Last week we discussed your character’s thoughts. This week we talk about the actions your character takes.
Habit #4. Make a Stand.
It’s quite possible to make it through a session where your character is never exposed to any emotional or physical risk. A game where you always make the right move and maintain a perfect balance between right and effective action.
Such a game would be completely boring to me.
It’s not because I have problems with effective action, and it’s not because I want players to work against their own self-interests merely for entertainment. What I know when things are too safe and running too smoothly is that, while the group might be making correct actions, no one is taking bold action. No one is taking a stand.
I want to see characters putting themselves in positions where their beliefs, positions, and sometimes well-being can be challenged. When you play it safe, you’re avoiding what makes that possible — conflict. Making a lot of safe choices protects you, but makes our game a bit dull.
(Now, before we go on, I’m going to state that there are styles of play that take the exact opposite stance I take. That is OK, and I hope you realize that while I’m not championing that style I realize it’s a valid style of play. Carry on and do your thing.)
It might seem like I’m advocating you taking needless risks, but that’s not it at all. What happens in any good story is that most of the time our characters are being who they are, in situations that put them in conflict with other forces and characters. At times, they are forced to make choices or take actions that bring what I like the think of as the “pitchfork”: A three pronged road where to either side are a safe and a reckless choice, and in the middle is a choice that only that character can make. Good shows bring their protagonists to the pitchfork at least once or twice an episode. If a character veers off to either side, we now that something is wrong; the character is obviously compromised or weakened somehow. If that character keeps taking the side roads, something is seriously wrong with the character or something is seriously wrong with the show (for me, Boss is a great display of the former and the current season of Dexter is a great display of the latter). We want to see that character walk the middle road, whatever the consequences, and we want to see what the result of that character being who she is. It’s compelling in the stories we read and watch, and it’s compelling in the stories we play.
I need to repeat: this is not about taking crazy risk or being obstinate and creating bottle-necks. It’s about knowing or learning who your character is and moving forward down the path that opens only for your character. You can see where this piggybacks on Habit #3, because once you start thinking about your character’s thoughts, it aligns you and the character in such a way that you can start taking action as that character. “What does my character think?” rolls naturally into “What does my character do?” If your goals and desires are vivid enough, what you should have a character that is a little bit unreasonable in a few ways.
Not “disagreeable”. Not “surly and uncommunicative”. Not “I’m going to set a roadblock up in the middle of the session”. Simply unreasonable. Every good story has one or more characters who have decided that they are going to be unreasonable. Where others bend, they will not bend. The players I want are going to play characters who do this, not to stop play but to build it.
As a GM, my main tool to encourage such play is to eradicate these words: “nothing happens”. Something must always happen. It doesn’t have to be good –a failed roll might get you killed or locked up or whatever — but it has to be something. Imagine you’ve waited for twenty minutes for your turn. You announce your intent, roll a die and you fail. “Nothing happens.” That’s painful. Pain like that leads players straight to bet-hedging mode. If I know I have this small window of a roll or two rolls to have an entertaining moment, I’m going to play it safe, and I’m not going to roll the dice until I’m sure that I’ve got something providing a buffer against “nothing happens”.
Narration goes a long way here, but if your system allows it (or you want to design it), use whatever tools you have to give the player interesting (if not favorable) feedback. Even bad news is better than no news. Another good trick is to make players own their failure. “How did you screw that up?” is a great way to make even a failure a source of entertainment.
To get players to play less safe, it is vital that you as a GM create and environment where both success and failure are active and vibrant parts of your game.