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Similar to a previous question about playing smarter characters I'm looking for techniques and strategies for playing badass characters that are a lot cooler than me.

Specifically I'm asking for a player, Bob, in my group, that likes to play badass military type veterans in the vein of movie action heroes. The group is fine with this and we play games that allow for this kind of characters.

The Problem

Bob quickly becomes flustered if confronted or a situation arises where his character could shine. Even when the confrontation is not direct, or there is no real live time limit on his action.

Especially after something like that happened he also starts to wildy change the way he plays his character. Becoming a "model soldier", when previously describing his character as a rough veteran, that only cares about results.

All of this leads to him making decisions that make his character look stupid. This leads to the player becoming frustrated. Other player characters acting on this behaviour will make that frustration obviously worse.

He then quickly begins to take things personally, which is understandable. The other players would like to help him, but are unsure on how to do it. They also often stop engaging with his character if there is a chance of him taking this personally.

The Question

As we are a group of friends, we are invested in his fun.

How can we, as a group, help Bob to play his character more consistently the cool, badass character he wants to play?

Some Examples

Tactical play example

Me, the GM, narrates an encounter in a Star Wars game: Your rebel team is suddenly surrounded by a group of bounty, coming out of the jungle. The heavily armored Trandoshan with a grenade launcher, you fought a couple of sessions back, steps out of the shadows.

Bob sits straight up, barking orders, before I can even ask for initiative:* Everyone! Come here! Stand together back-to-back! Charlie looks confused to him: Dude, that's the guy that almost killed us in the spaceport. Bob: Do it already, we are surrounded. Charlie: Whose side are you on? You got that he still has the grenade launcher, right? Bob realises his mistake and goes silent for the rest of the encounter.

Playing together

Bob's and Alice's rebel agents are sneaking through an imperial base, when they are surprised by an officer in an elevator. Alice attacks the officer with a stun baton, almost dropping him (He is just barely able to stand). Bob uses his turn to draw his heavy rotating blaster rifle and shoots the officer. Even after being told that this is extremely dangerous and he could just draw his vibroknife, which would be quieter and would have no danger of hitting Alice's agent.

His roll goes badly and he actually hits Alice's Character for massive damage, almost killing her. When they are rescued from the rooftops Alice, as the agent, quips about him being a greater danger than the imperials. Bob, the player, complains that everyone is against him.

Changing his character mid-scene

Bob's rough veteran sits in the briefing room with his feet on a table, when Alice's character, their commanding officer, comes in.

Alice states colloquially "This isn't your living room." and push his feet off the table. She makes no indication that her character would use any other tone. Bob immediately answers with a snapped "Sir, Yes, Sir!", startling everyone at the table. We were confused as to whether this was meant sarcastically by his character, but according to Bob this was completely honest as his character follows orders and rules as a good soldier.

I think everyone expected him to quip something like "Yes, Dad" back, as he had described the character as "a rough veteran, that cares more about results, than rank" and no one else in the group ever used "Sir" more than in passing. Also I think that he mostly described his character having his feet on the table to show how little he cares about decorum.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ There should be a system tag. What game are you playing? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 2:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AnneAunyme We had similar problems in different systems. Most Examples here are from a Star Wars: Age of Rebellion, though one is actually from a FATE based game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cohnal
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 5:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not a proper answer, but I seriously recommend pointing Bob at The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries. Especially maxims 47 and 70. While the whole thing is largely a joke, and some parts are much more mercenary-oriented than soldier-oriented, a lot of it is still solid advice for anyone playing a ground-pounder. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 13:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @AustinHemmelgarn Ah, Schlock and the Maxims! Have all the upvotes. \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Side note: if the grenade launcher would've been clearly visible to the characters at that point, I'd say that was a GM failing to properly communicate what the characters are seeing, and Bob was acting based on an incomplete/incorrect understanding of his environment (so he shouldn't be expected to make a good decision given that). If it wasn't visible and they were expected to remember that, that might be a different story (although I'd tend to prefer reminding players of things instead of having memory be part of the challenge). \$\endgroup\$
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 14:36

9 Answers 9

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Simulationistic games can prevent unsuited roles

If a game is very simulationistic, it will be impossible to play a role where your character is supposed to be better at utilizing the rules of the game world than you are. Imagine a new D&D player going for a "tactical genius" character without understanding perhaps even their own build properly - it will not work.

