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Let's Talk Roleplay

Gwenevere Rothwell

Apr 14, 2023

Roleplaying is the act of playing within a role. Straightforward enough, right? When you play a TTRPG, you take on a role—a character. These sorts of games are best experienced when you make an actual character with goals, a personality, ideals, motivations, and morals...

Image by Kiwihug

Roleplaying is the act of playing within a role. Straightforward enough, right? When you play a TTRPG, you take on a role—a character. These sorts of games are best experienced when you make an actual character with goals, a personality, ideals, motivations, and morals. These can be as broad, as refined, or as thought out as you’d like. You could come into play with the idea of someone who wants to get super rich, is in it for himself, is a bit of a coward, but maybe has a soft spot for people who are younger than him, kinda like a flawed older brother. This is by no means the be all end all way to do this though, and at the end of the day, roleplay is very subjective. You can even build out and test out aspects of your character as you go. I like to call this process “tinkering” as you tinker away with ideas and details of a specific character. Maybe your tinkering is never complete, and that’s totally fine. At the end of the day, it’s your character.

It’s a Team Effort

There are some basic guidelines to follow when making a character in a team-based setting, or more so recommendations. TTRPGs are very focused on the idea of teamwork. Working with your friends rather than against them. You need to work together to survive the dungeon, slay the dragon, and save the prince. With the aforementioned example of our greedy friend seeking treasure, maybe he doesn’t need all of the treasure and won’t steal from the party—after all, he needs them to help him through the dungeons they face, but if it comes down to an item that he particularly wants that no one else needs, then maybe he’ll be a bit more greedy. GMs could see this and work with the player. Maybe the greedy character wants a bust with emeralds for eyes, which is, say, worth 150 gold. Meanwhile, scattered around are various other smaller objects, gems, and loose gold that total up to 450 gold for the other three adventurers (split evenly to be 150 gold each). When playing characters with particularly glaring flaws for a team-based environment, it’s best to compromise out of character and work with your players and the GM. Again, using the above example, maybe the greedy character thinks that the bust is worth more, maybe thinking it’ll sell for 500 gold when he sees it, but later comes out to find out that it’s not worth anything close to that much. Meanwhile the GM has told the greedy character’s player the actual cost beforehand.

I find that the most fun characters to play are ones with a motivation, some sort of quirk tied to that motivation, a flaw tied to that motivation, and something that makes them willing to venture with the party. Another example is the neutral good “I must heal all,” style of cleric who does no harm to her enemies, heals her allies, but maybe isn’t against the idea of self-defence or at least the idea of her allies attacking her enemies, and she might provide healing to the party’s defeated foes after the battle is done and won (and the enemies are safely and securely tied up).

Crunchy Systems

Something I hear more often than not is the idea that if a system is ‘crunchy’ it is impossible to roleplay in. But what does this mean, why do people say it, and why is it fundamentally incorrect?

‘Crunchy’ is a term that is used to describe a system that is heavy on numbers and mechanics. “Crunching the numbers,” as it were. It has a certain complexity to it that others of its kind may not have. Monopoly is a crunchy board game compared to Connect Four. The original Pathfinder 1st Edition is crunchier than the TTRPG Fate. Pathfinder 2nd Edition is considered a crunchy system because it has a lot of customization, options, skills, mechanics, and choices.

As someone who grew up with Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 Edition where the game is incredibly crunchy, I don’t understand the correlation between crunch and the inability to roleplay. My friends and I were huge into roleplay, and in fact, it was that aspect that drew me to the system in the first place. The feeling that you can be anything, do anything, see anything, fight anything, was incredible to my child mind (and I still find it absolutely amazing as an adult). The rules and systems put in place give a level of risk, reward, and in-world grounding to your actions. If you could punch an Ancient Dragon in the face so hard that you shatter its skull at level 1, then what’s the point?

So, why do people say that it’s impossible to roleplay in? Because more often than not, they’re not used to the rules or the language involved. Using Pathfinder 2nd Edition as my prime example here because it’s the focus of my site, the system uses mechanics: traits, variable DCs, a three action economy.

Let’s say I’m playing a Wizard and I cast Daze. Daze costs two actions to cast, requires a standard will save, and on a crit fail the target is stunned 1. It has the Cantrip, Enchantment, Mental, and Nonlethal traits. It requires both somatic and verbal components. So, how would I convey this information? Well, one way you could do it (and there’s no way of doing it wrong, and this will often be how new players and GMs convey the information) is, 

“I use two actions to cast Daze. It’s a Cantrip, so it doesn’t cost me a spell slot, it’s an enchantment spell, it’s a mental effect, and it’s nonlethal. They have to make a will save, and if they fial they take my intelligence modifier… which is 3 as damage, and if they critically fail they are stunned 1 for 1 round which… reduces their total actions for their next turn by 1.”

