In my last post, I discussed the idea that in most roleplaying games, players’ time is split. Some of it is spent performing as a character, acting exactly as that character would in the fictional world, but some of it is spent on other activities. Exactly what those are depends on the game, of course, but it might be: straightforward narration of material that can’t be directly performed; engaging with some real-world mechanical tool like dice or character sheets; metatechniques like delivering an internal monologue for the benefit of the other players (while their characters remain unaware).
Despite the prevalence of these other activities, many games (and many players) do strive to be in-character and acting “realistically” (i.e. not monologuing or using other dramatic character-breaking tools) as much of the time as possible. This isn’t necessary for a good game, of course – Microscope is a great example of a powerful story-telling game which doesn’t necessarily require any in-character performance at all – but where you do want to encourage the players to stay in character, you can run into difficulties, as there are some actions necessary in the fiction that simply can’t be reproduced in the real-world performance. (The three example techniques above present some ways to get around that.) As mentioned in the last post, there are games like When the Dark is Gone that manage to stay in-character 100% of the time (at least after the setup phase), but the situations you can portray in such a game are heavily restricted.
An alternative approach is to set up your game so that the time spent out of character feels like time spent in character. Use the mechanics, rules, or game setup to foster in the players the mindset that you want your characters to have. There are plenty of great examples of this, such as:
- Murderous Ghosts, Doomed Pilgrim, and many other games that explicitly have an adversarial relationship between one group of players playing “the world” and another playing the protagonist(s). This sets a tone where the world is not a fair place and in fact is actively working against the protagonist(s) – heightening the tension and the fear factor for their player(s).
- The Jenga tower in Dread. A very visible and tangible indicator that everything could at any moment come crashing down on top of your character – again, pushing the tension higher and higher until it finally collapses (creating a very real sense of relief for the players not affected by the downfall!)
- In Remodel, the various manipulations of the house (represented by a real physical set) reflect and enhance the emotional journeys the characters are taking. Physically ripping up tape to “demolish” parts of the house, for example, provides a powerful cathartic experience and prepares the player for their character’s new beginning.
- In The Secret Lives of Serial Killers, key information is hidden from one player in order to give them a very real sense of horror and betrayal when it finally comes out.
Perhaps nothing can be more realistic than acting something out in full, but that’s a luxury we don’t often have. By choosing techniques carefully, you can “shortcut” some of the acting process and elicit feelings in your players that match those in the characters without needing a full in-character portrayal. If you know others I’ve missed (and there’ll be plenty), let me know in the comments – I’m keen to try them out!