by Elina Gouliou
The “Play to Lift” Technique
There are some game sessions where all the characters shine and the action is awesome and cinematic. I thought it was a matter of luck or circumstance, until I encountered the Play to Lift technique and realised that it is often the result of all the players around the table (including the GM) lifting each other up and making their characters look cool.
This technique, also known as “Playing Up,” is used in some live action roleplay (larp) traditions, but it can easily be used in tabletop RPGs. With this approach, each player actively reacts to the other players’ characters in the way they want their characters to be portrayed. For example, if I want to play an intimidating and mysterious Seer, the characters of the other players will “lift my play” in their interactions with me, being fearful and respectful towards my character and believing in her prophecies. They may even turn their plot around so that the prophecies turn out true, or interpret events to fit these prophecies. This makes my Seer come alive in a way that I could never achieve without my fellow players’ buy-in.
A good example of playing someone up is in relation to their character’s status. High status can never be demanded in character; it can only be conferred freely by the people around the character. This includes the NPCs who are often controlled by the GM but it also includes the other player characters. If someone has asked to be played up as high status, I would talk to them in character with deference, give them priority and step to the side to allow them past. The same concept also applies if someone is meant to be low status, a great orator, or physically intimidating.
If my D&D character has a high Charisma, then that telegraphs to the other players that my character is particularly appealing in manner or speech. If my character’s Dexterity is low, then my character might be heavily built or clumsy. But there are many different variations of these broad characteristics. If someone has a high value in Intimidation, that might just mean their demeanour, or their overall behaviour. Play to Lift can be applied to any element that a player wants to emphasise for their character during play, including those not defined by stats, such as confident, overbearing, motherly, creepy or empathetic.
Playing to Lift is not just for character strengths, but also for weaknesses. So, if I want my character to be portrayed as clumsy or really absent-minded, then this is something that the other characters would pick up and comment on. The importance is that this is a characteristic that the player of that character wants to be emphasised, even though it is negative.
The opposite is “Playing Down.” This means playing on a trait that the player did not intend for their character and does not really want conferred on the character. For example, if I fail one Dexterity roll and another character says “well, you are always clumsy, remember that time…” or they cut a character mid-speech despite this character being a captivating orator. This creates a negative feeling of “but I did not want my character to be perceived like that” and either I need to negate the fiction (which means breaking character and trying to reverse engineer what has been established) or go along with it (essentially feeling forced to accept a character trait that I did not want). Playing someone down has a negative effect on the game.
Elements of the Play to Lift Technique
We need to know what attributes everyone around the table wants to be lifted. Where the attribute to be played up is a mechanical one, that attribute should match the strength or weakness. There is no point in asking for a character with a low fighting ability to be played up as a mighty warrior. In some cases, you can instinctively feel what the player wants and just give it to them. But the most fail-safe way is to ask in advance. This is best done at the beginning of the game when people introduce their character out of game. It’s a quick and easy process. For example “I am Elina, and I am playing Lucilla the Bard. I would love it if people could play up my musical skills”. Or “I am playing Lucilla the Bard. I have a terrible voice and no musical skill and I would love if you could play up how untalented I am.”
The play to lift technique relies on three elements: reciprocity, recognition and good communication.
The first element is reciprocity. You play me up, I play you up and we both get the story we want to tell. We actively make each other’s characters look cool.
The next element is the recognition – the idea that every player around the table is responsible for each other’s fun and for telling a great story. This also means that players realise that it is often a characters’ weakness what makes them interesting. If someone wants to be played up to be invincible, the best at everything, then it is pretty boring and it does not lead to a dramatic story.
What to Do When Play to Lift Requests Clash
Sometimes it can be that the players’ wishes for elements to be played up may conflict. That is where good communication comes in. A brief discussion around the table will make sure that everyone is on the same page about the style of game they want. At that stage, you should establish if (a) you can make the character concepts and play up requests fit together, (b) it is possible to tweak some of the characters to accommodate the request or (c) the play up requests really do not work, so that the other players cannot play up this aspect. It is infinitely better for players to know, than for hours of frustration because they are not getting the support they want and their character needs.
If someone wants to be played up in a direction the others do not like, then that might show a misunderstanding or at least different expectations of the game we are about to start. If I want to play angsty family drama and the others want to play “killing goblins and taking their stuff” then there is definitely some misunderstanding about what type of game we are playing and someone will end up disappointed.
Lifting someone’s character does not have to, and does not usually, dominate the plot. It is about the little things: a nod of respect, a sign of unease or a short side scene to persuade the reluctant hero. If your friend wants to play a dark and broody loner you can have a mini scene where he is trying to come to terms with their turmoil and follow the adventure should also explain that this will not be the focus of the game.
In my experience, there are only very few instances where it is genuinely not possible to marry two characters’ play-ups. Most of the times, it will be possible to accommodate everyone with some creative thinking. Let’s say that I want to be lifted up in being intimidating and my fellow player Cat wants to be lifted up in being a fearless, undaunted adventurer. With a quick first glance, it seems that these two requests are not compatible. However, there are many ways to accommodate them both. For example it may be that Cat’s fearless pulpy adventurer is usually undaunted, but my intimidating seer somehow sets her on edge. Imagine how scary the Seer must be to make even a brave adventurer feel unnerved!
