For whatever reason, the other day I asked myself “okay but what even is roleplaying?” And after tossing out a lot of leads and ideas — you have no idea how long it’s taken me to write this post, omg — I think I settled on the process of characterization as my core roleplaying habit. You know, playing a role.
I would propose that, for me, the process of characterization happens somewhere on a continuum between proactive vs reactive.
Proactive characterization: You come up with a personality, using whatever tools you want (fictional or real-world inspiration, emotional drives, Maslow, tarot, whatever) and play it out in the game. Oh, it probably changes over time, but the point is to go into it and say “I want to play a paladin struggling with his faith” or “I want to play a scheming courtesan” or whatever.
Reactive characterization: The procedures of play (teh rulez) guide and shape an emergent personality, or maybe it’s just you, reacting as you would as questions and problems are presented.
Are some games built so it’s harder to proactively (or reactively) characterize? I think so. And I’ll bet nobody’s really thought much about what their preferred approach or strategy to characterization is, and how well it works with proactive/reactive play.
Here are some strategies I’ve used to come up with characters:
Play-acting: putting on a funny voice, playing out tropes. Until I get a bead on an NPC, this is almost always what I do when I’m GMing and a new NPC has shown up. Games that give me pick-lists or a similar procedure will often produce a play-acted character. For example, my hick divorcee in Soth at BBC was totally a set of amusing tropes about being a hick, an unskilled father, and a psycho cultist. Shallow but proactive.
Outward expression of inner emotions. Super effective from a GMing standpoint, since I can comfortably hold an NPC at arm’s length and have them be true to their emotions. Really produces some neat emergent play, especially paired with plan-making, which is next. This is a go-to for freeforms as well: just pick an emotion (or two) and ride it out. Deeper but still proactive, I think.
Making plans and pursuing them to the best of your abilities. A very common, I think, strategy for new players, trad players, and folks who maybe aren’t comfortable being “creative.” This is also my fall-back when I’m GMing: my castle guard, whom I just met 15 seconds ago, has a plan to be good at his job. Then I’ll layer some play-acting on that. Feels like it’s kind of in the middle.
Playing a constrained version of yourself. To be honest, this is me when I sit down for most indiegames at conventions. Usually it’s just too much work to come up with a whole new personality and then filter my decisions through it. Not in four hours. Reactive by definition.
Right Tool For The Job
So the trick to this conversation is to not fall into the trap of thinking that proactive or reactive characterization is “better.” I do think some are better suited to some games than others. I know for me, it totally depends on what I’m gonna play. I’ve sat at both ends of this spectrum and had a very good (and a very bad!) time.
A game without any kind of editorial focus and an unconstrained setting? Mostly, I just cook up someone I can tolerate for a while. So like…Dungeons & Dragons is, compared to many indiegames, a pretty editorially neutral ruleset. There are stats intended to measure a hero’s most important metrics, feats, maybe skills now? You know, trad RPGs. I’d have to say they provide quite a lot of space for players to proactively assert a personality.
On the other end you’ve got many indie games that have such a tight editorial focus that it’s maybe harder to proactively create a personality. OTOH is it also easier to allow a personality to reactively emerge? Probably depends on the type of editorial focus we’re talking about.
I’m contemplating a 3-shot of The Clay That Woke here shortly, so I’m trying to imagine what play feels like. There are barely any rules at all. Rather, the minotaurs accrete tokens in their pool that they can throw into draws as the game proceeds. But Silence, their social code, is what the game is about. And I’m thinking you could bring pretty much any characterization to the table, throw it against Silence, and see what happens. Probably your characterization adapts to the pool of tokens you’ve collected. I could easily just play myself, at least in the beginning.
But, say, Apocalypse World? Very, very tightly focused. You get some outward choices when you create your character — your face and eyes and body — but I have found it’s a pretty hard game to proactively characterize in. I can go in wanting to play a charming Brainer but gosh that violation glove is gonna go to waste if I really am insisting on being a “good guy.” Everything about the game encourages a fairly narrow range of effective characterization: by way of another example, Gunluggers just straight up suck at talking sense into people, so any effort into being a warrior-poet Gunlugger might maybe be frustrating. Not to say that frustration isn’t a worthy experience, or diegetic effectivness is the most important thing.
I know I tend to be very reactive in my characterization in most PbtA games. I didn’t know I was going to play a moody emo Cure-listening dragon in Epyllion until my playbook pushed me there, for example. I think every Godi in Sagas of the Icelanders is going to have a cunning, scheming streak in him.
I’ll say that, yeah, sometimes I personally find it easier to let the game shape my character. I don’t have a lot of ownership, especially at a convention game, and I’d rather just settle on it as fast as possible. I’m happy to play to find out what happens, not only in the plot but in the character itself.
But at home in our campaign games, I’m sure there have been struggles with some of my players to really feel like they own their characters, especially when we play games where it’s harder to impress their own character creations against the game’s procedures. There maybe be something, you know, to these decade-long D&D games we hear about: if an editorially (more) neutral system gives players more room to characterize, and characterization is valuable to these players, well, then they’ve found the right match.
This has been an absurdly difficult post to write because it touches on so many different things. There are old conversations like stance and agenda that are useful but not directly relevant. Further questions for future posts:
* What are the qualities of games that promote either proactive or reactive characterization?
* Is playing “yourself” and seeing how a system shapes your decisions, or embodying a new personality, better for engagement? Like, what might be a very interesting and difficult decision for me might not be that hard at all for a different personality. And vice-versa.
* Immersion, good old immersion. I’m sure it plays into characterization an awful lot, but I feel like it’s a perpendicular discussion.
* Should we really be criticizing “but that’s what my character would do!” if that player is trying to be true to their creation? I know this comes up relative to very disruptive players who use it as an excuse to be terrible people, but I think there’s a more principled part of that conversation as well.