RPB: Roleplay Better – Draft

RPB: Roleplay Better

Preamble and Shit

This is the part you skip because, “obviously, it’s a set of roleplaying warm-ups. We warm up with them before roleplaying. Fuck this guy.” Then, when you complain to me about how these warm-ups don’t work for your group or because I didn’t specify how to determine who the first player is, this is the boring part I point to.

I’m a long-running DM and GM and Storyteller. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with mature players that I trust. Players who commit and who clearly communicate their level of investment in the game we’re running. 

At a certain point, creating deathtraps to account for a metastasizing spell list and comparing d20 rolls with incrementing attack bonuses to defensive scores of monsters with incrementing armor classes gets a bit dull. Spoon-feeding players world elements and descriptions of the 12th inn whose only notable features are another nail in the rickety shack of this exotic locale’s exoticism gets wearying.

Players can drive stories. Players can seize upon and create drama. Players can pick up the load of telling a story. But most players have spent their entire ‘career’ of roleplaying gaming reacting and picking up on the DM’s intent (to thwart it or support it or thwart it). Most are accustomed to being placed in a situation and performing whatever task is necessary to “correctly solve it.” Too many have been trained, conditioned, or broken into constantly playing their character somewhere between “wise and conscientious” and “conspiracy theorist with cannabis-induced paranoia,” to prevent some minor oversight on their part from being leveraged by the DM to justify a future misfortune.

This guide is to help your party transition from the traditional D&D model still standing knee-deep in an old-school roleplaying philosophy one step removed from minis wargaming and with roleplaying as deep as determining which member of the party is going to loot the place when they arrive in town and which one is going to gripe about it once or twice.

This requires a few things:

  • A common goal. Your players may not grasp every change that this will entail, but they should understand this will require more work from them, some period of learning where games might not be as fun, and a fundamental change in what your games are about. Some players may be perfectly happy and not want to change anything. That’s their right and they’re under no obligation to do any of this. Of course. I didn’t actually have to say that, right? It seems like anyone thick enough to need me to say that isn’t actually going to read those words.

  • Good power dynamics. All social networks have power dynamics. But roleplaying a character that might be panicking, crying, or angry while other characters go with it has a lot of potential for abuse. Jeff may say an awkward phrase while hesitantly playing a character that’s cowering under the effect of a spell (which is normal), but he won’t try next time if Samantha repeats that phrase with barely restrained laughter. Similarly, Mike may use the opportunity for their character to be furious at other characters to emotionally abuse their fellow players (the old, whiny “I’m just roleplaying my character” excuse for being an IRL asshole). And no one wants something they say off the cuff while roleplaying a character to be brought up by another player as some reflection of their character outside of the game. This is a far from comprehensive list of problems caused by bad power dynamics, where players’ out of game need for power and agency–and others’ concern about leaving themselves vulnerable to that–make it harder for your party to grow into better roleplayers.

  • Your players arrive early to your session. Again, a mature, experienced, committed group of roleplayers, etc. etc. won’t have a problem with this, but warm-ups are generally done before you play. If your game is scheduled at 7:00 a week in advance and you commonly get texts that players will be arriving at 7:15 or “whenever,” this may not work for you. It’s unfair to everyone who came on time to delay the game further with warm-ups. That said, you absolutely do not need everyone present to do these. You can warm-up while waiting on latecomers, and rules for incorporating them are included in discussion of the Marching Order below.

  • I’ve written these rules to be somewhat broad, and they don’t use any props or require players to be able to see one another so warm-ups still work via voice chat online. I say “no props,” but dice, pencils, and paper are presumed because if anyone shows up at a D&D table without dice, pencils, or paper you can go ahead and print a copy of these rules for them with the understanding (and hope) that they will paper cut themselves to death with the pages.

  • If anyone looks up during these warm-ups and asks “is this canon?” You may contact me via vanvelding@vanvelding.com and I will mail you a cat ‘o nine tails and you may flog them publicly until they guess the correct answer.

The Warm-Ups

Each warm-up has a name, whether it’s intended to be just for the players or for the players and the DM. Warm-ups with only players refer to “players” and those which include the DM refer to “participants.”

Warm-ups have an order of play and a stopping point so participants understand the structure.

The final part of each warm-up is the explanation for the purpose of the warm-up. If you’re playing The Last Time We All Got Together, it doesn’t matter if a character keeps steering the narrative to mitigate their losses. If they’re building on other participants’ actions and supporting the story, that doesn’t matter because those are the goals of the warm-up. If, on the other hand, you’re playing I Yield to You and they refuse to narrate their own losses, that’s a problem and you should talk about it. The explanation help you understand the goals of the warm-ups so you can use them to improve on your party’s specific weaknesses.

Marching Order

When the party first sits down to warm up, everyone rolls initiative (using their PC’s initiative bonus). That initiative order is the “Marching Order,” the default order for players for each warm-up, unless otherwise noticed. When a warm-up refers to a “first player” or “first participant,” it’s referring to the first person in Marching Order.

