Tabletop RPG advice: How do you learn to role-play a character well?
July 27, 2013 1:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to join a tabletop RPG group (Shadowrun) for the first time since high school. I'm not *that* concerned about the game mechanics – I'm usually pretty good at learning rules – but I was never particularly good at the roleplaying aspects of RPGs. Any advice for starting out, particularly in terms of setting up an interesting character to roleplay and really getting comfortable playing him/her? The other members of the group are pretty experienced, and have been playing together for nearly a year. In observing them, I noticed that they do a really good job with the roleplaying aspects, and I'd like to be able to keep up with them!
posted by sdis to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (23 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
This is something where my friends don't really take it that seriously, but this part of what I really enjoy about it. I think the easiest way to do it simply is to figure out some background information about your character--class and cultural upbringing especially--and then pick a few simple-to-play quirks to go with it.

I don't know Shadowrun at all, but I had a D&D character who was an upper-class runaway who had still not gotten used to the idea that her new life was going to involve large quantities of mud/muck/ooze-gelatinous-and-otherwise, etc. It was never so bad that she wasn't going to participate in the night's adventure--just bad enough to give lots of opportunities to complain. At length. And occasionally insist on being carried places. (You'll know your group best to know how far you can push comic relief stuff.)

Shadowrun's set in something like the real world, right? And you're a language geek, to judge from your profile. Maybe play with that. The easiest ones are people who're into something like what you are. Maybe somebody from a foreign country where you can swear really creatively when bad things happen. If you're good at accents, even better, that seems to go over really well when I've played.

Obviously you can get way more complicated than that, but I think to start with, it's good to pick something you know and play the hell out of it, rather than trying to be the most nuanced character in the game. But especially when you've got a skill set like that, hey, use it.
posted by Sequence at 1:45 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Take some time to look at your equipment and your stats. Think about why you are strong and smart, but why you are as clumsy as a fool. Think of anecdotes of why this would be the case. Why does your character use a polearm insteaed of a sword? Is there a reason you have an eyepatch over your left eye? What are your opinions on elf and dwarf cohabitation? Half ogres - should they be allowed to sleep within city limits? Think about the other players. Think about what makes them tick. Think about whether that would appeal to someone that had been through your experiences. Are you a braggart? Are you a bookworm? Are you in it for just yourself? Sure you picked a priest, but what if you're lying to everyone about which god you pray to and in your spare time you are sacrificing a metric ton of woodland animals...
posted by Nanukthedog at 1:46 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The tabletop characters I have enjoyed seeing played have some form of inner tension that shades the decisions of the group. See if you can come up with an aspect of your character that creates a bit of tension. Not so much that it hampers the progress of the game, though.

The character I invented that I enjoyed playing the most was a real white-knight, holy paladin type who was traveling with a bunch of utter miscreants. She was forced to question herself constantly, and I was forced to make the decision to keep playing her with type, or to allow her to change and grow.
posted by Deodand at 2:00 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am a former D&D and Shadowrun player. It would nice to still do it, but I just cannot make the time anymore.

Shadowrun characters are mostly the dregs of society and can be great fun to play. My favorite Shadowrun character of mine was a physical adept who was a washed-up action movie star. I had quite a lot of fun playing him. I wrote a fairly elaborate back story for him, and that really helped to get into the character. So, I recommend making your own character and not just having the GM hand you a sheet when you walk in the door.

I think the most important aspect is to know your character and be able to pretend. If you don't like pretending, you are not going to have a very good time playing. I do not think you need to spend time learning the rules because that is the GM's job. He will tell you how many dice to roll ad what numbers you need to hit. However, you mind learn some general things about the Shadowrun universe and this will help you create your character and his backstory.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:14 PM on July 27, 2013

My husband plays RPGs--he's in, I believe, 3 games at the moment, although 2 of them only meet once every 2 or 3 months--and the play style of his GMs plus his general obsessiveness over things of this sort means that he always spends a lot of time creating characters. (Heck, at the moment I"m writing this, he's across town at the first session of his new game, and it's scheduled just to be for creating characters, even though he's been moaning about it and thinking on it and trying out different ideas for two weeks now!)

