Player Tip #2 – Building a “Real” character

Let’s put the Role Playing back in Role Playing Games!

As a former LARPer, I may be a bit biased about creating an immersive atmosphere for even tabletop games.  This week’s Player Tip is about encouraging that in-depth feel at the game table, and building a more “realistic” character for a more fun game.

One of the most important parts of gaming for me is the atmosphere – not just the deliberate Role Play sparked by the game master, but the decisions that the players make that make the character really come to life.  Far too often, though, I see players (myself included) sit down at the table with no expectation for what the character is going to be or do.  In a way, we as players have started to expect the Game Master to provide the whole story, without bringing any contribution to the table at all.  Sometimes, even one character adopting this mindset can ruin the immersion for everyone else at the table – sucking the players out of the imaginary world they’re creating with the Game Master and becoming truly just a group of gamer geeks sitting around a table with dice.  At that point, just grab a controller and play some console games – you’ll wind up with more satisfaction from it and the graphics are better.

As a result of this trend toward bland, faceless characters with no real premise, terms like Mary Sue, Boomerang and Doppleganger get tossed around with more regularity.  I like the term “Spectators with Dice” – which really defines what these players do.

Aside: In a recent Pathfinder game, I was pretty burned out with the group we were playing with.  They seemed more intent on arguing over minor rules grievances and power-playing than actually moving the game’s story along.  They were defining their characters by what they did, not what they were – so when the DM made a rules change that they disagreed with (something I’ll touch on in a future post) it dramatically altered the foundation of their character.

After that incident, I became guilty of this exact behavior.  I stripped my character of all his individuality and everything that made him fun, and just became a Crit Warrior focused on doing direct damage to monsters instead of investigating and exploring the world the game master had created.  I showed up, rolled dice and killed monsters – but Critty McCritfiend could have had so much more promise if he’d been Percival Darvos the Squire of the great Kobold Knight named Lasher Flimflam!

By making your character unique and memorable, it becomes a part of the Game Master’s world instead of an observer to it.  Imbuing your character with personality, attitude and individuality they become relate-able, recognizable and more fun to play!  Furthermore, if you make sure to provide the Game Master with your character’s unique aspects, they’ll be able to incorporate you into their game fully in a way that wouldn’t be possible with Critty McCritfiend the do-nothing Warrior.

Whenever I’m making a new character, I try to follow the steps below to really make them unique, and solidify not only their story in my mind – but their personalities and their thought processes.  By understanding where your character is coming from, what they’re thinking and why they have made their decisions, you’ll often be surprised at the directions your Role Play goes.

Step One: Separate!

The real world is boring.  Sure, the graphics are decent (maybe I need to get my perscription checked?) but the plot is pretty boring and the quest mechanic is downright lame.  The whole purpose of role playing games is to find a new world – to explore a new universe and kill goblins there.  But as long as that world is connected to this one, it will always be lame by proxy.  So the first step in creating an immersive atmosphere in the gaming world is separating it from the real world as completely as possible.

This doesn’t mean that physics don’t work the same way (unless they don’t) or that the game master or the character needs to go out of their way to make a totally alien atmosphere – in fact, I prefer realism in my games – but what it does mean is that the person interacting with that world isn’t Jonathan Everyman the Technical Support Representative – it’s Mejis Sangster, the Kobold of La Machinia!  And drawing a line between those two means separation of character knowledge and player knowledge; between character opinions and player opinions and between character actions and player actions.

The other steps will dictate how to determine what your character’s knowledge and opinions are – but the biggest part of separation of those is differentiating what you’re doing and saying as a player and a character.  At the LARP, this was easy.  If you weren’t in costume, you weren’t in character and basically the entire game world would literally ignore you.  If you were in costume and needed to do something out of character, you wore a colored headband or pressed your hand to your head in a certain way that symbolized that you were no longer a part of the fantasy world around you.  You were “the wind”.

Costuming can be one way that you differentiate what you’re saying and doing from what your character is saying and doing – but in a tabletop environment, you need to keep it very, very simple.  For one of my very first Dungeons and Dragons characters I was playing Biggs the Barbarian – a melee character with a sentient club that was significantly smarter than he was.  In my first foray into prop-making, I built a club from a soda bottle and some duct tape and held it aloft whenever I was speaking as Biggs.  I was not in full Barbarian gear or war-paint, but the subtle costume change of holding a soda-bottle aloft let the whole team know when it was Biggs vs. Thirdwaller asking a question or performing an action.

