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Playing In Character

Effective Role Playing

-by Henry E. Neufeld

Consider the following scene:
   Jim Altman and Mary Smith (a pirate and a doctor, respectively) are sitting in the Spaceman's Bar on Regina. They are not too sure why they are there, but we'll leave that aside for the moment. Jim and Mary dislike each other on sight, but nonetheless sit together and order drinks, as they are the only people in the bar, and it would look silly for them to sit on opposite sides of the room. Besides, they are player characters, so they must get together.

   As they are sitting there together, having exchanged name (but nothing more) a loud voice booms down from the ceiling. "Our adventure for today will be rescuing the daughter of a shipping magnate who has been kidnapped by some pirates." Jim and Mary look up immediately with interest. An adventure! Right here in Spaceman's Bar! Just what they were looking for!

   "What character type are you, Jim?" asks Mary, forgetting what she thinks of the burly, unwashed spaceman.
   Resisting the impulse (he is a good player) to respond, "Italic type", Jim says, "I'm a pirate."
   "Oh isn't that wonderful," says Mary, consulting Citizens of the Imperium. "Pirates are individuals who make their living by attacking, hijacking, or plundering commerce. By the way, what's your strength bonus for brawling?"
   "Plus 1, unless I have weakened blows, in which case it's reduced to minus 2", Jim responds, consulting his character sheet. "What do you do for a living?"
   "I'm a doctor and I have body pistol-4, " says Mary, opening her purse and showing the aforementioned pistol.
   "Good," says Jim, "let's go and rescue the maiden in distress."

   At which the referee says, "You hear a news bulletin over the radio in the bar telling you..." But the adventure is already under way.

   This scene serves to illustrate the biggest problem with role-playing games: players and referees not role-playing. Let's look at some suggestions to both players and referees as to how to improve the situation. We will then rewrite the scene.

   When you design a character, make sure you understand some simple facts about that person's background and motivations. If the referee provides good information to work with on designing your character, then this should be easy to do.
   Mary Smith is a doctor. Why did she become a doctor? Was it to save lives, to make money, to please her mother, or something else? If it was to save lives, she should quickly respond to the scenario of the day. If it was to make money, her first reaction might be to ask what sort of reward is offered for the girl's release.
   Somewhere in this process, decide why she learned the body pistol to such great accuracy in spite of it being unrelated to her profession. Make your conception detailed enough to let the referee get your character involved.

   Think as your character would think, and talk as your character would talk. Jim should not be upset at the kidnapping unless that has been built into his character, perhaps as a sort of pirate Robin Hood. Also, unless the Spaceman's Bar is a hangout without law, he should probably not say "pirate" as his profession. Perhaps "free trader" or "mercenary" would be better. Do not be stuck with the limitations of character name given in the rulebook. The characters aren't playing your game.

    Don't ask another character for his skill levels, or rolls required to hit, or any character stats. You can ask how good the person is. And the answer might be  great ,  unbeatable , or any of a number of descriptive term real people use to describe their abilities. There's no reason, either, why a character might not lie, or have an unrealistic opinion of his own abilities.

   Choose characters for a party as carefully as the person you are playing would. Why should Mary Smith trust this pirate she has just met? If necessary because of incompatibility, take or create other characters.

   Wait for motivation in character before jumping at an adventure. In the scene above, the news flash could provide a good opportunity, if it related to motivation of the the characters.

   In summary, always think, talk, and act as your character.
   For you referees, the control of the situation is much more in your hands.
   Point out the problems and suggestions above to your players, and remind them of them as necessary.

   If possible, have more than one adventure ready. If not, make sure that the motivations for the one you have prepared are appropriate for the character who will be going on it.

   Design meeting scenes around things which the characters logically might do, then create scenes where they can find out about each other.
   Don't discuss "today's adventure" until you present it piece by piece in character to the players. The first mention of the kidnapping should be the news broadcast. This is not an unbendable rule, but should be used if players are unused to staying in character.

   Don't tell the players anything their characters wouldn't know. Don't allow players to discuss a situation between themselves out of character, then benefit from it as their characters.
   Now for a rewrite with [] indicating player and referee comments:

   Jim Altman is sitting in the Spaceman's Bar, a rather seedy bar, but one that serves Jim's favorite drink. [J: My favorite drink is Zerp Berry Brandy, where do they serve that?]
   As he is peaceably sipping on the brandy a fight breaks out in the middle of the room. A big bully is about to beat up a green, young merchant crewman who has made a mistake. [Ref: He looks scared and out of his depth. (Play on the stated character of Jim: he stands up for the underdog.)]

   Meanwhile, Mary is walking past the bar, returning from a mission of mercy in the slums. She is carrying her body pistol, which she has learned to use because of the dangers of her job. The young merchant crewman comes flying out of the door, since the bully took action before Jim could move. Jim jumps up and follows. Mary bends down to look at the wounded boy, keeping an eye on the door for approaching trouble.
   "Get away from 'im!" says the bully.
   Mary slips the pistol out of her purse as he reaches to pull her aside. "I wouldn't do that," she says, holding her aim steady.
   About this time, Jim arrives and grabs the bully from behind. "Go ahead and take care of him, lady," he says gruffly, noticing her medical kit. Mary does this competently, watching the struggling bully being held by the scruff of the neck. "Not too clean and mannered, but pretty nice anyway," she is thinking.

   "Pretty good," says Jim admiringly when she is finished. "Um," he hesitates, "you wouldn't by any chance care for a drink, would you?"
   "In there?" asks Mary, looking at the dirty storefront.
   "Well, its not exactly luxury, but they do serve the best Zerp Berry Brandy," says Jim, reddening slightly. "I think you can handle it, and I can take care of you."
   "Zerp Berry Brandy?" asks Mary. "What's that?"
   "You haven't had any? You must come in and try some. I'll buy!"
   "Thanks, I think I will," says Mary. (The referee could use this opportunity to introduce the kid as a non-player character.)

   While in the bar drinking, a news announcement comes over the radio. The daughter daughter of Gordon Jameson, shipping magnate, has been kidnapped. "That guy's my worst enemy," mutters Jim under his breath.
   "But the poor girl," says Mary.
   "Yep, she ain't done nothin' wrong."
   "You know," says Mary, "maybe the two of us could do something about it. We seem to have some useful skills; quite a variety between us. By the way, can you pilot a spacecraft?"
   "Can I pilot a spacecraft? There ain't no ship I can't handle!"

   And the characters are off on an adventure, and this time they know why.

Swordworlder's Traveller Downport copyright 1998 - 2014 Colin Michael.
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