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Fair or Foul: Restricting Roleplay?

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On November 18, 2008 @ 10:59 am In GMing Advice | 21 Comments

Here’s a question dug from my GMing archives.

In a previous modern occult campaign, there were two players, Dan and Sarah, that played two characters, Drake and Shayla. Dan was very much into roleplaying and being “in character”, while Sarah found roleplaying awkward and preferred to refer to Shayla’s actions in the third person.

Prior to the campaign, it was established between Dan and Sarah that Drake and Shayla would be madly in love with each other, soulmates as it were. It was also established that Drake was Shayla’s link to the rest of the group.

As the game progressed, the relationship began to fray, which caused problems because it could’ve led to recasting (as Shayla no longer had a strong tie to the group) and Sarah really enjoyed her character.

Sarah’s position was that there was a pre-game premise of undying love. If Sarah was aloof during the sessions, Dan shouldn’t be able to use that as an excuse to chip away at the relationship. In essence, Dan was a bad roleplayer for invalidating the pre-game premise.

Dan’s position was that he shouldn’t be straitjacketed to the premise if events at the table changed it. Maybe Drake really thought he had undying love at the start, but Shayla’s actions over the course of the first few sessions, as well as other things playing out at the table, suggested that maybe they weren’t soulmates after all. Why couldn’t Drake have doubts?

(Okay, so my campaigns do tend to have soap opera-y elements, lol).

As a GM, I had to make the call on which player to rein in. If you were in my shoes, which player would you tend to agree with more?

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




21 Comments (Open | Close)

21 Comments To "Fair or Foul: Restricting Roleplay?"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On November 18, 2008 @ 11:21 am

Neither/both? I’d suggest that Dan play up the “reluctant, why do I love this person I can’t stand” person… if it made roleplaying easier, think of it as unbeatable chemistry. Conversely, while Drake was the link to the rest of the group initially, Sarah should be encouraged to have Shayla get drawn to the rest of the group and interact with them directly, relieving Dan and Drake of the link burden.

I’d also ask her if Shayla was testing Drake. That might be a good compromise– have Shayla ignore and test Drake to the point where he can’t stand to be around her… for a few sessions, until his craving for her (and vice versa) overwhelms their good sense and they reunite. So they have three sessions of distance and awkwardness and one explosive reunion [and reinforces the chemistry thing].

Anyway, that’s my thought. I’m curious to see what everyone else comes up with.

#2 Comment By Cole On November 18, 2008 @ 11:22 am

From your description, I would say Sarah, but dealing with it in or out of the game might prove tricky since she wasn’t a very strong roleplayer.

I say that based on my own experience as a GM and player. It is sign of maturity when the survival of your character or group takes second place to developing it’s personality. Again, from experience, mature roleplayers will see your actions and the consequences thereof as an incredible addition to the game. Less mature players will question, ridicule, and ultimately try to control your character for you.

#3 Comment By brcarl On November 18, 2008 @ 11:23 am

Given what you’ve described, I would tend to agree with Dan more than Sarah.

It’s good to have background definition for role-play heavy groups. But just like in the real world, things change — people change.

But if the one player was counting on a particular background element as a crutch to their fun, or for an angle on a sub-plot they wanted to explore, then having it pulled out would be a bummer.

The tough nut in the situation described is that the objector is the person who is the weaker role-player. Otherwise the suggestion might be to just play it out and see what happens. All relationships go through rough times. And given that gaming tends to force the PCs into difficult situations, maybe prior “truths” are brought into doubt. And maybe, in the end, they’ll come out stronger. ;-)

#4 Comment By Rafe On November 18, 2008 @ 11:25 am

“The only constant is change.” I’d side with Dan. You can’t handicap your players and their playing of their PCs due to a premise. The premise is a concept, the game is actuality. As the game changes, so must the characters.

That’s like going to the grocery store for the first time and saying, “I love carrots. I’ve never had one, but I’ll never love any other vegetable as much as I love carrots.” Then you travel a bit and try eggplants. You discover that you love them. Are you now forbidden to love eggplants because you started with a premise of only loving carrots, especially when you hadn’t even tried them first?

Seems pretty straightforward to me.

