February 14, 2011

How to Use Body Language For Better Storytelling

Body language in RPG tells better stories

Body language in RPG tells better stories

By Scott J. Compton

Body language helps tell the story. It paints the picture in your mind’s eye about the non-verbals occurring in a scene alongside the five senses.

Good storytellers often talk about an event with a grimace on their face, the raising of an eyebrow or a cold stare. These theatrics sell the story. They create a compelling visual.

One of the most effective methods we have at our arsenal is emotional expression via non-verbals. If you go into a scene thinking about what emotion is desired, it can be helpful to know what non-verbals go along with it. For gameplay situations, it can be helpful to hide an emotion until a key moment appears, so that a plot point can be revealed when a player asks the correct question or causes an NPC to react.

Luckily, we game masters don’t need to think too much about our non-verbals because they just happen. If we are more aware of our non-verbals, we can make great improvements telling our story or being involved in the story as a player.

Gestures are more effective for players to gauge the truth about a role-played situation. Words often mislead, so the great storyteller uses non-verbals to drop hints and reveal things on a subtle basis without outright saying them.

This is rewarding to players. They saw through the deception of words, and understood how to tackle a situation by the non-verbals expressed. I encourage you to go to a place like Youtube and search for specific communication techniques to see how you can be effective with the type of character’s attitude you are trying to portray.

It can also be helpful to write down a few common non-verbals in each category below to keep the character non-verbally in-character when you roleplay.

Eye Responses

The cliché rings true, “the eyes do look into the soul of the person” – or in this case – the PC or NPC. The eyes alone can be the most powerful of all non-verbals.

  • Gazing is a common technique to stare-down a character to gain a dominant position by burning a hole through the player, or showing hatred – good for evil NPCs just before a battle. Likewise, shifting the eyes away or putting something over the eyes to shy away from a character shows dishonesty or the desire to get away from another.
  • If you want a PC to befriend an NPC, start by shying away at first, then increasing eye contact over time to make the player feel something meaningful was created.
  • Roll your eyes to show arrogance, boredom or disapproval.
  • Demonstrate amazement by widening the eye-lids quickly (usually along with a body flinch).
  • Raise your eyebrow to show curiosity.
  • Raise both eyebrows to indicate confusion or bewilderment.
  • Droop your eyes to indicate tiredness or sickness.
  • Look down when roleplaying sorrow.

In some video games and animated cartoon series, animators have created eye charts that show positions of the eyes to communicate an emotion. Google “facial expression chart” to see examples.

Facial Gestures

Many facial gestures primarily use the mouth, lips, cheeks and forehead to gauge emotion and truth. (I consider the eyebrows and eyelids as part of the eye-gesture category).

Facial gestures have a wide range and can be too subtle to be used alone (without other non-verbal or verbal support) to drop a hint to players. Typically, a facial gesture is used along with an eye-gesture, hand or body gesture.

A good movie scene that comes to mind that uses lip gestures is Hal watching a conversation between two astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you scrunch your mouth, jaw and face into different positions as you read this, you’ll discover forgotten expressions instantaneously because you are thinking about what you’re doing.

Consider what expressions you want to communicate on behalf of your PCs or NPCs.

Neck Responses

Many overlook tilting of the neck as a means of communication.

  • Push the neck to one side to indicate a character is hearing something secretive from another.
  • Shake and nod your head to show approval or disapproval with different degrees.
  • Nod too much to show that a character is so convinced and won-over it does not really matter at all what a character is saying.

Hand and Arm Gestures

This category is a language of itself that is commonplace among animators. Think of these non-verbals as poses, motions and transitions from one motion to the next. For instance, let’s say a character is angry but doesn’t want to show it. The GM could have a conversation with the players with a fake smile while gripping both hands together tightly in disgust and then wringing them as the conversation continues.

You can communicate many things with your hands. Here are three major signs:

  • Fold your arms around your body to shield away others.
  • Open arms for happiness and welcoming.
  • Touch your face for many types of distance-responses such as signaling it’s okay to come forward, stay put or back up.
  • In Fantasy RPGs, you can make use of casting magic spells too, which adds to the unique flavor.

Body Gestures

Posture is a primary focus in this category to show the overall mood of a person. Like a marionette, the game master can act out how an NPC appears as characters approach.

