Describing your actions in Role Playing Games.

describing-actions

In any Role Playing game, certain mechanical aspects typically take care of weather or not an action is successful. Rolling a dice to determine if you “hit” your opponent, and then again too see how much damage you inflict is a very common thing. Making a dice roll to determine if your character spots a hidden object, or if he can sneak up on an enemy are also common rolled for elements. This being said, just simply saying, “Ok yes you hit and you did eleven hit points of damage, or yep, you successfully sneak up on the Orc guard“, are pretty shallow and quiet frankly boring ways to describe the outcomes of those actions. I briefly touched on this subject in another post, but in this article I want to go into more depth about how and why you should learn to become proficient at describing your characters actions, both in and out of combat.

Ever wonder why sometimes in a movie or television adaptation of a book, the characters seem to speak way more than they did in the novel? the reason for this is primarily due to a difference in the type of media. In a book, an author can describe what a character is thinking, on screen, the characters actions must be visual or spoken. Otherwise the audience would not be aware of the inward thoughts of a particular character. it is much the same in a Role Playing Game. You have to describe your characters thoughts and actions if they are to be perceived by others at the table, or in some cases (such as it is on my show Howreroll) the audience.

I consider it a skill for both player and DM to be able to describe actions during a game, and one that can be improved and developed over time. I am going to break this down into two sections. First I will discuss describing actions in combat and in physical situations, and then I will talk about describing more subtle actions.

In Combat, the first thing to remember is that despite things being done in an orderly turn based fashion in most games, real combat is far from orderly. In Dungeons and Dragons a combat round is six seconds. So what occurs in a round is what a particular character does during that six second exposure of time. In reality everything is happening at once, with fractions of a second separating the individual movements between the combatants. In combat you should put effort in to describing the entire action of your character or NPC, and offer the ability for others to play off of those descriptions. Instead of simply saying “I attack the ogre with my sword” be more descriptive. “I charge forward with my weapon raised, and swing my sword at the Ogres left leg. As I do so I let out a loud war cry, to distract the Ogres attention away from the cleric!” This is a far more entertaining and visual description of the action, and allows the DM to play of off that description. He may say something like “Hearing your War Cry the Ogre spins around to face you and prepares to meet your assault, his focus is now on you and not the cleric”. Then you would roll to hit, and if successful you would roll for damage. Based on the amount of damage done the DM can now describe the outcome. As a DM do not just say “you hit for eight hit points of damage“. Instead it should be something more along the lines of “Your sword finds its mark, and opens up a deep gash in the Ogres left thigh, blood begins to flow from the wound as the Ogre winces in pain“. If it was a particularly high amount of damage (in relation to the Ogres hit points) the DM can go on further and say something like “The Ogre staggers backwards a few steps and glances down at the blood pouring down his leg, you notice a look of panic begin to form on his brutish face“. In a situation like this I may also imply some kind of disadvantage to the Ogre for his next action which help to reward the player for their descriptive efforts. Some DM’s like to allow the player to describe the outcome and damage of the hit itself, I tend to lean away from that for reasons I describe in this post here, although I am sometimes happy for them to describe their killing blow. This being said I do want them to be descriptive in the attempt. In short, you describe to me what you character is attempting to do, and after the dice are rolled, I will describe to you the outcome.

It can be helpful to wrote down a list of descriptive combat words. Slash, chop, hack, cleave, thrust, lunge, swing wildly etc are good flavor adding words to a description. Also think about visualizing the attack itself, and describe it as you see it in your minds eye. Being mindful of the type of weapon you use will also help determine the description. A mace will often find its attack description including words like bash, smash or crack instead of lunge, thrust or stab. Try to describe the body location your character is trying to hit. In some cases you may be attempting to make a “called shot” in others it may just be what body part you are swinging for. The DM can then work with that when he describes the outcome of the blow, based on how much actual damage is done. If a player says something like “I sidestep and swing my axe overhead, trying to bring it down and bury it in the goblins skull“, I can look at the damage and then describe the outcome. If the damage is very low, I may say “Your axe blow hurtles down towards the Goblins skull. At the last second, he leans back and instead of cleaving his head in two, your axe blade puts a cut in his cheek and continues down to open up a small wound in his chest“. On the other hand if the damage was high, I may say “The blow strikes the Goblins skull cutting a deep gash in his head, the blade glances down from his round head and digs deep into his shoulder, as he cries out in agony!” Finally if the blow was a killing blow, I may tell the player “your blow kills the goblin, describe how it happens“, or say something “your axe reigns down on the Goblin, its heavy blade hits the dead center of his skull, and his head spits open as easily as if you were splitting a log. The weight of the axe continues to drive the blade deep into the goblins chest, as a shower of blood covers you and the floor! As you remove your axe, the Goblins corpse falls lifeless to the ground.” Of course you do not have to be as graphic as I was in the above examples, but you get the idea. Another point it to try to string your attacks together if you have multiple attacks. Instead of saying “I attack the Troll three times with my sword“, it would be far better to say “I lunge forward, and thrust my sword at the trolls belly, then real back and slash at his right side, and finally make a mighty overhead swing aiming to smash his collar bone!” A monk for example has a great deal open to him from a descriptive stand point. “I throw a left jab at the Orcs face, and follow it up with a strong right cross aimed at his jaw. I then spin around and try to land a back kick to the Orcs exposed stomach“! As I mentioned above, its a good idea to write down some key phrases and words that apply like, Jab, cross, uppercut, left and right hook, front kick, round kick, side kick, back kick, knee strike, elbow strike spinning kick etc etc. In the spur of the moment it will help you put your descriptions together, especially if you visualize it.

