The Role Player Unheralded Hero Of Reality-Based Training

Reality-based trainingReality-based training is any type of simulation training that prepares an individual for future performance through experiential learning. Because of the immersive nature of the training, the brain and body absorb and process the experience as if it were actually occurring. Proper reality-based training provides the conditioning, decision-making skills and stress inoculation that saves lives in real-world scenarios. Ensuring that participants are well trained in the optimisation of those experiences is the essence of reality-based training, and the key to this is the role player.

The role player is responsible for determining participant behaviours and is the key to success or failure in reality-based training. The task is dependent on scenario design and instructor skill at directing scenario events and the role player must know everything possible about his character, the desired outcome of the training situation and threat cues to which participants should adequately respond. The role balances creativity with the ability to follow specific instructions and is directly responsible for the physical well-being of participants since the role player controls any physical confrontations with them.

There are two types of role player:

  • Active role players are carefully chosen, properly trained and directly involved in the scenario. Although all role player actions are important, active role players are critical to the presentation.
  • Passive role players provide information, often as bystanders or accomplices, as distractions and unknown elements to create situations identical to those participants would experience on the job. A passive role player is given direct instructions – information to provide, whether to volunteer it or simply respond to questions, and any specific phrases to use or specific points to use them. Passive role players should keep it simple, do their thing and get out, or they can waste time.

On scenario conclusion, role players follow instructions for scenario debriefing to point out tactical errors that participants made. Role players perform exactly as in the original scenario during any re-enactment for remediation purposes so participants can perform correctly. Role players do not change anything in a scenario regardless of how often participants repeat to successfully complete training objectives. After instructors have debriefed participants, role players can add observations in response to instructor request, and then only add information not covered.

Role Player Development

The role player character contains information about the subject/victim that role players use to make their characters more realistic, and includes the following categories:

  • Socio-economic characteristics provide a background for the character and a plausible reason for behaviour. Without this, role players invariably end up acting at random.
  • Emotional state covers eight primary emotions identified by behavioural psychologists. It helps guide role players by giving the character emotional depth.
  • Physical state provides clues of what body language to exhibit. This is useful because with protective gear, body language is helpful in communicating pre-attack cues to participants and provides experience in reading the danger level of an encounter through non-verbal cues.
  • Psychological state defines role player mindset and is useful for the same reason as socio-economic information. Without it, many role players act crazy if left to their own creativity.
  • Behavioural state adds more texture to role player behaviour and may assist participants in improving intuitive skills useful to conflict resolution.
  • Complicating factors are those that would normally cause many of these behaviours. They also outline the levels of resistance that participants need to deal with, and to which the actions of the participant are ultimately directed.
  • Character summary/reason for contact functions as the outline of the role player. It describes what is going on and why, who the role player is, and what they are supposed to do. It provides the role player with his motivation.

The role player history contains further background information, similar to what might be on file from previous encounters. The more realistic the scenario, the better the experience will be for participants. This is why this information is not simply handed to participants. They can only get the information the way they would on the job. If they use a vehicle computer terminal, print up sheets look like the screenshots of the terminal so the participant has to look in the same place as they would on the computer screen for various bits of information. If the participant requests information from the dispatcher, if there is not a dedicated person for this task, instructors can take a couple of steps back and call back to the participant on the radio, providing them with the information contained in the history. This forces participants to manage other equipment, which can overwhelm conscious resources during a critical incident and allows instructors to see which skills are not honed to the level of unconscious competence. This helps determine any remedial follow-up training that might be necessary.

Role Player Guidelines

Role player guidelines contain instructions role players need to effectively interact with participants. Role players should lose, but not so easily as to instil false confidence in participants, who should only prevail through superior tactics or perseverance.

The role player guidelines has four sections:

  • The situation overview is where the scenario outline meshes with the role player The general idea from the scenario outline is transferred onto individual role player guidelines.
  • Participant action/role player response indicates how role players respond to various participant actions – engaging, disengaging or posturing. Each anticipated participant action has a scripted role player response that drives the scenario toward its predetermined conclusion. This creates a well-structured scenario with the built-in flexibility to add options. Role players and instructors should always have a sense of what is going to happen next.
  • Deliberate actions describe specific actions role players must demonstrate to cause a predictable response in participants, conditioned during low-level scenario training so participants recognise the situation when a threat cue is demonstrated in a scenario. This approach provides a contextual setting where earlier training experiences come together in a realistic setting to provide relevant experience.
  • Specific phrases for self, others, authorities provide specific role player language to be used at predetermined scenario points, which helps ensure training uniformity between participants and keep role players on track. Whilst overt language and actions might make a scenario seem too simple for most participants, in the early stages of a training program they are necessary to build situational awareness and allow participants to process information as a threat and connect it to an approved response option. Start slow and simple, and progressively increase the speed of the threat and make it less overt as participant situational awareness improves and they have conditioned specific actions to various stimuli.

