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I have always liked the idea of a roleplaying intensive campaign, where everyone strives to be in character, and everyone takes the story seriously. I try to set a good example for everyone when I'm a GM, but after a short time, my players rarely take the campaign seriously, making puns and what not.

In almost every group I have been part of, this has always been a problem for me. However, I do also realize that I am quite a part of the problem. In some ways, I consider myself spineless. It is not that I dislike "serious" roleplaying, I really want to do it, but I just feel so uncomfortable when being in character for extended periods of time. So when the first pun falls, I laugh and join in, only to feel somewhat hollow and disappointed later. This is if it wasn't me who dropped the first pun in the first place, in which case I feel even worse.

I really want to keep it serious, but in the end I might just be too shy. How do I deal with it? I feel that it is kind of embarrassing to talk about, especially in new groups.

Does anyone feel the same way? And if so, how did/do you deal with it?

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I started playing online using text only. It makes a world of difference. –  Eric B Nov 6 '13 at 21:56
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7 Answers

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I empathise! You're not alone or weird for feeling like this: I'm also the kind of GM and player who enjoys deeply engaging with the game, and I find freewheeling silliness to interfere with my enjoyment of the game. Few people understand why they're incompatible for me, but I've learned that I'm not alone and I can share that knowledge.

The good news, then, is that the problem isn't you. The bad news is that the problem isn't them, either. The problem is that roleplaying is an incredibly flexible pass-time with a multitude of possible "payoffs" for spending time on it, and what you all want out of a roleplaying is incompatible. There are many ways to enjoy roleplaying, all of them perfectly normal, but not all of them compatible. Trying to combine people who enjoy silliness in their roleplaying with people who enjoy serious, silliness-free play just doesn't work.

(Aside, I'm going to use "serious" throughout this with some caveats. "Serious roleplaying" is usually said when the speaker means taking engagement with character, or plot, or embodiment of character seriously. It's easily misunderstood though, since people who don't "play serious" can very easily be taking other parts of the game – tactics, character advancement, fun – just as seriously. When I say "serious" I'll try to put it in scare quotes, because I don't want to devalue or denigrate what others take seriously, just because it's different than what I do. If I miss a scare quote it's an oversight, not a slight, and I'm still meaning what I'm saying in this here parenthetical.)

I suspect that your other problem – not feeling like you can speak up about / enforce your desired tone when GMing – is a side-effect of the mismatch between how you want to play and how you perceive your group wants to play. Few people enjoy conflict, and fewer have the confidence to calmly champion a serious, character-engagement style of play when their friends make them feel like it's the weird way to play. It's doubly (or is that triply now?) harder to do it when you don't get the chance to practice and feel confident about playing that way. On top of it all, you clearly do enjoy the puns – I bet you wouldn't feel bad about your own punning and participation in the silliness if you ever got your own style of play desires satisfied. It's easy to feel like you're indulging in a "weakness", and blaming that for why you don't get to play the way you want, when the real problem is elsewhere and non-obvious.

So, what to do?

I have a three-part prescription for you:

Be a player

This is about getting that confidence in embodying a character. The idea isn't to be perfect, but to just get some hours on your timesheet as practical experience. It's time to make some missteps, make some discoveries, and level up your personal roleplaying skills a bit. It's also to just get a back a feel for roleplaying without the responsibilities of GMing getting in the way. It can sometimes be hard to get into character as GM because you're constantly switching characters, and there are so many other details that need attention and pull you out of character.

Suggest that someone else in the group run a mini-campaign for a change of pace. Find another group in the area that you join as a player. If it suits your temperament (it doesn't mine) do some play-by-post or play-by-chat. The important thing is to lay down your GMing burdens for a while so that you can just roleplay, take some pressure off yourself to be The Person Responsible For Group Enjoyment, and rediscover what having only one character is like.

That's not going to do much to get you your serious gaming fix though, unless you get lucky and land in another group that happens to be all like you. So the next step is…

Find a serious-roleplay group

Why not try to convert your group to serious roleplay? Because making someone play in a way that is contrary to what they enjoy in roleplaying is going to make them unhappy – as you well know. Trying to overtly or covertly convert an existing group to a different playstyle without their full and enthusiastic buy-in is the surest way to destroy a group. The way to have a group that does play in the style you enjoy is to form it or find it.

If there is a subset of your current group that is "more serious", invite them to play in a side game. Say that you want to play a game that emphasises character and roleplay; if they're enthusiastic, run with it, and if they're not let it go. You're testing the waters here, seeing if you have kindred spirits among your existing group who might indulge more in the character-engagement side of things in a different group dynamic. Don't push though – if they want it, they want it. If not, you'll just be doing a lot of work to set up a group and a game only to get no return.

