This is going to get pretty wanky, here, so brace yourselves. Also, you should brace yourselves for the fact that my knowledge of both Brecht and Stanislavski is based on a half-remembered theatre studies module, conversations with my much-smarter wife and a quick scan over Wikipedia, so don’t expect bold theatre criticism or anything above loose interpretation.

Anyway; Stanislavki and Brecht were pretty important theatre types and they both approached at the principle of characterisation from two different angles which I’ll inaccurately distil for you below:

Iiiiiin the Red Corner

Stanislavski

There’s a face to haunt your nightmares

Stanislavski was all about method acting, in that the actor should try to inhabit the character, to absorb themselves in the imagined role and act how their character would act in any given scene. The stereotypical Hollywood phrase “Yeah, but what’s my motivation?” is Stanislavskian – it endorses the idea that the character is more than what’s being shown onstage, that the audience is privy to just the tip of the dramatic iceberg. He’d encourage actors to ask “What if I was in the character’s situation?” and try to channel that emotion, that instinct, through their performance. Emotion. Feeling. Understanding that there was more to a character than could be portrayed. All that good stuff.

(He also did some cool stuff with physicality and embodying emotions through actions, but that doesn’t really factor in here. That’s excellent stuff for roleplay, though, remembering that you can stand up and move your limbs and, you know, act)

We can all understand that, even if we can’t embody it to the full when we’re roleplaying. (I can’t.) That’s kind of what the Player’s Handbooks tell us to do across the board; imagine what your chap (or chapess) would do in response to any given situation, and tell the GM that you’re doing it to make it happen. We can all do that. We’ve been doing that since we first picked up the dice and decided that what best suited our Fighter’s motivations right now was to go hit that goblin in the face with a dirty great axe.

Iiiiin the even Redder Corner

brecht

I like a man who enjoys a good coat and a fine cigar and a dizzyingly strange theatre performance

Now, on the other hand, you have Brecht. Brecht was weird. Brecht was a Marxist and tried to build the sensation of revolutionary outrage into his work. Brecht pioneered the Verfremdungseffekt, a word I had to copy and paste because there’s no way I’m learning how to spell it, which translates roughly as “defamiliarisation effect.” He created stark reminders that what was happening onstage was not real, that it was a play; characters would address the audience, stage lighting would be dazzling and unreal, stage directions would be read aloud. Characters were nothing more than masks that actors wore as long as they were of use; wear them well, for sure, wear them beautifully, but realise they are nothing but story components.

It was designed to shock the audience and get them thinking; to move away from striving towards realism and telling traditional stories and into something new and upsetting, that spurred people into action. Your characters don’t have motivation. Your characters are characters in a story; they do not exist in any way once the curtain drops. They are nothing but tools.

That’s strange. (Inherently.) Most of us, myself included, don’t really understand what the hell he was talking about on anything but the most basic level and our interaction with the style is being appropriately shocked and unsettled by watching it, by coming close. But I think, as role-players, we need to think a little less like Stanislavski and a little more like Brecht. Not in the weirdness aspect, but in that we have to always remember that we are part of a game.

It’s like that Natasha Bedingfield song, really

Stanislavki’s method is incredibly good if your script is already written. If your dramatic arcs are pre-planned by a trained playwright and your behaviour is overseen by a director, great. By offering a more thorough, naturalistic performance you can let the characters shine through. You can play to the audience. Nothing is going to stop the drama, because you can’t say “Well, I don’t think my character would like this, so he’s going to stop following the plot of the play.” Characters are tossed by the winds of fate and it’s up to the actor to interpret that, to make the best with what they have.

Our scripts are not written. We are flying by the seat of our pants. We are operating in a strange land; we take the detailed characters one might find in a novel or a film and then put them into this semi-random world of improvisation, moving through it one step at a time, never preparing what we are going to say or do past a couple of lines ahead. Sometimes those two concepts don’t sit hand in hand.

We can play our characters to the hilt, and they can subsequently ignore each other and do nothing. We can have arguments that go nowhere. We can slope off in different directions and achieve our own private goals, out of sight of the rest of the players. And, to me, that sounds awful. For sure, it’s an extreme situation, but it’s not unimaginable. I’ve certainly been in games where that’s happened.

You are not your bloody character

Good roleplaying requires you, as a player, to be aware that you are in a game; and not just in a “I don’t want to be Elfstar any more” sort of way. It means you have to understand what’s best for the story as a whole, because we are all performing for one another whether we want to or not. Just because our audience is small doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be catered to. This is all basic improv stuff that I’m cribbing, here. Say “Yes and,” or “Yes but,” and don’t say “No.” There are plenty of guides that can help you improvise more satisfying stories, and I suggest that you read them.

