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I am new to RPGs and can't figure this out: should I act as my character or should I be me - in the sense of thinking and making decisions?

For example, what if I am a senior cop involved in something that appears to be a supernatural case? As a cop, I would be probably very skeptical; as myself, I would already figure that something wrong is going on. Should I spend more time in the office (as a senior cop might do) researching, or should I go around town investigating more? Should I use my personal knowledge on some hot topics that I am almost sure that a senior cop would not know?

How important is it to stay in character? While I am OK with portraying the physical capabilities of a character, I am puzzled about the character's attitude, personality, thinking... should I act and sometimes do something that I personally would not do, or should I be consistent and just me?

Like I've said, I am new to RPGs :) I hope this question makes sense.

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7 Answers 7

I'm sure everyone who is new to RPGing struggles with this question. The gaming answer is (IMHO) that you should act as you think your character would choose to act, not as you, "the gamer" would act. It is a "role playing" game, after all. The more you manage to play the game in character, the more realistic, dramatic, and enjoyable (not to mention funny!) your game will be. I think you'll find that the question of what you know and would choose to do versus what your character knows and chooses to do will converge somewhat as your character becomes more experienced in your particular setting (at least when playing as a novice), so there will be less conflict there, but honestly, I find the greatest enjoyment in being and seeing a player who makes his or her character someone distinctly different from the real life person he or she is.

Sometimes, the choice to act as your character would act may lead to some unexciting gaming scenarios (ie being in an office as a cop sifting through dusty old cold cases versus hitting the streets to potentially sniff out the lair of some of the unnatural beings or happenings you're investigating), but a good game master will know how to abbreviate/summarize these vignettes so that you can both play "in character" and move on quickly to finding your perpetrators.

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I think that this is exactly right, Cat. A big point of GMing is ensuring that the PCs have the proper tools and situations to avoid such mind numbing things. Characters should be played as characters. That is NOT to say that in a silly or high-levity group that you can't goof of or do something 'metagamed' at all - but for the majority of the time, you want to play the character - that's the whole point! –  Asherion May 7 '12 at 17:27

This entirely depends on your game, and your gaming group.

What you are referring to (acting as yourself instead of your character) is called "meta-gaming" and involves making decisions that are outside of the purview of your character's personality or knowledge. Whether or not this is an acceptable practice depends in part on your group and in part on the level or realism/seriousness of your game.

If your group is a lighthearted, we are playing this to have fun type group and you are playing in a system that focuses more on mechanics and tactics than on actual role-playing, then meta-gaming may be ok. You are likely free to make, at least in some limited sense, decisions that would not be likely/possible for your character to make, either because you personally feel a certain way, or because you have knowledge your character does not.

However, if you are playing in a more serious group, or more realistic setting where role-playing is the primary influence then it would be inadvisable to make decisions your character would not make, or act on knowledge your character does not have.

These are not discrete decisions either. Most groups fall somewhere in the spectrum between heavy story influence and heavy tactical influence. Systems do as well, although I feel this is more highly dependent on group dynamics and expectations than it is on the system you are playing in.

Sometimes role-playing your character leads to suboptimal (even abysmal) outcomes, this goes somewhat against our typical gamer mentality (I know it does mine), but is part of what makes RPGs special. You can have a ton of fun, even when your character dies horrible.

Talk to your group about what their expectations are. This can dictate a lot of how you role-play and how you make decisions. Does your group expect you to play your character within a certain set of boundaries (emotionally or mentally), or is this a no-limits, no holds-barred kind of group? This is something you can bring up with your group at the beginning of a session: "how much do you guys expect internal consistency on an emotional/knowledge level do you expect?" (or "is meta-gaming appropriate at this table?")

Remember that the goal of playing an RPG, most of the time, is not to win, but to tell a good story, whether you're role-playing your character or meta-gaming, remember this purpose.

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-1 My impression is that this has less to do with using out of character knowledge about the game and more to do with not understanding the role in role playing game. –  Joshua Drake May 7 '12 at 14:58
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@JoshuaDrake I address both. They are two sides of the meta-gaming die. –  wax eagle May 7 '12 at 14:59
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@JoshuaDrake I think he handled both, and in the end both depend mostly on your group. I tend to lean towards storytelling style of games which emphasize staying in character, but more tactical players may prefer more tactical games with less focus on staying in character. It strongly affects how you should act and what knowledge you should use, and of course its also a matter of degrees rather than either/or. –  TimothyAWiseman May 7 '12 at 16:34
    
@TimothyAWiseman good point about a spectrum, I've integrated it and added a bit more. –  wax eagle May 7 '12 at 16:52

Something to keep in mind is that your character is a main character in the story being told. Just another cop would stay at the office. The cop who is worthy of story is going to go where the adventure takes him. Your job as a PC is to come up with an in character reason for your cop to go along with the adventure.

(This is of course an oversimplification based on the games I've participated in. There are definitely games where what I suggest would not be the case. I suspect my experience is similar to the average gaming experience, but have no way to back this up. Part of being an experienced roleplayer is figuring out what kind of table you're playing at.)

