Character: The Lifeblood of Roleplaying

Previously on Seven Degrees of Smudde:

There was a solid disconnect between Acolyte and everyone else.  So I figured the easiest thing to do was quietly retire the naive Acolyte for someone who was more suited to this party and the world.  I’m not really mad at anyone, just stopped having fun trying to make my character fun.

What made me think about this was one of my players approaching me saying that he wasn’t having as much fun with his character in Rogue Trader.  His character was a dark and brooding man with a troubled past.

I was quite surprised at how many of my players decided to play various flavors of “dark and brooding with a troubled past.”  Its a very attractive idea for a character— you can play a mysterious, crass, loner who doesn’t need anybody.  No strengths, only weaknesses hidden deep inside.

Roleplaying games are awesome because you can explore so many different personalities and lifestyles.  The breadth of options available in the theater of your mind is for another post— what I’d like to talk about is characterization versus character.

A thing to note: some people just want to play Dungeons and Dragons for the combat or the exploration.  What I’m about to expound about is only relevant if you want to focus on the roleplaying aspects.  If you just wanna kill dragons and loot dungeons then you can probably ignore this!

I have had a lot of strong opinions on character, appearance, and investment.  Only recently have I found the correct language to really talk about this effectively.  And again— I’m not a professional writer (yet) but I’d like to take a step back and evaluate what makes a character and how people view and understand them.

Characterization is how a character acts and appears outwardly.  Simple as that.  Is a character loud?  Quiet?  Snarky?  Mild mannered?  Are they thin?  Thick?  Athletic?  Portly? Short?  Tall?  Could they be described as angry?  Solemn?  Cordial?

In contrast: character is how a character acts during critical moments.  If the character woke up in a burning apartment building would they: run immediately for the exit, pushing past people?  Go into the apartment next door where their elderly neighbor lives to rescue them?  Pick up a child but keep running?

Its in those revelations that we see real character.  When characterization is similar to character you write a cliché.

The man saunters into the bar.  He’s wearing a leather jacket over some Levi’s.  Fingerless gloves adorn his hands.  He pulls his motorcycle helmet and runs his fingers through his short hair.  He has a scarred face and a permanent scowl.  He grunts in irritation at several people standing in his way.  He steps up to a stranger and sets his helmet on the bar counter.  He orders a shot of whiskey.

“You got my money, bud?” the rider asks.

“I ain’t paying you shit.” the stranger responds.

“I think you will, pal.  You owe me.”

The stranger draws a gun on him.

“Oh boy.  That was a mistake.” the rider says.

He then proceeds to beat the strangers ass.  Punching him right in the jaw and grabbing the hand holding the gun.  He has brass knuckles, but he is an honorable fighter.  Once the man is on the ground groveling, the rider lights up a cigarette, downs his shot of whiskey, and saunters back out into the night.

How predictable was that?  It was boring.  He looked and sounded like a bad mother fucker, so were you super surprised when he was a bad mother fucker?  It was something we’ve seen before.  It was cliché.

Its possible to have characterization and character be similar and write an interesting character, you just need to explore that character deeper.  But think about any character you think of as badass inside and out— they probably have other characteristics that contrast what you expect.  Especially as you begin to understand their development.  Try not to have characters with hard, aligned edges.

He closed the door to his car and began to walk to his apartment.  He slung his bags strap over his shoulder and checks his phone.  Several missed calls from his manager at work.  The server must be down again.  He’ll remote in and fix it after dinner.

He walked past a couple of his neighbors, smiling broadly at them and waving.  He chats a little bit about the weather and exchanges jokes about the sillier neighbors.  He crouches down to scratch a couple puppies behind the ears.  He offers to fix some of the issues the leasing office was having as he talks with the property manager.

He fumbled with his eyes and unlocked the door, entering the air conditioned room.  His girlfriend was there.  She hops up suddenly and goes to help with the bags and the door.  She smiles sweetly at him.

Then he heard the man calling for something from the bathroom.  Calmly, she made to speak.

“He’s just-”

Blood sprayed across the wall when the back of his hand hit her square in the nose.  When she crumpled to the ground he began kicking her in the stomach over and over.

“You.  Fucking.  Bitches.  Are.  All.  The.  Same.” he said, punctuating each word with another kick.

A little more jarring and interesting of a read.  There is something happening there that the reader wants to understand and explore.  The characterization: a mild mannered IT guy, was in contrast to his character, a man who was angry enough at women to beat one before knowing whats happening.

So why do I bring this all up?  Because they are things to consider when you are making a character for a roleplaying game.  Roleplaying games are nothing but choices under pressure, so your character matters so much more than your characterization.

As a player in a roleplaying game, you are equal parts narrator as you are player.  We read stories to learn how the story begins and ends, how a characters arc ends, and to see how everything develops and changes as it goes on.  As a player in an RPG, if you have no character than your character becomes a dull narrator.  Everything is predictable.  We know almost everything about you before you begin.

If you make a character who everyone sees as a dark, brooding, tough guy and then he goes to his room in the castle and broods at the dark in a tough way?

You end up sitting at the table for a while not doing much.  You end up trying to pull character out of characterization and you end up bored because there is nothing left.  You spend all of your time focusing on what your character is like that you forget about who your character is.

I see this a lot when I watch people make characters.  They say:

“Oh!  I want to play this funny little guy who speaks with an accent and always has a smoking pipe in his mouth!”

“I’m going to play a fighter.  He was an orphan and war took his family from him.  He learned to fight to protect himself.”

“My cleric will be the most possible good in the universe.  She’ll help the needy, and feed the hungry.  Her god is Lawful Good.”

Those are awesome back story ideas, but if you focus only on those events you will quickly lose steam when it comes to interactions.

What I wish I saw more of:

“I want to play a gnome druid who used to be a local folk hero.  But his addiction pushes everyone else away, so he never lets anyone in.  He has to learn to overcome his addiction or risk being alone for the rest of his life.”

“I want to play a firbolg fighter who lost his parents to a bloody war.  The only language he knows is violence, and he’s going to have to learn to trust people and that harming others isn’t always the way.”

“My cleric wants to be a healer, but she learns during her first battle that she is terrified of fighting.  She wants to fight and protect the innocent, but is too paralyzed with fear to go out and do it.  She has to find the courage within her.”

Which sounds more interesting to you?

-DTM

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