A lot of Player’s Handbooks talk about separating your character from your self; they are not you, and vice versa. Mainly this comes under the advice of not getting pissed off when the GM beats your character up with one of their characters, or when another character is rude to you. But there’s more to it than that. Your character is just a mask; your character is a story construct, not a person with thoughts and feelings and emotions. They are fully under your control. It is your responsibility to use that control not only over their thoughts, feelings and actions, but their position in the story.

I’ve given advice that advocates ceding control of your character, in the past – things like going along with plots even though your character wouldn’t enjoy doing so, letting other characters act against your will, and so on. And there seems to be a lot of argument against that advice, too. What I’m encouraging here is meta-gaming.

Cleric and Thief by dukuang

I googled “Cleric and Thief” and this came up, which is pretty much what I wanted. Credit to Dkuang on Deviantart

Meta-gaming is not a dirty word

I don’t mean “meta-gaming” in the sense that you’re flicking through the Monster Manual to discover what gorgons are weak versus, or having your character act on knowledge that they don’t have. I’m saying… well, I’ll say it with an example.

Let’s say your Thief needs to steal something vital for your save-the-world plot from a the house of a wealthy collector. He could do it fine by himself, but he notices that the Cleric’s player hasn’t been up to much this game and is sitting quietly while the other players plan. Your character – a construct that doesn’t exist, that you made up, that doesn’t have feelings – sure as shit wouldn’t want the Cleric to come along. She’s noisy. She frowns on theft. She gets on your character’s nerves.

So what’s a better story? Is it the story of the time your Thief went off on his own and achieved the objectives quickly and cleanly? Or is it the story that you told after you asked the Cleric’s player if she can come up with a way for the pair of you to go together, and you end up odd-coupling your way through the mission? Maybe the Cleric insists that she comes with you to keep an eye on your light hands. Maybe she wants to learn how to be stealthy. Maybe she wants to learn more about the collector’s motivations. Cracking. Whatever. You have two characters not entirely in their element together. Go tell some stories.

You haven’t made your character any less of a character by doing so. All you’ve done is use your full control over them to put them in a more interesting position.

Play your PC like an NPC

If you’ve never NPCed in someone else’s game, do it. Do it as soon as you can. There is no better way to understand what the hell I’m talking about here.

As an NPC, you’re freed from long-term considerations of your actions. You’re an element of the plot. Your development is secondary to that of the PC’s. You’re not only thinking about how you would react to any given situation that comes up, but you’re trying to let the PCs shine. You’re steering them towards trouble, towards entertainment, towards adventure. You don’t have to worry about the grand motivations of being a GM; you are playing that character in that moment in that situation, you are using them as a tool to help the players tell stories.

I guarantee you that if you begin to treat your PC in the same way – separating them from your self, acting with one eye on being entertaining and story-focused and the other on playing them as a story tool – then you’ll start having more fun. You’ll find yourself in more difficult situations, interacting with characters you might not otherwise interact with. You will push up against your own comfort zone AND their comfort zone. You will triumph over adversity, or fail to triumph, and that’s what you’re after, right?

Don’t compromise your character’s motivations, but do get them into trouble

Throughout all this, I don’t want to encourage people to destroy the core of their characters. I don’t want them to become faceless, motivationless, shifting bags of rules that merely follow the whim of the GM. I do want people to realise that what’s much more exciting than the “traditional” Stanislavskian method of roleplaying is to position their character in difficult situations and role-play appropriately. To be aware of their existence within a game and control them appropriately.

The most contentious point of my previous piece on roleplaying – the 11 ways one – was one where I told players to extrapolate rather than negate, to build on the actions of others rather than try to block them. It’s not a be-all and end-all. I certainly can’t say I do it all the time, and perhaps I presented it wrongly. But:

Imagine your Thief needs to get information about saving the world from a prisoner, and he decides that torture is the way forward. Imagine the Cleric is against this. If you say – “Right, to hell with this, I’m torturing the guy.” The Cleric could stop you then and there, saying that she overpowers you and ties you to a post overnight until the guard come to collect the prisoner. If she succeeds, no-one gets any information; you don’t get to act.