#5 Comment By Sarlax On November 18, 2008 @ 11:38 am

I don’t understand entirely why their roleplaying approaches are described at the beginning of the article. Would the following be correct?

Dan plays in 1st-person, Sarah plays in 3rd-person. In the game, more of Drake’s thoughts are directly vocalized. For someone listening only to in-character dialogue, Drake initially spent a lot more time on passionate soliloquies of love than did Shayla, which would make it seem that Shayla was not as committed to the relationship, so Drake started losing interest.

Peeking into the game room, Dan created a character that he thought would be fun to play based on how he expected Sarah to play her character. When Sarah didn’t play her character that way, Dan could only continue having fun by playing his character differently. This meant, however, Sarah could no longer enjoy playing her character as conceived, and her conception was not dependent on the way she or Dan portrayed the emotions of their respective characters.

Is that right?

#6 Comment By scotto On November 18, 2008 @ 11:40 am

I’m thinking the terms “undying love” and “soulmates” perhaps should have been better defined at the start of the game. It’s obvious to me that both players had some very different ideas of what it means.

But, be that as it may, Dan started with the concept that Drake was madly in love with Shayla (for whatever reason) he should really try to stick to that premise. So, I’m inclined to side with Sarah’s argument.

It might be helpful to know why the relationship fell apart. If it was because of somthing within the game world between Shyla and Drake, or was it outside with Dan and Sarah?

If it’s between Shyla and Drake.. I’m thinking it’s a great role-playing opportunity.. if not, well, that’s another can of worms…

#7 Comment By NeonElf On November 18, 2008 @ 11:54 am

This isn’t a tangent, it relates just follow me for a moment. Everyone says meta-gaming is bad. However, I disagree on the point of group cohesion. Recently another character “attacked” my character trying to sedate her and I returned with automatic weapons fire. This could’ve in real life lead to lots of friction. However, instead of wrecking the game I returned to the team and just gave that character the cold shoulder. I metagamed and came up with a reason that I could fit back in.

I think perhaps you, as the GM, should counsel the two players that it’d be nice to keep the team together, and it’s ok for one, or the other, to find some ‘out of game’ reason to stick to plan. Either one. If the love interest dies out then, perhaps the character who might be cut out, has formed some other relationship to the group.

I had a player who joined my game as a mercenary bodyguard for another player (a noble’s son). That player left our group and I had to have some way to keep the mercenary there. I left an “IOU” from the noble for a year’s pay and eventually the characters decided to “upgrade” his status from hired hand, to full party member.

In real life would any of this happen? Probably not, some people work and some don’t but in the interest in creating a cooperative, and fun game play experience I would urge both players to try and work something out to keep the game rolling, even if it requires the dreaded meta-gaming feat.

#8 Comment By robustyoungsoul On November 18, 2008 @ 12:06 pm

This is easy. I’d side with the person whose stance would keep the group running as a team as smoothly as possible.

If you’re not playing a narrative style game that can help make compromises within the framework of the rules, then there has to be some kind of understanding that as a group, the players will try to keep things running as smoothly as possible. I absolutely hate it when somebody derails an entire game based on the idea that “my character wouldn’t do that.” A good roleplayer can build in a plausible reason to make things work without costing everybody else their fun at the table.

#9 Comment By lady2beetle On November 18, 2008 @ 12:12 pm

I agree with Neonelf. Metagaming, or letting out of character factors (not necesarily out of game KNOWLEDGE) affect your characters actions, can be vital in maintaining group adhesion.

In this case, I don’t think that there’s any point in pointing fingers at one person or the other. Instead, as a GM, you can work ahead by sitting down with the players and discussing the premise. If it needs to be altered, fine – great! But alter it together. It might be that an “act of the GM” will justify the actions of one character or the other and turn what was a friction of roleplaying styles into an entertaining conflict of the characters – so long as both players agree to the plan. Meanwhile, I would suggest finding another hook to connect Sarah’s character to the party. It might very well be that she can interact more comfortably with Dan’s character if that “relationship” isn’t the sole IC reason for her to be there.

Just my $.02.

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On November 18, 2008 @ 12:15 pm

@Scott – We did end up working out a solution amongst the three of us that allowed the relationship to dissolve yet keep Shyla within the group.

