One of the biggest traps that veteran role players seem to fall in to isn’t a sphere of annihilation or a goblin’s forest ambush or even a sixty-foot pit. Instead, it’s the notion that every move they make and every word their character speaks must be memorable, gripping, and full of significance. In short, it’s the notion that they must always be the hero. After years of playing extraordinary characters whose daring exploits are turned into the stuff of legends, the most daunting moments are those dark slivers of time where the player himself has no earthly clue what to do next.
I only bring it up because I’ve experienced this phenomenon recently. I have a detailed backstory for my character. I have meaningful connections to the rest of the group. I have a clearly defined sense of place within the campaign setting. Yet as the game gets underway, I can’t seem to find those moments that shine as opportunities for heroic action, or even just ‘action,’ period. As the minutes drag on into the gaming session, I’m increasingly aware that my PC is not contributing to the group’s mission. My character may know what to do, but she just hasn’t told me as of yet. So what’s a hero to do?
The Shadow Knows
This shadowing strategy is what I employed during the last session in which I found myself at a loss for decisive action. I simply followed a player character who seemed to be motivated to act, in the hopes that their kinetic in-game energy would be the jump start my character needed. One event led to another, and soon we both found ourselves facing a conflict that couldn’t be resolved by one character alone. At that moment, there was a clear, natural motivation for my PC to engage in the game in a meaningful way.
This won’t work for every session, or with every fellow player. You don’t ever want the “shadow” technique to become the “anchor” technique. Likewise, most players are anxious for opportunities to create significance in the story and contribute to the campaign. As such, playing the whole game as another’s shadow wouldn’t be very satisfying. This strategy, however, can yield organic outlets for action that still benefit the party and move the story along.
The Buddy System
The kickoff to our current Cabin Trip adventure was a rousing success, but at the start of the episode I personally found it difficult to insert my character’s actions into the story. Perhaps that was caused by the fact that my PC was a woman in a group full of men, or that she was of a different race than the rest of the party. Perhaps I felt too constrained by the secret relationship I had created with another player’s character in our group template, and didn’t want to act outside that artificial barrier. Whatever the reason, my hero was largely along for the ride as the game began.
The change that played a part in bringing my character to life was an intentional teaming with a different player’s character. Whether we were interrogating a goblin spy or fighting a hungry crocodile, I made sure my character was working alongside this particular PC on a consistent basis. After a time, actions got easier as we worked together toward a common end. Like the straight man in a comic duo, the buddy system provided me someone to play off from to motivate my hero’s deeds.
Mission: The Personal
Another technique that took me from ‘role playing along’ to ‘active role playing’ in the above example was giving myself a personal mission to act out, along with the party’s primary goal. This proved quite easy, as my character’s predetermined class (Warden), theme (Guardian), and role (Bodyguard) left little doubt as to what that personal mission would be.
The leader of our party was the heir to a noble estate, a house that was responsible for the welfare of all the surrounding peoples and lands. Should the heir be seriously hurt, or worse yet killed, the holdings of his family would be thrown into disarray and chaos. So while our party, including the heir himself, was on a heroic mission for the good of the land, I purposely made my PC’s mission the personal protection of the heir. My backstory already specified this; however, the group’s main mission had captured my attention as a player. As such, my PC’s characterful actions had gotten lost in the shuffle of skill checks and combat encounters.
Playing out my own personal ‘bodyguard’ mission always motivated my character to act, and sometimes in ways that I as a player wouldn’t have thought. I bull rushed the heir out of harm’s way (more than once) whether he needed it or not, and I spent actions (and Action Points) to heal him or move him away from harm instead of furthering the party’s agenda. I wasn’t working against the group, per se, but having a personal mission to guide me made my character’s actions that much easier to define.
The Road Less Traveled
Then there are the moments where the only thing for your character to do is take dramatic action for the sake of drama itself. I’ve also heard this philosophy described by a fellow gamer as “When in doubt, go all out.” In other words, when you don’t know what else to do, take an action that will force the plot forward, whether for your character alone or the group as a whole. Cut the rope. Steal the car. Open the briefcase. Charge the dragon. Jump the ravine. Do something exciting!
There are obvious caveats to this strategy, for which I can cite multiple examples. Going off on your own in a game focused on group efforts and teamwork can frequently yield disastrous consequences. Likewise, leaving the rest of the party behind, to their own devices or to fend for themselves, can limit the opportunities they’ll have to act during their turn. As such, the “go all out” strategy can sometimes earn you the enmity of the players and their characters alike. Please make sure that your character is the one making a bold, daring, perhaps reckless decision to act in these moments, and that you as a player are not guilty of the same. Chances are that the rest of your party will bring it to your attention if they think your cure for being in a personal action rut is going to screw the entire encounter. However, there are times when these unexpected moments of dramatic action can be just the spark a game needs to blast ahead.
It’s been said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. As a role player at a loss for what to do next, making that first step in the character’s journey a bold step will direct their path.