Or! The Cleric’s player realises that this is an interesting thing to happen, for their morals to get in the way of the investigation, so they have their Cleric arrive halfway through your torture, rather than turn up before it starts. Maybe she’s got God stuff to do. Or she can’t make up her mind on it. Or she’s trying to persuade herself that it’s for the good of the world, but she just can’t.  By the time she arrives, the guy’s a mess; but the GM realises that this is a good opportunity for some roleplaying, so he has the prisoner tell you half of what you need to know. Is the Cleric going to let you finish, now you’ve started? Does she heal away the pain you’ve inflicted? Are you going to listen to her? Does she call the church? Do you try and abscond with the prisoner?

That’s a conflict I can buy into. That hasn’t weakened either of your character motivations, but pushed a negation into a full-blown conflict because Bad Things Have Already Happened. Both of your characters get to do what they want and hold true to their morals, but both of the players realise that it’s more interesting for this to happen after the torture has begun. “Yes and,” not “No.” (my thanks to user Eskidell on the RPGnet for asking the torture question on this discussion thread)

Imagine the stories

DRAGON FIGHT!

Remember that time you had fought your way down to the bottom of the dungeon, and you were low on healing potions and all injured and you saw a dragon in front of you, laying on its hoard, eyes glinting through the thick darkness? And collectively, even though your characters and tired and beaten up and abused and could easily go home, hire an army, come back and kill this thing with minimum risk, you say – “Fuck it, let’s do this. Imagine the stories.”

Strive to be like that at all times. Imagine the stories, great and small, and help each other tell them.

Update: I have a Patreon, now, through which I release my own roleplaying games. If you want to become a Patron, that’d be cool.


Categorised in: RPG, RPG Advice, Tabletop

33 thoughts on “Stanislavski vs Brecht in tabletop roleplaying

  • Blueluck says:

    This is wonderful advice, which I feel many players will take exception to.

    A drill sergeant my platoon some excellent advice during basic training, “If ya ain’t cheating, ya ain’t trying.” Now, he didn’t mean we should cheat on tests or break the (very strict) rules. He meant that in order to succeed, you should be willing to break the rules you IMAGINE are there.

    For example, we weren’t supposed to know when certain things would happen, like surprise inspections. But, we took the schedule from his office and made a copy. The morning of the next surprise inspection, we woke everyone up an hour early, did some preparation, and aced the inspection! Sergeant Parr as so proud when he learned what we had done, I think he might have cried. (He didn’t cry. I’m fairly certain he didn’t have tear ducts, just an extra pair of testosterone glands. He made us all to one pushup. One.)

    In roleplaying games, it’s not cool to cheat in order to “win”. Don’t cheat on your dice rolls, or pump up your character’s abilities, etc. However, we should all be using whatever resources are available to make a great story. Let your character’s dark secret slip out, so that you can get in trouble for it, even if “he would never tell anyone.” Make a poor tactical decision that allows someone else to take the spotlight. Change your character a bit to make it fit into the story our group.

    Metagame to make a better game.

    If ya ain’t cheating, ya ain’t trying.

  • pdunwin says:

    Excellent. My improv instructor talked to us about “puppet-and-puppeteer”: we’re playing characters on stage and playing them well – those are the puppets – but we have to remember that the scene has to go somewhere, has to raise and possibly answer some interesting questions – that’s what the puppeteer handles.

    You talk about daring to get one’s character into interesting situations, rather than the dead optimal ones. This is very important, but many games offer incentives only for the latter, not the former. D&D is the most well-known culprit, despite the times when players say “Fuck it.” So-called “story” games, like Spirit of the Century and Fiasco, recogize this problem and deal with it by offering in-game incentives for making the interesting choice. Getting into interesting situations then becomes a part of “optimal” play.

    I haven’t seen much done to limit negation in games. The RPG Microscope has some interesting approaches, but basically involves partitioning off everyone’s turn at providing input, and has a weird voting mechanic. What I’ve find helps is for the GM to stand up for player ideas, to say “Yes, and…” when everyone else wants to chime in with “No.” Because what drives a lot of negation is that players believe they have to mitigate all failure up front, so as not to give the GM anything to “use against them.” A DM that takes the approach of not using ideas “against” the players is a good place to start, to build up the necessary trust to later say to the players “Ok, I think it would be cool for something to go not quite according to plan. Someone tell me what that is.”

    • grant says:

      There’s a lot of really, really good advice in this comment, especially the puppet/puppeteer divide. Thank you for sharing!

