Storytelling for Powerful Characters

Some roleplaying games, such as Exalted, let players take the roles of immensely powerful characters. I think that most people who have frequented Exalted forums or hang around with people who talk a lot about the game, have probably read or heard that a Game Master cannot plan a game of Exalted because the PCs are too powerful. The idea is that Exalted characters have powers at their disposal that allow the players to steamroll challenges, ruin their GM’s planned storyline, and force them to improvise as a reaction to their shenanigans. This, of course, is incorrect. Storytelling for powerful PCs such as Exalted is perfectly doable, but it’s also fun and rewarding.

While this post focuses heavily on the game Exalted, the ideas can be applied to any game with PCs of godlike power. The goal is to be able to have an easy and rewarding time as a Game Master without having to rein in the players’ powers, while motivating the players’ creativity, and motivate them to use the powers at their disposal.

Knowing the Players’ Desires 

Knowing your PCs is the first step to knowing how to plan for them. In games like Exalted, characters have a list of Intimacies that represent their feelings and desires about the world. Even if the player does not act out their Intimacies rigorously in every scene, they are shaping the character’s characteristics and drives, and knowing them as a Game Master will help you better understand how that PC may react to certain situations. In other games without a system to determine wants and characteristics, you may want to communicate with your player more directly about what they want to experience and achieve in game, as well as remember how they have reacted to certain situations previously in the game.

When planning for a scene, making notes regarding your players’ personalities will help you better improvise in response to their actions. For example, let us say you want to have a scene where the player group is going to meet up with an informant and question them in order to get information that will lead them towards their goal. By knowing your PCs beforehand, you may know some details such as “PC1 is more introverted than the others and will probably let the others take the lead here. PC2 usually resorts to threats and violence and will probably intimidate the person into giving information. PC3 is usually the face in social situations and will probably take the lead and try to make a deal with the person.” Make some notes about what the consequences here could be if PC2 threatens the person or PC3 tries to bargain with them. Is there anything in their personalities or drives that may change how they approach this situation? If you cannot think of any, is there anything you want them to do or do not want them to do and can guide them towards? If you are worried that PC2 will kill the NPCs or scare them off so the group does not get any information at all, it is wise to plan for at least two things: First, see if you can indirectly discourage PC2 by appealing to another aspect of their personality. Are they a big gambler? Maybe the person is offering to play some dice over the information. Are they a big drinker? Maybe the person has a companion there that offers to pay PC2 for some drinks to get them away from the table when PC3 strikes the bargain. And of course, make a note of what the consequences would be if the players kill the NPC without getting any information. This should not kill the storyline outright. Instead make sure that some following event can lead the players to where you want the story to take them. Even when PCs “fail,” the players should progress. Alternatively, and perhaps even preferably, you want to encourage the players to do whatever it is they feel makes sense for their character. Even if PC2 kills the NPC without getting any information, you want the consequence of this action – even if detrimental in game – to feel fun and rewarding out of game. You do not want to restrict PC2 from doing what they think is fun, unless it ruins the experience for the other players. If you feel like you should punish PC2 somehow, maybe for publicly committing a crime or drawing too much attention, the punishment should be strictly in game while the out of game experience should be exciting and thrilling. This can be difficult to pull off, but it is something to keep in mind when planning out your scenes and storylines. In my experience, some of the most exciting moments of roleplay are the moments of failure and the consequences of those failures. Because of that, whenever possible, try to plan for failure.

There will be times when you simply cannot foresee what your players will do, but knowing at least some of their personality traits and aspirations will be very helpful in planning scenes aimed at getting certain outcomes. But this is Game Mastery 101 that can be applied to any group of players in pretty much any game, and not just powerful PCs. The definition of a powerful PC is someone where the norm is that they will overcome the challenge, no matter how grand the challenge may seem on paper. Planning for failure may seem to be a waste of time when you know that the PCs will succeed, but failure is more than simply failed actions; failure is also represented by detrimental consequences, and PCs who use godlike powers without regard for consequences should encounter these failures more often than someone who uses their powers with more thought. By knowing the PCs desires and personalities, you will often be a step ahead when it comes to foreseeing the possibility of certain actions, whether detrimental or rewarding.  

Knowing the Players’ Limitations 

Being powerful does not mean that you are powerful at everything. Even the most powerful characters tend to be specialized in some ways while being less capable in others. Player groups often build characters with this in mind, actively avoiding overlap by covering more ground. As a Game Master, I want to give my players as much freedom as possible when they are building and developing their characters, but I find that the experience is more fun when there is little overlap and more focus on character specializations. If everyone is playing a rogue, more players are more likely to want to resolve challenges in a similar way. If, on the other hand, everyone is focusing on different roles, you can better tune the story in ways that sometimes let some characters shine more than others. Knowing that the rogue can pick locks and sneak around unseen is important, but it is also important to know that the same rogue cannot as easily take on an army as a powerful warrior, and they are less likely to strike a bargain with an experienced merchant than the player who is actually playing a merchant.  

When preparing a situation that will challenge the players, make note of the players strengths, weaknesses, and specializations and try to think of multiple ways the situation can be approached. Even if some players are better suited for that challenge, try to think of some ways that the less suited characters can approach it successfully, even if you do not directly give their players hints in game. There will be times when puzzles and challenges that seem obvious to you are not so obvious to your players. Since they do not have insight into your mind, a puzzle with an easy solution may only be easy to the one who constructed the puzzle to begin with. The warrior and the merchant may not see a solution to the army or bargaining challenge that you have set up. It may be the rogue with the clear limitations that figure out that they have the strength to overcome these challenges. They may not be able to take on an army directly, but the rogue’s player may be creative enough to come up with ways to use their strengths in order to weaken or defeat that army in other ways. In addition, even if the rogue is not good at bargaining, pickpocketing the merchant may remove any need for a bargain to begin with. When a character has clear limitations, a good player thinks in terms of their strengths and not in terms of those limitations. When there are some things they cannot do, it becomes much more apparent what they can do. When you try to plan for these situations in game, try to make some notes about how every player in the scene could possibly approach the situation, if you can think of any. Let us say that you have the rogue, the warrior, and the merchant, and the challenge you have in mind is to acquire a special golden necklace from a rich noble surrounded by bodyguards. Think about what each of these three players can and cannot do and make notes accordingly. For example, the rogue may try to sneak up close to the noble and steal the necklace. The warrior may fight the bodyguards, kill the noble, and take the necklace off their corpse. The merchant may approach them and bargain for the necklace. Based on what you know of your players personalities and desires so far, you may suspect that certain actions are more likely than others, but the more approaches you can think of when planning the situation, the more prepared you will be to respond to any surprises the players can come up with. Ultimately, it is more helpful to think of the players’ weaknesses as directions for how they can better utilize their strengths.  

Knowing the Players’ Capabilities 

You know your players’ characteristics and desires. You also know their strengths, weaknesses, and specializations. For most of the time, and for most games, this is more than enough to be prepared for just about anything. But when it comes to games like Exalted, where the characters’ special powers can let them accomplish just about anything imaginable, it is good to keep those powers in mind. Depending on how the players use their godlike powers, what you thought would be an interesting adventure may be completely turned on its head. Have you presented the local tyrant as a great threat? Maybe one player shapeshifts into that tyrant’s bodyguard, gets close to them, kills the tyrant themselves, and shapeshifts into them, then takes the country for themselves. That was not what you intended as a Game Master, so how do you respond to it?

