A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

You’ve found your way to Carcosa, and the bleak shores of Hali. A boatman, his visage concealed by a cloak, poles his way up to you. You ask for passage across the black lake. He leans forward, his caul falling partly away to reveal a mask-like visage.

“And what do you have to offer in return, my friends?”

Of the interpersonal investigative abilities, the ones you use to get information from people you talk to, Negotiation is a GUMSHOE staple.

Pretty much any mystery you read features a scene in which the detective makes a deal to get information. She might offer to intercede with a prosecutor on behalf of an arrested crook. Or promise a reporter that he’ll get the scoop when she closes the case. Most commonly, the offer comes in the form of just plain cash.

That last choice, the carefully folded, era-appropriate denomination of paper money, requires no creativity on the part of the player.

Once you get to more complicated tit-for-tats, however, you may struggle to come up with the roleplaying side of a negotiation. What offer do you make, and how do you make it?

This becomes more difficult still when you’re trying to wring something worth more than words from the character. Maybe you want the GMC to lay off your group while you enter her territory. Or to make peace with the clan across the river. Or to pretend she don’t know it was you who blew up the abandoned warehouse with all the vampires in it.

Start by giving some thought to your offer before you commence the scene. Players most often get stuck when the enter into a negotiation without an offer in mind. The GM might expect you to learn more about a character you’re talking to, so that you can figure out what they want. Mostly though he’ll be glad to see you take the initiative and show that you understand that you have to give something to get something.

Consider the scale of the request you’re making. A big ask calls for a big payout. When preparing to approach a character, ask not only what they want but how much they might want it. A favor that costs your negotiating partner little is easier than one requiring a major sacrifice of property, status, or ambition.

Players most often fail at negotiation when they realize, to their shock and horror, that the other party expects a concession of roughly equal value. “Wait, I want unfiltered access to the Necronomicon from Henry Armitage, and he wants me to go all the way to Machu Picchu and drop this amulet in a well? How dare he?”

A GM who portrays negotiations realistically may start out with a bigger request than the character hopes to receive. You may be tempted to break off talks when you hear the scope of an initial demand. Instead, try offering less and see where the point of resistance really lies. Professor Armitage might accept a lesser favor than the Machu Picchu trip, but isn’t going to loan you that book for nothing. Every time it leaves the library, the university’s liability insurance goes up!

In general, your GM wants you to move the story forward by succeeding at a negotiation. Make the offer credibly tempting and you’ll likely get what you want. That might entail a side quest that leads you into another fun scene of challenge and trouble, but that after all is what you came to the table for.

This doesn’t mean that the GM will let you negotiate successfully with every GMC you encounter. Negotiation will overcome small or intermediate obstacles, not the central scheme of the primary villain. Expect to be shut down when trying to bypass all of a scenario’s conflict and danger. When you get stonewalled, indulge in a bit of metagaming and ask yourself how anticlimactic it would be to actually get what you’re asking for. If the answer is “very much so,” you know that there’s no way your GM is going to let you away with that. Look for other, more thrilling and hazardous ways to resolve the central dilemma. As with any fruitless path you choose, the GM is probably signaling you to try a different approach. Your main enemy may refuse to talk altogether, send an emissary to insult you, or waste your time while setting up an ambush, or to quickly dismiss your offer. Any of these choices give you a chance to push the story forward, even if you don’t get everything you want exactly as you want it. The GM is using a “yes, but” technique, making something fun happen, even if it isn’t the successful bargaining session you were hoping for.

To sum up, the following list of questions may help you to formulate your position as you go in to negotiate for information, a favor, or other benefit.

“What does this person want?”

“Is that at all compatible with what we want?”

“If not, what do I have, or what can I do, to get them closer to what they want?”

When the answer to question 1, is “beats me,” you might consider doing some more investigation before opening talks. A third party could supply a more straightforward and revealing account of the character’s position than she will express directly.

When the answer to question 2 is no, you can shift footing to some other approach. In GUMSHOE, that might mean Intimidation or some other aggressive means.

Questions 1 and 3 prime you to expect to give a quo to get your quid. In most RPG situations, the readiness to yield a bit is most of the battle.

Don’t let pride sink you. Be ready to occasionally lose a bit to eventually win a lot.

