Shut The Fuck Up and Roll the Dice: Role-Play Without Irritating Your Friends.

“Role-playing” is what many in the hobby call social interaction encounters. I consider any decision a player makes in the course of a game to be “role-playing.” The whole thing is role-playing. Combat, exploration, social interaction; it’s all role-playing. You are playing the role of your character in a situation.

Talking to other players or the game master in character, is a social encounter or social interaction.

I’ve experienced maddening social interactions during my time playing RPGs. It took me a while but I figured out why they sucked so much.

The player’s objective was to be a spectacle and the center of attention to the exclusion of all other purposes.

Their “role-playing” had a selfish purpose. The player or players engaged in the conversation were completely focused on their own amusement. Nothing was achieved during the encounter other than a performance.

The basic requirement for any kind of encounter is that something changes. There’s a fight and someone dies. The party unlocks a door.

What many call “role-playing” or what I call social encounters have the same requirement. Information is gained. A relationship with a merchant is damaged. The players learn of a location. The party finds a clue.

A social encounter when nothing changes is pointless and often boring. The characters make progress toward their goal or face a setback on the way to their goals. If neither of those two things occur, then that’s not a very good encounter.

How not to play a social encounter.

The worst versions of this are when two players are arguing with each other, as their characters, merely to display the personality of the character. I’ve rarely seen this done in a way that was entertaining. Usually, both parties suffer from Dunning-Kruger effect. They are terrible improvisational actors and think they are far more entertaining than they actually are to anyone at the table but themselves.

I played in a East Texas University Savage Worlds game that had this problem. We played college students discovering cosmic horrors. Two of the characters had taken a job at an antique store. One player was playing an entitled, basic, suburban white girl with a delicate sensibility, offended by everything. Such characters are no less annoying in a game than they are in real life.

The PC kept complaining about how the other PC was trying to do the job they had been assigned to do by the shopkeeper. This resulted in an argument between both characters that stretched on for about 30 minutes. Not only was this terrible to watch and listen to, the characters didn’t accomplish what they were trying to accomplish in the shop. I stopped playing in that game after that session. I thought about leaving during a break. I hoped it would get better. It didn’t.

I had a similar experience at Con on the Cob a few weeks back. Two players were going back and forth having a laugh but it was irritating and pointless. I let them do their thing for a few minutes and then gently nudged them on.

Some folks enjoy having a lot of in character conversations with other players and the game master. That can lead to some great game moments. It can annoy and bore everyone else at the table if you go too far with it.

How can you enjoy your social interaction encounters and not be obnoxious about it?

Have a purpose.

When a storyteller writes a scene, it has a purpose. The characters are having a conversation for a reason that is relevant to the story. The scene is advancing the story. They aren’t just talking to talk. They are buying drugs. Getting the master sword maker to make them a sword. Pointing out if they run with the money they can live like kings and avoid the danger of trying to take down Thulsa Doom in his mountain of power.

Similarly, every social interaction encounter in an RPG should have purpose. If you are talking to another PC in character, that conversation should have a purpose besides making a spectacle. Something should be decided. Information should be revealed. At the beginning of the encounter the game is one state. At the end of the encounter the game state should change. If it doesn’t then you’ve done nothing useful.

If you are talking in character and advancing the objectives of the entire group while you are doing it, that’s fantastic. Everyone will be on board for that. You can play a haughty and disagreeable sorcerous who expects the plebes around her to be deferential and subservient, as long as she also successfully negotiates with the demon to ferry the party across the lake of fire and don’t take 30 minutes to play through the encounter.

If you are being haughty and disagreeable and it stops all forward motion toward the party’s objectives for a half an hour, that’s boring and most everyone at the table is going to be turned off by the performance.

The difference between written dialogue and improvised dialogue.

Great writers labor over every word of dialogue. They read their own dialogue aloud. They write and rewrite many times. Anything that can be cut is cut. Audiences are no more interested in pointless dialogue than players at the table are. Therefore, writers go through each line and polish it up.

In a game, we are improvising dialogue. We don’t have the benefit of revising the dialogue so it flows. As gamers, we need to be aware that our improvised dialogue is probably not going to be as entertaining as dialogue in our favorite TV show or film.

Do your best, have reasonable expectations. Talking more is probably not going to make it better. If you don’t think you are communicating what you want to communicate, just narrate the point you are trying to make and move on.

Get to the point.

One of the arguments for more “role-playing” in a role-playing game is that RPGs are “collaborative storytelling” (also wrong).

Since stories have dialogue, we should be spending a large proportion of that time talking in character. This is wrong even if you apply it to actual storytelling in the form of film, print or stage.

Professional screenwriters recommend that a dialogue only scene should typically be less than 5 minutes. I counted how many lines Arnold Schwarzenegger had in Conan the Barbarian. The film has a running time of 121 minutes and Arnold had a little more than 50 lines in the entire film and that was including the single word exclamations like, “Crom!” That’s a single line of dialogue for every two pages of screenplay.

