Rules and Advice
Game Mastering
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May 14, 2009, 2:26 pm

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You've GOT to play it in character!


GMs definitely need to enforce strict "in character" play, eliminate "across the table" chatter, and by doing so - set the scene for an awesome role-play experience!

"Next time you speak out of character and give advice when your character is unconscious - and I’ll give you two points of testicular damage!" That’s the only way I could get my last loud-mouth player to stop telling other PCs what to do when his PC wasn’t even supposed to have a voice.  In the end, his loose lips gave enough creative "umph!" to the beleagured party to have them use the right magical device at the right time and save their little world from annhilation.  That instance happened about twenty years ago and was just about the last time "out of character" play happened at my table - because since then - I just don’t allow it.

Was it me, as the DM, who allowed it?  Yes, after analyzing that instance and several instances having happened before I realized; it was my fault, pure and simple.  Why?  Because I’m the DM, and by not laying down the expectations I have of the players, then enforcing those expectaions, holding my players accountable to my rules, I’m the one to blame; I was the main facilitator.  After my epiphany I started thinking about what I and my players had to gain if I only took a stand.

I figured it like this; the fun of role-playing doesn’t come from rules-lawyering, rolling the dice, or making sure the players have so many magical items they can barely carry them all.  Nope, in over 30 years of play I’ve discovered the core appeal the game offers comes chiefly from the development of the individual player characters storylines and personae building - and THAT happens through proper role-play enforcement and consistent story development.  Other experienced GMs may argue with me, but the results of the games I’ve developed have been compared by most of my players to the joys of smoking crack…which, in an odd way, I consider a compliment.  Playing "in character" is the only alternative to "across the table" interruption in my games now.  Where once a dim-witted Orc warrior would have said across the table, "Hey mage!  You should drink your potion of invisibility, fly up to the rafters of this here church’s ceiling and cast a lightening bolt down at the evil cult leader so it’ll rebound and do double damage!" has been replaced with, "Me gonna chop you Mr. Priesty…me gonna chop you big, big time!  EAT AXE!"

Here is a short list of basic requirements I lay down to the PCs as they begin thinking of the characters they want:

1. Each PC must produce their background via a short story, well written or poor, it doesn’t matter.  Make it meaningful, discussing as much intricacy of detail as you can: Why are you a "insert class"?  Who trained you?  Why are you good or evil?  What is your personality?  What significant events transpired to give you that personality?  What are you secondary professions?  Now, fit those professions into your story so they make sense…  Develop your character, make him/her make sense, and…you can’t be nobility, depose nobility, or the offspring of some rich, old man…

2. I define their character based on their story:  "So, you’re an evil thief who freelanced his way through life, bucked all thieves guilds (despite the pressure), and worked more outside the main gates of the nearby city, favoring breaking and entering of farm houses while their occupants were out working the farm during the day?  Now you have such a local reputation that you want to run away and seek employment through adventure…

Okay, that being the case I lay out the facts to the PC: You raised yourself and bucked society so: you can’t read.  You’re a loner, so you won’t be making many friends…and you can’t but hardly trust anyone…not until you know them damnably well!  You will have street smarts, but be untrusting of all people unless you hold the upper hand (through force or coersion).  You duck the law and can barely stand to be around any kind of authority.  You can barely count, and since farmers never really had gems or jewelry…you really don’t know the value of artistic or crafted things (can’t tell paste gams from the real thing).  The good news, however, is that you’re a fast talker and find village folks easy to manipulate or haggle with…and you KNOW you’ll be meeting a lot of them in your travels.

I give the PCs until about 4th level to modify bits of their personae here and there and "feel out" what they’ve bought into.  Why?  Because if a PC doesn’t like what they’re developing they have no "buy in" with their character and will feel trapped and disenchanted (a.k.a. a dead-end PC)...and that’s not what we want!

3. Tell the PCs this: Each game contains multiple secrets and puzzles which, if you discover and play out in character, you will earn extra experience.  To NOT play out these things in character will disallow not only the extra experience but also force me to subtract from your core experience points earned for that game: if you cause disruption to other’s play or development of the story.  You will be competing against all other PCs for this experience, so if you don’t play it like I’m telling you…you will most likely be third level and the other PCs will be fourth much faster than you.

Now, how do I enforce these things?  Easy…

1. I keep my word!  At the end of each game I take each PC to the side and give him a hand printed note with his core experience he’s earned, PLUS any additional point he may have earned for any manner of things: solving a puzzle, exceptional role-play, playing in character - doing the right thing at the right time (even if that is done to the detriment of the party as a whole, as sometimes thieves or thug-warriors often do).  In this way I can give experience to drunken warriors who choose to be drunk all the time, or to PC’s who are womanizers who decide to visit a lot of brothels, or even to gluttons who decide to gorge themselves on the city’s finest cuisine (yes, I had a player once…)  The sheet would look like this at first level:  +300, +25, +75, +50…  And each annotation comes with a comment like, "The first extra +25 was for when you came into the bar and grabbed the bar-maid’s behind…the entire party laughed their butts off: perfect.  I was hoping someone would do that, and that’s why I described her as "a most desirable wench!",  the +75 points was when you decided to not trust the beggar who offered the obviously bogus deal, and when you strong-armed him to make him tell the truth…it was awesome, and you learned a valuable secret AND this extra experience!  And the last +50 was for deciding to get the merchant drunk while you were playing cards so you could win his purse…having searched his room and knowing he had signs of alcoholism, you played it just right and made a small fortune in the process!"

