Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Goooood Roleplaying

A director friend that I'd known when we were both young and learning the business used to have long arguments with me into the night about what was the difference between good acting and bad acting.  It is a favorite subject for those in the dramatic arts, made the more favorite because there is, and there never will be, an answer for it.  We certainly never arrived at an agreement.

When I worked with my director friend almost a decade later, on his first feature-length film back in 2000, the subject happened to come up.  I remember that he sighed, looked exhausted and answered, "An actor that shows up."

A great reality of the business is that actors who reliably do the work, who are easy to get along with and who have lives without a lot of drama, get parts if they can say the words in the right order.  Kevin Smith is always happy to work with Ben Affleck and Tim Burton will always work with Johnny Depp.  Sydney Pollack wanted Meryl Streep, John Carpenter wanted Kurt Russell, Billy Wilder wanted Jack Lemmon and John Ford wanted John Wayne.  People can argue about whether those people were great actors, but the directors knew the people they wanted to work with, to make the projects they wanted to make.

There's nothing worse than an actor that will throw fits, demand excessive treatment, fail to arrive for work with a clear head, refuse to work affably with the cast or preen themselves with a belief of infallibility.  You want to know why Keanu Reeves gets parts when everyone thinks he's a bad actor?  He works.  He'll get dirty.  He doesn't drive up the length of the shoot and he doesn't make the shoot run overbudget.  He looks happy when he's supposed to look happy and he looks angry when he's supposed to look angry.  For most any director in the world, that's more than enough.

Want to know why Tim Roth's career didn't take off?  One guess.

As a player or as a DM, when I sit down at a table to play, there's only one thing I truly ask for: to play with people who want to play the game.  Not people who want to play the look-at-me gambit, not the people for whom everything is a pissing contest, not the chatterers, not the mopers, not the wanderers from the table, not the chewers, not the ones who can't remember the rules, not those that come cause they're attached to their partners, not the doodlers, nor the lawyers, nor the peevish infants who screech their indignation, not the ones who can't bear to die, not the ones who can't bother to try, not the ones who must be poked to roll dice, who have to be told their gained experience three times, or those who want to pitch their own world, or those who pitch a different game's rules at the table, or those who play this game because they can't find someone to play the other game.

No, the player I want to play with isn't the brilliant one that solves puzzles, nor the clever one that talks in thirty accents, nor the player whose character sheet is a ninety-page tome, nor even the lover of fun.

The player I want to play with is the one that, whatever I tell them, answers back as a person immersed in the game.  They're too busy thinking about how to deal with the enormous bear that's just burst through the innkeeper's front door to be concerned with things like characterization, the bear's probable hit points, it's memorized armor class or whether a bear's strength is sufficient to break down a reinforced door.  No, what they are is scared.  It's a big, scary bear, it's a threat to their life and they are thinking, OH MY GOD, IT'S A HUGE BEAR!  WHAT'LL WE DO?!

That is, they are there.  Present.  Brains functioning in relationship to what's going on.  Focused on getting all they can out of it.  Emotionally invested.  Pick your description.  The long and the short of it is that a player like this - whether you are the player's compatriot or the DM - is such a thorough pleasure to play with that you don't give a rat's dinner what sort of brilliant thespian he is at the table.  It matters not a mook's wit whether they're behaving in accordance with their past or in accordance with the bar code on their cherished twinkies.  Jeb may not have an education, he may be an out-of-work roofer, he might be a wife-killing banker ... but when he's at my table, screaming that "We've got to get out of this place or we're all goners!" he is the most brilliant, slashing bloody bastard that ever girded on a d20.

He's always welcome at my table.


tedankhamen said...

That's the first post on this blog that I unequivocably, whole heartedly support.

Zak Sabbath said...

fair enough

Barad the Gnome said...


Anonymous said...

so basically what you're saying is you don't want any normal people at your table? (like yourself "pre-epiphany" people for whom everything is a pissing contest)

where do you find those rpg-├╝bermenschen?

or do you mean to say that if people are able and willing to immerse themselves in your world then you take the bad with the good and their flaws are forgivable?

Bard said...


Nope said...

this might be the best post you've written. that I've read anyways. right on.

Pandred said...

Well said indeed.

Blaine H. said...

I agree on many parts... that is the... optimal player.

Any GM would want that... hell, I would kill for...1 of those that is in that complete a package with no impurities what so ever.

Unfortunately... such a person... in such a refined state... doesn't exit. It is like the mythical engineering material 'Unobtanium'... it has all the traits we desire and none of the faults. Its too good to exist.

The reality of it comes down to... we won't ever find THAT man or woman. No one that refined.

Now, I am not saying that we won't have people who ARE immersed in the game, who will pay attention, who will act in character... in fact, a good group will be able to be MOSTLY our unobtanium player type...

You are right, I don't want those player types that you listed but I have encountered and run for all of them to some degree or another. They are a component to almost any gaming group I currently or into the past have been with for at least a decade and a half.

Even the best roleplayers who take on their character whole cloth will have their impurities... they might like to nibble on snacks, get distracted during a point where they are not in the scene, have an add moment, think of a joke, mishear a detail, or scribble. There is always the researcher looking towards his next character due to the inevitable death his luck will bring.

The advent of the lap top and data slate/iPad has brought real time media into the mess. Now I have to deal with the various wanna be DJs (some who actually are locally) or the constant searches through electronic books for the passage they need. At least they can't hide their dice rolls from be behind an iPad.

I have booted out plenty of people who were too high a concentration impurity and too low grade a player... but those are rare.

I guess... what it comes down to is... that GMing is like prospecting in this regard. Trying to find the highest grade raw material and work with it. Some places, you can't have high grade... you have to settle with mid level types. You can always work with them and refine them into something better.

But it doesn't stop us from establishing a bench mark. Just don't set the entry point too high as to limit the pool of potential people too much.

Or maybe this is just years of gaming both out of my home on invite only and up at the local store/club where they have open games...

Home, higher grade...

Public/Club, mid grade with potential.

But it was a wonderful piece none the less. Thank you for it.

Oddbit said...

Most anyone can become enthralled in a pen and paper role playing game if they have any interest in such a game at a basic level.

Just like anyone can become enthralled in a movie as long as they don't hate movies for the fact they are movies.

You just need them to feel invested, to feel involved and feel like they have something to lose. Some story or interaction they really want to see, but if it all ends here it will never happen.

It might require that you pull some less used strings for some players, and maybe be more creative, but when the players want to see what happens next, when their life is hanging on a slim chance that that ranger is going to come out of his stupor. That their words weaken the courtier's lips about their assassin lover's location before it's too late. That the story of the ranger or king do not end so that they can see the next part of the story. They can emerge triumphant against the ooze to find rare tomes on ancient architecture to take home for their kingdom. They can receive the reward from the king, but more, they also learn his word on the rebel sentiment in the north, have their opportunity to influence his actions.

When they have an investment, an opportunity to lose and their actions matter, they can become enthralled. In a movie this can be broken when you realize if everyone dies the movie would never be made, but in a DnD game, it can all end with pissing off the courtier, falling back dazed into your corner and watching your companion bleed to death and otherwise failing.

There's a reason this blog has less about players and more about DMing. Everything in it is some feature to get the DM and the players more invested.

I've seen the scribbler put down their pen, the researcher set aside their book, the joker draw silent and the inattentive focus as the plot drew close and everything came together with everything on the line.

Dan said...

That's a good criteria. Does anyone actually start off that way though? What is it that makes folks become that kind of player? How long should we give them?

Anonymous said...

Dan, my experience has been that it either happens pretty early on or not at all.