You can tell Negotiation is a crucial part of roleplaying because we made a shirt about it at the Ken and Robin merch store. Unlike much in life, wearing it is a win-win proposition.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

In Make It A Gimme I talked about looking for instances where the resolution system offered by the rules should be jettisoned in favor of an automatic result—in this case, a success for the player.

This time we’ll look another case where outcomes determination should be taken away from the resolution system—when players and GM all agree that something ought to happen. If the GM alone makes an outcome determination without reference to resolution mechanics, we call it fiat. Here, by incorporating the players into the decision-making, it becomes decision by consensus.

Outcomes amenable to consensus most often occur in character development scenes. They’re harder to find in procedural scenes where the PCs overcome the obstacles of a set mission or battle adversaries.

For example, let’s say you’re playing Mutant City Blues, where the PCs are detectives with extraordinary powers investigating crimes involving the genetically enhanced. Two of the characters, Rafe (played by Wes) and Ted (played by Stan) are on opposite sides of a tricky case, as Rafe’s retired police mentor, a GMC called Sheila Teague, is suspected of murder. Ted comes out of the interrogation room after having treated Sheila with withering disrespect. Rafe has been steaming on the other side of the one-way glass, and confronts Ted in the police station hallway. Rafe is a hothead, and it’s entirely in character for him to take a swing at his colleague.

If the two come to blows and you use the ordinary resolution system, anything could happen. Ted and Rafe are easily matched in the fisticuffs department; either could beat the hell out of the other. However, if this happens, a realistic sense of consequences dictates that the series will go in directions that will displease both players, and you. To maintain fictional credibility, Rafe would have to be bounced from the force (if he wins the fight.) If Ted badly injures Rafe, he might or might not face similarly dire disciplinary hearings. Even if the GM comes up with some credibility-straining way to keep Internal Affairs from checking out a beatdown in the middle of the precinct, the hostility between Rafe and Ted would escalate beyond repair.

Rafe wants to clobber Ted. If Rafe goes for him, it would be out of character for Ted to do anything but return the favor, full-force. If Rafe doesn’t go for Ted, he’s out of character. Yet neither Wes or Stan, the players, want things to go this far. For that matter, you, as GM, would likewise be dismayed to see this get out of hand. You don’t want the dramatic logic of a serious outcome to force either character out of the series.

So instead you ask for a consensus. What do the players, as opposed to the characters, want to happen? Genre precedent suggests a dramatic physical action that nonetheless remains contained, requiring no lingering consequences afterwards. “What if I take a swing at him,” suggests Wes, “but he grabs my wrist as it’s coming toward his chin, and stops me cold?”

“Works for me,” nods Stan.

“That leaves Rafe pissed, but it’s enough to chill him out.”

“I imagine some hard-nosed words will be exchanged on both sides,” reasons Stan. “Sure.”

You accept the consensus, specifying that this is exactly what happens. They play out their dialogue as Rafe and Stan. They’ve managed to stay in character without forcing the narrative down a road that will make everyone unhappy.

Consensus may not appeal to players very strictly wedded to the immersive mode of play. They tend to dislike mechanisms that encourage them to think as both their characters, and as collaborative authors.

If you employ this technique, make it clear to players that they can ask for a consensus resolution at any time. To use the above example, it’s possible that Ted and Wes are thinking ahead to the possible series-wrecking consequences of a fight that gets out of control, while you’re worrying about other things, such as the empath character’s read on Sheila’s moods during the interrogation. They’ll be doing you a favor by prompting you.

Player-requested consensus might prove a handy way out of plot logjams. Let’s say you’re running a fantasy game in which the players are Greek heroes. They’ve retreated to an isolated fortress to plot out their next moves, but they’ve gotten themselves bogged down and don’t know what to do next. That the fortress is supernaturally well hidden is one of the major character schticks of the scholar Menetriaus (played by Ashleigh.) You could have a messenger show up and give them the information they need to get themselves out of their planning rut, but that would undermine one of the central coolness factors of Ashleigh’s character.

Fortunately, the players realize that they’re stuck and ask for a consensus result. “Can we stipulate that one of us has a secret to reveal, but which also contains the information we need to get us on the right track?” Ashleigh asks. None of the other players have any objection to this, and it gives you the opportunity to supply the needed nudge. You ask another player, Chris, if he has an objection to a reveal indicating he spent the night trysting with dodgy company. Chris shrugs and allows you to add this detail to his character’s recent backstory.

