Virtual Tabletops and In-Character/Out-of-Character Speech

Posted in EpicTable Blog on February 1, 2008 at 7:58 pm

chat bubbles This post presents some ideas for separating player speech from character speech when playing roleplaying games on a virtual tabletop.

Around your kitchen table, it’s probably obvious when you’re talking vs. when your character is talking. Especially if you’re that guy who always plays a gnome or a halfling and has to stay in character all the time. (You know who you are. Stop it.) When your group moves to a virtual tabletop, though, you need a new way to keep track of who’s saying what.

In-Character vs. Out-Of-Character Speech

Most virtual tabletops (“VTs” or sometimes “VTTs”) support text-based multi-user chat. Many allow you to signal whether you’re speaking in or out of character when you type.

This ability to signal whether you’re speaking in or out of character is really critical and one of the things that separates a dedicated roleplaying product like a virtual tabletop from general purpose instant messaging tools.

Why Bother to Signal In-Character vs. Out-of-Character Speech?

  • Everyone can tell whether it’s you or your character speaking. (Sure you know, but without the whiny gnome voice, no one else does.)
  • If your GM produces a transcript of the session, he can easily filter out out-of-character speech.

Mixed Text and Voice Chat

Another way to differentiate between in-character speech and out-of-character speech is use text chat for one and voice chat (e.g., via Skype or TeamSpeak) for another.

Use voice chat for out-of-character speech:

  • player-to-player banter
  • calling for dice rolls
  • all the mechanical parts of an RPG.

Use text for in-character speech:

  • roleplaying encounters with NPCs
  • discussions between characters
  • battlecries
  • internal monologue that you want to share with the group

Why Text Chat for In-Character Speech?

Because you’re not an actor

Let’s face it; not everyone is a talented voice actor. (No, not even you, with your gnome voice and your ridiculous woodland name.) When in-character voice works, it’s great, but when it doesn’t–and it won’t for long–it gets silly or annoying. Neither helps you convey the sense of your character.

Because even if you are an actor, the other players’ imaginations are better (unless you’re Patrick Stewart)

With text chat, the listeners’ imagination combines the character’s portrait with your word choice and subtle linguistic cues to paint a mental image of the character. I suppose that depends on where your group falls with respect to acting vs. writing ability. If Patrick Stewart is in your group, maybe you want to let him speak in character. Unless he’s playing a female gnome. Or really any gnome.

Because you need to distinguish multiple speakers

Another reason why I prefer text chat for in-character speech is the need to distinguish multiple speakers. The GM, at minimum, has the need to do this, and the players might too, if playing multiple characters.

Now, maybe you’re great at imitating your character’s voice, but are you great at all your characters’ (or non-player characters’) voices? Probably not.

This is where virtual tabletops really shine. Some will allow you to assemble your cast of characters and choose whose “voice” you want to use. The messages you type come out annotated with the character’s name, like the script of a play.

What about Actions?

Actions are weird. They’re kind of in-character, in that the character is doing something. They’re kind of out-of-character, in that there’s frequently explanation that the player has to do or game mechanics involved. Some VTs allow you to signal actions as distinct from either in-character or out-of-character. This has always seemed a little contrived to me. You have to remember how your actions show up in the chat window so you can word them in a way that doesn’t look weird. But that’s true of treating it as in-character or out-of-character speech as well. I’m not sure what I think about this at the moment. (EpicTable, at this moment, doesn’t split out actions as distinct “speech”, but I can’t say that I feel strongly about that choice.)

Confession of a Woodland Warrior

Okay, I’ve given everyone else a hassle about playing gnomes. I guess I should admit that I have had a couple gnome characters myself. Thorn Greenbriar is the one I’ll admit to. There’s one from the 80s that I’d rather not discuss. Maybe this whole article about character speech is just overcompensation for my secret shame….

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