Pitfalls of RP: Limitations of Medium

When playing an RPG with a GM and your fellow humans, it’s important to keep your imagination engaged – to almost overcompensate for the limitations of the medium. Just consider those limitations and the effect they can have. You can’t see the world and the things in it. Even if you have some kind of visual depiction, it doesn’t include a visceral sense of potential dangers. You seldom have a visual representation of other characters. Especially if your RP is internet based, you miss out on their expression and emphasis in speech.

When interacting with NPCs, you always have an inherent knowledge in the back of your head that they are less central to the narrative – less important – than PCs. Additionally, you may have notions about the players that are not meant to be true of their characters. And you may have knowledge of circumstances in the game that your character should not possess, and (intentionally or not) use that knowledge in game. All of these things can lead you to run your character as if they have an impairment or several that you as the player might not: deficits or difficulties with situational awareness, risk assessment, self-awareness, social propriety, speech comprehension, empathy, imagining characters to have thoughts or qualities they do not have, and so on.

The most typical and frustrating way in which this plays out is well known to Dungeons & Dragons players. Many players run their characters as murderous thieves in every campaign, treating all NPCs as disposable meat that can be ground into XP and GP. Functionally, they’re acting like highly aberrant people – spree killers and the like. In real life when people do those things, it’s from a lack of ability to feel the reality of another person and their pain.

In a game, it’s very easy to leave your imagination at the door and treat everything and everyone in the game world as fake objects for your consumption. The falsity may even make things worse, because unlike real life criminals, creepy PCs don’t feel the possibility of their own deaths as a consequence of actions. They can just roll up another character. And because they’re already operating with less imagination than they should, it may take more extreme and vile scenarios just to entertain them.

That’s the extreme example, but even players with decent intentions can fall into these traps. One problem I’ve seen too often is failure to have a sense of the scene. Players will forget the environment’s description, which PCs and NPCs are present, and other very important details. Is it important to remember that the walls are mossy and the knight’s cape is blue? Usually no. But if your character decides to turn to another character and start talking shit about the knight or his mossy castle, without even waiting until said knight is out of earshot, it could be a problem. Other players may not appreciate your character starting trouble.

More specific to my experience, I’ve had players try to RP high-key romantic melodrama with long-winded soliloquies during a fast-paced horror scene, and I’ve had players acting like tough guys in circumstances where it would obviously get them killed. I’m not someone who thinks a player acting in good faith should get bounced from a game, so when a character dies, I’ll sometimes allow a retcon. It comes up rarely, and this scene was one of those occasions.

Advice for GMs and players.  I actually have some this time.  For players who don’t feel like they can do this balancing act, don’t feel like they can keep a mental image of the scene and the important things in it, don’t feel like they can get past seeing NPCs as disposable, look at the typical consequences of those problems and just try to fix them individually.

-Problem:  You want to play a character that is more likeable than Ed Gein, but the unreality of NPCs always gets you.
-Solution:  Commit to having your character not kill people except in self defense.  If someone else in the party starts a fight that leads you to that situation, maybe instead of joining them in the bloodbath, have your character try to break it up, or refuse to help a fellow party member be another boring spree killer.  Even if you can’t see NPCs as human in your imagination, having a policy against killing them at least emulates an aspect of basic decency.

-Problem:  You can’t remember how many doors are in a room, or whether there’s an NPC present that won’t like what you have to say, or other important details.
-Solution:  Ask the GM for help!  If they are using overly complicated language, posting too fast, or otherwise foiling your reading comprehension, ask if they can accommodate you better.  Maybe they can slow down, or think about how to phrase stuff more simply, or come up with a way to use visual aids like map tools.
Or they can just answer your questions simply as they come up.  If the GM is not a garbage human, they should want to help you, to the extent it doesn’t make the game too difficult for someone else.  Conflicting access issues may remain, but it shouldn’t hurt to ask.  Worst case scenario, you find out your GM is ableist and you’re better off elsewhere.

-Problem: You can’t keep other player’s characters in mind, thinking of them as just being a version of the player themselves. You might misgender the character or treat them as if they’re an easy going pizza guy in sweatpants when they’re supposed to be an uptight elven fancy man.
-Solution: Keep a visual depiction of their characters on hand, created by someone who draws, or an online avatar generator, or whatever. Pay attention to how they are portraying their characters, try to appreciate their acting / writing.

-Problem: You’ve forgotten that your character doesn’t know some piece of information you used or mentioned in-game.
-Solution: When called out on it, by another player or GM, just apologize and retract the action or words with grace. If you are about to do or say something and not sure if your character could know the relevant info, don’t be afraid to ask somebody.

Game Masters, you should not have an adversarial attitude toward your players.  Even when some of them are undeniably crappy, you’re better off having them leave the game than trying to correct behavior in game, or run the game with a chip on your shoulder.  It just ends up being no fun for anyone.

I mention that first because when players lose track of the scene, some GMs will laugh in their faces.  “Haha, your character was too stupid to go through the door!” when they just forgot the door was there.  The player may be having issues because they are a blithe jerk sailing through the game with no effort to engage with it.

Or they could have forgotten the door because they have memory issues, or reading or speech comprehension issues, or the environment you are gaming in is too overwhelming and causes them to have problems they normally wouldn’t have, and so on.  I have made those kind of mistakes and been belittled over them, and I’m neurotypical McGee top 1% for reading comprehension on standardized tests.

Be open to the possibility the problem is you, or at least see if you can come up with reasonable accommodation for people who aren’t keeping track of what you’re saying.  And if every player in the game is having those problems, you just might have a problem they can help you with.

