Pitfalls of RP: NonAdventurers

In this post I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the terms I’m using.  Ask for clarification in the comments if you like.  I’m also going to address this in part to GMs and in part to players, but I’m coming from the perspective of someone who is almost always the GM.

As GMs, we assume players want to play.  They showed up for a game, right?  But this is not a safe assumption.

There are many reasons why someone who came for a game might end up recalcitrant and useless.  Many roleplaying gamers are children, making them prone to rapid mood swings and erratic behavior.  Some people may feel compelled by social circumstances to show up for something they don’t want to do, and play their characters as inert lumps.  Sometimes a player is being antagonized by a crappy GM or other players, but doesn’t feel bold enough to quit the situation.

Those are all legitimate enough.  It would be nice if people could just admit when they don’t want to be around and have the means and wherewithal to bail, but it’s not always the case.  Still, there are some more cryptic reasons why players don’t play.  I’d like to discuss those a bit…
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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.
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Pitfalls of RP: Inappropriate Sexy

When the hell did so much online RP become erotic roleplay (ERP)? When I started running games in a public forum, when I opened up a campaign to include people I’d never met, I began to encounter a style of play I had never seen before. Players contriving reasons to have their characters be naked, or falling all over each other dramatically. Literally rolling around on the ground screaming about their feelings while other PCs or NPCs were standing around with question marks over their heads. Breathing into other people’s faces with “kiss me you fool” and the like.
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Pitfalls of RP: Bad Representation

Sometimes people are offensive because they are made out of garbage. Sometimes, it’s because they are operating from a position of ignorance – and possibly amenable to education and improvement. If you want to play characters who are different from yourself without perpetuating bad ideas, let’s talk about it. I love it when character groups are more diverse than the players themselves, as long as it’s done right!
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Pitfalls of RP: Personality Conflict

RPGs are an unfortunately social pastime. I say unfortunately because a statistically significant number of humans have social difficulties which make them extremely incompatible with the significant number of humans who are made out of elbows. It would be a lot easier if you could get the same experience out of a cluster of artificial intelligences, but there is a reason person-to-person play persists as a hobby in an age of video games – the technology ain’t there yet.

Often this is just a matter of people having incompatible personalities. As in the example at the top, an introvert and an extrovert could be quite bad with each other. Political differences can spill into a game, with predictable results. Someone could have a punchy sense of humor while another is sensitive to insult.
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Pitfalls of RP: Character Creation

The Pitfalls of RP series is examining ways people can ruin their own fun in RPGs. This will be focused on players and PCs / player characters, but by the time I’m done may include GMs / game masters. RPGs, as I said before, are the pinnacle of escapist entertainment. They can be great, but unlike passive entertainment – TV, movies – we can personally mess up the experience so many ways.

Right at the outset, some players set themselves up for problems. People create characters they quickly come to hate, or that never feel comfortable in the PC party. You’re playing a game to enjoy yourself. While one would assume that means “do what you feel,” sometimes what we feel could use more careful consideration.
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RPGs: The Truest Test of Character?

Why is it that role-playing games seem to bring out the worst traits in people? Even people you would never have guessed had it in them, people you may have liked before, but come out liking less. I wish the inverse was true – that players displaying good morals would be surprising or have a nice impact – but it’s far easier to be outlandishly awful than it is to be pretty decent. There are millions of ways to harm people and only a few ways to nurture or protect them. Either way, RPGs keep turning into morality tests, no matter the GM’s intent.

I’ve run situations where all a character had to do was say hello to an old friend, and before long the friend has been encouraged to shoot heroin for the first time with a dirty needle. Where all a group of characters had to do was walk down a sidewalk, have a funny interaction with some randos, then one PC goads another into viciously assaulting them.

And I’m sure most of the fellowship of Game Masters have encountered similar. The adventurers pass a travelling show and end up killing everybody for XP and a few silver pieces, or because the entertainers didn’t sufficiently stroke the PC’s demonic egos. The encounter was just meant to breathe life into the setting, give the PCs a chance to experience a different world. Turns out the life they want to experience is that of homicidal warlords.

You often hear the lament on forums, how do I deal with this terrible player? He’s my best friend in real life, so I can’t tell him to fuck off. How can I rein him in? Sometimes, if it’s extreme enough, the bad player’s friend may wonder if there’s something seriously wrong with them. Is my best friend a potential serial killer?

There are a number of reasons, some addressed in my Pitfalls of RP series, that lead players to behave worse in a game than they would in real life. The most obvious reason is that it is just a game, so depending on how real it feels, one could feel no more responsible than they would to video game NPCs. The flipside of this is that some nice people would never dream of killing the jerk rat-pelt collector in Everquest, let alone a character voiced by a present living person. Still, failures of imagination can be understood. The best of us get big body counts in GTA.

Another failure of imagination is just misunderstanding the scene or the world and its rules. In cinema and in many games, a blow to the back of the head will knock someone out harmlessly. In real life and realistic games, unconsciousness isn’t guaranteed but brain damage is certainly a possibility. Likewise, a PC could read an NPC as more dangerous than they are, and end up shooting unarmed characters.

Excuses aside, many players genuinely feel fine playing characters as utter bastards. Can you play evil? Do you like to? I’ve found that the only way I can deal with that is playing a character who is meant to be disliked, meant to be unpleasant and probably doomed. The aforementioned rando-bashing and heroin needling was conducted by a character that was pretty well defined as a jerk, so it wasn’t too jarring, even if it was gratuitous and ugly.

What blows my mind is that people will write a character as all sunshine and light, cutesy woobliness, then turn around and have those characters commit atrocities. I’m sorry, Braden, but blushing boy band-lookin’ sensitive sighs Oliver comes off like a David Lynch villain the second you make him party to a serial killing. His loverboy styles are instantly upended into depraved creepiness, his looks corrupted by the dark light behind his eyes.

It could be a problem of people playing characters beyond their own natural abilities. We don’t physically lift the castle gates when our characters do, but we do have to make words happen, make actions happen, within the limits of our own real life ability. Playing characters as more intelligent or charismatic than we actually are? Very difficult. Playing characters more compassionate than we are? Maybe it’s impossible. How would you even know you were fucking up?

If that’s the case, then the key is knowing yourself and playing within the limits of your ability and imagination. And if you’re paying attention while you’re playing, you might learn a lot about what those limits are.