Skew You!

Or When Players Forget to Be Their Characters

Fat Kids: Player Skew by Bryan Dryer

Fat Kids: Player Skew by Bryan Dryer


A player in a role playing game is in a weird predicament. First, she’s distanced from her character’s situation. It’s hard to sympathize with a cold, hungry, wounded character when you’re full of sugar and caffeine, and in a warm room with your friends.

Second, she’s not even perceiving things as the character does. Instead, she’s hearing about everything second hand from the GM. No matter how well the GM describes the world, the player is going to form a slightly different picture of it in her mind. Due to this disconnect, a player, even a good one, can have a hard time really placing themselves in the character’s shoes.

Both of these factors combine to detach a player from the character she’s trying to portray.  The feat of overcoming this skew is central to playing a character with any degree of verisimilitude.  Maybe you want a light-hearted game, and you aren’t overly concerned with this.  In that case, by all means do your thing.  Sometimes it’s just fun to roll dice and have fun.  Otherwise, in this post I’ll give a few ideas of how to bridge that gap.


Some games try to handle pieces of a player’s skewed perspective with rules. A rule certainly can’t play your character for you, but it might help by providing hard numbers to align the GM and player expectations.  Though the player can’t fear the repercussions of character actions in quite the way they would if they were really in the circumstance, mechanics can help provide a sense of consequence.

The most common instances of mechanics that bridge this gulf relate to health and wounds. Instead of expecting a player to portray the character as increasingly wounded, a game might impose a penalty on a character’s actions. A couple examples would be Shadowrun’s Wound Modifiers, or D&D 4E’s Conditions. Many games also include mechanics for environmental conditions, such as severe cold or heat.

These mechanics only handle temporary states, however. What can game mechanics do when the players are cracking up during a tense game, or entirely disregarding the danger of combat? The answer is: not a whole lot after the fact. They CAN, however, help to foster a sense of tension in the first place. Long term consequences for a character often affect a player’s state of mind more effectively.  For example, the reduced attributes in older versions of D&D, or the risk of permanent wounds such as lost limbs in Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. One of the best examples I’ve found for fostering a pervasive feeling of suspense in the game is Dread’s tower mechanic, whose consequence happens to be character death.

For the Player

Unfortunately, rules can only go so far.  Most of the responsibility falls on the player.  When the GM is describing events, pause to ask yourself how the character is seeing them.  What does she want?  What does she feel about it?  Try to respond from that standpoint.  This is, of course, almost a definition of “role playing”, but sometimes it helps to state the obvious.

As a rule of thumb, look for the big events.  Granted, characters in a role playing game see more than their fair share of big events, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t affected.  When things occur such as deaths, victories, severe wounds, or anything especially meaningful to your character, make a point to respond to them, and be changed by them.  In one long running game, I played a character I’ve since compared to Tom Sawyer.  As the campaign progressed, and he had to watch friends with whom he’d grown up get hurt and die, I decided that the things he was living through would make it hard for the character to remain the innocent, mischievous boy he had been.  In other words, I tried to portray the character growing up.  Good literature is often judged by how the characters change and grow during a story, and a game isn’t too different in that regard.

For the GM

What can the GM do to foster a better connection with the story?  First of all, make sure you give good evocative descriptions of the setting, preferably appealing to more than one of the characters’ senses.  If there are elements of the game the players are not catching, but the characters probably would, feel free to point them out.  If that doesn’t work, get specific player reactions to the situation: “you guys are almost out of food, what are you going to do about that?”

Encourage players to engage the world in a non mechanical way.  Reward players (within reason) who have their characters spend time on things that may not have an in-game effect, or that are not even related to the plot.  For instance: building a memorial to a fallen companion, celebrating an in-game holiday, or pursuing a non-adventuring career (art, smithing, etc).  These actions don’t have to take long. Have the characters’ actions show up again later: noticing folks laying flowers at the memorial, seeing the character’s painting in a collection.  Though these things may have no mechanical benefit, they go a long way to enriching the game world, and deepening the player’s connection to her character.

