Post by Peter Watson-Wailes

Please note: The Usual Disclaimer applies as always.

A little something different this time - rather than the normal GM-ing tips I run, I thought I'd spend some time over the next few weeks talking about the player side of being in an RPG. Specifically, the RP letters in that acronym. These posts are aimed at people new to role playing, but assume you're already comfortable playing the game. It's about bringing a slightly more actor-ish approach to your play, but of course this isn't required to have fun. See the disclaimer.

Note: Spoilers for E114 of Critical Role below. If you follow the show and haven't seen it, you may want to give this a miss

You're Acting - You're Not Your Character

Firstly, the golden rule for role playing - you aren't your character. This is something people often get tied in knots around, because in the moment, it can feel like you are. However, whatever situation your character finds themselves in, they need to make the choice that makes sense given their world view and situation, not based on what you know outside of the game.

This was illustrated wonderfully in Critical Role's episode 114, where Sam Riegel breaks down in tears for a good two minutes after something he'd been planning to save a friend's character didn't come off. It's a brutal moment where he has to choose between doing what he wants, and doing what's right. This goes back to what I talked about in The Foundations for Great Villains:

What do the players care about and wish to achieve?

...It's the subversion of the motivations of the protagonists that makes a great villain, great.

In this moment, we see incredible conflict playing out - Sam's character Scanlan wishes to achieve two things - defeating the Big Bad, and saving his friend, and thanks to the situation we now find ourselves in, he's incapable of doing both and must now choose. It's something often subverted in fiction - of course something will happen to mean that he can actually have both. But in this case, he knows there's no way out. There's no deus ex machina that's going to save him - he was planning on being the deus ex machina. And now that option's lost.

The closeness you feel to your character brings the emotion to life and lets you act them well. However, it's not you at the end of the day, and you need to be able to both make choices that are correct for your character, rather than doing the "right" or "most valuable" thing in the moment.

This is partly where minmaxing annoyances come from - the idea that you as a player are doing things that make sense to give your character the most power possible, irrespective of whether or not it makes sense for the character to do those things. Everything you do at the table should make sense for your character, irrespective of whether it's the maximally best thing to do from a game perspective.

Backstory & Detail

Moving on... Inhabiting a character starts with thinking about them, and understanding their lives and motivations in the moment. In other words, to role play a character effectively, we as the player have to be able to empathise with them.

For example, lets say that we're playing 5e and running a barbarian half-orc. What was her childhood like? What were her parents like? Who were her friends and what did they do together? What were her teen years like? What's her favourite colour? Did she have pets and what were they if she did?

Alignment gives you a vague idea of some of this, but nothing like enough to role play effectively. As a useful starter, try answering some of these before you speak:

  1. Where are you coming from?
  2. What do you want out of the situation?
  3. Why do you want that thing?
  4. What will happen if you don't get it, and how do you feel about that?

Let's quickly flesh these out a little...

Where are you coming from?

If your character has just been running or in an intense battle, maybe you're out of breath. If they've just woken up, or they're hungover, how can you convey what they're feeling in your mannerisms? Were you having an argument with someone else? That emotion should carry over into the current situation.

What do you want out of the situation?

This is obviously highly situational, but mostly can be broken down into basic concepts. You'll be either trying to convey information, receive information, to make someone act, to decide something, to act based on an emotion or information, and so on. But the specifics of those things can obviously be very different. Wanting to fight a Big Bad is different to wanting to help another character who needs to face up to an issue. Wanting to grieve the loss of another character feels different to the emotions encountered when your character loses a treasured object.

Why do you want that thing?

And related to the above - the why behind the what is equally important. For example, sometimes a player will play a character in a way that the other players don't see coming. Maybe they lost a small trinket and the other characters don't think it matters, but it was actually an heirloom they never told anyone about. Or it's something the other characters didn't know existed in the first place.

For example: take this scene...

Picard wants for his family to continue. He's now come to a point where he has spent his life in service to Starfleet, and is starting to feel his age. And, whilst his brother and nephew lived, that was fine. However, now with their deaths, he grieves both their loss specifically, but also more abstractly, he wants his sacrifice of family in favour of career to not have been wasted. He therefore keenly perceives his lack of a family to continue the line to the next generation (no pun intended).

What will happen if you don't get it, and how do you feel about that?

