Thursday, August 21st, 2014 | Roleplaying
by Simon Cross, Mike Dewar and Adrianna Pińska
Your character creation skills have progressed far beyond writing
numbers on paper. Your characters have deftly crafted manerisms and
epic length backgrounds. They breathe emotion and seem more life-like
than many of your friends.
Yet, somehow, when you sit down at a table to play your beautiful
creations, things don’t quite work out.
Perhaps the story heads in an unexpected direction, leaving your
creation out of place and struggling to fit in? Or maybe they’re fun
to play initially but their actions begin to feel repetitive and
If any of this sounds familiar, read on.
Reacting to failure
It’s easy to spend all your time imagining a character’s successes —
their victories and their crowning moments — but what happens when
they fail? How do they respond to minor setbacks? And big ones?
Maybe they’re stoic about it? Perhaps it’s likely to cause a crisis of
faith? Maybe they react by doubling down and uping the stakes? Maybe
they see failure as an opportunity to learn and grow? Perhaps they’re
accustomed to failure? Perhaps they see failure as a sign that they’re
challenging themselves and pushing their abilities?
The dice and the DM are going to screw you. Make sure you have a plan
for how to roleplay your character when they do.
A character’s goals are things strongly tied to specific events. A
philosophy colours every situation. The two are often aligned, but a
philosophy is more broadly useful. It gives you a handle on how your
character might behave in circumstances where it is not otherwise
obvious what they would do.
To take a hackneyed example: your backstory might involve punishing an
old partner who screwed you. This goal could feed a number of
rather different philosophies:
- “I always keep my word, and I promised Jimmy I’d get him back.”
- “Any situation can be solved with enough violence.”
- “Karma controls the universe. What goes around comes around.”
The goal is the same, but each philosophy implies very different
There are going to be times when other characters’ plots and goals are
centre-stage, and it behooves us as roleplayers to have a plan for
these awkward (and hopefully brief) moments. A philosophy allows your
character to participate in others’ plots as a unique and distinct
individual, rather than as a bored bystander.
Your character’s philosophy becomes vitally important when paradigm
shifts occur in-game. Setting changes erode the importance of lesser
goals and past history and create a strong need for a philosophy that
guides your character’s immediate responses and further development.
It may be interesting to construct characters with goals that
contradict their philosophy. For example, a pacifist might wish to
exact revenge on the person who killed their brother. This creates an
interesting conflict that will need to be resolved.
Randomly fucking with people is not a philosophy.
Interacting with colleagues
Your character is going to spend a lot of time interacting with their
colleagues — the other player characters — so it’s worthwhile
thinking about how they do that.
It’s tempting (and a bit lazy) to think of characters as relating to
everyone else the same way. This leads to loners and overly friendly
Energizer bunnies, both of which get old very quickly.
Avoid homogenous party dynamics.
If your character’s interactions with the other player characters are
all the same, you have failed.
Varied interactions also help make party disagreements more
interesting. Without varied interactions, you have to resolve all
disagreements by beating each other over the head with the logic stick
until consensus (or boredom) is reached. Unique relationships and
loose factions make disagreements more interesting to roleplay and
help the party find plausible lines along which to unite for a given
If your character is part of a command structure, spend some time
thinking about how they respond to orders they disagree with. Remember
that the orders are likely issued by someone your character knows and
has an existing relationship with. What is that relationship?
Also keep in mind that your character has likely been given such
orders before, and since they appear to still be part of the command
structure, they’ve probably come to terms with this in some way that
both they and their immediate superiors can live with.
Obviously everyone has their limits, though — where are your
character’s? How much does it take for other player characters or
NPCs to cross the line?
Sometimes even if you do everything right you find yourself in a
situation where your character is no longer fun to play. Maybe the
campaign took an unexpected turn or you’ve just run out of ideas for
them as they are. It’s time for your character to change — to embark
on a new personal story arc.
Great characters aren’t static. They grow and react to events around
them. Perhaps a crushing defeat has made them re-consider their
philosophy — or made them more committed to it? Or maybe frustration
with their current situation has made them reconsider their options?
It helps to think broadly about how your character might develop while
you’re creating them. Make sure you’d still find the character
interesting to play even if their stance on some important issues
shifted. Don’t become too invested in your character remaining as they
are. Be flexible — don’t have only one plan for character
Your character’s philosophy and general outlook can be one of the most
interesting things to tweak. Small changes can often have big
ramifications for how they interact with others.
Don’t feel you have to leave character development for later in the
campaign! The start of a campaign is often when character changes are
most needed to make a character work well and it sets the stage for
further character development later on.
Think about how you convey who your character is to the other
players. They’re probably not going to get to read your epic
backstory, so they’re going to have to learn about who your character
is in other ways.
Likely the first thing people will hear about your character is his or
her name — so make it a good one. It’s going to be repeated a lot so
make sure it conveys something about who your character is. If they’re
an Italian mobster, make sure their name sounds like they’re an
Italian mobster. That way whenever the DM or another player says your
character’s name, it reminds everyone who your character is.
The second thing people hear will probably be a description of your
character. Take some time to write one. Don’t rely on dry statistics
and descriptions. Stick to what people would see and remember about
your character if they met him or her for a few minutes. Don’t mention
hair colour unless hair is an important feature.
After introductions are done, you probably won’t get another
invitation to monologue about your character. So do it in character
instead. Tell the NPC about that time in ‘Nam. Regale the party with
tales from your epic backstory. As in real life, try not to ramble on,
but equally, don’t shy away from putting your character in the
spotlight for a few moments. Continually remind the others at the
table who your character is.
Last but not least, remember that the most epic backstory is pointless
if no one finds out about it. The point of dark secrets is for them to
be uncovered and for your character to confront them.
Don’t fear failure. Have a philosophy. Have varied interactions with
others. Embrace change. Share who you are.
- Kululaa dot COMMMM!
- Mefridus von Utrecht (for a philosophy that involves others)
- Attelat Vool (for starting life after failure)
This article was also published in the CLAWmarks 2014 Dragonfire edition.