The fine art of D&D roleplay
January 9, 2021 7:33 AM   Subscribe

I want to build a D&D character that is actually fun to play. Tips?

Somewhat reluctant D&D player here, and the roleplaying piece especially doesn't come easily to me as someone who's a little socially anxious, not as steeped in fantasy media as the rest of my group, and has always been a terrible actor.

I tend to play kind-of-quiet, slightly sardonic characters because-- surprise!-- I am kind of quiet and sardonic irl. Those characters have gotten really boring to play.

I'd like to shake things up. What are your tips for making a D&D character that gets me out of my comfort zone and is actually fun to roleplay? How do you go about building a character that has enough traits for you to build that into your roleplaying and then how do you go about roleplaying them well?
posted by geegollygosh to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
It's a verbal game, so start with the voice, trying out different vocal personas. Build your character from there, working on the relationship between the voice and the choices you make in terms of constructing your character (class, attributes, etc). Do both what amuses you and what you feel comfortable inhabiting.
posted by einekleine at 7:57 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Instead of thinking about roleplaying as a kind of acting (which it can be, of course), try thinking about it as writing a story about your character, where the character is acting on their desires & reacting to circumstances. It is more than OK to have distance between yourself & your character.

So what kind of characters do you like to watch or read about? They can even be historical figures if you are more into non-fiction. Think of an interesting personality and try building a character off of that.
posted by muddgirl at 8:01 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

(It's been decades for me.)

It feels like a generic barbarian or paladin is going to have a chance to jump in, hack and slash, and chew the scenery "Have at you, foul beast!", compared to classes that are more likely to stand back, toss/cast stuff, analyze and snark.

So use one of those two as a base, and then layer on traits and a backstory until you've pushed and pulled the character into something you can use?

posted by sebastienbailard at 8:06 AM on January 9

If you’re normally quiet and sardonic, why not try a loud and sincere character? Just start there and see what happens.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:09 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]

I've found the most fun characters I've played are ones where I've collaborated with someone else - so the time me and a friend were both scheming ratfolk, who got bonuses for flanking with each other. Having that pre-built relationship helps you define more how you react to other characters, and also I find you end up being inspired to go different places with it when another person is involved. Right now I'm one half of a married pair of giant, ancient tortles and we can really bounce off one another when role-playing.
posted by stillnocturnal at 8:13 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Instead of thinking of this as an acting problem, try to design a character who will make surprising choices that hook into the story. This usually involves giving your character one or two things to care about strongly, and letting them take risks based on the things they care about.

Here are some ways to do this in a classic D&D setting:
  • Have them collect something (books, gems, herbs). This can fit into a bigger persona story about something they want to create or build, but the collection gives your character a reason to explore and a new way to meet NPCs.
  • Make them afraid of something relatively common, such as fire or tavern bartenders. Plan ways they can protect themselves from the thing they fear. Maybe they need to invest in a horse and cart so they can sleep in the back of the cart, instead of constantly bargaining with tavernkeepers for rooms? Now do they need a spell to protect the horse while they're exploring dungeons?
  • Make them enthusiastic about something or someone frequently found in dungeons. Maybe they've always wanted to study mimic camouflage, or are curious about what rat-on-a-stick actually tastes like. Maybe a kobold from the mines back home gave them a letter to deliver.

posted by yarntheory at 8:19 AM on January 9 [7 favorites]

I have a pretty tried-but-true way to make D&D characters:

1. I like to start with a real profession, like chef, fisherman, or doctor. Then, I like to imagine what kind of personality I want them to have. Write down a short story of them talking to someone else.

2. Then, I give them a catchphrase. I've found a catchphrase to be incredibly good. Once, I played a chef character and she was loud and wanted to fight all the time. Her catchphrase (/battlecry) was "we're eating (xx) tonight!". One of my characters has a catchphrase "protocol says" because he's a timid detective. You don't have to use it in sessions but it should be in the mood of the personality of the character that you want.

3. Last, I give them a class that doesn't fit their background. I find that being a priest that's a cleric is boring, but being a priest that's also an assassin (rogue) is a bit more surprising/interesting.


1. So, using this method, it's pretty easy to roll up an interesting character to play. I asked google to give me a random number between 1 and 12000 on this list: (actually this list, but the webpage is big: 8728) SALES ENGINEER, MINING-AND-OIL-WELL EQUIPMENT AND SERVICES

2. Okay, I want my sales engineer to be one of those talkative-but-nervous types.

Sales Engineer: Hey goblin, uh, how bout that weather?
goblin: What are you doing in my layer?
Sales engineer: oh, i'm here on business. Did you know there could be lots of oil and minerals here?
goblen: Get outta here before I stab you
Sales engineer: Oh No! Maybe we could talk about the weather some instead?