The surest way to have a group play in the style you enjoy is to find one that's already formed, but it's also the harder way. If you can't make one though, the harder way might be the only way. How is beyond the scope of this post, but "Where can I find other RPG players?" might help.

You can combine finding and forming: if you do get some interest from a subset of your group, joining another group together can get you the benefits of more serious play and the chance to be a player.

The point of getting into a group that enjoys more character engagement is to scratch the itch for the roleplaying payoffs that you're just not getting now. If you're not feeling like something is missing all the time, you will probably find that you will better enjoy the things that your existing group's playstyle does have to offer you.

Find a "serious" RPG (optional)

This one is optional, but has the possibility of being the most effective. Everyone's mileage will be different though, so this really is optional.

Not all games are made equal. I don't mean that some games are better designed or written than others (which is true but irrelevant), but that different games target fundamentally different styles of play. I don't know what kind of game your group is playing, but I'm going to bet it's one of the myriad so-called "traditional" games with rules that tell you how to resolve a sword-swing or a long-jump over a chasm, and how to improve your character's abilities, but leaves the what and why unspoken and up to the group to figure out. There are games that don't follow that tried-and-true mold and try to do something different – something you might like. Nobody plays an ongoing campaign of Dogs in the Vineyard for lols.

There are too many to list or even shortlist, but some keywords to start googling and investigating are "indie rpgs" and "small press rpgs". There are tonnes out there and it seems like there's a new one published every week, so you've got the blessing and curse of a lot to choose from. (On the plus side they're usually self-contained in a single book that doesn't cost an arm and a leg, and many are available even cheaper in PDF. Some are even free.)

The point of this (optional) step is to find a game that actively supports your creative agenda: deeply-felt roleplaying with extensive character embodiment, or whatever metagame rewards you've identified are your priority. It's non-obvious how that's even possible when all you've known are traditionally-structure games, but the last decade of cutting-edge roleplaying design has been in the direction of how to build mechanical foundations that better support specific, under-served playstyles such as yours. I don't have much specific advice for what to look for or how to find it, except go forth and discover this frontier of RPG design. It's a journey that is different for everyone.

But what to do when you've found a game or games? Read it, for starters. There are so many that you'll probably find way more that are interesting than you'll ever be able to play, but you can still learn a lot from reading them. Some of them will contain ideas that will change the way you run and play games for the better, even if you never run or play that particular game.

Second, suggest a game to your existing group. Do not under any circumstances force it on them, because buy-in is really important for learning a new game, let alone one that offers a new way of playing. (I did that, oops. I don't have that group anymore. Learn from my mistakes!) If they're curious or enthusiastic, offer to run (or "facilitate", if that game doesn't have a GM) a single session. One session of a new, weird game is much easier to commit to than an indefinitely-long campaign. It also lessens the chance that someone will say "yes" to a proposed campaign just to go along but will end up (un)consciously sabotaging it to get back to the "regular" game. Taking a chance on something new for one evening is something that most players (though not all) are willing to do. If they're on board, great, if not, you haven't lost anything for asking.

Thirdly, you can form a group around one of these games. Some subset of your existing group might be curious, even if the group as a whole isn't. Also, in my experience some of these indie/small-press/alternative games are more attractive to non-roleplayers than to established roleplayers. You might find people in your non-gamer social circles who would never play D&D and automatically dismiss anything if the word "roleplaying" is mentioned, but who would like the idea of one night hanging out in the living room for a game about playing a TV show. A lot of people have preconceptions about roleplaying games that are based on traditional games and traditional groups. The fact that these other games are so different is something that can actually be an advantage when proposing an evening's entertainment to a non-gamer friend.

Fourth, you can find a group that is already interested in these kinds of games. The kind of games you're interested can be a kind of plumage: interest in alternative games tends to say something about what kind of playstyle you enjoy and attract kindred gamers to you. The thing about popular games is that everyone and their grandmother plays them, so you can never really know what kind of game actually happens at their table. With indie/alt games, you can have a much better idea of what people's play priorities are based on what games they like. Find the games you enjoy, and follow those to the people who also enjoy them.

Again, looking into other games is totally optional. If it appeals to you, awesome. If it doesn't, then awesome. I can only say that investigating them has done a lot for my own understanding of what I enjoy, why, and how to get it, but it's such an individual process that I can't prescribe it as the universal solvent for playstyle conflicts. Alternative RPGs aren't a magic bullet.

