Advocating a Character's Internal Thoughts

Separated from Playbook Technique: Playing Against Type - #2 by Froggy

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That’s a very good question. Proper advocacy is important in AW, so obviously this is not just in my head.

Two things have been happening.

  • When he does things, I really describe his internal state, but I do it by how he looks, not just saying “he’s scared, etc”. When it’s not clear, I’ll just explain it fully as table talk between players.

  • The Hocus in the series has been interacting with him in the second session and suggesting that she knows him deep down—at this point I provided the most information about this mental image that I have of the dude. I honestly don’t remember through which move we arrived at this, I’d need to recheck the Hocus playbook. From that point she’s essentially made her pet mission to therapize the dude—which he finds hilariously and tragically threatening.

For example, there was this scene where the Hocus walked into his tent at night with one of her sycophants to convince him of some priestly mumbo jumbo he has no time for (but actually really needs). Ronald—the gunlugger—told them to fuck off. At this point I describe his face as weirdly scared, despite the obvious gear and strength advantage, and he points his Benelli 12-gauge at their face. We trigger go aggro because he means it—I fucking love this move. I fail the roll, and the MC tells us that I do in fact not shoot them, but the sycophant woman grabs the gun and pulls the trigger, shooting her own hand off. This all happened in the Hardholder’s fortress, which Ronald takes off from in the middle of the night, leaving the women there, using the Gunlugger’s move that helps escape from situations. I abridged part of the scene, but that’s more or less what happened.

@Elil_50 is MCing, he might have a different perspective.

Generally I keep whatever about his mental state and backstory that I haven’t introduced into play as still vague or fuzzy—for example, the nature of his trauma—but anything that has consequences in play, even indirect, solid as rock—otherwise, he’d just feel like a cardboard cutout I’m using to interact with the game and not a real person making choices. The line is subtle but it’s there.

In fact, the Hocus in our group has obviously been having problems doing this exact thing and his character feels like it’s shifting all the time in function of what he wants to insert to make “a good scene”, rather than trying to make her a person with real motivations and such. It feels a bit fake, but it’s getting better. He’s definitely aware of the problem but has obviously some gaming trauma that’s preventing him from advocating fully without resorting to control techniques to try to direct the story.

(This is a campaign that I’d consider pedagogical for the people involved and I’m putting up with more “bad” play than I’d normally do, for the sake of helping these guys improve)

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Great answer and fantastic examples! I’ll come back to reread this later, as well. That scene sounds like a really powerful and memorable one. I like showing fear through overreaction in this way, and ‘go aggro’ was a perfect match for it. This is the kind of thing that some of my old-school contacts have trouble leading with in play - it’s not necessarily tactical or convenient, and overdoing can easily feel fake, as you talk about with your notes on “the subtle line” between one and the other. I suppose that’s a problem in fiction, too: how much you want to hit people over the head with My Character’s Deal, and at what point does it start to feel artless.

It really would have been more powerful and memorable if the rest of the session was not as murky as it had been. But the scene was well executed from everyone involved, that’s for sure.

I also have to say that I have a tendency to use violence as a crutch to escalate conflict. I’m not a subtle guy—I’m learning to be better with that. This gunlugger guy is a bit of a comfort character, which I selected precisely because I knew I was gonna play in murky waters.

Essentially my instinctive version of a Bang (as in, the technique from the game Sorcerer) is “Oh yeah? I draw my gun. What are you gonna do about that, uh?”. It might be the legacy from having learned this kind of play from Dogs in the Vineyard, where I really liked escalating into gunfire to get more dice.

Now in my Sorcerer campaign I’m learning to be a lot more subtle with the Bangs. One of them was literally “Your neighbor invites your family over for a barbecue”. You’d need to know the context to understand why that was Bangable, but to display that there is range in these things.

(I’ll separate the threads if these topics gain enough steam on their own)

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Yeah, sometimes “direct” is a really good way to go.

I’ve sometimes struggled with more complex vulnerability in my characters. Sometimes I come up with concepts that are flawed and struggling with their humanity. I find them very sympathetic, but often the other players seem as total villains, which can be an odd disconnect at the table - and sometimes even (lightly) hurtful. (Since you can feel like the other players don’t ‘get’ you, or are judging you as a player, as opposed to the character.)

For this reason, it’s an interesting topic. How to communicate that to the group in a way which works for everyone.

Have you ever struggled with knowing when it’s “not clear”? How do you know that there is a disconnect? Or do you check in with each other often, like “do you get what’s up with this guy/right now/right here?”

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This is gonna require a long explanation of how that works in my mind. I’m willing to go through it, and I actually have a drafted post, but you might have to wait a while for the final version. It really has all to do with the idea of situation-building that I mentioned in the other thread.

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I love this style of play.

When I GM and my players want these kinds of internal struggles, I often ask questions specifical about them, enabling players to draw them out and explicate them. I’ll ask things like “What are they thinking when the do that?” and “How does that feel in their body?”