That "maybe we could talk about the weather instead" is kind of his catchphrase. It might develop over time.

3. Now, in D&D a sales engineer would probably be either a wizard or a bard, (intelligence or charisma), so I would choose something OTHER than that for contrast. Maybe a cleric, but instead of talking to a god, he uses rare minerals to heal people and cause crazy happenings (still rules as written, but a nice flavor).

Last, a name and race. This is hard but ultimately unimportant. I usually try for one-syllable names because that's my preference, but it's up to you.

Hope this method helps!
posted by bbqturtle at 8:33 AM on January 9 [15 favorites]

One thing I'd say is that you don't need to pull from fantasy tropes at all. The characters I've had the most fun playing have started from a character or person that I'd love to have at a dinner party (my two all-time favorites started with thinking about Dr. Ruth and Adam Savage from Mythbusters, respectively). I pull one or two aspects of that person that could come up in typical D&D scenarios, try to pick a race and class that goes with the personality, and jump in with that. Really just one or two characteristics. In the examples I just gave, both those characters evolved into something much richer than "healing magic comes with frank sexual health advice" and "never met an explosion they didn't like," respectively, but the character decisions all grew out of those two pretty silly foundations. Since it sounds like you're trying to have a different experience, I'd pick something that they're enthusiastic about, instead of holding things at a bit of a remove.

I am not very clever in an extemporaneous way, so I actually write down some words/phrases/songs that are consistent with those character aspects so that I have a reference if I feel a little flat-footed.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:34 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]

Here's a collection of unusual character concepts with tons of thoughts about each. On the one hand, trying to work with someone else's concept could be the kind of constraint that generates inventiveness in what you do with it. Or, on the other hand, the write-ups sort of show a thought process that might inspire you in some other way.
posted by Wobbuffet at 10:12 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I'm trying to think of a universal example but I don't know your interests. So take this example and apply it to something you do watch: take the Great British Baking Show/Bake off. Lots of interesting characters in situations with stakes. Instead of taking the judges or hosts, though, pick your favorite contestant. They have a pretty obvious goal to work towards, and many chances to show what they do in adversity. So you can build a character around them - are they showy and overambitious? Do they panic quickly but pull it off in the end? Are they one of the bakers who rushes over to someone else who is behind? Do they try to cover their mistakes with frosting or remake something three times until it's just right?
posted by muddgirl at 10:17 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

I know a minister who plays D&D and he seems to use it as a vehicle for the kind of stuff he can't/doesn't do in real life. His characters are impulsive, violent and doublecrossing; he has a lot of fun with it.

What I'm saying is maybe it's fun to use it as a way of harmlessly acting out a totally foreign-to-you set of motivations and habits, whatever those might be.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:18 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

Know your character. Spend some time sitting down & writing a backstory. Understand the events that led them to being the class they are, what was it like growing up the race they are? Even if it's just bullet points. Family, childhood, education, how do they know the other characters? What is motivating them to go on this adventure? etc. The more you know them well, the more you'll know how they will react in a certain situation, which makes role play so much easier. You don't have to over think it at the table because you've done the early thinking. Know why your character has the characteristics they do, you know that section of the character sheet everyone rolls then forgets about, why is that their goal, their flaw, what exactly does they were a hermit mean, don't just take backgrounds for the stats, think about what they mean to the characters story.

If you know the character it is so much easier to think & react like they would. At least in my experience.

Also advice I give newer players if you're self conscious about roleplaying, try doing it in the third person that can help distance yourself a little and make it feel more like story telling than acting. It also solves the I need a gimicky voice actor type accent problem.
posted by wwax at 10:26 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

If you are naturally quiet, and your characters reflect that, the DM and the other players may be ignoring you unintentionally. Some of this may be the DM and the campaign you are going through. The other players may be getting their roleplaying in by being pushy. When a dungeon is pure hack and slash and can be dealt with by just repeating, 'attack the monster and search for traps and treasure', there is not much scope for roleplay. Determined players can do just that by bouncing off each other. They can bicker over treasure, go into a traumatic flashback, have a lovers quarrel, determinedly role play being dense and missing the obvious, or suddenly have a religious conviction that they MUST return to town to atone for a failed religious duty.

But if you are naturally quiet and anxious it is very hard to see where you could find interesting scope for role play and character development. The DM and other players may be assuming you're not role playing because you don't want to and not because you can't see a way to do so. I'd start by having a few words with the other players about this, making a request that they find a role to assign you that is not that of npc hired henchman. The DM could have you mistaken for the missing heir that your party is looking for and fling you into take a leadership position. One of the other players could play the role of being your protegé, or your rival, or someone romantically interested in you. The DM could makes you spokes person for the party so you have to negotiate with the gnolls at the bridge. There are a lot of ways they could help draw you out and give you reasons to branch out and make additional increasingly more sardonic statements.