Or it may be that the other characters are not scared themselves of the Seer but they can see the reaction of others. They describe how the villagers shy away from the Seer and how the town becomes deserted and everyone shuts themselves in and closes the shutters when the party approaches. This falls to a great extent on the GM who controls the NPCs but the other players can contribute with ideas. Perhaps the other characters wonder and ask themselves what she has done to make her so terrifying that even the mention of her name make people shake.
When the Dice Are Not on Your Side
What happens when I want to be played up but just failed my die roll in the ability I want played up?
First of all, a dice roll can be interpreted in many different ways. So, for example, if I lose in a fight that can be interpreted as “your character is really not scary, he is a weakling, you just lost in a simple fight, ha ha ha!” or “OMG!!!, David just took down Goliath, what a turn out!, this is incredible!!!” In the first interpretation, the character who lost is no longer scary, and if I wanted my scariness to be played up, this would totally negate that. In the second interpretation, the character maintains its scariness and the dice results are considered an outlier event that is very rare.
Secondly, sometimes the dice tell us something about the character and it is cool to incorporate that in the fiction if the player decides they want to. So, if I have rolled a one five times in a row, I may decide that my character is really jinxed, clumsy or weak. I may choose to incorporate that in my character’s play-ups. It is important that decision should come from the player themselves and not imposed by the others around the table. My group has been playing The One Ring for about a year now, and our ranger has been constantly failing his Travel rolls. The player has decided to make it into a feature of the game and he is making jokes about it. But it was the player who decided to incorporate that failing into his character, not the other players.
Play to Lift in Player v Player Situations
Playing someone up is more difficult in a PvP setting but it is also more important than in cooperative play. Because it is essential that, while the characters are at each other’s’ throats, the players are absolutely happy with it and with the direction the conflict is going. As a player I love it when another character back-stabs my character in a Hot War or Game of Thrones game. My character is furious, devastated or angry, but, as a player, I am loving it.
Of course, in a heavy PvP game it is not usually possible to avoid all difficult PvP interactions (as the game revolves around that) and therfore it is important to communicate up-front the style of the game. But it is possible to avoid areas that the other player does not want for their character and to dial down the escalation. Ultimately, the player’s happiness and well-being is more important than the game. If I am not sure, I will just check-in out of character with the player that they are happy with the direction the game is taking.
Finally, we must remember that it is possible to play up two characters who are conflicting, without undermining the other one. So, the fact that David won in the biblical story did not really make Goliath any less scary. It just lifted David without undermining the incredible strength and scariness of the giant. With practice it is possible to play up two characters on the same trait without undermining each other. And that makes for the best PvP fight, because there are two bad-asses fighting each other, both played up in awesomeness by the other player. And is that not the epic fight we always want to see in movies, TV series and ultimately at our gaming table?
Playing to Lift as GM
GMs can Play to Lift, too and to some extent they are the biggest influence in how the characters are perceived by the outside world, as they control the whole world environment and the NPCs. Where the other players can be the outliers, the GM can provide the reaction of the norm, the common folk. Respect, status, reputation often is cemented by these reactions.
As a GM it is important to remember that Playing to Lift does not mean winning without opposition. That would not be dramatic, nor cinematic. Playing to Lift means giving an amazing challenge to the characters while ensuring that everyone gets a chance to get the spotlight and shine. It means being the number one fan of the player character’s stories.
Some may argue that “we are already doing this in our gaming group.” I totally agree. I have seen many tabletop players who do this instinctively. I think that I used to do it sometimes. But since I heard of the technique and saw how effective it is, I actively think about “what does the other player want?” much more than before. It is as if I have put a vocabulary to my instincts and thus, I am trying to play people up much more frequently and proactively than before. I may still fail occasionally but when I do, I know what I have done “wrong” in terms of how I want to play.
When people lift each other up, everyone wins; when they play each other down, everyone loses.
Update: My friend, the talented games designer James Mullen, wrote a game poem directly inspired by this article, intended as an exercise in using the Play to Lift technique. It is called On the Way Up and you can read it here.
Susanne Vejdemo, Play to Lift, not Just to Lose. Nordic Larp
Bøckman, Petter. (2003) The Three Way Model: Revision of the Threefold Model. In Gade, Thorup, Sander. When Larp Grows Up – Theory and Methods in Larp. Pp 12-16.
Willer Piironen & Kristoffer Thurøe. 2014. An Introduction to the Nordic Player Culture. In Saitta, Holm-Andersen & Back: The Foundation Stone of Nordic Larp, pp 33-36.
Elina Gouliou divides her gaming time between a wide variety of tabletop games such as Monsterhearts, Hot War and Fate Accelerated, and live action roleplaying games both large- and small-scale. She loves games that focus on the drama rather than rules and enjoys the process of co-creating a captivating story.