Thursday, February 16, 2012

Pillar 1 - The Intangibles of Playing a Role

On a 4E blog the term Role can invoke images of the core four. Striker, Defender, Controller and Leader but those aren't what I mean here. Today I am talking about walking a league in another's shoes. Part of D&D is putting on another persona, this is the Role-playing part of the game. A lot of talk has gone into the three pillars of D&D recently. For anyone who has missed out I refer to Combat, Exploration and Role-playing. I will review a few of my tips for creating an effective fun persona.

Tip #1 - Pick a Persona that Keeps It Friendly

It's easy to latch onto a concept and take it to far. Conflict is part of the dramatic tension necessary to any campaign. Embrace it but be aware there is always the risk of the character's persona's clashing. In order for a party and a table to successfully co-exist eliminate the paraphrasing of the statement "but that's what my character would do." Both sides of any inter-party conflict should be able to logically reach a compromise without bloodshed. Finding this win-win or agreeing to a win-lose type negotiation needs to be built into your character from the get go.

For example during the drafting phase for a Cleric of Melora be thinking about how your character would respond to a debate with a Cleric of Erathis. Melora abhors the destruction of woods for the sake of progress. On the other hand the Cleric of Erathis despises the lack of building materials due to the elven priests unwillingness to see civilization grow. How would your PC handle this debate? How would the rest of the party handle the debate? You could very quickly be at odds with your dwarf, mage, and fighter companions but might have the elven ranger on your side. Working this out without drawing steel is the mark of a good role player.

Tip #2 - Keep it Fresh

A lot of players tend to play the same character over and over. It's comfortable they know what to do in any situation. It also grows dull for the player. A DM can usually tell when the player is phoning in the role-play. To keep it fresh I suggest looking at trying something new, and stretching your legs in a new pair of shoes. This can be really tough, change oft is. Are you a timid person? Try being loud and boisterous. This can back fire on you though. It is hard to keep up a persona that is maligned with your own. I found it simpler to start with a part of my own personality I rarely used.

One of the reasons I love dwarves is their grumpiness. This was one of my first experiences role-playing. I took that old man "keep off the lawn", cynic from my own personality and amplified it. I took out my sense of humor and rolled up a dumb human bard. The jack-of-all trades would accidentally do fantastic things in prescient nod to Cpt Jack Sparrow. (Mind you this 20 years ago) The next time I rolled up a dwarf I changed it up and played a devout Cleric of Erathis. He personally hated elves (damn tree huggers), but he was very generous with money and compassionate to the sick and poor.

Tip #3 - KISS (Keep It So Simple)

Focus on the little things that really make your character stand out. A dwarf that strokes his beard when he is nervous. A barbarian that always sharpens his axe when folks are talking. A wizard who sits and smokes his pipe when pondering a bit of lore he needs to roll for. A halfling that stubs his toe every time he fails a stealth check. A paladin that salutes his enemies before engaging in combat. A thief that twirls a coin when he's bored. These are really pretty cliche things but find something your character would do and always do it. When the rest of the party catches on they will interact with it. That is a role-playing moment.

Be prepared to make the wrong choice. Our characters are a reflection of us amplified. The first instinct is to make them be perfect and always make the right choice. Sometimes a good role-playing scenario is making a bad call because that would be the information your character would have. Don't always listen at the door. Don't always keep the party together. Sometimes giving the NPC the last potion when you know there is one more encounter is the right thing to do.

Tip #4 - Setec Astronomy*

If you are dropping clues and expecting your party to get it. Give it up. If it is worth doing it is worth letting them in on it early. If there is one thing my years as a DM has taught me, it's that secrets and big reveals are anti-climatic. Hold your cards for a session maybe three and then play them. If you don't the players will have long ago forgot about your clues when the time the big reveal rolls around. By that time you have lost their interest and possibly created a frustrating untrustworthy ally for them to try to interact with.

Tip #5 - Ends of the Spectrum in Pairs

The best types of role-playing characters (IMHO) are the ones that either are iconic to the point they become cliche or characters that break the mold in unexpected and fantastic ways. When these two anti-archetypes coalesce and function together, it is true RP gold.

An untrustworthy halfling thief and his chaotic good barbarian companion. A feeble dragonborn fire hurler and his grumpy, singe-bearded dwarf fighter companion. A chaotic good githyanki bard and her snarling chaotic evil bugbear fighter on a leash.

Tip #6 - Role-playing Evil is Hard

A lot of folks think playing the evil or unaligned character is easy. It can be liberating to go against societies grain. In a heroic campaign playing the Evil PC is a lot of work. The other party members won't trust you. It doesn't take much for a DM to, even accidentally, make you the center of suspicion and anger. Even closet Evil PC's have this problem. When the DM and one player continually step out of the room for a quick chat, pass notes or communicate via Private Messages. The players are clued in something odd is happening. Someone is up to something. The paranoia breeds contempt and resentment. It is hard to be that guy. When your morals and objectives don't align at all you are back up to Tip 1. Bloodshed is the more than likely in game and maybe out of game result.

Equally tough is playing an Evil PC in an all evil campaign. In this scenario the social qualms preventing violence and discord dissipate. The point of playing an evil campaign is to get the upper hand and be able to act on impulse and a bit of sadistic pleasure. The players more likely than not are going to end up poisoning, betraying or slaughtering each other. It takes a really well knit group to survive something like that without any wounded pride or long-term consequences.

Finally, unaligned characters. Most evil characters I have played with have truly been unaligned. They operate within their own moral code and an informal set of ethics. Truly evil acts are hard to portray as a DM and they are harder as a player. Especially when presented with opportunities to do good. Players will oft act on their own desires and forget they are being "Evil". The other hard part about unaligned is that it requires you to establish some internal guidelines for how your character views the world. Good and Evil are things that people have some ideas about, the table may not agree on those ideas, but they have them. Unaligned is a little less clear. Without some forethought a persona will come off as flat or more flip-floppy than a politician. This makes it easy to game the system but very hard to successfully role-play.

These are my six tips to enhance your role-playing. Remember its a game, its meant to be fun. Some of that fun is interacting with your party both in a socially responsible manner and in a way that challenges and expands your experience.

*Is an anagram from the '92 movie Sneakers. Unscrambled it is "Too many secrets".