What a Character!

Super-foppish man, woman, and cat

What a Character!

You’re sitting at the kitchen table surrounded by dice, books, and paper. You’ve just written down your new character’s vital statistics, you’ve come up with a name, and maybe you’ve even given your character a personality flaw after reading “The Joys of Imperfection.” Now what? The game is tomorrow at noon. What else can you do to prepare?

Let’s say that you’ve decided to play Lord Poseur L’Charlatan, a young human fighter in the best swashbuckling vein—a fop clad all in lace and ribbons who specializes in swinging from chandeliers and dueling on spiral staircases. You’ve decided to make him vain and very fastidious about his clothes, but not a bad person. But how are you going to roleplay him tomorrow when you’re sitting around with your friends, wearing shorts and a t-shirt and munching on junk food? How are you going to make L’Charlatan come alive?

First, flesh out L’Charlatan’s background — Family members? Worst childhood memory? Hobbies? In one of my campaigns, I devoted the first 10 minutes of each of the first few game sessions to letting the players roleplay with each other. One player character was picked to be in the “hot seat” and answer other player characters’ questions. I ruled that the player in the hot seat could not lie, although s/he could decline to answer any given question. During the Q and A I took notes for myself. The player in the hot seat had make up on-the-spot answers to questions like, “What is the first thing you remember?”, “who was your first love?”, and “what is the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you?” Everything had to be answered in character—”My most embarrassing situation was….” The sessions were fun. They gave the players a chance to do some spontaneous roleplaying, they rounded out the characters, they gave me ideas for adventures, and they imitated the kind of knowledge a group of people would learn about each other from traveling together day after day for months on end. You don’t need the GM’s permission to do this kind of roleplaying—any time two or more players are together, you can engage in a quick session of in-character roleplaying to help give your character more depth and personality.

Second, tailor your character’s equipment and habits to their class, race, and background. The swashbuckler L’Charlatan probably won’t ever want to wield a mace, and a Viking wouldn’t be caught dead using an epee. Neither would wear platemail. Look in an encyclopedia or on the Web for good historical resources to help you flesh out your character. Create one or two unusual customs or mannerisms for your character follow—maybe L’Charlatan kisses the blade of his sword each time he draws it, refuses to duel on holy days, or likes to eat some unusual dish that others would find unpalatable—just think of something unusual and fun to roleplay. The key is to make L’Charlatan a believable swashbuckler and a unique person.

Third, try to sketch or find a picture of your character. If you’re an artist, draw a picture. If you’re not, find a picture in a magazine, on a book cover, in a gaming supplement, or on the web that is close to what you imagine your character looking like. Perhaps L’Charlatan might look like Hugh Grant in the movie Restoration, with long curly chair, a lace shirt, and a beauty spot. Photocopy the picture or print it out, and show it to the other players when you introduce your character. The image will help you and the rest of the players think of L’Charlatan as a different person, an individual who isn’t the same as you. (Make sure that if you use someone else’s art for your character, you’re not violating copyright!)

Fourth, try to find a prop that will help you get into character. For example, when you’re getting ready for the game in which you’re going to play L’Charlatan, don’t put on your vintage Metallica t-shirt. Find a fancier shirt to wear—if you have a costume shirt or tux shirt with a frilly front, that’s perfect. At least wear an amazing shirt in bright tangerine or covered with Hawaiian flowers or the like—something that can symbolize the garishly foppish clothing L’Charlatan wears. The more your outfit makes your friends groan and roll their eyes, the better! Maybe you can dig up a handkerchief or scarf you can use to cover your nose when L’Charlatan has to walk through the smelly parts of town or peer down at a dead body. Drink your sodas out of a teacup or wine glass during the game, to imitate the teas or wines L’Charlatan would order in a tavern. Anything you can dig up that will help you roleplay L’Charlatan—and help others remember what kind of person L’Charlatan is—will make the character that much easier to roleplay.

