Stolen Valor in RPG Play

This is going to come across as deeply pretentious, cynical, and cruel. I'm going to have to accept those criticisms should they arise. I feel that this needs to be said. Also, if anyone gets offended by my appropriation of the term "stolen valor," you're just going to have to get over it.

Roleplayers are not trained actors, unless they are. If they aren't, they should not be trying to come across as trained actors. This must be highlighted because there are many games being played where people attempt to inject artificial meaning into the game by "acting."

Now, this isn't to say that "acting" is an inherently bad thing in roleplaying games. Quite obviously, using your character's voice can add to the immersive element of the game. It's when we get into the realm of dramatics that this starts to rear its ugly heads.

Can you convincingly cry on command? Shout in rage with full control of your vocal faculties? Give a passionate speech that captures all the nuances of the event, as though you're an inhabitant of the world? A trained actor can do these things; a roleplayer usually cannot.

Yet, many roleplayers try their damnedest, and I can't blame them for it. Many shuffle from one short campaign to the next. They must inject every ounce of meaning they can into every session, because they never know when the group is going to fall apart, the game will lose steam, or their work schedules will change. Why build castles on a swamp if they keep sinking when you can just pretend it was built instead?

The castle, in this metaphor, is the meaning that comes from long term campaign play. And the answer is to either stop building it on a swamp or to just keep trying until it sticks.

The "Stolen Valor of RPGs" is that people pretend to have the castle instead of actually having it. They'll start the game with extensive backstories and important relationships, then fake cry when their PC's wife dies to add weight to the moment. The people who truly earn this weight are those who developed these relationships over the course of play.

In the first campaign I ever ran, one of the NPCs was kept as an assistant to the Paladin. This eventually evolved to her becoming the steward of the party's manse, a love interest to a PC, the babysitter of one of the PCs' children. When they learned that she might have been killed after about a year of play, the players had genuine reactions. There was substantial attachment to that NPC.

This is earned valor.

Now, what do you do when something happens that would affect your character but there isn't enough game-built connection to justify making a big deal out of it? Easy. You don't act, you play your character. You say how your character would react.

I've found that in many situations, this is far less immersion breaking and far more evocative than an amateur actor trying to bring tears out of the audience.

So, I ask all of you to stop pretending you've built the castle and just build the fucking castle... unless all you have time for is short campaigns and you enjoy cringe acting.

It may consist of less incredibly dramatic moments early on in the game, but the end result is that it feels more organic, less contrived. It feels that this is a fictional world coming to life through play, not cheesy improv theatre.


  1. I concur. Why force what may not be earned. And I would suggest that most players shouldn't grandstand; I believe it slows play, and it's a game, not a stage production.
    Another point to consider is how tenuous holding a campaign together can be. Maybe that's why we reveled in short modules back in the '80s. They were, or could be, quick: 2 or 3 sessions. We've all experienced that time when someone couldn't make it when we were going to face Explictica Defilous. What to do then? Carry on? Would someone else play the absent player's character? Or would we start another module?
    Best to have a number of adventures running concurrently. If you only run one epic campaign the loss of a "focal" character can end that year long endeavor.

  2. Dude, is everything ok? You deleted your Twitter and all your YouTube videos.


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