Additionally, your voice and demeanor can communicate your intent to be in character.  This is not the place to be subtle – or the other players may still get confused.  An over-the-top change to your voice or larger-than-life body language can communicate that what you’re doing is not you, but your character.  Biggs had his own “voice” – a raspy, gruff and (frankly) dumb-sounding thing that I came up with on the fly.  When I spoke as Biggs, I spoke in that voice.

Whether you go with costuming, hand gestures, headbands, props or voices – whatever you do should fit your character.  If you’re playing a sniveling thief, for example, speak in a nasally, annoying tone not a deep or masculine one.  If your character is cowardly (some of the most fun to play!) speak haltingly, like a panicked animal just trying to get out of it.  Leg Up’s dwarven character in our ongoing Fantasy game is a baker by trade – so he might pick up a cheap chef’s hat (available online for just a few dollars) to wear when he’s trying to communicate that his words or actions are in-game versus out-of-game.  Don’t be afraid to be over-the-top – it will make the world more immersive.

Step Two:  Make it Memorable!

“Mary Sue” characters – or characters that are not easily differentiated from any other character – are usually not very fun to play.  And players with a habit of making those types of characters are usually not very fun to play with.  Making your character unique and memorable is much more fulfilling and leads to a game that everyone enjoys playing – and talking about!  Years after playing him in The Fez’s dining room, the players there still tell stories of Biggs and his talking hammer named Bob.  They remember the trouble he caused – and the time he saved the day by guessing the magic word that triggered a crucial part of the plot by just spouting gibberish.  And to everyone that was at the table that day, the Biggs Voice still sparks a laugh and a head shake.

But being memorable is about more than just a funny voice and a pop bottle.  You have to build the character to get to that point – and that means that you, as the player, must really understand the character.  Most modern gaming systems have chapters (or entire books) dedicated to building and flushing out your characters, and I recommend that you read them and do what they say first and foremost.  This will help you get an idea of your character’s past, their skills and the reason they have them, and the important people in their life.  But it needs to go beyond that – you need the break the mold and make a new one!  Work with your Game Master to decide how much freedom you can have in your character’s past – and see if there’s any aspects of their story that you can use to connect your character to the game they’re writing.  If everyone in the party does this, it makes it much easier to incorporate the party later.  If every character in the group has a deep, passionate drive to murder the dragon that destroyed their villiage, it will be a more intense game than that group of adventurers that met in a bar and decided to slay a dragon for gold.

The Ginger, The Fez and I have a little game that we play when we’re making new characters that has really helped us to build stronger, more memorable characters.  We get together on some chat service – we all like to use Google because we’re children of the Google generation, but whatever you’ve got will work – and ask each other questions about our characters.  They can be hypothetical questions – posing realistic scenarios and asking how the character might react in it – or they can be real questions about the character’s past, their family, or their current state.  Some favorites are “What’s in their pocket right now?  Not their backpack or on their pack mule – but what is important enough to your character’s day to day life that they keep it in their pocket?”  This might be receipts to the theatre for a sophisticated aristocrat or a set of lockpicks for a rogue, but whatever it is will help you build your character into something more than a dice-rolling machine.  Some time ago over at Errant Dreams they posted a list of questions that we’ll pull from for examples.  There’s no reason that you’d need to do this with the other players – though it will certainly help all of you – it can easily be done by yourself.

By building a memorable character, and knowing more about them than what’s on the typical character sheet, the character becomes more real – it becomes a person that you’re guiding through a quest instead of a pile of dice that you roll when the game master’s pile of dice is pointed at you.

Step Three:  Get in the Mood!

So you’ve separated your character from yourself, and immersed them into a fantasy world of the game master’s creation.  You know your character’s ins and outs and you’ve written a great backstory for your character.  Now, it’s time to play your character.  How do you get into the mindset of the character?  What do you do to make that character come to life in your mind so you can really follow their actions?

