Am I A Good Roleplayer?

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?

Roleplay, Defined

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.

Ulterior Motives

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.

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  1. I’m glad you’re writing this. I am still relatively new to roleplaying and I worry about these things as well. I worry that I’m not roleplaying well or that I’m roleplaying too well (and have just chosen to make a character that would realistically be killed quickly for her stupid behavior). I find myself constantly adjusting my character to do things that make her fit better into the group and I worry that when I do that I lose the thread of my character and then lose good roleplaying. It takes me a couple of sessions after making these adjustments to feel like I really fit inside her anymore.

  2. @Pizza Girl:

    Kudos on being aware enough of this to make adjustments! That alone says a lot about your play style.

    It’s been my experience that the balance between the two gets successfully struck if you say true to your character, but you just don’t put the roleplay pedal to the metal (at least, in-game).

    I don’t think you should do things that your character wouldn’t, but I also would think twice about playing a character whose motivations are so far from the party’s that it’ll cause problems.

  3. mr0bunghole says:

    To me, roleplaying combines two elements: 1) playing the character according to the personality/mannerisms/motivations that you envisioned when you put her to paper, and 2) resisting the temptation to metagame. Let me illustrate with two examples I encountered during public play, the first as a player and the second as a DM.

    Example 1: Our group just started the MINI 1-1 campaign of Living Forgotten Realms and just tackled the opening encounter against the press gang. We had a dwarven paladin in the party that was really being played to the hilt by the player – dwarven voice, faithful bravado, justice for those attacked by the gang, etc. Immediately after the encounter we find the wagon of prisoners – locked and on fire – and the horses drawing the wagon get startled and race off with the wagon.

    The DM tells the players that quick and thoughtful skills will save the prisoners (skill challenge). What do we do? Do you give chase?

    The player of the dwarven paladin chimes in, “I’m not running after them, I have a -4 penalty to my athletics check.”

    Example 2: A group I was DMing encountered a gnome and group of humans at an excavation site they were exploring. The gnome looked up and waved to the heroes, “Welcome, friends. Don’t be started. We’re merely excavating for lost relics.” The gnome was lying and rolled a really high bluff result that surpassed all the PCs’ passive insight scores. The players even rolled Insight checks on their own and still did not beat the bluff DC. As DM I said, “The gnome is truly genuine in his sincerity and seems pleasant enough.”

    The players would not have any of it. They said aloud, “Yeah, but we still don’t trust him. We’re getting ready to attack….”


    I would have roleplayed these situations differently. As the paladin I would have ran after the fleeing wagon the best I could, fully knowing as a player that my liklihood of catching the wagon was not good, instead of just sitting on my thumbs (which is what the dwarf ended up doing).

    In the second example I would have liked to see the players refuse metagame temptation and approach the gnome with their PCs, even though as players they had their doubts. I believe watching the players save the PCs from a potential perilous situation would have been far more exciting than the walk-up-roll-initiative-fight-over-in-two-rounds that resulted.

    (Note: I should add there is a sizable population of gamers that throw the dice solely for the tactical aspect of the game and don’t really care about roleplay. I want to be clear that I am not criticizing that style of gameplay; I’m just giving my perspective of roleplaying.)

  4. @mr0bunghole:

    It’s funny you mention metagaming. I think a certain degree of metagaming is necessary sometimes if you want to be a team player in that you don’t do what your character would because you’re playing a game and don’t want to make everyone else mad. Then again, you might do the same thing for roleplay purposes trying not to make the other characters mad….

    The first example with the dwarf might have been made better if he’d gone looking for a horse or tried to find some other alternative. Perhaps he just brainfarted? 🙂

    I usually run Insight checks like the one you just described act as more of a recommendation than a “you believe this”. The players are going to believe whatever they want regardless of what I tell them. Your second example raises some issues about how to run gameplay mechanics that deal with roleplay. It’s very hard to get some players to go along with their PC arbitrarily believing something they as a player don’t. I’ve even seen players argue over whether their character is charmed or if they fail saves for believing illusions. We had a guy in a game I played in that decided to minmax his Diplomacy score, and by epic levels it was some ridiculous number that he didn’t even had to roll to make most reasonable DC’s. It made the DMs make a bunch of arbitrary calls that caused more than a few arguments during the campaign. Getting these kind of mechanics to work requires communication and trust between the players and the DM.