Some games have systems of edges and drawbacks you can purchase for PCs through a point system.  Shadowrun and a few others have an edge called “Common Sense” which allows the GM to give the player advice when they’re about to make their character do something that seems foolish.

The thing is, most of those situations of PC foolishness stem from not having a sense of the scene.  You should be helping them through those situations without making them pay for it with character points.  It’s no fun for anyone but an adversarial Jerk Master when players get mocked for stuff the characters never would have fallen into without this limitation of the medium.

And a last note for GMs: It’s probably best to not rely on in-game solutions to these problems.  (For clarity:  In-game means the actions of PCs and NPCs, description of the fictional world and what goes on in it.  Out-of-Character or OOC is discussions between players and GMs, be it meta-commentary or talking about the IRL weather.)  Since many of them stem from reading comprehension issues in the first place, they may not catch hints.  They also might have a position they plan to stick to regardless of admonishment, which will only be resolved through forthright discussion out of character.

As an example, I had a game where some players kept running characters as having showy and weird PDA.  I kept running the NPCs as showing overt discomfort and avoiding them, sometimes even pulling horrified faces when they went too far.  One of them had NPC blindness and so was immune to hints, the other had an earnest belief that a certain level of grab-ass was a given among bros.  Maybe he was a theater kid, I don’t know, but he intentionally denied in-game solutions and had to be dealt with OOC.

So to all, keep in mind: In pen & paper and internet based RP, we are often blind, socially removed, and insensate or impaired in a number of ways by the medium itself.  Work together to overcome those issues and the game will be better for everyone.


  1. dianne says

    Sorry if this is veering off topic, but one of the limitations that has always bothered me is the turn based combat thing: You’ve just run into a bunch of demons with a bad attitude and everyone’s got their weapon of choice out. Now, the person who wins initiative sits there for 15 minutes calculating who the best opponent to hit is and how best to do so. Not at all like a real fight where you mostly just lay into the person nearest you and hope for the best. Well, I suppose an actual good fighter would be able to do better than that, but no one gets a chance to sit there and consider their best move for minutes while their opponent politely waits for them to decide what to do. I’d like to see a system where, if you don’t react within, say, 30 seconds, you lose your turn or get hit with an attack of opportunity or something.

    Re games that turn into murdering everyone you meet: The GM can shut that one down quickly by making some apparently random “monsters” on the way critical sources of information and making the game suddenly get much, much harder if you shoot first and ask questions later every time you encounter anyone.

  2. Great American Satan says

    Turn-based combat works or doesn’t depending on circumstances. When doing rapid-style play by post or chat, I have to do a version of turn-based everything to keep slower players from being swamped with reading or left out. Each player gets one turn for in-character posting between GM posts. They can go in whatever order, but they only get one until after the next time I post.

    I’m not a total dictator about it. Sometimes something seems like it should get a reaction more quickly / before NPCs go, sometimes I allow it. But the times things have broken down the worst is when I let people post as much as they please. You end up with slower players barely accomplishing anything in the time it takes speed freaks to have seventeen soliloquies and zip around the city five times, sometimes with people that have dyslexia or the like tempted to quit from frustration.

    As for people being too slow like your fifteen minute guy, I’d probably isolate the player’s character so they could play less involved and slower things alone or with other slowpokes. That’s pretty dang excessive. Or time limits as you suggest, as long as they aren’t unfairly impacting someone with a disability.

    What you propose for killer characters is an “in game” solution, and as I said, those don’t work for everybody. You can have a player group so recalcitrant about playing in a certain way that they don’t mind failing every quest. People are weird, sometimes you have to resolve things with OOC discussion, or just call an issue insoluble and quit or boot players.

    Sometimes in-game corrections actually do work, I’ve used them, and it might be that your idea would work for lots of people. And to be honest, I don’t even have the problem of murder-happy PCs most of the time, so it could even be that you’re more experienced with it in the games you’ve played.

  3. dianne says

    I’m one of the oddish people who considers the combat parts of RPGs the stuff you have to get to to get on with the good parts, i.e. exploring the world and solving the puzzles. This probably makes me far more impatient with people who are slow in combat–and people who want more combat in the game– than I should be.

  4. Great American Satan says

    Yeah, the last one and a half D&D sessions I ran were all combat. We were even doing a pretty good job of keeping the pace up, but the system can only move so fast. Not the best part of RP, no question.

  5. dianne says

    Last night my partner and I played a cooperative online game together. We (that is, our characters) spent 1 hour…shopping. Well, he went shopping, I went and crafted items to sell. (He’s playing a female character, I’m playing a male character so we had fun with the stereotypes on that one.) I fear we are too boring for the kids these days, but, hey, the game rewards that sort of behavior.

  6. TBRP says

    Great points! I tend to dissuade players from taking “common sense” type advantage mechanics in games because I feel like if there is some relatively immediate consequence to something the player does, I’ve failed to lay the scene properly if I haven’t telegraphed that as a GM. As a result, I basically treat all my PCs as if they had “common sense” (or whatever the system’s term happens to be) already. So if I think they didn’t mean to provoke something that I think would follow from an action (or inaction), I’ll stop and ask them “you realize that [the police commissioner is still standing right there/that column is holding up the arena floor/the cult assigns almost as much honor to that tapestry as their deity], right?” Not only does it limit player frustration a touch when they can reconsider, but it gives a great sense of control of the narrative to the player when the answer is “hell, yeah,” so it’s really a win-win.

  7. Great American Satan says

    Dianne – I have this game I’d been running but wasn’t attending as well as I should, and these two players that were fiends for RP killed the time between my availabilities with that kind of stuff. Sensible, if usually outside my interest.

    TBRP – Excellent. Sounds like you are a cool GM.

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