It’s time to get in the mood to play.  Everyone does something different to accomplish this goal – and for me it’s usually talking in their voice and answering some of the questions from the link in Step Two.  But there’s so much more you can do!

A picture is worth 1,000 words – 

One tactic that both The Ginger and I use to get into our characters’ heads before game starts is to look at pictures.  As we’re building our characters and investigating their lives we’ll find pictures online that are important to them.  Google Image Search is awesome for this – you can find just about anything on there if you dig long enough.  Simple searches will yield paintings of a character’s childhood home or their favorite spot to shop or eat.  An invested search will find the yard or forest clearing where they learned to ply their trade – or the ancient library where they studied their art.  If you have flushed out your character’s equipment, you can find images that represent their important pieces of gear – weapons and armor for a fighter, spellbook and potion lab for a mage, etc.  And keep these with your character sheet – often with the stats printed on the back of the picture.  Then, when the time comes to play the character, getting in the mood is as simple as pulling out the folder (literal or digital) of those images to remind ourselves what we’ve got and who we’re playing that day.

Let the music take you over – 

The Fez and The Ginger both have playlists dedicated to their characters – and I really like the idea, but struggle with the execution.  If your Game Master doesn’t already do so for the game (or even if they do!), build a playlist on your mobile device (cell phone, MP3 player, tablet, walkman, diskman, boom box… you get the idea) and listen to it in one ear while you’re playing the character.  Or you can play it in the car on the way to the game shop to get yourself psyched up before game starts.  If you can’t come up with a full playlist (as I often cannot) simply finding one or two key songs and listening to them during critical Role Playing moments and right before game starts can help you to find your character’s mindset and adjust to their personality.

There are thousands of audio files and playlists already built on YouTube that you can use for this purpose – and I encourage you to take full advantage of them rather than re-invent the wheel.  But be careful that the music does not distract you from the action or give the game master the impression that you’re bored with their game.  Let them know ahead of time what you’re doing – and why – and most Game Masters I know will actually appreciate the effort and encourage it.

While researching for this item, I found an awesome YouTuber calling himself AFistfulofDice.  I’m following him now and getting caught up on his channel – but he seems to have some great tips for players and game masters alike.  He had a good warning about this very topic that I had not considered and thought deserved getting passed along:  Don’t use images or music that are familiar to you or have meaning to you outside of game.  His specific warning relates to using sound files for popular movies or video games.  Even if if the image of Han Solo in his black vest and low-slung blaster remind you of your character, if looking at the image will always take you to the Mos Eisley Cantina scene it defeats the purpose of getting you in the mood – allowing Lucas’ world to distract you from the Game Master’s.  Likewise, if the music of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy will always take you to Gandalf’s adventure with Sam and Frodo then it will pull you out of the world the Game Master has created for you and cast you into the Tolkien-verse instead.

Whether it’s images or sound – or talking in funny voices and wearing goofy hats – getting yourself into the mindset of your character will help the game master’s world feel more real and alive!

Above All Else:  Roll with the Punches!

Whatever happens, don’t let your character override the story the Game Master has made.  Roll with the punches and let your character grow into something even bigger than what you had planned.

After you’ve created your character – and if you’re like me, that means hours of research and work and possibly costume building – it is easy to become firmly rooted in that mindset and inflexible to change.  Remember that your character is a person – a fallible, changing and flexible person that will adapt over the course of the adventure just as you have over the course of your life.  If the Game Master has suggestions or throws a curve-ball from your past at you – accept it and roll with it.  You’ll find this is more fun than being rigidly stuck to your idea of your character.

The Game Master will have changes that need made to make your character fit their world, and the party will have needs that your character must fulfill – roll with the punches and watch how your character grows and expands in the Game Master’s world.  I think you’ll be surprised how much more fun you have when you’ve built a “Real” character that you can guide through an immersive game experience.

One thought on “Player Tip #2 – Building a “Real” character

  1. One thing I failed to mention in the “Make it Memorable” area is Flaws or Disadvantages. Real characters are fallible creatures – and often have scars to give evidence of that failure. Don’t be afraid to lose a few points on your agility to give a character a limp to remind them of their first encounter with Pirates – or a charisma hit from that scar the Big Bad left behind when he burned their village.

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