First, you want to encourage the players to use their powers exactly like that. It is particularly important to remember that the powers at the players’ disposal are not obstacles for you to overcome, but weapons at the players’ arsenal. You should not plan the game in a way that diminishes or restricts the players’ capabilities. You should plan the game in a way that benefits from those capabilities. Knowing how your players’ tackle certain problems come with experience, but before you get that experience in game, make some personal notes about what their powers allow them to do. If a player can change shape or create illusions to infiltrate any palace, you need to know that this power is on their character sheet, and you will give that player a better experience if you prepare your game with that power in mind. When you present the local tyrant, knowing your player’s power, it is important that you welcome the possibility that the player does exactly what the power allows them to do. The key to a good story for powerful PCs is not the challenges and obstacles that they may face on their way to overturn the tyrant, but the catharsis of success, the potential their success has for future accomplishments and stories, alongside the challenges and obstacles that may come with that success.  Your player is now the tyrant, and they have the country at their disposal. But as they revel in their success, they are unaware that their action had unforeseen consequences upon the fabric of fate, and now the viziers of Heaven are turning their eyes upon them. Overcoming the tyrant was just a moment, but now stars will descend upon them. Your players are godlike in their power, and the actual story is godlike in scope. They think they have seen a tyrant. You crack you knuckles. They have seen nothing yet. 

Games should be tuned for their players, and games with powerful PCs should present powerful adventures. If you let your Level 20 Dungeons & Dragons adventure group head into a dungeon balanced for Levels 1 to 3, those PCs will not only walk right through the dungeon, but they will be bored along the way. The same applies to games like Exalted, where you cannot present mortal challenges to godlike characters. You need to make a story that matches their power, so that the players can feel that their powers mean something, and they experience the catharsis of success rather than the boredom of a steamroll.

Ultimately, you do not want to have to prepare for anything because you will know your group and what they can do by heart, but that comes with experience. Instead, use the guidelines I have mentioned so far. Know what your PCs are like and what their goals are, know their overall strengths and weaknesses to understand what role they fill and in what moments they can shine. Then with that knowledge in mind, build a story that encourages the players to shine by specifically taking note of their current powers and magics when designing your challenges. Encourage the shapeshifter to shapeshift, or the combat monkey to fight things head on. Encourage the socialite to whisper poison in the ears of diplomats and the thief to steal relics from palace vaults. If the players get stuck and do not know what to do, you can give them some discreet nudges in the right direction, but do not get upset or frustrated if they do not pick up on your clues or do not tackle things in ways you thought were obvious. There will be times when the players do something that make your notes completely worthless, and a new situation is at hand that you had not foreseen and do not know how to tackle.

Contingencies 

A contingency is a panicked reaction for when your players threw your planned adventure out the window. The better you are at improvising, the better you can handle it, but you can also plan for contingencies where you feel that you need them the most. Remember the informant with the information and the player who you thought were at risk of killing them before the group could find out what you wanted them to find out? Adding a contingency note would be something like: “if the group doesn’t get the information, this could happen …” followed by some other way to find out the information. The planned contingency in this situation is a guideline for yourself to avoid getting stuck in your own story when things did not turn out the way you wanted.

But some contingencies just cannot be foreseen. Maybe you were sure that the group would get the information in one, two, or three ways, but you never expected the scene to end up with not only the group getting the information out of the informant, but befriending them through social wit and magic, and acquiring a loyal new servant with much more and much more useful information than you expected them to get. Your contingency in this situation should not be to simply reject the players’ success, get rid of the NPC, and return to your decided status quo. Your contingency here should be to go with the flow and give the players a bigger win in the moment than originally planned.

If you feel unable to improvise new content on the spot and you are stuck in your own story, there is only really one thing you can do. Do not force it. If you tell your group that “You know what, I did not expect this. I like where this went, but it stumped me a bit, and I need to gather my thoughts to know where to go next with this,” your group will accept that. Your players will likely enjoy the result more if you take a break for you to gather your thoughts than if you stumble through an improvised session that you feel bad about. The players will know when you do not know what to do, and while they may be helpful and supportive to get the game going, there is nothing wrong with taking a break or ending a session early. This happens to every GM quite a few times in their careers, and it is nothing to feel bad about.

Knowing your PCs’ desires, knowing their limitations, and knowing their capabilities is a good guideline to keep yourself as prepared as you can possibly be in order to avoid contingencies. But those contingencies will happen, and sometimes it is more important to know how to face them than it is to prepare enough to avoid them. I mentioned earlier that the most memorable roleplaying experiences often come from the failures, but they also come from the contingencies. From the unplanned and unforeseen events that no one saw coming. When you play a game with powerful PCs capable of godlike feats, these moments come more often than I feel they do in more earthbound games. If you don’t fear those moments when they come, I think you will find them fun and rewarding in their own way. It is those moments that make storytelling for powerful PCs more fun than storytelling for more ordinary characters. 

Art by © Grandfailure / Adobe Stock

Introducing a tabletop roleplaying game to your friends

Do you want your friends to try playing a tabletop roleplaying game? Are you upset that your group only plays D&D and does not seem to want to play anything else? Do you want to slam your fist in the table and tell your group that tabletop roleplaying games are an extremely diverse hobby that covers all kinds of genres and settings and systems and that there may be other games out there that they would enjoy more than D&D? Have your friends played other things before but now settled down in a comfort zone that is difficult to break? Do they think you are annoying, whiny, or a hater for suggesting to play other things? In this blog post, I am going to try to help you introduce a tabletop roleplaying game to your group. It may not work, because every group is different, but I am going to try to cover as many approaches as possible and hopefully you will get something useful out of it by the end. However, before we discuss ways to introduce a new game to your group, we should talk about what kind of reasons a group may have for not wanting to play the game you are pitching.

  • Not a good fit: It could be that the game you are pitching is assumed to not be a good fit for the players in your group. They may not like the genre or the system or the overall playstyle that a game offers, and you may not be pitching the game in a way that appeals to them.
  • Too geeky: It could be that you are trying to pitch a tabletop roleplaying game to a group of players who have not played such games before, and they could picture the hobby as being awkward or geeky; that is a common impression people have. While many get over those feelings in their first session, there are those who will simply never enjoy this hobby and then trying to pitch it to them could be pointless.
  • Too much work: It could be that your group assumes that getting into a new game will take too much work, or it could be that you are trying to pitch a new game without taking responsibility to GM it yourself. If you are unloading a bunch of work on another player for a system they are not passionate about, you can expect resistance.
  • Comfort zone: It could be that your group has developed a comfort zone where they have met all of their expectations already in the game they are currently playing, and adding something new to that would disrupt that comfort. I find that this is often seen among those who exclusively play D&D and have never tried another game. When D&D has met your expectations so far and you do not have experience with other games, it can be difficult to imagine what another game could do else or different or better?

