There’s no short supply of optimization guides out there on the interwebs. With a basic level of google-fu one can easily turn up a wealth of information on how a player can maximize a character’s strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. It’s just a numbers game. It’s math. But collaborative storytelling is so much more than who’s got the biggest numbers. Often times our group finds that the most memorable parts of the campaign revolve around events that have transpired because of a character’s quirks, rather than his stats. Optimize Your Roleplaying, a semi-regular (hopefully) column, aims to explore ways in which a player can make the most of his or her character’s personality at the table.
Every game session starts at the edge of a lake. The goal is to walk into the lake as far in as you feel comfortable. Some players are perfectly happy in ankle-deep water. Some prefer submerging themselves as quickly and as thoroughly as they can. Some find deep water pleasant but find getting there takes time to acclimate. The depth of the water in this case represents the level of in-character immersion you, as a player, are comfortable with.
I used to be a pretty shallow roleplayer. We're talking stand-on-the-shore-with-your-toe-in-the-water shallow. My elven fighter/mage had a name. I never used it though. It was always, “My elven fighter/mage opens the door” or “My elven fighter/mage attacks the goblin!” Yup. Shallow roleplaying at its finest. Nothing wrong with this style of playing per se. I certainly don’t mean to pronounce any sort of judgment on anyone that prefers this type of roleplaying, such as it is. But aside from the obvious mouthful, talking about oneself in the third person can be pretty tedious. It also doesn't do much to reinforce that character’s personality or quirks. I don’t remember a single thing about that character that I would have found remotely interesting. That elven fighter-mage ended up being nothing more than a mechanical expression of a concept that I thought was really cool at the time.
This was back in the early 2000’s. I’d just started playing 2nd Edition D&D and was just wrapping my head around the idea of pretending to be someone else. So I guess it wasn’t that surprising that I wanted to roleplay a stereotypical hero. You know the one, Commander McAlways Awesome. Emperor Uberstrong No-Flaws. I didn’t pick up on the idea that developing an alternate persona for myself was just as big a part of the game as throwing fireballs or swinging swords. Like I said, shallow roleplayer.
Fast forward to the present. I’m typing up the first post of a column dedicated to helping people design better and more interesting characters. Sometimes I don't even start on the shore of the lake anymore. I've constructed a sling-shot mechanism that launches me past the shallows entirely. I love the deep end. And while I haven't plumbed the entirety of its depths, this is where I'm at home roleplaying. So something must have happened between 12 year old me and now. I guess after college, grad school, and a few dozen characters and games since then I’m finally comfortable enough with my own play style that I can talk about it in a public forum.
I’ll leave you with an exercise that I picked up during a writing class my freshman year of college. It’s called the Speech. Think about what your character would say to someone else about a significant event in your character’s past. Imagine your character is directly addressing his or her subject. Write a paragraph or so about that exchange. The Speech exercise is a quick and illustrative way that can help you to discover your character’s traits and personality through dialogue.
I’ll give an example.
“Hello friend! Fancy you in here at this hour. Well. No surprise I suppose. Say, you haven’t seen Yorick around recently have you? No? That’s a shame. I’m afraid I’ve something of his that I’ve been meaning to return to him. You see, we were venturing into a dungeon day after last I think. My memory’s a bit foggy on that regard. Anyways, venturing into a dungeon we were. Some gods forsaken hole in the ground a few miles east of where the Yondakabari River does that crazy little hairpin. Some Sczarni family told us about it. What colorful wagons they had. Pretty girls too. Anyways right. Hole in the ground. Dirty, filthy, thing. Right full of guards too. Ugly louts. Must have been rotting for centuries. Smelt kind of like that compost heap that farmer whatshisname has. You know the one. With the wife’s too pretty for him? In any case Yorick and me we make quick work of them. Finally come upon the goods. You know these ancients. Always got to be buried with their goods. Nice stuff too. Mostly silver. Not too much wear and tear. ‘Cept now Yorick says something like dividing by one is easier math. I feel something cold and sharp in my back and my eyes go black. So anyways. Thanks for listening. I’ve really got to find Yorick. He’s really got to be more careful about where he leaves his knives.”
So what did we learn about our nameless narrator? Specifically what did we learn about his personality? Well he likes to ramble. He sidetracks himself quite a bit, especially at the thought or mention of women. We also learn that after the events that had transpired with Yorick, he’s keen on revenge. He’s not much of a forgive and forget type. If I want to develop this narrator’s character further, I’d give him a name and then go into figuring out why he went adventuring with Yorick in the first place. Or perhaps I’d explore his relationship with womenfolk that he likes to think of so well. Either way I’ve got a solid basis for developing an interesting character concept.