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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Why Acolyte is Gone.

Acolyte was my Dungeons and Dragons character for my buddies role-playing campaign.  He was a seven foot tall automaton made of metal.  Metal that resembled ribbons wrapped around the body of some humanoid.  The metal was a deep, copper color.  He had no discernible facial features, but you could still feel his gaze upon you.  His voice was deep and reverberated within his metal frame.

Acolyte had awoken at the base of a very tall cliff.  He was wearing robes that he innately recognized as belonging to a monk monastery.  He wandered for a time, wondering where he was and how he had gotten here.  On the peripheral: he also wondered what he was and what was he for?

He traveled for a handful of days before stumbling upon a caravan of dwarves.  They were gracious enough to escort Acolyte to the nearby town of Antimor, a small village on their trade route.  It was in Antimor that he was wrangled, along with some other adventurers, to go and kill some feral dogs.  After tracking the dogs and purging a small village of goblins, the adventurers returned to town of Antimor to find it empty and filled with dead bodies.  As if the town had been ransacked a century ago, everything was faded and covered in dust.  The bodies had shriveled into skeletons.  It was then that an apparition appeared, sending several adventurers sprawling into unconsciousness, and marking the rest with an omen from the Goddess of Destruction, Yarsk.

Acolyte traveled for a time with the adventurers, but after realizing that he had no place with this party and or even within this civilization- he decided to leave.

The important thing to remember was that Acolyte was approximately 6 weeks old.  He could speak and have cognitive thought, but everything in this world was shiny and new.  More importantly he did not understand how all of these humanoids interact and deal with one another.  He had vague memories of monasteries so the only place that Acolyte really felt comfortable was at a monastery they stumbled upon.

What ultimately led to Acolytes departure was that the players and the GM had a different vision for what my character was supposed to be like.

For those who are DnD savvy, Acolyte had a 9 (-1 MOD) Charisma.  He was brusque and intimidating, and when he did make a charisma roll it never went well.  To me, I interpreted this as, “Acolyte does not understand the world and has a lot to learn.”

I tried to play Acolyte carefully.  I tried to role-play him as a newcomer who observes and attempts to imitate what he sees and experiences.  The bard in our party, Hugh Halfnir, a half human half orc half halfling, thought I was some sort of a game, so he was constantly putting money in me like a Plinko machine.  The barbarian, Mustafa Covfefe, was always trying to intimidate people.

Acolyte saw these interactions consistently and deduced that the language of the land was gold, and failing that, you used your strength to get what you wanted.  And this worked to great effect for other people!  The combined effort of several party members managed to negotiate 30 GP into 100 GP as a reward once.

We made it to the next large city and Acolyte began his own investigation into various things.  For Acolyte though, greasing palms, attempted bribes, and intimidation did nothing but fail outright.

There was a dwarf who recognized this weapon I was carrying.  The weapon was used in an assassination, so Acolyte tried to press him.  The dwarf clearly seemed to recognize the dagger, but he refused gold and told me to leave.  So I made a very good threat: “Tell me what you know, or I will tell everyone that you sold me this weapon [that you fear].”

I didn’t get a dice roll.  I got threatened right back with force and a summoning of the city guard.  Another PC chastised me for my behavior.  That was disheartening.  The other PC’s don’t get chastised for intimidating people (even when it fails).

What the GM did was attempt to hand wave Acolytes misunderstandings by saying, “Over the walk back [another character] tells you everything about when its good or bad to bribe someone or give them gold.”

That was approximately the time I realized that I wouldn’t be playing Acolyte for very long.  The GM had his own formulated idea and perception about my character and was attempting to use his GM powers to affect my behavior.

Acolyte did not consume food, but he did consume purified metals.  I was almost always critically low on food, so eventually I had to find some blacksmiths.  There are two big companies in town.  One of the people I failed to intimidate the session prior was one of said blacksmiths.  The two blacksmiths shops were across the street from one another.  For obvious reasons, I enter the shop of the blacksmith I didn’t upset.

There was a counter with weapon shelves, and the blacksmith proper was behind huge leather curtains.  I asked for ore, got the normal confusion that comes with any purchase, and then the man went to the back out of sight.  So I followed him.  There were men back there and anvils I guess?  I was yelled at to leave immediately.  I reiterated that I was here to purchase iron ore.  They ended up shoving me (pushing me, I was quite heavy) back into the antechamber.  They then demanded that I leave.  Don’t come back.

I went to the dwarf I pissed off.  He recognized me, and actually apologized for being so curt with me before.  I ask for iron ore again.  He said he might have some in the back.  I insisted he get it for me.  Again- he might have some in the back.  The dwarf didn’t head back for it (he was helping someone else) so Acolyte decided he’d go to the back.  But!  He had learned his lesson!

He went around the back of the shop and found a backdoor, and knocked instead.  Two of the PCs assumed I was going to break into the shop, followed me, and began to tell me to stop what I was doing.  The dwarf came to the back door, I requested iron, and then he told me to fuck off for being rude.

Three interactions where I didn’t get to roll a single time to persuade, deceive, or intimidate.

So the GM’s NPC’s are reacting to Acolytes actions with confusion and anger. But as the player- I get it.  I’m doing it on purpose because I want to have the opportunity to learn things from these interactions.  All I encounter is a world telling me to stop.  I have several other characters telling me to stop doing things like that as well.

I don’t blame them for what they have been doing.  They can only play their characters and or run the world.  They all perceive me as something other than what I’m playing.  I think my character was too nuanced.  But not in way that they couldn’t understand, too complex of an idea to successfully come across in a role-playing game.  The other players and the GM don’t see my inner workings or see my notes, so all they get to interact with is what I present them with.  They treated my character like an adult, when really, he is only 6 weeks old.

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.

People immediately shifted to attempting to talk me out of it by saying that they liked Acolyte.  But that’s not the point.  The Acolyte I want to role-play isn’t the Acolyte they want to see.

The GM especially was trying to convince me to role play him differently, citing that my 11 INT and 19 WIS meant that Acolyte wasn’t stupid.  But those numbers on the page don’t mean shit!  Acolyte is 6 weeks old.  Intelligence and Wisdom are just fancy names that encompass a myriad of different mental faculties.  Acolyte was logical and perceptive, but he wasn’t truly intelligent or understanding.  I thought it was a wild party foul for the GM to tell me how to play my characters personality.

But in the face of a world that rejects Acolyte, Acolyte decided it made more sense that he just go attempt to solve the conflict on his own.  He left the party at the tavern they were staying and set off into the night.  It appears though, that he died mere minutes after walking away.

There was a bridge crossing a river near the tavern.  In the morning, the players came outside and noticed a gathering at the bridge.  They found Acolytes arm and some strange stains on the bridge.  He had been killed or captured, within eyesight of the tavern.

So my new character is going to try on purpose to meet the needs of the world and the party.  Its a much simpler character idea so I hope that it comes across well, and that he meshes nicely.  Here’s to hoping I can enjoy the DnD campaign as it progresses.

-DTM