Sometimes I’ll do more cinematography based work and ask for things like close ups of the characters face in a moment when they don’t think anyone can see them, or a quick flashback to something in their past that is informing their decision now.

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Totally here for “how does that make you feel?” and “what’s going through your head right now?” and and and. I also like to follow up with “what’s that look like?” or “does that show? How?”

One of the best moments of this was in a game of Promethean: the Created, where one of the two Prometheans had, in anger, punched and accidentally killed the one person who knew what they were and was okay with it.[1]

Asking once or twice about the characters’ interiority led right to an amazing scene where they were going through his effects, and one, the slower, more ponderous thinker said, not incorrectly: “he was a bad man.” The other, snappier one: “Yeah, he was. So what’s that make you?”

I’m not sure where we would have gone without the prompts towards interiority—with those players, I trust it would have been interesting anyway—but with those prompts, the whole scene became an expression and exploration of the characters’ interiorities, of the kind you would see “on the page” as it were.

  1. He was using them, they knew it, he was talking down to them and viewed them as less-than-human. He wasn’t great! But he was their only mooring point in the world. ↩︎

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Hi Claudio, I do the same thing when I play my AW character Faida, playbook the Angel.

I clearly state why my character according to her belief system has taken a certain choice and what she’s thinking. This helps making clear to other players why have taken a decision as the character’s advocate.


The previous ruler of the settlement has disappeared and her body guard and council-member “Scar” has taken the power.

Faida doesn’t accept any violence on innocents. She pushes always the actors towards a diplomatic and peaceful solution whenever possibile in a Ghandi-style way.

Scar’s behaviour is against what Faida considers acceptable in normal circumstances, but she wants to avoid useless bloodshed and accepted to cooperate. I simply stated in table talk: “Yes, fine for me. Faida despises him, but he’s better than pure anarchy and violence. It’s a peaceful solution.”

I quote directly from my notes:

Scar, I hate him because he is overbearing, and I don’t like to help him to bring the boss back in the middle of this mess. But he is the lesser evil.

I make explicit the character’s thoughts. This helps the other people at the table to understand why Faida has made a choice contrary to her ethos – if not hypocrite.

I forgot to mention that Faida is deaf-mute: so, this mode is the only way to express to other players what’s on her mind.

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Very much looking forward to that! I’m still curious to learn how the whole “situation” terminology has changed/evolved/grown since I last interacted with the idea, so that will be fabulous.

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This is a great conversation. It reminds me that this little piece of advice was useful to me in learning to run Monsterhearts:

Sometimes, instead of asking, “what do you do?”, ask, “how does that make you feel?”

A little bit of that kind of thing can really help us get on the same page in a roleplaying game, and trains some different techniques or different ways of communicating.

I like using “omniscient narrator voice” sometimes as a roleplayer. I’m not necessarily a good actor or good at voices, so I realized I can use my language skills, instead, to communicate a variety of ideas and characterization. It can be great for dramatic irony, as well, either as a player or as a GM: roleplay a bit of the character doing X, then give us a bit of a “voiceover”. For example, you might:

  • Describe the visual cues to accompany the roleplay. (“His words are brave, but you can see sweat beading on his forehead.”)
  • Reveal something that should be obvious or might be known. (“You can tell they’re lying, though - anyone could tell in this moment!”)
  • Make some personal commentary. (e.g. Your character goes and does some horrible thing. You say, “Wow, [character] is really turning into a villain now, isn’t she? I didn’t expect that.”)
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I think this is a really important part of play that often gets overlooked, which I could call situation-building or what Ron calls situational authority in play. There are a lot of interesting posts on Adept Play that deal with the topic, and I’ve really improved my enjoyment and appreciation of play after having these discussions and reflecting on my play.

What we’re talking about here is not at all about situation prep—what we were talking about in JM’s thread on relationship maps—but how to build the situation in play, how to both (a) make it real and actionable for other people from whatever you have prepped and (b) how to make it develop into a new situation each time.

So, essentially part of this type of character advocacy is that in the context of this game, my character’s motivations and personality are relevant points of action for the other players at the table. As in, they can be interacted with, used, and they are part of a subset of things that can change about my character as a result of play. So they have to be part of the situation—it’s simply incomplete without it—it will continue to limp about but it will never be satisfactory or enjoyable to resolve (in the context of this game). And being that I have the responsibility to situate that character, I have to be his advocate—that is, present the necessary elements of his personality to the others through play. This means both actions, words, expressions, and sometimes thoughts.

Now on the other hand it’s often not necessary to be explicit about character motivation. It’s most of the time evident from the context of their actions what they want—especially if you’ve been doing good situation building beforehand.

