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I'm introducing a new player to RPGs. She struggles to put herself in the mindset of her character and make the decisions the character would make, which is the essence of role-playing.

She can get by by going along with others' prompting, but if she alone must decide what action to take, she stops and thinks until I get impatient and any sense of game flow is lost. I don't expect all decisions to be made instantly, but I expect routine "what do you do next?" decisions to be made in under a minute and get faster with experience.

I tried prompting/pressuring for decisions, directly and by using game characters as a proxy. The feedback after the session was that she found it stressful and unhelpful, not motivational.

I haven't been able to break down my own in-character decision-making process to pass on to her. I'm practiced enough to just do it somehow.

I strongly favour rules-light games that emphasise game-world focus rather than abstract mechanical focus, so all mechanics must really carry their weight, but this is such a burden that I will consider including mechanics that will help.

In summary, please share something to help with fast in-character decision-making:

  • A breakdown of the process that a new player could follow.
  • Game mechanics (from any game) which could help.
  • Advice in how to deal with this; for me or for her, I don't mind.

(This is not a duplicate of How do I get my players to be more decisive and take the initiative? because that is about structured vs unstructured scenarios, whereas my question is about single decisions within any scene.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Have you talked to her about this yet? I have had multiple players like this, and getting to know them has shown the root cause is different for each, and so is the solution. I think we need more information to actually give an answer that will help this player of yours. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie May 21 '17 at 17:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie Yeah I spoke to her. She said she just found needing to make the decision stressful, got mind blank, and felt she didn't have enough time to make a decision. \$\endgroup\$ – dukereg May 21 '17 at 22:27
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Psychology

The phenomenon of overchoice may be the root of the problem. Particularly for a new player having a large number of options for her character to take is not helpful. Since you specifically say "[s]he can get by by going along with others' prompting" suggests this cognitive effect since she has no trouble choosing from a smaller list of options.

As game master, you deal with this the way that marketers do consciously and experienced players have developed subconsciously: manipulate the choice architecture. Specifically:

  • reduce the number of choices - this is why new players in fantasy RPG are wise to choose fighters over spellcasters;
  • establish defaults - having a goto choice in different pre-planned situations gives a basis for comparing the other options to something concrete;
  • partitioning - these are the damage options, these are the battlefield control options, these are the social options, these are the nuclear options etc.;
  • translating options to common attributes - e.g. average damage etc.

In general, saying "what do you want to do now?" without having previously established what the character's can do now is not a helpful thing for a GM to do. Give the player a short list to choose from of what you think would be good choices but always add as the last option "... or something else?"

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    \$\begingroup\$ How does this fit with player agency and responsibility? It sort of assumes that GM's job is to tell each player what choices they can make on top of everything else. That's the player's only job half done for them by the most burdened person at the table. \$\endgroup\$ – dukereg May 21 '17 at 22:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Any number of options (that aren't obviously wrong) count as agency. It may not be as much agency as a greater number of options presents, but the whole point of the answer is that too many options is as effective as no options at all. A player has no agency if they can't choose, whether it's for external or for internal reasons. If a new player needs their hand held for a while, and nobody is willing to hold their hand, then they can't play; get them a mentor or stop inviting them. \$\endgroup\$ – Corrodias May 21 '17 at 23:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @dukereg I never suggested that the list were the only options: just the obvious ones. Indeed, I was explicit that "... or something else" was also an option. For example, when I woke this morning I could have 1. Rolled over and gone back to sleep 2. Gone for a run 3. Had a shower and these might be the options a GM list. Of course, I could have also 47,345. Gone to the airport and caught a plane to Dubai but that's probably not something that it would be helpful for the GM to list. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M May 22 '17 at 2:27
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"prompting", "pressuring", "...she stops and thinks until I get impatient..."

My first advice is to cool your jets, turbo. Nobody's poker face is as good as they imagine. Having the GM simmer and come to a boil as one tries to think is not, as the player herself commented, helpful.

You fail to mention what the other players are doing during these frantic RP blocks. All silently waiting and staring, throwing buckets of conflicting suggestions or discussing what movie to see this weekend while she struggles...not helpful either.

I'm not suggesting you all are nasty, but subtle cues and body language can radiate stronger than many realize.

Right...gaming idea #1: a one-on-one "paddling pool", learning to swim session. The setting: the real world. The PC: herself. The scenario: the PC (herself) on a trip somewhere. A bonus, expenses-paid holiday. Ideally to a destination that's not boringly familiar. Getting there by a method outside her regular experiences, so it's not routine.