@Sarlax – I think that’s a pretty fair description.

@Scotto – It was a mix of both, unfortunately.

#11 Comment By Tharlorn On November 18, 2008 @ 12:33 pm

I would side with Dan too.

This kind of things just happen after all. When you are roleplaying, you don’t know the end of the history. Sarah’s character should have had another reason to go aventuring with them.

That’s the reason why I usually ask my players to have connection with at least two other members of the party.

Great content, by the way. Congatulations.

#12 Comment By Scott Martin On November 18, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

@Walt Ciechanowski – I’m awfully fond of my “you can’t control brain chemistry” idea… did anyone consider playing the soulmates but I don’t understand why idea? While I usually avoid mind control in my games, playing an inexplicable attraction seems similar to playing mind control well.

#13 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 18, 2008 @ 2:03 pm

I just linked this article less than a week ago, but it’s so perfect for this situation that I’m going to drop it again:
http://arsludi.lamemage.com/index.php/38/play-constructively-pass-the-ball/

Here’s the crux of the issue: Dan and Sarah decided that it would be fun to play characters that were in love with each other. Now it’s not working out because Dan’s not “feeling” Sarah’s attempts at Roleplay.

This isn’t Sarah’s fault. She’s simply not up to the RP task at hand. Maybe she should be encouraged to push her limits a bit more, but ultimately, we’re not master thespians. We can’t all play all rolls.

This isn’t Dan’s fault. He’s living up to his end of the bargain and delivering good role-play.

There IS something Dan can do to fix the situation easily however. Dan’s not roleplaying his character’s reactions to her character’s actions very well. That is to say, just because Sarah’s version of a passionate moment is “Shayla loves Drake.” in a monotone, doesn’t mean that beneath it’s poor delivery isn’t just what Drake wants to hear. Dan should be acting as if everything Sarah says is Shayla delivering a perfect love sonet. Alternately, he could be ad-libbing off camera details like crazy. “What do you mean she’s cold? That’s just because she’s doesn’t want to look weak in front of everyone else. When we’re alone… well, let’s just say passionate is her middle name!” or even shifting the paradigm of their relationship so it makes more sense. “Are you kidding? LOOK at her man! I’ll never get another woman like that. So what if she’s a bit distant. I’ve got her and I’m keeping her!” or even “Sure she hurts me a lot, but she’s all I have. All I’ll ever have, and I need her, so BACK OFF! It’s none of your damn business anyway!”

#14 Comment By Sarlax On November 18, 2008 @ 3:43 pm

As to the original question – with whom do I agree more – I *agree* more with Dan; no character should be locked to a single concept because games are dynamic. Sarah’s wrong to call him a bad roleplayer because he’s not tethered to a single idea.

However, I’m more sympathetic with Sarah’s position. If Sarah refuses to cooperate and Dan has to live with portraying a relationship that isn’t being RPed as well as he’d like, Drake still participates in the rest of the game. If Dan refuses to cooperate and terminates the relationship between Drake and Shyla, Shyla’s effectively out of the party because Drake is her only link.

In other words, Sarah’s enjoyment is at greater risk than Dan’s (unless Dan’s only enjoyment can be in portraying a relationship of passionate love with someone who also roleplays in first-person).

I wouldn’t put this issue on either player. There’s no blame, just as with real life – sometimes the relationships we want just don’t work out. It doesn’t mean either party is wrong.

Instead, this is where the GM as manager steps in. Imagine if you were the runner for a TV show and two actors disagreed about method and weren’t getting along, and it was starting to show on screen. Do you reprimand one of them for being a bad actor or for not having “read the script?” Do you write one character out of the show? Or do you work around the disagreement?

What I’d do is work to come up with a metagame fix as Lady2Beetle suggests – just start working on another reason for Shyla to stay with the group. Sarah gets to keep playing without dumping her character, Dan doesn’t have to partner up with someone he believes doesn’t have enough of a dramatic soul, and the game can go on in basically the same direction.

#15 Comment By Cybit On November 18, 2008 @ 6:08 pm

I would initially talk to Dan; simply because he seems to be the more experienced player. Player personalities should not lead to their PCs necessarily conflicting. IE, if Sarah doesn’t play something the exact way you wanted her to, but her character is doing what your character wants her to do, then in-character, they would be fine. If Shayla was consistently aloof, then this would be something that Drake would know and love. We’re not talking about personality shifts, as far as I can tell.

