Guest Post: Play Like A Protagonist

Written by Alasdair Sinclair

Like most people engaged in our hobby, I move from playing games to running games and back again, a distinction increasingly blurred by the so-called “Indie” games that largely emerged from the Forge discussion forums beginning around 10 years ago. The general assumption that most people make is that the GM is the player at the table putting in the most effort both before the game in the form of preparation and during the game – any given player may be sitting idle for a while as the spotlight moves away from them, but the GM must be constantly alert.

This assumed work rate is reflected in the very structure of most RPG game books, where there is a lengthy shared discussion of the game world and rules before a special GM-only section that lays out all the additional information required for running as opposed to playing. Where “player handbooks” are available, they’re almost always a subset of what the GM is expected to know. In fact, most of my really great experiences both as player and as GM have been player driven, while the worst experiences have usually come from games where players are distracted, bored, or otherwise not contributing energy.

The best players that I know all have a few key habits in common, little tactics that make them a joy to share a table with. These include making quips and laughing at jokes, adopting the speech patterns and body language of their characters, knowing when to share spotlight time and when to revel in it, as well as being generally interested in and friendly towards the others at the table. Probably the most important trait that they all share, however, is regarding themselves as protagonists.

A protagonist is a character who drives the action in the story. There are a few great stories with reactive or passive characters at their centre, but they are extremely difficult to pull off at the gaming table. Most great stories are about characters striving for something, whether that is righting an injustice, or stealing a gem. These characters rarely sit still and wait for the story to come to them – fortune favours the bold.

A lot of players are fearful of somehow breaking a GM’s story, or going off plot, but any GM worth their salt will be delighted with players taking the initiative. The best thing you can do is take the story and run with it, and if that’s not in the direction the GM originally planned, they’ll soon figure out a new destination. The worst thing you can do is wait for the story to happen to your character, because even if that leaves the GM’s perfect plot intact, if a tidy pre-written story is what you want then why not just watch a movie?

Different game systems encourage players to be proactive in different ways, and it must be admitted that not all games do this particularly well. In EPOCH, the players are put squarely in charge of their own destiny because they choose how each encounter affects them. The system encourages players to flesh out their characters’ back-stories through flashbacks, and ultimately each character has the chance to become either a Hero or a Zero, and define who they are as people. The horror may not always be defeated, but EPOCH creates space for victory or defeat to be on the characters’ terms. While EPOCH has a specific mechanic for flashbacks, there’s nothing preventing you from using that technique in any game to explain where your character comes from and why they’re about to do the crazy thing that they’re about to do.

In the Dresden Files RPG, and in FATE generally, characters are defined by a High Concept Aspect and a Trouble Aspect. In practical terms, these are the character’s good intentions, the motivation for them getting engaged and involved in the action. A good Trouble Aspect is worth its weight in dramatic gold, and good players are always looking for opportunities to get themselves into the best kinds of trouble. If you’re not playing FATE, you may not get the FATE points from them, but you can still make a note for yourself – what drives my character forward and why are they always getting into scrapes?

Many generic systems, such as Unisystem (e.g. Eden Studios’ Buffy system) and D6 (West End Games’ iteration of the Star Wars RPG) have some kind of point-spend ability that allows player characters to add dice to difficult rolls. Players who seize the story rarely end a session with all their bonus dice intact. Don’t hoard and conserve your daily powers in D&D 4e or Willpower in World of Darkness, use them to get the story you want about a character trying to achieve something with their life.

No matter what system you’re using, you can give yourself a head start by thinking about who your character is when not adventuring, and by writing a big Old Adventure hook, known as a “Kicker” in Forge parlance, for your character. Robin Laws has my favourite expression of an interesting character in the player section of Fear Itself, where he asks players to imagine their character at a loose end. If that character is doing something interesting, that you would want to watch a film about, then it’s an interesting and dynamic character. If not, you may want to think again. A kicker is just what it sounds like – your character being kicked into action. It may seem a bit hokey now but the basic revenge story of Orcs just having eaten your parents is a perfect basic template that spurs your character into action, and makes sure they won’t be sitting around whittling until the Orc menace is finished for once and all.

However you do it, remember, you only roleplay each game once. Make it memorable.

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3 thoughts on “Guest Post: Play Like A Protagonist

  1. I agree with you completely. One of the hardest things about being a GM is feeling like you have to control or micromanage your players. The most fun games I have been in are largely because the characters have been engaged and as you say protagonists. Unfortunately, I have struggled a lot to have a group of players willing to take that leap and am often left feeling anxious and stressed about the games I GM. As a result, I tend to lean towards playing as opposed to GMing. FATE was definitely a step in the right direction for my group, but ultimately it is up to the players. You can have an amazing GMs but nobody is going to have fun if the players don’t actively engage.

  2. Pingback: Play Like A Protagonist | My One Contribution To The Internet

  3. Pingback: The Nightflyer | Theatre LARPs: Play Like A GM   

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