Most role playing games include a healthy dose of acting skill. During the average campaign you’ll put yourself in character, adapt to the other players, take direction form the DM and rewrite the script yourself. But what if you wanted to go deeper, to really act as your character, to totally immerse yourself in the game? Personally I’ve never been a part of a game like this, I always talk about my character, not as my character. So I turned to a close friend of mine @woodentongue, actor, director, political analyst and asked him to turn his not inconsiderable experience to a couple of articles about bringing the skills of the theatre to the D&D table. Starting with this one about taking part in deep immersion games for newer players. (when he says the Tarrasque he means me…. it’s not the most flattering nickname)
The Tarrasque has asked me for a series of articles on the cross-over between theatre and D&D. I’ve been an actor and director and there are lots of ideas and lessons from theatre that you can use as a DM and as a player to improve your game and your story and your enjoyment. So many that It will take a few posts.
So today I’d like to write about your deep immersion games, where you take on a character and speak as them rather than about them. This is a type of game where you are acting while playing and that is a really significant thing.
So theatre point one for this type of game is trust. When you have a script and you’re a professional you don’t have to know a lot about the people you’re working with, you don’t have to like them, because you are performing a script. It is infinitely better if you do like them but not actually vital. But that isn’t analogous to a D&D game, which is effectively a semi devised piece of improvisation, no script. Here you really do need to trust the people you are working with because if you don’t you can’t commit to what you are doing for fear of being embarrassed. If you can’t commit to it, it will be terrible, totally terrible. So you have to trust your fellow players not to mess with you except in character, you have to trust them not to make fun of the accents you use of the dialogue you come up with. I’m going to expand on a lot of this but trust is a real key.
Point two is improvisation. You know all of those great live improvised shows that you love? No of course you don’t. Going to see improvised theatre is a particular fetish of the Americans, the rest of the world uses improve as a warm up. Many great actors and writers do come out of those theatres but the shows themselves are of very limited reach because they are really hit and miss. It is difficult to improvise great or funny dialogue off the cuff, this is why movies which use of a lot of improvisation like Forty Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Anchorman produce a lot of outtakes, you can improvise dialogue but it is a shotgun approach, it won’t be perfect the first time, you will make a lot of mistakes and lay narrative traps for yourself. So if you are going fully immersive and first person in your game you should do two things:
- Not every sentence a character utters is going to be Aragorn at the Black Gates, it is fine to talk about how you don’t like your saddle even if you are a Paladin. Rogues don’t whisper sinisterly when they are asking for the salt. Relax.
- Improvising gets easier when you find your character’s voice and finding their voice is about developing habits. What phrases come up in your character speaks? Do they have little ticks? Do they crack jokes, what kind? When you speak a lot these things emerge especially as you interact with other characters. So practise, remember the trust you have for your group, when you say something out of character remember to relax and speak a lot. Practise.
Point three is accents. Only do them if you can do them well. Think of famous actors, really famous well respected actors. How many do accents? How many do accents well? And those are professionals. Don’t do them unless you are good at doing them. I promise you that if you just speak with your accent but your characters voice you will get more into the story than if you send you Dwarf to the Sword Coast via Cardiff and Islamabad. That is just awful, don’t do it.
Point four is commitment. One of the Big Bads of theatre is breaking character. No matter what happens don’t break character. Someone forgets a line, you improvise in character. A pyrotechnic fails to go off, you look at your hand all confused and pretend like your magic has failed. This is where actors get a bit macho, which is often hilarious, but I have seen people stay in character after lots of different weird and unfortunate shit has happened to them on stage or behind the scenes and the audience be none the wiser. This is also about not breaking the four wall, which is the imaginary wall where the audience are sitting, you don’t acknowledge the audience and that helps them pretend that the action is real. This remains true when the actors are the audience, if you don’t acknowledge the fantasy it is easier to maintain it.
So if you really want to play this type of game where you are fully immersed and first person I would advise you to stay in character the whole time you are playing. How would your character eat Doritos? Not a joke. Seriously not a joke for this type of game. Eat and drink in character, roll in character, think aloud in character. When you acknowledge that you are pretending, the pretending goes away. Extreme? Yep, but you’re the one who wanted to play this way so if you’re going to do it do in properly.
DM meet SM. SM stands for Stage Manager. The SM is the Queen, she is the Empress, she runs the show and keeps people in line and makes sure that actors are where they should be, that lights go on and off when they should, that sounds sound and things explode. The SM brings the show together but is never seen by the audience. In this type of immersive
game the DM has to be totally on the ball, you have to have meticulous plans, you have to have contingency plans in mind and when an unexpected fuck up happens you have to deal with it without letting on it is a fuck up. It is not ok to stop a play and say, sorry audience we’re just sorting out some stuff. And you can’t do that to your players or you will break them out of character. Of all the ways of playing I think this one must be the hardest on DMs. But remember point one. SMs are part of the team, sometimes the way they fix a problem is to throw an actor on stage and tell them to improvise a Shakespearean monologue for two minutes because Romeo has got himself trapped in the lift. So know your players, know who you can rely on in different situations and use them to fix problems. A character asks you a question that you haven’t got an answer for, you know that one of the group are really good at improvising appropriate answers, ask them to make a history check, get them to provide an answer. You may have to adapt your story, but that is the fucking joy of it.
The last point is the curtain. You need to know when you start and when you stop. You need to have a clear signal of ‘we’re starting’ so you get in character, and ‘we’re stopping’ so stop talking like that. If you can play in a private room you should enter and exit it at the start and end. Make the threshold of the room the marker of the game. It is a useful psychological trick, it can ease your embarrassment. If not a room then some other signal. Cover and uncover a lamp, raise of lower the DM screen, put on hats, it doesn’t really matter but everyone should have a clear signal of how they hold be behaving. Nothing breaks character like being asked if you are in character.
So to conclude the big points are trust your other players, don’t be afraid of improvisation, but not everything needs to be a super meaningful proclamation, unless they are universally recognised as amazing don’t do accents, your Christopher Walken Halfling is not as funny as you think it is, commit to the role, give it your everything and trust that your group to support you, trust the DM and if he needs you to cover while he looks up a rule, then now is the time for your Halfling to bust out his Christopher Walken impression and finally have a set start and end time for your roleplaying, a curtain if you will, as it will help to ease tension.
As always please follow, re-tweet, re-blog and like. Follow me on Twitter @1d4damage, follow @woodentongue at your own risk. I take no responsibility for his mutterings.