      • Shane says:

        We ran a con game once where the PCs were fated to end up losing everything (was the point of the game, we told everyone in the blurb and at the start of play). That meant during play some things they tried had to not work, or not entirely. We found the absolute best way to do this was to ask the player “That sounds pretty solid. But we know it doesn’t come off. So tell me. Where does it go wrong?”

        Some folks were briefly thrown off balance, but every single player came up with an interesting point of failure and got completely enthused in having it stuff them up.

        I loved that game.

      • Paul Unwin says:

        I think I missed this reply at the time.

        That’s an excellent example. I had my players involved in a heist of a McGuffin, and told them that I didn’t want them to have it just yet, but that they could still achieve some kind of success. They agreed, but one of them immediately tried to put the thing in a Bag of Holding – exactly the kind of short circuit D&D provides so many of and which make classic scene types hard to pull off. We reminded her that we’d agree that they’d fail, and she went along.

  • Ang says:

    Excellent article.

    I think the longer I’ve played, the more someone staying stubbornly in character and derailing a game has become one of my biggest pet peeves. If the actions you ‘must’ take with a character are ruining the fun for other people at the table, it’s time to take a step back.

    I really enjoyed this article as well as the one ‘Eleven Ways’ one. You’re right in that there’s lots of advice for GMs out there but not as much for the players.

  • Nick says:

    Really good article, Grant! It really hits home and speaks to me, especially because of the Stanislavski and Brecht comparisons. A little theater theory goes a long way, sometimes!

    I think the thing that everyone needs to realize about playing tabletop RPGs is as soon as you sit down at the table with other people, you are agreeing to an unwritten social contract with them. That contract basically states that you will work together to create an imaginative and entertaining story, and that everyone will work collaboratively (GM and players alike) to reach this goal. I think Point Four from your previous entry really said it best: “Your character is a part of the story; this is not your character’s story.”

    I talk about it a bit more on my blog (largely inspired by your articles here) but the basic gist is that there are some things that need to be understood between every person at the table for the process to work properly. You definitely have said it far more eloquently than I could ever put it, so thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    The other thing that stands out to me is that I think some people who read your previous entry were taking things a little too literally. Saying “don’t negate, extrapolate” does not mean that you aren’t allowed to oppose other characters at all. It’s not saying that the monk isn’t allowed to stop the fighter from beating on a random guy in a bar, it’s saying that the monk should find a way to react after the fact to create a more interesting scene. Call it “additive storytelling”: the monk stopping the fighter from ever punching the dude is 1-1=0. If the fighter punches the guy, and then the monk steps in, you’ve changed the equation to 1+1. This equation can then continue to be added to, extrapolating and creating a more interesting story because of it. If the equation ever reaches 0, the entire process becomes a failed attempt and you’ve created a void of interest, which is easily the largest game-killer out there.

    So maybe the monk decides to take the dude under his protection: put a +1 in there. Or maybe the dude decides to take a swing at the monk, mistaking him for another enemy: that would probably create a +2 situation, as the monk and the fighter would have to both react to the new threat. Maybe someone watching the scuffle runs to get the town guard, so now there’s a time limit: +1. Maybe the back room of the bar is occupied by a criminal element that doesn’t want guard attention, so now they have a vested interest in the troublemakers out front: that’s at least a +2 situation, though it offers the possibility for more additions down the road. Really, it just distills down to the “Yes, and…” or “Yes, but…” cornerstones of improv acting: you always want to move forward, not backward.

    Anyways, I’ve probably gone on too much of a rant for just a comment, but I wanted to thank you for your thoughts! They are very well received, both by the general populace and by my own gaming group. Cheers!

    • Alex says:

      That is the most concise breakdown of effective storymaking (in terms of traditional RPGs at least) I have ever seen. I’ve tried to discuss it with players and other DMs in all kinds of terms (with varying degrees of success) over the years but that “1-1=0” bit sums it up very very nicely. Gonna use it from now on.

  • Kye says:

    For those interested in a deviating opinion –

    For what it’s worth, I think carrying over the “Say Yes” paradigm from improv acting into tabletop RPGs is not very helpful. It’s a basic rule of improv because you can’t metagame or go back and fix something; there are no rules to determine who is right or who wins when someone says no. Saying no breaks the fiction and destroys the performance.

    “Hello, Dan, my brother, good to see you again. I’m just coming from our dear old mother’s funeral and …”
    “No you don’t. I have never seen you in my whole life!”

    Instant crash. That’s Monty Python, but not what you want in improv.

    However, in RPGs you can use the rules to determine who is right. You can also metagame, as covered amply by your article(s), communicate with the other players, and you can go back and fix mistakes: there’s no audience (apart from the players themselves) requiring an unbroken flow.

