Starting a new campaign with a new group of players is always a pain in the a$&. The problem isn’t that players are a pain in the a$&. I mean, they are. Some are. Many are. But it isn’t always the fault of the players that they are pains in the a$&es. Some are just genetically predisposed toward being dumb. You can’t blame someone for that. Some are jerks as a result of environmental factors. And I guess you can’t blame people for that either. It doesn’t matter. I can deal with dumbos and jerks easily enough. I kick them the f$&% out of the group. Why? Because just because someone’s personal defects aren’t their fault doesn’t mean they have a right to punish ME with them.
The real problem with new players is lots of them don’t know how to play. And I don’t mean they don’t know the rules. I don’t care if players know the rules. I know the rules that are important and, besides, I AM the rules. I mean they don’t know how to actually BE a player in a role-playing game. They can’t declare actions properly. They focus on the wrong things. They ask for die rolls they shouldn’t be asking for. And they are afraid to use their goddamned brains because some a$&hole GM somewhere convinced them that knowing anything without permission was an unspeakable sin called “metagaming.” And if I could ban just one word from all of gaming, it would be that word. More GMs have ruined my f$&%ing games by training their idiot players to fear the dreaded accusation of “metagaming” than I could choke to death in my entire life. And I would. Holy mother of f$&%.
When it comes down to problem players, most problem players have been created by s$&% GMs teaching them stupid things. So, whenever I start a new campaign with a new group of players, there’s always this adjustment period where I have to waste my f$&%ing time UNTEACHING the players s$&% lessons. Whee. Thanks for that every other f$&%ing GM in the entire world? Because, let’s face it, if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong.
This article is a rarity. I don’t do player advice. There’s a lot of reasons why I don’t and, no, none of those reasons are “because I wouldn’t be good at it.” I’d f$&%ing rock at giving player advice. But this article is player advice. Well, no it isn’t. It’s gamer advice. It’s advice for GMs AND players of role-playing games. It’s advice that deals with a host of issues from “good role-playing” to the barrier between “in character” and “out of character” and how to handle intercharacter communication and social interactions and all sorts of other crap. It will also even hit on some rules hacking issues. Believe it or not. It’s a philosophy I’ve hinted at in the past. And I think it’s a really good, useful, reasonable, rational philosophy that makes running and playing game a lot easier for everyone. As such, I expect a lot of people will be pissed off and tell me why it’s bad, wrong, terrible, awful advice.
Not that I care, though. I’m only writing this so the next time I have to deal with this crap with some new player, I can just send them away from the table and not let them back until they’ve read this article.
Incidentally, if you’re here because I sent you away from the table to read this, THERE WILL BE A QUIZ. And I will kill your character for anything less than a 98%. So pay f$&%ing attention.
The Mythical Line Between Player and Character
Lots of people make a lot out of the separation between player and character. And they have for years. Even the f$&%ing rulebooks themselves have seen fit to devote page space to making it clear that the players are not the characters. The player – they say – is not the character. Don’t confuse the two.
In the old days, this warning amount to nothing more than saying “just because Alice’s character is a dick to Bob’s character, that doesn’t mean Bob should personally take it out on Alice.” Basically, it was sort of an “a$&hole player protectionism.” It protected the sorts of morons who hid behind statements like “I’m just role-playing my character” or “I’m just playing my alignment” or “sorry, but my character would totally stab you and take your stuff, but WE’RE still friends.” But no one really ever bought that anyway. After all, Alice CHOSE to create a complete a$&hat of a character in a team-based game wherein four other people also wanted to, you know, have a good time. So, no, Alice doesn’t get off the hook because Alyss the Rogue is somehow separate from her.
What’s really funny though is that only RPGs and role-playing gamers feel the need to draw clear lines between player and character. I’ve never played a board game that devoted a section of the rule-book to the idea that just because my MEEPLE is playing to win, that doesn’t mean I’m a backstabbing a$&hat. Betrayal in the House on the Hill doesn’t have to point out that your friend really ISN’T a monstrous traitor. I’ve never had a video game tutorial start off with “now, listen, you with the controller, you’re not the character. Okay? And other people aren’t their characters. Okay? Just remember that if some online punk griefs you, steals your kill, pwns you, and then does a little emote that looks like they are sticking your genitals in your face.