DM: "You realize you are surrounded by the bounties you were looking for. The Trandoshan you fought previously steps out from the shadows, brandishing their grenade launcher."

Bob: "Everyone! Come here! Stand together back-to-back!"

DM: "Roll for initative."

<rolls>

DM: "The Trandoshan wins initiative and fires the grenade launcher into the middle of your group, killing everyone, campaign over."

A narrativistic approach is helpful, here; the simulation isn't as firm and can be altered as needed for the narrative. The GM is, in general, supposed to be less "impartial arbiter" and more "story cohesion guide". The player wanting to play a "tactical genius" could either be fed ideas by the GM, or their seemingly bad ideas could be re-spun as "genius beyond the superficial".

GM: "You realize you are surrounded by the bounties you were looking for. The Trandoshan you fought previously steps out from the shadows, brandishing their grenade launcher."

Bob: "Everyone! Come here! Stand together back-to-back!"

GM: "You swiftly bring the group close together, then suddenly grab your NPC guide, holding them as hostage against their spouse, the Trandoshan, who dares not fire their grenade launcher and orders the bounties to stand down."

Bob: "...just as I planned."

Charlie's attitude needs an adjustment

If Bob is supposed to be a competent veteran, Charlie's player should not be taking out their frustrations with Bob's player on Bob. Instead of talking down to Bob, "Whose side are you on", Charlie should be treating Bob as knowledgeable.

"What? But won't the Trandoshan be able to take advantage of a tight formation with the grenade launcher? Do you know something I don't?"

Charlie's player should give Bob's player and/or the GM a chance to retcon WHY a tight grouping will be effective. Or perhaps even attempt to brainstorm one.

Alice's player needs to chill

Bob becomes quickly flustered, yet after a poor roll, Alice chooses to have their character hold it against him. Bob's character was clearly trying to assist, and is supposed to be good at it, but something went wrong - does it make sense to take a jab at the player actually trying a decent strategy?

The GM needs to take responsibility

I'm not seeing any support for Bob in your examples. In fact, I pretty much agree with his statement that everyone is against him. It feels as though the group, including the GM, has decided that he and his characterization is a problem, instead of trying to support him.

You describe a grizzled veteran reacting to a reprimand from a superior officer with a "Sir, Yes, Sir!" as "changing his character mid-scene". Either I am missing a lot of context, or this seems a perfectly reasonable reaction. Were you expecting a "nor is it yours, so chill"?

When Bob had bad luck with his dice and the critical failure table happened, you could have described the events in any way you chose. The important part was that Alice would end up taking damage from Bob's rifle due to the fumble, which could easily have been described as something like:

GM: "As you draw your rifle, the officer grabs Alice's wrist. Unwilling to risk hurting Alice, you use the butt of your gun to shove him away from her - however, in his flailing he grabs your trigger and your gun discharges into Alice!"

Similarly, when Charlie dismisses Bob's idea and reminds the table of the grenade launcher, you could have amended the situation:

GM: "<Bob's character> seems to have noticed a slight detail - the chamber of the grenade launcher is empty, as is the Trandoshan's bandolier. The Trandoshan is out of ammo, and was using the empty launcher to trick you into spreading out, making you easy pickings for the bounties!"

Basically, Bob needs support

Bob is in a situation which Bob isn't equipped to handle, and the rest of the table seem to have agreed on this and him being a problem, rather than providing him with narrative support.

He has realized the situation and is struggling to contribute, yet player characters (and possibly players and GM) keep arguing against, questioning and denigrating his choices and actions.

Help his character succeed with what he wants his character to do and be, don't force him to conform with your own ideas of what he should or shouldn't be.