#16 Comment By Vampir On November 20, 2008 @ 2:14 am

I’d side with Sarah on the issue… but I’d try to resolve it so that Dan isn’t railroaded into what he doesn’t want and keep Sarah’s character around…

The reason why I’d side with Sarah is simple, because the premise is what keeps a game from devolving into an utter mess… everyone makes premises before they start a game, the most basic of which is simply what game will the group play…

#17 Comment By Starvosk On November 20, 2008 @ 12:55 pm

I don’t see why the love premise is neccessary for group cohesion anyway. Maybe they found out that they aren’t very interested in each other like that, but the fact is..if there’s ANY combat whatsoever, these people have saved each other’s lives time and time again.

Ultimately that’s the base reason why these people should be sticking together in a party; they’re combat veterans, comrades in arms. What kind of cold bastard splits off because of ‘moral’ and ‘political’ differences when the fact is THAT GUY was shooting/slinging fire/swording someone else so you would live?

I certainly don’t know many people IRL (who aren’t policemen,soldiers,etc) who would kill an animal, much less a person, for me.
I would say that person is a friend, unless he obviously had some other motive. While certain things would intervene in that consideration in extreme cases (Powermad dictator, serial killer, etc.)

Sure, once someone gets tired of fighting and decides to return to life and sell carpets or something, those differences might factor in more, but to be sure, small stuff like personal differences and drama can’t really overcome the fact that these guys have probably saved your life time and time again.

#18 Comment By Sarlax On November 20, 2008 @ 4:52 pm

I don’t see why the love premise is neccessary for group cohesion anyway. Maybe they found out that they aren’t very interested in each other like that, but the fact is..if there’s ANY combat whatsoever, these people have saved each other’s lives time and time again.

Walt noted that much of his game is about the social dynamics between the PCs. It made me think of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Oz the werewolf is really only connected to the gang because of his relationship with Willow. He jokes around with Xander a bit and is comfortable with Buffy, Giles, and Angel, and tolerates Cordelia, but he’s really only in it for Willow. IE, “As Willow goes, so goes my nation.”

Once that relationship breaks, Oz is out. It’s not because he had a problem with the rest of the gang. In fact, he might have been well advised to stick around for help with his werewolf issues. But he didn’t have Willow as his anchor, so nothing really kept him around.

Similar thing here, I imagine.

#19 Comment By DocRyder On November 21, 2008 @ 12:19 am

While it seems the issue has been resolved, I’m going to add my two cents.

First, I’ve known people who call themselves soulmates. They argue, drift in and out of each others lives, and so on. It happens. Maybe the players should be rolling with the flow.

I’m kinda anti- “Player A says Player B is bad because Player B is not giving in to Player A’s demands.” That pretty much puts me in the pro-Dan realm. I understand that it starts to alienate Sarah’s character, but there should be some way to link Shayla into the group after five games. By now, she should be accepted and have relationships of her own.

Of course, Dan also entered into this IC relationship with his eyes open, I’m betting. He knew Sarah was a 3rd Person player. You don’t establish a IC relationship like that with player like that and expect different results. If this was intended to be a teaching relationship, then you make the “soulmates” thing a goal for the characters to strive for, not a pre-existing situation.

#20 Comment By mxyzplk On November 23, 2008 @ 9:04 pm

I don’t think it’s the GM’s role to intervene at all.

It should be the players’ responsibility to have some kind of motivation to be with the group. If they lose that and wander off, that’s fine – they’re off camera until they come back with the same or a new character. Nothing is more lazy that players who try to make it someone else’s job to get them into the adventure.

Beyond that, manipulative players try to get the GM into the intra-character roleplay. Not his business. “That’s how Drake is acting, what does Shayla do?” That’s it.

In short, all of this is drama queens trying to generate conflict and bring you into it. Stay neutral and stay out of it, and make it clear what their role is. You’re just playing into the manipulation.

#21 Comment By Argonnosi On July 8, 2010 @ 2:21 am

Let them fight it out. Whichever player survives gets their way… and you and the survivor probably go to prison.


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