Also, encourage characterful player descriptions of their actions.  One easy method is to have the players describe their attacks, especially if they are successful.  For example, to explain why his attack temporarily blinded the opponent as indicated by the dice, one player described how he sliced into his enemy, flourished the blade, and flung blood into the man’s eyes.  Without changing the mechanics of the game one bit, this description gives a much better picture of the character.  Compare this to the standard: “I hit for six damage, and the opponent is blinded for a round.”

There are a lot of ways that everybody can contribute to improving the depth of the game, and help alleviate instances where the player’s mindset has skewed from the situation of her character.  At the very least, it will make for a better and more believable story.  In addition, it will likely be more fun, as everybody sees the characters and the campaign world interacting in a mutually symbiotic relationship.

7 Responses to Skew You!

  1. Thanks for getting the intwischa blog kicked off!

    I have always suffered from being an inconsistent player–in addition to the skew you describe, I have trouble keeping my values distinct from my character’s values.

    Over the last week, I’ve been reading “The Actor’s Art and Craft: William Esper teaches the Meisner Technique.” I’m struck by the number of issues this book has highlighted in the way I approach my characters–I very much bring my own baggage to them, and this only exacerbates the skew problem.

    • I’ll be interested in finding out what concepts from the book will apply to RP. Sounds like a post waiting to happen!

  2. This made me realize the nuance of actually roleplaying, instead of playing a game about numbers and a battle map.
    Which in turn made me ask myself the rhetorical question: to what end does actually getting into character and actually roleplaying serve? How does this activity create value, and ultimately enjoyment (and for whom?!)?

    I’m certainly not discrediting the enjoyment or value of actual roleplaying, but my analytical mind wants to know how and why roleplaying and getting into character create a more “fun” experience as opposed to playing a game of numbers and battle maps. I’ve had my share of D&D and ShadowRun characters and experiences, but I can’t honestly say I was ever a good “roleplayer”. But if I had roleplayed well, how much more fun would I have had, and why?

    • Great question.

      My gut says that, if playing a role is not fun for you, then there is a certain market of the hobby that will not appeal to you. I say that without derision–I’m not a battlemat-heavy player, and big wargames stress me out. Does that mean they’re not fun? No, it means I don’t have fun playing them.

      It is tempting to go all relativist on this, and say “Anything is good if you have fun doing it.” I won’t go that far. There are things that just aren’t fun.

      I also can’t honestly say I’m a good “roleplayer.” But I’ve seen people who are, and they makes it look fun. I think I want to have that kind of fun, so I’m striving to become a better roleplayer.

      That sounds totally dweeby, but really, change out the hobby and it makes sense. There are some golfers who are content to suck at golf, but most want to get better.

      Thanks for being our first non-contributor commenter! I believe you’ll be very famous someday for the words you uttered here first.

  3. Hey Ike,
    I think that’s one of the coolest things about this hobby. Much like a good movie, these games are complex enough to be enjoyed on multiple levels. I like rolling dice and causing mayhem as much as the next guy. I also like the strategic aspect of combat and overcoming obstacles.

    When you add in a good connection to the character, though, it turns up the volume on the game (yes, to eleven). If you take the numbers on the character sheet, figure out who this person is, and give them life, then everything becomes more interesting. Now, you sit around a table with a bunch of other people doing the same thing, and try to tell a story together. You’ve suddenly got improvisation, with everybody building upon everybody else to collaboratively weave a tale around the framework provided by the GM. When everything clicks, it’s a hell of a good time.

    Some people can’t get into it, though, and that’s fine. They’re just more on the mayhem or strategy ends of the equation.

  4. It seems to me that getting into character allows you to take part in telling the story. Playing the game without really getting into playing the character is like reading a choose your own adventure book. There is no right way to play as long as people are enjoying the game. Knowing how invested the players are in their characters is probably important for the GM to know how much planning is needed.