Playing PFRPG: difference between in-character thinking and in-character communicating

Posted on December 21, 2011


This is an example from real-life game where I participated as a player.

GM: At morning, fog gets even thickier than what it was before. You can barely see a small hill with a cutting, 30 metres from here. That was the hill you abandoned last night as a too obvious spot for a camp. Gilnash is on guard. He hears heavy footsteps from a far.
P1: Giants! I’ll wake up Marmorn, Walgor and Zedna.
GM: Steps are closing from west.
P1: Gilnash makes sure everyone are awake. He moves silently 20 metres to north and goes in hiding.
P2: Walgor summons the dragon, mounts it and they fly silently up to height of 100 feet.
P3: Marmorn stays prone and crawls deeper into a bush, trying to find a pile of stones or something to hide behind. I’ll prepare my weapons.
P4: Zedna follows Marmorn. Ground is still frozen, is it?
GM: It’s zero C. Ground is in rime.
P4: I’ll cast a frozen spell on my coat, silently, so it looks like part of the ground. Marmorn, do you fancy?
P3: No thanks, I’m freezing already!
GM: Good. Giants are closing. Soon you can see two shapes, advancing ten metres from each other.
P1: I’ll try to listen if there are more coming. Listen 36.
GM: The third one follows the others, ten metres behind. He’s steps are heavier than the steps of the others.
P1: Gilnash is waiting.
GM: One of the giants is walking straight towards your hiding place. Five metres from you, he stops to sniff the air.
P1: Gilnash grips his sabre, waiting still.
P2: Walgor prepares to charge at once on the first sound of battle.
P3: Marmorn waits.
P4: Zedna waits.
GM: The giant close to Gilnash starts moving.
P1: Gilnash waits.
GM: The giants walks past you and goes checking the small hill with a cutting. The third giant appears from the fog. He is huge even for a giant, might belong to kings bodyguards.
P3: Marmorn tries to recognize the giant from his features or belongings. Knowledge Nobility 18.
GM: You don’t know him, but he surely belongs to the clan you are dealing with.
P3: Marmorn prepares a counter-spell and is ready to use it if the big giant starts to cast a spell.
P4: Zedna casts an illusion. Shadow wyvern attacks from fog on the leftmost giant.
GM: The giant drops his weapon and takes off!
P2: Walgor charges towards the running giant. 33 to hit, damage 88. Dragon 33 to hit also, damage 28.
GM: The dragon dives on tundra, smashing to the running giant. Walgors lance hits the target and dragons tail finishes the blow. Giant falls and won’t rise again.
P1: Gilnash charges the big giant. 24 to hit, damage 18.
GM: The noble giant parries the attack easily and starts to cast. Marmorn?

Quite a cinematic battle! Atmosphere is high and people are enjoying their time! Too bad in real life the gaming went like this:

GM: At morning, fog gets even thickier than what it was before. You can barely see a small hill with a cutting, 30 metres from here. That was the hill you abandoned last night as a too obvious spot for a camp. Gilnash is on guard. He hears heavy footsteps from a far.
P1: Where are we?
GM: Well, in tundra, 300 kilometres from… oh you ment where are you on the battle grid. Well place your minis.
P4: May I be here?
GM: Ok.
P3: I’ll be here.
GM: That is too far, because the small hill is suppoused to be 30 metres from here, that is 100 feet, and everyone sees it.
P3: Well here then.
GM: Giants are coming.
P1: I’ll hide into this square.
P2: I’ll fly up to around here.
P3: I’ll hide here.
P4: I’ll hide behind him. Would I cast some ice spell, would it give me a bonus on stealth?
P3: Can one get bonus from that?!
P4: If the ground is icy and I’ve got mire on me, it should.
P3: But you’d damage yourself!
P4: No I have this energy resistance.
P3: I see. Clever!
GM: You can do that. The giants are closing. Two shapes appear from fog.
P1: Where are they?
GM: Well, uh, lets place them here.
P1: I’ll check with my Perception if there are more coming.
GM: Ok.
P1: I’ve got 18 before die roll. Am I getting any extra bonuses?
GM: No.
P1: But giant is my favoured enemy. May I have something from there?
GM: Sure but just make the roll please, your bonus is so high anyway so bonuses won’t really make any difference.
P1: Ok 26.
GM: The third one follows the others, ten metres behind. He’s steps are heavier than the steps of the others.
P1: Where is it?
GM: 30 feet behind the first ones. It’s on those squares. But you won’t see it yet! This giant walks here. Gilnash?
P1: I’ll wait.
GM: The giant waits.
P1: I’ll wait.
GM: The third giant comes visible. The giant next to Gilnash walks to the small hill.
P3: I’ll do ready action, counter-spelling if the third giants starts to cast a spell. Btw do I recognize him?
GM: Roll for a knowledge skill, do you have any?
P3: Lets see… I’ve got Religion and Nature. Nobility has one rank, too, but Religion has better bonus. May I use it?
GM: Religion? No you can’t use Religion on this giant, his not a minister.
P3: I guess I’m forced to use Nobility then.
GM: I guess.
P3: I got total 18. Anything?
GM: Not really.
P4: I’ll cast phantasmal killer on that enemy.
GM: It runs off.
P2: I’ll charge! Where is it?
GM: Giants speed is quite high, so it would be… this battle mat is too small.
P3: Lets make some room.
GM: That’s enough thanks. Here!
P2: Charge!
GM: Go ahead!
P2: Lance! To hit 33!
GM: Success!
P2: Yeah!
GM: Roll for damage!
P2: Yeah! No I’ll roll for dragon to hit first! 31!
GM: Success!
P2: Yeah!
GM: Roll for damage!

This is how an audio recording of the battle would have sounded. However, in my head, the scene was still closer to version one than the rather dull version two. Despite the large amount of meta gaming in our words, static miniatures on table and very limited description of events, I believe other gamers, including the GM, had their own, colourful visions of the scene in their heads.

Two worlds: inside and outside of my head

Why there is such a difference between the gaming jargon and the image that the jargon makes in our mind? In a way, there is nothing wrong in having good imagination and making things up differently, suiting ones own needs and experiences. But if tabletop role playing is about coming together to play, why the experience is not shared? One could get these personal, individual visualizations from any MMORPG or playing Nethack or reading a book. Why bother to organize a gaming session, if all you got from it is in your head, created by you and shared with no one?

I’m sure there exists a group of literature intelligents in this world who could play a game that sounds like version one above. I’m sure there are a lot of gaming groups whose play sounds like version two. And big part of gamers are somewhere there between, most of the time closer to version two than the other. In my experience, in D&D or PFRPG it is quite rare to share one’s thoughts, feelings, needs, successes and fears with others, be they the gamer’s own thoughts or the thoughts of his or her character.

Almost all the time the communicating is about one of these three topics:

  1. statistics information, “I have STR bonus +5″
  2. description of an action, “I’ll draw my sword”
  3. a sort of mixed player/character evaluation of the situation, “The rabbit is a clue. That elf had a rabbit in her necklace.”

There is no need for anything else. If anyone disagrees, please let me know. This is all that is needed and most of the time this is where it stays. Campaign books can be played with these three types of communication. Stories are sort of told with this information, although the story is composing inside of participants heads, each in their own way.

Community is greater than its parts

Some years ago, me and my wife had a chance to live and work in Tanzania for five months. From that trip I learned a lot and one of the things was the meaning of a community, that is, the people that are not me, but are hanging around nearby. We Westerners have often difficulties to understand a concept so simple as this: there are things other than just me. For a Tanzanian, personal stuff is personal, meaning it is almost a secret. Everything else is shared with community. For a Westerner,  personal stuff is pretty much everything. Westerner does everything by himself, for himself (being humble or not, you know, for you can even do charity for personal reasons). Tanzanian lives through the community, being individual but respecting the community over himself. Everything is done together, through a shared attempt.

