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I've always had difficulty trying to explain the concept of "staying in character" to newly starting players. Typically, what we end up doing is just start playing the game. Sooner or later (often after some frustratingly slow play sessions), most of the new players grok it, while some never do.

Does anyone have an explanation or method of showing the concept of "staying in character" which is either faster, or more effective, or both?

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Good question. Tricky to answer... –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Mar 11 '11 at 8:17
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Is the n00b breaking character by saying something like, "That description sounds like [foe]. The book says they are weak against fire, so I'll cast fireball"? Or is the player just playing variations on themself? True confession time, I tend to play an alter-ego (my Napoleonic stature usually sees me playing the 6'10" 350 pounds of rippling angry muscles archetype). It's fun for me, sometimes I play against my type, but I tend to enjoy coming back to the massive fighter type, it's like an old pair of shoes by now. Fits me and my personality like a glove! –  Pulsehead Mar 11 '11 at 14:11
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@Pulsehead - You wear shoes for gloves? –  Jakob Jul 30 '11 at 10:34
    
@jakob, Yup, great for keeping the fingers warm, but not so good for using tools/writing/etc. –  Pulsehead Jul 30 '11 at 14:56
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6 Answers

up vote 10 down vote accepted

Scaffolding via positive and negative feedback

There's no such thing as one true way to "stay in character." In practice every game is determined by the group. However, there are various ways to encourage behaviour you like, and discourage behaviour you don't like. Then debrief after the game to explore what went right and wrong.

Paranoia, surprisingly, offers the best advice I've ever seen in this vein. Encourage actions you want to see happen again and discourage actions you don't want to see. Offer immediate feedback, preferably in a form valuable to the player.

Consider RPG.SE's online game. I wanted to encourage "Rule of cool" and descriptive narrative action sequences. As a consequence, the moment anyone did something "awesome" I'd drop a +2 circumstance modifier in their lap for them to apply to a later check. Humans are animals, but our doggie treats have to be disguised a little.

It's also important to provide negative feedback. After explaining the concept of staying in character: "Act out what your character says at the table, describe what your character does, especially from his viewpoint." and making sure that that concept matches what the rest of the group is doing, penalize the player for dropping out of character.

My favorite penalty is the "In-character lamp." When I'm starting to get quite annoyed with a table for breaking character, I simply declare that every single statement at the table is in character. If it's descriptive, it's what the character does or tries to do. (Note that the in-character lamp is always lit in paranoia.) After an ill-advised comment leads to significant disruption for the player, they tend to learn. They learn because the rest of the group is also providing pressure on the player to avoid the inevitable bad-stuff.

Don't turn the lamp on unless you need to impose negative feedback or the game calls for it. It may be worthwhile having physical props to indicate when the "in-character lamp" is on. Have a huge stuffed die or statue or something and, whenever it's on the table, the in-character lamp is on. Focal objects embedded in simple ritual are a great aide memoir for people. (This idea taken from one of the blog-posts I read, but I can't remember which one.) If the player has legit questions, they can (if nothing else is happening) physically take the ritual object off the table, and ask their questions.

In summary, by explaining the theory before the game and having a debrief after the game, you can offer the player a concrete learning experience. Engaging in positive and negative feedback will profoundly alter player's behavour in respect to the game. Engaging in simple ritual by using a ritual object to focus the game and represent "in-character" time is a good way to unambiguously indicate what mode the players should obey. Go read the GMing section of paranoia for more scaffolding tips. Make sure that the rest of the group is also behaving the same way.

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In hindsight, it's amazing how good Paranoia is for teaching GMing technique, and for encouraging character-player identification. –  Tynam Mar 11 '11 at 19:33
    
Your reference to Paranoia is absolute genius. Although I have never been able to run a Paranoia game successfully, I have learned a TON from reading their books, and they consistently give good insight. I would recommend reading their book for any GM looking for help on dealing with players. –  aperkins Mar 16 '11 at 19:56
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Role-playing seems to confuse many people. I prefer reminding people that while they’re to play a role, they’re to play a role consistent with the game (not “I’m a Ninja Viking Princess recently arrived in Middle Earth). I explain to them role-playing is more like acting in a play. They can improv, but the point is to improv within the situation they’re given (the game world) and not to make up their own world. This doesn’t mean that if they have ideas we can’t talk to see if they can be incorportation.

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I think you can explain it to anyone, but that doesn't mean that everyone will actually want to be in character. Some people aren't very comfortable with method-acting and staying out of character helps them keep in their comfort zone.

