Do you have any advice for character-players?

It seems to me that the discussion of methods and technique for role-playing games that occur in on-line conversations and are presented in gaming publications such as podcasts are dominated by advice to GMs. Perhaps that is because to players who are into gaming deeply enough to write for magazines, participate in forum discussions, and make podcasts are mostly into RPGs deeply enough to buy rules and to GM.

That makes advice to GMs well-trodden ground.

Is there still low-hanging fruit in the category of advice to character-players? Have you gems to offer? Pitfalls to warn of?

Are there any "“how to be a better character-player” resources that you would like to recommend or warn against?

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The first thing I tell to new players: Play a character that you can identify with

After they do that, I tell them: Play a character that challenges your own perspective

And of course, the final stage is: Play a character you hate

And the secret ending: Play a character that makes you laugh, because these are games and are supposed to be fun.

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One of my players, back in San Diego, had the recurrent quirk that (a) he regularly played male characters who got attracted to female characters but (b) he would only do this with female characters played by women he was attracted to.

  • This was so generally recognized that in one of my campaigns, another male player intentionally created a female character who was specifically designed to push this player’s buttons. It had no effect; even though it would have been in character of Diarmuid to fall for Blake, her player was male, and so he didn’t.

  • When I ran a different campaign set in E.R. Eddison’s fantasy world of Zimiamvia, his character courted two female characters played by two different women, which annoyed both of them; in fact, one of them was really put off by his confidently announcing his intentions. In the meantime, the third woman player was annoyed that he paid no attention to her character, especially since her character was far greater than the merely godlike charisma of the other two female characters . . .

  • The wife of one of my current online players has told me about this same player’s character deciding to pursue her character, and her coming up with a strategy for putting him off: her character, who didn’t speak the common tongue very well, misunderstood what his character was saying, and thanked him for offering to assume a paternal role toward her, which squicked him enough so he backed off.

One way to take this would be to say that you shouldn’t roleplay sexual attraction. But I don’t think that’s a necessary conclusion. One of the women in the second situation I described above, much later, told me how much she had appreciated my running campaigns where she could explore her characters’ sexuality, both with NPCs and with other PCs. I think the difference is that neither I, nor the other players, was presenting this as a way for us to flirt with her, or assuming that she would be interested. You can do that sort of thing, if you firewall between your personal feelings and the feelings of your character, and especially if you don’t use the game mechanics as a way for entrapping the players.

And that applies, more generally, to the principle that you should avoid mixing up the feelings of the character that you’re roleplaying with your own feelings.

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Some quick thoughts, mostly about new characters:

  1. Never make a gag character for a long-term campaign. Even if the running joke becomes beloved, you’ll quickly tire of the one note roleplaying and wish for something else to do besides fall down, steal things irrationally or charge in stupidly.

  2. Don’t fire all of your narrative cannons in one go, no matter how excited you are about your character. Especially if your backstory is tragic or fraught with all of the stuff that backstories are typically fraught with. Similar to real people (and onions/parfaits/ogres), characters should have layers - they’re not going to share their deepest darkest secrets right off the bat.

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As a corollary to that:

  • By all means create a character who provides the GM with narrative material to use, such as vendettas to pursue, missing relatives, and lost inheritances. But don’t make it urgent to deal with, such as being unstable. The reason is that GMs often come into campaigns with six to ten potential adventures to run that they feel enthusiastic about, and they tend to run those first, and then start looking at PCs for adventure ideas after that. It is best if your stock of backgroundium is still fresh and won’t have changed from what you wrote after such a passage of time.

Independently:

  • Don’t make your character’s background more interesting and important than their adventures are going to be. Indeed, aim for significantly less.
  • Don’t make your character’s history and situation so involved and unconventional that the GM can’t keep track of N+1 of them, where N is the number of character-players in your group. Tropes and even clichés are your friend, at least in the background.
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Work out the specific stuff you want out of games (in general or right now), and find campaigns that offer it, and build characters to get it. Not every D&D game is a dungeon bash, but if you want to explore your character’s relationship with their overbearing family it’ll be a pretty rare D&D game that’ll let you do it (and a fairly rare Call of Cthulhu one, but it’s a bit more likely).

(The thing I enjoy most often and most consistently is a detailed simulation of someone else’s personality: this person is not like me but I’ve built them in my head well enough that I can work out exactly how they think and how they’d react to something. So I tend to favour games where personalities matter.)

Offer narrative hooks but don’t expect them to come up constantly.

Have a character with a reason to do whatever the campaign is about. And to keep doing it when it gets hard.