The problem is, though, that the line between player and character doesn’t just stop at protecting a$&holes. If it did, if it only when that far, I would be cool with it. But the problem is what ELSE it gets involved with. I mean, of course, there’s metagaming. Metagaming, the act of using your own, personal brain to influence the choices of your character because you happen to have useful information. And I’m not talking about secrets that other characters have chosen not to share. That’s a whole other problem and a whole other article. I’m talking about everything from remembering the vulnerabilities of certain monsters from previous experiences or knowing which god is which without making a knowledge or deducing that a creature made entirely of bones is not going to be bothered by weapons that PIERCE AND CUT FLESH because you’ve never fought a skeleton before.
But, look, metagaming is just a tinier part of a bigger issue. That’s the issue of PLAYER SKILL vs. CHARACTER SKILL. And how much time have we wasted fighting about THAT s$&%. I remember the old days when Dungeon Magazine used to put out their writer’s guidelines and always included a long section about creating challenges for the characters, not the players. Don’t make the PLAYERS solve puzzles. That’s terrible. Make puzzles for the CHARACTERS to solve. Yeah?! How!? Other than simply making puzzles solvable by a die roll. Hey, guess what? The sort of players who like dealing with puzzles actually want to solve them themselves. And the rest aren’t going to be won over by an activity that is basically “roll die to get answer.” There is NOTHING engaging about that kind of in-game scenario. That is basically “roll a saving throw to not fail the puzzle.” Hoody f$&%ing hoo. Fun.
Beyond that, though, there’s also the sharing of information. What a fight that is. Holy crap. Carol makes a knowledge check to identify the Acidfire Ooze and the GM gives her a spiel about cold damage and using baking soda to neutralize the thing and then suddenly the whole damned party is breaking out the Arm and Hammer and Frost Weapon Oil and, I don’t know, throwing ice cubes or something. And then, suddenly, the GM is flipping out because Carol didn’t SHARE that information yet, did she? ARE YOU ALL TELEPATHIC?! NO! STOP WINNING THE GAME!!!
Meanwhile, getting away from all that crap about character knowledge vs. player knowledge and gotchas and stuff, we have the other side of the whole argument. The players arguing about communication. How many GMs have had to deal with this crap where a player mouths off about an NPC who is RIGHT F$&%ING THERE and then the NPC reacts and the player flips out because “that wasn’t IN CHARACTER!”
Or, or, or… what about the six goddamned hours of strategic discussion before every action in combat. What about how everyone’s turn in combat seems to be a f$&%ing group effort unless you stamp that crap out. Oh my f$&%ing god, how many GMs have whined to me for a solution to THAT problem. “What do I do!?” On the one hand, yes, it sucks to preface every action with a goddamned five-minute discussion of chess strategy. On the other hand, I’ve seen GMs freak out because ANY discussion between the players is bad during combat because they aren’t telepaths. As if you need to be a telepath to yell things to each other in a fight.
Even that isn’t all. Yes, I know I’m raving and you’re having trouble seeing the connection between all of this stuff. Back off for a second, I’m getting all of this out of my system. It IS all related. I promise.
Where was I?
And? AND?! Then there’s the crap about speaking in the first person vs. speaking in the third person. You know: do you speak in your character’s voice or do you describe your character’s actions. Is it “guys, we need to run, we’re going to die” or “Rothgar says the party should run. He says they are all going to die.” And then there’s the goddamned telepathic character issue where Ali… Bo… who am I up to? I did Carol. Dan. I’m up to Dan.
There’s the goddamned telepathic character issue where Dan feels the need to explain his f$&%ing internal monologue with every decision. Yes, that’s actually a fight. I mean, I hate that crap myself. Because it’s really crappy acting and role-playing. In the words of the robot Devil from Futurama, “you can’t just SAY how your characters feel.” And he’s right. In a good story, we hear the character’s SPOKEN WORDS and see the character’s ACTIONS and have to figure out the motivations and feelings. But did you know some people think I’m terrible for trying to curb that kind of crap.
