Character Monologue: Tell Us What It’s Like To Be You

Our heroes have just come back to town after exploring the wastelands, and the GM asks Fred what his character, Skark the scavenger, is doing.

“He’s looking around to see if he can buy some more shotgun shells, then he’ll check in at the weather tower to see if they picked up any new radio signals. Oh, and he’ll get some salve for that 6 hits of burn damage he took.”

Great. Now we know what his character is doing. Informative, yes, but it doesn’t exactly draw you into the magical world of the imagination. Are you intrigued? I’m not intrigued.

The GM tries again and says, that’s great. Now tell us what it’s like to be your character, right now. What’s your character thinking, or feeling, or just what is it like to walk around behind his eyes? Fred thinks for a moment then starts talking, and everyone else sits back and listens.

“Skark is tired and dusty from his long days in the wastelands. He’s limping a little from the burns on his leg, and he’s still mad at Pog for crashing the rover. Coming back to town always feels like coming home, but Skark is too tough to ever let anyone see that. As he trudges between the shanties and he sees people planting seeds and kids playing, he doesn’t smile, but inside it makes him feel like he’s doing something that makes a real difference. Even his burns hurt a little less.”

That’s a good character monologue. Yep, now I’m digging Skark, because I get him. Now I want to see what happens to this guy. I’m interested.

Share Your Point of View, Literally

A character monologue is not a monologue by the character, it’s a monologue about the character. It’s not a narrative of action, or a description of events. It’s just a window into what it’s like to be that person, in this moment, right here, right now.

It doesn’t have to be poetry or high art, just an honest and subjective experience of that character. It’s a little slice of spotlight time for a player to show us their character’s inner workings and help us understand them better.

Because there is no pressure to react to a specific situation or respond to things someone else said, the player is free to shine light on whatever corner of the character’s brain they want. Maybe there were facets of the character that the player wanted to bring up but the situation never presented itself. Now they can. You might be surprised when a player starts monologuing about how their savage barbarian hero is starting to feel his years and is sorry he never settled down and had kids.

It’s a tool for all seasons:

> Not getting a player’s character? Calling for a character monologue will help you be interested.

> Players not in the zone, not playing in the moment? Calling for character monologues forces the player to get in their own character’s head and think about what it’s like to just be that guy, right now. It brings them down from the birds-eye view and puts them back in their own boots, in the moment.

> Player characters not gelling? No love at the table? Calling for character monologues can get the players interested in each others’ characters, and give them the insider information they need to play off each others’ character. Because if you want a good game it’s just as important that the players like each others’ characters as it is that they like their own characters.

And players, don’t be shy: if you want a character monologue, just say so.

edit: Changed first example from first to third person to avoid confusion. Both examples could just as easily be in first person.

    Ben Robbins | October 13th, 2009 | , | hide comments
  1. #20 L says:

    This is excellent advice, Ben. I’ve had the experience of a fellow player breaking out an explanatory monologue after months of realtime/realworld confusion about his character’s behavior/motives. Of course our characters remained in the dark, but the minor revelation of why this guy’s thief acted like such a cold fish dispelled my notion that he (the player) hated the campaign and led to a much richer and compelling in-game dynamic.

    Gonna drop this into my toolkit.

    L

  2. […] is an excellent article at ars ludi on the subject of character development: Character Monologue: Tell Us What It’s Like to Be You. It is a simple little exercise that I think could profoundly improve the role-playing experience. […]

  3. […] at Ars Ludi, Ben Robbins brings up some interesting points about sharing one’s character’s point of […]

  4. #16 Matthew Arcilla says:

    I love this idea.

    There’s a lot of advice out there in the blogosphere about soliciting more roleplaying and engagement from players who are conditioned to play in ‘meta’ terms or at best, tend to sloppily blur the line between “my character is more like me than who I proclaim him to be” and “my character is just an escapist me, with an axe.”

