Table Reflection: Encouraging In-Character Play

One of the number one issues I’ve seen when at the tabletop is that players don’t actually roleplay. They have no qualms with the general concept, but they don’t actually put themselves into a character’s shoes; there’s a disconnect between the player and the character, and to a certain degree this is to be expected-even roleplayers who do method acting level character development will have roles they just can’t get into. However, this becomes immediately destructive to a narrative environment when characters don’t act the way you’d hope or expect them to and stuff fizzles out, or characters take unnecessary and unbelievable risks.

This is all a product of out-of-character play. I typically don’t worry too much about players bringing in out-of-character knowledge; I make it clear that it’s not acceptable at my table, and I’ve never had an issue with it because they’ll give the character that knowledge if they have to. On the other hand, what I see a lot of are players who don’t really play a character and just try to play the game. This gets more detrimental, since even though most characters will obviously seek to maximize their rewards from everything they do, they won’t necessarily do things based on mechanics. It doesn’t matter if your mystic adept has epic levels of magical armor and a full suit of armor to complement it; she still doesn’t feel like peeking around the corner and risking a bullet to the face.

Now, let’s get something straight here-if we gave every character in every roleplaying game a normal amount of self-preservation, we’d wind up with boring experiences. But, to be honest, I find that most games go to the far extreme; there are no reasons for adventurers to try to survive to see tomorrow, or avoid catastrophic social consequences of their actions. Some games do work in a morale system, but they’re more to see if a character totally snaps and loses their cool, going catatonic or blindly fleeing. Sanity is often handled this way as well, with characters being handed to the GM when they go fully off the deep end, but this is not always the best situation ever.

What is?

I fully support using mechanics to back up in-character play. I like giving characters motivations (see Eclipse Phase’s +’s and -‘s to delineate motivations on each character), and encouraging them to come up in use by rewards and penalties. In Eclipse Phase, the reward is Moxie. I’d even give Moxie for something like self-preservation when a character decides not to get involved because they don’t want to die. I’d perhaps go even further and take it away when a character whose motives say otherwise takes a major risk without cause.

For instance, in the last Shadowrun game I was a player in, the party encountered soldiers firing on protestors. The “white knight” character, who was supposed to be heroic and valiant, talked the party into leaving, even though the rest of the group wanted to stay and fight to save the protestors, some for pure motives and others out of bloodthirsty vendetta, but in any case the character who was most aligned to the protection of the common good didn’t actually care to do anything. This was after the player explicitly stated that he was trying to make a pure good, lawful, defender of the weak.

One of the other players wrote a long, angry message over this, and I think he was justified in doing so; while I can’t force players to play their characters how I think they should be played, arguments for not getting involved were “so we could do more good later”, and not really convincing. Sure, we were rescuing some prisoners, but the prisoners were the legitimately locked up “bad guys” who were guilty of at least several kidnappings and murders, and once again the only character who supports them is the “let’s be shiny and good” guy who won’t hurt an innocent but shows little qualms about letting them die by others’ hands or carrying out orders that target a specific individual with flimsy justifications.

In that player’s defense, the GM was encouraging us to wind up the session for the night, but I (and pretty much everyone) would have been happy leaving the point unresolved and coming back to it later.

Leaving the prior example aside, this was a session that really left everyone a little dissatisfied. Why? Everyone got upset over one character not acting in an expected way.

Now, a lot of that is not the fault of the player who didn’t meet their expectations; he’s a good role-player and likely had different motives in mind for his character than we did, but his decision to move on sort of struck us as coming from out of the blue.

So, how would I prevent this at the table?

Eclipse Phase suggests that each character have at least three motivations. I go further, and ask for a long-term motivation, short-term motivation, and a couple other criteria based on the game’s context; rather than using a simple concept motivation, however, I ask for qualifications. In this campaign, since everyone was hyped up about discussing the moral codes of their characters, I would have asked for three prescriptions of their code and three proscriptions; rewarding strict adherence with Edge. These don’t necessarily have to be traditional good/bad either; for instance, we have two characters with a Bear mentor spirit, whose prescriptions through their mentor spirit are “loyalty to allies regardless of who they are”, and “vengeance against those who hurt me/us”.

Why make characters have written, set-in-stone codes? In order to encourage in-character play, it’s often necessary to have solid metrics through which to make this happen; I like lists of priorities and important things, as well as explicitly forbidden things, because I can check them off and compare a character’s actions to their concept. I don’t necessarily forbid these from changing, even rapidly on the fly as players develop their character or change their mind about how they wanted to play, but I like to have it set in stone to reward them. If they have a death-wish and truly don’t care about self-preservation, I reward them for risk taking. If they’re a crafty but risk-adverse coward, they’ll miss out on Edge that session. Most games encourage the allotment of extra gold, XP, or other goodies for good roleplaying, but I’ve found that it’s then difficult to keep players in the same power levels, especially since this causes novices to fall behind quickly and essentially discourages them, but something like Karma or Moxie says “if you play well, you can exert more influence on the plot”, creating an incentive to learn instead of merely crippling a character relative to the rest of the party.

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