I was just acting!
Ham as a verb
GM: "Okay, he swings at you and… <familiar clattering of dice>
…he misses. It’s your turn, Aidan."
Aidan: "Ummm…" <more clattering of dice> "…I rolled an 18! That’s
a hit, right?"
GM: "Yeah, yeah…" <a pause as he scribbles something down>
"…okay, the last orc is dead. The maiden is still in the corner."
Aidan: "I ask her if she’s the Lord’s daughter."
GM: "Yup, she is. She tells you thanks for saving her."
Aidan: "No problem. Okay, let’s get back to town and get our
Chris: "Can we order pizza? I’m hungry…"
If that sounds like an average Saturday night game session, it’s
time to spice up things a bit. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had
formal training in theatre or even worked back-stage at a school
play, you can spice up any game by just hamming it up a bit. You may
feel a bit silly at first, but if you keep it up, you’re players
will catch on and things’ll start getting more comfortable. There
are a few things you can do to teach yourself some techniques that
even experienced actors use to provide realistic performances.
All the world’s a stage…
Get out. Go to a mall or amusement park or a concert or some
other place where there are a lot of people. Find a convenience spot
to sit and plant yourself there. Free your mind of any personal
concerns. Don’t think about that girl in math class, your bills, or
whether you put on the same color socks. Then, once you’ve divested
yourself of yourself, watch. Carefully. Watch people who are walking
alone, how they carry themselves. Do they walk with their shoulders
slumped, or perfectly erect? Do their eyes keep wandering around or
do they keep their gaze pinned steadfastly to the ground? Are they
constantly playing with their hair, or biting their lip? What do
these actions say to you? Is the person upset? Uptight? Lost in his
own thoughts? Is he accustomed to where he is? Is he lost? Now move
on to small groups of people. Watch how people interact with one
another. Are those two people a couple? What about their interaction
gives you that impression? Are those people friends? Is there one in
the group who doesn’t quite fit in? When they talk, do they swing
their hands about to emphasize their point? Do their eyes wander
around or do they remain fixed on the person they’re talking to? Are
their eyebrows moving around like two crickets stuck to their
forehead? Or do they keep them in one, specific position? Now, I’m
not talking about lurking or stalking. Don’t try to be weird when
you’re doing this…people will act differently if they know they’re
being watched and the results of your research will be influenced so
as to no longer be useful. Just casually glance around, keeping in
mind that you are watching people and observing your own impressions
of what their actions mean.
…And all the men and women merely players…
Okay…now that you’ve got a good feeling for how people interact
in the real world, watch TV. I don’t mean watching TV like you
normally do, just sitting there, absorbing what’s going on. Really
watch TV. Watch the actors and how they operate. This will allow you
to carefully observe their facial features without making someone
uncomfortable. You don’t really want to be watching your average
sitcom when you are doing this type of research, as the acting is
generally inferior. Rent a copy of some less-than-mainstream movies,
like The Piano or Braveheart. Or just about any production of any of
Shakespeares plays (Oliver Parker’s Othello and either Branagh’s or
Zepherelli’s Hamlet are great). Or even Star Trek: the Next
Generation (paying particular attention to Patrick Steward and Brent
Spiner, both with extensive classical theatre experience). Even a
few sitcoms will do, in a pinch, but regardless of what you watch,
keep in mind the lessons you’ve already learned watching real
people, instead of characters on a screen.
Also, listen carefully to various accents. What does a German
sound like, when he’s trying to speak English? You can listen to
Jean Reno for a good example of a French accent. British actors are
fairly common on modern TV, but watching plenty of Monty Python will
give you a good range (if a bit exaggerated) of examples of the
various accents which exist in modern Britain.
Okay…now that you’ve spent some time watching others, its time to
try it out yourself. Grab a mirror and lay it in your lap. Make a
face, one that you think conveys a specific emotion. Don’t let your
parents or significant other catch you at this, though…I don’t want
anyone locked up in a padded room because of this article! Then,
once you think you’ve got it, hold your face still while bringing
the mirror up so that you can see into it. Don’t move your eyes to
the mirror, move the mirror to a spot where you can see…the eyes are
one of the most important facial features when it comes to
communicating emotion. If you think the expression you’ve conjured
up doesn’t work, go back to the VCR and pause a tape somewhere where
an actor is attempting to convey a similar emotion. Try it again and
again until your satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. Remember
that face, how your muscles are situated (which are relaxed and
which are flexed), how narrow your eyes are, etc. Keep practicing.
Eventually, you will get it. Use that face next time you’ve got a
character that you need to convey that emotion. For different
characters, alter the face slightly.
Also recall how people carry themselves and how they sound.
Someone who is stout will tend to have a deeper voice, like Brian
Blessed. Women tend to have softer voices. Realize that you can
create different sounds by "speaking" from various parts of your
throat. In your mind, concentrate on what part of your throat is
most active when you speak normally. Then try moving the active part
of your throat/mouth/nose to different areas. Speaking from your
nose will sound tinny (nasal, even). Speaking from the bottom of
your throat or top of the chest will be deeper. Speaking from the
top of your throat will sound higher and airy. Speaking at the front
of your mouth will sound like you’ve got a lisp. Try combining a few
of these methods and you’ll be surprised at the range of sound you
can get your voicebox to emit.
Many people have told me that they can’t act. I say that’s
poppy-cock, at least to some degree. Most of these people are merely
fearful of looking silly, and that affects their performance. I’m
not suggesting you’ll become a Shakespearean actor by following
these tips. But it will improve your game. Eventually, your players
will start hamming it up, as well. Instead of every sentence
starting with "I tell him that…", you’ll see your players suddenly
break into character, and you’ll know when its them talking and when
its the character. With a voice and certain actions, the character
will begin to take on a life of its own. Then, you’ll really be