At any rate, what this means is that the GM for this particular game really, really likes characters whose backgrounds and personalities have a lot of what he calls hooks--things he can grab on to and use in his plots. Stuff like possible ways for the character to be blackmailed, or obligations they can be forced to fulfill, people in their past who can show up at just the wrong time, inheritance issues, annoying relatives, personality traits or curses or ethical/magical compulsions that will force them to take on a story burden, connections with other player and NPC characters in the game, secret backgrounds that the other player characters don't know that will come into play later, hidden spies, etc.

This GM, however, loves doing large, plotty campaigns that spiral out into story complexity. Yours may not. Talk to your GM and find out if they like this sort of way to create a character, or if they're better with simpler characters that they can slot into their plans for the game with ease.
posted by telophase at 2:22 PM on July 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

And after posting: what Deodand said about characters with room to grow really works for Mr Telophase's GM's plotting style.
posted by telophase at 2:24 PM on July 27, 2013

Sometimes I model a character's personality on a character from a tv show I like. For example, at the beginning of my last Shadowrun campaign I was watching a lot of Big Love. I enjoyed the character of Nicolette and I created a backstory for my character where she had escaped a cult but still had family members who chose to remain.
posted by bq at 4:10 PM on July 27, 2013

Came in to say exactly what Hogshead did. That article is your answer.
posted by meinvt at 6:32 PM on July 27, 2013

Here's Rebent's #1 Rule for Character Creation: don't make a character that holds back. Don't make a character that is shy. Don't make a character that is dark and mysterious. Don't make a character that is moody and quiet.

Make a character that does stuff, and talks. a lot. I've seen too many interesting players bite their tongues when they want to do something because "my character is a loner and wouldn't talk to them."
posted by rebent at 6:34 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I had my players sit down and write the folks in their city. I had them write how they knew them, and I had them write a little bit of a back story for the folks. Who were their informants, who were the fences, who were the upstanding citizens they would roll for some coin... Then I made a few edits, and a few notes on why they let the characters do what they did (some of them were playing the fools and rooking the characters in other ways). What that did is it gave the characters the opportunity to write in their organic story so they felt like they had a starting point for roleplaying opportunities. They used to submit like 2 or 3 between sessions, and I just built a whole world with them - as necessary I'd expand and extrapolate. Also, they got creative about creating their own conflicts.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:46 PM on July 27, 2013

Don't fall into "my guy" syndrome. Don't say, "My guy runs over to the wounded kid," say "I run over to the wounded kid." Live in your character.

Subtly and nuance are also great, but it's perfectly okay to have a really simplistic, formulaic code of conduct for your character, even if that code is "Save my own skin first," or "Anything for a buck." If you pursue them faithfully, simple rules can lead to rich behavior. (I had a character whose priorities were completely rigid: family, Queen, country, friendship, in exactly that order. The very inflexibility of this code, apparently, was what befuddled the GM, who claimed he could never predict what my character was going to do—'cause my character would do some really nutso stuff for Queen and country.) This makes for much more interesting play than someone who doesn't live by any hard and fast rules and who thus could, in theory, wimp out in any given situation. Which brings us to...

Don't be afraid to make mistakes and try risky things. It sucks when your character gets hurt or dies, but it sucks worse to just be along for the ride, never take any risks, never try anything cool. Most RPGs make it pretty darn hard to kill a PC, and unless your GM's a jerk, you'll probably get adequate warning if you're about to do something particularly suicidal because you don't understand the game mechanics. And, honestly, game mechanics or no, you can talk the GM into letting you get away with a quite a lot by looking them in the eye as you coolly and calmly describe whatever crazy-butt maneuver you're planning to pull.
posted by BrashTech at 7:04 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

So one of the rules for writing is, basically, figure out what everyone in a scene wants and is trying to get. Like The Bad Guy is trying to get The Jeweled Artifact and the Good Guy is trying to stop The Bad Guy from getting The Jeweled Artifact, so you know what each of them is doing.

To pull from one of my campaigns, my guy was basically a wizard who was all about collecting his own power and finding different spells and that informed my actions in a scene. So every time we'd go into a town, he'd go wandering around looking for the local magic shops and libraries for new spells or rare things he didn't have yet. Even in a combat scene, he'd be eyeballing the powerful magic users and would go for them first/as soon as the opportunity arose, not so much because it made tactical sense, but because if he could kill them and knock them out, he could rummage through their spellbook and belongings for interesting doodads. His quest for more power and spells could inform every scene.