    “Say yes” often seems to get conflated with Vincent Baker’s “Say yes or roll the dice,” which, in my opinion, is much more appropriate for (many) RPGs. (You say yes and go along until something important is at stake, and then you engage the rules. For the GM: go along and say yes to the unimportant or uninteresting stuff, but use the mechanics whenever something interesting or important comes up.)

    Or, in other words: If there’s no conflict or nothing at stake, simply say “yes”. If there is, “Yes, but” in RPGs should take the form “yes, but only if you win this roll/succeed in this test/sacrifice that resource on you sheet.”

    • Ang says:

      I think, in this case, the ‘say yes’ is directed more at the players than the GM. Most of the good GMs I’ve played with have a solid handle on the ‘yes, but’ version of playing you mention where they know how to encourage players but also keep it grounded with the mechanics of the system. There still too many players out there, though, who get so entrenched in their own character, and fail to acknowledge the larger game at play and sometimes ruin the game for others.

      A while back, I tried running a campaign where half the players were more like the improve players and half were method actors firmly entrenched in their character’s personality and motivations. Of the few sessions we played, most of them were spent in a single location as the method actors dug their feet in and prevented things from really going anywhere or doing anything. As a GM, I was miserable. Rather than telling a cooperative story that involved all the characters, I spent most of my time playing referee for the ones who were more interested in stubbornly doing their own thing. If those method actors had been a little more aware of the overarching game instead of their own stories, the campaign might have been more successful and more fun for everyone.

  • Reiss says:

    I GM 40k rpg games (with Dark Heresy and Only War being my focus right now), and have run into many problems outlined in this and your previous article. I think a good way of explaining to the players that they should play their characters like NPCs is that they are witnesses to a grand story unfolding. 40k fluff in the making. I like to draw the comparison to a tabletop game of 40k, in that you are writing your own history and – minus a few special characters or your beloved dreadnought – are less concerned with each individual model. The same should be (somewhat) true of 40k rpg games, in that you should be less worried about your character as a self-absorbed twit, and more concerned with their position in the context of unfolding 40k history.

    What’s more interesting in the long run? That time you killed that bartender and severed the only route to the bad guy just to piss off the Inquisitor? A story no one will remember or care about in the big picture. Or the story of the band of acolytes who single handedly pulled together and avoided planetary disaster by routing the enemy forces, earning their places in the annals of Inquisitorial record, to be learned of by generations of acolytes to come (maybe even future PCs in campaigns yet to begin, as I enjoy doing so much).

    To me, as both a player an a GM (and a massive 40k nerd), there is no greater accomplishment than immortalizing yourself by your actions in-game to the point where future GMs consider your achievements part of canon.

    • Euan says:

      To turn part of that on its head using the original example…

      What’s more interesting in the long run? That time the fighter punched that barpatron in the face and severed the only route to the bad guy just because he was angry? A story no one will remember or care about in the big picture. Or the story of the band of adventurers who single handedly pulled together and saved the world from the dragon, earning their places in the annals of history, to be learned of by generations to come.

      There is never a good reason to tell someone their character should act the opposite to what they would do. Would a thief take someone else with them? Quite possibly, the lone wolf makes a bad PC. The unlikely part is that it’s the cleric, but it’s involving the other PCs and letting them act with you. Would a monk let a fighter punch someone without due cause? No. They just wouldn’t. If the monk is there at the start, they will act. If the monk is not present until after, that’s different. But that’s all stuff established beforehand.

  • threespinedstickleback says:

    Thanks for this. I am currently playing in two groups – one has been consistently great fun for 5+ years. The other is newer and was going fine for 1.5 years, but the last 2-3 months of sessions have been very frustrating after the addition of a new player. I have been struggling to put my finger on what is causing the trouble, as we are all experienced players who theoretically should have smashing adventures together. I should have the skill to be able to adapt and get into some aspect of the game, but I find myself consistently repelled by the gaming and wanting to ditch the group.

    I see now that the players in my first group all understand the importance of meta-gaming, and in the second group, the most involved players (the bossy pair that takes the reins of the story and run roughshod over myself and the other player) do not, causing real story roadblocks. My character gets told ‘no’ to proposed plans and ideas consistently. My character was not liked by the character in lead and shunned from interaction, even the things he specializes in. The new player dislikes combat and steers the party to avoid combat situations to the point that the GM tried to make a house rule to moderate the damage NPCs can do so combat wouldn’t be so ‘scary’. On and on. Roleplaying for roleplaying’s sake is great fun, but there is a point when it’s just so much boring wankery. When it doesn’t lead to opportunities to involve the other characters – when it does not forward character growth or plot. I didn’t think there was such thing as too much roleplay … I was wrong.