From a distance, it can also provide interesting strategic information such as:

  • Pacing in front of a gate
  • Looking to and from
  • Sleeping
  • Slumping down over something
  • Looking up into the sky
  • Dodging left or right
  • Walking then sprinting repeatedly to indicate fleeing away

You might even want to try something new by acting out an entire scene without saying a word. This often creates unique role-played experiences by having players guess why the NPC is not speaking.

Distance Proximity

Many GMs like to sit behind their screens, but moving in and out of spaces can be a very effective means of communication. It’s easy to back away or hide around a corner to indicate what you wish.

However, approaching another player at the table can be intimidating, though if players know it’s all in good fun and told in advance, then it can be allowed. It’s easier to do this when you are good friends with the players at the table, but it needs to be clear to them that you’re acting in character so they won’t feel weird about it.

Non-Verbal Impersonations and Poses

Obviously, it’s easy to impersonate verbally, but most of us forget that we impersonate many objects, special effects and events non-verbally. It can be helpful for players to gauge the size of things by using non-verbal impersonations.

Imagine describing a column of smoke rising into the air. If the GM opens up his arms and then stands up from the table, it can be a helpful way to paint in a player’s mind the magnitude and importance of the smoke.

Similarly, pulling the hands together into a tiny ball can help to show that something is being concealed or something is contracting inwardly.

One of my favorite impersonations is that of murals or statues in game settings to show meaningful poses. Often, the GM uses a mural as part of a gameplay puzzle when players just are not getting the hint. However, when the GM actually shows the pose, such as an outstretched arm pointing to something else, it can be an effective hint for players to look at what the painting is pointing at.

Tone Differences

The pitch and volume of speech changes as a conversation unfolds. It can be helpful in situations to know if a character is winning or losing, or what has changed. It can also be effective to hear if a person is out of breath, whispering or shouting.

Tone Cadence and Pauses

The speed of speech often indicates meaning and intelligence behind the words. Play around with speaking faster or slower, or putting in meaningful pauses to drive home a point.

Sound Effects

My friends tell me that I use sound effects all of the time. I do not need to go into depth here because most of us who play RPGs have a culture of using sound effects from our childhood and bringing them into the game.

Aside from thruster sounds, laser strikes, sword clashes, thuds and other bangs, it can be easy to forget about other effective, more basic sounds to express emotion.

  • An occasional nose sniff or sigh shows sadness
  • Clearing of the throat or a whistle can be a cue to start a combat attack
  • A rising or falling tone can describe many in-game events such as an incoming arrow from above or something lifting out a dark chasm

Clothing Props

Slinging on clothing helps enhance what is desired. Having a long piece of scrap clothing at a game is effective as a sash, veil, hat, cap or belt.

You can also use it to demonstrate tying rope or in rogue-like situations when hiding behind around a corner or even coming up behind to choke with a cord.

In my years of GMing, I don’t ask too much of my players in regards to their acting styles and non-verbals. Each personality is different and the last thing you want to do is intimidate a player by making him or her feel uncomfortable.

Tell your players you will use non-verbals at times to make them feel more comfortable if you act out something they might not expect. As a campaign unfolds after each adventure, players that stick around often warm-up to the gaming group and might even start character acting without knowing it.

As long as the GM and players do not expect everyone at the table to role-play, the weight is lifted so each player can enjoy their characters the ways they want for every situation. Putting players on the spot can kill games because a shy player who sees it happen might think, “Oh no, when is the GM going to turn to me and put me on the spot?”

By far, the table top role-playing game offers the most imaginative way to tell an interactive story. Because everything expressed can be written and mentally conveyed with imagination, I have recently rediscovered PBEMs.

Even though we cannot see the game master’s face or hear the tone differences, a PBEM offers the ability to write a story that paints expressions in our mind’s eye. The written language can cover these aspects if the GM considers non-verbals in his or her email posts.

Because of his rediscovery of PBEMs, I recently created a new and free RPG ruleset for PBEM-specific fantasy gaming called the PBEMFRPG.

You can download the PBEMFRPG at www.attackthedarkness.com

If curious, you can learn more about me here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0174070/

Comments are closed