If the encounter can be resolved in a brief exchange, leave it at that and go on. Some encounters require 20 or 30 minutes of in character conversation but they are rare.

If you are playing a game that has a social skill mechanic, this is especially grievous. Why spend precious play time talking about trivial nonsense that doesn’t advance the action of the adventure? Narrate what you are doing, give one line of dialogue, roll the dice and move the fuck on.

The way to differentiate your character is how they say their thing or what they say, not how long you can improvise a conversation.

Be a team player.

Tabletop role-playing games are a social activity. We are collaborating together to have an experience that was agreed upon before we sat down to play. When you make a social encounter about your personal interests and desires and that takes away from the group or delays the group’s objectives, you are being selfish. It is no different than the player who picks a fight with every NPC they come across because they love combat and don’t care if it is appropriate in the moment or not.

The game isn’t for you alone, it is for all of us together.

If the way you play your character makes the experience for other players miserable, then you are not playing as part of a team or the social group. You are playing purely to amuse yourself and the rest of us are your unhappy play things.

It’s one thing to play a selfish character. It is something else to be a selfish player.

Be present, focussed, intentional.

I know there are some gamers that want to spend an hour having in character conversation while they imagine their PCs sitting around a fire. Most gamers don’t like that. If that’s you, its fine but make sure you are in a group that likes that sort of thing.

Have a conversation about what kind of social interactions the group wants to have before you start playing. Be open about your preferences and come to some sort of understanding about the style of play in your group before you start. When problems or a pattern of not-fun or not enough social encounters shows up, talk about it with kindness and empathy for your fellows. Figure out what the problem is, talk it out and game on.

If you are at a convention game or a one-off at a game shop, look at and listen to the tone and words of the other players as you are in a social interaction that has gone on more than a minute or two. There are some subtle and not so subtle clues that you’ve overstepped and need to wrap up the encounter.

If they look annoyed, they probably are. If they are looking at their phone in a far away voice, that means they are disengaged and bored. If they are frowning, rolling their eyes, arms crossed, and the inflection and volume of their voice is rising, you are irritating them.

Be generous. Be gracious. Your improvised acting hasn’t been nearly as entertaining to them as it has to you and it’s time to go on to the next encounter. Try working your schtick in smaller doses, changing up, or maybe this isn’t the right group for you.

You aren’t going to convince anyone that this is what “good role-playing” looks like if they are bored, irritated, and annoyed by the performance. Move on to the next encounter or to a different game group.

7 thoughts on “Shut The Fuck Up and Roll the Dice: Role-Play Without Irritating Your Friends.

  1. Hard agree from me. I prefer to referee, and have players interact in more of a 3rd person kinda way. I’m not keen on the voices and acting stuff out in first person.

    Unfortunately, some people interpret that as not doing role-playing, but my main aim is for the players to be heavily invested in the game world, the NPCs, and more importantly what their characters can do in that world.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. There is a range of possibility for sure. There are some folks that seem to think that if your game doesn’t sound like a group of professional actors in a table read that it is somehow “lesser than.” In reality, most gamers really suck at those interactions. It’s OK to suck, just be aware that you suck at it and get on with the game. Being a player not involved in the encounter while two other players suck at improv for 30 minutes while nothing is actually accomplished is a miserable experience.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I did not start playing RPG, because I wanted to be an actor, or wanted to try acting. A lot of people confuse these things and it is something I’ve hated ever since I first encountered it some years ago. It will not be a popular opinion, but I blame 5e and CR for this phenomenon. Maybe I am wrong, but a lot of people were drawn into D&D (especially 5e) by shows like that and they think that’s role-playing.

    I’ve actually seen people who really wanted to play D&D but were AFRAID(!) to start because they thought their acting skills were not all there yet. When a guy first told me this (he was a shy guy), I felt mixed feelings of anger and pain, like I’d been stabbed with a knife…

    I will never care if someone can act or not. This is not drama school. If someone is pretty good, that’s great, if not, great as well!

    The thing you mention I’ve not really come across too much, thankfully – people trying to show off their character’s deep personality through self-serving, improvised acting. It would be great fun to crush these though, so I can’t wait! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well, I’m not interested in crushing anyone, well maybe rules lawyers. 😁

      I think it’s more about making sure anyone I invite to my table is on the same page, and into how I wanna run the campaign, and will find that a fun experience.

      I also don’t like the other extreme the character sheet style of play that is solely occ talk about AC, HP, bonuses, etc. Where players say things like “I rolled 17 did I diplomatize the gaurd?”

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Yeah. You are right, of course. As long as the table is in sync, we are okay.

        What You mention, though, the “character sheet style” is not really the other end of the axis. A parallel thing. You can be a realy good player in an oldschool game (where it is mostly useless to look for an answer on the character sheet), without trying to do any acting. Your character can interact with the world, and can be intuitive, creative and active, without it I think.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, that would. be the sweet spot for me. I don’t go for the acting, and am not keen on character sheet mechanics math. I’m interested in the plsyetsvinteracting with the game world, people, and fictive situations and being intuitive, active, and creative as you put it.

        Liked by 2 people

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