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    \$\begingroup\$ With friends like these, Bob doesn't need enemies. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 1:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm still unsure on how to implement the changes exactly. Especially if I'm stumped on how to make him look cool. In the Trandoshan example, if I don't come up with a way to make "Come together" make sense, how do I approach that? Do I ask him? Do I ask the group? Also most narrative games require a cost for having the enemy run out of ammunition. This sounds like an out of the book example for the use Fate or Destiny Points, should we forgo that? Should we switch systems? Would you have any recommendations? \$\endgroup\$
    – Cohnal
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 5:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Or to ask more precisely: Can you show me how to phrase that question well, if I can't come up with a solution myself? \$\endgroup\$
    – Cohnal
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 6:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not a fan of "their seemingly bad ideas could be re-spun" and "... seems to have noticed a slight detail" (the player made his decision without knowing this) - this takes agency away from the players and roleplays on behalf of them. If people agree with Bob on standing back-to-back, before they finish doing that, you could, for example, have the enemy launch a grenade past them, or have someone notice the grenade launcher. Don't change the decisions players make to stop them from doing something suicidal, but rather give them information and/or adapt the world around them in small ways. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 15:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Echox the quipping and banter was definitely meant to be in good fun and happens a lot between the players, but From is right, that it is a problem if one of the players is already self conscious about it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cohnal
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:18
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Character Stats Lend Insight

Summary of the problem: Bob wants to play a cool, badass ex-military type but has no idea what military knowledge his character might have (and possibly, has no idea how an ex-military type in general comports himself.)

I've seen two, maybe three broad classes of solution to this problem, depending on where you want to draw boundary lines. They all use the character stats-- of whatever system you're using, so some interpretation is necessary-- to inform the situation. I wouldn't go so far as to call any of them great, and they're all best used sparingly.

First, you can treat the stats as reality-warping: "My character is an ex-military guy, therefore whatever he says and does is by definition (more often than not) militarily sound." This works, to the extent that it does, in high-concept, high-power, cinematic, even comic-book-like settings: Nobilis, Amber, possibly Everway, stuff like that.

But I would caution against trying to design a character that would be falling back on this all the time-- it puts a heavy burden on the GM to quickly figure out why something that is objectively bad advice (like packing in tight against a fireball or grenade launcher) is suddenly correct. It's hard to think that fast, and it's hard to adjust (some might say 'retcon') your situation that fast. It's a burden for the players, too, to keep up with this.

So that is there for completeness, not as a really serious suggestion.

Second, you can use the stats as a mistake inhibitor. What I mean by that is this: Whenever the player starts to go off on a tear of bad military planning, the GM can simply tell the player, "No, your character knows this is a bad idea because if you bunch up like that, you can all get hit by just one grenade." I've seen (and used) many variations on this basic idea-- make a roll against the skill or feat, GM's discretion, whatever, and it doesn't seem to make too much of a difference. The basic idea of the mistake inhibition seems pretty flexible.

But getting the player to work with you on this is pretty important. Ideally, you want the player to back off a little bit; rather than immediately belting out bad ideas, it's much better if the player learns to fall back on this and ask if an idea is a good one.

The drawbacks here are pretty minimal. This is my go-to technique; if anything, the biggest drawback is that I use it too often. But that's on me, too. I just don't like seeing characters make mistakes that they arguably shouldn't, because their players don't know any better.

And the third and final technique, all the way at the opposite end of the spectrum, is to consider the stats as a sort of a well-spring of good ideas that the player can draw on. The idea here would be that the player gets flummoxed or realizes he is out of his depth, but his character shouldn't be (or when the GM realizes this) then the player gets supplied with a good idea.

I find this idea very appealing in principle-- characters should be free of the limitations of their players, if at all possible. But I've never seen it used very well, nor gotten it to work very well myself. Like the first method, it imposes a high burden on the GM. But worse, when used often it feels like the GM is playing the character to some degree, and/or feels like the GM is playing against themself in a way.

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In addition to @Novak's answer, I have seen a "Common Sense" sign used by the GM. I seem to recall that at least one system uses Common Sense as a merit (bought with XP), which allows the GM to question a seemingly stupid decision with the phrase "Are you sure?" before announcing the outcome of the actions. Here, providing a moment's thought may allow Bob to reconsider his first choice of action. With this group, I would not recommend XP-penalising Bob's character in order to make this work, even if the system has such a merit, simply because the character exists, and you would have to take something away (or give them a matching-priced flaw).

