A not-so-well-kept secret of tabletop RPGs is that even the most compelling, convincing and dramatic roleplayers among us may struggle with nerves. Assuming a character and throwing oneself wholeheartedly into the role is a wonderful experience for everyone involved. It’s also an act of vulnerability and a source of much anxiety for players and Dungeon Masters alike.
Having lived with an anxiety disorder for more years than I care to remember, I consider myself somewhat of an expert on anxiety. I know it intimately and in all its forms, from sweaty palms to panic attacks. Still, the rewards of roleplay outweigh the churning in my stomach. To reap those rewards, I first had to learn to manage my nerves.
The Company You Keep
Whether roleplay is more nerve-wracking among friends or strangers varies from person to person, and tabletop RPGs can accommodate both. Whether you form a party with friends or play with strangers at your local game store, it’s important that you’re playing with understanding and respectful people.
At the start of the first session or during the session zero, don’t be afraid to let the other players know that you’re nervous about roleplaying. There are several benefits to this: most people will be understanding and make a concerted effort to be outwardly supportive, it will take off some of the pressure you may feel to put on a voice, and finally, if any of the players respond with rudeness, cruelty or a lack of compassion, it’s a clear sign that this isn’t the group for you.
Playing with understanding people who are aware of your nerves takes a lot of the worry and pressure from the shoulders of a nervous player. It also creates an environment that allows you to get comfortable with roleplay. Don’t forget to return the favour, should you ever come across another player who hesitates to roleplay- they’re probably feeling the same nerves.
Putting on a voice or accent is, in my experience, the most intimidating part of roleplaying, but it’s not mandatory. There are other ways to play your character that can be just as effective. A combination of some or all of these can create a clear identity and personality for your character:
- Character posture. This is the first method I used, putting on a cocky, self-assured slouch and smirk whenever I was speaking in character as my first PC, a drow sorceress. It helped my fellow players see when I was speaking in character, and helped me to assume her affect and personality.
- Change up your vocabulary. Ask yourself: does my character swear a lot? Do they speak plainly or talk circles around their point? Is their speech complex or simple? Altering your vocabulary in this way can do a lot to demonstrate the personality and background of your character.
- Pacing, hesitation and tone. How quickly or slowly a character speaks, when and how often in sentences they pause, whether they speak with hesitation or enthusiasm.
These are all things that you can do with your regular voice, and while you may still be nervous to try them, incorporating one or two at a time can be a helpful way to ease yourself into roleplay. These are the three techniques that I myself used to move from being far too afraid to play in character to being mostly comfortable with it now.
Speaking in character when you’re anxious or nervous to do so involves gradually stepping out of your comfort zone until eventually, you find it expanded. Playing in groups of kind people, slowly incorporating new roleplay elements into my gameplay, and challenging myself to do more were all vital elements in the process. As you go, the hilarious, sombre, exciting, intense moments that come from roleplay make pushing your boundaries a rewarding experience.
I remember with distinct clarity the first moment of pure roleplay I had in a D&D game. Another player and I spoke in character, making jokes and partaking in a friendly competition for half an hour. A full half hour of speaking in character. It was the most fun, entertaining and proud moment in my D&D experience up to then. There have been many more since, but for the influence that it had on my attitude towards playing in character, that moment will be one I always remember and cherish.
So talk to your party about your nerves, dare to take a small step into playing your character, and enjoy the great moments that come when you do. Perhaps like I did not terribly long ago, you’ll sit behind the DM screen for the first time someday, nervous about many things, but speaking as your NPCs not among them.