I’d like to start this blog with a shout-out to an old buddy of mine named Chris Mount, for reasons that will become obvious as it proceeds. When I first discovered roleplaying, Chris was the guy who taught me how to play. Without his guidance, I would never have amassed sufficient expertise and experience to be writing this article today…
When I look back on my first experience with RPGs, it’s a minor miracle that I didn’t drop the whole hobby like a lead weight.
I generated a first level thief (AD&D), having never read any of the rule books, and having no idea of what I was doing; the other players had characters ranging from 4th to 7th level, so my character was incompetant and inadequate in comparison right from the start; the GM ushered the party into the dungeon with absolutely no roleplay – we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a cavern complex with no rhyme or reason; and our first wandering monster (a stirge, ie a giant mosquito) surprised my character and killed him before I got to do a thing. Hardly an auspicious beginning – so much so that I can no longer remember who was even the GM!
The venue was a gathering of the University Of New South Wales Science Fiction Society (UNSW SFS), which I had hooked up with due to a love of the genre, at the invitation of a fellow member and classmate (Chris). Most of the SFS’ time was then being spent planning and preparing for a convention to be held in the middle of the year, at which Larry Niven was to be Guest of Honour; but, on this particular April afternoon, that business was dealt with in two bangs of a metaphoric gavel, and we moved on to the business at hand, which was a session of AD&D.
The whole concept of such a game attracted me from the very beginning. I couldn’t see how it could possibly work, and was itching to find out; and it was probably only that pre-game enthusiasm that salvaged the situation after such a memorable first encounter.
It was Chris, after the game, who nurtured that initial interest, explaining not only the way the rules worked, but awakening my awareness of how they worked, and giving me my first insights into how to get into the head of a character. (He also introduced me to Pink Floyd, Progressive Rock, and to CDs, and was a big Genesis fan. Read into that, what you will.)
Another of the attendees, Andrew J., mentioned that there was another group on campus that roleplayed on Saturday afternoons in a Student Union facility called the Blue Room, from about noon to about whenever (usually 2 or 3 AM) Sunday morning. (I’ve been friends with Andrew ever since; and while he has been forced by the burdons of Real Life to set aside his roleplaying for over a decade, he still dreams occasionally of being able to get back into the saddle). I also remember that some of the other players at the SFS game were snidely dismissive, even arrogant, about this group; since I was not especially enamoured of the attitude they had shown toward my participation, this only encouraged me to seek them out).
The following weekend, I attended my first game at the Blue Room and met people that I still game with to this day, more than 28 years later.
But most of my growing pains as a player were hidden from public view; Chris and I would talk for hours about roleplaying. It was thanks to the leg-up that he gave me, and the encouragement that he offered, that after only four or five game sessions as a player, I started designing my first dungeon and planning my first campaign, something that I’ll discuss further in part two of this article.
There is a point to all this nostalgia: as I have learned since, there is little (as a player) that is more satisfying than successfully teaching someone else how to play; you share vicariously every thrill, every secret giggle and chortle and belly-laugh. I’m not sure what it was that reminded me of Chris recently, but something did, and remembering him always brings back the memory of those early discussions and the lessons he imparted.
Which brings me to the thrust of this particular blog. For a change, it’s not directed at GMs, but at Players. I want to encourage others to do for newcomers to the hobby what Chris did for me, and to codify that advice into a number of bite-sized lessons. This, in turn, will lead to part two of the article, in which I’ll talk about the lessons Chris taught me about how to be a GM.
So what is a “Player Peer”?
A “Player Peer” acts as a “big brother” to a novice player, encouraging and educating and stimulating; mentor and teacher and confidant and co-conspirator and buddy, all rolled into one.
A mile in someone else’s shoes
The first lesson is about explaining the basics of roleplaying. Chris started by having me imagine that I was a character in a favorite novel or TV show or movie; what would it feel like to actually be able to do those things? What would it look like? Once the character was firmly in mind, he would suggest simple situations – confronted by robbers, watching the sun come up over a city you had never been to before, and so on – and get me to imagine what that character would feel like, and what they would do, and what they might say, under those circumstances.