    I wish I could make them read this article, as it so clearly illuminates the issues. The pair is very proud of their roleplaying skill, though.

    I will probably just drop the second group instead of starting an unproductive discussion/argument on roleplaying technique, but it is really nice to see the issue clearly. I was seriously questioning my 15+ years of roleplaying experience and wondering if I was the problem. Thank you.

    • grant says:

      Glad I helped. Hope everything turns out okay; you should send them the link, anyway, just to see what they think. I’d be interested to hear.

  • Henrik says:

    Thankyou, our Dresden Files group was having trouble with pacing, and this (along with the original 11 tips) may just be the thing we need. I know that I learned important things from it.

  • Eric Schwenke says:

    I’m basically repeating what I said in my comment to the previous post, but what you’re saying makes sense only if the goal is collaborative improvisational storytelling. If method acting is in itself the goal, and you’re saying “forget method acting, play improv!”, then fuck you. This is my hobby too, and I resent every “story now” ass that tells me I’m doing it wrong because I can’t appreciate story.

    • grant says:

      I’m not going to preface everything I say with “This is just my opinion, your mileage may vary” to placate people who get upset after reading fairly benign articles about roleplaying on the internet. We all have different things we want to get out of roleplaying, and this is both my own personal goal, and a goal that I find admirable in other players.

      However, thanks for the “fuck you,” that really strengthened your point there pal

      • Jason Packer says:

        While his presentation was pretty terrible, Eric’s comment has at it’s root the same response as my own: what you’re describing here is the gulf that opened up between game types when people first started moving in either in the direction of more narrative focus or more simulation.

        We both agree that the story isn’t written (or at least, shouldn’t be) in advance, and so there’s no plot for us to diligently follow. But where you would have us make decisions primarily in service of that plot, others prefer to work in service of their characters and allow the plot to emerge, organically, from our in-character actions.

        I’m certainly not saying we don’t meta-game – especially before play starts, we have to take special care to ensure that we have built in a level of party cohesion that will facilitate the growth of a story that involves us all, rather than just winging it, improv-style. It’s why so many pick-up games fare so poorly on the role-playing front – if you don’t invest time in the pre-game building connections and sharing ideas, you’re going to need railroading to ensure that anything interesting happens.

        So the more character-focused means of play is often more difficult, and requires an emotionally mature player to really work out well, but when it works, it’s often even more satisfying.

  • JohannC says:

    Firstly to Eric Schwenke… nowhere does he tell you to change your playstyle…jesus, anger issues much?

    Grant. Thanks for the articles, it’s of great use.

  • Speaking of Brecht. “Pirate Jenny” from the Twelve Shilling Opera is a good inspiration when it is necessary to punish the players for mistreating NPC:s. 🙂

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V7awW5nrDHk

  • Ret says:

    So, I’m a bit late to the party, but this post struck a chord with me.

    I was in a campaign that went on nearly every week for… oh, four years? And then I dropped out (due to no longer being the high school student and having to deal with university time management) and it ran another couple of years without me. But I was there at the start.

    My character, Accel, was pretty rash – definitely ‘Good’ and altruistic, but made quick conclusive jumps and often got it wrong through not thinking it over. Once when we went to free a captured NPC ally who had been caught in a two-sided conflict, I mistook which side was which and happily announced to the ‘bad’ side that we were here to free their prisoner. We ended up captive alongside our NPC, and our escapades trying to get out were probably more fun than the generic rescue mission that was planned. He could be a bit of an idiot and I loved him for it.

    Where I was focused on making my character’s reactions fit the campaign’s needs – finding reasons for everyone to befriend each other, stay as one party, etc, while still being ‘in-character’ for an RP-heavy game – another player had a different approach where roleplaying topped EVERYTHING else. She wanted to tell a story, and while she was certainly good at it, it meant not a lot of fun for the rest of us whose primary objective was having fun.

    Her character, Faye, was the center of the campaign’s main story – she was part regular person and part the major god of the world reborn – and while we were all cool with that, her approach to her character’s plight of having to face this was “My friends will get hurt, I should leave them behind and do this myself.”

    I’ll repeat: “I should run off from the party and deliberately not involve them in adventures.”