But worse, worse is the argument between the players that comes from that crap. Elaine says, “my character doesn’t think she can help Fred’s character, so she’ll just keep fighting instead.” And then later, Fred’s character is mad at Elaine’s character. And Elaine is mad at Fred because SHE explained her thought process and Fred’s character shouldn’t hold Elaine’s character responsible because Fred understands Elaine’s choice by Fred insists that his character didn’t know what Elaine was thinking and he can only react to her actions.
Hell, I recently had a player try to explain to me their motivations behind a choice because an NPC was made at a choice the character made. “Yes, I know YOU made the choice. But the NPC is responding to the choice. She doesn’t agree with your choice. Personally, I don’t give a f$&%. I’m playing the NPC.”
Okay… okay… I got it all out of my system.
I didn’t realize I was holding that much s$&% in.
Now, here’s the deal: all of the stuff I said above is utter horses$&%. It isn’t fun or engaging. There is nothing FUN about stopping the game to argue about what the characters know or what they can say or who knows what or why your character should be forgiven for some action or whatever. Nothing. That isn’t fun. Because it’s all about the PLAYERS fighting. Or the PLAYERS arguing with ME! I mean, arguing with the GM! And that crap – which RUINS FUN – doesn’t come up in board games or video games, even the cooperative multiplayer ones or the ones with traitor mechanics. And you know why?
Because other media doesn’t try to build an IMAGINARY NONEXISTENT WALL between players and characters.
It’s a myth. It is a f$&%ing myth that the players and the characters are separate. Or even that they can be separated. And even if they could be, it doesn’t make anything more fun. It usually makes things less fun, more complicated, more stressful, and more argumentery.
And don’t even bring realism into it. Because those who sacrifice the FUN of a GAME for REALISM deserve NEITHER.
So many GMs and players have given themselves ulcers and wrecked their games trying to maintain the wall between player brain and character brain. At best it creates confusion. At best, you constantly hear the words “is she saying that IN CHARACTER” or “are you going to tell everyone that information” or whatever. At worst, you spend half your game arguing about what bits of information the players can and can’t act on. Wheeeeee!
You Can’t Compartmentalize
Let’s get one thing straight: no matter how great a f$&%ing role-player you think you are, YOU are always a part of the equation. You’re not BEING a character. You’re attempting to make choices for a character based on your understanding of their motivations and the world and the consequences. Everything you choose for your character is warped through the lens of your own perception, your own understanding, your own experiences, your own biases. And, a lot of the time, you’re guessing. You’re guessing what it would be like to be this completely different person in completely different circumstances in a world that doesn’t exist. Two players playing identical characters in identical situations will still arrive at different choices because their choices are skewed through the lens of their own perceptions and experiences. Even actors – who don’t have to make decisions for their characters because some screenwriter already made the decisions – even actors bring something of themselves to every role they play.
It is impossible for you to ignore your own brain. Moreover, it is impossible for you to ignore information that exists in your head. That’s why the metagaming fights are so stupid. And I’ve already explained that s&%$ in detail. Don’t open that fight up again if you disagree. You’re wrong.
But, here’s the weird thing: it’s kind of crazy to expect people to remove themselves from the equation anyway. You are playing the game because some part of you wants to play the game. Some part of you wants to be in the story. You want to make the decisions. You don’t actually want to just find out how some person who isn’t you would handle things. You want the agency over the decisions. If you didn’t, you’d just read books or watch movies. Or you’d just boil every adventure down to a series of die rolls with no decisions. And, of course, the game and the story have to satisfy you. They have to appeal to your sense of what makes a good story, what makes interesting characters, and what makes a fun gaming experience. You want to win the battles THROUGH your character. You want to make the choices THROUGH your character. You want to solve puzzles THROUGH your character. Whatever.