When a warm-up involves the DM, they choose an appropriate NPC and where to jump in (usually the end)

When a new player shows up, they roll initiative and everyone notes where they are in the Marching Order.

“Who talks first?” is a common question and that can paralyze a party with a silence that makes me want to chew off my own thumbs. A party works faster–for better or for worse–when the spotlight always lands on one character. At the very least, when a player has the spotlight, but learns to pass it to the next player, they stop asking “should I be handling this?” and start instead asking “who could be handling this?”

Warm-Ups

Hit and Roll (Players)

Players and DM roll initiative. In that initiative order, players declare an attack and roll for it. The DM says if they “hit” or “miss.” Players pass to the next player in initiative and put damage roll for the attack in the chat. Timed warm-up for three rounds.

Obviously, combat should never go this quickly, but this is a warm-up in extremes. Combat is the most time-intensive part of D&D. When a combat round is finished in less than a minute, what, exactly is holding it up? How can we go faster? What’s necessary in combat and what’s not? 

I Heard… (Players)

The first player, in-character, shares a piece of news they’ve heard. The next player, still in-character, shares their own news, which includes one relevant word from each of the previous players’ news. After the last player has shared their news, they create a fresh news story and play reverses back to the first player.

Players are encouraged to point out when another player doesn’t use words from their story. There’s no penalty when this happens.

Challenge: One one word from a player’s story is used by another, players must use a different word from that story.

Listening is an underrated skill. Any DM who’s had an inattentive player who asks about a piece of information the rest of the party has known for an hour is aware of this and will carve it into your flesh for $5. 

Paying attention to what other players are saying while planning what you’re going to say is a test of those listening skills. As DM, your job is to ensure everyone is actually including the words they need to and call out/help players call out when it doesn’t happen.

The Last Time We All Got Together (Players & DM)

The DM starts with “The Last Time We All Got Together,” then the first player, in-character, says their character’s name and titles, each participant in marching order contributes their name and titles “I, Karnak the Barbarian, Slayer of the Kill-Tree, Bane of Grey Goblins.”

After each character has introduced themselves, the first player says what the adventure was about. For example, “The last time we all got together, it was The Time We Slayed Grizznorack,” “…The Time that the City of Riverrise Almost Flooded,” etc.

Then each following participant, in-character, describes a scene, character, action, or obstacle. Play progresses in turn, unless a participant describes an action to overcome an obstacle. That participant names a skill and each player rolls that skill, announcing the result. The highest result picks up with the action, describes how it overcomes the obstacle and play continues in order starting with that player.

The story ends when the last player in marching order adds their fifth story element.

This appears to be a straightforward warm-up in constructing a scenario and letting players imagine obstacles to their own adventures. It also helps players understand when a story is opening, building, and resolving. In reality, it’s a way for players to push the story towards the strengths of other players and to pick up on each other’s expectations. People are selfish and rarely consider the views of others and just to prove that I bet you’re reading these words in your own voice.

I Yield to You (Players, but in reverse marching order)

The first player says, “I have…” and they create an object.

The second player says, what they do to take the object from the first player, describing the object just as the first player does.

The first player describes how the second player takes the item from them.

The second player says, “I have…” and the cycle continues with the third player starting to take it.

Play continues until the first player has the item again.

Players are the worst at giving up or losing. D&D is a power fantasy in a lot of respects, so no one wants to lose. These warm-ups assume you and your players are trying to move past that, but maybe you’re murder hobos who got lost. In which case, please shower.

If your players want to roleplay, but just can’t get over the fact that good stories and good drama requires loss, I Yield to You is a great way to get them acclimated to submitting by taking control of that submission with people they trust.

Dungeoneering (Players)

The last player gives the first player a scene or a broad category of items. For example, “a village,” “primitive weapons,” “an aquatic cave.” The first player lists five things found in that scene or types of that item. Once they’re done, they give a topic to the next player and that player names five items.

Play continues until the last player lists five items.

You don’t need to list every building in a small village. You don’t need to list every type of foul-smelling pile in a goblin warren. It’s designed to give players comfort when assuming certain things are or aren’t in a scene. This isn’t designed to reward folks who memorized the Monster Manual. 

OTOH, if you’re willing to take liberties with said manual, Dungeoneering is a good way to figure out what five things players expect from things like mummies, zombies, etc.

Spread Out (Players)

The DM gives a scene and players in marching order each describe what they do in that scene without repeating any other player.

This plays a lot like Dungeoneering, but it focuses on actions instead of items. It’s a more basic warm-up focused around making characters distinct from one another. It also trains your party to see themselves as something other than a collective fluid which exclusively flows downhill into pubs and brothels.

Make a Scene (Players)

The first player names a scene and the role they’re playing in it. Each player in turn creates another character in that scene. After each player has named a character, the DM gives them a task and the party roleplays those individuals trying to accomplish that task. The DM closes the scene when it’s complete or flails.

Repeat with each character in turn until each player has set the scene.

Make a Scene is a follow-on to Dungeoneering and Spread Out. It’s based around letting characters make the characters who inhabit a scene and to consider their perspective. All three warm-ups let you cycle through them to help develop the same proactive scene creation skills without being rote. 