“Xenophides sheepishly admits that he was with the female gladiator Polydora last night, and that she told him something that might change your plans…”

By definition, every party has a veto over a consensus decision. If your players call for consensus suggesting that they bypass the famous fiery archway of Triopos and go straight to the minotaur’s lair, but you feel this too easily absolves them of the adventure’s challenges, you simply grin, say “Nice try,” and leave them to solve the problem the old-fashioned way, using their character abilities. If Rafe’s player felt so strongly about his characterization that he was willing to exit the series over it, he gets to refuse, too.

Resolution systems, like any other part of an RPG rules kit, are tools, to be used only to solve problems that require them. By adding this technique to your repertoire, you may find that you can leave them in their toolbox a little more often.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.

A column on roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Whenever I serve as a guest at a gaming convention, I make it a policy to ask the seminar organizer to set up a panel on Game Mastering Troubleshooting. On a minute by minute basis, I’ve learned more about roleplaying as it actually occurs from fielding questions at these seminars than in any other forum. By keeping the focus on Q&A, as opposed to abstract panelist pontification, one gets a real sense of the practical problems that plague groups wherever polyhedrals are rolled.

The most common and most addressable class of problems consist of variances in taste between players. I’ve tackled these in-depth elsewhere, most specifically in Robin’s Laws of Good Gamemastering and the opening chapter of the Dungeons and Dragons® Dungeon Master’s Guide II.

Dealing with gamemastering problems in print poses a thorny challenge. Experienced GMs know all too well that roleplaying sessions can occasionally devolve into exercises in severe frustration. Though this is hardly a secret, neither is it a fact you want to dwell on in a book that should be selling the reader on the fun of roleplaying. We emphasize the positive as a matter of survival. The hobby needs a continual stream of folks willing to take on the time-consuming and sometimes thankless task of running games. The fear is always that an overly candid discussion of the various pitfalls of the RPG experience could send would-be GMs running to the comparative shelter of their Xboxes.

In the less formal atmosphere of a web column, though, maybe it’s safe to admit what everybody knows. Many long-running games are just fun enough to bug the hell out of us. With its emphasis on planning, execution, and group effort, a session where a group of adventurers plots its assault on the goblin redoubt of Xanthrukor can easily resemble a brain-shredding meeting at any typically dysfunctional workplace. Each contains many of the same dispiriting interpersonal syndromes: the guy who won’t listen. The guy who won’t shut up. The co-worker who can’t stay on topic. The professionally obtuse one, who returns to hash over the same agonizing point just when the rest of you think you’ve got it put to bed. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Granted, roleplaying sessions hold a couple of advantages over workplace conferences. First, you get superpowers. Second, you get to kill things. Third, once you kill the things, you get their stuff.

Fourth, and most important, there’s you. The GM. You’re the ultimate arbiter of the world reality, adjudicator of all actions, and driver of the storyline. However, your real power to keep the evening off the rocks of pointless wrangling, is, for all of its potential power, a subtler one.

Many GMs, following an ancient unwritten protocol that got its start in the early days of the hobby, take a hands-off approach to interaction between players. In principle, this makes sense. The GM has so much authority over so many areas of the game that she shouldn’t go horning in one of the few domains of pure player control. And indeed, the GM should never try to push player planning sessions so that they reach a particular outcome. An outcome, any reasonable outcome, should be the goal.

Most players stuck in a rut of circular discussion are desperate for a way out. A few words from you can carefully guide the discussion back out of the ditch. The key here is not to make decisions or suggestions for the group, but to underline and organize the good suggestions they’ve already made. Be content neutral, but help to shape the discussion productively.

Discouragement is quick to settle over a group when planning has turned to wrangling, and too few acceptable options seem to present themselves. Paralysis often results after a group rules out perfectly suitable choices. When this happens you need to do more than provide a concise, upbeat recap of the discussion’s present status. Instead, gently rebut the assumptions that lead the group to reject viable options.

A few players are pessimistic by nature. Others have had pessimism trained into them by absurdly punitive past GMs. Perhaps most common is the adroit debater, who skillfully shoots down all plans other than his own.