Part of the problem seems to be that Bob doesn't think along the same lines as his character (which is perfectly normal - we play things that aren't us). Allowing for retcon of choices before announcing outcomes can counter this, and allow other players (not characters!) to assist with making the game awesome for the group, and allow Bob's character to shine in scenes he should.

After the game, no one will remember or care that Alice made the suggestion, only that Bob's character did something amazing!

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    \$\begingroup\$ GURPS has (or had) a Common Sense advantage that could be bought. \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 6:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ Old WoD, at least in Revised, had Common Sense as 1-pt mental merit. It's in the core rulebook for Vampire and Mage, for example. It explicitly says that when a character is going to do something about what they should know about in-game, the storyteller is encouraged to give them warnings and suggestions. It also explicitly says it's a good merit for new players. \$\endgroup\$
    – VLAZ
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 18:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ If the game has a skill system, you could do the same with his Military Tactics skill. If he does something clearly unwise, have him make a skill roll, then say "You meant to say 'DON'T come and stand back to back! Spread out!'". (Of course, this is a little like telling him to use the vibroblade, but since its based on a skill he'll realize you have his best interests at heart.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 25, 2023 at 0:20
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TLDR: sit down with the player, find some simple character traits, perks, motivations for his char, write them down, and ask the player to just relax a bit - ask him to avoid telling everyone else what to do, but play out what he does.

To elaborate...

I can somewhat relate to OP's problem. I currently play the simple human fighter in our D&D group, and for me this was the first time playing this archetype (I'm normally much more into magical types). While I have by no means trouble talking, in RL I am more of a cooperative, funny person, and not a stern, "tanky", robust warrior. So I had the choice of giving that toon my personality or .... figure out how to play him as I intended to.

My solution?

  • I recalled a book with a main character which had exactly the character traits I wanted to play. I strongly modelled the char after that book. This was a real eye-opener; I was relatively intimately used to the char, and could always well imagine how the person (in the book) would react. This way I could "cheat" (well not quite, but you know what I mean) and not actually play "my" character at the beginning, but that character. Obviously I didn't tell anyone.
  • I made the background very simple - the classic youngster from a small village, traveling the world after being inspired to become a fighter by some traveling Sergeant passing through his hamlet. This meant especially that it was OK for him not being the most wisest tactician in the world.
  • I gave him some character perks that very much dictated his behaviour (for example, Lawful Good alignment, he must help weaker persons or his party members; he always abides by the law or higher-ups, to a fault). So if in doubt, it was OK to behave somewhat stupidly if the decision hinged on one of these aspects.
  • I early on decided to go all-out with the spontaneous heroism. If the party enters an unknown area and some mobs show up, he will have his sword and shield up in no time and press forward to provide for his party, or to impale the enemies. That's maybe specific to the D&D fighter ruleset - if you play him as a plain old shield&sword bearer, there's not much you can do aside of positioning and attacking, anyways...
  • What I decided I would not do is have the char boss the rest of the party around. While I as a player am probably the one who knows the rules best, the char is just a youngster. He is always up front, since all other toons are squishy, but that's it. My main goal was to always let him act fluently; i.e. no long thinking on mine (or his) part. So far this worked out well (I do not know how often the GM helped him out, unknown to me ;) ).
  • Finally, I spent a lot of time before our first play session to imagine what that char would do in some situations; by the time we started, I was very familiar with him.

All of this seems very in-character and "true" to me. This is how a real-world young, bolsterous, but deep inside still insecure, fighter-type could behave, and nobody would think anything of it. Heck, watch any modern movie about war; they usually have at least one such character in it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's more or less my standard advice for new players struggling with the RP aspects: model your character after an existing character or a fusion of several characters. When you get into a situation and don't know how to react, think back to a roughly analagous situation the template character faced and base your response on theirs. Channeling an existing character is easier than trying to invent one on the fly, especially if they're very different than the player. \$\endgroup\$
    – bta
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 1:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Easily done, @KorvinStarmast \$\endgroup\$
    – AnoE
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 8:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I had already up voted, nice job all around. ☺ \$\endgroup\$ Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 14:16
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Maybe it's just me, but Bob the player's issue is not lack of his characters coolness and badassery. It's that Bob the character is being played as an one-trick one-plan pony. When a plan doesn't work out, player-Bob can't think anything else, feels left out and sulks. That's no fun.