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In some games. There are games where playing the character true to their mundane selves is more important. One prominent sort of this game is horror games where bad decisions based on mundane skepticism ("Huh, that's weird. Let's split up and investigate.") is part of the fun. –  SevenSidedDie May 8 '12 at 18:15
    
It's true, I was generalizing. I can revise the text if you think that's necessary. –  valadil May 8 '12 at 18:23
    
This is a good answer, short and to the point. If you think it would be better with a short caveat, then by all means. :) –  SevenSidedDie May 8 '12 at 18:29
    
Yes, this is definitely the most common sort of game. Good edit! –  SevenSidedDie May 8 '12 at 19:00

What's fun? Do that.

This excellent question doesn't have One Right Answer, because the hobby of roleplaying doesn't have one right approach. Some people want to tell a story, while others are trying to beat the game mechanics somehow, and still others are enacting complicated daydreams. And then yet another group is just there to hang out. So, if nothing else, you're not doing it wrong, however you're doing it so far.

If you're new to RPGs, you might want to consider a style called the "vicarious participator." The term comes from an old issue of Dragon magazine, arguably the most influential RPG publication. The vicarious participator is a player who's basically playing themselves -- their quirks, their likes, their interests -- regardless of setting. That's a good starting point. You already know yourself, so be yourself and see what happens. Over time you'll find that certain kinds of reaction are more or less fun for you. Do the fun things and don't do the un-fun ones.

If you'd enjoy pretending to do research, that's the way to go. But if you'd rather hit the imaginary pavement, follow that route instead. Don't let your character limit you. Instead, play a character who reacts the way you would, and let things evolve from there.

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This is a good answer (+1) but I would like to add that it's important that you don't let your fun step on that of the other players. They might really, really hate meta-gaming - or they might be fine with it. Asking is probably a good idea. –  GMJoe May 8 '12 at 6:15

First of all: RPGs are GAMES, and games are for fun.

So, first rule is: have fun!

Secondly, RPG are Role Playing games, i.e. you play your part according to the role you received through the rules of that particular RPG mechanics and Game Master (if your particular RPG has a Game Master).

So, play according to the character you have (and not according to who you are as a player - however, for simplicity your Game master may allow you to identify your self with your character...).

Why? (return to first point): because it's more fun! (of course! that's the aim of every game...).

Enjoy!!!

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I'm going in with a strong opinion (shocking, I know). Yes, it's important to stay in character.

Although there's not "one right way" and the RPG Cops won't come bust you for it, blah blah blah - in general, playing "in character" - in other words, as you believe your character would act - is best. It will lead to more long term enjoyment and deeper appreciation of the game, it will help your GM and fellow players who are trying to also immerse in the game world, and it will result in more interesting and satisfying stories out of the game.

I've played in all kinds of groups with different systems, people, dynamics, etc. - and without exception, all the most rewarding experiences have been games where people let themselves immerse in their characters and the fictional game world.

If you haven't done it - you are missing out, pure and simple. Arguments that "well casual play is just as good" is the same thing as saying that liking Britney Spears isn't any worse in a cosmic sense than liking Mozart. True in a certain sense, but false in a certain sense.

Having done it, whenever I play in a campaign that's more casual now, I generally find myself regretting the time I'm spending having an experience that's not as rewarding as it could be.

Sure, you can't always do it, and it's sometimes hard - but practice makes perfect; giving up and taking the easy way out won't make you any better at it.

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A lot of good answers, but I haven't yet seen on point addressed: stance.

Some background on stances.

There has been a lot of more-or-less academic* study of how RPGs work and how roleplaying works as an activity. One of the concepts that's been defined is stance, which is roughly defined as your (the player's) relationship to the character you're playing.

What you are describing are two different stances, which is just the fancy way of saying that you have two different possible ways of making decisions. You can decide things in a way that is guided by how you think the character would act based on their experience of events (Actor Stance, so named because you are relating to the character as its actor). You can also decide things in a way that is guided by what directions you'd like to push the unfolding story in, based on your experience as a player of the game-playing events (Author Stance, because you're making choices for the character in order to move them through a story in an interesting way).

There are other stances, but those are the two that you are describing in your question. You can also blend stances, using them to generate ideas for what to do and looking for middle ground.

It's also important to note that "stances" are descriptive. You can try to intentionally take a particular stance, but for the most part it's just a useful way of describing the spectrum of ways roleplayers naturally make decisions for their characters.

*Only amateurly academic. Sadly, I'm unaware of anyone getting paid or accredited in RPG theory.

How stances are relevant to you

Stances aren't incompatible, but which ones you choose (and how you blend them, because they're not exclusive) will determine how you experience the game, what happens, and (through what happens around your character) how you affect the enjoyment of the game for other players. Which one you choose as the guide for decision-making for any given choice (assuming they're in conflict, since when they agree it's not an issue, right?) is really dependent on what sort of game you want to play. What sort of game you want to play also impacts whether you'll enjoy the game you are playing, since they might not match.

