A couple of weeks ago, one of my players sends me an IM. This person started the conversation off a little sheepish and evasive, but eventually we got to it: “Am I a good roleplayer?” You have to understand, this player has provided for me some of my favorite moments of our campaign, and I’ve seen them hold together an otherwise disastrous game of Fiasco. My answer was something to the effect of “HAHALOL” or “U SO CRAZY”, and I meant every capitalized letter. I asked why they were pondering such a question, and part of it was just good old fashioned social insecurity (which I have plenty of experience having!). Some of it was from not having played D&D at a table having to consider the opinions of other people. I assured my player that they were, in fact, a good roleplayer.
Of course, such an assurance begs the question of whether or not I actually know what I am talking about. Let’s find out, shall we?
A “roleplaying game” in this day and age can mean a lot of things. A lot of videogames and tabletop battle simulations are classified as RPGs. Skill in tactical miniatures combat is cool (and perhaps more a more useful life skill if we are invaded by aliens who live by a code of honor that makes them wait their turn before attacking), but that’s not really what I’m talking about. Some would argue that simply playing the role of a defender/tank or leader/healer is, in fact, roleplaying. I would not disagree, but that’s not what I’m talking about either.
The “roleplaying” I am talking about happens when a player pretends to be their character and do things in-game that their character would do.
I Ruin Everything In The Name Of Justice
Roleplay is where the magic is in a D&D game for me. It’s the thing that can separate a particular character from every other character in the universe with identical stats and abilities. It can be done in any number of ways, which is probably why it’s so easy to do in a way that irritates the rest of the group.
Before being adopted by World of Warcraft as the official class of PvP win-lasers and invulnerability, the Paladin of D&D editions past has traditionally been the subject of choice for bad roleplaying cliche. Playing a paladin was the quickest way to get a player to see everything in ultra-high-contrast shades of black and white. The willingness to recklessly shed blood in the name of Goodness and Truth at the first sign of anything doing anything even remotely Notgood will live in infamy forever. It’s times like these that I’m glad 4e de-emphasized alignment. You give people a label to slap on something, and they’ll ride it all the way into the ground. This is older than time, and is known as being Lawful Stupid.
In much the same vein is Chaotic Stupid, in which a player roleplays his PC with total disregard for anyone’s safety or sanity. I wish I had a nickel for every time I committed this sin. “I just wanted to see what would happen!” is the battle-cry of the Chaotic Stupids. One could justify this behavior by declaring that their PC was simply mad. I hope one has a high AC and many hitpoints.
I don’t consider any of the above to be good roleplaying, even if it wasn’t sufficiently annoying to warrant being bludgeoned to death with a PHB. Why? Because the character in this case has been reduced to something very one-dimensional. It’s more of a schtick than anything else, and it tends to define the whole character.
I Ruin Everything In The Name Of Faithful Roleplay
OK, then. One-dimensional characters aren’t good. So what is?
In my opinion, good roleplaying comes from getting to know your character. Where they come from, what was their life like growing up, why they chose their career, things like that. I like writing a backstory for my character whether or not anyone else is going to read it, just so I can know my PC better and feel comfortable in his shoes when it’s time to be him.
This can go wrong too.
One problem I’ve always had as a player is knowing when to let someone else have the spotlight. If I’ve got a fully armed and operational PC with complete backstory and motives, I tend to want to wander around town and interact with people (and by that, I usually mean get in trouble somehow). This is a ton of fun for me, but perhaps not for people who don’t care how successful my advances are with the mayor’s daughter or if I can escape from the balcony using only my pants and Ghost Sound.
One double-edged sword with well-fleshed-out PCs is that they have motivations — ones that may conflict with the party’s goals. If you’ve got a good DM and communicate these conflicts beforehand, this can result in some really interesting and fun situations to play out. It can also result in the whole table screaming at each other when the rogue changes allegiances mid-battle and backstabs the ranger.
I knew about 10 words into this article that I wasn’t going to end up writing about good roleplaying. I was going to write about being a good player. I’ll write more in-depth about roleplaying sometime soon. (Provided I don’t get distracted and decide to start talking about 3e’s grappling mechanic instead. OOH SHINY!)
Pretty much every problem I discussed above has a common thread: if it went bad, it was likely because of poor communication and/or selfishness. A good party acts as a team. If one person derails everything (Lawful Stupid reasons or not), there’s likely to be consequences. Fun is not likely to be one of those consequences.
That being said, it is fun to push the envelope a little bit. Grab the spotlight once in awhile. Gently shake the rails the plot is on.
This is still your story, after all. Just remember to share.