This little article was written fairly quickly, I admit, and I do the whole subject little justice on the whole, but hope my message comes across as tolerably understandable.  It is absolutely imperative to set standards for role-play AND to enforce those standards.  While there are many ways to have fun in any role-play world, without creating an environment facilitating playing "in character" and squashing "across the table" talk…you’re really cheating yourself and your players out of the true heart and full worth of the game.  Yes, the demand these days of all my players is simply, "You’ve GOT to play it in character!".

(Now, to finish where I REALLY started: if I ever DID give anyone two points of testicular damage…I think I’d make them roll a successful System Shock or die on the spot, and if they lived?  They’d be forced to speak in a high pitch as they role-played until treated with a Cure Critical Wounds…because, after all…they’ve GOT to play it in character!)

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Comments ( 14 )
Commenters gain extra XP from Author votes.

May 14, 2009, 14:23
Updated: corrected spelling ;) (silly ol' me missed it...and so did the bloody spellchecker!)
May 14, 2009, 14:26
Updated: Hey, I'm learning here! I took out some quotes from my title...(sigh). A mistake never to be made again...ahhhhh
Voted Scrasamax
May 15, 2009, 0:13
An impressive and emotional thesis. I won't argue the merits of free and loose at the table, or running a more draconian line of if you say it, your character does too. What I will say is that I would like to sit in at your game table for a session or three
Barbarian Horde
May 15, 2009, 15:37
This is Grey on a remote terminal.
Just wanted to say that I quite like this, and although I may not be able to get QUITE as much cooperation out of my players, this definetly inspires me to try more.
Voted Michael Jotne Slayer
May 16, 2009, 8:28
I agree with much of what you have said here. I think the topic is relevant and it shows that you care about this, which is a good thing! As an article the layout may not be top notch. I would put on a few bold headers as well, they serve as good landmarks.

In my opinion this is a really good first submission and I hope to see more from you!

Are Virgin Swords up next?

Voted Shadowskin
May 18, 2009, 16:18
I liked this article and to be honest the game master must be the guiding force in the game. In my eyes the game only really comes to fruition when each person truly plays the character that he has picked. I seem to recall someone wanting to be a psionic orc or some mess like that and you put that junk down quick. My only wish is that you and the other gamers were closer so, Tarik could do his thing one more time. Where are those damn glasses and what is that de-testable muid (part mage/part druid) up to?
Voted Ancient Gamer
May 18, 2009, 18:49
I nodded my head a lot while I read this, a sign of recognition and agreement.

While the article might not be perfectly formatted, with bold text and paragraphs and all that, the essence of it remains pure and true. The heart of your text is that "everything has got to be in character", but I love all the extra anecdotes and what those trigger of memories in me as a GM.

Yes, everything has got to be in character, except for a couple of breaks, and yes: character centric gameplay does create a truly electric gaming environment. I have found that following your recipe for character development, coupled with "character ripple effect" and generational gameplay, is amazing. With the character ripple effect I mean the impact player character actions have on the world. Not necessarily the big effect, but often the small things, for in my GMing it is the little things that matter. That essential detail that touches the heart of the player, or triggers her imagination.

Like that player who played a chef character. Later they ate at his restaurant, several real life years and in game generations later. Or that enchantress painter PC whose painting was found over the villain's fireplace. Or the grand daughter of a PC, and the daughter of another PC, that the party rescued from a drug lord.

Further: Letting the players play the descendants of their old PCs is a truly wonderful GM tool. Not only does this give him some easy backup to rescue the party from TPK (total party kill... it is nice to have those powerful relatives that desire your well being), but more importantly the depth of the family history will weave a imaginary tapestry so powerful that all but the most hopeless player will be completely engrossed by the end result.

*steps off the soap box*
Voted valadaar
May 21, 2009, 9:02
Also agree with the general sentiment here - formatting needs work, and the content is indeed top-knotch!

Kudos good sir!
Voted Mourngrymn
November 8, 2009, 19:59
Well I have always been one for playing in character. While starting a new campaign a few weeks ago I actually determined that I was going to have issues with one of the players not listening to the simple rule of the GM is always right.

Following in Moonhunter's footsteps I have now begun to use player folders that have important information in them for the players. In them gives the basic rules of my table of playing in character, etc. Those that do not follow said rules are punished in game for a first offense, humiliated publicly for a second offense, and asked not to return until they can listen better than my five year old for a third offense. WHile this may be a tad off topic for a comment I am just giving credence to the, I agree with you.
Voted axlerowes
November 9, 2009, 12:21
well i guess as long the GMing doesn't go to your head, one should threaten and prod the players into form
February 19, 2011, 23:41

What I will say is that I would like to sit in at your game table for a session or three--Scrasamax.


Me too!

Voted Strolen
February 21, 2011, 7:31

Great article with some excellent examples to prove your point. If only all the players understood the importance as much as the GM we wouldn't be in this dilemma. So easy for old hands to want to help out...or the know it all that wants to show, well, that he knows it all even though he already fell for the trap and is unconscious. 

Michael Jotne Slayer
February 21, 2011, 7:47

After plowing trough many different groups and players trough the years I have discovered that it is simply beyond some people to play it in character. 

February 25, 2012, 12:11

"So, you’re an evil thief who freelanced his way through life, bucked all thieves guilds (despite the pressure), and worked more outside the main gates of the nearby city, favoring breaking and entering of farm houses while their occupants were out working the farm during the day?  Now you have such a local reputation that you want to run away and seek employment through adventure…"

Okay, that being the case I lay out the facts to the PC: "You raised yourself and bucked society so: you can’t read."

Love that!

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