Like a Deer in the Headlights (or Spotlight)

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 14 July 2010

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.


What about in combat? Do you recommend calling a time out, or perhaps letting him hold action? Sometimes for me, it helps if spotlight passes on to someone else, giving me time to recoup.

As a DM, I generally have a bunch of reference notes about what's going on in game, so when I freeze up I take a deep breath and utter the now-too-familiar phrase "let me check my notes."

It's similar for a PC, although my notes aren't written down in that case. I will take a moment, pause the game as it were, and review my base personality traits before deciding on an action I was otherwise unsure about.

You're right, though--people shouldn't be afraid to break the flow of the game. All the other media in our life we consume has a pause button we use so we can orient ourselves when things get away from us; we pause movies, even television, rewind when we missed something, we pause video games, catch our breath, calm down, focus on our goals, we put down books, look away from the words to absorb what we read. It's a common learning tool, and there's no reason it shouldn't also apply to DnD.

So far I think I've managed to avoid freezing up too badly as a DM, in 4th Edition at least, I think in previous editions I had less of a grasp on the rules and the cosmology so I was less comfortable and more likely to freeze for short periods of time.

With my players, I think it helps that I see them all pretty regularly outside of the game and we are such good friends that if they freeze up in an RP scenario they generally seem to admit they're confused or lost, and then they ask me either as the DM or just person-to-person some questions or I offer up some crucial information. Sometimes I'll give the information entirely out of character, others I'll have them make a roll (and whether the roll is low or high) I share with them something their character knows / should know and then things usually continue from there.

I'm all for advice like this that is player and DM friendly. I will admit sometimes in combat I hassle my players to speed up, which is unfair because some of them are still getting used to their characters or 4E in general. I'll have to improve this in the future!

I suffer from the opposite of this effect. I am rarely at a loss for something to do or say. It may not end up being the right thing, but it is usually fun.

I think this used to happen to me the first time around role playing a few years back. Learning the system and somewhat acting the role playing scenes (combat or otherwise) can become a little too much for a noob player like i was, fortunately i don't suffer from that problem anymore and i thank it to character creation. As you mentioned i make use of the character background as an starting point, creating something extensive (may be not in paper, but at least in my mind) of everything my character is, his goals, persona, etc, so when its my turn, i know to some degree how would he react/act in that particular situation.

My current character Ioan is a somewhat introvert Avenger of the Raven queen that resemble my very first character, many of my fellow players have pointed out the fact that though they are both very similar archetype of character (shadowy anti-heroic hero) Ive come a long way since, and when i usually stand in the shadow looking mysterious back in my noobie days, now i manage to maintain the sense role playing it a whole lot more, i think my first character would be proud ^^

So my suggestion? get to know all you can about your character and the role playing/combat will go a lot more smoothly, and remember, its a game so no pressure :)

Great post tracy :) brough me a lot of fun memories hehe

This seems like a small part of a much bigger chunk of missing rules:

What to do when the PCs forget:
an object
an NPC
a location
a bit of news
a bit of history

The last one sounds like a history check, but it's not as it has become something they found out and something all their characters should know.

Sort of like how it's good to have a list of NPC names handy, having a couple of "how to remind the players" scenarios handy could keep the flow moving when you don't expect it... and it's likely those two resources will go together.

Send feedback using the contact form or through twitter, @sarahdarkmagic.

Resources for FAQs



Syndicate content