  5. I once convinced half the table full of players that I as DM was super-pissed at them and a death was imminent before I realized it and had to go “I’m role-playing mother @$#%@$s… Go with it!” 😀

  6. I don’t do 4E, but I have always favored the DM dealing with rolls of perception, bluff, find trap, etc etc and doing it secretly. That’s why I like to have copies of character stats and skills handy.

    I have rolled dice when it wasn’t needed just to make players THINK I was rolling for something. And likewise I’ve rolled dice for something in advance so that players aren’t suspicious. Like the gnome thing. I’d probably have rolled bluff and perception checks before the characters ever even got there. That way if they failed their perception checks, my lack of die rolling would be that much more likely to put them at ease. If they had made their perception checks I’d have likely slid a note to the player that made it and let them know something fishy might be up with that gnome. Anything to keep the game on track without allowing metagaming to ruin suspension of disbelief.

    What’s more engaging? Having a character make three rolls to find a trap down a hallway with the character knowing that the mere act of doing so means there’s probably something there, or having already done the rolls and know that the character isn’t going to find the pressure plate? “You inch your way down the hallway carefully eyeing every crack in the wall and floor. You freeze as you feel your foot move slightly down and hear a disturbing ‘click’.” And the characters all collectively poop themselves. Not the best example I know. But it was the first thing that came to mind.

    Being one of the DM’s that like to focus on story and atmosphere… That’s how I like to handle those metagaming issues. As for actual role-playing, being story driven tends to help there as well. The more you as a DM put into the detail of the situations, the more the players connect with the story and the game and USUALLY then begin to play their characters more than play their character stats. Even a die hard die roller can get sucked into a good story and start focusing on the character rather what his diplomacy score is.

  7. Mr0Bunghole: I say give them a reason to wish they hadn’t killed the gnome. After a couple of repeats of that situation, they learn to be more cautious.

    It usually takes three or four sessions for the players to adapt to the style of the DM, but when it happens, the roleplay gets much better. My current group probably took eight sessions once a week before we got really comfortable with the roleplay. Sometimes it happens.

  8. kanati: I think your suggestion of predestination results in the DM stealing the players’ thunder in most situations. I’ve had players (my wife is one) whose favorite part of the game is to roll their own skills because they love the anticipation of the unknown result. Something about the inhumanity of dice makes them a powerful arbiter. If I just tell them, the entire game could be done through writing, and I may as well just go write a novel.

    I think the best DM combines narration, dice rolling, and in-character dialogue — using each when the tool fits the job. But you have to use them all.

  9. @PizzaGirl: This really kind of reminds me of my first roleplaying experience. We were playing Shadowrun (a game where the PCs are not really known for trusting each other) and to make matters worse, my character (based on his back story) had good reason to be distrustful of others. The GM then throws fuel on the fire at the start of the first session by having my PC be the only one that was not known by the other PCs (in hindsight we should have worked together on this better). Long story short, the mage starts asking my PC questions about who he is, etc. and I’m responding with questions of my own rather than really answering the questions. The mage (played by my best friend who is also new to RPGs) starts to get upset, and I’m left wondering whether it was the player or the player character that was really mad. Needless to say, I backed off on my character’s standoffish nature because I didn’t want to start a rl fight in addition to an in game fight.

    I think Vanir has the gist of it when he talks about there being both good role players and good players (in the sense of being good for the entirety of the group). Chris Perkins wrote about an example of this recently in his DM Experience article on the D&D site. He talked about how the group spent an hour of real time debating whether or not to allow an NPC to summon one of the player’s new PC (the old PC had died the week before). Perkins finally realized that they had spent an hour debating whether or not to allow the player to actually play and realized his mistake. The problem was that the players were actually roleplaying which is why it went unnoticed for so long.

    At any rate, I hope you do continue to write about this Vanir because this is a very interesting topic and one that I think a lot of players and GMs alike could get a lot out of.