    Okay, fine I’m talking about my own group. But I think trying to get a monologue like the example you presented above out of your players might encourage them to RP a bit better simply because they have to say their character’s thoughts out loud. It holds them accountable to their character’s personality in a manner not unlike “any declarations before we continue?” but from an RP perspective.

  5. […] example, my response to this great post by Ben Robbins: Lately, I am much more aware of the efforts I go through to help players be aware […]

  6. @ Ben Robbins – Yeah, I see what you’re saying. Like the difference between going for a walk to the store and just rambling around enjoying the sights…

    Still, if you get gamers to do it for a reward, maybe you’ll condition them to start doing it for free! Go Pavlov!

  7. #13 ben robbins says:

    @ Jonathan “Buddha” Davis — I haven’t, but it’s probably not surprising that we started using character monologues a bunch during our long Mutants & Masterminds campaign. Superhero genre just screams for talking to yourself and/or thought bubbles. Once you start doing it, there’s a “hey, this would work great in any genre!” realization.

    I do think there’s a subtle but substantial difference between using a monologue to respond to/discuss a particular incident (say, to get a reroll) vs the completely open-ended “what’s it like to be you” that I’m advocating. The former is cool and informative, but the latter can elicit completely unexpected insights, precisely because you aren’t asking the player to talk about anything in particular. You’re letting the player decide what their character is thinking about.

  8. Have you read the “Hearts & Souls” rpg by Tim Kirk? It’s a superhero rpg that specifically calls out for charcter monologues, both aloud and internal, in order for you to overcome a failure and reroll.

    I can’t say how it plays, as I haven’t gotten a chance to play H&S, but it seemed like a fun mechanic!

  9. #11 Will Hindmarch says:

    Great post. I use some similar approaches, including pointed or provocative questions, and yours is a good one.

    Lately, I am much more aware of the efforts I go through to help players be aware of what the other players are trying to do. To me, players are collaborating writers on a narrative series, not just cooperative players in a game. Asking them to suss out the player’s hopes and plans for a character (not just the character’s) through roleplaying alone is a little like expecting a TV writers’ room to communicate solely through unfinished drafts of scripts — it’s inefficient. Personally, I’m eager to maximize the story I get out of each session, even if that story comes across in a mix of sketches, unfinished monologues, and fully rendered dialogue. An RPG is played in jam sessions, not rehearsed performances. The players all benefit from knowing more about each others’ characters, even if that means the player sometimes knows more than the character — it serves the player-as-writer even as it gives a short cut to the player-as-character. That’s fine with me.

  10. #10 ben robbins says:

    As noted at the bottom of the post, I changed the first example to third person to avoid confusing what the point of the character monologue was.

    There are a lot of interesting implications about roleplaying in the first or third person (including some counter-intuitive cases where third person can actually promote stronger examination of the character, because you are highlighting that the character is someone separate from you who might have a very different personality) but that’s for another discussion.

  11. #9 ben robbins says:

    In that case Michelle, let me just say: welcome aboard!

  12. #8 Michelle says:

    Sure. Where I get hung up on is the “Skark is mad at Pog” part. I want Pog (and Pog’s player) to have to figure it out based on in-character behavior. But that’s just me, and there is no One True Way to play and RPG.

    For context, I’ve only recently played in campaigns where role-playing was taken seriously. Until 4e came out all of my play was in games that were basically dungeon crawls with a bit of “what’s my motivation?” seasoning on top. So maybe I’m just coming from the perspective of the recent convert.

  13. #7 ben robbins says:

    Yeah, as Frost said, don’t get hung up on the “I think” vs “my character thinks.” The switch of 1st to 3rd person between the first and second example was unintentional. You can play either way, and the difference isn’t relevant to the character monologue idea.