Players live in the real world, and apply its system of logic to your game setting. This entails a collision of expectations. Almost every game world out there is based on the logic of adventure stories, where obstacles are meant to be overcome. No matter how much time players spend consuming genre stories, whether in print or on the screen, it’s hard for most of us to truly take this logic to heart.

How many times, for example, have you heard players assume that the villain’s lair will have impregnable security in place? Remind them that a skilled group can find a way into the best-guarded of fortresses. “Impregnable” in adventure genre terms means, “very tough, but I’ve got a crazy plan and it just might work.” It means the Death Star or Goldfinger’s headquarters, not the equivalent real-world installations.

If you fail to uphold the conventions that make adventure stories work, you should be unsurprised when planning sessions bog down due to a lack of credible options.

Your players should be able to count on the bad guys to fight them in waves, to create a series of entertaining fights. When they assume otherwise – and they will – remind them to apply the correct logic set to their problem-solving.

Selfish motives and power trips do drive a certain amount of wrangling. Players who engage in annoying behavior for its own sake are hard to deal with. At best, you can learn to spot their behaviors and try to divert them as symptoms first appear. Expect a hit and miss success rate with deliberate churls. Their disruptive behaviors often stem from an unconscious attempt to assume a sense of personal power and control otherwise lacking from their lives. Catch one of these types on a good day when he feels in control, and your tricks will work smoothly. Hit him when he’s tired, cranky and beleaguered, and you’ll see your smoothest interpersonal strategies go up the spout.

Fundamentally and permanently altering a player’s personality quirks are beyond the skills of even the most puissant gamemaster. These folks have to be either tolerated or dis-invited from your game. As always, this decision is a difficult one, in which you have to balance your desire to accommodate a friend against the ideal roleplaying experience. The calculation is hardly unique to roleplaying: every recreational group, whether it be a bowling club or an aquarium fancier’s alliance, faces the same issue.

Personally, I’m an advocate of tolerance. We all have bad days. None of us is free of irritating habits. Often those least capable of getting along with others are most in need of their company. On one level, I have to admit that I admire folks who are sufficiently hardcore about their hobby to freely issue pink slips to participants whose personal issues prove consistently irritating. When it comes right down to it, though, I guess I’d sooner regard myself as an accepting person than the GM of a brilliant game.

Or maybe it’s just that I’ve never yet been unlucky enough to have a truly annoying gamer in my group.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in December 2007. 

A column on roleplaying by Robin D. Laws

The GUMSHOE system focuses primarily on investigation and by default assumes that moments of interpersonal conflict will be handled through roleplaying. As such it lacks an equivalent of the Persuasion/Rebuff system that lies, for example, at the heart of the Dying Earth Roleplaying Game. However, if you’re seeking a more mechanically robust way to adjudicate the outcomes of arguments, negotiations, debates and seductions, there are plenty of options to choose from.

When contemplating a new rule or technique, the GUMSHOE way is to look at the source material, see what techniques it typically uses, and find the simplest possible means of implementing it, consistent with the rest of the system.

Scenes of interpersonal conflict in mystery novels and TV procedurals are usually handled as in any other dramatic genre, although usually in a more compressed and decisive way.

In resolving a character conflict in fiction, an author ideally finds a plausible and organic way to portray a plot development he deems to be necessary to his story. This necessity may arise from, among other reasons, a desire to illuminate character, jolt the audience, or move a story toward its inevitable conclusion. In a roleplaying game, the outcome is not preplanned. The PC may or may not bring about a plot turn that moves the group toward a successful resolution. Two elements must be in place: the player has to devise a believable plan, and then the character must have the wherewithal, and perhaps luck, to implement it.

In the case of interpersonal conflicts, what is plausible and organic depends on the motivations of the character being persuaded. What the GM does determine in advance are the motivations and intentions of the NPC with whom the PC enters into the verbal exchange.

The motivation is what the character wants. This goal can be specific or general. The more proactive the NPC, the more specific the goal will be.

Specific goals might include:

  • gaining the Botticelli secret
  • killing Carson Gersh
  • selling the Winston house
  • getting the suitcase full of money

General motivations are more inchoate and psychological:

  • earning approval
  • hiding sense of insecurity
  • destroying father figures
  • pursuing affection

If you want to get fancy about it, a specific goal might be rooted in a general goal. Ernest Combs may want to gain the Botticelli Secret to destroy a father figure, his hated former mentor Elias Thwaite.

