Roleplaying: Characterization is Risky Business.

Why is characterization hard? Well, ‘cos we are people, and no person is just one thing. However in RPG land I’ve noticed that some people treat their characters as a set of tactical skills and their characterization is basically banter with the group.

There are a number of things that can encourage an emphasis on tactical play over actually role-playing:

  • The player is new to the group and is just finding out the boundaries and group dynamics.
  • The player is new to the game system and concentrating on the rules.
  • The group or GM have a predominantly tactical focus where good tactics are rewarded, but good roleplaying not so much.
  • The length of the game and the long-term (if any) goals of the group.

The Length of the Game???

In my experience this is the number one factor that pushes either end of the tactical gaming vs roleplaying element of the see-saw. It makes sense that the longer the game is; the more the PCs will run into situations where it’s a perceived choice between survival and playing the character. In most cases I’ve personally seen (in a variety of groups) the longer the game the more tactical the play. This has played out regardless of who is GM, age, gender, style of gaming etc.

Is it just the people I played with? Well, no. I know this because when I put those same players in a one-off or episodic game we had a ball. I saw some of the funniest and most ‘out there’ characters, or the most solemn and driven heroes. There was a whole different vibe, a sense of excitement and fun that hadn’t been there in our longer games for a while.

Why is this? Well, there’s more to lose in the longer games, all the time and story that will be flushed away if your PC dies. There’s also the risk of not succeeding in the goal of the campaign either. So any risky action carries more weight. In a one-off game there is no long view, your character (and you) are just in the now. There is noting to grate against the character concept.

So how do we help bring the excitement and risk back from episodic games to our campaigns?

John H Kim states there is a difference between playing roles and playing a gaming-token “In my opinion, the difference between a token and a role-played character is this: Hypothetically, a person watching the game looks over your shoulder and suggests a move, and your reply is “No, my character wouldn’t do that.” If this happens, or is capable of happening, then at some level you are playing a role-playing game. This simple distinction puts a world of difference between RPGs and other games.”

So as GMs we need to do several things:

  • Set up some morally black and white “My character won’t do that” situations
  • Tie the characters actions to their reputations. Get some solid, non-death consequences going and give them a short time to weigh up the options.
  • Hold them to account, this means you may have to be ruthless, but not cruel, signal intent clearly so people have a chance to fix things before the shit hits the fan.
  • Be prepared to change tack, watch your players and make sure you change to get the most out of them. Sometimes trying something different will break patterns of behaviour.

What do you do to bring a little zing back into your games?

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