That’s the heart of roleplaying, in many ways – the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and determine how they would react to whatever the current situation is.
Interaction requires definition
The second lesson he taught me was that, while it was possible to play a game with nothing more than imagination, as soon as another person becomes involved, you need a common language, and you need rules to define objectively what one character could do and what he could not.
The “common language” is the rules, which provide a framework for the acts of imagination to be interpreted into actions, reactions, choices, and consequences. For a player, the rules that matter most are those that define one character as different to another, and the starting place for all rules is therefore those that describe character stats.
So the second lesson explained what the different characteristics are, and what the numbers attached to them mean. What is average? What is normal? What is superior, and how superior can you get?
He then had me roll up random characters – as quickly and simply as possible – and practice interpreting their stats into personality traits and occupations and behaviour and personal styles. Since we were working from AD&D, the genre of these examples was generic fantasy, but the same technique (generate characters from random rolls and construct a personality) works for ANY game system, only the size and number of dice vary.
Once he felt I had a handle on that, he switched up a gear on me. Using the same stat rolls, and the same definitions of stats, he pulled out the first of the characters I had generated and suggested that he was a character in a cop show. And then, that the second was a sailor on a submarine. And that the third was in Star Trek (the original series). And so on, through them all, with him pulling campaign settings and genres off the top of his head and me interpreting character stats into characters appropriate to the setting.
The rules of doing things
At the start of the next lesson, he explained the idea of trying to perform some action, like hunting or fishing, and using game mechanics to determine the chances of success. Then he took out the appropriate dice (3d6 for AD&D) and walked me through each of the possible outcomes, turning the dice from three one’s up through the entire gamut of possible results.
This was followed by a brief discussion of fundamental probability, ie, “When you graph the possible results of 3d6, you get a bell curve, which looks like this, and means that these middle-of-the-road results are more likely to occur; the more dice, the steeper and more pronounced the curve is; this is a d10 (this was in the era before d20s were available), and it gives a flat chance of each result,” and so on. He then showed me how a dumbell curve meant that there was a critical threshold at which success became far more likely to occur than failure, and vice-versa – in other words, that a single point of improvement in the target number to be achieved could make a big difference to the likelyhood of success.
He then asked a profound question which led me to new depths of characterisation: “What effect, does having some notion of how likely a character is to succeed or fail in a given task, have on the mindset of the character?”
The rules of battle
The fourth lesson he gave me was in how the combat system worked, applying everything that I had learned so far to determining the character’s preferred style of combat – what weapons he would prefer, based on the rules and the character’s stats, etc, and how he would use them. He rang in variations on the basic character – how would those decisions change if he had 18 strength instead of 8, and so on.
By the time this lesson was concluded, I was no longer choosing the most effective weapon my character could use under the game mechanics, I was choosing the weapon that best suited the combat style that best expressed the character’s abilities and mindset. Since this is one of the lessons that many modern players, coming to the hobby from a background of computer games like Diablo, have the greatest trouble with, it deserves even more care and attention in modern times.
Class & Special abilities
Lesson number five introduced these more complex choices, but used the principles learnt in the previous lesson as a guide. What occupation best expressed the personality I had come up with? What did the additional game mechanics that came with that choice do to other choices like combat style?
So many players these days get educated on the questions of class choice, and special abilities, from a mechanical perspective which then informs personality. For me, this is always putting the cart before the horse – the basic personality should come first, and the choice of special abilities should follow as a consequence of that personality. The first leads to stereotypes, unless the player makes extraordinary efforts, or is very experienced; the second makes the whole process much easier.
These days, with additional complicating factors like Feats in d20, the number of options open to players has mushroomed, to the point where the tail can well and truly wag the dog, and where a character’s class and feats dictate the personality and not vice-versa. If there was just one lesson that I would wish players to take away from this blog, this would be it.
