I had a realisation yesterday during our new adventure of Dungeons and Dragons – I think there’s a huge disconnect between popular perceptions of tabletop roleplaying games and reality.
I’m not talking in terms of “it’s satanic!” vs “it’s just a game.”
Nor am I talking “it’s an epic fantasy quest” vs DM: *facepalm* “you’re all idiots”.
I mean in terms of what sort of characters people play.
I’ve been playing tabletop roleplaying games for about nine years at this point. My main system in this time has been Dungeons and Dragons, but I’ve dabbled with Starfinder, FateCore, and the Cortex Systems. In all my time playing these various roleplaying games, I’ve not had a single person play a two dimensional character.
Personally this is where the alignment system has always been a bit of a letdown. It tries to shoehorn you into a box. And characters just don’t work like this.
I was watching an interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah last night about the movie ‘Us’. I’ll link to the interview HERE but the relevant part I wanted to talk about was when Trevor refers to the antagonist character as ‘evil’. Actress Lupita Nyong’o says she doesn’t view the character as evil. “It’s a projection of qualities that I don’t think that person would feel”. This holds true for the relatively binary fantasy worlds we play roleplaying games in.
Evil people don’t believe they’re evil. It’s a concept I first heard studying Psychology in university. And it changed my world view in a huge way. It’s hard to label who the ‘evil’ people are in a complex political story. Because everyone does things they’d consider morally questionable, in order to benefit the goal they believe is morally just. So how do I possibly take the ‘Lawfully Evil’ alignment knowing my character is so multi-faceted? (I do know the sort of character this alignment is aimed at, but my point still stands).
Every adventure I’ve been a part of, the Dungeon/Game Master has gone out of their way to ensure their worlds are deep and meaningful. Full of secrets, mysteries, and intrigue. So why would you want to play a shallow two dimensional character?
The reality is you wouldn’t. And you don’t. This isn’t Gauntlet where one of the classes you can play is ‘Elf’. Elves are deeper than the stereotypes. Some elves hold more true to the agility, archer based qualities of popular culture, but for example my first Elvin Ranger was a mohawk-wearing cultist – Arthus Bloodbow. I wanted to make him my own. I wrote a huge backstory for him full of trauma and interest. I’ve used the character concept in other games and sessions. Because I really liked the idea. And not everyone has to go to my extreme lengths (I had a painting thief Rogue who had a pretty intense obsession with apples that I would act out whenever we got together). But I’ve never met a player who didn’t want to delve deeper into their creativity.
And I think this is really the point. Tabletop roleplaying games are such a creative activity. When you start coming up with ideas and concepts, you can’t help but delve deeper and deeper into your imagination. Think about reading your favourite fiction novel. Those times where the words kind of melt away and you see the scene play out in your mind. Now imagine you’ve got a huge amount of control over the events in the book. Where the character goes, what they say, what they do. It’s like diving head first into an exciting vast new world.
So how does a person make an interesting character? Honestly, however the hell they want (along with having discussions with whoever is running the game). But I’ll let you in on my method:
Start with a single character element.
Often times it will be a particular part of my own personality (no I’m not a cultist). With my current character – a Fighter named Carl Rook – I chose his dedication to the law. In real life my personality is obsessed with ensuring I follow rules and laws as they’re written (I know, I’m such a square). I find a large level of comfort in doing so. So playing a character who also does this allows me to first of all roleplay a bit easier, while modifying other character elements to see what would be interesting.
As a bit of a side bonus (this was never an intentional consequence), I get to discover more about those elements which make up my real world personality. How would a person who is obsessed with rules and regulations act when those rules require him to do something morally wrong? It’s an interesting question a lot of people think about themselves. Well I get to take the hypothetical a bit further and play out the consequences. It’s an interesting thought experiment.
Another example is a character I played awhile back – a Kendar Rogue called Yarrin Toddleton Swythe. He believed everyone was his friend. And he had a childish approach to confrontation. In real life I prefer to make friends with people. I tell jokes, have conversations, and generally adopt introverts. He was a fun character to explore that child-like side of myself.
What would be fun to play?
No roleplaying adventure I’ve ever played through has been less than five or six hours in length. Even D&D Adventurers League, which is a weekly meet up session for a few hours, tend to run in seasons because there’s too much story to cover in such a short amount of time.