Some types of games and their compatible stances

If you are playing "slice of life" games, then Actor Stance is going to be very compatible. In this sort of game, the internal thoughts of the characters, their feelings about events, and the mundane details of their lives are interesting and a significant point of playing the game. Games in which you notice other players consistently leaning toward Actor Stance even when it's results in "bad" decisions by the characters, and nobody is upset that such bad decisions are being made, is likely such a "slice of life" game.

If you are playing an "adventure" game, then Author Stance is going to be primary for some decisions. Mostly, plot-based choices will be made with Author Stance, while characterisation opportunities that don't conflict too much with making good strategic or tactical choices will be guided by Actor Stance or not appear at all. Most games that feature significant combat and "trying to succeed" will be this sort of game. As a rule of thumb, if your characters are part of a team within the game structure (even if not necessarily on a team within the game fiction), then Author Stance is a safe bet for most choices.

(There's a third sort of game that uses another stance I haven't mentioned, and that's where making choices based on things that are entirely outside the characters' experience is okay. An example would be a game where it's okay to say "Oh, the action is over there but my character is stuck at work. I'm… uh, I'm going to say that I need to pick up a package at the post office so I conveniently just happen to walk by the alley where OtherCharacter is being mugged." This is Director Stance and such games feature heavy use of meta-game knowledge to make fun things happen. These exist, but are rarer than games that run on Actor and Author stance, which are ubiquitous.)

Your examples

The senior cop staying in and researching is an example of making the choice of what to do next guided by an Actor Stance. Being skeptical and treating these unusual events as "just another day at work" is what a real person in that situation might do. This kind of play can be a lot of fun, but it also requires a high degree of cooperation: that kind of inward-facing roleplay needs to be given room to happen by the other players, and they have to be the sort of players who find it compelling to being audience to a good bit of roleplaying. Significantly, this will frustrate players and GMs who don't have this kind of slow-paced, mundane story in mind when they set up the game.

The senior cop doing the uncharacteristic thing of running around town poking his nose in things is a more Author Stance sort of choice. You know that this is the beginning of the story, of life being not-as-usual anymore, and engaging with that is entirely valid. In this style of play, characters doing slightly out-of-character things and therefore running into unusual circumstances is why this particular story is being told. Think of it as a novel about an otherwise normal person – their life before and after the book's events is mundane, but the unusual circumstances and choices during the book is why there's a book about these people and choices in the first place. A game that is set up with the assumption that the players will be leaning more to Author Stance tends to have room for Actor Stance, but only if it doesn't prevent the characters from participating in the events of play.

So, your senior cop doing more research could happen in either sort of game. In a more adventure-style game, it might be passed over quickly, with the results (or lack thereof) of the research being quickly handled so that the game can move on. In a more slice-of-life style of game, the GM might linger on mundane descriptions of happenings in the precinct and give you some significant time to just feel out the character with some unstructured roleplaying.

How to apply all this theory to what to do in your games

The key is that the stances can be mixed, but the tolerance for how they're blended will depend on your group and the sort of game you're in. Being aware of the difference is probably the only thing you need to do: play how you will, and if you find that people are getting frustrated with your Author Stance choices, you're probably in a game that expects players to stay within the direct knowledge and mundane sensibilities of your character. If you find that people are getting frustrated with your Actor Stance choices, you're likely in a game that's about unusual choices and adventures where good strategic choices (or at least, attempts at good strategic choices) are important for enjoyable, compatible roleplaying.

If you run into this sort of friction, apologise for the friction and let the rest of the group know that you'll adjust your play to be more strategic or more character-authentic, and to give you more feedback if necessary. Unless they're a pack of jerks who you probably don't want to play with anyway, that level of courtesy should be more than plenty to line up everyone's play styles.

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@SevenSidedDie Can you give some semi-academic or academic citations (e.g. Solmukohta books, international journal of roleplaying) for stance theory, or has it remained restricted to the Forge (diaspora), which I would be uncomfortable calling even semi-academic? –  Thanuir May 9 '12 at 7:30
    
@Thanuir It's all Forge and post-Forge theorising. I use the term "academic" in only the broadest sense—the Forge isn't accredited, but neither were premodern academies. It does fall more on the "less" side of "more-or-less academic", yes. I wouldn't call it professional, but it does have a kind of peer reviewed acceptance, no? But that's just my reasoning—if it's actually problematic or misleading, I should edit that out. –  SevenSidedDie May 9 '12 at 7:45
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@SevenSidedDie I guessed so and consider it a slight pity, since it did not allow me to discover more rpg theory. I will not get involved in defining "academic", and do not use English as a native language, so the precise connotations of the word are lost on me. –  Thanuir May 9 '12 at 8:07
    
Is there an easier way to explain this concept? I grasp the points you're driving at, but I've also got 20+ years of experience with RPGs. Is there a way to break this "stance" concept down into a couple of new-player-friendly paragraphs? –  sprenge777 May 10 '12 at 14:43
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@sprenge777 I think this answer here suits the question being asked here—There's not enough room in just comments, but if you want "Stance explained in two short paragraphs" that sounds like an excellent new question to ask! –  SevenSidedDie May 10 '12 at 16:36

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