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As always a splenderous answer from Seven. I disagree with "Why not try to convert your group to serious roleplay?" though, because often people might not even realize that they like the serious play. Actually, the longest and best campaign I've played was my first campaign even which started completely silly, with no knowledge of rules, ended up as a game where the two players were almost constantly in-character and relieved the story as if it was all real. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Oct 12 '12 at 18:33
    
@MaurycyZarzycki I do think that's a possible way of doing it, but that's a matter of subtly encouraging the style as the campaign goes on. I don't think that's an option for the asker for the reasons they explained. My opposition is really only to making a group play differently by overtly or covertly forcing it. Seducing them into a different play style, so to speak, is totally fine for those who can pull it off. :) –  SevenSidedDie Oct 12 '12 at 18:39
    
Actually, I have been cruising indie RPG's a lot lately, and I do feel I learn a lot about what I really like about roleplaying. I have a hard time finding a danish gaming forum, where I can look for groups with desires similar to mine. I think the problem is that gaming is very stereotyped in Denmark, and in my experience everyone play either D&D, WoD or Shadowrun. The indie games doesn't get much love. In my experience at least. –  Undreren Oct 30 '12 at 14:50
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You are having two separate but related problems.

  1. Personally getting embarrassed while trying to roleplay immersively and thus breaking character
  2. Having a group that doesn't comfortably play immersively and instead cuts up and thus breaking character

Immersion is difficult in that it only takes one participant to break the mood for everyone. So how do you get everyone to help everyone else stay in character?

Rather than talk theory, let me explain how I got my first fully immersive campaign going.

After a decade of gaming, I had gotten to the point where though I enjoyed "casual" roleplaying, I became sure there was more to the hobby than just cutting up and clouting orcs. So I decided I wanted to try playing immersively. (I had been to some immersive one-shots at Gen Con, like the Cthulhu Master's Tournament, and was sold.)

So I talked to my gaming group and said "I want to run a game that's like this. But it requires investment from everyone to work." I set expectations about what I thought such a game would be like. Staying in character, not cutting up, etc.

Some people wanted to try this as well, and others didn't. We didn't get consensus, which was reasonable - some people want to cut up and play whatever with friends, and that's what they get out of gaming. We "split the group" (it was large) and I ran a Sunday afternoon immersive game and a Wednesday light pick-up casual game. Both were AD&D Second Edition, because the mouth-breathers that claim you can't roleplay using D&D hadn't spread through the Internet yet.

I started running the game, and some of the players ended up being into immersive gaming and others didn't. We had to shake out the players that didn't. One player who's not going to try to hold up their part of the activities required for everyone to roleplay seriously ends up breaking it for everyone. They had the other game to go into so they weren't too sad, and they weren't enjoying getting their PCs sent to jail all the time for their shenanigans. (I let them do stupid/silly stuff but it was then acted on by the game world

As I ran the game, I had several key rules.

  1. Running immersively for a long time is hard. Disruptions break immersion. So we all sat at the table and spoke fully in character for 50 minutes and then got up and took a 10 minute break. Bio, snacks, chatting, etc. were reserved for break times. Then when we sat back down we were back in character - nothing out of character (we had a signal for out-of-character that was used when the player needed a clarification, but it was used infrequently). This leverages routine, prevents fatigue, and forms positive habits.

  2. To minimize the tendency to metagame, I practiced strict information compartmentalization and no table-talk. In other words, people only knew what their character perceived. I passed notes, took people aside, etc. This had more overhead but it created extremely realistic character (pc/pc, pc/npc) relationships. And no "game talk" or sharing character sheets or stuff like that. No coaching other people during combat - in character communication only. This made things run faster in combat even though they were perhaps slower in roleplay.

As a result we had a five year long campaign that was fully laugh-and-cry immersive. Definitely one of my best gaming experiences. You don't have to do all these, pick and choose what you think will work with your group, but this ended up being the combination of factors that did the trick for us.

As for the personally embarrassing part - well, once you have an immersive group they'll support each other in staying IC especially if it's an explicit goal. Also wouldn't hurt to take some continuing ed acting class, one class will get you over a host of junk.

I'll also note that we had one player who wasn't really comfortable immersing in character - but they had the good grace to act that way to not break immersion for the rest of us. This is important - if you're not "feeling it," just keep acting in character to not put everyone else off, and it'll help you get back into the flow too.