What this means is you have to enjoy the mechanics of your character. Is it fun to play a hopeless character who stuffs up all the time? Yeah. Yes. Absolutely. But is it fun to play this character for five or six hours and essentially accomplish nothing? Nope.
For me I like to see what sort of interesting mechanics I can pull off. For example with Arthus Bloodbow, I focused heavily on the Prime Shot ability with his Hunters Mark – or simply I played a character with a Long Bow who needed to be the closest person to the target without being directly adjacent in order to pull off his maximum damage. It was an interesting way to challenge myself and be rewarded with extra damage for doing so. Right now I’m playing a ranged tank (a person who specialises in taking damage on behalf of the team). It lets me keep more enemies focused on me with the use of 5th Edition combat manoeuvres such as Goading Attack and keeping control over a wider area.
One day soon I’d like to play a character who focuses on Grapples.
Distinguish their appearance.
From helmets, masks, scars, hairstyles, height, clothing, and accessories there is so much you can play with. In some cases features such as ears, skin tones, horns, tusks, and whatever else can be toyed around with to be distinguishable. They don’t even have to have much of a background reason as to why they exist. But they can.
I played a Halfling Warlord once who’s short stature, even for a Halfling, made him want to prove himself and his ability to proudly lead.
Carl Rook wears armour which resembles a rhino.
Arthus Bloodbow had his mohawk.
I’ve played in groups where the Half-Orc used a file to grind down his tusks out of shame. Where characters had intricate designs on their masks. Where a Warforged etched the stories of his adventures onto his metal skin.
In a game where the world exists in the imaginations of the players around the table, these details matter. They more readily bring your character to mind and those details shine through the hundreds of other details which are being talked about as you adventure. By having a couple of distinguishing physical characteristics, the character becomes more personable.
Know where your character comes from.
I’m not saying you need to know the details of where they were born and which street they grew up on (unless it matters). But you need to have a solid understanding of the general life they were leading up until this point. If you were going to write three or four bullet points about your character’s past, what would they be? If you’re going to expand on your character from there, use these bullet points as a place to jumping off.
Don’t overdo it here. I’m reminded of a point I heard years ago, but for the life of me cannot remember who it was who said it – “is this the most interesting time in your character’s life? If not, why aren’t we reading about that?” The adventure you’re playing through should be the most interesting time in your characters life (and if it’s not then this should be the DM/GM’s fault and not yours). It’s a shared storytelling experience, so the story should be interesting.
If your character is the Grand Prince of Fantasyland and has killed one million orcs in various wars, why are they a level 1 fighter going through a dungeon with some other plebs? Try and keep things making sense alongside the mechanics and plot you’re experiencing. Otherwise it is likely to take you out of the whole experience.
Don’t expect your entire background story to come out over the course of the game either. The point of the background isn’t so you can tell everyone at the table about it. They likely don’t care. Not because they’re rude, but because they didn’t decide to sit at a table and listen to you tell the story of how you grew up on a farm fighting wildlife which threatened your livestock. The most interesting time in your character’s life is now. Now is what they’re involved in. Now is what they care about. If an opportunity comes up for one of your bullet points to be talked about then yeah, go for it. Talk about it. Share a detail of your character’s past. Regale them in a tale. But then stop and get on with the adventure.
If people are never going to know everything about your character, why bother knowing the backstory? Well, because you never know which details are important. Because you want to know more about your character to be able to roleplay better. But most importantly, because your character is for you. You know the story, you know the history. And now you’re seeing the next chapter in your creation’s life. Having a roleplaying character can be an intensely satisfying personal experience. And when the adventure is over, you get to remember those interesting character details.
Don’t expect your character to be fully fleshed out before you play.
No matter how much you flesh your character out, it’s going to change when you sit down at the table. You preplanning forms a rough framework but your character comes to life when you play. When you think about real world interactions, personality is simply a set of relatively stable characteristics which change depending on social situations (psychology degree proving its worth again).
Enjoy the process, enjoy learning about who your character is as much as creating the character.
I should probably mention at some point, when you make character decisions you should discuss them with whoever is planning and running the story. Because there’s no point claiming your character eats pixies for breakfast every morning if they don’t exist in the world (also, a bit dark there. Maybe you need to see a psychologist).
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