Another thing you might do is base your character on a character from something else. Not necessarily a carbon copy, but if you're playing the James T. Kirk archetype, you'd go around punching bad guys and trying to seduce strange alien women. Might be a little easier to get into character if you go "What would Hannibal from The A-Team do?" rather than "What would Galstaff, Sorcerer of Light do?"
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:31 PM on July 27, 2013

I've never played a truly, truly RP heavy tabletop campaign. But I've played DnD 4e with what I'd consider "medium" roleplaying.

I definitely agree with BrashTech a couple comments upstream. Start off saying "I run over to the wounded kid." More specifically, get into the mindset of seeing the world through your character's eyes. Try not to ask the GM for meta-information that your character wouldn't have access to.

I also agree with Ghostride The Whip's suggestion of basing your character on another character.

My first DnD campaign I played an elvish ranger that I based on Legolas from LotR, but with slightly looser morals. Later it was easier to play a cleric that I made up entirely.

Maybe I'm not a good roleplayer, but I tend to play characters by making the same decisions that I would do (that is, Glimmerleaf the Wizard tends to make the same decisions that Daniel the Software Engineer makes). I find this perfectly acceptable, and no one has ever called me out on it or even mentioned it, so I think it works for me.
posted by Precision at 7:43 PM on July 27, 2013

Tina Fey's Rules of Improvisation is great for applying to roleplaying, like the article linked above.

I am in two RPG groups that are roleplay heavy. One is consistently great fun, and one has become super difficult to work with, even though all the players are experienced and like getting into their character. It has just been really hard for my characters to get traction and for the past 8-10 sessions I have been gritting my teeth. Considering dropping the second group, and I thought there wasn't a group that was too into roleplay for me. Ha! Here are the tips I have to avoid a situation like my second group:

- Accept your character death ahead of time. Don't cause a lot of undue fuss about getting your character in harm's way, which will cause the party to work to avoid "dangerous" plot hooks (which we all know are the funnest ones). An "I say, 'Oh no, we're going to die!'" is fine, a "Guys, we can't do X because my character isn't combat oriented and will die," is not. So you have to remake your character. Big deal. Have another concept on the back burner.

- Embrace character conflict as a path to character growth. If your character and another character disagree, do not shun that character. Do not take it personally. Play it out. Relish the conflict. Let your character look dumb/lose the argument now and then. Have a character arc in mind - maybe your character starts out as a warmonger and becomes more pacifistic as he/she bumps heads with the others. Let the conflict with others guide you and do not stay static.

- Look for ways to involve others. A good party has characters with strengths and weaknesses that compliment each other, and also acknowledge who can do this or that. Don't try to do everything yourself (gm presents you with a skill-using opportunity and you jump on it regardless) - bond with another character by offering up opportunities for them to use their strengths for the overall party benefit. Don't be a glory hog, basically. The other side of this is: actively volunteer your character for stuff you know they're good at - don't just wait to be asked if you can pick a lock.

- Don't stray into wankery territory with the RP. It's fun to get detailed with RP but treat it like you're reading a book - even with the main character you don't want to read about what the character has for lunch every. single. day. Maybe you mention he really likes roast beef once, just for character color. If you're bogging down the plot movement with unnecessary personal side detours to get roast beef sandwiches ... well, as a fellow player I start to tune you out as you end up sounding like the parental figures of Peanuts. Choose things to spotlight that highlight a fresh aspect of your character and/or further the plot (personal or party related). Also, please do not make all the other players sit there while you have a 1-2 hour rambling personal conversation with an NPC. Cut to the chase of what you want and git 'er done.

- For general character creation, sometimes it's good to think of a few keywords for your character's personality and have them in front of you (printed in bold, on a neon post it note, whatever) to help you "get out of your head" and avoid slowly shifting to your natural personality.

- Show, don't tell - just like in writing - is huge. Do as much possible through actual conversation and other in-character interaction. Don't break out and say, "My character has X flaw and so that's why she blah blah blah." Nobody cares what is on the piece of paper. Had a character who I built to be a great fighter, but every time she got into combat, I rolled lousy, or the NPC rolled fantastic. She took severe injuries. She decided she wasn't good at combat, even though her stats were the same as the "swordmaster" character and I had to take the character in a completely different direction.