Let's take a look at the jungle ambush. Bob the soldier tries to take initiative by ordering squadmates into defensive position. That's not a bad idea by itself, but ordering a tight formation against grenade threat is not what a war veteran would recommend. When the idea didn't work out, Bob the player hasn't got any other plans and shuts down.

The elevator scenario is quite much the same. Alice stuns the officer, Bob the soldier thinks for some reason (why?) it's a good idea to kill the officer right away. When that didn't work out, Bob the player feels he's a failure.

In both scenarios, it doesn't help that fellow players tell to Bob that his genius plans were no good.

Both scenarios could be improved by reminding Bob that a good soldier has contigency plans. No plan survives contact with the enemy. He's a veteran, he has seen too many times that officers' plans don't work out in the field. Enemy, environment, always something unexpected. It's the boots on the ground that get under fire while the officers observe the situation from a safe distance. Their command post is likely air-conditioned too, while Bob crawls in mud, is being stinged by killer bugs for Rigel-7 and shrapnel rains from the sky. Oh yeah, Bob the soldier knows that a single plan is a plan to fail.

Since Bob the player doesn't quite work out like his character, maybe GM could provide a few hints how to think like a seasoned veteran. Suggest that Bob the player thinks aloud at least two tactical action plans before jumping into action. They don't need to be long and complex, a few bullet points should do.

Meeting the bountyhunters. A soldier should look for options about if they are going to fight, flee or parley. Asses the situation, how does it look from tactical viewpoint? If the group is positioned in the middle of a killzone, a soldier should be able to see that. If the player doesn't figure it out, GM could assist: "Bob, you are a veteran of many firefights. You can immediately tell that this is a very bad place to be under fire. Maybe it is not a great idea to start shooting before asking questions."

Same goes with the elevator and fate of the officer. Should he just kill the officer or spare them? What kind of tactical (dis)advantages would the choises have? Killing is fast but messy and collaterial damage may happen - Bob should be able to tell that firing a rotary cannon in an elevator has Bad Idea Jeans all over it. How about sparing the officer? Whould they do a good or bad hostage? Could Bob get passwords, keycard pins or the like from them? How would an officer behave in such a situation? A veteran would know if they are usually honour-bound or trying to escape on the first opportunity.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree and I think this would be the ideal way to go, but the way Bob is acting makes me think he's either insecure or has chronically been mocked/berated/blamed by the others (most likely some combination of the two). Once he's already self-conscious, it's a lot harder to keep him out of his shell, especially if he gets rejected/fails at something. \$\endgroup\$
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented Feb 22, 2023 at 16:47
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There seem to be two distinct problems here:

Character

Bob's idea of a rough veteran, interested in result, not rank, clashes with other's ideas of portraying the same character. The simple solution here is to follow Bob's lead on this. It's their character. It is defined by their actions, not some written backstory or stereotyping. If Bob thinks the easiest way to handle a situation like that about one outranking the other is to just say "Sir, yes, sir" and don't bother, then that is how their character does it. Does that conform to the groups expectation of said stereotype? Maybe not. But Bob is playing their character, not a stereotype.

Skills

The more pressing problem is Bob not being able to make military decisions, because the player Bob is not able to function as well as the soldier that Bobs character is would be. But isn't that the core of roleplaying? Playing someone else, who can do things you cannot do or have no clue how to do? I have played Wookies and X-Wing pilots, medics and jedis and yet I have no fur, no flying license, no medical education, and barely any religious affiliation or knowledge on futuristic energy melee weapons. It's all make believe and that should not stop us.

But the player has to make room for it. As a medic, I would say "oh my, he is hurt, I'll patch him up" and then roll for whatever skill needed to do so. I would never go into medical details. The two real life paramedics at my table would probably not be able to stop laughing all evening if I did. And you cannot blame them, it would shatter their immersion if the medic was doing something stupid that would never work in the real world.