There's also a question of asking if the character of the character is predetermined or revealed throughout play. If you have the character as a blank slate, there's no saying if something is in or out of character, but if a background has been set then you'd have some questions if the player has the character doing things that are in conflict with the background.

If they do have a background already set (which I think would suggest they're not totally new) then simply pointing out that even though there are no mechanics tied to it, you expect players to have their character actions be consistent with their background might do the trick. Framing being in character as a house rule might be more effective than any examples.

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The easiest way to explain staying in character is to use some iconic characters from TV and Film.

Take James Bond:

  • Would 007 abandon a mission?
  • Would 007 pass on a willing romantic partner after the mission is complete but before reporting in?
  • Would 007 pick fists as his 1st mode of interaction in a casino?

Take Detective Stabler from L&O-SVU:

  • Would Stabler worry about a few bruises on a suspect?
  • Would he spout conspiracy theories?
  • Would he keep looking if the boyfriend looks guilty?
  • Would he be the Good Cop in a Good Cop/Bad Cop type interrogation?
  • Would he keep calm when the defendant is a smug bastard?

Take Data from STTNG:

  • Would Data pontificate on Psychology?
  • Would Data lie to the crew?
  • Would Data torture a prisoner?

Staying in character is the consistency factor. The one episode I recall when Stabler spouts conspiracy theories, it's because nothing else fits, and he's been convinced by Munch and Tautuola already; they aren't his, he's just echoing them.

I find that, for new players, it really helps to have them define a few basic tropes for that character, in just that very bullet-point style I just used, but with statements rather than answers...

Take Data from STTNG:

  • Data constantly asks questions about human psychology, often naïf ones.
  • Data does not lie
  • Data is reluctant to cause harm to sentients except to save other sentients.

Take Detective Stabler from L&O-SVU:

  • Stabler isn't careful to avoid injuring suspects.
  • Stabler usually derides Munch's conspiracy theories
  • Stabler has a default presupposition that the boyfriend did it.
  • Stabler tends to take the bad cop role.
  • Stabler has a bad temper.
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With our group, we have all played so long together that we know who drops out of character and who also is a rule keeper.

We have new members joining every now and then and they tend to powergame. The GM is good and we have a series of house rules that stop some of the broken items and functionality, like the hammer with the chain that, if it doesn't hit, can also trip, and the orb of force (with no save and no resistance to it) were banned.

We tend to choose skills and feats based on how the previous sessions went, even if it caused problems for the character going forward, like a mage who had spent a lot of time jumping around on ledges etc. took skill in Jump and not in Concentration because they hadn't concentrated much as it was a low magic part of the campaign.

To the new players that try to powergame, we mention that they cannot respond to any action unless the character would know this information. So even if you know the creature is a troll and is affected by fire, if you are a frost mage and have never met trolls before you wouldn't know and would therefore keep firing the frost spells at them. Maybe after trying your frost spells you then try fireball as a last resort… That's different: you learn that trolls and fire don't mix and would do it again next time.

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Your post needs commas and full stops. –  Adriano Varoli Piazza Mar 11 '11 at 15:09
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I explain it as

Respond to the situation as if you are really there.

I make it easier by

  • Giving the character the context to make natural decisions. By crafting the background and situation with the idea that the players can make valid assumptions. For example while in a tavern a player can assume that X,Y, and Z are present most of the time and when they are not I will point it out as something unusual.
  • Speaking in first person to the player playing the character (i.e. I do the funny voices)
  • Encouraging the person playing the character to speak in first person as the character.

Also understand that a significant number of gamers can't act. For various reason they can't get into the head of a different personality and roleplay that. They wind up esstentially playing a version of themselves in the game.

And that is OK, ultimately what you are trying to do is get players to make choices that reflect the circumstances of the campaign and the specific encounter. When they start doing that you have them immersed in the game and in your words "Playing their character".

The biggest obstacle to this by far is the lack of context in which to make decisions. When player lack context they turn to the one thing they are sure of and that is the rules of the game. Then the campaign becomes more about the game rather than roleplaying in character.

You have to be careful to avoid the infodump, it is not enough to supply them with information it has to be right kind of information presented in a easily understood format. The key weapon in this regard to rely on the tropes of the genre or sub-genre you are using. Another way of looking at this is that don't make your players play twenty questions every step of the way.

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Some people really, really prefer to roleplay their character in the third person. I think that's fine, and encouraging such a player to roleplay in the first person can be counterproductive. But otherwise, this is great advice. Absolutely, addressing the character brings the imaginary person to the fore, in a subtle but powerful way (I just don't think that has to be symmetric to encourage in-character thinking), and making the world understandable and real-feeling is essential. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 11 '11 at 17:16
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