Ambition and Motivation
With the foundations of how to roleplay now established to the point where I could carry forward on my own, Chris then moved on to working with me on a new character that I was preparing for actual play. When I started to describe his personality (and the reasons for it) that I had derived from our earlier lessons, he stopped me cold. Instead, he wanted me to look behind the curtain of game mechanics and talk about all the things that the character wanted to do and why.
He started by having me imagine that my character was applying for a job, or for entry into some training course that would represent a step towards his ambitions; Chris took on the role of the interviewer, demanding (without recourse to stats or numbers) that I explain why my character wanted to get in, what he would do with their training, what made him think he was qualified for entry, and so on. All answers were required to be in the first person.
He followed that by getting me, in the guise of my character, to describe the action on TV at the time as though he were a witness to it, and what my character would do if he saw some analagous situation within the game.
And then he wrapped up by placing my new PC on a metaphoric psychiatrist’s couch, probing for attitudes and sore spots and why the character thought the way he did. My simple answers were always followed by “Why do you think that?” or some variation, and very quickly, I was floundering.
This was my introduction to the concepts of character ambitions outside the rules, and character motivations for his behaviour. From time to time in the interrogations, Chris would break off the discussion and begin chatting about something entirely unrelated. At the end, he asked me to think back and try and find the one thought or idea that I could articulate which had best enabled me to immediatly step back into character.
Years later, Peter Jurassic used a similar technique to get himself into character for playing Londo Mullari in Babylon-5 – all he had to do was say to himself, in the faux-Hungarian accent that he had adopted for the character, “Mister Garabaldi,” and he would immediatly click into his role.
This was pretty much the final lesson on how-to-roleplay that Chris imparted to me. Together, we went through the campaign background and concept, such as it was (sparce doesn’t come close to describing it), and helped me work out my new character’s past history and background – the events that had led him to become who he was today. (He was to start at 8th level, or 4th/4th multiclassed; I had chosen the latter). There were about half-a-dozen seminal events in the character’s life by the time we were finished.
We then worked through that history and determined goals and ambitions that the character would have had as a result. Adding in the fulfillment of some of those, and the character’s failed attempts at some others, reinvested the character’s attention into his own personal story, and gave the character some additional objectives and motivations to achieve in the future. This took us up to about 15 key moments in the character’s history.
Then we analyzed the consequences of the choices and actions we had determined for the character, and which might turn around and bite him afterwards. Again, some of these we marked as having already occurred – some positive, and some negative – while others we marked as problems that the GM could inflict apon the character in the future. Our notes were now about two dozen one-line sentences.
A fourth pass through the character background notes dealt with the character’s reactions to the setbacks, and how he exploited the positives, and took our notes up to almost a page-and-a-half of one-line entries.
Finally, we went looking for what wasn’t there, based on my own life – What was his hometown like? What were his parents and grandparents like? Brothers and sisters? Extended family? Who did the character get along with, and who did he dislike, and why? And what had happened to all these people and places? Who had touched his soft side? Questions like these fleshed out the story.
These activities showed me how to draw apon my earlier lessons to build a background that supported the raw characterisation that I had created, and how to refine that characterisation to take into account the additional details.
After the fact
Chris never wanted to hear about a character’s stats ever again, but he was more than willing to talk about events within the game, and my character’s choices and past exploits, and to help work out what the character would do next to further his ambitions. As it happened, that campaign ran for only two sessions, at which point my attention shifted to preparing my own campaign, but it was still long enough to show the power of the techniques that Chris had led me to master.
It was as though the other players were stumbling around and making it all up as they went along, vaguely second-guessing at a persona, while my character was solidly-defined, with concrete ambitions, and plans to achieve them. Even when he “didn’t know what he wanted,” he was more real as a personality than anyone else playing – and this was going up against people who had been playing for five years or more, experienced players who (in theory) knew what they were doing. Only afterwards did I realise that, while a comparative novice in many respects, I had stepped right over these players in terms of my capacity to roleplay.
It was one of those players, a guy named John (who only occasionally dabbled in roleplaying) who uttered those fateful words at the end of two days’ intensive play: “You ought to GM your own game…”