I first heard the term ‘playing to be affected’ in the rather excellent book The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide by James D’Amato, and I encourage people to go out and read it. Today in my own humble blog, I’d like to cherry pick why I think this could be the best piece of advice for new and experienced RPG players alike. Read on to be (hopefully) affected.
‘Playing to be affected’ is a tool used by improvisation performers to make sure that any scene they are partaking in actually contains something interesting. The joke about improv is that when it is bad, it’s like watching an inane interaction in the real world except you’ve probably paid to see it. Playing to be affected means that performers begin the performance with the goal to have their character be affected by whatever is happening – because performers have no idea what is going to happen, they have to commit to creating drama of some kind in order to be entertaining. You can probably see how this could relate to playing TTRPGs.
Now there are some things I want to make clear: No, not everyone plays TTRPGs in front of an audience. No, not every TTRPG group cares this much about narrative and character drama. But, I would say in response: Aren’t the other players technically kind of an audience? Aren’t you enjoying each others performances and stories? As a forever GM, I will tell you that I get the majority of my enjoyment in sessions watching the players doing cool and dramatic stuff. And if you want to drink beer and roll dice then that’s valid too, but you’re ignoring the bit that makes TTRPGs unique and great.
If you are playing to be affected, even though you have no clue what will happen in the session, it gives you conscious intent to create connections between your character and the scenes you find yourself in. It’s very easy to convince yourself that your character has no stakes in the scene, that they would stay quiet, or they would simply go through the motions of completing what the GM wants them to do. I solve the puzzle, I defeat the enemy, I persuade the NPC. Isn’t that how you win at TTRPGs? Well, yes and no. You’re smashing through the encounters with minimal resource depletion, racing towards the end of the adventure. But is that fun? Maybe, but also maybe not. Almost definitely not for the GM.
So what would the playing to be affected player do instead? They would find ways in which their character would be emotionally or intellectually invested in whatever is happening. This doesn’t have to be every encounter, but if you’re actively looking for it, you’ll certainly find it more often than you would otherwise. Think about your other players as an audience you want to entertain. After all they’ve given up their free time to do this activity with you! Do you simply accept the quest/perform the task/pass the time in a perfunctory way, or is this an opportunity to play out some dramatic moment? You begin to think ‘well actually, my character would have strong feelings about doing X, so they’re going to do Y’. Does it have to be optimal mechanical play? No. Is it fun to watch? Yes! And even if mechanically you’re playing as best as you can, it doesn’t mean narratively nothing happens. Yes my character is disarming this bomb with great skill, but they use this opportunity to show something about themselves.
It can be as easy as asking yourself ‘Why does my character care?’ and working to find out. This can be very difficult if your character is a blank page with no real discernible personality or back story, but having several bullet points from your back story or beliefs can be used to fuel many different interactions. Note however, that this should be balanced with not annoying the rest of the players (note that I say players and not player characters). More on that later. For now, lets look at an example of this from a campaign I played in a while ago:
Example: The Assassination
During our 40k campaign, the GM gave my character the optional task of assassinating a guardsman who was beginning to show psychic potential. Any fans of 40k will know that psykers are seen as dangerous outliers that must be either taken away for sacrifice or training, or be disposed of before causing great damage. The person in question would be in the camp that we would be arriving in shortly, and as a psyker myself, this was seen as a test of loyalty to the inquisition. I could have dealt with this in several ways:
- Option 1: I find out where they are, I wait until they’re alone, I use my not inconsiderate power to obliterate them, I gather my extra XP.
- Whilst this is technically achieving my goal, what exactly have I achieved apart from earning some extra reward? I had the limelight from the group and they got to see me attack something like they’ve seen me do dozens of times previously. It also implies that my character is a cold-blooded killer, so why would this have been a test at all? If this was in a film, it’d get cut!
- Option 2: I think about how I can gain the best positioning and result within the game. This is borrowing from the mechanics of games like Blades in the Dark, where I leverage my skills to give myself the best odds. I stalk my target, I gain information on them, I use my abilities or maybe my fellow characters to get them out to a deserted location.
- This is more interesting to watch, as the characters unique skills are being used to give them more success. Mechanically this is as good as it gets, and could still be cool to see. However, it still presents the character as an unfeeling murderer, something that my character most certainly isn’t, and doesn’t want to be
- Option 3: I not only use mechanical positioning as above, but also narrative positioning to make it as interesting as possible, and a cool character moment that reflects who the character is. To do this, I approach the psyker and leverage my skills, back story, and current beliefs to try to convince them that they are a danger and that they should give their life in service to the Emperor. Through this plan, I can play out the following about my character:
- They know the burden of being a danger to those around them, and so using this knowledge to empathise with the guardsman and get them onside
- They were raised to be manipulative, to get what they want through subtle words and emotional coercion – this is one of the skills the Inquisition saw in them in the first place and their psychic powers enhance it
- They are still not ready to kill in cold blood, and will risk failure to avoid it
- They give the soldier their own psykana mercy blade, a tool given to psykers to end themselves if the power of the warp overwhelms them. They prey on the soldier’s loyalties to their comrades, because the soldier would do what my character is too selfish to do
- They bring their fellow party member – a skitarii infiltrator – as back up just in case the plan goes wrong. They’re not stupid and plan accordingly
Now as a disclaimer I had a week in between sessions to prepare what my character would do, this wasn’t thought of in the moment. But you can see by having a handle on my character’s beliefs and backstory that I was able to bring a lot of it to the surface to create a cool scene for the other players. What’s more this didn’t put them or the mission in danger in any likely way, and they learnt more about the somewhat snarky Inquisition agent than they could through a dozen combat or standard social encounters (not to say that these vignettes can’t affect the mission, but more on that in a future blog about ‘Looking for Trouble’!) Ultimately, it was a really cool moment to play out that my GM was really into, and the other players enjoyed it. That’s what makes TTRPGs worth it for me.
Before concluding this, I want to point out my most simple piece of advice for playing characters in TTRPGs that I see players fail to do time and again and connects well with what we’re talking about: Do not be apathetic. That is, do not create a character that cares about nothing. Every protagonist you enjoy cares about something, and this is leveraged to create interesting stories. Even characters that start apathetic, slowly come to care about something or someone, and we learn why they are the way they are (usually some tragic backstory) but this is overcome quickly; Otherwise they would be incredibly boring to watch. In episode one, The Mandalorian was a gunslinging badass who only cared about earning creds…that lasted a whole 30 minutes until he found Grogu.
That wraps up playing to be affected! Improvisation is a skill that needs to be honed and practiced, and as a GM you get a hell of a lot more practice than PCs do, and I’ve been GMing for 8+ years – so no-one should feel bad if it’s something that doesn’t come naturally yet. The key thing to remember is, the more work you do up front, the easier it will be to improvise later down the line. It’s much easier to play out a scene as a character you know really well, than a character who is just an extension of what you want to do in the game, AKA the Commander Shepard (again, a blog for another time). And don’t forget you can always ask the GM for some of the limelight if you’re not getting it. There’s no harm in saying ‘I want to use this scene to show a bit of my character’s trait, can X happen?’ You’re playing the game as a group, you should all be working together to create cool moments.
If you made it to the end, congratulations! As your reward, you can have the option to let me know what you think in the comments below!