  10. @DarkplaneDM I don’t disagree mostly. I don’t do it all the time or lightly. But I’ve always thought that there are SOME dice rolls that the players shouldn’t know the results of or even that they happened. The very ACT of having someone roll a spot check indicates to them that they will see something if they make the roll. Which gives the player metagame information that then changes their reactions to things. I would MUCH rather their reactions be genuine than in the case of the gnome above. Those players, knowing that they were making perception rolls for a reason then chose to distrust the gnome REGARDLESS of their die rolls. If it were done the way that *I* would have run it, they would have saw the gnome and their reactions to him, distrustful or otherwise, would have been how the characters would have really reacted as run by the players. There’s no predestination there. If someone would have made their perception roll I would have let that player know that there was something fishy and they might want to distrust the gnome. But the players would not have been alerted JUST because I told them to roll some dice.

  11. I’ve been known to have a sheet of pre-rolled numbers to be used as needed for passive checks. It’s just like rolling only quieter.

    I find my biggest personal conflict in staying true to my character when it induces severe intraparty conflict. For example, I played a priest in session one who formed a strong opposition to blasphemies and heretics. In session two, a player showed up who missed the first session. His character was the head of a religion outside the pantheon; a pharoah type who is god AND king. My character has since retired after taking a criticaled maul to the chest, but I never was satisfied with the compromises made to the character to keep party strife from damaging the campaign. I’m also wondering now how much of my role played retirement was role play and how much was a desire to generate a character w/o the intraparty conflict.

  12. Philo Pharynx says:

    @Pizza Girl, It’s not easy to learn how to get along with other people in real life. In gaming, you have to manage the relationships of the characters and also the players, so it’s doubly hard. When you add in things like pushy players that tell you how to roleplay your characters and the challenges of seeing things from a completely alien perspective it can be a challenge. But it’s so rewarding when it works out well. Character disagreements are particularly hard because you need to manage them in a way that doesn’t alienate the other players. You also need to keep it civil enough in game that these people would stay together. One thing that works for me is to think about the character in layers. Your character might really want to punch the slave-trading count in the nose. But the party needs to work with him. Sometimes a character screams what they really want to do to you and it can be hard to figure out anything else they’d do. Just because they want to do that doesn’t mean they always follow through. Acknoweldege that like when you want to punch your pointy-headed boss in the nose. Have your character grit your teeth behind their smile and deal with their anger later.

    @Target, sometimes the only thing you can do is to walk away. Did you talk about this with the other player? It can be hard when you have two people with opposing faiths. (ie. when a true beleiver meets a zealot) There are ways to make it work, but you usually need to find some way to respect the other character for something. One way is to say, “He’s not like those other infidels, he’s just misguided. Maybe my example will help him to see the light.” Or, “He worships that accursed mortal, but he saved my life. There must be a spark of good in him.” It works best when the players both work to figure some middle ground.

  13. There’s one easy way to tell if someone is a good roleplayer. Do they generally make the game more fun for the other people at the table? That’s all that really matters.

  14. @Philo Pharynx

    The best example I can think of was my character really wanted to jump off a building the 2nd session (we’re playing Aberrant). She probably would have been out of commission for a long time, but it would have been the thing most within her character at the time. I chose not to jump but only because the GM seemed against having to deal with a new character jumping into the mix. I pushed her character growth into “get less angry with the world ASAP” so that the party wouldn’t have to deal with the fact that she can be abrasive to those whose motivations aren’t apparent to her or have to interact with a new character.

  15. kanati: This bois down to a mechanics issue. The passive perception score exists for when player’s aren’t actively using the skill themselves. I keep a list of the players’ passive perception and insight (skill bonus+10) so I can know if they failed or not. My group uses this as a standard for all skills that aren’t being used actively. They would only need to roll if their character was actively using the skill, in which case no surprise is needed.

    One of our rangers (level 19) has a passive stealth of 45, making him invisible to pretty much anyone if he wants to be (the god Orcus’ passive perception is 38). Since his passive is so high, he just chooses whether or not he’s being hidden (unless he’s trying to hide from a more powerful god).


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