Regardless of if your group is reluctant to or hyped for a new game, it can be an investment for a group to try something new – especially for the GM. Since I think that communication is the key to everything, I think the default thing to do should always be to discuss together with the group what game they are interested in playing before investing time and money in a new product. But if you have a game you are really hyped about and you want to convince your group to at least give it a try, then the first thing you need to do is to sell the idea of the game to them. Some games can be hard sells, and then it is extra important that you think about your pitch and focus on the details you want them to latch on to. My most played game is Exalted, and I have always been hyped to a fault about that game. It is a complex game with a core book that is not particularly efficiently designed, and it has so much player content that new players often get choice paralysis. The game’s setting is huge as well, and because it is so diverse there is so much in it that you can have lengthy discussions about. I have done the wrong way to pitch Exalted many times, and that is to overwhelm new players with information about the game and its setting. My mouth has just gone off and started talking about Solars and Lunars and Primordials and suddenly I get into Sidereals because they are cool and then I talk about the Yozis and the Deathlords and the Charms and the Evocations and how cool it is to have control spells, and I can literally see the players shut down in front of my eyes. Sometimes they are nice enough to humor me because they see my excitement for the game, but end up mostly confused and intimidated by it in the end.

The Elevator Pitch

If you want to pitch a game that you are passionate about, you need to do so in as few words as possible. This is called an elevator pitch, because it should be done before you reach the right floor and the doors open up. Focus on the one aspect of the game you think will appeal to your players and let the other details sink into the background. Instead of talking about every aspect of Exalted at the same time, focus on the one thing that the players need to know: “this is a game where you get to play someone who is extremely powerful already from the start – you are Hercules, you are Achilles, you are chosen of the gods. This is a game where you can challenge the gods themselves in your first session, and no matter where you go in the world, it will change in your wake.” That is all you need to say as an elevator pitch. From here on out, players can go “oh, that sounds interesting,” or they can go “I think I’m looking for something more grounded and relatable.” Not every pitch works, of course, because people have different tastes – but the elevator pitch is the best way to introduce a new idea to someone. Once they are hooked by the idea, you can start adding the extra details.

Take Responsibility

The elevator pitch’s primary goal is to plant a seed of interest about the game within your group. There are more things you need to consider before a game can actually start, though. For one thing, who will GM the game? If you are only a player and never a GM, you cannot expect the GM to suddenly pick up and GM a new game for you just because you want to. Being a GM is a big responsibility. While you can be a GM without having full grasp of a game’s rules and setting, you need to at least have a working overview. To become GM requires reading. So, if you want to introduce a new game to your group, you should expect to be the GM for that game. It could be that you have a nice enough GM to be willing to take on that role and responsibility, but you cannot assume it or expect it. You are the one pitching the game. Be willing to go the extra kilometer and do the preparations needed to run it. Once you have ran it for your group, it is possible that someone else will want to GM it for you later if they like it.

Get Comfortable

Once you have pitched the game and taken on the GM role, the next step should be to make your group more comfortable around the game and its system. This does not apply to everyone, but it is my personal experience that people tend to like the setting more than the system. I am not sure how this applies to D&D players, since it is very system-driven and many (not all) of the D&D settings are bland and uninspiring; at least to me. But I find that pitching a game is usually related to that game’s setting and not to its mechanics. For example, if I want to invite someone to a game of Vampire, I sell them on the idea of vampire intrigue – not on the way hunger dice work. However, should we have three or four different vampire games to choose from, then maybe the mechanics can play a role in the decision. There are exceptions to this, of course. For example, setting-agnostic games such as Fate Core can be an appealing choice because of its lack of setting as well – but I still think that it is whatever story the GM wants to tell that is the main selling point. “Let’s play Fate so that I can tell this story.”

The way to help your group become comfortable with the game you have decided on is to expand the pitch with the information needed to understand the absolute basics of what the game is about. You could sit down and describe some vital parts of the setting that is directly related to the story you are about to tell. Do not tell them the entire history of the world or the intricate details of the land’s political structure. Tell them just enough so that they can get a picture of what kind of environment they will play in and what their characters’ roles would be in that game. Do the same for the rules. Give them just enough of the mechanics to comfortably generate characters and be able to perform general action resolution. Make a cheat sheet or let the players sit with the GM screen instead of you. Don’t even bother explaining rules that won’t be immediately used. For example, while explaining the hunger dice is important for your Vampire game, do not even bother mentioning how Memoriam works.

Another good way to get the group more comfortable is to explain the new game in ways that relate to other games they are familiar with. For example, a D&D group that decides to try playing Exalted may feel more comfortable referring to Solar Castes based on their archetypes. “The Dawns are the fighters, the Zeniths are the clerics, the Twilights are the wizards, the Nights are the rogues, and the Eclipses are the bards.” Now, those of you who know Exalted know that this is an extreme over-simplification of their roles, but over-simplification is what we are looking for. The D&D groups know what to expect from a fighter or a rogue. This at least gives them the concepts they need to start building a framework for what the new game will then gradually reveal through their experiences with it.

Character Creation

The key to introducing a new tabletop roleplaying game to your group is to get started as quickly as possible. A group of pre-generated characters can work for a one-shot, but players often tend to want a personal touch on their characters. This is more important if the character is going to stick around for a while. If I know that I will be GM for a briefer story, I have found that an effective way to both get started quickly and let the players feel like their characters are their own is to combine pre-generated characters with customization. For example, present a few roles with finished stats but without attached personalities. Then let the players modify the character to feel more like something they have created themselves.

If the plan is to play a longer campaign, it can be valuable to let the players create the characters from scratch. Do not ask for too much backstory or extra work, though. You can easily start a game with only some basic motivations and then build backstory as you play. Since players should experience the game through the game and not from reading about it before the game, it is perfectly reasonable to have simple concepts become more complex throughout the narrative of the game. By starting out simple, you also give your players more freedom to make changes without it having a negative impact on narrative. When you are not comfortable with a system and you make a character for that system, you are highly likely to make decisions that you otherwise would not do. Give your players the freedom to make changes to their character once they recognize that certain aspects of the game did not quite work out the way they thought it would.

Starting the Game

The best way to start a new game is to quickly show the players what is exciting about that game. Do not let things drag for too long. Start in the middle of the action. Let them immediately do some action resolution without making things too complicated. You can only learn so much from reading or talking about game mechanics. You need to actually use them, but do not overdo them. If you take Exalted as an extreme example, since the game mechanics are uninviting to new players, I need to make sure to gradually teach the system to the players over the course of multiple sessions, especially when it comes to combat and Initiative interaction.

The best type of game to introduce to a new group is a rules-lite system, but that may not be the type of game you want to play. You may want to play a rules-heavy system like Exalted, because you like aspects of the game or its setting that you think are more important than the game’s challenges or flaws. Exalted is that for me because there has never been a game I am more passionate about, but there are so many problems with its system presentation that it is impossible to argue with people’s criticisms of it. I think Exalted Third Edition is a great game, but I also think it is a poorly designed game, and this can be a contradiction without being cognitive dissonance. I love the game because I have overcome the main obstacles that keep newcomers out. I can now help new players to traverse those obstacles in a more streamlined fashion. And the way to do this is to GM the game in a way that introduces mechanic after mechanic in a way that is simple to grasp and narratively important.