Back to D&D. I don’t know how Tanzanians would play RPG, for I had a break in my gaming during those months. But I know how D&D is played in Western world. It is just like described above: we are coming together, but leaving with solitary experiences. Could it be changed to something that touches not only me as an individual but to me as a part of the group? I am repeating myself but I think it is just pointless to come together to tell a story and then everyone present are not saying anything, just keeping their story for themselves. It is like going to a movie theatre and then turning seats to face the projector.

Putting it in an action, traditional way

Now Westerner thinks what he can do to be better in telling the story on his part. “Personal solution 1: Less metagaming so the immersion would be stronger.” Talking about rules, statistics and combat situations belongs to D&D and PFRPG and trying to get rid of it is just beating one’s head against the wall. It is kind of difficult to say “my to hit roll is 33” without saying “33”, which is a matter completely out from the game world, breaking the immersion immediately. Most gamers shine when they can plan combat tactics and suggest good actions for characters of other players. Planning tactics is probably something that many people value as the most interesting part of D&D experience, so it is out of the question to even to think to stop doing it in favour of keeping the story strong. Personal solution 1 does not work.

Westerners “personal solution 2: going in-character when game starts and staying there“. This idea might include a house rule that when someone is not speaking in-character, that is, in the voice of his character, he has to stand up, raise both hands or use uppercase letters or something like that. Making it different or even difficult to communicate outside your in-character mode should enhance in-character thinking, thus, strengthening the story. The problem here is that it is just not handy to try to communicate things like tactics on a battle grid in-character. “Wizard! Use your magic from that stone to that tree and exclude our hobbit chef who is hiding in a ditch, 25 feet north-west from you!” “Uh I beg your pardon sir, did you mean the single coniferous tree in this area or this burned tree in the direction where my hand is pointing at the moment?” This is giving a whole set of new problems, just forget about it. Still, doing a house rule like this might be fun and even useful in some cases, but it won’t work as an answer to the story-building problem I’m discussing here.

Westerners “personal solution 3: everyone must describe their actions in a colourful way“. So instead of saying “I’ll hit the orc with my sword” a player must say “Rrfaktaldurlk the troglodyte warrior swings his or hers club towards the black-skinned orc with a blue kilt, with a lunatic stare in his or hers eyes“. Does this rule apply also when you hit the same monster, or its’ fourteenth sibling, a second and a third time? This kind of sounds like sharing the trouble of describing the world with the GM, but often players stop to do this after two or three times. They forget the rule, they run out of ideas or they feel that making up a different story at every swing is too difficult and they rather do something else than what they would like to, just to be saved from the prosaic burden.

Putting it in action, yet unseen way

Now what? None of the solutions above are of any help, and I can’t figure out anything else I could do to improve the story telling.” All of these solutions are demanding more from an individual. How about trying to face the problem as a group, like a Tanzanian would do?

Lets redefine the problem: story is not shared result of gaming, instead it is merely happening inside each of the gamers’ thoughts. Solution is simple. Lets put the story in focus, lets take it as the basis of a gaming night. Everything else, including GM:s description of things and players taking actions, is just playing around the story.

Story at the spotlight

Would anyone with any experience of modern LARP or some of the popular indie games be reading this, he or she would wonder what is the problem, just ditch off D&D and play something based on story telling. Screw them, I want to see if D&D could be played in a bit different way we have been used to. Things I love in D&D include 1. wonderful campaign settings, 2. nice pre-written adventures, 3. character advancement and 4. the matter that D&D is unrelated to any day-to-day problems of normal life. I’ve been wondering about point 1., that could settings like Golarion, Mystara or Planescape be played with different game. At the moment I don’t see this question very interesting. It would be strange to discuss about the limits of magic in Greyhawk without spell-level and alignment division.

So, lets introduce some applied indie mechanisms to D&D. Because of 2., pre-written adventures, big lines of the story are pre-defined and can’t be changed. Therefore all players should be aware of them, otherwise GM has to lay railroads and then push players to follow them, at the same time trying to hide the tracks. If all players know that the goal of tonights session is to get the mayor Cilo defenestrated before midnight, it can actually happen in the story without heavy pressing from the GM. GM does not have to tell about the traps and guardians of the tallest building of the city. Also, there does not have to be traps and guardians, if the timing doesn’t match. See next.

