This week, I’m going to try to write the column I thought I was writing last week about roleplaying better characters. Today’s topic, in particular, is how to avoid playing one-dimensional characters and how to breathe a little life into your PCs using simple tools you can find in your own home. Unless, of course, I realize I’m talking about something else.
Now In 3-D RoleplayVision
One of the most common problems I’ve seen with some roleplaying is that the characters are very one-dimensional. The player has a very limited idea of what the character might do in a given situation. On one end of the limited-idea spectrum, the player is frustrated and bored with their character who exists only to stab things with a pointy. On the other, the lawful, neutral, chaotic, and other miscellaneous unaligned stupids come out to play.
Let’s pause and give the players of these PCs the benefit of the doubt. A given <insert sociopathic tendency here> character may well not be that way intentionally. The character may only have one or two distinguishing features, or their backstory may describe a particularly traumatic event that led to the character’s eventual career choice. I will freely admit that if my parents were killed by orcs when I was a lad, I might hate orcs. Possibly forever. I might even devote my life to killing orcs whenever possible.
That being said, a lot of players with this PC might attack orcs on sight, no matter the circumstances. Metagaming to be a team player aside, I don’t think is (usually) a realistic way to roleplay a PC.
The Common Sense Is Baked Right In
A distinguishing feature of a PC’s life can be the cornerstone of their backstory, but it shouldn’t be the blueprint by which their Pavlovian murder-responses are formed.
In our previous “Batman origin with orcs” example, we have a person highly motivated to exterminate orcs. We also probably have an adventurer at level 1 or higher. In roleplaying terms, that means they’ve had at least enough training to do their job — and that likely means some training in combat strategy and tactics. I’m not talking about people huddled over a battlegrid pushing pawns about to determine when to move. I’m talking about being in the moment and analyzing a situation. I’m talking about looking at a potential fight and deciding not to engage because the chances of success are low. If the fight can’t be avoided, I’m talking about deciding which orc to take out first to eliminate the enemy’s tactical advantages and/or demoralize them. There is caution involved. There is expertise involved. At low levels, there may not be much expertise involved (from a roleplay standpoint, anyway), but most warriors can get a sense as to whether something seems like suicide before charging in. Those who can’t or won’t tend to meet their gods a bit sooner.
Additionally, in most systems, every PC comes equipped with a set of handy statistics that define certain characteristics of their body and mind. Even a slightly-below-average Intelligence or Wisdom score is a pretty good rationale as to why a PC wouldn’t take dangerously rash actions in support of their strong beliefs. In addition to simple self-preservation instinct, it is not a terribly large mental leap to realize that one can kill a significantly larger number of orcs when one is alive.
As an aside, it shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise to anyone that a PC played as a competent, reasonably intelligent adventurer (even one with strong opinions and feelings!) fits better in most parties than one who has a knee-jerk reaction to their one-note emotional Kryptonite.
Fantasy Anger Management
A better way of handling our Orcphaned PC would be to first change the default response to seeing orcs from INSTANT BATTLE CHARGEMURDER to something a little more realistic. For instance, having the PC feel good old fashioned rage and desire to instant battle chargemurder them is much better. The difference now is that the anger and hatred are only a part of the puzzle. The PC is played as a trained, reasonably intelligent person — and ideally, there’s more backstory from which the PC’s other motivations and feelings about the situation might be determined.
Now the player has far more options to work with. If the DM introduces a neutral or friendly orc NPC, the player can explore the internal conflicts of the character’s hatred for orcs versus the need to work with one. A diplomatic mission through orc-occupied territory becomes a pressure cooker for the PC, putting their discipline to the test. The PC’s traumatic life-changing career-starting event is now a tool for the player to use, one color among many on the player’s palette.
How To Avoid Conflict: Introduce Conflict
The playwright George Bernard Shaw once defined drama as “the conflict between a man’s will and his environment.” Good stories have drama and conflict in them. That’s why it shouldn’t be any surprise that the stories you help create with your characters involve them dealing with things they are uncomfortable with.
This is why, in many cases, campaigns that try to draw the players’ interest by progressively increasing the Power And Awesome Levels Of Everything frequently fall flat. An epic-level PC gleefully running over an endless field of infinite beholders with a divine lawnmower makes for an amazing mental image, but it’s very likely the reason that they are doing so is not very emotionally engaging. There’s no drama. There’s no story to tell, just empty details. PCs with differing worldviews that have to coexist and gel as a team under extenuating circumstances, however… that’s where memories get made.
Conflict can take place in a wide array of forms. It’s a big topic that probably deserves its own article, but here are some quick and dirty examples: It can be a character’s internal struggle to deal with opposing values (like working with an orc). It can be a character’s reaction to societal or group pressure to act a certain way (like being a half-orc and trying to live in a city prejudiced against demihumans). It might involve two people competing for the affections of another. It could also involve direct conflict, physical or otherwise, between two or more people or forces. It might even be a conflict between a person and nature itself, which generally tends to be the sort of thing the person tries to survive rather than win.
A large part of any person’s life is dealing with conflict. How an individual deals with and is changed by these conflicts tells us a lot about that person. In the same vein, creating conflict in your PC’s backstory and dealing with what the DM throws at you every week paints a picture of who your PC is as a person. Getting to know your PC and understanding why they’ve made the choices they did in life goes a very long way toward a satisfying in-game roleplay experience.
Shall We Graze?
Roleplaying games are a really strange hobby sometimes, but I love them. Where else do you get to be a strange half-writer/half-improv-actor hybrid and have a good chance of a flaming longsword involved?
It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if people who do actual writing and acting for a living can find a dozen holes in everything I’ve said today, but even their advanced liberal arts science technology can’t take this away from me — I’ve had a lot of success having a great time roleplaying my characters once I started thinking of them as people and put myself in their shoes.
Give it a try sometime. You’d be surprised who you might meet.