However, while I think it is important to keep things simple, I also think it is important to show a little bit of everything the game has to offer. If you focus on only a single basic thing, the players can easily associate the game with that thing. A better way to retain the players’ interest in the new game is to focus on that single basic thing to get them started, but to show them what more the game can offer. The adventure Hoard of the Dragon Queen for D&D 5th Edition is known as a fairly poor adventure module, but it did one thing right. It let the players go up against an adult blue dragon already at Level 1. The purpose was not to have them win against this dragon. The purpose was to show the players that you are here now, rescuing farmers and fighting kobolds. This dragon is where you will go. That is the enemy you will fight soon. The same could be done with other games as well. Present the challenges where the players are in control but reveal something larger to them in order to build anticipation of what the game can offer. Hopefully, they’ll want to come back for more.

Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Therapy

Throughout spring of 2020, I, as well as a study partner, wrote a bachelor’s dissertation in social work that focuses on the use of tabletop roleplaying games in therapeutic treatment of individuals with mental illness and autism spectrum disorder. We interviewed six professional practitioners with experience using tabletop roleplaying games therapeutically, and we compared the results previous research that we could find on the subject. The study itself is in Swedish and can be found in full HERE. In this blog post I will summarize in English some of the most important points from the study.

A good mental health is vital for our ability to function as well as our general well-being. On the other hand, a poor mental health can encompass anything from mild to serious forms of anxiety and depression as well as complex psychiatric conditions. Some conditions can affect an individual’s mental well-being in different ways. There is much to indicate that tabletop roleplaying games can be used as a form of play therapy in mental health treatment as well as in treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Fantasy and imagination are something that can be used as a tool to support, empower, and guide people towards cognitive, social, and emotional development. Before discussing therapeutic roleplaying in more detail, it is important to also mention symbolic play. This is a vital aspect of children’s development and refers to when they use objects, actions, and ideas in order to represent other objects, actions, and ideas. Through symbolic play, imagination becomes a tool that helps children better face the real world, such as through improved language comprehension and understanding of how to act in different situations. By using different forms of play therapies, a therapist can aid children in their development through symbolic play (which has proven effective especially for children with ASD).

A tabletop roleplaying game is a game where a participant pretends to be someone else, but unlike a child’s imaginative play, these games follow an established structure and are presented through conversation and random chance, such as through dice rolls. The participants in these games create a shared narrative where the GM is the director who presents a number of fictional situations within an overarching narrative, and the players portray characters who become their avatars within this narrative. These characters have their own strengths, weaknesses, and traits which are often represented by numerical values that affect the outcome of the dice rolls used to establish whether various actions in the game are successful. People who play these types of games often do so in order to explore their imaginations and share stories, or they do so to picture a different world with different possibilities. These games allow people to, through their own imagination, become heroes, villains, or just someone else. While this is much more structured and intentional than ordinary symbolic play, the roleplaying activity has parallels with symbolic play in the way imagination is an important fact that contributes to real development.

The amount of research that delves into therapeutic applications of tabletop roleplaying games are limited and for that reason we also looked at other research related to fantasy and roleplaying games. One possible reason for the limited research is that tabletop roleplaying is a niche hobby that still is not widely spread, and more research has been put into aspects such as social psychology than direct treatment. Tabletop roleplaying games are highly psychological in the way that participants accept and embrace fictional identities, fictional goals, and fictional realities. The fiction itself, and its effects, have some parallels to the benefits of symbolic play. Through their imagination, children develop their thinking by exploring lines, thoughts, ideas, and their own selves. This can be translated to adults as well, but then metaphors can more commonly replace playful imagination. A child can picture a wooden block as a train, but the adult can picture personal concepts such as identity and self-acceptance. Even though the things a young child and an older adult can get out of their imaginations can be different from each other, the imagination itself is powerful for both. But even play can be powerful for both, since play and creativity can give both children and adults ways to express uncomfortable thoughts and feelings in a way that lets them keep at a safe distance from the challenges of the real world while at the same time face those challenges through metaphor.

Play therapies can be tailor-made towards individual characteristics and behaviors, and this becomes especially true when talking about tabletop roleplaying games. For example, a therapeutic GM can give feedback to an individual and their character’s actions which can help them towards personal growth. In addition, the collaborative and improvised narrative that make up these games can also lead towards social, creative, and intellectual development as well as increased leadership skills. When you put your focus on the story and the roleplay, the game can enforce collaboration, creative thinking, social interaction as well as the individual’s ability to act, orate, and problem solve. The narrative itself can be of importance as well since it can represent a hero’s journey where different difficulties and obstacles are overcome in order to contribute to a personal change or growth. While older research during the Satanic Panic often defined roleplayers as socially isolated, more recent research indicate that the opposite is often true; roleplaying games can encourage friendship maintenance and pro-social feelings such as love, empathy, and respect.  

When it comes to personal development, research show that the relationship between an individual and their character can lead to both positives and negatives. Through the act of roleplaying, a person’s fictional character can sometimes blend into their real selves in a way. While this can often lead to positive experiences where players feel like they create real memories together of fictional events, it can also lead to negative experiences causing real emotional or traumatic reactions. There is a line in between the player and their character where there can be an emotional overlap.

The Client Group

The informants in the bachelor’s study have used therapeutic roleplaying games in treatment of veterans, addicts, people with serious mental health difficulties and diagnoses such as depression, schizophrenia, and affective disorders. They have used the method to empower young girls, teach them to find their voices, to collaborate with others, and to have fun with games. They have used the method in treatment of children with developmental disorders, behavioral difficulties, or who have suffered mental, physical, or sexual abuse. Many clients with mental health difficulties have ASD as well, and several of them have been bullied, have no friends, and feel very isolated. According to the informants, clients who are children or youth should preferably be placed in groups of similar developmental level. While it is possible to have younger kids with older teens successfully, having separate groups for more mature teens may be helpful if you want to explore more mature themes in the game. However, there can also be therapeutic value in diversity and peer-learning where, for example, you can have one person with success strategies for their anxiety which could also be success strategies for another player’s depression. The fact that players help and learn from each other also means that the therapeutic GM does not have to be the one barking out all the wisdom. While it is generally a positive thing that client groups have diverse personalities and backgrounds, there are exceptions. For example, a homogenous group is often necessary to provide a safe environment when the client group consists of, for example, girls who have suffered sexual trauma.   

In general, the most optimal client group has four players in it, but some practitioners have groups of six players instead – often for financial reasons. If there are too many players, the spotlight cannot shift fast enough, and being able to give the spotlight to individual players is valuable for their therapeutic payload. It is more difficult to get groups together for adults since they tend to have jobs and expectations limiting their ability to meet. Many adults also tend to question if a play therapy would work on them, and tabletop roleplaying games are a form of play therapy after all. In summary, not everyone is a good fit for this type of therapy and some simply are not interested in it.

Apart from the therapist and the clients, it is common to have an assisting facilitator in the room that can play together with the clients and who understands the therapeutic value and how different situations should be approached. This facilitator can help reach the clients on a personal level through play or help guide them towards therapeutic effect. Sometimes they can even help the therapist by being a game master or by providing support to individual clients.   