But if your group does not have an easy opening for drawing you and your characters in, you need to pick up your character record sheet and look at that.

First, what are your non-average traits? Let's say your dex is sadly wanting, and your str is really badly out of line for the bard you play but entirely suitable for a half orc, half ogre character. This leads to having two things can be used to build events; One is that your character can use their strength and one is that your character can be hampered by their low dex. In the next scene try to figure out something you can do that would involve dex and end up being done badly. Anything from making your bed sloppily, or dropping an object another character tries to hand you, to flipping half the pancakes into the fire when assigned duty as the party member who gets to make breakfast. You want to roll play ham handedness in those circumstances where you aren't rolling actually against your dex and where the stakes are low. Do the same thing with your highest attribute. Pack the chests so they are too heavy for the halfling to put in the cart, or look at something a weaker member of the party is doing that would be slowed down or made difficult by their low strength and assist them on it.

Look at your backstory and find a way to bring that in. Even if your back story is no more interesting than "child of humble farming parents" you develop a sudden expertise and interest in the farming of turnips. If you have no back story, start to add one. Come up with an influence from your back story that you can make references to. That humble farming family may have had a nervous grandmother who didn't like draughts, and your character may end up automatically end up shutting doors due to that early conditioning. That humble farming family may have farmed on the banks of a river... just like this one and now you remember trout fishing as a girl and want to throw your hook in the water again and delay to look in the shadows under the trees for trout, and when you know you will be going by that river again, announce a side quest to find rod and line in the village before you set out.

Even if your DM does not pick up on and run with any of the things you do and continues to throw a hack'n'slash campaign at you, it is good to keep doing them to keep it interesting for yourself. The answer to "What is everyone doing?" is an opportunity. Glaring at the cleric, removing gravel from my left boot, sitting on the loot chest while we rest, composing an ode, waxing the bowstrings, sitting right beside whoever is carrying the healing potions because you are dogging their footsteps in hopes of being first to get a potion after the next fight, or watching the birds... These are all better replies than "resting on the trail" If your DM then has to get everyone to tell her where you are all standing, the players are not being helpful or vivid in their descriptions.

Pick one of the other characters and assign a connection. You could admire the halfling, be baffled by the fighter, and determined to support the paladin in their piety. Suggest that the halfling do tasks - she can check for traps, negotiate with bridge gnolls and be the one to make the decisions if you admire her. You can speak up and suggest she be the one. "Better let Ruddikin talk to them, She'll negotiate a better deal," is role play and supports the player running that halfling. Suggesting that the explorers break early so that the paladin can say her prayers is the same. Asking the Halfling to explain the fighter to you is triangulation, and provides opportunities for two of the characters.

If you look at your character record sheet you can try and make a list of emotions your character might feel based on your idea of their character. Sardonic? Okay, cynicism, mistrust, resignation, annoyance, introspection, sulking can all be assigned a number on a D6. Do your own random roles. Just as your party is coming up the side of the mountain on their way to the mouth of the came you roll a 5. How can you, at that moment, role play some introspection? "The caves could go on forever in there...." or "What makes us different from the goblins?. We're all just trying to get by..." or "My mother never wanted me to be an adventurer but this is my calling!" Cynicism? "Before we go in there, would you guys like to discuss our formation or are we just going to wing it again and get clobbered?" Sulking? "Thank you, no, I'm NOT standing behind the halfling this time." Mistrust? "Does our map look like anything has been scraped off the parchment?" "Did you pack the arrows?" - and then check they did even though the quartermaster informs you that yes, they have four dozen arrows for each of the archers.

Change your character as the campaign goes on. After a couple of sessions decided your char has warmed up to the rest of the party and drop sulking from your emotion die rolls and substitute supportive. If the halfling role plays explaining the fighter to you well, switch from playing bewilderment around the fighter, to playing confidence in them. No, you won't stand behind the halfling, but you do like to stand behind the fighter when going into combat. And when he goes down, you're the first one beside him offering a healing potion. While you yourself are not a character class that uses shields effectively, you can still grab his shield and hold it up to deflect in coming missiles from where he is writhing on the floor.

Another thing you can do is look at your die roles. Let's say your roll dead average - not much you can do about that. But when you fail a throw of defense against poison, don't just stand there, gag, stagger, cough and clutch your throat while you wait for the DM to tell you if you are about to drop to the flagstones as if pole axed, or if you will merely be a bit queasy for ten minutes. And if you are not flat out dead, role play the results of that poisoning. Even an unconscious person can be described as twitching, and the slightly off player gets to gag and inquire if the other players think the air in the next room might be stagnant and at least a little bit foul.

Maybe your die roll is a solid sixteen. Then square your shoulders and approach that situation boldly. Maybe your die roll is a dubious nine. Batter away with visible frustration.