Bringing descriptive use of terrain or geographical features into play is also something I encourage. A good DM should take care to create a a living battlefield for each encounter, be it a tavern or a cavern. Allowing for the possibility of improvised weapons or elevation changes. Also providing obstacles or cover. These can not only help bring a battle to life and make it more fun and interesting, but allow for more description. “I leap up on the table, and attempt to kick the brute in the face!” “When I see the Hobgoblin raise up his crossbow, I take of running and dive behind the large pile of rocks to the left to get behind cover“. These are examples of how terrain can be useful in bringing the combat to life and providing assets for description. In general your goal in Combat is to use description to bring the encounter to life, allowing everyone concerned to imagine what is happening and as such adding to the gaming experience.

Now lets take a look at being descriptive with things other than combat. You can describe your characters actions to help imply, emotional state, intent, reaction, interaction etc. For example instead of just saying “I walk into the bar and find a seat“, you could elaborate a little and say something like “I walk into the tavern, I sniff the air to see if there is a chance of a good hot meal and then glance around looking for an open table or a seat at the bar“. Now at this point, (and before I go any further) I want to mention a style of play called Narrative play. This is where players are encouraged to go into GREAT detail about everything they do. In this form of play the above example would have been more like the following. “I cautiously swing open the old and heavy wooden tavern door, as I do so I inhale the welcome smells of roasted chicken, pipe weed and strong ale. I allow my eyes to wander around the tavern tap room, as I take stock of all the patrons that are currently enjoying the delights that the tavern has to offer. Spying an empty table, I cautiously move towards it, taking great care not to bump into any of the existing patrons. I pull out a chair and slump down into it wearily. My arms rest heavy on the table as I spend a few moments to relish the much needed rest. my mind wanders to recall the hardships of the three day journey I have just endured“. Some people enjoy this type of play, I personally like description, but prefer it be limited to some degree so that it does not overly slow down game play. If you do not want your character to speak, you can also use a description to provide his emotional state or response. An example of this would be “I frown and glare at the nobleman disapprovingly, but I bite my tongue and say nothing“. Alternatively you could say something like “You see me lean against the wall and frown and glare at the Nobleman“! These are both ways to let the rest of the people involved in the game know that while your character has not spoken, he is clearly not happy. There are many instances where being a little descriptive can add to the flavor and immersion of the game. here are a few more non specific examples. “I crouch low and quietly try to sneak over to the window. I carefully try to peep inside, while keeping as much of myself  hidden as possible“. “I climb up on my horse as quickly as possible, and with a swift kick I spur my horse onward to chase the bandits“. “I snatch the coins from the counter with a scowl, and thrust them into my belt pouch, a silver piece hits the floor, but I don’t bother to pick it up and instead I storm out the store”! Just adding a few key words into the description of an action can really help bring the scene to life, and just as importantly it can allow a player to participate even when his character has nothing to say, or does not want to speak.

Casting a spell is another good moment when description can add something to the game. “I cast feather fall” could be replaced with something way more fun and descriptive like “I circle my arms once and emulate the flapping of a birds wings as I say Avarian Tarda Cadere, and you see small spectral feathers surround me as I fall from the cliff and my decent slows down considerably allowing me to land safe and unharmed on the ground“. The fun that can be had with spell description is never ending, and I enjoy listening to the variety of ways different players may describe the casting of the same spell.