And then off you go from the front door. Tap into your own experiences, anecdotes, movies, etc. Don't go nuts, but throw complications at her that could easily happen. Don't overwhelm her en route, but throw decisions at her "The kid behind you won't stop kicking your seat". "The gas station washroom looks like two badgers fought to the death in it. But you really need to pee..." Essentially, throw a milder version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles at her. But softly, carefully...

At the destination, it's all the tourist decisions. Up the Eiffel Tower or a sidewalk cafe or a museum? With complications. But not all miseries. Meet nice people, stupid people, lovely people, rude people.

The point is, keep it in the real world where her own experiences and those of everyone she knows are easily accessible. Up the ante as she gets her groove on until possibly she is having a little foreign adventure with some intrigue.

Gaming idea #2: Not unlike what Lilletia mentioned in her answer. Link her up with one of your best veteran players. Have her PC be a squire or sorcerer's apprentice or definite sidekick where she gets orders and duties thru any tough bits. Keep giving her small challenges in the performance of these duties.

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I have had very good results by taking advantage of Character Knowledge.

Consider a situation where a rookie player is controlling a veteran adventurer when they encounter an obvious trap - a golden idol on a suspicious pedestal, a pulsing mass of alien biomatter, promises from Mister Johnson that the job is a milk-run. The character would immediately be on-guard against what (to us, at least) is an obvious threat, but sometimes we assume the player is responsible for having this knowledge as well.

As a GM, it's my prerogative to use this opportunity for some character/worldbuilding in a brief flashback. For instance, I might point to something in their backstory - "It makes you think back to your time in the Rangers...your mentor lost a leg to one of these things." This informs the player of what they're up against, and seeds additional story hooks for the future.

I also try to provide some insight based on any special skills or training the character possesses. "Your Wilderness training tells you that the creature is thin, and has lost plumage. There's a good chance it just gave birth, and will be extremely territorial. The mother won't pursue if you decide to walk away." Now the player has enough information to make an informed decision, and they feel like they are rewarded for the choices they made earlier by investing in this knowledge.

Finally, it's a great way to get the team to work together - everyone has different insights. Let the Gladiator realize that a healthy cub is worth a lot of money, and the Enchanter knows a handy trick they can do with a pelt. On the other hand, maybe the Cleric knows that these beasts are not only innocent, but have been known to protect travelers from something worse...something that might try and take advantage of the new mother's weakened state.

Coming back around to your problem, this method lets you:

  • Reward player choices with additional insight

  • Suggest the "normal" course of action without taking away agency

  • Introduce other options with different risk/reward outcomes

  • Hint at things happening off-camera that might become important later

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A lack of self confidence1

Or What if what I say is stupid and makes me look stupid and …

It could be that the player is feeling that she is lacking in the self confidence to make the "right" choice. Not everyone has the confidence of voicing their opinions, much less making decisions on a fictional character they care about in front of people they respect. It is hard. It is a steep wall to overcome.

What the GM can do

Your under a minute decisions is not helping there, neither is putting pressure on her. This is the worst thing you could possibly do. Instead, try to help her.

First and foremost, impart knowledge to her about what her character can do. Whether it is a system solution (Your skill in X will help!) or telling her that her character clearly would know (That soldier is nothing but a scared bully, you have seen the fear of you in his eyes!).

Second, make sure that she knows what her character can do and when she does support her in that decisions: Show her that any decision she makes is the right one. So, she insults the Underworld Boss. Maybe the boss is wondering what she knows that he does not, so takes it in humour instead of just having her killed.

Lastly but not least, make her understand that even a wrong or bad decision will only make her character's story more interesting, not less. Characters (in any media whatsoever) are interesting when they strive to overcome their weaknesses. It is one of your jobs as GM to make sure this happens and is fun.

Note that actions must have consequences some of which might negatively impact the character. However, a good story does not necessarily mean a good outcome for the protagonists. Look at Heart Of Darkness for a fine example of just that. Or at these frames from Watchmen which spoils the graphic novel's ending if you have not read it:

rorschach "DO IT!"
Rorschach ends up dying because he would not compromise even in the face of Armageddon. This is a superb end to the character's story. Something that stays with everyone who read the graphic novel. Yet, the character dies which is generally seen as a bad thing™. This choice was meaningful, had consequences, and therefore was a good choice.