Some players and groups like a lot of group cohesion and will get really annoyed if a fellow PC does them down in more than a trivial way. Others are quite happy with a bit more overt rivalry. Find out whom you’re playing with.

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Don’t use your disadvantages or character background as an excuse to avoid the plot. Roleplaying being afraid of the dark is fine, but refusing to ever do anything at night is not. Having a small child as a dependant is fine, but refusing to go anywhere you can’t or shouldn’t take a toddler is not.

Make your character a team player. Lone wolves who won’t interact with the rest of the party get real old, real fast.

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Play different character templates. I used to more or less always play the wizard because being able to do magic fascinates me. One of my fondest memories is of playing a warrior in Exalted. For the first time, I was playing a character that wasn’t smarter than me. I had a lot of fun thinking with my sword and doing risky things that my smart characters would have avoided at all costs.

Being a bit considerate of the GM helps everything run more smoothly. By all means if the GM is rail-roading the group on a tight track: criticize them. But don’t just run around purposefully trying to get away from the plot just so you can show everyone how smart you are or how many plot holes you can dig with your personal knowledge of chemistry.

Help the GM as a group by getting together as players and create a group that works. As a GM I do not want to continuously provide motivation for your character to stick with the others. If you want to roleplay that you don’t trust anyone, figure out a reason why that character is with the group despite that.

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My immediate reaction was disagreement, but on reflection I think that’s right more often than not. The beginning of the game is generally the beginning of the story – or at least of this section of the story.

So if my character is going to be the group’s violence specialist, and his background is that he was an SAS soldier, I may well work out just where he was deployed and which actions he was involved in, but that’ll be so that he can say “when I was in Afghan we…” for character colour. So I suppose that’s interesting but not important, except in that it gives an excuse for the skill package.

(An SAI character I played in a Transhuman Space game had as its first memories walking up to an EU consular desk and saying “I wish to apply for political asylum”. It’s pretty sure it did something for the losing side in the recent big war, but it doesn’t know what and it doesn’t really want to. I don’t think it ever came up particularly in play, except for a tendency to say things like "that reminds me of the time that null pointer exception".)

While I’m very much a believer in RPGs using their native narrative form rather than trying to imitate linear fiction, I think that some ideas are worth stealing: for example a TV series about The Agency will usually star a newcomer to the job and may even have several, partly because the viewer can learn as the newbies do, but also because it’s clearly a beginning for that person’s story as they arrive in the job. (Quite often it will be at a time of organisational change as well: e.g. in the pilot they learn about supernatural weirdness and at the end a new organisation is set up to deal with it. Or the old boss leaves their job, retired or “retired” or turns out to be a bad guy, and a new boss has to get up to speed so everything’s in flux.)

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I think that’s one of two options for achieving that goal. You can either have characters who have signed onto a shared mission statement, or characters who are in a common situation that they need to deal with—the only survivors of a pandemic that has hit their town, or possible heirs to a fortune required to live in an ancient mansion for a month, for example.

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My advice for players (and GMs) is don’t do this and don’t play with people that don’t do this. Creating a space where people are comfortable is more important than allowing individuals to do whatever they want. Thanks for sharing, it’s important to spot this behaviour and stop it whenever it’s inappropriate. If you’re gonna play a romantic/sexy game then go for it but you’ve gotta start with clear ground rules about what people are interested in and what their boundaries are.

If you are playing a game in that space, use an X card!

Other than that, in general I always like players who are interested in telling a story rather than just fighting through a story told by the GM. Help with worldbuilding, poke at the parts of the world you find interesting! Or maybe play a campaign where you all agree that the focus isn’t going to be telling a story together and is more about combat if that’s what you’re interested in. In broad terms: figure out what you want from the game as a group and as individuals so you can focus on those areas of the game.

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I think a lot of older gamers (including me!) are used to the idea that you can’t throw people out of the group because there are only four people in town who are interested in RPGs at all. Which can readily stack on top of the Geek Social Fallacies and cause one to believe that tolerance of someone’s bad behaviour is a virtue even as everyone in the group is silently being made uncomfortable by it. (Not that I’m saying this is necessarily what’s happening in whswhs’ case; I wasn’t there, I don’t know the people.)

I would back up felix and say “engage with the world” – there’s no show bible that says that this thing is only set-dressing and not to be touched, so it’s entirely in order to ask the GM “could we explore that a bit more”, whether that’s at the character design or the campaign direction level.

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  • My campaigns tended to be equally overt about violence and sex, and I think my players were aware of this.