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+1 for breaking apart the separate issues in the problem, I see the same. –  LitheOhm Oct 13 '12 at 6:46
    
This answer is great. I gave me kind of a new perspective on the problem. I think I will try going through these issues when I start up my Pendragon campaign, which I believe really benefits from this kind of immersion. Thank you for the great answer :) –  Undreren Oct 13 '12 at 11:31
    
Excellent answer. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 13 '12 at 17:52
    
This is a really inspiring answer, deftly articulated. –  Erik Schmidt Oct 18 '12 at 23:07
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From my own GMing experience I can conclude, that the seriousness of a gaming session is directly proportional to how much the players like, identify with and have emotions with their characters, other characters, NPCs and the world. This eases getting in the character's mindset and staying there.

What it means that not only the characters have to have a strong character (backstory, who they are, their traits, behaviour, addictions, loves, quirks), but also the world must have its own strength - familiarity with the environment (and the whole setting) is important.

Another important thing to note is that it's easier to stay focused in smaller groups. My most emotional campaign was played with only 2 players, while games with 4 and 5 PC resulted in much more humour, puns, jokes and fun lameness, both from me and them.

Some of the ideas which can make it easier for you all to stay in-character:

  • Create the characters collaboratively - this, and the next point assume, that lack of familiarity and strong emotions towards the game make it difficult to have a serious game.
  • Create the setting, or parts of it collaboratively
  • Create a captivating and interesting story
  • Throw a humorous element every now and then, to relieve the tension
  • Do as little meta-gaming as possible, to not get you away from your character
  • Avoid rules and dice rolling when in strenuous moments to keep the immersion level

To sum it up all, the more you are comfortable with your character, the more easy it will be for you to stay in it.

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+1 for emotional content of the character(s), plot(s), and background setting. –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '12 at 11:32
    
+1 for relieving the tension and pre-empting. Avoiding rules and dice-rolling when possible is also a smart move, as few things kill a plot element like some ass trying to chew the DM out for a call made two sessions prior. –  LitheOhm Oct 13 '12 at 6:45
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Communication is Key

This problem can often be dealt with easily and fairly simply by gathering the group as a whole, early, on game day and speaking about it. If you feel that might be difficult to do this as a group then meet with each player alone face to face and ask them how they feel about it. Describe the situation you are experiencing and then ask everyone about their thoughts as well. Voicing your concern outside of the game time and in person puts emphasis on how you feel about it.

Also establishing that there can be open dialogue about the game can help others to air their concerns, this helps each of you get more from the experience. We came together to have fun, if we aren't doing that talking about it is the simplest solution.

If you happen to be an introvert it may be tough to get the dialogue going. It is, however, still your only way of changing the interactions in game or out of it.

While it might seem tough to start these types of discussions, it is the best way to get what you want. As much as it sounds silly, when you start the topic describe how it makes the game less immersive for you as this is how you feel about it. Trying to explain your point of view may allow others to agree with you wholeheartedly, solving your problem almost immediately.

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+1. You beat me to it. –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '12 at 11:29
    
+1, fairly superior to my answer :) –  Maurycy Zarzycki Oct 12 '12 at 11:31
    
@MaurycyZarzycki: Not really, both complement each other. –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '12 at 11:34
    
@Sardathrion I won't deny, but after reading this answer I think that discussing it over with the players is a pretty slick idea. –  Maurycy Zarzycki Oct 12 '12 at 11:45
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The other answers all have good advice but what is the baseline? The absolute minimum you need to achieve what you are asking for? In my experience of refereeing for 30 years I found this to be two things.

  1. That the player speaks in first person rather than third person when interacting with the NPCs and other characters. Instead of continuing to permit to say "Brak goes over to the vendor and ask him how much is the sword?" Get the player say I go over to the vendor. "How much is the sword? The advantage of this is that it gets the players to think of actually being there as the character which leads to #2.
  2. The players acts as if he was really there in the setting acting as the character. In my opinion, this is a key difference between playing a wargame and playing a roleplaying game. It not about the acting, or being able to adopt a different personality but about playing your character as if they really existed in the setting.

The general technique is to gently remind them to think what they would do if faced with the situation themselves, when they look like they are floundering or unsure of what to do. Also ask them what information they lack to make a decision, typically this comes up when trying to decide a creature or a NPC is a "bad" guy and they are new to the game.

These two represent the baseline that I found in order to get the players to immerse themselves and take the campaign seriously. Doesn't mean we don't tell jokes or laugh far from it!