The Tabletop Roleplaying Game

Genre is generally described as an important aspect in order to connect the game to clients’ interests. If a client does not like the fantasy genre, then it can be hard to capture their interest using Dungeons & Dragons. Some informants have started using the game Kids on Bikes in treatment of ASD. What makes this game good is that it focuses on narrative and have a built-in feature that helps players who fail their actions to succeed on upcoming ones. This kind of feature is a good way to get clients to dare taking more risks in the game. While D&D is the most used game, most informants agree that the game itself is less important than the fact that there is a game system to act as a framework for the experience.  For kids and youth with ASD, this framework provides safety, but it can also be too complicated at times. But even if the rules are too complex for some individuals, it is important that the rules are there, and that the GM can use them throughout the sessions in order to provide the structure that is so important especially for players with ASD. The rules must be there to enable play, but if there is too much focus on them, it is easy to lose out on the play. The goal is to have the game’s rules fade into the background so that the story can surface. It is important that the therapist can break the rules in order to highlight what is fun and dramatic in the story, but it is also important that the therapeutic GM themselves is familiar with the rules and knows why and how they can be broken. The primary goal of therapeutic roleplaying is to have the participants sit together in a circle and tell stories in order to build community. The rules provide a structured way of reaching that goal.  

The Therapeutic Structure

Therapeutic roleplaying games usually consist of about eight to ten sessions of two hours each. These are initiated by a Session 0 where the group prepares for the coming adventure. Here, the therapist explains the rules, asks the clients what kind of game they want, and they make characters together. It is common among some practitioners to use questionnaires asking the clients about their presenting problems as well as their interests in order to be able to tailor the narrative towards them. For example, the GM asks the players what kind of game they want to have, what kind of game they do not want to have, and what may be some subject matters best to avoid. Since some players may struggle with trauma, it is important to value their safety at the table. The GM should also ask the players what they want to focus on in the game, such as their distress tolerance or impulsivity.

Most sessions consist of a check-in before the roleplay followed by a check-out before the session’s over. Adult players may need shorter check-ins and longer check-outs where they discuss what they learned from the game. Players who have suffered trauma may prefer to have less focus on structured check-ins and instead pause the game more often for check-ins throughout. It is common to do a fifteen minute check-in at the beginning of the session to see how everyone is doing, and then another fifteen minute of housekeeping at the end of the session. In between is about ninety minutes of roleplay.

In treatment of ASD, the therapist places more importance in a decided structure because their clients can be very focused or distracted by their own feelings which affects their capacity to connect, problem solve, and have fun. For them, a predetermined structure that does not change from session to session is comforting. It is also comforting if the check-in and check-out questions are presented in the same way every session. Some ASD groups use a talking object that dictates who gets to speak and that everyone else must listen. This helps them train their social endurance as well as their ability to share and speak before a group.  

After the check-in, it is time for the actual roleplaying adventure. It is common that the first scene that the therapeutic GM introduces to the group is a social environment where people meet, and where the players can interact with each other in game. If the client group consists of kids or addicts, the traditional inn could be replaced with something like a soup kitchen – so that no alcohol is present. The therapist describes the environment of the scene, who are there and what is happening. The players may then describe what their characters do in this scene. The GM can then let them interact a bit before introducing an event that will spur a reaction – such as having bandits show up.   

If conflicts arise between players, it is important that the therapist can take control over the situation. That is a good time to pause the game and note the undesirable behavior that has been observed as well as help the clients resolve the conflict. If someone gets frustrated and leaves the room, it is important to normalize that they have the right to do so. In that case, the assisting facilitator can help in either taking care of the individual who stormed out or the rest of the group, depending on the need.   

Treatment Focus for Mental Illness

The focus of therapeutic roleplaying games is not to treat or cure a specific diagnosis. Instead, the therapist needs to identify the individual symptoms or problems the client wants to deal with and focus on them. For example, someone who wants to focus on their impulsivity may want to make a character that is also impulsive in order to observe the consequences of their character’s actions. A client with low self-esteem may want to make a character with a high self-esteem in order to experience how that feels and how others react to it. A therapeutic GM plans sessions tailor-made for the clients’ individual symptoms or problems in order to aid the clients’ personal growth. If a client, for example, expresses that they want to be able to trust people either more or less, the GM forms situations in the game where the client’s ability to trust or not trust cause in game consequences that can translate to real life realizations. The therapist and the client can then reflect upon this during the check-out.   

When it comes to trauma clients, it is important to not speak about the trauma or situations that can be triggering. Instead, the therapeutic GM focuses on individual trauma symptoms and how the client is affected by those today. If the client is a child, then safety is an especially important aspect of the treatment focus.

Treatment Focus for Autism Spectrum Disorder

When treating autism spectrum disorder, the focus is on potential; to get individuals who are always told that they are bad or wrong to instead hear that they can be heroes, that they can do what they want, that they can take control over their lives. The treatment focus is about letting clients face situations they could face in real life. Through tabletop roleplaying, they get the opportunity to practice these situations in a context without negative consequences. The empowering girl groups that one informant has have both clients with ASD and those with mental illness. In those groups, much of the treatment focus is on empowerment and aspiring attributes where the clients get to train themselves in finding strength where they feel weak. 

A fundamental principle in the treatment of ASD is something called narrative transference. This refers to the thoughts, feelings, and compulsions that clients project on their characters, as well as how this can be utilized to help the client towards insight, development, and change. The therapist uses the client’s character in order to find ways to transfer development to the client themselves. This can be done by looking at the relationship the client has with their character’s behaviors and actions, and then acknowledge how to best help the client feel safe and grow. One informant points out that much of this process takes place within relational play where the therapist tries to get the clients to connect to their affects, like their expressions and body language. Many clients with ASD have a compromised capacity of self-regulation which means that situations and impressions can have a tremendous impact on their mental state. Through relational play, the client is trained in facing both emotional highs and lows while they are keeping themselves regulated. How effective this is has a lot to do with the therapist’s intuition and resonance with their clients.

Fantasy as a Tool

Unlike traditional discussion therapy and other forms of play therapies where you symbolically play out ideas, the player can, using their character, reach a level of distance between themselves and the subject matter. It is common especially for adult clients to say things like “I don’t think this will work on me because of X, Y, Z” which could be anything from them not being comfortable sharing, them not trusting others, or them not being comfortable with therapy at all. If they still participate in the session, the therapeutic GM gets to meet them within the game and facilitate so that they can project on their character. When the client says that they want to distance themselves from their character, they are free to distance themselves – but sometimes the GM can challenge the client with check-in questions such as “is it you or your character that’s reacting right now?”

Therapeutic roleplaying games are different from other group therapies in that the development occurs discreetly through play rather than through direct confrontation – this is something many clients feel is positive. The roleplaying game can, in a sense, “sneak in” the therapeutic effect. And because it is based on a game, it is something clients can appreciate and enjoy without it feeling like work. Fantasy and metaphors are effective tools to let players associate with different ideas and concepts. Through a roleplaying adventure, the player gets to explore themes they would not otherwise necessarily recognize as connected to their own psychosocial difficulties. One informant in the study explained how a client group’s characters were all turned into werewolves. The adventure was first to find a cure but then ended up being about learning to control their werewolves. Using the fantasy as a tool to guide the clients is equivalent to symbolic play in a way; the fantasy becomes a metaphor for reality. The werewolf is a metaphor for anger – anger is real. One way of measuring a player’s development is by comparing the character they create at the beginning of the therapeutic game with the character they create a few months in. If the player feels that they no longer gain a therapeutic value by continuing to play the same character, it could be a sign that there has been personal growth. 