  • However, there was always the option of signing up for a campaign whose theme excluded or limited one or both of those, since I always ran two or three campaigns in parallel, and the lists I circulated included from half a dozen to half a hundred choices. (Though it was hard to get convergence with fifty options, and I never offered that many again.)

  • But even in campaigns where sexual content was accepted, this player’s approach increasingly annoyed other players. It got to the point where so many players asked not to be included in campaigns where he was a player that I couldn’t fit him into anything I ran.

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Support your GM.
Clearly state what you hope your character wants to do, not just now but over the coming campaign.
Enable and support other players characters.
Feed opportunities into the table.
Know the system reasonably well.
Analyse and make your decisions in the gaps between your spotlight time, so your PC actions are prompt and don’t break the flow.

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This is a fantastic question. Thanks for asking it. Advice and/or guidelines for players that work for us include:

–Think of yourselves as the writing room, the GM as the production team, and your whole game as a show. Yes, GM generates lots of plot spurs (I call these ‘requests from the studio’), but it’s the players that determine how the show actually plays. Their chief tool is their character, but that needn’t mean that they only pursue their own character’s interests, with the resulting game being the output of X voices competing for the steering wheel and spotlight. Rather, pursuing what makes for the best show–the funniest scene, the most moving moment, the richest twist–and serving that element the way their character would behave is what seems to make the most memorable, rewarding game. This often looks like characters doing suboptimal, foolish or even humiliating things. One of my all-time favourite game memories came from a very strong player deciding her statuesque character would crack and mutter and bend to the will of a much softer player and diffident character (that wasn’t even making much of a stand) because, well, the diffident one had a better storyline idea, and because watching pride shatter was riveting. (In a different campaign, she decided her science-y character would panic in a massive underground evil-lab gunfight and she just started taking samples and labeling them in the battlefield. Other characters continually had to drag her out of fire lanes. She won no glory, splattered no heads, but it’s the only thing about that scene anyone remembers.)

–Invest in the world’s stakes. GMs can stimulate terror, heartache, desperation–but only players can really generate it. If a house is supposed to be spooky, the GM isn’t going to make the player feel spooked out, but if a player plays spooked, everyone else will start to get spooked. If everyone is dragged before the emperor, it seems funny to be Rocket Raccoon and cop some insouciance, but the fact is that royal power that can execute you on a whim is f***ing scary and your plot armour bc your GM is your friend and isn’t actually going to execute you shouldn’t indemnify your character from half-pissing themselves. And civilians’ lives…I mean, watching those end would be pretty intense.

–Applaud each other. Often. Compliments are the fastest route, in my opinion, to players getting comfortable and taking bigger creative risks, really opening up to new ideas. When I see players throwing an idea into the pot for other players to react to, rather than just seeking endless punchlines for their own characters, I know we’ve really made each other feel valued.

Hope this isn’t pedantic! Cheers, everyone; really enjoying this unique little thread.

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That seems like a compelling reason to make it clear that no one has plot armor, one way or another. Get the audience up on the edge of their seats. Channel your inner Whedon!

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This is tough. I can see whacking a character in D&D-style games or quick roll-up things, but when you put some real writing and design into a character, it’s tough to watch that all die with a bad roll or a slap-happy play session.

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I’m not sure I’d ever let it come down to a single die roll or player-decision.

Unless it had been a pattern of choices that lead up to that moment.


Sometimes it just takes a little on-the-spot character rewriting to avoid the inevitable:

Player – “I play a character that has an open disregard/contempt for authority”
GM – “You are introduced to the King and warned by his advisor that he will not hesitate to send you to your death.”
Player – “Haha, foolish King, you can’t kill me! I refuse to bow to you.” → <murder sounds>

followed by:

<the sound of some dice being rolled>

King: “Allow me to introduce you to my agent that will be joining you to ensure you do not betray me. He looks just like that fellow that was just here, except he has a slightly healthier appetite for authority”

Ha! If you have room, I’m in for your next game.

I think I dislike an adversarial GM/player dynamic at any level; also, I play with people that would view any such play-curbing as adversarial; also, I won’t play with people that might demand some management. I don’t mind if my guy gets whacked 'cause I’m not jiving with the vibe; that’s funny. But I don’t know many game nerds in my scene that would feel the same.

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I’ve had friction with past GMs due to my tendency to try to introduce too many hooks into the story. Often, GMs have a story in mind already and me trying to collaborate is nothing but a nuisance – that’s okay, I’m a big boy and can take a hint.

But I do prefer (and enjoy) when the GM is up for a little off-the-cuff rewrites to incorporate what the players are engaged in the world and putting out just as much story-content as the GM.

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