    There were probably 5 or 6 main times that she snuck off and either got away from us or tried to and was caught-up-with at the last minute. Once was fine for us, as an RP-heavy game. We understood the character work at hand. But twice? Three times? Five? Eventually it got seriously frustrating, but we weren’t allowed to just go off on our own as a party and do something else, because the DM wanted us to go after her each time.

    Here’s the point of the story: When we, as players, decided to openly confront her about it (politely, non-aggressively, etc), she stuck with ‘it’s what my character would do. I’m just roleplaying.’ This was maybe three years into the game. That response remains complete bullshit, years later.

    I’m heavily in the Brecht camp here. While you can roleplay all you like, and I DID like the roleplaying, you have to find the version of your character that would do the thing that needs to happen. Because it NEEDS to happen. The party has to stay together – it just does – and there were plenty of ways that her character could have been puppeteered into naturally choosing one of them and getting over her ditch-the-others-for-their-safety bit. But she never did. I think the run-away situation just eventually stopped coming up, with no actual resolution, but if she had been thinking in Brecht terms here, it could have saved everyone a lot of frustration at the time.

    • Morgenstern says:

      “snuck off on her own” – I’d NEVER do this at the table unless it was just for a few moments, like one scene lasting a few minutes (like me having some private words with one of the other group members), or possibly acting scout FOR the party, to which I return with news about the situation at hand, so we can plunge into it better prepared, after having discussed my findings *together*.

      I once had a GM who was a close friend mastering a campaign, which ended up in is having extra sessions just the two of us occasionally, just because we visited each other anyway and sometimes found ourselves in the mood for RP although the others had no time. So my character kind of “snuck away” – DURING DOWNTIME. And always came back with goodies/info for the *group*, furthering the plot for everyone. Some of those were things I though I did not want to draw the group into (like e.g. when my romance option got into trouble, but not so much trouble i couldn’t help on my own; or that one time a friend of mine the others only knew peripherally asked for help on a dangerous sneak mission (the others NOT being sneaks)), but everything eventually came around INTO the group – and it NEVER took away from the group.

      So, what I’m trying to say is probably this: It all comes down how you handle such things and WHEN. If someone wants to do something on their own: fine, make a private session. But don’t do it at the table, give GROUP session a GROUP plot – and everyone try to stick together. (Obviously, you cannot expect the GM to always be the culprit/responsible person for that, if YOU are the one trying to run off. Not every GM likes the feeling of having to force player’s characters, and thus, ultimately, players to follow a certain string. Players need characters who stick together, doing stuff together, not letting each other sit for half or more of the session only listening and fiddling their thumbs, this is the other half of the group contract.)

      • Morgenstern says:

        Yuck. Sorry for the typos…. Wish there was an option to correct postings…
        (e.g. “is having” should be *us*, of course.. or: it comes down TO..) And here I thought I’d found all of them. XD

  • Emerikol says:

    I found this post very entertaining and I’m sure to a point we might quibble over whether the character or player is motivating some action. I’ve seen the playerbase trend towards your philosophy somewhat. It would have to consider in the past it was likely entirely character based.

    Personally, I find staying in character more satisfying. I realize that in some cases that means the story to a “reader” might be less satisfying. For me though when great stories come about organically the satisfaction is much greater than when they are created by choice. I’m not sure why but that’s how I feel.

    Good food for thought.

  • It’s possible to combine both ideas. Go for Brecht’s methods if you want more storytelling and Stanislavski if you want immersion. But like I said: it’s possible to combine both, at least in roleplaying games.

    When I read the article, I came to think about the player advice in Trail of Cthulhu: (p. 190-191)

    “Yes, this is a game of horror, /…/ That said, the best way to fail is to become defensive and do nothing. /../ So be bold and size the initiative. Pick the type of terrifying risk you’re most able to confront and go after it with both hands.
    /…/
    Expect to find only one major clue per scene.
    /…/
    An ordinary person might be reluctant to go out and involve themselves personally in investigations best handled by the professionals. /…/ Accept your weird new role in life, and make the most of it.”

    This seems to me to be what Brecht is all about—to realize that it’s a role and to act to make stuff happen. However, if you want a horror game where the players are frightened, you also need Stavislavski’s method to be able to make the horror bleed through; i.e. when the character’s fears become the players.

  • RPG GM says:

    Great article, one I will definitely have to share with my players. There really can be a lot to RPing “correctly” but it really does make the game better. Especially for experienced gamers that tend to play new characters like they learned the lessons of past characters. Finding your character in the moment and experiencing and reacting within it can really make for a more fun game that really does “make more sense”.