Social Training

Roleplaying games offer social training. Unlike the real world where everything happens so fast, it is possible to slow down a roleplaying game in order to create the time and space needed to reflect over what’s happening and test different approaches. A roleplaying game offers an endless amount of stimuli to interact with and many more opportunities for different interactions than what a person can realistically experience in real life. Many clients in need of social training are often people who are socially isolated in different ways. Many of them spend most of their time at home in front of a screen. Here they get the opportunity to play while the screen is removed and replaced with a table and others to interact with. It is common that clients who start out shy end up being diplomats and leaders for their groups. The treatment can counteract social isolation and encourage connection with others, both for clients with mental health difficulties and for clients with ASD. The group has a huge impact on the treatment. It is not uncommon for some clients to keep in touch with each other outside of sessions as well. People who were stigmatized and isolated find, through tabletop roleplaying, connections that they choose to hold on to. 

Personal Growth

The informants who work primarily with children and youth with ASD point out that people are the best they can be when they feel safe and have fun. The treatment helps children and youth, who have previously been defined by their disabilities or challenges, to reframe their own self-image. Many children and youth with behavioral issues are used to hearing things like “how do we get you to change?” when they should be hearing things like “what are you good at and what do you like?” The tabletop roleplaying games can through the narrative naturally increase prosocial attitudes. Many youths with ASD do not have a reason to want to be social, but the game can activate that will within them.

One informant let war veterans fill in a questionnaire after every session to be able to follow their growth over time. The results showed an increased ability to interact emotionally, to problem solve, to experience empathy as well as control negative emotions like aggression.

A Fun Alternative

A positive with therapeutic roleplaying games is that it is seen as a fun alternative for those who feel scared, degraded, or bored with traditional therapies. Many therapies feel like work which can be frustrating for many clients. The roleplaying games do not only bring play to the table, but also the positives of play. Through play, clients get to train their creativity, build self-confidence, see things from others’ perspective, and connect with others. Even the act of play itself is a skill they get to practice. 

Treatment Obstacles

For many with psychosocial difficulties, roleplaying games can be better as a complementing therapy that tackles certain symptoms and empowering the individual socially and emotionally. For example, a client may need individual therapy for their trauma or addiction. The treatment is also reported to have negative consequences on individuals who have a hard time distinguishing fantasy from reality. When there is magic and dangers in the game, it can be unhelpful to let that blend into the individual’s perceptions. Another risk is the possibility that clients could encounter stimuli that would trigger their trauma. Even if Session Zero and check-ins are used to reduce this risk, it cannot be eliminated completely. Some clients get extremely uncomfortable by depictions of violence, for example, even if the violence is fictional. Some individuals are seen as unfit for other reasons, such as by the fact that they could simply not be interested in roleplaying games at all, or they are interested in it as a hobby but not as a therapy. It is a positive that tabletop roleplaying games are a fun alternative to therapy, but if the clients get hung up on the fact that it is fun, they risk losing out on therapeutic payload.

Competence Demands

It is described how tabletop roleplaying games have been used successfully in family therapy, drama therapy, psychodynamic treatment, and behavioral treatment. The method is applicable on many diagnoses and alongside many theoretical models. However, the most important aspect of the treatment is that the therapist is competent both as a group therapist and as a GM. They need to be familiar with a roleplaying game and be comfortable playing it. It is also important that the therapist has some level of improvisational skills and an ability to share of themselves.

In treatment of ASD, a poor structure could have negative consequences. A therapeutic GM who does not resonate with their clients can cause harm – they can harm their own relationship with the client group, but they can also harm the therapeutic effects and the clients’ growth. Just like how structure is important for clients with ASD, the group dynamic is important for therapeutic payload. If a group consists of individuals at varying developmental stages, the treatment could be harmful for those at lower developmental stages. This is not a universal truth, but it is a risk that needs to be kept in mind when a therapist forms their group.

Conclusions

In summary, tabletop roleplaying games let clients experience fictional situations presented by a therapist where the goal is to awaken real emotions and subjects for reflection. In treatment of ASD, it is important with a solid structure while treatment of mental illness focuses more on the individual symptoms. One red line is that the method first of all provides social training in a safe environment where fantasy becomes an effective tool for projecting thoughts and ideas. The game also provides good opportunities for personal growth but can be limited in its applicability: individual therapy may be recommended for some symptoms that therapeutic roleplaying cannot reach. This type of treatment also requires other things from the therapist than simply experience in group therapy; the games need the therapist to be creative enough to construct a narrative, to roleplay alongside the clients, and to share of themselves.

We were two authors who made this study, and I was the one who had some level of familiarity with the subject matter beforehand. Since I have freelanced as an RPG writer, I also had some professional contacts with insight in the field. Even though the study was in Swedish I knew that we had to interview American practitioners because that is where the treatment method exists and flourishes. A literature study would not have been possible because of how niche the subject matter is, and because existing research is so limited. We also understood that the number of informants would be important for the study’s reliability. We were happy to find out that all informants we interviewed had experience treating both mental illness and ASD – there is also often an overlap between the two. Only three informants had experience with adult clients, which makes the reliability of information related to adult clients lower than that of kids and youth. 

There are many different types of roleplaying games with different rulesets and different genres, but the primary importance is in the structure surrounding the session itself – Session Zero, check-ins, and check-outs. These are essential structural parts so that the therapist can connect to the group. In treatment of ASD, more weight is put on the structure and it is a positive if the check-ins and check-outs look the same for every session. For mental illness, more weight is put on reflection and individual process in relation to the client’s thoughts and realizations.   

There is a lot that indicates that fantasy is an effective tool, and the way tabletop roleplaying games are structured gives room for a controlled distance between the client, the character, and the situation. This can, among other things, let the client group approach certain subject matters in a safe environment, and a lot of the treatment focus lies in identifying moments that can be used for personal growth. Only the social aspect alone is a common red thread for both mental illness and ASD. However, it is important to highlight that the method itself should not replace more evidence-based methods, especially when it comes to more serious mental illnesses, but there are good indications that this could be an excellent method for highlighting and reflecting over individual attitudes, and to provide broad social training and personal growth.

Art by EGinvent / Adobe Stock

What’s the deal with tabletop roleplaying games?

What are tabletop roleplaying games?

What is a roleplaying game really? Everyone has their own ideas and frames of reference when it comes to roleplaying games and what that term means to them. There are tabletop roleplaying games, live-action roleplaying games, massively multiplayer online roleplaying games; all of these are roleplaying games but they are also very different types of roleplaying games. Here, I will go through the basics of what tabletop roleplaying is, what misconceptions there are, and what to expect or not to expect from a session. I am also going to briefly talk about the history of tabletop roleplaying to give some context to what led up to where we are today.

