The Gassy Gnoll: Rekindling the Improvisational Spirit (Seeking Input)

The Gassy Gnoll has had an on-again, off-again relationship with gaming over the last 12 years. Yes, that’s probably a bit too much like a confession, but I have a point I’ll get to after a bit of history…

Before 2000 I gamed regularly and GMed frequently, but for the next 6 years I was more than a bit of a lost man in a lost world with little contact with gamers in Phoenix. I occasionally tried to start a campaign with my family or find a group to play with in the area, but nothing stuck. Either we couldn’t get folks together regularly or I just didn’t jive with the groups I found.

When I moved back to Colorado with my family in 2006, I reconnected with a gamer I worked with (thanks Mike!) and started playing in a campaign in a fantasy version of Ancient Rome using the HERO System. That eventually shifted over to D&D 3.5e and we gamed for several years together.

More recently I began playing with a couple of groups playing 4e in Colorado Springs (thank you Justin and Jason!) and am now regularly gaming (every two or three weeks) and having a great time.

So here’s the problem… When I was GMing and playing regularly (at least once a week, sometimes more) I could improvise at the drop of a hat, whether playing a character myself or dropping in and out of NPCs. It was fluid and easy to bounce around all the various skills a player and GM would need. Regardless of whether the character was complex or simple, I could step into those shoes and roleplay without much thought.

When I played with Mike, my initial character was high concept – Didius Cato (or DC for short) was an escaped slave and thief who sought to abolish slavery in the empire in which he lived. He was intrinsically random in some ways and between the background, a bit of setting information, and the inspiration of the first session, he simply came together. I was spoiled playing DC for a few years.

In subsequent campaigns with Mike, I tried to use the same combination of setting, concept, and inspiration but never hit upon that “lightning in a bottle” I had with DC. And though the group eventually dissolved mostly due to scheduling issues, roleplaying those other characters became too much like work.

With Justin’s group, I was new to 4e and simply happy to be playing again. I never really came up with a background for my 4e character and our Spirit of the Century campaign died on the vine after a couple of sessions. I always had a good time playing, but never really felt connected to those characters in any meaningful way.

Now with Jason’s group, I stepped into the role of a pre-built warlock that was played by someone else earlier in the campaign and it has been similar to how things worked in Justin’s group. I love playing, but don’t really have a good enough concept for the character beyond the combat elements and witty banter with the other players.

Even in the other campaign we’re playing (in the Zeitgeist setting for 4e), my fighter Tieg McMann is little more than a cardboard cutout. I know a bit about his background (war veteran with survivor’s guilt seeking to continue his service to his country until he joins his fallen comrades at arms), but the personality aspects still elude me during sessions.

So after all that, I have more questions than anything else…

  • Is it simply that as I’ve grown older my mind is becoming less flexible and creative, meaning that I simply can’t make the imaginative leaps I used to?
  • Is it that I’m out of practice?
  • Is it that I’m simply playing the wrong characters or not putting enough effort into their creation?

I’m not actually roleplaying in any meaningful way these days, though I’m enjoying the creativity of combat and the witty banter around the game table. So I feel like I’m not contributing to the greater story as I should be, regardless of the GM, setting, players, or rules system.

That said, here’s the part where you come in…

  • What techniques do you apply to your roleplaying to keep the creativity high? Are there any improvisation exercises you employ when creating a new character or seeking to renew your interest in an existing character?
  • If you’ve taken time off from gaming in the past, how have you worked your way back into it and reconnected with the spark of youth that fueled your past adventures?

I want to be more active in the roleplaying side of things and not simply using each session as an excuse to roll dice, bash monsters, and hope that my characters (and my fellow players’ characters) survive the night. But I’m at a bit of a loss on how to do that.

Any ideas? Leave me some comments, drop me an e-mail, ping me on Google+ or Facebook… I’d love to converse on this and try some things!

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6 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Rekindling the Improvisational Spirit (Seeking Input)

  • Darren Porter

    Mr. Gassy Gnoll.

    I practice Buddhism which many consider a religion but let me tell you that label is quite misleading. It is the science of the aware mind. Your mind is capable of amazing creativity. Imagine it like a blank canvas. As you grow and learn, this canvas begins to get painted. Nobody knows what they are “supposed” to paint on it and so they paint it with whatever beliefs and concepts that their mind creates. That is what the mind is good at: creation. The problem comes as these beliefs fall into the background and taken for granted. We then build further beliefs and align them with our taken-for-granted beliefs. On and on it goes with the scope of our creativity limited every time we create a new concept because it is trapped within the bounds of our old ones. You see how unknowingly as people grow they go blindly down a certain path and end up at a dead end wondering what happened. Practices like zen and mindfulness, for example, are used to try to be aware of the differences in what we “know” and what we believe. If we haven’t hooked two wires to a battery and a light-bulb then we only believe that that is how it is done. We have intellectually processed it. We have created a concept for something that we didn’t “know” before. Now this “knowledge” that comes from hearsay or observation or from an “authority” is going to color every future belief we have on the subject.