You mentioned that your character is quiet. This means that you can describe what you do more, and tell what you say less. It doesn't mean that when your character isn't saying anything nothing is going on. During a conversation a silent character can frown and shake their head, take a half step away and scan the horizon, nod and put on an expression of fierce determination, look from speaker to speaker anxiously, or laugh silently.

Every scene is an opportunity. D and D is a system of rules that helps you narrow down the choices. Narrowing down the choices helps when the imagination doesn't bubble up and send you hurtling into the story. With D & D you know which weapons you are carrying and which weapons you are not. Use rules the same way to help support your own character development. If you don't know what weapon to use, you check what your character record sheet tells you you are carrying, and what your stats are to pick which one. If you don't know what you should do to create a vibrant character, look at your character record sheet and find cues there. Height? Okay, if you are tall what does that imply? You're a more visible target and you can see more things. Remind the DM. "I'm tall, what do I see?" Your armour includes metal elbow cops? Knock on the door with them when you need to knock loudly. Your character record sheet isn't just a reference tool, but a good source of inspiration.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:51 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]

You don't need to be a good actor to play D&D! That's way too much pressure to put on yourself. It's okay to describe what you're doing instead of acting it out, and to use your own voice when your character speaks. You can add more acting if you want but it's not a requirement. You should find the level of acting that's comfortable for you. You can think of yourself as more narrating a story than acting on a stage.

Character-wise, I think quiet characters are the hardest to play. They're fine, but it's just more difficult because if the character is the type to hang back, then it's harder to come up with in-character ways that they will insert themselves into the conversation or action. You also rely on your group more to engage with your character. If you're getting bored, try creating a character who's gregarious and impulsive - one that takes initiative. Just mix up the personality types you play.

Personally, I don't think race/class matters much for how "interesting" a character is or how fun they are to play. The character's personality matters a lot more. I mean, people certainly have preferences for what they find the most fun to play as, but your character will only be engaged in combat some of the time. They will have their personality all of the time.

If you have trouble with characterization, here's a trick I don't think anyone has mentioned (though I've only skimmed): Base your character's personality on an already-existing character you like. Your character will grow into their own person as you play them and develop their personal history, but it can be a quick way to get started.

Like, just looking at my own bookshelves, I think it could be very fun to play someone like Moist von Lipwig from Pratchett's Going Postal (a sleazy con man in over his head who kind of finds a moral compass). Or maybe someone like Makoto from Sailor Moon (a physically intimidating fighter who loves her friends and likes to cook, is a bit awkward but not too much so). I know I already like both of these characters, and I have a sense of how they would react in various situations already.

Some people might think this is "cheating," but it's not really. Characters inspiring other characters has been going on since the dawn of narrative. And as I said, your character will become their own person as you develop and play them.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:57 PM on January 9

OK the best fun I ever got out of my characters is when they lose hilariously. You have to have something your character is really bad at, it makes them relatable. Make Wis or Int your dump stat and play a complete himbo. It it's Dex, then Yakkety Sax is their theme tune, which is even funnier if they're determined to pursue a career as a thief. Have a bard with really low charisma, hey, it'll be a challenge if nothing else! And if you die - roll another and try again!

But the other thing - your character doesn't have to be the Last Heir of Isentrope, Son of the Deerslinger. He can just be Jimmy 'Slacks' Squillson, the bouncer down at the Creaky Tug. The game is what will make him great.

Or dead. Sometimes dead too, but that's not always permenant.
posted by HypotheticalWoman at 5:09 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]

Both myself and a friend of mine who roleplays find that dumb-as-brick characters are a really easy base to start from. You don't have to be clever; in fact you'll have to hold back from trying to solve the problem, which I found was a really great way to get me out of my comfort zone.
posted by Merus at 7:27 AM on January 10 [2 favorites]

I tend to visually anchor my characters to an actor or actress, especially one that has a bit of a stereotype attached to them. This helps in RP as I'll be able to think, "Well, Tom Waits wouldn't say something like that, so my elvish ranger wouldn't either. Better talk instead about the grasping trees." or "Sure, my Warlock serves an ancient being from beyond time and space who wishes to subsume reality, but they're basically halfling Zooey Deschanel, so how would they get that dark work done?"
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:47 AM on January 10 [1 favorite]

Seconding Kutsuwamushi's advice!

My characters are generally always "me lite", and it takes an annoyingly long while to get into the groove and find a new character's personality. BUT, for a recent one-shot I straight up stole the personality of a TV character and transplanted it into my elf - it ended up working great, my DM mentioned it's one of the most entertaining characters I've played, and I had a blast playing her. Having something to base my character off of also helped me to stay in character and not slide back into "me, but an elf" mode.
posted by Glier's Goetta at 2:40 AM on January 11

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