This gives stakes to your emotional state and desires. If what you want is to play a prank on someone, then it's not the end of the world if it doesn't come off. However, if it's the earlier choice Scanlan faces - in either case it's going to feel as though his world has collapsed around him, even as he achieves his victory.

Chipped and Broken

Moving on from technique, let's now look a little at what it takes to create a compelling character. There's a tendency with players to Mary Sue their character, making them as powerful and perfect as they can. However, this creates an obvious problem - perfect characters are boring.

There's no tension if you've got a character who's perfect. It's why Superman is fundamentally less interesting than Batman - Superman is perfect, Batman is deeply flawed. Without the flaws, it's hard to have interesting drama.

Let's think about some famous characters from fiction and their flaws...

  • Hermione Granger - over-reliant on knowledge and moral certitude
  • Gandalf - naivety wedded to great power
  • Elizabeth Bennet - pre-judges people and doesn't easily revise first impressions
  • Bertie Wooster - a complete ninny, often sozzled
  • Hamlet - indecisive, due to an over-analytical nature
  • Carrie Bradshaw - selfish and materialistic

The more flawed the character, the more room there is to have fun with them by exploring those things, and the more you can get out of having them change over time as they confront those flaws. If you're looking for an interesting flaw, my go-to thought is this:

(S)he strongly (and incorrectly) believes a vital fact about either her/himself, the world, or both.

Pick something that's true in the world or about the character, and then invert it to get their perception. Is the character arrogant? Have them believe they're humble. Do they believe they're always moral in their actions? Have them behave immorally and try to justify what they do. The more extreme the misconception, the greater the moment of anagnorisis when they realise their mistake.

Signature Moves

There's certain things that you can build into your character, probably over time but possibly in the beginning that are specific to how you play. For example, I've seen players build almost entirely around one spell or one attack, and make it iconic to how their character works and acts. For example, taking the Critical Role guys:

  • Dagger dagger dagger
  • I would like to rage
  • How do you want to do this? (Yup, DM's can have this too)
  • Scanlan's limericks
  • Keyleth's ditsiness

Little things that are idiosyncratic to your character and how they act can help flesh things out, and add a certain amount of flavour, beyond your voice and physical acting.

The other side of this is that your character only exists in the minds of others in what they've said and done. So if you've got a big backstory worked out, that's great, but you need to bring that to the table and show how that works in the situations you face. If your character is a great diplomat, talk your way out of things rather than fighting. If they're a thief, make sure they steal things. If they were raised in great wealth, maybe they don't understand the literal value of things. Show the effects of that backstory in your actions while you're playing.

Interaction

This is one of the big ones for me. There's going to be times when you're annoyed because someone else didn't come to your aid, or they did something you don't like. But remember, you are not your character. So when you get annoyed, you need to decide if your character would be annoyed. If they are, role-play that. Act your character being annoyed. Firstly, it creates some great moments, and secondly, it helps keep a clean line between you and the other players, and your character and their characters. Characters can be annoyed with each other, or in love, or feel shamed or hurt or happy or anything else that exists. But whilst you act that, you aren't them.

Of course, there's a level of involvement and attachment that's unavoidable, but try and keep your interactions with other players, especially when negative, in character.

Equally, talk to your DM out of character and outside of the story. Sometimes you'll get to a point where you want your character to go off into the sunset or have a heroic death or something else again. To make sure that happens right, and that the other players get to experience that moment, work with your DM outside of the game to pull that off.

Also, there's certain things that make a character identifiable. Sometimes that'll mean a particular voice, or certain physical characteristics. Those things help a lot for other players to know when you the player are saying something, vs when you as your character are saying something. But whether your role playing is physical or vocal or simply "Eragastin will {things}", make sure it's clear what you're doing as your character, rather than you.

Evolve with the Story

Finally, related to Chipped and Broken, a character shouldn't be static. As the story progresses, they should change and grow too. This can happen over a fairly short period of time (look at someone like Jayne Cobb from Firely), or over a huge period (someone like Jon Snow from Game of Thrones, or Londo Mollari from Babylon 5).

Jayne learns a lesson...

A static character isn't interesting. That's part of what makes the best antiheros or villains or characters of any stripe - they grow. They come from one place, informed by a history, and end up in another, influenced by events along the way. It makes them relatable and interesting.

Anyway, I hope that's helped you if you're newer to role playing characters. I'll be back with some more advanced tips and exercises for more experienced players soon.

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