Greater complexity can be added in the form of multiple or even contradictory motivations. Mrs. Spooner may want to rent the downstairs apartment, earn the flirtatious attention of handsome men, while still proving that she is a respectable citizen.

GUMSHOE is player-facing, meaning that it treats PCs and NPCs differently. PCs are the protagonists, who act. NPCs exist only in relation to them and tend not to make rolls on their own. So if an NPC sneaks up on a PC, the action is resolved not by the GM rolling for the NPC, but by the player rolling against his Surveillance or Sense Trouble ability to see if he notices.

The implication of this principle in interpersonal conflicts is that the PCs are not open to being persuaded or bamboozled, as they are in Dying Earth, by a rules resolution. Only when the players decide it’s in character to be deceived or inveigled do they act against their better judgment. This is in keeping with the procedural genre, which can be described as a romance of competence.

In a scene of personal conflict, then, a PC must overcome the NPC’s resistance, rooted in his motivation, and pivot him so that he becomes open to an action he is at first unwilling to embark upon.

We already have this in the system with Interpersonal Investigative abilities. NPCs are often resistant to giving out information until the players figure out what ability (Bargain, Flattery, Seduction, Streetwise, et al) can best be used to overcome their objections.

Interpersonal abilities can also be used to overcome resistance in other areas. To do so, the player must specify a tactic. The tactic is an approach, offer, or argument made to overcome another person’s resistance. This might or might not cite an interpersonal ability. Let’s say that Ernest Combs has taken a hostage, who the PC wants to him to release.

If the player comes up with a tactic, which, given Combs’ motivations, will make his capitulation seem plausible, the conflict is resolved in his favor:

  • “Through Intimidation, I make myself seem like a forbidding father figure, then offer to swap places with the hostage.”
  • “Through Flattery, I tell him he’s better than this—if he hurts a hostage, Elias Thwaite will be elated by his moral failure.”
  • “I Bargain with him, promising him a photocopy of the map room if he lets her go.”

Sometimes non-Interpersonal abilities might apply:

  • “I use Theology to remind him that these are not the actions of a man of faith.”

A prepared GM can designate one or more possible successful tactics ahead of time, but should also be ready to accept unexpected yet equally plausible suggestions from the players.

This system not only emulates the source literature, but gives investigators a reason to learn more about the NPCs in any scenario—you never know when you’ll need to persuade them of something later on in the story.

The extent to which ability ratings influence outcomes is a matter of taste.

The minimalist approach is the triggered result—here, resistance is overcome simply by citing an ability plus a plausible tactic (or even a plausible tactic to which no ability applies.) The triggered result is congruent with the clue-gathering mechanic.

You may wish to have players pay a toll to succeed in interactions which yield non-informational advantages. In this case, require an interpersonal spend. The player succeeds after paying 1 or 2 points from the cited ability. Combs releases the hostage on a 2-point spend of Intimidation, Flattery, or Bargain, depending on which tactic the player selects. Add complexity by assessing different spend levels reflecting the relative aptness of the various tactics: the Bargain might cost 1 point, whereas the Flattery, which is a bit of a stretch given the investigator’s previously expressed antipathy for Combs, costs 3.

Finally, you might prefer, even with a plausible tactic, an uncertain or chancy outcome. In an interpersonal contest, the GM assigns a Difficulty to the persuasion attempt, based on the aptness of the tactic. A Difficulty of 4 is standard; higher than that represents an especially tough challenge. The player can add to the die result by spending points from the relevant investigative ability, gaining a +2 result bonus for each ability point spent. This approach is in keeping with traditional roleplaying approaches to the problem, and introduces an element of suspense, and, therefore, uncertainty. On the downside, it is less like the source material, and therefore less GUMSHOE-y.

You may always find that one of the three techniques—the triggered result, interpersonal spend, or interpersonal contest—is best suited to your style of play. However, you may find that certain situations call for the automatic certitude of the triggered result, while others cry out for the plot-branching potential of the interpersonal contest. Creators of fiction vary their techniques to achieve a range of effects, and GMs should do likewise.


