How To Roleplay

Maybe you've never roleplayed before, or you've played a couple games and realized you weren't really contributing to the RP. In either case you're wondering how to get better, like that one guy who's really good and natural at it. What's his deal, anyway? The good news is that guy isn't doing anything particularly special, in fact it's probably less than you think.

Keep Calm and Roleplay

One of your problems with RP is likely that you handicap yourself with really complex and alien characters to start. Morkral Silverstone the dwarf fighter has a strong accent, a strong hatred of goblinoids, a strong devotion to Moradin and his king, plus a strong tolerance to strong drink. The number of things Morkral has in common with you can be counted on one hand; you've never even seen a goblin so who knows if you'd like them or not? Maybe they like crafting minis.

The first step to good roleplay is figuring out your character and relating to them. It's better if you have a lot in common with them and only a few things different. The last thing you want to do when the DM stops talking and has posed you with a difficult problem, is to then need to spend a bunch of extra time figuring out how your character feels about it and would react to it. It's much easier and faster to use your own natural reaction to the situation and start with that. Think of every thing different about your character as additional lag that you add on top of your natural reaction which slows it down bit by bit. You do this unconsciously already, when a situation comes up in game that you didn't already have your character's opinion for, you'll use your own opinion as a fallback. Morkral's opinion on the political power structures of talking intelligent rats matches my own (I support rat democracy), because that's not something I had considered when making him.

Having a clear list of differences in mind between you and your character while assuming everything else is the same makes it easier to get into character because you can just be yourself, and it primes your brain with the idea of becoming your character and getting ready for RP. Once you're ready to think more like that person, then you move on to the next step: reacting in-game.

Meeting a satyr

Something just happened. The satyr asked your group a question, what do you do? Stop for a moment and pretend this is actually happening to you. Close your eyes and imagine you're standing in a forest with your friends and this goat-legged creature just came up and started talking to you. Actually you, the real person. What would you do? Point and exclaim, “holy shit a talking goat-man!” Great! Say that. The satyr looks angry and your friends either laugh or look mortified. As the embarrassment builds you then clasp your hands over your mouth and apologize, that was rude of you. That's a great scene because it develops your character and the world.

When a lot of new roleplayers hesitate and keep quiet, they're paralyzed with choice. What do I say? I dunno, what would Morkral say? While you're working it out in your head someone else has said something and your group has moved on. The reality is you do have something to say right away, but you immediately decided it was too impulsive, dangerous, or uninteresting to say so you tried to think of something else. Maybe your immediate natural response is to say “uhh... uhh... nothing?” That's still a good response, it develops your character and shows that they're nervous. Even if it's just you that's nervous, that's the trick. If you keep responding how you would respond and feel how you would feel, everyone thinks that's good roleplay. Maybe your character is shy and nervous about everything, that's a much more interesting character than the cardboard cutouts of most generic fantasy.

Too often people get decision paralysis because they're trying to figure out the “correct” thing to do, like in a videogame. D&D is not just a videogame, there is no correct choice where you use the banana on the man with rabbit ears to get the whistle that you use under the carpenter to open up the fence. There are infinite choices with infinite outcomes. You didn't have to get the whistle to open up the fence, you're holding a mace and can bash it open. You could ask someone to open it, you could go around, you could just leave- screw the fence! You need to get out of that videogame mindset where the game is to find the intended choice. Your natural reaction is the correct one, because it's how you respond to things in real life.

D&D combat

What about combat? You've entered a structured tactical environment with special actions and abilities, so what now? Nothing, except now you're required to take turns (where before it was just a good idea). Try disregarding the numbers and ability rules and again just say what you would do. If you're holding a sword and if there's orcs surrounding you then you might be thinking “well I'm dead” but you'd also probably try swinging that sword around too. It's okay if things get messy and un-optimal, that's what real combat is like. It's fun to be tactical and come up with plans, but it's not interesting unless you're doing it on a time limit. Combat in D&D is easy to “solve” if you have enough time to think and have enough experience, it's a really simple system once you're familiar with it. Stay at the correct range and try to roll the most dice you can while making efficient use of your resources. The scene is more interesting, try to describe how your character feels (panic?) and the details of what you're doing. Try to always keep the visuals of the scene going in your head without letting the numbers distract you too much. You're avoiding being quiet and in your own head too much, and keeping yourself in the scene as much as possible achieves that.

The point of all this is that adventurers would still be real people with fears and emotions, they're just people that also willingly subject themselves to those fears and emotions where a non-adventurer would be a bit more risk-averse. Maybe they have no other option. It can be helpful to think of your character as someone more like you, just in extraordinary circumstances. D&D can be a pretty terrifying and fascinating world, why dilute that experience with a person that's not equally terrified and intrigued? It's more satisfying to put yourself there so that everything is happening to you instead. It's a bit like the movie Avatar where you can actually put yourself in another person's body and experience what they do. This is why having more in common with them makes it easier, it's hard to mentally get inside the body of someone completely alien. Having some differences is still good, because it keeps you focused on the task at hand when you remember “oh right Morkral is more religious than me.” It can lead to fun thought experiments where you imagine how your faith would be different if you could actually see proof of the gods and speak to them.

Time to talk

Now we're back to the table, other people are roleplaying and you're quiet. Someone else spoke to the satyr first and you're wondering how to contribute. The answer is stop, thinking is the enemy of improv and story progression. You know who your character is because you know who you are, what would you be doing in this situation? Just say that. Either someone else will react and build on that, or it will be something that develops your character in the world. Both outcomes are good and contribute to the game. If you're describing what you're doing and saying in the scene, then that's roleplaying. It may not feel like it at first, but just saying and doing the first thing that comes to mind is what makes improv fun. Having it backfire and go wrong because of bad dice rolls and lack of foresight of the rules is what makes D&D fun.

Once you're feeling comfortable playing in the moment then your decision paralysis disappears and you're making meaningful contributions to the narrative. You'll even find that with practice your decision making both in and out of game improves. That's because even in the real world taking an action is always preferable to hesitating. A bad action is always better than no action at all. In real world emergencies it's the people that act immediately to their gut instinct that end up surviving. How convenient, then, that we have a game to play together that's often a continuous series of emergencies, where we can practice our natural reaction to all sorts of crazy shenanigans.

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