- The biggest thing I've found with new roleplayers is they tend to treat roleplaying like a ticket to do whatever crazy thing that pops in their head with no consequences. Shoot the cop for pulling them over for a busted tail light. Muck with the engine on the alien ship out of "curiosity" without a thought for radiation poisoning. Decide the velociraptor would make a nice riding beast and try to tame him as a combat action (ignoring the party member who is getting bitten). A player character is not a ticket to act on straight out crazy, implausible actions your id comes up with. If your GM is good he/she will smack you with consequences, possibly character death. Some aren't. It is just no fun playing with Rangor the Crazy and Untamable.

That's what I've got. Good luck! And if you're not having fun, listen to yourself. Try a fresh character - sometimes the first one doesn't gel for whatever reason.
posted by griselda at 8:11 PM on July 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I find that some characters are really easy and fun to roleplay, and some are just miserable. For example:

Whoever you play with should be able to be 'part of the team'.
1. 'dark and mysterious', 'loner', 'quiet' characters kind of are boring to play and to play with
2. 'shy' or 'scaredy' characters (who don't have a good reason to Go Ahead Anyway) are really kind of miserable to play with or GM for

But it's Ok if you have some conflicts, or get the party into trouble sometimes. If your character doesn't have any reason to know that he's walking in to a trap, but you as player recognize the signs, don't "suddenly change your mind" and decide to go home instead. Let stuff happen! Getting captured or getting into trouble can advance the plot.
posted by Lady Li at 9:10 PM on July 27, 2013

Play Unsafe is a fantastic (if ugly) book about bringing improvisational skills to RPG play. Here's a taste:
"Do the obvious thing, the thing that obviously happens next in the story, the thing you think that everyone else expects. Paradoxically, the obvious thing may, to everyone else, seem original and brilliant."
posted by Sauce Trough at 10:06 PM on July 27, 2013

It can be a lot of fun to play someone who is basically you, with one major aspect tweaked. Like, if you're a socially retiring, techy, laid-back kinda person, play someone who is techy and laid back but socially fearless. Especially when you're just starting out with getting deeper into character, it can help to have an easy, single-focus switch to flip. That way, you can always be asking yourself a simple question to further your roleplay. With my example, that might be "what would a socially fearless person do in this situation?"

It can also help to play a system where character traits come front and center. I'm thinking of things like Risus, Fate or my own Blade & Crown where there are mechanical incentives to constantly be pulling your character's personality into the game. There are many more games that do this -- let me know if you'd like recommendations. And it's entirely possible to bolt these kinds of subsystems onto games that don't already have them.

Even if you don't have a system with that kind of mechanical incentive, in line with what Lady Li said, try to come up with a character who has some kind of abiding, deep reason to go adventuring and get into dangerous situations, then think about why that reason exists, and constantly ask yourself how that reason would be motivating your character in a given situation. Like, maybe you're just deeply curious. Why? Because you're actually an alien in disguise, trying to experience everything there is to experience about life as a human; or your parents told you there was nothing interesting in the world until a mysterious stranger found you on the moisture farm one day; or you don't know why you're curious, which just makes you even more curious! And so if there's a choice between a pile of gold or a mysterious locked door, you'll always go for the locked door.

It can also be good to make sure everyone is clear that good roleplay will be rewarded, then to follow up with that. Like, agree that a really good bit of roleplaying will earn extra Karma at the end of the session, or even immediately. It can be good to get positive feedback when you're doing it right.
posted by jiawen at 10:33 PM on July 27, 2013

I'm not a prolific tabletop gamer or anything. But I've gamed a little, and I really like the RP aspect of it.

I did drama in HS and to be honest, acting skills helped me a lot to get into it. And yeah, there's a real risk of just being 'the reckless guy' as griselda describes. Some veteran players still play like this. It's really not as cute/funny as they think it is.

The other thing I feel helps is fleshing out your character. What are their motivations? What drives them? What's their upbringing? History? What makes them that way? What makes them unique? Get as detailed as possible. And if they were in x situation, what would they do? Not what you would do, but what would THEY do?