This conveys all the information that the spell describes to the GM, but you don’t need to explain all of that. Instead, you can break it down. What are the important bits of information here? Daze costs two actions, which is important. It requires a standard will save, which is important. If they critically fail then the target is stunned 1, this is situational so you don’t need to bring it up unless it happens. The spell is a cantrip, yes, but that’s more so information for you rather than the GM. If your GM questions why you’re casting Daze six times over the course of a single dungeon you can let them know it’s a cantrip that doesn’t cost any spell slots, but otherwise it’s not needed to be explained. It has the enchantment trait, but that’s not useful to us outside of a wizard learning it. The mental trait is very important to mention as some creatures have immunity or resistance to this sort of thing. It has the nonlethal trait, which means that if your Daze reduces a creature to 0 HP, it only knocks it out rather than killing it. The fact that it does damage equal to your spellcasting modifier (more as you level) is also information that only needs to be conveyed in the event of a success. Verbal components are only relevant if you’re unable to speak or hear yourself, and somatic components can come into play because they have the manipulate trait, which triggers attacks of opportunity if it’s relevant and you have to roll a flat check if you’re grappled.

So, with all that said, how would we cast this spell with more of a thematic flair to it? I’ll use my Goblin Wizard, Amyx, for this example. “Amyx raises her hands into the air, channelling arcane magic through them as she utters out, “Great mind is dazed, let’s make it ablaze!” And the horse’s mind is assaulted with strange visions and obnoxious sounds. Make a will save.” The GM rolls a will save for the horse, and gets a critical failure. They relay this information to you, and you resume your dialogue with, “And the assault is successful! Not only does the horse receive a blistering headache that does 3 mental damage from the trauma of the attack, but the confusing and convoluted images and noises also leave the beast stupified 1.'' This of course isn’t the be all end all way of communicating, and it can take a lot of practice to talk this way in the heat of battle. It’s comfier to talk mechanically for some than trying to convey the information through only roleplay, and that’s just it, you don’t have to only convey information through roleplay. I still use terms like, “3 mental damage,” and “Stupefied 1,” in my write up. The GM might then turn to you and ask, “How many actions was that?” Or “What does stupefied do?” And you can go on to explain the details further. Don’t be afraid to convey the mechanics through a narrative. Think of traits, specifications, save listings, and actions costs of an ability as a narrative structure—a series of ingredients to lay the foundation of your roleplay, rather than the be all end all aspect of the game.

Another thing that some people worry about is if they can or can’t do something, especially if there’s an ability in the game that lets them do that specific kind of maneuver. Using Combat Climber as our example in this situation, this skill feat lets you climb with one hand occupied. Does this mean that you could never possibly attempt to climb a wall with an occupied hand if you don’t have this feat? Of course not. Rules are specifically stated in many TTRPGs to be a guideline, and GMs should adapt the rules for their table. There are mechanics in place in Pathfinder 2nd Edition that lets you set DCs. Maybe in order to climb the wall with an occupied hand, they have to roll against a higher DC, or maybe they take a circumstance penalty to the climb. This doesn’t invalidate the feat because it allows players to climb a wall with an occupied hand with no penalty.

Some types of encounters like chases and social situations are left somewhat vague or offers examples on how GMs can approach these sorts of situations, but by no means is this the only way of doing things. For social situations specifically, there are GMs who use the system as described in the Core Rulebook, there are Gms that base it off of the player’s roleplay and what they specifically say and sometimes even have the players not roll at all if they made a convincing enough argument, and I personally like to use something akin to the Clock system from Blades in the Dark. If something doesn’t suit your table because it hinders roleplay, don’t scrap it immediately, but analyse it, test it, see how it plays out, run one shots around it, learn from it, and then determine if you want to change it, scrap it, or if you can keep it and just try to teach your players how to roleplay with the toolset. After all, that’s what all of this is: a toolset. Guidelines for what to do and how to explain things.

Wrapping Up

I hope this helped you understand the basics of roleplaying. It’s a hard topic to really delve into because of how subjective it is, but one thing that is objectively true is that any TTRPG can be roleplayed in, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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