Being descriptive IS work, and for some it can take time before it becomes second nature. The work is definitely worth while though, and you can write down words to help you as I suggested earlier. Adding description to your game play is something both players and DM’s should take the time to work on. It may not happen over night, but over time it will elevate your game sessions.

Good Luck and happy Gaming!

“Gorebad takes a deep breath and sits back in his chair. He really wishes he was a better writer, but he feels like he managed to make his point. He stretches his arms above his head and stretches his lower back, as it has become somewhat stiff from his poor posture while typing. He then hits the save and Publish button as another blog post is made public”.

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The Loner/outsider character. Why and why not.

loner-characters-banner

As a DM of over 35 years, the one character personality type I see more often than any other is the moody loner or outsider. On face value, it is easy to see the appeal of playing a character like this. We have all seen those mysterious loner characters on Television and Film, (like The man with no name in the spaghetti westerns or Wolverine in X men) and they always seem so alluring. This being said they are also probably the character types that I see more commonly fail than any other. I am going to delve into this type of character personality, and explain why it is not necessarily the fun character people think it will be, and how to play it well IF you do decide to go down the road of the introverted loner.

So what do I mean by Loner or outsider character? well I refer to the character that while being in a group, tends to still try to keep themselves to themselves to some degree. They often choose to sit alone, or keep secrets from their other party members. They choose not to trust the rest of the party, and do not open up about their past or back story. Their are several potential issues with playing characters with this kind of personality.

  • You are playing an anti social character in a social game.

This can cause issues in a variety of ways. As a player you will often be excluding yourself from good Role Playing opportunities. For example, if you decide that instead of talking to the NPC you sit alone in the corner and let the rest of the group handle the conversation, you will be creating dead game time for yourself. You may be fine with this initially, hell it may even be fun. However time and time again I have seen these characters get retired early when the initial novelty wares off. It causes difficulties for the rest of the group too. The other players will want to try to include you, but if you keep shrugging of their attempts, sooner or later the other players will stop trying, and then the player of the loner character ends up feeling left out or literally an outsider in the group. The whole point of Role Playing Games is to be involved in a social activity, and have fun. If you create a character that is adverse to this idea, then do not be surprised when you spend much of the time at the gaming table sitting in silence.

  • Your characters secrets and backstory won’t mean much if they are never revealed.

It may seem fun to have deep secrets about your character. Things that you alone know and the other characters are unaware of. Well the problem with that is that if no one is aware of it, it doesn’t mean much. Unless you either choose to clue in the rest of the characters (so they can enjoy it), or at the very least work with the DM to bring your back story into the forefront and allow it to be explored during the campaign its worthless. The day you get killed by a Storm Giant and then say ” Oh man, my character was actually a prince from a foreign land, trying to hide and flee from his uncle who wanted him dead, so he could take the throne, and one day he would return and slay his evil uncle and become king”. You can expect little more than a few shoulder shrugs from the rest of the players.

  • Being an outsider often leads to distention.

The more time your character is alone and the more secretive it is, the less the other characters have a reason to trust you. Keeping yourself to yourself and keeping secrets will eventually lead to distrust. At this point you and the rest of the characters may find yourselves at awkward impasses at best or conflict at worst. Often this happens regardless of the actual honesty or trustworthiness of the character in question. The bottom line is that all that secretiveness leads to distrust. Maybe you want to play a character that is distrusted by the rest of the group. If so that is fine, but as always you reap the consequences of your choices as a player. What amazes me the most is when the loner player then wants to blame the rest of the group for not including them. Remember, if you choose this path it is your responsibility to find ways to be included. You can only expect the rest of the gaming table to try so hard before losing the desire to bother.

  • You can be making your Dungeon Masters life difficult.

If you decide to play a character like this, it is imperative that your DM is aware of your intent. It may be far more difficult for him to provide you motivations, and hooks if he is not aware of your characters personality. Remember the players and the DM should be working together to create a story, not be adversarial to each other.

 

OK so I have given you some reasons why you may not want to play a character like this. I also said above that I was also going to tell you how to play it well IF you still decided you wanted to play a character with this personality type, so here goes.

 

The first thing is to COMMUNICATE as a player to the DM and the rest of the group. While your character may be a loner, it does not mean you should be. Make sure the other players know that your character is acting this way for a reason, even if you do not want to tell them that reason yet. Yes I said YET because as we said above, its useless to have secrets if they are not ever revealed at some point during the game. Talk with the DM and discuss your backstory, and work with him to give it some relevancy in the campaign. make no mistake it is YOUR responsibility to work with the DM with your character, not his responsibility to drag it out of you. Be proactive in talking to the DM, he is not a mind reader and as you are the one who wants some special concessions or situations injected into the campaign, so it is on you to take the lead to help him make it happen.

