whatever scenario the GM cooked up for *your* entertainment?

It is also evident in the action of agreeing to undertake a certain challenge, but then dropping it in favour of something of sudden personal interest to the player. The cultists are going to succeed in their nefarious plan to immanentize the eschaton in the next 12 hours unless the party can figure out how to foil the ritual. Instead of working on that very important agenda, the character is made to start running confidence scams door-to-door because…  the player suddenly wants to use the super high Fast Talk and Persuade skills they suddenly remembered were on their sheet and it would be “in-character.” 

Ummmm, right… the genius reformed con-man cum occult investigator, fully cognizant that the world will be over before brunch tomorrow unless he contributes to foiling it will spend 8 of his last 12 hours in existence tricking blue-haired old ladies out of their pension checks because… that’s how he rolls? Ok.

So, the world ends and everyone gets to make up new characters for an entirely new campaign in an entirely new universe. Neat!

Anyway – I have once again written a lot, but said little. Here is what I think acting in-character means…or at least some of the main parts of what I think it means:

  • accepting challenges the character would think are important
  • taking realistic action proactively, instead of requiring the GM to force a reaction
  • accepting consequences for actions taken within the context of the game and genre
  • setting goals that are consistent with the character and the setting
  • enhancing the fun of others, by reinforcing their character’s traits
  • recording memories of play, so your memory is as fresh as your character’s would be
  • offering feedback to the GM and other players about how your character would be responding to what is going on around them, and what aspects of the story are really working/not working for you as a player

How about you? What do you think?

Oh… and please forgive me for the title.

On a related theme of character you might enjoy this post: Billy Idol on Gaming

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2 Responses to “Putting the Actor In-Character”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    You said it well. I often tell people that the one element I credit above all others for the games I consider my best (as a GM) is the players. I had a set of very devoted, involved players who were interested in living (in-character of course) inside the game world, had a vested interest in the outcomes of their actions and cared what happened. I would add my voice to your idea that players should also interact with the game “outside” of game-night. Keep a character journal, talk with the GM, anything — just to be that little bit more connected.


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