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I find 1st versus 3rd person is merely a matter of taste. First is better for immersion in character, but is not necessary for the broader goal of playing a "serious" game. I find that varying between 3rd and 1st is actually a powerful tool for framing scenes, action, and passing time in different ways during a "serious" game. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 13 '12 at 17:54
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You could try talking to your group, but I am going to come at this from the opposite end. RPGs are as much a social activity as they are a game. And remember that G does indeed stand for game. It's meant to be enjoyable and fun. The times and groups when I am enjoying myself the least is when people take it too seriously and try to stay serious and in character too much. Yes, there are times to roleplay seriously in character, but those times need to be interspersed with fun as well, such as bad jokes and puns or off-topic talk about other things. And I believe the large majority of people who play RPGs would fall into that camp. So I would have two recommendations:

First, if you want to stay serious all the time, find another group to play with. There are groups out there who take it far more seriously. I've played with a couple over the years. While it wasn't for me and I quickly left them, it sounds like they are more up your alley.

Second, take up acting in addition to gaming. Find a local community theater or something to do on the side. This could have the dual effects of filling your need to stay serious and in character as well as helping you overcome your introverted side. Doing something like this would allow you to enjoy your game time without feeling too bad about a stupid pun here or there and still allow you to have time staying seriously in character. There could be a good balance for you there.

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-1 since fun can be had while being serious. +1 for finding a group that share similar views as to how one likes to play. –  Sardathrion Oct 12 '12 at 12:32
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Agreeing with Sardathrion. "Game" doesn't mean "frivolous". I only need to point to chess, go, or Magic: the Gathering for something that is a game and is played by many people very seriously. Enjoyment can be had in many ways, including serious ones. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 12 '12 at 15:30
    
I never said it did equate to frivolous. However, most participants of RPGs in my experience (nearly 30 years worth now since I'm an old fart) demonstrate that having fun in that group setting does not equate to a long session of being serious the entire time or most of the time. We participate in RPGs to escape our serious, day to day lives. We want to joke, we want to kid, we want to talk about computers or games or other things interspersed with the role-playing. And those such as Undreren who feel the need to be serious the whole time are the rare exception. –  BBlake Oct 12 '12 at 17:44
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I find immersive play to not be an uncommon desire of gamers. –  mxyzplk Oct 13 '12 at 3:48
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I only mean that taking a game seriously and enjoying it aren't mutually exclusive for all people. For some – such as yourself – sure. For every person that exists? No. –  SevenSidedDie Oct 13 '12 at 17:56
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I don't think tabletop play facilitates this type of roleplaying. That's not to say that it can't be done, it's just harder. It wasn't until I tried LARPing that I was able to embrace my character in the way you describe and be in a game where everyone else was doing the same.

When I say LARPing, I'm referring to theatre style, not boffer style. Boffer style is the "Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt! Lightning bolt!" bean bags and foam swords experience oft mocked on YouTube. I've never tried it. Theatre style basically sends you into a game with a prewritten backstory and a goal contrary to another player's goal. There are no NPCs, everyone is the main character in their own mind. I've played in a couple fifty person games and heard of them going up to a hundred players.

This type of game brought out the roleplayer in me. Having that many people in character, some even in costume, immerses you in the game. It's harder to will yourself out of character than to just let go and be the character.

-edit-

What I'm getting at is not that you should LARP instead of playing tabletop. I think LARPing is good practice to get you into that kind of roleplay. Once you've gotten there, bring that back to your table.

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Maelstrom by Profound Decisions in the UK often had around 800-1000 people playing in this style at fest events. It does contribute very well to staying in character. –  Simon Gill Oct 12 '12 at 13:11
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Played LARPS, even owned a LARP chapter for several years. I do agree it is easier in some respect. For example when you are talking with NPCs you are really talking to a group of folks like you would in real life instead of a single referee playing a bunch of personae. But LARPS have their own limitation due to the live-action and are not as flexible in the variety of situation they can depict. I feel it is more accurate to say that they both have strengths and weaknesses in terms of roleplaying. –  RS Conley Oct 12 '12 at 13:51
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I've been in groups that have quite successfully played immersively in tabletop and tried LARPing and found that it significantly degraded their immersive experience. I don't think there's any justification for thinking LARPing is innately more immersive. –  mxyzplk Oct 13 '12 at 3:49
    
@mxyzplk, In tabletop everyone who isn't the PCs interacts through the GM. In a LARP, everyone in the game world is played by a separate PC. Having one player per in game agent without having that GM interface in the way is more immersive. However I will concede that LARP is a vague term and my LARPing experience probably isn't the same as everyone else's. –  valadil Oct 14 '12 at 1:44
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Thanks, I am familiar with how both LARP and tabletop work. –  mxyzplk Oct 14 '12 at 2:13
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