Character roleplay

How to RPG

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Player characters in an RPG can be tricky. A player character is an imaginary person who you're meant to speak for and control. The character is meant to be distinct from you (in reality), and you're also supposed to be mindful of fellow gamers at your table (in reality) which obviously your fictional character doesn't "know" about. Problems can arise pretty quickly, whether you realise suddenly that you yourself would never rush in to face a dragon, or that your character has every motive to fight the character being played by your real life friend sitting next to you at the table. How do balance conflicts of motives and interests between who you are, who you think your character is, and what makes sense for a fun game? Here are five things I try to keep in mind when trying to play a character in an RPG.

1. Tendencies not goals

As much as you try to make it your own, a character in an RPG tends to have pre-defined goals. In a D&D-style fantasy game, the goal is often to vanquish an evil monster and earn money. In an investigative game, the goal is to solve a mystery. In a sci fi game, the goal might be to thwart an invasion and earn some credit. And so on.

You can provide context for these goals ("I want to vanquish the evil orc horde because they slaughtered my village, and also I need money to start over") but in the end, the game is still a race to a pretty specific end.

Instead of thinking about my character's goals, I try to focus on my character's tendencies. What does my character do, by default, when a challenge arises? Does my character back away from a threat to study it before attacking, or does my character charge in without hesitation? Does my character view their friends as family, business colleagues, or just partners of circumstance? Does my character value wealth, knowledge, or community? Does my character prefer words or numbers? Does my character prefer savoury or sweet or both? Does my character expect kindness or cruelty?

And so on. I sometimes pick three tendencies and write them down on my character sheet. When that character is faced with an unexpected situation, and I'm not sure how to play it, I consider these tendencies. They may not always be directly related. After all, anything can happen in an RPG. But I can extrapolate, interpret, and play the character according to their typical disposition.

2. Flexible motivation

You can justify anything to serve your character's actions. When faced with a choice, justify the thing that's fun for the group.

3. Allow for the exception

Sometimes, despite tendencies and motivations, a character doesn't do what they're "supposed" to do. I never let the way my character usually acts define every single action during a game. Sometimes, a character who prefers stealth is compelled, either by the inspiration of another party member, or just the spur of an impassioned moment, to charge ahead. Sometimes a character who denies payment decides an item is worth pocketing. Nobody is consistent 100% of the time.

I have a pretty good feel for when a character is about to act out of character. There's a difference between uncharacteristic and out of character. It's hard to define precisely, but generally:

  • Uncharacteristic: An act a character does without thinking about it. Impulsive or reactive.
  • Out of character: A change in character that suggests forethought and planning, or an uncharacteristic action carried out several times.

A human paladin in my Expedition to Ravenloft game, for instance, started consuming human flesh. The first time she did it, it was uncharacteristic because there was plausible deniability. The pie with a human baked in had been given to her by somebody they suspected to be a hag, but at the time nothing had been proven. As the game progressed, though, the paladin kept at it. It was frankly out of character, so we shifted the paladin's alignment and race (yes, it was a major character shift from human to hexblood, and from paladin to sorcerer). The player loved getting to play a new race and class, and the character took on a whole new life.

4. Let the dice decide

In an RPG, sometimes the best thing to do is to roll for it. When you're just not sure what your character would do in an unlikely scenario, you might just flip a coin. It's what I do for NPCs a lot, because most NPCs don't have the backstory that characters do. Sometimes I make it 50-50 (roll over a 11 or higher on a d20 for yes, 10 or lower for no), other times I assign a specific action to a number (1 attack, 2 run, 3 parley).

It's obviously not the most scientific or even the most insightful way to reach a conclusion, but it's a story driven by dice rolls. Sometimes you just have to embrace that.

5. Just walk away

Characters can outgrow a campaign. You may not have known your character's "story arc" at the beginning of the game, but you might find that by level 10 or so, it's been told. Your character has rescued a town, defeated a vampire, and collected tens of thousands of gold coins. Maybe the right thing for that character to do is to retire.

Other times, the party might shift away from your character. If your character is the only lawful good character left in a party that has proven itself chaotic, or your character just flat out doesn't fit in with a party that once seemed like a good fit, it's OK to roll up a new character.

It's important not to confuse your character with your game or the game's save state. There are no bonus points for playing the same character until the end of a campaign, and it's an analogue game so you can create a new character with no loss of progress.

Roleplaying games

I've never thought that the "roleplay" in an RPG has any requirement to embody a character the way a method actor does. Even the emotional parts of roleplaying a character can be objective. Look at your character, consider your character's background and tendencies, and play the role to stay true to that character. It's part of the challenge, and in the end it's part of the fun.

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