GUMSHOE is the groundbreaking investigative roleplaying system by Robin D. Laws that shifts the focus of play away from finding clues (or worse, not finding them), and toward interpreting clues, solving mysteries and moving the action forward. GUMSHOE powers many Pelgrane Press games, including The Yellow King Roleplaying Game, Trail of Cthulhu, Night’s Black Agents, Esoterrorists, Ashen Stars, and Mutant City Blues. Learn more about how to run GUMSHOE games, and download the GUMSHOE System Reference Document to make your own GUMSHOE products under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution Unported License.

Because most RPG play advice goes to GMs, we tend to focus on them as the source of possible roadblocks in a session’s pacing. However, although in most game systems players lack the narrative control of GMs, they can also throw wrenches into the machinery of any plot.

I’m not just talking about moments when players shoot each other’s plans down (though that too can easily become a drag if you’re not careful.) No, I’m talking about the moment when the player leaps in, trying to turn a GM yes into a GM no.

As a player, when you hear another player propose an action to the GM, you may from time to time feel the temptation to leap in with a logical objection.

Other player: “I rush out onto the fire escape.”

GM: “Okay, once there, you—”

You: “Oh actually buildings in this part of the country typically don’t have fire escapes.”

Other player [fumes silently]

GM [fumes silently]

Now, put as baldly as that, you may be saying to yourself, “Oh actually I don’t do that.” And, as you are a fine and delightful person and a habitue of the Pelgrane blog, let’s stipulate that you wouldn’t.

But some people do, and you might be surprised if you were to inventory your past in-game utterances. Player-side blocking happens reflexively, and I don’t think that anyone who does it means to or realizes the implications of what they’re doing.

Some of us suffer a particular susceptibility to the urge to block GM approvals of other players’ actions. The temptation can strike players who mostly GM. Plot-hole-seeking viewers who have trouble suspending disbelief while watching genre movies and TV shows can also blurt out action-blocking statements at the gaming table.

As in the scripts you’re spotting implausibilities in, GMs are often letting strict practical logic slide in an effort to empower participation and keep things moving. Busting them on this slows or stops the action, shifting focus to picayune detail, at the expense of the broader narrative.

When you feel the tingle of a plot block dancing on your tongue, the easiest thing to do is nothing. Just don’t say that. At the end of the session you can regale the rest of the group with your superior fire escape knowledge while also implicitly praising the GM for not letting stuff that doesn’t matter kill momentum.

Alternately, in cases where your realism needs simply can’t be contained, find a way to turn a block into an adjustment. Instead of saying that the action the GM is ready to allow can’t work, propose a way that it can.

“Oh actually, there aren’t fire escapes in this part of the country, so likely Sajid watches the burglars from a balcony. Is it maybe made of frosted glass, helping him hide while he does it?”

by Elina Gouliou

The “Play to Lift” Technique

Vanessa James / Yannick Bonheur demonstrate a star position – image David W. Carmichael

There are some game sessions where all the characters shine and the action is awesome and cinematic. I thought it was a matter of luck or circumstance, until I encountered the Play to Lift technique and realised that it is often the result of all the players around the table (including the GM) lifting each other up and making their characters look cool.

This technique, also known as “Playing Up,” is used in some live action roleplay (larp) traditions, but it can easily be used in tabletop RPGs. With this approach, each player actively reacts to the other players’ characters in the way they want their characters to be portrayed. For example, if I want to play an intimidating and mysterious Seer, the characters of the other players will “lift my play” in their interactions with me, being fearful and respectful towards my character and believing in her prophecies. They may even turn their plot around so that the prophecies turn out true, or interpret events to fit these prophecies. This makes my Seer come alive in a way that I could never achieve without my fellow players’ buy-in.

A good example of playing someone up is in relation to their character’s status. High status can never be demanded in character; it can only be conferred freely by the people around the character. This includes the NPCs who are often controlled by the GM but it also includes the other player characters. If someone has asked to be played up as high status, I would talk to them in character with deference, give them priority and step to the side to allow them past. The same concept also applies if someone is meant to be low status, a great orator, or physically intimidating.

If my D&D character has a high Charisma, then that telegraphs to the other players that my character is particularly appealing in manner or speech. If my character’s Dexterity is low, then my character might be heavily built or clumsy. But there are many different variations of these broad characteristics. If someone has a high value in Intimidation, that might just mean their demeanour, or their overall behaviour. Play to Lift can be applied to any element that a player wants to emphasise for their character during play, including those not defined by stats, such as confident, overbearing, motherly, creepy or empathetic.