My point is, Bob needs to step back from the details, because he doesn't know the details. Instead of saying "Come together", he could say "Okay guys, they have a rocket launcher, we trained for this, get into delta formation, go! go! go!". What does "delta formation" look like? Who knows. Maybe let him roll some skill to figure out it's best to disperse. Maybe the group can hide behind the mystic magic scifi foldable pocket rocket shield. Whatever. But let Bob play the character as everybody else: sparse on the details, because we don't know the details. We aren't soldiers and we aren't medics and we aren't wookies. That is what those numbers and character sheets are for. And adding details on purpose that are wrong is just breaking immersion for those that do have that knowledge.

But make no mistake, Bob needs to do this. There is no way to constantly undo and retcon Bobs actions. Player Bob needs to stop, take a breath, either roll their skills first, and according to the results play their character, or play their character sparse on those details, so the make believe can take over and cover it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Three excellent points. I focused mostly on how the rest of the table has been putting Bob down and needs to start being supportive, but in the end, Bob will have to take a look in the mirror and recognize his own limitations, in order to work around them. \$\endgroup\$
    – From
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 13:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Indeed. I would support the notion of Bobs friends helping him change, instead of putting him down, but only Bob can change. The friends can only support it, not do the change for him. \$\endgroup\$
    – nvoigt
    Commented Feb 23, 2023 at 13:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ As you said, his characterisation might be a different problem, and it might warrant its own question (or not), but the point wasn't only between his written character and how he plays him, but also how he plays the character from moment to moment and how he want's his character to be treated. I took his intention for the scene as "I care so little for decorum, that I have my feet on the table", which clashes with the response. I thought this scene would show the problem in a succinct way, but maybe I'll ask a more specific question at a later date, when more pressing problems are solved. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cohnal
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 10:52
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State "the obvious" more generously

I'm going to focus on the bounty-hunter-with-a-grenade-launcher example because I feel like it's the kind of mistake that would cause me the most frustration and discomfort at the table…

Here are some small ways you can mitigate these problems at the table.

  1. Share the creative workload

RPGs often put us in the position of playing a character with knowledge and capabilities far outside our own. That's part of the fun, but sometimes bridging the gap can be challenging. One thing we can do to make it easier is to share the load a bit:

Generously work information that would be "obvious" to a character directly into your descriptions.

For example,

GM: Your rebel team is suddenly surrounded by a group of bounty hunters, coming out of the jungle. The heavily armored Trandoshan with a grenade launcher, whom you fought a couple of sessions back, steps out of the shadows…

GM: (To Bob) Thanks to your training, you can instantly tell the Trandoshan is the biggest threat: if your team doesn't spread out and take cover they're likely to get torn up super fast by his grenades.

The thing here is that you're not trying to play someone else's character for them, you're just adding a bit of extra context to avoid putting players on the spot when your expectation is that their characters will 100% already know something or notice something.

Note that you're already doing a bit of this, for a different reason, in your original example! You highlight that the Trandoshan bounty hunter is a character they recognize and explain his capabilities (the grenade launcher, and heavy armor) rather than just saying "oh, there's Hruussssk on that hill!" and counting on the players to remember what happened previously. Because you know their characters definitely wouldn't have forgotten.

  1. Reduce pressure with a little bit of table talk

Another thing your group can do is just shift a bit towards making less committal statements. Have a little player-to-player back-and-forth about the situation before you directly narrate what the fictional characters do next.

This is great for clarifying exactly what's happening before I have to decide how a character acts. I've also used this to great effect in games to delegate creative authorship some as GM, to ask other players to embellish details or work out what should happen next.

Discuss and clarify what's happening before players commit the action to the shared narrative, if it will reduce the number or intensity of "feel bad" moments or help players feel less "on the spot."

For example,

GM: Your rebel team is suddenly surrounded by a group of bounty hunters, coming out of the jungle. The heavily armored Trandoshan with a grenade launcher, whom you fought a couple of sessions back, steps out of the shadows…

Bob: (To the GM) Could we all get together back-to-back to defend ourselves?

Charlie: Wait, what about the grenade launcher guy?

