The simple fact of the matter is that anyone can play a game. It doesn’t take much skill picking up a set of rules and start playing by the numbers, even in a game as big as Pathfinder, D&D, Rogue Trader, games that deal with minutia on a fine level, you can learn very quickly how to play and incorporate every little rule into a well structured narrative.
The actual talent is in the acting, occupying, and even becoming the roles you play, and creating living entities from the page of numbers. As a DM it’s a great thing to practice yourself and encourage amongst your players, as it’s this skill that leads to the most memorable moments, and also has some fantastic benefits for real-world application.
What better way to force a player to consider their character than to remove the numbers? Try starting a game where your players have no special abilities, limited skills, and only whatever kit they have to hand. Open with a simple scenario:
“As you go about your normal day, you hear the sound of engines. Trucks fill the streets waving an unfamiliar flag from the hoods. White-clad soldiers unload from the backs and start booting in doors and charging inside. You can hear people screaming, and they begin to emerge with bags over their heads.”
This is a terrifying situation for a normal human being. Where your adventurer would leap into action, a typical person is confronted by an army of better armed, better trained combatants that they can do little about. Most of your players may find themselves running and hiding, but there are ways to bring their inner hero out of hiding:
“A soldier drags you from your hiding place and points a gun in your face, but hesitates. A female voice, muffled by the helmet says ‘Run’ and she exits the building.”
“From your vantage point you can see a door open. You catch a brief glimpse of your brother before a bag obscures his face. He struggles for a moment before being struck down, and loaded onto a van.”
As scared as they may be, this scenario suddenly presents a storyline. Mystery: Who are the soldiers? Who commands them? Where are they taking the prisoners? Action: Can the group save anyone before the soldiers take them away? The Personal Touch: Getting the group involved personally will drag them into the fight and force them to become the heroes they need to be.
In effect you are writing their origin story. Encourage each person when writing their character to consider – not what they can do – but who they are, and let their capabilities emerge from this opening scene. Whoever stands and fights should gain abilities that promote that strategy, and the same for those that sneak and strike, who stop to think, and hold back to help those in need.
If the story prompts it, give your players an entirely new character for a few sessions and encourage them to play something outside of their comfort zone. For example, one of the group has been arrested for doing something stupid (it’ll happen). Have the rest of the players play his or her fellow prisoners and roleplay their daring escape.
Alternatively, try running a few games in which your group play as the villains, their opponents, or otherwise play as someone from the opposite side of the narrative. Aside from the fact that it can be a very entertaining shift in the story, it can also lead to some excellent opportunities for your group to test their skills as roleplayers and as performers.
Vignettes help break up a long narrative, so if you’re lucky enough to keep a game going for the course of several months, or years, the best way to keep the campaign fresh is to change the perspective every now and again. Just make sure to keep it interesting, and keep it relevant.
It’s very difficult to stop being you.
I – for example – have a nasty tendency to break character quite horrendously during a game, or have characters that fall into the same irritating archetypes (in case you’re wondering, my characters are overbearing and maddeningly cheerful). Oddly I do not have the same issue as a DM, for some reason I am able to embrace the attitudes of my NPCs with ease, whereas my characters fall firmly into the pigeon hole I have built for them.
So it occurs to me that I may need to take acting lessons! So many famous actors are renowned roleplayers and impassionate gamers, and their gaming stories tend to come with a great deal of variety and dynamic characterisation.
Acting is a skill that you can acquire with or without talent, and it can help boost confidence in ways that can both improve upon your gaming and in day-to-day life. You can teach yourself by simply practicing voices, reading scripts or books aloud to yourself, finding the personality of characters and trying to roleplay them yourself. It’s something you almost certainly do naturally in your head, so why not try to bring it out at the table?