  14. #6 Frost says:

    I guess I disagree that a monologue requires breaking character. Is Hamlet breaking character when he does his “to be or not to be” monologue? That’s a great insight into his character but it’s not any sort of interaction with anyone else. I think that a lot of roleplaying could really be helped by simply explaining what the character is thinking/feeling, just like Hamlet did.
    As far as “show don’t tell”, I’m not really sure how Skark could easily ‘show’ that “Coming back to town always feels like coming home, but Skark is too tough to ever let anyone see that.” Yes it is possible but pretty hard to do. Maybe that’s something for more skilled roleplayers and not something for folks who are having trouble describing their actions in 1st person? Maybe getting them into practice thinking about how their character feels and describing it to everyone is the first step. Then they can move on to conveying it through their actions while also deciphering what everyone else’s actions mean.

    Now perhaps you’d want to discourage the 3rd person narrative as in Ben’s example (simply replace “Stark” with “I” in the example) and that’s fine. But I do think that sometimes inexperienced roleplayers do better describing this sort of narrative in the 3rd person.

    I also think that a bit of narration at the beginning of the scene where each player describes themselves, even in 3rd person, helps get everyone into the scene which is big boost for the roleplaying. Even if the player does his narration/monologue in the 3rd person it will lead to more & better roleplaying by everyone. As Ben points out (the main point of the article I think) this kind of detailed inner description makes your character more interesting to the other players (& GM) and easier to interact with. Which means that character will be involved in more roleplaying.

    Of course I do a lot of storygaming so the whole (3rd person vs. 1st person) / (narrative vs. roleplaying) distinctions seem a bit different than (I think) I felt about it when I just played non-storygames. So possibly my perspective is a little skewed on this.

  15. #5 Michelle says:

    Interesting comments on the point I made about “show don’t tell”. I guess I come at it from a different angle. Among other things, in our group (where I am a player, not the DM), we struggle a bit with role-playing: fairly often, the DM has to remind players to deal with issues in character, and not out. So to me, monologues would run contrary to what we are trying to move towards.

  16. #4 Frost says:

    Perhaps it’s a slightly different playing style but I prefer that the players know more about what’s going on in the game, especially with regards to the other players. Even if everyone is role playing really well and in character there is still some guessing as to what’s going on with the other characters. If Stark is giving Pog the cold shoulder when they get back into town or he yells at him or whatever, unless the Stark player explicitly says “I’m mad at you for crashing the rover” the other player might not know it. And while that happens a lot in real life, so maybe that is what you want in the game, personally I think that you get a better game if Pog’s player knows that Stark is mad about the rover but keeping quiet about it and can play to that. I’d rather have Stark’s payer say “I’m avoiding Pog because I’m mad at him about the Rover” than to have that come out slowly (if at all).
    And in real life there are many other ways that someone would communicate their feelings (facial expressions, tone etc) so there’s always going to have to be a certain amount of monologue-ing anyway.

    And to carry the “I prefer players to know more about each other” theme beyond their individual reactions, I think that having the players know each other motivations even if their characters don’t know also helps a lot. I’ve been in a lot of games where a player had a deep detailed backstory & motivations that they kept secret (because his character would never tell) then suddenly it comes out surprising the other players when they do something that seems out of character. Sometimes this works out and is good and sometimes it’s bad. If the other players know that Stark secretly has this soft spot for the town and the farmers they can play to that instead of being surprised.

    And one last thing, in the monologue the player is announcing to the other players things that they feel are important about their characters current feelings/motivations/state, which I think really helps the other players play into that. If no one else knows that Stark has this soft side about the town it might never come up and the player could be a little disappointed that they never got to get into that.

  17. #3 Andy B says:

    @Michelle: the perfect is the enemy of the good :-). If the players were already role-playing well, they wouldn’t need this kick-start.

  18. #2 ben robbins says:

    One can lead to the other. Once players reveal what their characters are thinking other players can know that those are issues to play towards. 

  19. #1 Michelle says:

    I think I understand what you are getting it, but I prefer “show don’t tell”. If Skark is still mad at Pog, I’d like it to show up only in interactions between the two. Also, I really like it better when the player inhabits the character by saying “I” instead of the character’s name.

    Am I alone in those sentiments?

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