Fifth, never say “My character is going to…..” or “L’Charlatan will….” Say “I’m going to….” or “I will….” If you catch yourself slipping into the third person (he, she), firmly return to first person (I, me). It’s tricky, but the sooner you learn how to do it, the easier roleplaying will become.

Sixth, don’t be afraid to act. Shout, stammer, whine, whisper, and weep. Use your voice, use your face, use your hands, and use your body. Is L’Charlatan angry? Raise your voice, scowl, and shake your fist. Is L’Charlatan frightened? Make your voice shake, widen your eyes, and tremble. Is L’Charlatan lustful? Lower your voice, waggle your eyebrows, and edge a little closer to the player L’Charlatan is trying to seduce. (But don’t go too far; respect your fellow players!) Is L’Charlatan sad? Make your voice quaver, make your lips tremble, and dab at the tears in your eyes, even if they’re not really there. And above all, never be embarrassed! Roleplaying is a fine skill to master, and it’s often contagious—if one player starts getting into it, other players will follow.

Seventh, between games, write a letter or journal entry in character. Perhaps L’Charlatan has parents, siblings, a mentor, a lover, or just a boss to whom he can write. Describe the last game—what happened, how L’Charlatan felt about it. Keep it all in character, and when you’re done, give a copy of the letter to the GM (who will be playing that NPC). Besides helping you get into character, exchanging “between-games” letters with NPCs is a good way to squeeze in a little extra roleplaying. Often a sly GM will use the opportunity to drop hints about new adventures in the letters that are written back to you.

Eighth, keep asking yourself, “If I were in this situation, how would I react?” For example, if L’Charlatan’s little sister has just been kidnapped by trolls, ask yourself, “How would I feel if my little sister had just been kidnapped by trolls?” Angry? Frightened? Sad? All of the above? Good—now roleplay it. Of course, your character may react a little differently than you would (you’d probably call the police; L’Charlatan will probably summon his fellow adventurers), but the emotions should be about the same. Doing this helps keep your character believable and weans you away from any tendency you may have to rely on cliches.

Ninth, finally, and most important—don’t drop out of character just because staying in character becomes inconvenient. Did L’Charlatan swear never to draw a blade on a holy day? When the GM sets a gang of ruffians against him on a holy day (and you know your GM will!), don’t have L’Charlatan draw his sword to defend himself. Get creative. Have him spar with a broomstick, throw a flowerpot, and defend himself with a chair. Sure, it’s not as efficient as breaking the oath and doing penance afterward, but it will be a lot more fun.

Would L’Charlatan never, ever, ever agree to dress in rags and pretend to be a beggar? Don’t have him agree to do so just because that’s what the plan calls for! Have him indignantly refuse, arguing and blustering, until the rest of the party agrees to work around him or he’s finally convinced that it’s really and truly the only way the goal can be accomplished. And if he is convinced, he shouldn’t be very convincing. Make sure that his posture remains swashbuckler-correct, he keeps making faces at the smell, and he refuses to further demean himself by actually begging. Yes, it may annoy the other characters and make the plan more difficult to implement, but the L’Charlatan you’ve created simply isn’t going to agree to anything more. “Good heavens, man, isn’t this enough?!” If he did agree to act like a begger, you’d be breaking out of character.

The excuse, “Look, it’s not in character” may be an annoying one, but as long as it’s consistently used, it should be an acceptable one. …Just remember that a character who is a consistent problem in the campaign may get thrown out—don’t plan to roleplay a character who refuses to participate in any of the group’s plans!

So, now you’ve got your background and quirk settled, you’re wearing your fancy shirt, and you’re drinking your soda out of a goblet. You’re L’Charlatan. Happy gaming!

Originally written August 22, 1998

Image Source: The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault, 1922

I read, write, roleplay, travel, teach, and occasionally do research. I am a lizard, a warrior, a minimalist, and a scholar.
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