Even if your character says nothing, you can still Role Play his actions. For example. A group of adventurers are standing outside of a castle, talking to the captain of the guards about a recent increase in theft of local cattle. One of the characters is hanging back, standing several feet away from the conversation and for whatever reason, is avoiding the Captain of the guards. Instead of just saying, “I am not going over to the guard captain and staying back”, and then allowing ten of fifteen minutes of Role Play to happen without them being involved, you can Role Play your actions. “I seem noticeably anxious and a little nervous when I see the guard captain, so I loiter back. You see me lean against the wall with one foot pressed against it, and I begin to fidget awkwardly with a piece or string that I pull from my pocket. DM I would like to try to eavesdrop the conversation if possible from here”. As the Role Play continues have your character seemingly react to pieces of information that he over hears, “Hearing the mention of a local thief, My head lifts up and for a second I turn in the groups direction, before quickly averting my gaze once more”, or have him kick a rock with his foot. In short stay involved with the Role Play. One thing that is typically NOT conducive is to try to go off and do things on your own. More often and not you will just be bogging down the game and forcing the DM to divide valuable game time between you and the rest of the party. While you are being the loner, CHOOSE not to do things that will hamper of slow down game play, especially unnecessarily.

Another piece of advise is to take the openings given to you to expand your story. If you bother to Role Play out your actions, when a fellow player bounces of your description allow it to go somewhere. Do not just shut them down. In the above example, if a fellow character asks you “Hey you seemed really nervous to be near the Captain of the Guards, whats the deal”? Do not just say, “oh I wasn’t you were mistaken”. Let it go somewhere. That is one of the ways that great Role Play moments happen. Instead you could tell a brief story about how you have had a run in with him in the past, or how you and he grew up together and he bullied you. you could even use that moment to open up a little to another character, and let a piece of your back story come to the forefront. maybe you are wanted in another city and just want to keep a low profile. Whatever the reason, allow it to be part of the game, and not just some unspoken thing.

This brings me to make a point and one I will address in depth in another blog topic. Always describe your actions. As a long time DM I see this as a mark of a good Role Playing Gamer. Describing your characters physical actions adds so much to the game. From your intent and description of each attack, to how you plan on intimidating the door guard. As a loner you are often not going to speak up or volunteer information. However in real life, many a word goes unspoken, and your actions can tell the tale that your words do not. Describe your characters actions, and moods etc, if your character is not saying anything, instead describe his facial expressions, mannerisms and actions. “I snatch the chair out from under the table and sit down with a slump, exhaling loudly and folding my arms across my chest”, is a great way to let the other players know your character is upset about something without saying a word. Such actions will probably prompt a reaction from the other players and lead to great Role Playing opportunities. You can also use these type of descriptive actions to help hint at back story elements, or prompt other players to ask questions however, be realistic in your expectations of other characters. If you have spent much of the time not communicating, or have not given the party a reason to trust you, do not expect them to suddenly begin to do so when it suits you. Understand the other characters personalities and motivations and use that knowledge to better develop your character with reasonable actions. Here is an example. If your character once was a rich nobles daughter, who was disowned for falling in love with a stable boy, you may think that by saying “As I pass by the stables, you see me pause and look inside longingly. You see a single tear run down my cheek”. Is a great way to invite the other characters to stop and say something like “Oh whatever is the matter Esmeralda”? Well if the other characters are a grumpy Dwarf, a self serving rogue and a brutish barbarian, that is not a realistic expectation. Why WOULD they care, or even notice? However a compassionate bard, or a fellow female character, may be more likely to pick up on it and react. Be sure that the other characters can be realistically expected to pick up what you put down. Otherwise you may just get met with disappointment or discouraged when they do not react when you want them too.

Above all else you need to find ways to INCLUDE the rest of your party in your story, even while being a loner. That way everyone gets to be part of the fun, and I can promise you it will be a far more rewarding feeling. Remember that while you may have chosen to play a character that is a loner, you do not have to be a loner as a player, and you can still be very involved in the game. Everything you do as a player is a choice. If you choose to create scenarios for yourself that exclude you from the action or Role Play, that is on you. The more you are included, the more fun you will have. It can be a challenge to play a loner or outsider and it is not easy to do it well. more often than not, most fail. However I have seen a rare handful of amazing loner characters grace my table, and when done well they can be rewarding. More often however, this is not the case.

Happy gaming…….