Properly trained and scripted role players provide realism to participants. Using structured role player behaviours ensures effective experiential transfer throughout the training process. Good role playing is a blend of good acting, athleticism and trust in the system. It is a matter of professionalism to give participants the best training experience possible. Ultimately, their skill level and enhanced survivability will be directly affected by the skill of role players.

Role Player Criteria

There are important criteria for role player selection and scripting.

They are critical to scenario presentation

Having the right type of person as a role player is important since he must be able to follow instructions, remember key phrases and act out the character and history. It is difficult and takes practice. Do not simply accept anyone who applies to be a role player, as not everyone is suitable. When choosing active role players it is essential to only consider those able to follow specific instructions. Role players are like actors; instructors are the director.

They must behave consistently

This is a difficult task because it becomes tedious doing the same thing over again, and some role players change things to keep it interesting. For a role player to maintain consistent behaviours, the scenario must be well scripted, as the more latitude a role player has to improvise the worse it is for training. A proper script is essential to producing a quality scenario. The best role player cannot save a poorly written scenario. If the proper elements are not in place, training will fail, often with dire consequences.

They dictate scenario outcomes

The role player is essentially a stimulus catalyst, scripted and directed to perform certain actions which cause a predictable response from participants, based on training received prior to the scenario. It is better to use operational personnel as role players, as reality-based training should not be experimental. Role players should know exactly what participants are supposed to do, so in the event they do not do that, role players can exhibit behaviours likely to stimulate a correct response. The only unknown in a scenario should be participant behaviours, and they should be relatively predictable. Once proper responses from participants are demonstrated, the scenario is complete.

They must be protected against force

There should be no obvious giveaways to a role player role in the scenario so participants are not preconditioned for response. Often, the clue is how a role player is dressed, so dress role players with similar levels of protection to avoid this. Even though a passive role player might be there to provide information and then depart the area, it is better to have them in protective gear so participants are required to manage them in the same way. If a scenario contains physical contact between participants and role players, to avoid preconditioning participants to what is about to happen by having the role player geared up in a suit, pause the scenario and use questions to ensure participants are choosing a physical force option, then swap out an unprotected role player for a role player in a protective suit and allow the scenario to continue.

They must not improvise

A role player script should leave little room for improvisation. While creativity is essential to good role playing, make sure they know in advance the limitations on improvisation. The combination of inept participants and bored role players can be dangerous. Instructors must carefully monitor the language and actions of role players; if they depart from the script, redirect their actions. Sometimes participants are oblivious to a threat, resulting in role players demonstrating overt behaviour, so it is impossible to miss the cue. Although there are times when it is valuable to provide a consequence for tactical error, participants that are oblivious will not benefit from an overwhelming consequence. If role players have to improvise to keep participants on track, they should not improvise so it becomes counterproductive to the scenario goal. Letting a scenario go down a path that is counterproductive to the training objective wastes time and can result in a dangerous situation.

They allow participants to prevail

Although it should never be easy for participants, there must always be a win for them at scenario end when they perform correctly. It is the role players’ job to lose every time, which may be tough from an ego perspective. A role players’ entire reward system is based on selflessness, to help participants emerge from each encounter better prepared for a real situation. The role player is the most difficult task in reality-based training and definitely not for everybody; those with a burning need to win during any scenario must be re-educated or replaced.

They re-set between participants

After a scenario is complete, there might be evidence as to what happened during the confrontation, so these signs should be removed so there is no preconditioning of the next participant. Make each scenario as clean as possible for each participant. Make sure waiting participants cannot hear or see anything going on in the scenario or interact with participants who just finished the scenario.

Being a role player becomes tiring and boring, and improvisation often occurs for the sake of variety. The role player must understand the job is to lose, but as a result of participants prevailing through superior performance or perseverance. It takes a special individual and dedicated professionalism to constantly lose, but in so doing, role players improve participant behaviour and know that participants are better prepared for challenges on the job as a result of scenario experiences. The role players’ task is to condition winning behaviour in participants, and it is a noble calling.

Richard Kay
Richard Kay is an internationally certified tactical instructor-trainer, director and senior trainer of Modern Combatives, a provider of operational safety training for the public safety sector.