by Ian McKenzie

This week I did some Bob wrangling to get some of the crew to spill their juicy roleplaying secrets. I’ve always felt like my characters have been a bit flat, and wanted to hear from the pros how to create a rich, layered, and interesting character. Roleplaying has always been my favorite aspect of a game, but I am equally guilty in creating a chaotic stupid tavern arson. Establishing a character as a living, breathing person can ground them in the world the DM has created. Rather than treating the game like a Grand Theft Auto rampage session, I can contribute to and enhance the game’s story for everyone’s benefit.

Do you have any resources you have referred to help up your RP game?

Shaun: I base my PCs (player characters) on an actor, movie or TV character that I can identify with, and draw from. They often end up being very different, but I find that if I can visualize a professional actor making a choice or saying a phrase, then I have somewhere to start.

Jake: I think my RP skills have improved just by listening to lots of other RPG actual plays and seeing lots of different methods in action. I also listen to a lot of improv shows and that kind of thing, which, although not the same, share a lot of the same skills.

Playing narrative-heavy games with very light (if any!) mechanics is an excellent way to practice roleplaying, as you spend less time focusing on the numbers on your character sheet and more time in your character’s head. Fiasco is an excellent example of this!

Alex: I did a lot of improv in theatre class in high school, but otherwise, all my help for improving my RP game has come from people at the table with hot tips for me.

How long of playing did it take before you’re comfortable roleplaying your character(s)?

Shaun: It often takes me 2 or 3 sessions of actually playing as the character before I get into the groove.

Jake: My secret is I’m always uncomfortable.

Jokes aside, there’s some truth to that statement. Although we’ve all gotten MORE comfortable with roleplaying, I don’t think any of us are ALWAYS comfortable. You may make a weird choice, or say a cringey line, or just be having an off day and not feeling it. And that’s fine! If you accept that you’re going to be uncomfortable sometimes, it makes it easier to be comfortable the rest of the time.

Alex: Usually, by the time we’re into session 1 or 2 of a campaign, I’ve got a feel for a character. Although when I first started playing with the group, there were a couple of characters I just never did feel comfortable RPing.

Do you have to warm up to each one?

Shaun: I usually write a backstory, maybe 1 or 2 pages, to give myself and the GM something to work with. I try to leave it without a lot of names or specifics so the GM can add the elements from their campaign world that make everything work.

Jake: Definitely! Just like getting to know a new person in real life, you need to get to know your character. You’ll learn lots about them as you continue to play them.

Alex: Nah, if I’ve decided to roleplay them I’m already hot and ready.

Do you write a backstory to help get into character? How comprehensive is it?

Shaun: I like to give my GM “knives” – things they can use against my character to motivate and challenge them. A little human girl haunted my Bearfolk Oracle. His spells almost expressly dealt with communicating with her and using her for advice. I wanted lots of opportunities for the GM to use Emily as a tool against and for me.

Jake: I do write a backstory, though I usually try to keep it pretty succinct. I don’t try to define the character’s personality in the backstory, as that’s something that you develop, grow, and change over time. You don’t want to write yourself into a corner. What I do always try to answer in my backstory is, “Why is my character here?” Why are they about to set off on this dangerous adventure instead of just being another farmer or blacksmith or peasant-like everybody else?

I think that’s an important question that sets the stage for a lot of character development.

Alex: Almost always. How comprehensive is just a matter of how long of a campaign it will be. For one-shots, probably just a sentence, but for long-running campaigns, I might write a paragraph or so about the character before session 1 and then create a deeper backstory within the fiction of the campaign as we play.

Do you journal as your character as you go through the campaign? Or would that take too much time?

Shaun: My character Denton was a priest and paladin in a world where the gods had been outlawed. He journaled about his journey and interviewed other PCs as a way of cataloging sessions.

Jake: I have journaled as my character a couple of times before. It can be interesting, but I would only consider it if I feel like it’s something my character would want to do of their own volition. I’m not going to force my rage-fueled tribal barbarian to journal but my explorer trying to map the unknown world? Sure! As opposed to journalling, I would maybe try something more broad, like just stopping every once in a while and thinking, “how does my character feel about what just happened?” This question is a great prompt to give as GM to your players too!

Alex: I didn’t even journal when it was a requirement in English class back in school, and I’m not about to start now! But really, I chat about it on our discord with the rest of the people in between sessions. It’s more like short bursts of collaborative brainstorming than journaling though.

How do you separate yourself from your character?

Jake: This is always a tough one for me. I tend to slip in and out of character constantly. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, you are still you, playing a game with your friends after all. But I’ve been trying to take an extra second before speaking to think, “Is this me or my character?” and adjusting what I say/do to match.

Alex: That’s easy, the whole point of me RPing a character is to be someone else!

How much of your characters are you?

Shaun: Each character is going to be you in some way. They share my sense of humor, my knowledge, my aversions. Your characters come to life when you make conscious choices to put them in situations where they are at risk. Not just physically, but emotionally or morally.

Jake: You’ll always draw on your own experiences to develop your character. But that’s how you can make it enjoyable. You take your personal experience and add a little “what if” twist, and then you have something new and exciting.

Alex: Not quite sure how to answer that one. If the question is like, how many of the characters I’ve RPed are just me with a different name, none. If it’s like, how much of me sneaks into the characters, as little as possible. Typically I’ll choose a character because I want to explore what it would be like to be someone else, I try my best to let go of my motivations when I sit down at the table. Although admittedly I never quite let go of my “good audio” motivations when we’re recording.

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