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The Last Dark Art

Ten: If Only: Great Roles, Great Players

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Oct 23,2003


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Ten: If Only: Great Roles, Great Players

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

There's nothing quite so exhilarating as looking over the virgin expanse of a blank character sheet and pondering the options arrayed before you. Creating a new character is a joy almost equal to playing one, as anyone who's just brought home a shiny new rulebook can attest. All the same, the sheer number of possibilities can seem overwhelming, especially if you care about more than making another min-maxed combat monster. Juggling numbers is fairly straightforward, but ideas are a less tangible challenge -- and turning those ideas into a person who will come alive in play can feel even more daunting.

Method actors get an odd bit of advice when building roles for the stage: Always play yourself. This seems more limiting on the surface than it really is. It doesn't mean that you should always play characters who are exactly like you -- after all, one of the joys of roleplaying is to spend some time behind the eyes of a person who isn't you. But starting with yourself as a baseline makes the character personal rather than abstract, and more likely to be a person than a two-dimensional "type." The departure from "playing yourself" is the thing that opens up the infinite possibilities, and actors have a name for it as well: the magic if.

That's as in: What person would I be if I were the prince of medieval Denmark? Or a street-smart private eye? Or an apprentice wizard? Or another race, or gender, or social class? The if covers anything that makes the character depart from you -- which seems painfully obvious, but note that this is a distinct exercise from asking "What would a person who was X do?" Starting by "playing yourself" makes the characterization immediate and real; it's a subtle, but vital, distinction. For one thing, it keeps absurd stereotypes to a minumum -- you're not thinking "What are dwarves like?" or "What do dwarves do?", but rather what your own life would be like under the circumstances of dwarven culture, leaving you free to consider a number of options that the archetype doesn't necessarily suggest.

It's all too easy to come to characterization by playing a type rather than an individual. Lots of games seem to encourage this with classes, splats or templates that suggest a homogeneity of personality or philosophy -- sometimes even to the point of caricature. But people aren't generally like this, even people who fit into broad categories. This is not to suggest that archetypal roles are bad (or worse, not fun), only that there's usually more to a person than their profession or affiliations. The trouble with a one-note character is that it doesn't stay interesting long, either to play or to interact with. Reduce all your choices to having to stay in sync with "elf" or "Brujah" or "ranger" and the boredom will quickly take over. But the beauty of the if is that you already know how to be a person; it's just a matter of taking the imaginative leap to discovering how that person would be different under a number of other conditions.

And note, too, that the if also applies to specific events in the course of play. Making the "what if" exercise personal helps keep your reactions real and interesting -- the more so the more work you've put into developing the character in the first place. Always ask yourself the questions from a first-person perspective -- not "What would a Brujah do" but "What would I do, as a Brujah, given this history and this situation?" Intriguing, complicated people (as great characters should be) don't have a set of "stock" reactions with which they respond to every circumstance. That works for farce and Seinfeld -- maybe. For characters you want to spend any time with, it's deadly, especially if you have any interest in being surprised by the way the narrative unfolds. (And why participate in an improvised story if you already know how your alter-ego will always respond?)

I realize that this partially contradicts the advice you'll find in most rulebooks, telling you you must "always roleplay" such-and-such traits (especially Disads or Flaws or whatnot). Some even suggest penalizing players who don't take every opportunity to underline whatever qualities are on the character sheet. This is unfortunate, I think. While I wouldn't suggest that you ignore the decisions you made when building your PC (especially if you got extra points for them), keep in mind that these do no more than define personality in very broad strokes. Most cowards aren't cowardly all the time -- only mostly. Short-tempered people can be gentle and patient; honest folk can have moments of shiftiness. And so on. Again, this is not a license to abuse the rules, only a reminder that most people are more interesting than what you can peg down with a handful of adjectives. And people change as well.

(It might be useful to find a way to reward this kind of thing in play -- maybe if experience was awarded to "character development" in addition to "good roleplaying." Why should dynamic characterizations be penalized and playing to type rewarded? Flawed people overcoming their own hangups in moments of dramatic crisis is a staple of heroic fiction, and it makes little sense to discourage those moments because they wouldn't be "in character." The truth is that out-of-character moments are part of what makes stories good, and you suppress them at your own risk.)

I'm also not suggesting that you must always veer away from the "generic" when making decisions about characters. As I said, archetypes can be fun, and the genres many of us love are founded deeply in them. But I think an archetype works best as a starting point, customized in a way that makes it most accessible to the individual player. "Playing yourself" gives you a connection to the character that a broad, archetypal view doesn't; it also gives you permission to explore your own obsessions through the character, since whatever you can make important to the PC that's also important to you is going to make her come alive in very solid and real and specific ways. That's the great advantage that the if gives you -- it lets you build a character who's a genuine alter-ego, yourself projected through as many lenses of alteration as are necessary to place you in the world of the game.

Wish-fulfillment gets a bad rap, but it's probably more important to fiction in any medium than many are willing to admit. It seems that part of the reason people tell stories in the first place is to get a sense of who they wish they were, or hope they can be, or are glad they're not -- or sometimes all at once. Authors, especially authors of adventure tales, love to write about the people they wish they could have been; audiences in turn love to see the world through the eyes of those people and explore the same wishes, the same dreams. As a player in an RPG, you get to do both at the same time. So there's no shame in coming to the gaming table with all your wish-fulfillment ideas firmly in mind, ready to assume for a while a persona that could have been you, if only. Hold the mirror up to nature, as no less an advocate of players than Shakespeare advises -- and don't be embarassed to see your own ideals and desires reflected large in it.

This sounds terribly lofty and high-minded, but it isn't really. It's simply that, as a creator -- which all players of RPGs are, of course -- your best resource is always yourself, your own experiences and ideas and preoccupations. Just remember that you start in the same place creators always have: with a blank sheet, and "What if...?"

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