It feels silly, but, pretending to be the character at home might help make you more comfortable before you go. Trying their mannerisms. Their reactions, their tone of voice. Or if you go out, occasionally think about your character in a similar setting. How would they deal with a snarky person, or what would they say to someone nice?

Essentially, I just really pretend to be them, and not myself, and I try to make each decision reflect them. I also like to make each character vastly different, even if it's totally a trope-tastic character, it's still fun to role play for me.
posted by Dimes at 10:38 PM on July 27, 2013

Back when I played Shadowrun, I absolutely loved filling in all sorts of character questionnaires. Even if you don't like writing yourself a long backstory, answering questions will get you thinking about your character. And the more time you spend thinking like your character, the easier it becomes to play them rather than just roll dice and narrate actions.

Shadowrun-specific ones like this and this are extra helpful, because they delve into aspects of the character's life in that world. But even general lists of questions to ask your character can come in really handy - here's a short 27 question survey, and a more impressive 100 questions.

Working through a few of these made me feel like I'd developed a person, and not just a character with fighting stats and a few standard quirks. It's fascinating what can spring from, for example, knowing what your character gets up to in their non-running time and exactly where they come from. Coming up with answers outside of gaming time also helps if you have a hard time coming up in-character responses on the fly during your session - the more you develop your character, the easier that will become, because you'll have a better feeling for what they like doing, what they fear, and what really motivates them in life.
posted by harujion at 3:32 AM on July 28, 2013

Early on, it seems particularly helpful to play up a particular character trait or motivation. Like one of the posters above, our RP group had a lawful/good paladin, who was self-righteous and always wanted to do The Right Thing. He was fairly easy to play because he usually had A Goal and was going about trying to accomplish it. I, meanwhile, was playing a little halfling thief who was self-interested across the board. It made for a nice tension, because Halfling would go along with Paladin so long as it was good for Halfling, and where their interests diverged the group had to deal with it, usually by giving Halfling an incentive or convincing Paladin the Good Path was somewhere else. Things tend to fall into place if you determine what your characters main goals are and work backwards from there; just be sure the goal isn't "adventuring" or something boring. Some suggestions:

Getting Rich
Having Sex
Meeting The Love of My Life
Avenging Someone's Death (think Inigo Montoya; he had a strong character with only one goal)
Honoring My God
Becoming a Strong Fighter
Purging the World of Liars

Obviously your character can have more than one motivation, but try to avoid having too many; if you have one motivation that is taking precedence over all others, it can go a long way to helping you make decisions and giving your character agency.
posted by craven_morhead at 4:24 PM on July 28, 2013

How to Play Roleplaying Games (zip file)

Hogshead's 11 ways link above is good, too.

Make sure you talk to the GM about your character concept and how your character will fit into the group -- why will they accept you as one of their own? Will you have some critical skill or knowledge that leads them to you? Why will you join them? As described above, these are the hooks that'll facilitate interesting role-playing.

Don't be afraid to start out knowing only a few things about your character -- you don't need a detailed history, or to anticipate how the character would respond to everything. Have some things in mind; discover more later. (How much of this is appropriate will depend upon the group's style and the GM's thoughts on you adding details to your backstory in situ.)

Don't worry about getting everything right. It's just one character. He or she might retire or make a heroic sacrifice or maybe even die a stupid death because a thug got in a lucky shot. Take risks in your character's actions and interpersonal relations.

Speaking of which...

Play Unsafe is a fantastic (if ugly) book about bringing improvisational skills to RPG play

Play Unsafe makes no secret of its debt to Keith Johnstone's Impro and I've got to say, if you were to read only one of the two, make it Impro.

One of the things they both say that seems counter-intuitive: do the obvious thing. If you stress about coming up with something you think is clever, you'll probably be hesitating (which kills momentum and immersion), and what you come up with will often seem forced and contrived. The obvious thing won't seem forced and will often be surprising to others, because one person's obvious isn't another's.

(And if you're really dedicated, take a beginning improv class.)
posted by Zed at 10:42 AM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been championing Impro as a canon work for RPG designers and players for close on two decades. It is the best book on games design that never mentions game design.
posted by Hogshead at 9:45 AM on July 30, 2013

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