So, direct questions such as “How is your character feeling?” or directly stating their thoughts are often—not always—a result of murk or confusion about the current state of things and why characters are doing what they’re doing. It’s crude, but it’s a way to cut through the murk and re-establish that character’s motivation for everyone. If the game is going well, such questions and statements should be in my opinion at a minimum. On the other hand, if it’s necessary, it’s best to do so as early as possible, to prevent a compounding effect of the confusion, which could make entire sections of play feel purposeless.

In my experience, frequent questions by a MC/GM such as those expressed by @thebrand are a sign that the group doesn’t do situation-building well enough and they require prompting by a facilitator. It’s definitely best to ask those questions, but they point at some underlying problem. After I learned to do it, and if I play with people that also know how to do it, such questions are mostly unnecessary.

In a dungeoneering game of B/X D&D or any similar game there could be something similar to character advocacy, but more related to putting forward a coherent strategic mindset and properly relaying to the referee the in-fiction intent of the actions you’re declaring—rather than just picking stuff at random, for example. I had a conversation with Tommi Brander regarding this exact topic that might be worthwhile to dig up, if he agrees.

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Very interesting post, Froggy!

As you and I have discussed, I’m still waiting for any kind of definition or description of “situation” as used in this way (although I do have a vague sense of it). But, despite that, I think you’re writing about some really good and important dynamics.

I really like this part here, in particular:

This is some good insight into the dynamics involved, and why these details are important - they are part of the landscape of play in this kind of game. This touches, in a different way, on what I ended up writing about/dealing with in a game of Cartel I ran, which spawned these posts:

I haven’t had the experience you’re describing here - where people are asking questions because everyone’s a bit lost - except maybe as a troubleshooting situation (e.g. “ok, let’s pause the game for a bit… what the hell is going on?”). However, I can imagine how that could be the case! (In my experience, it’s usually been excellent roleplayers trying to establish standards of communication at a new table, when people are shy.)

The parallel to strategic planning and clarity in an old-school game is particularly good, as well. That’s not an obvious parallel, but a really good one! I agree with that as a thing to keep your eye on; sometimes old-school games might sink or swim based on the players’ ability to formulate goals and communicate them, so that play feels like it has direction and purpose.

I hope you can dig up that conversation! Tommi has lots of great insights on this kind of stuff, I find.

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I might have overstated my feelings on the “asking questions bit”. I don’t think it’s a problem. It’s just that every time I’ve seen a group function really well, they’ve been less and less necessary.

As a counter-example, in my Sorcerer series, I feel we still don’t have situation-building perfectly down as a group. There’s often a lot of overt stating what characters feel and why they are doing what they’re doing. It’s by no means dysfunctional, but we’re often clarifying what ideally should be obvious, and it feels like stumbling or walking on uneven, rather than smooth, ground.

This is generally fine. However, I make it a point to lean off of it quickly, so the new player doesn’t learn that they’re only supposed to do that when prompted.

Yeah, that makes sense. I can easily imagine both of those things.

I’ve found that this kind of curiosity and discussion is often really beneficial for play, and it often doesn’t come naturally to people (I had to learn it, myself! and still learning).

I like to encourage such things in part also because I’ve seen games suffer when people commit too hard to “acting like their character”, such as a very “actor-like” approach, where they wish to embody the character at the table. That can be cool in some ways, but can also make it hard to communicate if the option of breaking the fourth wall and talking about what’s happening becomes unwelcome.

So I suppose I’d take it case-by-case, and maybe even player-by-player or session-by-session.

I wonder if you (or anyone else) has any specific techniques or examples for how to do this implicitly (as you are describing here, how it happens naturally after a while without more overt conversation)? It might be interesting to look at some real examples, techniques, or other ways to do this that you’ve seen at the table.

I quite enjoy when people throw in little bits of commentary, for instance (e.g. the GM says, “and then the Duke announces that all red-haired people will now be banned from his table… wow, he’s kind of turning into a major asshole, isn’t he? So what do you want to do?”), but that’s still explicit communication.

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Specific techniques … none come to mind. It’s very contextual to the group of people and system. But maybe other posters have better knowledge pills to share.

However, I’ll definitely keep this in mind when I make future actual play posts. If there’s anything relevant, I’ll link it in this thread.

Yes, there are specific techniques (sharing culture tidbits, tuning, putting down landmarks, 4th wall breaking comments, mutual tests, and some more explicit, like Wishes, Confessional seat, goal setting, all ways of flags)! I enjoy this “mentalist” style of play, but it is not necessarily for character advocacy. I think when dramatic coordination is set, everyone has more “headroom” to do their thing, whatever that is (acting, poetry, narrative weaving, etc.)

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I would add that Smallville (or any implementation of Cortex that includes Values and Relationships) requires that you tell the table what your character is thinking and feeling or else you can’t assemble your die pool to roll!

This was particularly good for an X-Men game where everyone was constantly seething with lust and resentment towards each other and all NPCs.

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I am not sure which conversation, but I have no objections to digging it up.

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