Like a Deer in the Headlights (or Spotlight)
The other day on Twitter, I confessed to a rather embarrassing incident from high school. As a freshman, I was in a "Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus" skit for our Christmas variety show. I played the role of Virginia, hair in pigtails, wearing overalls and skipping out to the middle of the stage, alone. After sitting down and swinging my legs back and forth off the edge of the stage, I started reciting the famous letter. At some point, I completely froze, the type of freezing where you can't even remember your own name. The audience felt it and, well, being an audience full of high school students, started laughing. I took a deep breath, stuck out my tongue like any little kid would do. Suddenly the lines came to me and I stuck up my index finger, waved it towards the crowd and said, "Wait, there's more."
Perhaps a rather extreme example of a common scenario in role playing, but a useful one nonetheless. Sometimes in the course of play, players freeze, some more than others. They will have that moment of extreme stress and anxiety and the feeling that they are failing at the game. And trust me, it's every bit as bad as doing it in front of an entire high school.
So, what do you do when a player freezes? If that player is you, remember to take a deep breath. If you have an impulse to do something, whether it's breaking eye contact, playing with your hair, etc, do it to help break the tension you're feeling. Often it's hard for the person in the midst of a freeze to do anything but wait until their brain opens up again.
If you are one of the other members of the table, especially the DM, call time out. Of course it varies from person to person, but often trying to pepper with questions or press on with the role play just makes things worse. The person who freezes feels that they are "failing" and with each question they can't answer or remark they are not able to make, they feel like even more of a failure.
During the time out, try to figure out what is causing the problem. Often, the player will feel like they have no idea of what their character would do in this situation. It might be a lack of information, if you just asked him to negotiate a contract for wages, he might not understand enough about the gold system to know what a fair counter offer would be. For me, I'm often an emotions-based player, so if I don't feel a strong connection to some part of the game, whether it's the NPCs, the setting, or the adventure hook, I'm much more apt to freeze. Telling me that the flowers are in bloom and that I can smell the sweet fragrance of lilacs might be enough to break me from the spell.
Now I have something else to confess, even though I'm prone to these sorts of freezes, I still enjoy playing charismatic characters. People often define charisma too narrowly. Not everyone with high natural charisma is in front of the crowd or on the TV screen. They are often the ones who quietly get the group together, negotiate in the background to make sure everyone's needs are taken care of, and who deflect compliments and other kind words to others. Charisma doesn't have to always be showy, just like you can have a quiet fighter.
When I play these characters, I try to make something in my background explain why I might be a little shy, particularly at first. For my first character, Sarah, I explained her as someone with front of the house looks and natural charisma but who viewed herself as back of the house material. This gave me room so that over time, as I played with the group and we got comfortable, I could mold her, and myself, into our true selves.
So the next time someone freezes at your table, particularly a new player, try to help them out. Pause the game for a moment, find out the issues, and try to rectify them. They might just need a minute to think or a better understanding of the scenario. As time goes on, they'll probably get a better feel for the game and the investment will be well worth it.