Combined effort, no limits

When the goal is set, players can start planning for that. Who is mayor Cilo? Which building fits the purpose? Who is going to be blamed for the incident? Gaming starts with preparing scenes, as many as needed. In a scene, player or GM introduces the elements in the scene: “my character goes about to look for a portrait of the mayor Cilo“. Other players are encouraged to join the scene and to build it up. “Local art patron could be a great fan of antiquities and the artifact we found last time, the statue picturing tribal hunting rituals, could be just perfect gift to him“, says another player. NPC was invented on the fly, without GM. GM decides this is good way to get to know Cilo, so the gift does its job and they’ll see his face on a painting. “I could use Diplomacy on the patron to arrange a meeting with Cilo in person.” Roll is made and meeting is possible.

Fast forward to the meeting, where a selected PC or PCs can have a glance of the victim. GM asks for Perception rolls and might tell them that from the way he carries his body weight, this mayor can defend himself. Not only that, but even without any check it is obvious that the two ogre bodyguards are following him everywhere. “I want to fool the ogres” says one of the players immediately. “Maybe you could sneak in the estate and give him a meal of poisoned testicles or something as delicious as that“, other one says. “Too dangerous, we should stick together in a dangerous city like this.” “How about presenting ourselves as a group of magicians, who have a show with succubi, that would of course be our female party members. Mayor Cilo would die to see us!“. “I don’t think he is so easily fooled.” And so on. In the end, players will create a plan of how to get Cilo up to the tallest building, how to get rid of the ogres and how to fullfil the goal of the story, defenestration of mayor Cilo before midnight.

What about tactical combat? Combat occurs, when players or GM has need to set it up. A player with more interest in combat can push the story towards combat and GM can of course any time interrupt players’ plans with an attack from a spy or thugs or that glazberu PC’s are just trying to get to give a helping hand against Cilo.

Keywords: a list of story hooks

It might be that in real life, players have difficulties to get started. Mayor Cilo has to be found and killed, where the story starts? What do we do first? Even experienced gamers of these kind of games need help and one technique is using a list of keywords. During the preparation, GM could compose a list of words related to the story. There might be hints of how to get to Cilo, about valuable contacts and some rumours. To get a story told like in my example before, GM might have written down portrait, tribal hunting ritual, patron, poison, wandering circus, clever opponent and put that list on table in middle of players.

Other way to use keywords is to create relationships so that some attributes or events are rolled from a chart and then divided or randomized between players, maybe even including NPC:s. For example, it could go so that a keyword is placed between two players, saying player Mikko’s character has cheated heavily player Vilho’s character in past and the truth will come up soon. Other two players might have “a baptism of a fire” between their characters. They could find a meaning to that keyword during the game, for example in a form of a fireball catching them both. Note that the fireball could come from a player, not from a GM, although when the battle starts, GM would set up and control the mind flayer with a wand of fireballs against the players.

Ultimate hook and a possibility to change the ultimatum

For a backup plan, a relationship could be set with a keyword between a PC and mayor Cilo, like “Cilo is the father of this PC”. That would ensure that PC:s will meet with Cilo and makes it easier to interact and invent new things into the story. Again note that a player could make it up that Cilo is her father even without a keyword from GM. When the story starts to be told in this fashion, it will go on in it’s own weight and combined mind of players will turn down bad ideas and take on with good ones. When midnight comes, the story might be so logic, so rich in detail and so filled with enthusiasm that defenestration of the good mayor Cilo might see unnecessary, and GM could decide that it won’t happen after all. Or the story might have it that the final act is done with German efficiency and everyone are equally happy with the result.

I’m yet to try this out, but if this works, it will be quite revolutionary, at least in my head (joke on myself for writing all this). If it works, it’ll have it’s uses, but a giants in foggy tundra -scene should still be played with traditional, narrative GM style.