In general terms, a tabletop roleplaying game is a game in which the players assume the roles of characters within a fictional setting. The players act out these characters’ roles within a narrative, and there is typically a formal system of rules and guidelines that dictate the outcome of these character actions. The exact nature of these guidelines is determined by the type of roleplaying game it is. 

A tabletop roleplaying game is a form of interactive and collaborative storytelling conducted in a small social gathering, usually by a small group of friends around a table, and often with snacks and drinks as well as the accessories you need for the game you are playing. These games tend to follow a pre-determined ruleset that varies from game to game. Traditionally, one participant takes the role of Game Master (or GM), though different games can use different terms to describe this role. The GM presents fictional scenes for the remaining participants who determine how the characters they portray interact with this scene. Each player controls a single character – the protagonists of the story – while the GM controls every other character that inhabits the scene. Traditionally, the GM’s characters are called Non-Player Characters, or NPCs, but some modern games have moved away from this term because, in essence, the GM is also a player of sorts. The Fifth Edition of Vampire the Masquerade uses the phrase SPC, from Storyteller-Played Character, with Storyteller being their definition of a GM. The players’ characters have traits derived from how the game’s narrative interacts with its ruleset. It is the sophisticated rules that make these games stand apart from improvisational theater or children’s games of make-believe. These rules determine consistency and structure in the experience, as well as uncertainty in the outcome.

In a traditional tabletop roleplaying game, levels of uncertainty are added and tested both to help guide the narrative, but also to add a chance of risk and reward. Whereas a children’s game of make-believe can create arguments between the participants – perhaps one child claims to have won something over another, and the other child refuses to admit it – tabletop games often use dice to give meaning to contests as well as to generate random outcomes when necessary. There are diceless games as well, and these may work differently from game to game. Some rely on player agreement, but like children’s games of more competitive make-believe, disputes may arise without a clear guideline on how to resolve outcomes. There are games that incorporate mini games or other games as a tool for resolution instead of dice; one example is Dread which uses a Jenga tower in order to resolve outcomes. The more fragile the tower becomes, the more fragile your psyche is, represented by the character’s dread. Should it fall, your psyche crumbles, and you are dead.

The history of tabletop roleplaying games

The first commercially available tabletop roleplaying game was Dungeons and Dragons (D&D), first created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax back in 1974. This was an effort to combine inspirational fantasy literature with the popular wargaming hobby. It was not as much made to be a roleplaying game as it was a complicated combat simulation game. People took this game and turned it into a roleplaying game. D&D was first published under Gary Gygax’s company TSR and, since it was a niche product, it wasn’t expected to sell too many copies. However, this game gave rise to the tabletop roleplaying game industry, and it is still the most popular tabletop roleplaying game even to this day, several decades and editions later. The same year as D&D came out, a less talked about roleplaying game called Empire of the Petal Throne came out. While this would not rise to the same level of fame as D&D did, it helped to inspire the direction of roleplaying games going forward as well, since it inspired Gary Gygax enough to purchase the rights to it and publish it under his own company the following year. What this game had that D&D would incorporate later was rules for critical successes – that extra meaning you give to rolling 20 on a die; the vital strike that deals more damage.  

Countless games would come out after D&D, most of them forgotten, but some standing out from the rest. Call of Cthulhu came out in 1981 and Paranoia in 1984, Cyberpunk in 1988 and Vampire the Masquerade in 1991. These games explored new genres and moved away from the wargaming roots towards a more narrative approach. Vampire the Masquerade, for example, emphasized storytelling more than combat simulations, and this widening of the tabletop roleplaying hobby helped it reach a broader audience as well. There were games for everyone.  

The 1980s was an interesting decade for tabletop roleplaying games. This was during the so called “Satanic Panic” where D&D was accused of causing negative spiritual and psychological effects on children. Though preachers scared parents into taking their children’s games away, academic research since have proven that there are no such negative effects to D&D or other tabletop roleplaying games. In fact, there is a lot of research indicating that roleplaying games can have an incredibly positive effect.

The tabletop roleplaying game hobby did decline in the 2000s, most likely because of competition from video games and collectible card games. This led more publishers to move online and to fewer books in stores. While it is still a fairly niche hobby even to this day, I think the 2010s and now going into the 2020s have been a period where the hobby has been moving mainstream. Much to this, I think, is thanks to Critical Role‘s success and the popularity in general for live action plays online. D&D is bigger today than it has ever been, and people getting into D&D leads to more people exploring other games than D&D as well, such as Cyberpunk, or my own favorite game Exalted.

Playing a tabletop roleplaying game

Tabletop roleplaying games are played like radio dramas, but the level of actual acting and immersion will vary from table to table and player to player. Many newcomers to the hobby have been introduced to it through live play shows such as Critical Role, but these shows are often focusing more on entertaining an audience than on portraying the game as it is played by the average group. There are groups who play or attempt to play like they do on the shows, but it is not the norm, and it is wrong to expect that to be the norm. When the shows are performed by professional actors, this further skews people’s impressions of what is expected of them as players.

My personal preferences are that I prefer when people speak in character, but I don’t generally like when people do “voices.” When I roleplay, I want to focus primarily on the theater of the mind (what you and your players visualize as the story unfolds) but this is different from actual theater. While I love watching shows like Critical Role or LA by Night, I don’t want to play like that myself, and I don’t want a newcomer to the hobby to assume that is the way the games are played.

There has been a lot of discussions about gatekeeping within the gaming community in recent years, and I want to highlight these, let us call them Critical Role Expectations, as a new type of gatekeeping. Tabletop roleplaying should be open and inviting to everyone, even those who are not comfortable with those levels of performance and immersion. I think that everyone can find something enjoyable in roleplaying, but what these things are vary from people to people. As for how I play the game, well, I can only share my own experience. If I am the GM for a game, I try to prepare a few scenes based on some story goals I want to reach in the session. If my players have already prepared their characters, I add in some details about things I expect from certain characters or things I want certain characters to have a chance to experience. This could be a few puzzles aimed towards a certain character’s skill set or perhaps a scene where an NPC with a connection to one of the player characters may partake. While I try to add as much as I can to cover as many possibilities as I can, my ultimate goal is to let the players guide the action with a few nudges by me here and there to try to keep things from derailing too much from certain pre-established story goals. I tend to have a few pages of notes as prepared material, but I often find myself looking at them only a handful of times in a session. Some Game Masters can easily improvise entire sessions without effort while others need a plan for every scene. I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle. I can improvise scenes well, but I am not good at improvising key story goals.

The GM’s role is much more complicated than the player’s role, and it is a much more daunting task to pick up this role. But if you are playing with friends who are actually respectful of each other’s experience, you will find that the players will often help you along when you stumble. One of my main tips for Game Masters is to not be afraid of failure. By realizing in the moment that you do not have a contingency in mind, you are forced to improvise, and even if you nervously stumble through a scene, players usually do not actually notice this even if you yourself feel like it is obvious that you do not know what you are doing. It is often in scenes like this when the most memorable moments are; those moments that surprise everyone at the table.