You also know your players are making progress when they make obstacles to their task, not out of petty obstructionism, but because they want to make the scene a story.

Family Guy (Players & DM)

The first participant describes a dramatic scene in-character. The second participant describes their character’s reaction to that scene, including in-character dialog. 

The third participant says “This is just like that time… “ and continues the cycle with a description of a dramatic scene, using one word from the previous description.

Play continues until the later of last participant’s third go or until the first participant reacts to the last participant’s third go.

Handling the sort of reveals that demand player reactions is hard. If you want to give each character a moment to respond, you need players who know how to just respond instead of leveraging a dramatic moment to start talking about readying weapons, etc. because some DMs have conditioned players to believe that a dragon will eat them in a cutscene unless they interrupt at every moment to confirm they have their knives out.

The Family Guy warm-up helps players respond dramatically and succinctly to those sorts of things that need reaction. It’s good practice for them and it also helps you identify who can really carry the types of reactions you’re looking for. 

Held Action (Players & DM)

Each participant rolls initiative.

The participant with the highest initiative says their initiative, what action their character is taking (it can be anything, but it should match the scene established by the previous participant’s action), and then the name of the participant (or character) with the next-lowest initiative (the participant with the lowest initiative names the participant with the highest initiative).

After everyone initially rolls and announces their initiative, participants don’t organize or communicate about their initiative or the initiative order. They simply pass or declare a “held action”(explained below). Play proceeds for three rounds (when the last player in initiative order has their third turn) or until there is only one participant who hasn’t been eliminated.

If a player skips you and passes to someone with a lower initiative, when the receiving participant says their initiative, jump in with “Held action,” then state your name and initiative. Your action that turn will result in the death of the character whose participant skipped you and that participant is eliminated. You then pass to the next participant as usual.

If play passes to you and you have already gone this round, your action will result in the death of the character whose participant passed to you and they will be eliminated. You then pass to the participant they should have passed to.

If a player declares a “held action” and their initiative is lower than the current participant, the current participant continues, but their action will result in the participant who erroneously called “held action,” who will be eliminated.

Variant:

One participant is a DM and has two characters with separate initiatives. They play both characters, going twice per round, eliminating one character each time they’re eliminated, and even passing to themselves if necessary.

Players are notoriously disengaged and reactive when it’s not their turn in combat. We can’t actually kill them for this, but that kind of satisfaction is what roleplaying is made for. More practically, it eases the DM’s load when players learn to be engaged enough to take ownership of their corner of the initiative. This also plays on skills in working together to create a scene as well as I Yield to You’s ability to accept losses.

…And You See… (Players)

The first player says, “…and you see….” and briefly describes a dramatic/funny/sad scene. Starting with the next player, each player in marching order reacts to that scene in-character and in a different way. 

After each player has reacted, the player after the first describes a scene and each player reacts again. Play continues until the last player has described the scene and everyone has reacted.

This one pushes players to react in different ways. Hilarious indifference might be the fun, but after one player has taken that, everyone else is pushed to find a new emotional emotional axis to tap and break out of their comfort zone.

D and Dee-Association (Players and DM)

The first participant gives a scenario, “hauling off a dragon’s horde,” “navigating the Underdark by feel alone,” etc. The second player describes what the party or an NPC is doing, and in marching order, each participant says, “Yes, and” and builds on the events of the player before them.

Play continues until the last player adds something for the fifth time. There’s no need to resolve the events.

If the use of “yes, and…” wasn’t clear, this is strictly a warm-up about positively accepting others’ actions. It tests players’ abilities to work with within a premise instead of instantly saying “my character has darkvision and can see in The Underdark” because this document authorizes you to whip them if they do that in this warm-up. 

If you’re running a D&D campaign that gives players enough power to create drama, then you’re not demanding your players spend every moment in the man-versus-DM struggle where they use every resource at their disposal to overcome death traps you’ve made for them. It’s your duty as DM to clearly signpost which logic is driving each scene and it’s the duty of your players to read those signs. These warm-ups only help them make your story better when they’re relaxed enough to engage in those moments of roleplay.

The Blacksmith’s Daughter (Players)

The DM gives an event, “The blacksmith’s daughter has been kidnapped.” Each player in marching order tells us why that’s bad. For example, “she’s in danger!” “She’s my fiance!” “She owes me 10 GP!” etc.

While it seems like another reactions warm-up, it’s really about seeing the potential in events. If players begin pushing forward plots from their own sense of story structure and dramatic narrative, then they need to be able to determine what’s at stake without being told.

The Mark-a-duck (Players)

You, as the DM, say “[Character name], I give you the Mark-a-duck.” The named character reacts in a unique way which tells us about the Mark-a-duck.

More advanced than the other reaction warm-ups, Markaduck is a warm-up that puts players on the spot, but also gives them a lot of power to define the world around them. What is this? Why is it important? What does their character think of it? It’s the glowing briefcase of D&D warmups.

Sources:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIHnGvbiWU8

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