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Help! My Players are Talking to Things!

August 5, 2013

Role-Playing vs. Roll-Playing (I F$&%ing Hate That Phrase But I Couldn’t Think of a Better One)

People endlessly debate how to deal with InterACTIONS! as if they are some strange, incomprehensible part of the game where all the rules suddenly change. I don’t know why. People are stupid. Its like this: suppose your friend got some new breed of dog. One of those strange hybrids like a cockapoo or a piddle or a rottschaund or whatever. You might ask “is it safe to pet him” or “what sort of dog is that?” You would not ask “hey, that thing is not suddenly going to distend its jaw and snake out a tentacle to strangle the life from my body, is it?” Because it is a still a f$&%ing dog. A weird-looking dog is still a dog! And InterACTIONS! are still actions! But, when we try to discuss them, we hear stupid s$&% like: “should you roll dice or just role-play it out or give random bonuses because the person took an acting class or maybe we shouldn’t roll dice at all because that isn’t really role-playing.” ARGH!

I am not going to rehash all of the arguments here. Just know that if you put all of the different ways to “handle InterACTIONS!” on a spectrum, you’ll find these two endpoints:

  • Never ever roll dice, just act out conversations naturally and whatever happens happens.
  • Roll dice for everything the PCs might say but do not allow players to speak in character because it is the character’s skill that matters, not the players.

You can go look up the actual arguments for yourself. The point is that they are all stupid. I understand some of the reasons for each, but I also understand the reasons why some people might have actually enjoyed Pacific Rim (reason: damage to key brain lobes). Just because a reason is comprehensible, that doesn’t mean it is a good reason.

Let me try to spell it out for you. When an InterACTION! begins, a player might describe what their PC says to an NPC. Something like “I’ll tell the NPC to let us in or I’ll kick his ass.” Or maybe “let us in or I’ll kick your ass.” Then, the player is going to look at you, the DM, for a response. Something like “please don’t kick my ass, I’ll let you in.” Or maybe “the NPC stands aside and let’s you in.” Or even “the NPC is unimpressed by your threats.”

So, we have a player trying to accomplish something (getting in) and describing how their character tries to do it (threatening to kick one or more asses). And the player is expecting the DM to tell him how it works out. If only we had some way of modeling that particular exchange…

It’s Adjudicating Actions you thickhead. I mean, it is exactly Adjudicating Actions. Word for word. Same motherf$&%ing step-by-step process I spent 8,000 words pounding into you!

All of that debate about how it should be handled and whether dice should be rolled and whether you give bonuses for this or that or penalties or whatever? It all completely misses the point. When the player speaks in character or describes their character’s words and actions, they are declaring an action. They are trying to accomplish a goal by doing something. That’s all it is. Of course dice should be rolled if dice need to be rolled. And of course what the PC says and how they say it should have an impact. But it is no different than swinging on a chandelier or leaping onto a horse and riding it away or swinging a battle axe into an orc’s skull. Mostly.

Now, some people like to give bonuses for exceptionally good “role-playing.” I find this to be bulls$&% for a couple of reasons. Firstly, as you’ll see when we get to encounter building, I like to give bonuses for actual, useful, meaningful things. Secondly, remember that talking in character isn’t role-playing, it is acting (I wrote an article about that too). Acting is a specific skill and involves specific talents. Some players are better, some players are worse, and some players are just uncomfortable with it. Rewarding good acting with a bonus is no different than giving someone a bonus for describing their axe swing particularly well. And if that sounds okay, remember that both of those are exactly the same as giving someone a bonus for having good penmanship on their character sheet. Or color coordinating their dice. They aren’t relevant to what’s happening in the game. They are arbitrary bonuses for things that have no real impact on the characters and the world. Moreover, they reward certain skills or talents and therefore punish the players who don’t possess them.

If you want to do it, fine. I can’t stop you. As an American, I support your right to be willfully incorrect whenever you wish. But, do you know how people say there is no right way to run a role-playing game? They are wrong. There are right ways and THIS ISN’T IT!!! (Exclamation points!)

Speaking vs. Describing: The Other Stupid Debate for Morons

Many people also get up in arms over whether it is “correct” or “preferable” for players (and the DM) to speak in the first-person, as if they were the character, or to speak in the third-person, describing what the character says. For example:

First-Person: “Hello there, innkeeper. My friends and I need a room for the night.”
Third-Person: “My character walks up to the innkeeper and tries to rent a room.”

If you couldn’t tell from the subheading, I don’t have any f$&%s to give about this particular debate either. It’s idiotic and it changes nothing. And so help me, if you mutter the word “immersive,” I will deck you. Because you don’t know what immersive means if you think that’s it.

Again, it comes down to comfort, preference, and talent. Some people like to throw themselves into the role and act as their character. Other people don’t. Neither of the examples above fails to convey the necessary information to everyone at the table. They work fine. Don’t get your panties wadded up over this!

But, here’s my advice, if you want it (and you do, or you wouldn’t be 2,000 words into this already): as a DM, learn to do both and switch back and forth. That way, your players can pick whichever way is the most comfortable for them, individually, and you can follow suit. Here is social interACTIONS! sound like at my table:

Player 1: “I tell the innkeeper we need three rooms.”
Me: The innkeeper says the inn is full. He apologizes. [Rolls Dice] You get the sense that he’s uncomfortable and might be hiding something.
Player 2: “Your stables are empty and there’s no one here in the common room. You don’t have any empty rooms? You’re lying!”
Me: “I don’t have any empty rooms for the likes of you is what I meant! I’ll be in my grave before I’ll let some elf sleep under my roof!”
Player 3: “My character finds that offensivee. He throws out a racial slur in elvish about humans and tells the rest of the party he won’t sleep here even if a room suddenly opened up.”
Me: “Go kiss a tree, skinny!”

Yep. That is pretty much what social interACTION! sounds like at my table. Renting rooms and racial eptihets. F$&%ing Shakespeare, isn’t it? But my point is that each player has their own style and comfort level. It doesn’t change the tone of the scene. Everyone knows what is going on and everyone can follow the conflict. When you get very good at it, you can even address specific players in their preferred tone. So, learn to switch back and forth and let your players pick their own styles.

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