Here’s my strategy for every sports video game I’ve ever played, from the latest Madden NFL game to ‘Super Dodge Ball’ for the original Nintendo: Find one play that works. Execute that play every single time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Needless to say, I’m not a giant fan of video games, and have never won a game of Madden NFL-even against my 5-year-old nephew. The reason I’m never victorious in these games is the same reason football teams don’t run the same play every down, and the same reason pitchers don’t always throw the splitter. They know that in order to succeed, you have to adapt your performance and your strategy to the task at hand. You have to respond to the motivation in that moment.
Strangely, some of the best advice on this subject doesn’t come out of the stadium; it comes from the stage. It’s been over a year since we’ve explored Method acting- specifically the Meisner Technique- as a way to better role playing, so we’re probably due for another installment. Perhaps more importantly, I recently found these techniques quite useful as we started up our newest campaign. Last time, we focused on bringing appropriate character emotions to the surface; today, we answer that age-old acting mystery: “What’s my motivation?”.
“What Are You Doing?”
A common phrase heard around many gaming tables is “So what are you going to do?”. It may be that the party has just completed a quest, or been confronted with a new enemy, or is calculating a solution to a sophisticated trap. As the party stares blankly at the GM, he utters that classic phrase. It’s half direction, half challenge, and the answer is usually external. That is, the answer is usually a direct action that a character is taking to immediately affect the scene. Possible answers might sound like this: “I’m going to cast a spell.” or “I’m going to pull my gun and chamber a round.” or “I think we’re going to run away.”
Please note that the common mantra “What are you doing?”, when taken from the Meisner Technique, is meant to be an internal directive. It’s intended as a call to the actor to clearly define their objective or goal, and to commit themselves to actions that will move them closer to it. To me, it’s always sounded more like “What the hell are you doing?”, with the implied threat that you’d better be doing something of value.
So how does that translate to a better role-playing experience? I can see two ways to apply the question of “What are you doing?” to my characters.
- My character needs a clearly defined objective in each encounter. This is a personal goal, separate from the long-term, all-consuming mission of the group.
- The actions I take during each encounter had better move me closer to achieving my objective. Too many times, characters take actions just because “they want to do something” or “I haven’t used this in a while.” They’re just holding their spot in the initiative order. Sometimes it’s because your friends have killed just about everything in the scene. Other times it’s because your character has no idea what they’re trying to accomplish, except maybe “don’t get killed.” Of course, that could be an valid objective in and of itself.
Sometimes, the question of “What are you doing?” can help you decide between conflicting character actions. During the inaugural episode of our newest campaign, our party found itself battling ghouls on a moving train in Victorian England. I was told at the start of that train ride that my character was there to escort two young girls safely to their father in London. So my answer to “What are you doing?” in most encounters was pretty blunt: protect those girls from harm. After all, I couldn’t possibly accomplish my mission of delivering them safely to London if they got eaten by monsters halfway through the trip.
As the session neared its dramatic conclusion, having a clearly defined objective of “protect those girls from harm” meant that I chose to abandon my other party members as the train cars separated. My first instinct as a role player was to stay with the other characters and finish the fight. However, the character’s personal goal, and perhaps the story itself, would’ve suffered if I had. Fortunately, the character already knew “what she was doing.”
Observe, Listen, Respond
One of the core exercises employed by the Meisner Technique involves two performers facing each other, then stating an observation about the other person. These observations are repeated back and forth, and each time the inflection and meaning behind the observation is adjusted to reflect the attitude and behavior of the other person in the exercise. The idea is that by responding to what one witnesses in the other’s actions and tone, rather than to the meaning or syntax in their words, one is forced to actively observe, listen, and then respond.
The phenomenon this exercise is meant to combat is all too common in everyday society. Many of the conversations, debates, or outright arguments that take place in our lives involve one party or another simply waiting for their turn to talk; their response would be the same whether the other party called them a liar or offered them a kidney. They know what they want to say or do, and no matter what, they’re going to say or do it.
