Roleplaying vs Rollplaying

This article is designed to help those who want to inject some mystery and suspense back into their game. When we first come to roleplaying, although the rules can be a little confusing at first, the first few adventures we play can be quite exciting, even terrifying, because we have no idea what we should do, or how to do it. Everything is new, so we make no assumptions. But with a few adventures under our belt, we can start to get somewhat blasé about the whole affair.

The players will begin to learn about the world, so it holds fewer surprises, and also about the rules, so a magician or critter is no longer a thing of wonder, but something to be quantified and “handled”. This is a far cry from the mystery that roleplaying can really be. We become more interested in the stats than the story and adventure itself. It ceases to be a thing of wonder.

So how can we remedy this? Especially in an RPG such as Shadowrun, which is so rules heavy?

Conduct as GM and Player

The first change we can make is how we speak to each other at the gaming table, which is lead by the GM. Firstly, we should never (or very rarely) tell our players something that their character doesn’t know.

We don’t need to tell the players that the troll is attacking them on initiative 17, only that the troll attacks them. By giving the players numbers unnecessarily, we firstly detract from the fantasy world, by reminding them it’s a game, and secondly we take away fear and uncertainty by quantifying the game. If I know that the troll goes on initiative 17, I have a guage of how fast he is. Especially if the GM tells me if it was a good roll or not.

The GM also doesn’t need to tell the players that the troll avoided their attack by 2 successes, or that it hit, and he soaked the damage, getting 14 successes. They just need to know that he ducked back behind cover, and their shot kicked up dust on the wall, or that the troll grunts as the round slams into his shoulder. One way emphasises the game, the other the story.

If they search a magician’s body, they don’t need to know that he has a Force 5 Power Focus, only that he has an amulet in the shape of a scarab, which is glowing softly in the astral (assuming they use the sight). A non-magician searching, should just find a bunch of wild stuff, like mushrooms, herbs, jewelry, knick-knacks and the like.

There have even been instances of the GM taking the players’ character sheets from them, and passing them back a list of description. A PC magician wouldn’t know they had a Force 5 Power Focus, just that they had a magic wand that helped them cast spells. The GM then would handle all rules and rolls, and the players simply describe their actions. The GM would keep track of damage taken, rounds fired, etc. and just describe the wounds to the players, so they have no game knowledge at all, only story knowledge.

In a system like Shadowrun, with all its crunch, this would be almost impossible to achieve, even for a session or two. But sit back and think for a second, how it would be to only have descriptive knowledge of the adventure, never the crunch.

Minimise Rules Knowledge and World Knowledge

Is there no hope for Shadowrun then? There are plenty of options without going to this logical extreme. First of all, actively prevent players from learning knowledge their character wouldn’t have. Magicians don’t need to know or read about cyberware unless they are thinking of buying some, their character wouldn’t know or care about this. Non-magical PCs shouldn’t read the magic section. Please note that this shouldn’t be done in opposition to the players, but with their active cooperation – if they’re not interested in heightening their roleplaying experience, then don’t foist this upon them – roleplaying is a collaborative affair after all.

Players shouldn’t read game books that their characters wouldn’t know about. Even a book such as the ‘Almanac, should only be read if the character is of an age where they might know this information, or have been taught it. A kid growing up in the barrens, would know very little.

The players in my campaign all seem to have acquired knowledge of CFD (unsurprising considering it’s in every book now), but we are playing in Spring 2075 – CFD is still in its early, largely unknown stage. This is an example of how player knowledge and character knowledge can leak into each other.

In software testing, there is a technique called ‘black box testing’, in which the tester concentrates on just the inputs and outputs of the system, and doesn’t bother trying to figure out what goes on inside. Roleplaying in an ideal world, should be like this.

Limit Inter-Character Knowledge

The decker doesn’t know that the troll has a strength of 8, or Sneaking 4. He would only know that he can punch through doors (if he’s seen him do it), or that he’s surprising stealthy in the shadows. If there’s a teamwork test occurring, the players shouldn’t be discussing their characters’ skill levels to see who leads. If a player says that they are looking at another character, then we can always describe the huge muscles of the troll, for example, or the terrible damage he inflicts with the combat axe, but not in points!