Playing to Lift is not just for character strengths, but also for weaknesses. So, if I want my character to be portrayed as clumsy or really absent-minded, then this is something that the other characters would pick up and comment on. The importance is that this is a characteristic that the player of that character wants to be emphasised, even though it is negative.

The opposite is “Playing Down.” This means playing on a trait that the player did not intend for their character and does not really want conferred on the character. For example, if I fail one Dexterity roll and another character says “well, you are always clumsy, remember that time…” or they cut a character mid-speech despite this character being a captivating orator. This creates a negative feeling of “but I did not want my character to be perceived like that” and either I need to negate the fiction (which means breaking character and trying to reverse engineer what has been established) or go along with it (essentially feeling forced to accept a character trait that I did not want). Playing someone down has a negative effect on the game.

Elements of the Play to Lift Technique

We need to know what attributes everyone around the table wants to be lifted. Where the attribute to be played up is a mechanical one, that attribute should match the strength or weakness. There is no point in asking for a character with a low fighting ability to be played up as a mighty warrior. In some cases, you can instinctively feel what the player wants and just give it to them. But the most fail-safe way is to ask in advance. This is best done at the beginning of the game when people introduce their character out of game. It’s a quick and easy process. For example “I am Elina, and I am playing Lucilla the Bard. I would love it if people could play up my musical skills”. Or “I am playing Lucilla the Bard. I have a terrible voice and no musical skill and I would love if you could play up how untalented I am.”

The play to lift technique relies on three elements: reciprocity, recognition and good communication.

The first element is reciprocity. You play me up, I play you up and we both get the story we want to tell. We actively make each other’s characters look cool.

The next element is the recognition – the idea that every player around the table is responsible for each other’s fun and for telling a great story. This also means that players realise that it is often a characters’ weakness what makes them interesting. If someone wants to be played up to be invincible, the best at everything, then it is pretty boring and it does not lead to a dramatic story.

What to Do When Play to Lift Requests Clash

Sometimes it can be that the players’ wishes for elements to be played up may conflict. That is where good communication comes in. A brief discussion around the table will make sure that everyone is on the same page about the style of game they want. At that stage, you should establish if (a) you can make the character concepts and play up requests fit together, (b) it is possible to tweak some of the characters to accommodate the request or (c) the play up requests really do not work, so that the other players cannot play up this aspect. It is infinitely better for players to know, than for hours of frustration because they are not getting the support they want and their character needs.

If someone wants to be played up in a direction the others do not like, then that might show a misunderstanding or at least different expectations of the game we are about to start. If I want to play angsty family drama and the others want to play “killing goblins and taking their stuff” then there is definitely some misunderstanding about what type of game we are playing and someone will end up disappointed.

Lifting someone’s character does not have to, and does not usually, dominate the plot. It is about the little things: a nod of respect, a sign of unease or a short side scene to persuade the reluctant hero. If your friend wants to play a dark and broody loner you can have a mini scene where he is trying to come to terms with their turmoil and follow the adventure should also explain that this will not be the focus of the game.

In my experience, there are only very few instances where it is genuinely not possible to marry two characters’ play-ups. Most of the times, it will be possible to accommodate everyone with some creative thinking. Let’s say that I want to be lifted up in being intimidating and my fellow player Cat wants to be lifted up in being a fearless, undaunted adventurer. With a quick first glance, it seems that these two requests are not compatible. However, there are many ways to accommodate them both. For example it may be that Cat’s fearless pulpy adventurer is usually undaunted, but my intimidating seer somehow sets her on edge. Imagine how scary the Seer must be to make even a brave adventurer feel unnerved!

Or it may be that the other characters are not scared themselves of the Seer but they can see the reaction of others. They describe how the villagers shy away from the Seer and how the town becomes deserted and everyone shuts themselves in and closes the shutters when the party approaches. This falls to a great extent on the GM who controls the NPCs but the other players can contribute with ideas. Perhaps the other characters wonder and ask themselves what she has done to make her so terrifying that even the mention of her name make people shake.