After I have prepared my notes for the session, I invite the players. We usually play on weekends when everyone is having off time, and we often meet up for lunch before the game, before heading to my place or to someone else’s. We start up the game slow, more jovial and social with a lot of casual chatter. We make coffee, hand out some snacks, and ease ourselves from social mode into game mode. Here is where different groups tend to have some different expectations, and it is good to communicate with each other what your own expectations should be. I see roleplaying night as being the same as social night, and I want everyone to have the freedom to speak when they want, take breaks when they want, use their phones when they want, refill their drinks when they want, and even drink what they want. If someone is not disrupting the game, I don’t mind if people drink alcohol or briefly want to mention something fun that happened to them the other day. A game session does not have to be formal. It must be fun. And sometimes just being social with friends is what is fun. However, when I feel that someone is interrupting an active and engaging scene, or when I feel that someone is getting annoyed by being interrupted as they are playing the game, then I will speak up and ask everyone to focus. I do not want the social chatter to take up more time than the game itself. I think a respectful player should read the atmosphere in the moment and then decide if them interrupting the game for an anecdote is appropriate in that moment. Sometimes this is easier said than done, though, and the interruptions are rarely mean-spirited.

I have some triggers at the table, though, and that is when too much time is spent arguing over rules. If there is something that cannot be resolved by taking a minute to confirm it in a book, then the GM makes a ruling, and the debate about whether it was a good or bad ruling can wait until after the session. There is a difference between interrupting a scene to make a joke that makes everyone laugh and interrupting another player who is currently immersed in the game. If you wait for the right moments, the social jabs here and there will make the evening more casual and fun. Some Game Masters run their games like a prison, with strict rules on how to behave, when to take breaks, when to speak up, and how to speak up. If that is what you like, go for it, but that is not fun for me. I think there are moments when that is necessary, but too much in either direction takes away from the fun. I think the best games have found a happy medium.

When the game is under way, what I expect from my players is nothing really too demanding than engagement and interest. They do not even need to know the rules very well. You can easily tell when a player is bored because they will start looking at their phone. I do not tell my players how to play their characters, to always speak in character, or how to resolve certain situations. I may have opinions about that, and I may prefer certain ways of doing things, but every player should get to decide for themselves how to play the game. They may ask for advice and I will give it to them. It is only when a player is disruptive in some way that I step in. What constitutes as being disruptive is something only you and your group can decide.

But how much roleplay is expected and how much is required? Some players will never be comfortable taking the role of the character, but they still enjoy the game just as much as someone who never leaves character. The difference is that a player who do not want to “play the role” can still guide their character’s actions through the game. Instead of speaking the line “Could you show me the way to the inn?” they’re guiding their character’s action by stating that “I ask someone where the inn is.” They still did the same thing and drew the same conclusions, but they could keep themselves separated from the character. Most players will do a mixture of both. Sometimes they speak in character and sometimes they suggest what their character speaks about without saying the words. Never enforce one way or the other. Always do what you are personally comfortable with. Often, players may want to get comfortable speaking in character, but they are not used to the social environment yet. If that is the case, I have found that it is helpful to get them to open up and immerse themselves more by using NPCs to help them practice. If you have an introverted player sitting quietly amidst extroverts, a good GM should take note of this and initiate some roleplay with them so that they do not feel the pressure to initiate it themselves. I started roleplaying when I was only eight years old, but there was a time during my high school years when I did not roleplay at all, and this made roleplaying as an adult feel super cringey at first. But that was mainly because I had not gotten a feel for the social environment yet and what attitudes the other players at the table had. If people remain engaged and respectful, I find that things relax fairly quickly. And if they do not, like I said, do not force it. People are different.  

The length of a session varies. When I was younger and had more free time, we often played throughout the night. I think the longest session I have had without rest was 26 hours. This was when we played the Daughter of Nexus story for Exalted 2nd Edition. I have also had a few sessions where we have played most of the day, slept for the night, and then continued playing in the morning. Nowadays, my sessions tend to be around six hours on a weekend, which is still a pretty long session, but we sometimes have breaks in between and we do not get together as often as we would like, so we try to make the most out of the time we do.  I do not think a new player should come in expecting sessions that last for that long, though. You will get a feel for what works for your group. I think that between three and five hours is an ideal length for most sessions. Time flies fast when you roleplay, and a session shorter than three hours will feel like it just went by. There is a special feeling to having those eight plus hour sessions, though, but they are not necessarily healthy, even though they can be a lot of fun. One session does not have to mean a finished game, either. Many groups play campaigns that sometimes last for years, with every session just being a brief progression within a never-ending story arc. My Dawn of the Chosen campaign for Exalted 3rd Edition took place from 2015 to 2021, the player characters got to visit almost every part of Creation, and it involved more than ten different players (though never more than five at the time) with different characters.

If you are interested in roleplaying and want to get into the hobby, whatever you do, do not feel intimidated. Start as a player if you can, since then you will have a GM who can show you the ropes, and do not hesitate to ask your GM questions when you are unsure what to do. As a player in a roleplaying game, you have the agency over your character’s actions. Some things are good to know about portraying characters in game, such as matters of consent, meta-gaming, and more, but for now, just try to take that first step into getting a chance at an actual game and remember that roleplaying is a social experience where everyone should have fun together.

Art by Firn / Adobe Stock

Some Patreon Updates

Manuscripts and the Transhuman Tier

I’m going to make a small change to the Transhuman Tier. So far, the only thing I’ve offered that’s exclusive to that tier are the video manuscripts. I want to make those manuscripts available to everyone, because some people prefer reading to watching a video. I don’t feel good about keeping them behind a paywall and originally did so to have something exclusive to offer at a higher tier. The manuscripts will be available to everyone from now on.

Instead, I’m going to offer an exclusive item of some sorts to that tier every month (at least try to). This could be a resource of some sorts or a preview of some content I’m working on. The first thing I’m going to post this month is a preview of an Exalted project I’m working on for the Storyteller’s Vault called Cursed But Not Bound. If anyone recalls my old necromancy homebrew from years ago, this is a derivation of that project. It’s basically rules for playable ghosts and playable deathlords with hundreds of arcanoi (and plenty of Eclipse-keyworded ones). Some of the Transhuman Tier content will be made available to others later on. Some will not. 

Patreon PDF

I also plan to make a Patreon-exclusive PDF at some point that’s a collection of material from my videos revised into a book of sorts that will include chapters on game commentary, RPG discussions, and more. The idea is to keep updating this PDF as time passes and use it as a resource filled with my combined RPG musings. The plan for now is to make this PDF available for all tiers, but more information will come down the line.

Machineborn

Machineborn is getting close to its complete draft, but work will continue to fine-tune the game and to improve the text. I’ll post a new version of the PDF soon with more setting material. As you all know, the corebook has been written and layouted at the same time. This is not the ideal way of making a book but something I did because I enjoy the layout process. I will continue to post previews of any supplement I’m working on after the corebook is done and released, but it’s possible that those previews will be text-only.

Productivity

It was easier to be productive when I was a student. Since I’ve started my professional career, there has been a lack of content. I apologize for that and I’m trying to figure out ways to crank out more content at a good pace without overworking myself. These projects are one of my true passions in life and I love working on them. Even if they slow down at times, I’m not giving up on them, and I plan to keep creating content for years to come. Please let me know what kind of content you like to see.