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Getting into Character: Specialzed Tools of Role-Playing Games
As previously discussed, players of tabletop role-playing games (RPG) make use of a plethora of tools to play their games as well as enhance the overall experience. To further upon that discussion, here are more tools that players have utilized to make their role-playing experiences more memorable and more enjoyable.
NOTE: the contents of this article pertain to conventional table-top role-playing games and not to video game RPGs or MMORPGs. Unlike the aforementioned previous article, most of the tools described here may not be applicable to online groups. Where exceptions exist, they shall be noted, however.
Role-playing games are distinctly games that explore and ignite the imagination of its participants. Gamemasters (GMs) and players weave colorful phrases to evoke the exact image of the scene, action, or character into the minds of their fellow players. To aid and ease this process, many players utilize artwork of various media. The artwork provides an image without having to delve into overly elaborate description and does not rely on having an extensive vocabulary to convey the exact image. Also with artwork players get to have a consistent image to work with; both in remembrance of the subject but also all participants get to see the same thing.
As mentioned, there are numerous means of visual expression for players to use. Many players of talent choose to draw or sketch out character profiles (of their own characters or of other players; even the GM’s non-player characters [NPCs]). Players drawing out their character portraits may also use digital means to furnish a final product (i.e. Photoshop, Paint, etc.) A more common means among players is to utilize internet image searches (typically Google) to find pictures that approximate what the player imagined for their character(s). One fairly unique approach to visualizing characters for game sessions is to “cast” actors in the roles of the characters. Obviously there isn’t an actual audition process and people aren’t hired to stand around for the players’ amusement; rather the players (most often the GM) select headshots or other pictures of actors and use them as the basis for the character’s visual design. This technique also helps with the storytelling because now players familiar with the actor know how the character should sound as well!
For online gaming groups, players can utilize customized avatars and profile pictures for their characters. Depending on the specific programs/games being played, players may even have the option to generate a unique image of their character for game play.
Another layer of memorable characterization in RPGs is voice work. Players and GMs often have an idea about how a character may sound; and those with the talent often try to mimic that voice during game play. It often does not matter how well executed the voice is because the purpose is to further embody the character (without losing sight of the boundary twixt real life and the game world) and to give a stronger sense of reality to the character (again, without blurring the lines of reality). Although the better the imitation, the more convincing the effect is and the more memorable the performance/character; not to mention the less grating it is in comparison to underwhelming/subpar efforts, but everyone has to start somewhere. One challenge with this approach is that some voices can come across accidentally comedic (or overly comedic in cases with humorous intent) and can threaten to derail the mood or momentum of the game; however, with repetition and familiarity the voices will lose their novel comedy and players will become accustomed to the voices. Voice work also provides the secondary benefit of differentiating between the player’s speech and their character’s; so players can converse normally and switch into their character’s voice when they want their character to say something.
Online groups with access to the right hardware and software can also make use of character voices. Many programs allow for voice-chatting and thus the voice work can come across clearly for all participants.
Role-playing games tap into the imagination of the players and all them to experience the fictional world with the senses of their mind’s eye. The tools of artwork and voice work help solidify the sounds and images of the story. But what about the other senses? With the use of realia (props), players can experience the game on a new level. The use of props makes for a more direct interaction with the game and story. Instead of trying to visualize an object, the experience is made more real and memorable by actually holding it (or at least a reasonable facsimile). GMs and players can incorporate unique moments into their games with outside-the-box thinking; such as one group brought in a platter of fruits to help simulate a feast in-game and as a snack for the players. Sometimes the prop can be used as a challenge for the players. GMs can include Rubik cubes and other puzzles to represent story obstacles or traps, but more on that in a moment.
As with any activity, repetition can lead to banality and boredom. Sometimes it is important to break up the routine and spice things up a bit; some GMs use mini-games to do just this. Not to be confused with miniature games, mini-games are games played within the game session that serves a function within the context of the story. As mentioned in Props, GMs can make use of puzzles for the players to have a deeper experience. One such use could be for the players to solve the puzzle in place of having to make a die roll for their character; this could simulate having to disarm a trap, picking a lock, or any other challenge that may require intellect and perception in order to overcome. Mini-games can come in any number of forms: puzzles, thinking-challenges, riddles (very common), trivia challenges, or even using another game to play out some unique challenge.
Another tool to help stimulate the senses during game play is music. Just as in movies, music can provide atmosphere to the session with the correct notes and rhythm. It is important to do research and find the right music to fit your game and scenes. After all, playing carnival music during a murder mystery may not have the desired effect of setting up mystique and suspense; likewise playing a horror-inspired track would not work during a more light-hearted moment. Beyond the background, creative players and GMs can establish certain pieces to being a theme for certain characters or moments; again, a method straight from the film industry.
While there are innumerable sources to choose from, group Midnight Syndicate has accrued a following among the gaming community in particular. In fact, the group released an album specifically composed as background music for role-playing sessions. Another album even won an award at Origins as Best Gaming Accessory.
GMs often like to go the extra mile to impress their players with their innovative thinking and the effort they put into the game. If the GM is as invested in the game and story, then it is best when the players reciprocate and reward that effort; overall it makes for a more entertaining and positive experience. One method to invest in the game as a GM is to provide three-dimensional maps (3D maps) of settings/scenes for your sessions. This evokes more of the imagination and immerses the players deeper into the game; it is far more interesting and fun to be moving your miniature through the dungeon when you can clearly see the walls and not just a drawing of the walls. Naturally the challenge with this approach is that it is rather costly in either time and/or material. Foam core and corrugated board (e.g. cardboard) are efficient materials to construct the frames/backings for structures. Insulation foam is also a great product to use for very thick walls and bases/foundations*.
Certain manufacturers produce ready-to-play scenery and other walls or corridors and the like. Other companies make terrain pieces that come unpainted and unassembled. Still others provide reusable molds for customers to make their own pieces from plaster or other materials.
* CAUTION: when handling insulation, the particles are dangerous to inhale and crafters should wear protective gear and/or work in open/well-ventilated areas.
Representing a character in voice, image and background tone (e.g. theme music) are certainly great to help bring a weight of realism to the character and make them more than a few numbers written on paper. But what more can be done; how about dressing up as them? Yes, certain players and GMs get into costume to get more in the spirit of the game. As with artwork and voice-work, cosplay (the act of dressing up as a specific character and, typically, “getting into character”) allows for creative expression by the role-players; in this case, through costume design and, occasionally, prop design and fabrication. More importantly, it allows for a greater immersion of the character and therefore a richer experience of role-playing; the player has an opportunity to embody their character in a healthy and supportive manner without crossing any unhealthy boundaries. As with other tools discussed here, this can be a very costly method to utilize; depending on the cost of materials to either fabricate or to simply shop around for complete outfits.
Cosplaying is also seen in another form of role-playing: live-action role-playing games (LARP). In LARPs the players act out the actions of their characters in a real environment with constraints in place for safety and well-being purposes. Author’s note: I am not very experienced with LARPs or LARP’ing. As such I am uncomfortable discussing the matter further with any sense of “authority” or “expertise.” Even still, I would rather address the topic more fully in depth on its own.
The author does not claim ownership over any of the images used for this Hub. All images were found from Google Image search.