When the Dice Are Not on Your Side

What happens when I want to be played up but just failed my die roll in the ability I want played up?

First of all, a dice roll can be interpreted in many different ways. So, for example, if I lose in a fight that can be interpreted as “your character is really not scary, he is a weakling, you just lost in a simple fight, ha ha ha!” or “OMG!!!, David just took down Goliath, what a turn out!, this is incredible!!!” In the first interpretation, the character who lost is no longer scary, and if I wanted my scariness to be played up, this would totally negate that. In the second interpretation, the character maintains its scariness and the dice results are considered an outlier event that is very rare.

Secondly, sometimes the dice tell us something about the character and it is cool to incorporate that in the fiction if the player decides they want to. So, if I have rolled a one five times in a row, I may decide that my character is really jinxed, clumsy or weak. I may choose to incorporate that in my character’s play-ups. It is important that decision should come from the player themselves and not imposed by the others around the table. My group has been playing The One Ring for about a year now, and our ranger has been constantly failing his Travel rolls. The player has decided to make it into a feature of the game and he is making jokes about it. But it was the player who decided to incorporate that failing into his character, not the other players.

Play to Lift in Player v Player Situations

Playing someone up is more difficult in a PvP setting but it is also more important than in cooperative play. Because it is essential that, while the characters are at each other’s’ throats, the players are absolutely happy with it and with the direction the conflict is going. As a player I love it when another character back-stabs my character in a Hot War or Game of Thrones game. My character is furious, devastated or angry, but, as a player, I am loving it.

Of course, in a heavy PvP game it is not usually possible to avoid all difficult PvP interactions (as the game revolves around that) and therfore it is important to communicate up-front the style of the game. But it is possible to avoid areas that the other player does not want for their character and to dial down the escalation. Ultimately, the player’s happiness and well-being is more important than the game. If I am not sure, I will just check-in out of character with the player that they are happy with the direction the game is taking.

Finally, we must remember that it is possible to play up two characters who are conflicting, without undermining the other one. So, the fact that David won in the biblical story did not really make Goliath any less scary. It just lifted David without undermining the incredible strength and scariness of the giant. With practice it is possible to play up two characters on the same trait without undermining each other. And that makes for the best PvP fight, because there are two bad-asses fighting each other, both played up in awesomeness by the other player. And is that not the epic fight we always want to see in movies, TV series and ultimately at our gaming table?

Playing to Lift as GM

GMs can Play to Lift, too and to some extent they are the biggest influence in how the characters are perceived by the outside world, as they control the whole world environment and the NPCs. Where the other players can be the outliers, the GM can provide the reaction of the norm, the common folk. Respect, status, reputation often is cemented by these reactions.

As a GM it is important to remember that Playing to Lift does not mean winning without opposition. That would not be dramatic, nor cinematic. Playing to Lift means giving an amazing challenge to the characters while ensuring that everyone gets a chance to get the spotlight and shine. It means being the number one fan of the player character’s stories.

Conclusion

Some may argue that “we are already doing this in our gaming group.” I totally agree. I have seen many tabletop players who do this instinctively. I think that I used to do it sometimes. But since I heard of the technique and saw how effective it is, I actively think about “what does the other player want?” much more than before. It is as if I have put a vocabulary to my instincts and thus, I am trying to play people up much more frequently and proactively than before. I may still fail occasionally but when I do, I know what I have done “wrong” in terms of how I want to play.

When people lift each other up, everyone wins; when they play each other down, everyone loses.

Update:  My friend, the talented games designer James Mullen, wrote a game poem directly inspired by this article, intended as an exercise in using the Play to Lift technique. It is called On the Way Up and you can read it here.

REFERENCES

Susanne Vejdemo, Play to Lift, not Just to Lose. Nordic Larp

Bøckman, Petter. (2003) The Three Way Model: Revision of the Threefold Model. In Gade, Thorup, Sander. When Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp. Pp 12-16.

Willer Piironen & Kristoffer Thurøe. 2014. An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture. In Saitta, Holm-Andersen & Back: The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, pp 33-36.


Elina Gouliou divides her gaming time between a wide variety of tabletop games such as Monsterhearts, Hot War and Fate Accelerated, and live action roleplaying games both large- and small-scale. She loves games that focus on the drama rather than rules and enjoys the process of co-creating a captivating story.