The Murky Mirror
So, what’s my point? What IS the philosophy that I follow in my games that forestalls all of those issues and just lets everyone have fun? It’s actually pretty simple. I call it “the murky mirror.”
The players and the characters are reflections of each other in a murky mirror. They aren’t perfect reflections. But they are synchronous. If the players are sitting around and talking, then so are the characters. They are saying basically the same things, though they might be using different words or abbreviating or whatever. Hell, I know the characters aren’t even speaking English. But if a player is communicating, so is their character.
So, for example, when the player is saying “my character refuses to help because he thinks the orcs are all savages because he saw them murder his parents,” his character is probably saying something like “scum like you butchered my parents and I’d rather have every one of my fingers broken then lift one of them to help a monster like you.”
I don’t get picky over exact words. I don’t worry – anymore – about the goddamned telepathy issue. If the player is communicating something, she wants it shared. So obviously, her character is sharing it. And I tell my players so. Don’t say anything out loud that you don’t want people overhearing. Simple as that. If you don’t want your dark secrets out, don’t say them.
Of course, the other side to it is that if it isn’t possible for the characters to communicate, then it isn’t really possible for the players to communicate either. If I see my group stopping every turn in combat to discuss every action, I will stop them and force whoever’s turn it is to make a decision or lose their turn. “You only have a few seconds to act, everyone shut up, what do you do?” Yeah. I say, “shut up.”
Beyond that, if the players are discussing combat tactics, well, I react to them. If they say something like “okay, we all need to protect Gertrude because that curse makes her vulnerable and she’s the only one who can heal us,” the orcs – if they understand common – they are sure going to target Gertrude. It’s a double-edged sword.
I even follow this philosophy when it comes to the sharing of information. At the start of a battle, I work the results of knowledge checks into my flavor text. After all, I hate players having to ask questions like “do I know what that is” or “can I make a knowledge check.” So, if someone recognizes the monster – or whatever – I explain it. “Harold, you recognize the thing as a Greater Spider-Bear and here’s what you know about its abilities and vulnerabilities and stuff.” And then, I assume Harold either shares that information right away or shares the important bits of it as it becomes relevant. It doesn’t matter how it actually goes down. It might be that Harold says, “don’t use poison, guys, it’s immune” at the start of the fight. It might be that Harold yells “wait, don’t cast that poison mist spell, it’s immune, use fire” when he sees his friend casting a spell. You might ask how Harold knows what spell his friend is casting. I assume that he either recognizes it or that Ingrid says, “I’ll blast him with this poison mist spell!” It doesn’t matter.
The point is, a lot of stuff goes down in the game and we don’t cover every single moment. We don’t, for example, discuss the PCs taking bathroom breaks. They happen. But we don’t cover that on screen.
The murky mirror actually covers a lot of issues. For example: should the players speak AS their characters or ABOUT their characters? It doesn’t really matter because we’re seeing an imperfect reflection of what happens in the game world anyway. What about anachronisms and weird phrases unique to modern Earth? Like, if a player says, “oh my God” instead of “by the Gods” or calls the world Earth or mentions Hell in a world that doesn’t have one or has, like, nine of them. It’s all the same.
This also covers a lot of arguments up. The players can’t backpedal on saying stuff out loud because they “only meant it out of character.” Sorry, bucko. If you want the other players to hear it, you had to say it. And if the players can hear it, so can the characters. And when it comes to jokes and banter amongst the players, well, it’s easy to assume even that reflect jokes and banter between the characters. They are just telling different jokes.
The murky mirror also lets me keep the game moving. For example, if the characters are at an intersection and the players are having an increasingly convoluted argument about whether to go left or right, eventually, something is going to hear them and come to investigate. Because if the players are arguing loudly and doing nothing else, so are the characters. In another recent game, the characters were driving a cart and the players were arguing about which turn to take for a whole. So, the city watch yelled at them to move along and stop blocking traffic. The point is that the game world doesn’t PAUSE just because the players are talking amongst themselves.