(Here Bob might feel a bit disappointed/rejected but it's all just "spitballing" and he hasn't actually done anything "in character" yet.)

Alice: Okay, but what could we even do, then? This looks bad.

Bob: Yeah, what are our options here?

(The GM suggests a few options since the players feel stuck. Bob picks one and narrates his character "taking charge.")

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you have any pointers on how to get the players to discuss and clarify their plans? This already happens sometimes, but not always. Especially Bob seems to be on the "rash" side, while the other players are often a bit less decisive and discuss what to do during their turn at length (which can be it's own problem, but not on topic). \$\endgroup\$
    – Cohnal
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 10:36
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Cohnal It does sound like a pretty related problem, imo: rushing into things leading to higher incidence of "blunders." One thing you can do is to be like, "Hold on. This is my scene-setting time. If anyone wants to clarify what's happening or roll some instantaneous knowledge/perception abilities, let's do that before we have our characters act…" — I don't know Bob personally so I can't say how well it will work. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 14:06
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You can't fake cool. That's why it's cool.

"Cool" as a social construct is always a little bit slippery, but check me on this, alright?

  • It's not cool to try very, very hard to be cool.
  • It's not cool to care a whole lot about whether other people think you're cool.

And this might be a stretch to see all written down but it's still true, too:

  • A cool person isn't someone who curates all the products and experiences that are marketed as cool. A cool person is someone who does ordinary if offbeat things for ordinary reasons, and if other people decide they did something cool after the fact, it's nothing to do with them.

"Authentic" always follows pretty close behind "cool". True to yourself. Exactly what you claim to be. Kind of a funny word to apply to a situation where you are, necessarily, pretending to be someone else.

Nonetheless! While actively pursuing cool is a bit like trying to put out a fire with gasoline, there are a few things you all can do to help Bob play more authentically.

Stop determining success by what other people think.

Bob wants to play a cool badass, but there's no such thing as objectively cool or objectively badass. Those are judgements everybody else makes about Bob's actions after the fact.

But the only thing Bob controls is Bob's own thoughts and actions. When all the things that determine Bob's success are somewhere Bob can't reach, Bob can't actually control his own success no matter how hard he tries. It's no wonder that the things he tries sometimes don't make sense, trying at all doesn't make sense either.

It's true that ultimately, no matter what Bob decides to play as, it's never going to be 100% down to Bob's own impressions whether Bob pulled it off well. But when Bob thinks about how to define his characters, focusing on more concrete things about a character's history and personality, rather than the impression they give off, is going to present Bob with a clearer target.

Don't try very, very hard.

A piece of advice you'll get a lot if you're trying to take part in an improv troupe is to do the obvious thing. Don't generate up a big fake scenario, don't reach for something you barely understand - do whatever's at the top of your mind as the next thing to do.

The reason it's given as advice is that it's really a little counter-intuitive, right? If you're trying to be funny or entertaining, how is the most obvious thing going to turn into either of those? Well, people aren't all the same (citation needed) so the thing that's completely obvious to you might well be funny or entertaining to somebody else -- and hey, even if it's not, by doing something quickly and casually you still help the flow of the overall improv session, so anything more mundane you did will get glossed over by the next funny or entertaining thing that hits.

The corollary to "do the obvious thing" is "if nothing's jumping out as obvious to you, hang back and see if somebody else bites". A lot of the scenarios you're describing put Bob in the position of someone who wants to be seen as taking action, but the side effect of that is that sometimes Bob cuts in to do something that isn't very well thought out. Just like doing something mundane in improv, nobody's going to think anything of the times Bob wasn't the first one forward, so there's no harm to his portrayal to only speak up when there's something obvious to do.

Now, granted, this isn't the obvious thing to Bob as Bob, it's the obvious thing to Bob's character. If Bob hasn't well-internalized what it is to be a soldier in this setting, it can still be very tough to come up with "the obvious thing to do". Bob may have a little homework to do, but I'm sure there's some ancillary piece of media that can provide a good visualization of what he wants to be, right?

Do ordinary things for ordinary reasons.