They should also not be privy to each other’s qualities or backgrounds, so a suddenly discovered allergy to silver may lead to suspicion (are they infected?), whereas if it can be plainly seen on the character sheet, then it is already known that it’s nothing to worry about.

Play up differences between Player and Character

The most obvious example here is a troll. Describe how they keep hitting their head on road signs, or they don’t fit down the manhole cover, or the meet is at a place without troll-sized chairs. But this is the most obvious example. What about a character with a Logic of 1? He is dumb as a bag of rocks, so feel free to mislead and misinform him.

Also, feel free to highlight differences in the game world. In D&D, there was a DM who would always wait until someone said they were lighting a torch, then ask, “How?” With flint and steel of course. “How?” Then the poor player would have to describe how their character gets down on the floor, gets their tinderbox out, get their flint and steel out, gets a spark, then a bit of tinder going, then gradually lights the torch.

Some might feel that this is over pressing the point here, and maybe it is, but it served to remind the players that they are not in the 21st Century anymore, they are in a dirty, muddy world, where even getting a little light is a task. A bit of wind, or if it’s been raining recently, and it can easily cause problems.

In Shadowrun’s Sixth World, the problems are still there, but very different. For example, if they go to the meet Downtown, ask how they’re getting there (especially the troll!). Ask what they’re wearing (and consult their lifestyles, street or squatter will smell), what weapons they’re carrying, what SIN they’re broadcasting, and whether the SIN has licences for the guns they’re carrying. If they’re an ork, have a racist cop stop them and hassle them, maybe shake them down a little, while a police drone watches on impassively. Ask how they’re paying for their meal, or where they are going to buy gear from. Lifestyles, SINs and vehicles all come in here.

Red Herrings

A great technique to push back on assumptions, and too much player knowledge of the world, is to play on that knowledge. Not only does this penalise players who know more than their characters, it is great fun for the GM!

This can be as simple as having the same homeless person sitting outside each place they go to. They might initially think it’s a coincidence, but this could quickly turn to paranoia, with the assumption that he’s a spy.

An example of game knowledge which might be used, is a fake ghoul. Maybe a contact is someone they only meet at night, wears shades, has long fingernails and pale skin, and isn’t keen on bright lights. If none of the characters know anything about the infected (other than what they may have caught on trid shows), then they shouldn’t necessarily know about ghouls. You can milk this for as much as it’s worth, having him order really rare steaks (wink at the waiter).

Maybe a Johnson’s bodyguard looks a bit like a samurai, and wears some items of red armour, which could lead to confusion when they discover which corp they’re really working for. Or maybe the Johnson acts weirdly, sometimes switching between personality traits, but hasn’t really go CFD, it’s just a quirky mental disorder. Do they refuse to shake his hand? What if he insists?

Rolling dice

One technique to help play along is to roll the dice ahead of time. For example, if two other groups are having a battle nearby, and you want to roll dice, rather than just hand wave the combat, it can help if all the dice rolls happen before the session, and are recorded, rather than deplaying the action for the runners, and having to make the rolls in front of them.

This way you can simply cinematically describe how the battle goes during the session, according to the rolls made beforehand. If the runners suddenly decide to join in with the battle, then you can revert to normal combat turns.

Another use of this technique is for Perception and Con rolls by the PCs. Before a session, take down the character stats for rolls such as Perception + Intuition (noting any cyberware bonuses, etc), or Con + Cha, etc. and note down these numbers per character. These can then either be rolled on behalf of the player privately when the need arises, behind the screen, without giving the game away by asking for the stats from the player. Even better, is to make the rolls ahead of time, so you simply know before the session starts that when they go in the room, only Findus the Elf will notice the gun butt protruding from under the sofa, and you can simply continue with the narration without having to break out into dice rolls.


Hopefully, by promoting the game world over the rules, and out of character knowledge, you should be well on your way to having a more authentic and cinematic experience of the game, rather than simply problem-solving. Anything that leads to players experiencing the game more from their character’s point of view is fair game!

If the party gets split up, then feel free to split the players – this way they can’t act on player knowledge. If it’s a quick item, like Findus spotting the gun butt, then simply pass a note.

In short the players should be less sure of their world, the rules, and their own characters and should be less able to act on player knowledge.

Good luck!

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