  • Chaz says:

    The whole, letting the story happen organically thing is what he is trying to get you to do. However when trying to have an organically happening story you ask yourself, how can my character do what is in their nature and move the game-play or story forward. Case in point, I have a tinker uber curious rock gnome ranger, we were in a thieves den trying to buy off their animosity, so what did I do? I went over to their rigged roulette table and used my tinker skills to make it work for me. So while we are trying to get to be friends, I am basically robbing them. It was fun, it was obvious what I was going to do and the other members of the party let me do it. They didn’t pick me up and carry me outside.

  • Fox says:

    This is a pretty great article! Great enough to get comments the better part of three years later, at the very least :p

    At a certain point, where my group was still fairly young, one of our GMs took to the house rule of “no farmers”, which meant that nobody had better hand him a character bio which said, in essence, “I don’t want to be a main character”. That always bothered me, so when I started GMing, I wrote this in my game brief: “While I don’t mind characters who don’t want to be involved with the story, the player must be willing to conspire with me over how to force the character to be involved.” This article is very nice in-depth look at that principle.

    I would venture even further, and remind players that they have some control of things OUTSIDE their character as well. Not big world-changing things, but if you say the barmaid walks across your rogue’s path at just the right moment to stop you from sneaking out before the cleric realises you left, a decent GM is unlikely to get defensive about your attempted game-world coup.

    As for the purists who can’t bring themselves to ever obstruct their own characters, who insist that the experience will break if they don’t play perfectly in-character at all times, let me remind you that EVERYBODY acts out-of-character occasionally. We all, in moments of stress or grief, intoxication or particular company, egoism or moodiness or random brain fart, say or do things that we wouldn’t think of as being in line with or “normal” personalities and principles. If your character is being played consistently as a general rule, an odd moment or atypical decision that serves the story doesn’t break squat.

    I get that people have different play styles, so I guess if everybody at your table likes the “everyone for themselves” approach then knock yourselves out. But typically, the experience that characterises a group RPG – whether it’s on a tabletop or in a chat room – is cooperating with others. If you value “acting in-character” over improving the collaborative experience, you’re valuing yourself above all the other players, which is great way to be a dick at MOST gaming tables.

  • Nick says:

    First, congrats on writing one amazing article! I’ve been GMing for 15 years now and I’ve never seen an article that so concisely described all the problems I’ve ever faced with players.

    I’m almost impressed by the way you tied Brecht and Stanislavski into the mix. As a theatre PhD I’m fascinated by the idea. My theatre gaming friends (and I have converted many to the cause) all agree that gaming is ideal for actors. We’ve already learned everything except the damage dice for fireballs through classes. It’s a great improv exercise.

    I did want to say a little about Brecht and his theories on Epic Theatre. Verfremsdungeffekt is generally translated by non-Brecht scholars as ‘The Alienation Effect” which is “making the familiar strange.”

    Because Brecht was a Communist, his idea was that immersion was a placation of the viewer which made them complacent, and therefore was bad. A play that doesn’t make you think about the consequences of your actions to the world around you is bad. If everything ends neatly and all the actions the characters take comes to a “happy” end, then it’s a bad nasty bad play.

    The play is bad and you should feel bad.

    In a Brecht play, characters do things that a sane and rational person should find appalling and to call attention to that, he did things that broke the immersion, like having characters break out in a song that doesn’t conclude (Nice grab on Pirate Jenny, that’s a perfect example!) Audiences would ideally become aware of the terrible world around them and when they left the theatre they would do something about it.

    As GMs we’re not trying to inspire the Revolution, but it’s good for players take a moment and step out of their characters, examine the situation, and then decide to do something that keeps the world moving forward. I’m not generally a Brecht fan, but this is a fascinating way to incorporate that into something I am a fan of!

  • C. says:

    As ‘late’ as I am I wanted to drop a small note of appreciation for this article. I’m a starter player for an rpg game that completely fell apart two weeks ago because of conflict between players over one player character. I didn’t understand my own frustration but I do now. We had a player that made the story their story, refused to compromise rpg for teamwork or the story and refused to let other players help them to improve their characters social skills, which were next to zero because of background reasons (grew up without family in an nasty orphanage). Sadly it broke the group, but at least I understand now why it happened. I luckily have found a new group (I was already planning to leave) where everyone is more aware that rpg’ing is something you do together. Amazing read, will save it to send it to anyone who needs it in the future.

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