But Bob doesn't have to work out what it is to be a soldier in this setting all on his lonesome. A PbtA game would frame it as "address yourself to the characters, not the players" but for you as a GM the upshot is this: if you know what a veteran soldier would do in this situation, and don't intend for it to be a secret or a dramatic point, then you can just tell Bob directly what a veteran soldier would do in this situation.

Not framed as, like, a winking half-serious suggestion from the mouth of the GM, the guy who's playing the opposition. Framed as a fully serious suggestion from the GM, the guy who's playing everyone's narrator, even Bob's. "The guard staggers, barely conscious. Easy prey for your old reliable knife."

I'm not entirely sure how to read Bob deciding to draw the gatling laser instead or how the alternatives were presented to him. Maybe it was from a setup as straightforward as this. Maybe he was left entirely to his own devices and everyone was wondering "why not the knife?" in their own absolute silences. Probably somewhere in between?

Regardless, presenting the obvious thing to Bob when it's Bob's turn in the spotlight is certainly within your power as GM, and while it might take some practice, it's definitely a useful tool in general for helping to keep any game moving.

There's only so much you can do, though. If Bob keeps trying hard, looking for novel and unusual things to do to get everybody's approval, he's never going to be cool, and nothing you can do will help him.

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Narritvist mechanics

One option is to add in Narrativist mechanics. Give Bob's player the ability to warp the narrative to make them look cool. When they say "stand together", some mechanic makes that work. This may not fit the game you are playing.

But some games, "stand together" might have direct mechanical impact on the game. A successful check results in the game situation changing in ways that are useful to team player.

Save vs Common Sense

In a traditional simulationist game, you can add in common sense saves. As the DM you understand the game mechanics and described reality better than the players. When a player says their PC does something their PC would know better and there is an obvious consequence, make a check and tell them the consequence before they do it.

Some PC who is an expert with tactics and the like whose PC says "I shoot someone at close range" -- make a check, and inform them "if you do that, you are going to hit Alice instead of the target; make another choice".

This has the disadvantage of undoing player action, but it means the end narrative isn't full of fumbles.

Proactive Common Sense

So, you are in a situation where the Rebels are ambushed. The enemy has a grenade launcher.

Instead of and before saying "roll initiative", tell people to make a tactics check. On success, hand them a tactics card (or maybe more than one).

These cards give a tactical order with mechanical effects they can use.

In D&D 4e, the Warlord subclass had the ability to do things at the start of initiative. Some subclasses could give every ally a move or a shift, or a defensive or offensive buff, or an initiative bonus.

This represented the Warlord working with their team and getting them into a better tactical position than they would otherwise be in.

Here I'm trying to mimic this effect.

Add Mechanics

Depending on the game mechanics, there might not even be a check. You could have a tactics deck, and each player gets to draw a number of cards from it depending on their tactics skill at the start of combat.

Some cards are "start of a turn" cards. Some of them are "during your turn". And the majority are "draw 1d3 tactics cards, then discard 1" ("blanks"). You get to play 1 per turn.

Your hand size is now based off of your tactics skill. We now have a mechanic that allows PCs with tactical knowledge to give orders with mechanical consequences.

These tactics cards are not intended to be puzzles. So they aren't "if you do this in the wrong situation something bad happens".

Form Up:

  • Allies adjacent to each other grant +1 defence
  • Advantage to deflect area attacks entirely

Spread Out:

  • Gain a movement speed boost if moving away from allies
  • Bonus against enemy cover if you are alone
  • Characters can, as a reaction, defend each other from a distance (either covering fire, or a dash)

Focus Fire:

  • Accuracy and damage bonus on a specific target
  • Attacks reduce cover penalty for later attackers

Daring Rescue:

  • Movement speed buff towards an ally
  • Heals ally (temporary HP? whatever), gives bonus attacking whomever hurt ally

Weak Point:

  • Target you hit gains a weak point
  • Successful attack by an ally will cause them a problem!

etc.

Now the cool veteran can have cool combat tactics, based on their stats, instead of on their actual tactical knowledge.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This isn't what "Narrativism" means. It's also not a very accurate description of how PBTA games work — the idea that fictional positioning matters is pretty central to running those games. \$\endgroup\$
    – Alex P
    Commented Feb 24, 2023 at 15:09

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