I’ll be the first to admit that I am guilty of this while role-playing. I’m so busy scanning my character sheet, or planning how I can be the one to take down that killer robot, that I’m paying very little attention to what the other players are doing with their actions. Someone may have just accomplished some death-defying stunt that has created an opening for me to finish the enemy; however, I’m likely to miss it if I’ve already decided on my own death-defying stunt that I’m ready to roll for. Never mind whether or not my planned action is needed; it’s my turn to act!
Now there are clearly things you need to reference and prepare prior to taking action in a game. This is especially true if you’re fairly new to the system, or you’re playing at an especially high level, or the moment is a critical turning point in the story. We all want to get things right.
However, I’ve been trying to make more of an effort to observe and listen during other players’ turns so that I’m responding to the actual scene, as opposed to my preconceived notion of it. I’m making a point to look at them as they describe the action their characters take. I’m asking to see their character sheets, to better understand what their PC can do. Most importantly, I’m waiting until it’s my turn to decide how to act; that way I’m hopefully making decisions that have a greater impact on the scene.
This same problem can hit home if we as role-players don’t take the time to observe and listen to the scene that is taking place. If my paladin’s stock response to any threat is to Smite Evil, because I have that power and it can do a lot of damage, I run the risk of:
- Wasting a Smite attempt on something that isn’t actually evil
- Violating my paladin’s code by destroying something that could’ve been redeemed
- Blowing a perfectly good opportunity to capture and interview this threat, leading to potentially valuable information and future plot hooks
- Failing to role-play at all, especially given the paladin’s (traditionally) Good alignment
One of the best examples of a party executing the “Observe, Listen, Respond” technique came during a fall Cabin Trip. Deep in the ruins of an ancient cavernous city, our party was beset by monstrous undead creatures and a powerful necromancer. It would have been quite easy in a high-pressure situation like that to just start blasting and slashing, each unto his own, hoping that we would walk out of the ruins together when the smoke had cleared. Instead, one character set a trap with a spell, another cleared a path to it, and a third PC drove the shambling hordes right down the gut- leaving nothing standing in the end but our party. Entered into Cabin Trip infamy as “The Blessed Meat Grinder,” this tactic was only possible because all the players were observant and attentive to both their fellow players and the scene they occupied, adapting their actions as a response to that specific encounter.
Action Through Choice
All of this is not to say that a character’s actions, whether on stage or on the table, are dictated as automatic responses to external stimuli. Nor are a character’s actions purely impulsive or unplanned, stemming only as an instinctual reflex. In acting, the Meisner Technique stresses that reactions should be natural to the character, and reflective of their own unique abilities. It exhorts performers to bring people and scenes to life by making considered, compelling choices.
The same can be said for an unforgettable role-playing experience. The encounters (‘scenes’) we play out in an RPG campaign don’t exist until our characters inhabit them. Tales of fantasy and adventure are piling up all around us, but the choices we make on behalf of our characters set our stories apart from all the others. This happens best when we:
- Make deliberate choices
- Take calculated risks.
Deliberate choices are those made by careful preparation. This starts by following the two concepts above to completion; establishing a clearly defined, personal objective in each encounter, and watching and listening to the scene in order to find ways to take the right actions to move toward those goals. This may still present several options to a character when their time comes, but a player should have their options narrowed down when it’s time to act. There are no accidents or random happenings; the player knows what the character will, or will not, do in that moment.
Making a deliberate choice is not the same as making a safe choice, however. If we want our characters to achieve amazing and memorable acts in the campaign, we have to be bold enough as players to make some amazing and memorable choices. A character who constantly makes deliberate choices with little or no risk involved is unlikely to have any lasting impact on the story.
Likewise, making more ambitious choices becomes a cyclical process. Taking a strong, calculated risk in the first round prompts others to do the same, and almost necessitates more ambitious choices in later rounds to deal with the consequences of the original choice- be they success or failure. If you don’t ever raise the pot, you’re never going to win a fortune; you’re just going to get back the little you wagered to begin with. But playing a character that’s motivated by daring, deliberate choices? That’s the real payoff.