    Sorry
    to ramble but my advice is this: Sit, lay, or walk in a serene place for 10 minutes a day and try to clear your mind of everything. Focus on your breathing, specifically on the sensation of the air entering and exiting your nostrils. Try to focus on only the sensation at that single point. Focus all of your awareness and don’t try to control your breath, just observe. If you find your mind wandering (and you will, trust me) just bring it back to that one sensation. Use your abdomen to breath and not your chest. It may help to put your hands on your stomach and feel it extend gently outward and slightly downward when you inhale and feel it gently pull in and slightly upward as you exhale. It may be tough for a few days but this natural breathing allows proper oxygen and blood flow to your brain and extremities that chest breathing doesn’t. It will become your regular way of breathing in very little time. Do this every day and accept no excuses from your mind. Your old misconceptions begin to die away and try to trick you into quitting the practice or growing lazy as they do. Don’t listen to them! Stick with it and in no time, your whole mentality will begin to shift. You will feel very in control of your mind. If there are distractions then treat them like a challenge to be met. Try to not let them steal your focus. There is nothing but the single point. The ultimate goal of Taoism or Buddhism is to bring this intense awareness into every moment of your life but a few quiet minutes a day will dramatically improve your creative capacity and your role-playing.

    This practice is an ancient one that is called Anapanasati in Old Pali. You won’t be able to focus your awareness overnight but this practice allows you to use the real power of your mind. It is like having an actual blank canvas in your mind. Raw creation. I encourage you to trust me and try because the ways in which to use it for good role-playing are obvious and limitless but truly difficult to express in words.

    Have a wonderful day, Mr. Gassy Gnoll, and I hope this helps with your problem. :)

    • Fitz

      @Darren Porter – That’s awesome and just what I was looking for. I’m not a religious person, but have been fascinated off and on with Buddhist philosophy over the years. I’ve even attempted meditation, but not in a couple of years. I’ll give it a shot, as I could use more mindfulness and calm in my chaotic life anyway!

      Thanks for the great suggestion!

  • Fitz,
    I find that in developing characters the hook is the key. By “hook” I mean: what is the character’s one-line summary/overview. For example:

    I am playing a half-orc paladin who throws himself overboard into morality to overcome the perception that his orcish blood makes him unfit for paladinhood.

    One line. That’s it. Then if you like the line…no, wait…LOVE the line then build from this point. Add the layers of character on like snapping Legos into place. The orcish parent (his father) while a great warrior was known for his vile personality. His human mother was a simple country lass who died in childbirth and thus (in our half-orc paladin’s mind) remains a flawless, unknowable ideal as opposed to a “real person.”

    Do you like this character enough to keep fleshing him out? Then continue to add layers: his hometown, his religion, where he trained, mannerisms, views on warfare, love, and life.

    You could easily brainstorm dozens of these one-line descriptions until one leaps from the page (and trust me letting yourself free to brainstorm and doing zero censoring of your thoughts makes a huge difference). One idea will be “the one.”

    As far as generating ideas, I find that certain “comforts” get my creative juices going. I turn on my fave Pandora channel, light a candle (for some reason cinnamon is my ‘mind-stimulating’ scent), and grab a frosty beverage. Thus armed, I turn to the keyboard to begin my next creative process.

    Hope this helps and keep on gaming, Fitz!

  • Hi Fitz–

    Sorry to hear you’re having character problems. I know everyone goes through dry spells. Plus, I think it’s much harder to be creative when you’re older. Not that your creative abilities themselves have lessened, but as we get older, we have more things that we have to keep track of and take up more space in our minds. Job, kids, spouse, car repairs, kids’ school, home maintenance, keeping everyone fed and clothed…. I know for me, if some other aspect in my life is off, then I have a hard time coming up with intriguing characters. I also find that if I’ve been writing for more than 40 hrs/wk on RPG stuff, then I also have trouble coming up with characters.

    I’ve found characters are on and off. I’ve never been successful at “filling out” a character I wasn’t absolutely in love with from the start. I tend to go for the high-concept characters because I find them more fun. I’ve found my favorite characters each had a unique concept that intrigued me, something I wanted to explore, either in the system or in their personality and background.

    My main PC currently is a 3.5 ed bard who is that an escaped slave who knows he’s been hunted by a “recovery team” sent by the Slaver’s Guild. I built the rest of the character from that–the fact that he’s armed to the teeth, he only sleeps in short stretches, the way he takes a long time to trust anyone,
    particularly a new addition to the party, he tries not to form emotional attachments to anyone (and often fails), etc.

    Another character in a modern zombie apocalypse game is a Hispanic kenpo karate master and owner of a school with programs for inner city kids to give them an alternative to gangs. From that concept, I thought about what her history would’ve been that made her want to do that (she’s a former gang-banger herself who got off the streets when her mother forced her to take karate classes) and how that affects her reactions to the world going to hell (literally) around her (she feels a responsibility to teach others to defend themselves, especially the kids and would rather risk her own life than someone else.

    Other successful characters started out with a desire to see if I could play a character with psychopathic tendencies (far too well for my own comfort, it turned out. I eventually had to retire that character), a xenophobic telepath who hated biotech, but ended up as part of an ambassador’s entourage to an alien world (Trinity game), a bard who wanted to be the Master Bard of that game’s world (D&D 3.5), a solo who specialized in being a body guard for people who didn’t want other people to know they had a bodyguard (Cyberpunk), among others.

    If I have trouble coming up with something as a starting point, I think “What do I want to learn more about right now?” or “What sounds like fun, but I’d be too scared to try it in Real Life?” Then I go from there. I find acting textbooks very helpful in fleshing out characters when I’m stuck. I also think back over characters I’ve loved to play in the past and then recreate for the new game, changing things here and there and then changing their background to fit the new setting.

    Just my experience. Hope there’s something in here that will help you. Life’s too short and our gaming time’s too precious to waste it by playing characters you’re not into ;)
    Jade recently posted…Play *My* Way–Dealing with Rules LawyersMy Profile

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