Another powerful aspect of the murky mirror is that it allows you to easily set the standard for the tone of your game. The world is going to react to whatever the players say or do and the players know it. If the players say and do a bunch of silly, crazy, or funny things and you just roll with it? Well, that means your tone is comedic and you’re all in it for laughs. If you’re just doing casual dungeon-crawley monster-hunty fun, same deal. You just roll with it. But if you react to the crazy bulls$&% in realistic ways that cause real problems for the characters, they quickly stop the crazy bulls$&% and your game’s more serious tone wins out. I’m not suggesting using the approach to punish players for adopting the wrong tone, mind you. Don’t blindside them. Let them know that you follow the murky mirror approach. And, that brings me around to the other part of this…
Inner Voices and Second Thoughts
Now, the murky mirror approach has smoothed out a lot of my games. And it is especially useful when you’re gaming with strangers because it’s very simple to explain. You don’t have to spell out a whole bunch of standards for what counts as in-character and out-of-character and you don’t have to have a whole lot of arguments about who knows what about what was said at the table. But, in order for it to work, the players also have to trust you not to screw them just to screw them. And that means you also have to let the players off the hook sometimes. Especially when the players are getting used to it.
See, it can actually be kind of hard to get used to this sort of thing. Every table has different stupid, wrong standards about what counts as “in character” as well as standards for all of the other issues I talked about above. Beyond that, though, different players are trained to expect different responses from the world because of previous experiences with other stupid, wrong GMs. All of that boils down to the fact that you might just have a player at your table who came entirely from jokey, banter-filled games and whose GM let him mouth off to every Tom, Dick, and Gothar the Indestructible without consequence.
And then there is also the fact that the players aren’t experts in your world the way you are. Even if you are running a game in a well-known campaign setting, your version of it is always different and you’re the only one who knows it.
Given that, the murky mirror can REALLY f$&% up some players before they get used it. And even long after they get used to it.
Thus, it is very important for you – the GM – to act as an Inner Voice for the players. To warn them before they get themselves into serious trouble over a joke or a genuine mistake. It’s one thing to have some soldiers chastise them for holding up traffic because they take too long to make a decision. That has no consequences. It just reminds the players that the world doesn’t stop for their discussions. But imagine a situation in which you run a serious campaign and the party has an audience with a no-nonsense, powerful king. A player, not thinking about the murky mirror, tells his fellow players “I think we should tell the king to go f$&% himself. We don’t need him.” That could cause a major disaster if the king acts on it.
And THAT is when it’s your job to jump in and say, “do you really want the king to hear you say that” and give the player a chance to take it back. After all, the point of the murky mirror is to make things easier and more fun and less bitter and fighty for everyone. You shouldn’t be using it to gleefully pounce on a player who makes a stupid mistake.
Think of like triggering an opportunity attack. If a player moved in such a way that they trigger an opportunity attack they just as easily could have avoided, you wouldn’t yell “gotcha! Opportunity attack because you moved one square too close! Hahaha! Suck it!” No, you would say “hey, you probably meant to move one more square that way to avoid the opportunity attack, right?”
Wouldn’t you? You’re not a dick, are you?
Likewise, if the players spout bad or wrong information or make conjectures based on a poor understanding of the world, it’s your job to jump in and correct them. “Actually, that’s not true in this world. In this world, orcs really are all evil. Their blood burns with violent rage and hatred because Gruumsh made them that way.” But then, you should be doing that kind of crap anyway.
The point is, you need to watch what’s happening in the murky mirror closely and steer the players away from unintended disaster when the murk gets to be a bit too much. That’s how you build trust.
The Players are the Characters
At the end of the day, we really need to rid ourselves of the notion that there’s a hard line between player and character. There isn’t. There can’t be. There shouldn’t be. And trying to impose that hard line just leads to a lot of arguments and bitter feelings. Not only that, it also leads to pissing me off. After all, someday, your players are going to end up at my table and I’m sick of unteaching them all of the garbage you filled their head with. So just give it up already.
And then we can finally stop listening to braying jacka$&es making jokes about how “you said you’d kill the players, not the characters, and that would be murder, hahahaha, get it?!”
I hate those f$&%wits too.