What the player can do

For the player, I would suggest one thing: Everyone lacks self confidence so we all fake it until we get it. None of your decisions regarding your character are about you. They are about them. You (as the player) can and sometimes should make your character do dumb things. Because it will make the game more interesting, or just because the character lacks the knowledge to make a better choice. Sure, you know Jabba The Hutt is a dangerous crime lord, but your character might just see the fat slug and crack a joke about it.

A related issue is the worry of making a decision that negatively impact the rest of the player characters. If you suspect that your character's action might do that then do talk to the other players. Call for a time out and check that the rest of the players are happy for this action to happen. In turn, when another player does something that negatively affect your character, call a time out and check with them if they have thought of it. The situation might not resolve itself perfectly, but at least you have a dialogue open.

As a player, you are playing a character which could have competences beyond what you have. So, do not be afraid to ask the GM "what someone experienced in X would do?". Get knowledge before making decisions so you can justify your choices, even just to yourself.

Finally, the GM and players (that includes you) are making a story together. You are as much a partner in that as anyone else and are respected by everyone around the table.


1: This answer makes a huge assumption which could be right or not. but none of the other answer really looked at this aspect.

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Remembering from when I first started playing, here's what I can suggest:

Firstly, source material - does she have a copy of the player's handbook, or could she be leant one? As Dale suggests, RPGs have near limitless potential for action, and that can be overwhelming for a new player, but also misunderstood by new playera. And then if the only time she has access to the book is during sessions, which would slow down play more, then it isn't easy to learn what system they're operating in. Also, perhaps there are movies she could watch or books she can read, either in the setting or a similar world. These do a great deal to inspire players and start getting them into the mindset of the game, or the behaviours of characters like the one they're playing.

However, I have to add a sort of "middle of the pack" strategy as something you might want to employ. It's difficult to say if this is possible without knowing what game this is, but I don't see anything wrong with letting a new player's​ character just stay with the group and just follow other characters around - effectively making their usual action "yes, I'll do that too" or "I'm going to stick with my friend" That way, they get to play and have fun without too much pressure, and they'll pick up the game, how to roleplay etc from your more experienced​ players. Then one day, when they're feeling more confident they can have their character find their own path.

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Here are a few tricks I use

  • Change the question from "what do you do?" Ignore the others, focus on her and present the player with a few good options and do not let the rest of the table interfere with her decision.

  • Instead of having a decision imposed on one person, build your adventure/story so that the party has to discuss together what they want to do. Make the decision one that is not obvious: Do we give this item to the paladins of uber good who will save everyone in the city or the thieves' guild who will use it for their own nefarious purpose" But rather something that is more muddled. "Do we give the item to the nobles who will assure their power with it or to the peasants who will revolt and kill a lot of people" Doing so, make sure everyone gets to talk.

  • Split the party. Yes. Split the party and make sure she feels like a hero when she does so.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'm talking about routine decisions within an encounter. \$\endgroup\$ – dukereg May 21 '17 at 22:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Point #1 would be something to look into. Propose a few options without allowing outside interference until the player gets it. After a few times, she should feel comfortable with some of the basic stuff that she should be able to open up to more. \$\endgroup\$ – JP Chapleau May 22 '17 at 14:27
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Time Consuming, but Worthwhile in the Long Term

Run the new player through some short one-on-one scenarios that aren't time-critical - just you as the referee, and the player and xir character. Take the time to explain what sorts of knowledge the character has in the defined situation, and show/tell how you, "as the character", would reason out the possible choices. Then, present xir with a similar (but not identical) situation, and let xir work it out for xirself.

The idea is to build xir confidence in handling the "simple and safe" situations, and gradually shift to scenarios where there is more time pressure, and/or more consequences to bad choices.

Don't let the other players come down on xir for bad decisions.

It's understood that bad decisions can have negative consequences for the party/adventure. More experienced players are less likely to make bad decisions, simply because they're more familiar with the kind of scenario you as the referee tend to run, and with the structure of the rules and the resultant options.

You as referee can mitigate the consequences of those bad decisions - but if you do, keep some notes so that you can go over them later (in a session post-mortem) and explain to the new player where xe went wrong. In fact, keep those notes and go over them in a post-mortem even if you allow the party to feel the full brunt of the consequences of the new player's bad decisions.

The idea here is, again, to build the player's confidence, and to get the rest of the party to support the new player in xir learning both the game and the group's style. Harsh criticism is a good way to drive new players away, when what you want is to bring the player in and keep them interested and favorably disposed to play - even if later on xe decides that your group isn't ideal for xir, and finds others to play with.

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