I am my character, but my character is not me!

The title of this post is something that every role-player should be aware of, but putting it into practice can be often overlooked, with many characters going on to become just an extension of the player themselves.

Depending upon how you go about playing a Role Playing Game (RPG), as some players prefer to forgo the role-playing side and base their campaigns more on combat and die-rolling, then you might want to think about two important concepts – player/character identity and player/character knowledge; one gets easier with experience, whilst the other becomes much more difficult.

For a player new to the genre, player/character identity can be a tricky concept to grasp, and I always recommend that a new player creates a character not a thousand miles away from their own persona, this enables them to concentrate on finding their feet and enjoying the experience, rather than been distracted by their own creation.

But what do I mean by player/character identity?

A player’s identity is who they are in the real world, with all their personality traits, physical characteristics and other idiosyncrasies. Whereas the characters identity starts life as several numerical statistics, and possibly a few written words – it is then up to the player to develop the character within these boundaries.

Delf Character Sheet
Delf The Elf… My character from a game played 20+ years ago!

You may have created a character that has a high strength and constitution, very low intelligence, and average across the rest of the board. You may have decided he/she has a few fears and phobias, or a few bad habits they’re unable to control – now all you have to do is play that character within your chosen game.

What sounds easy on paper often becomes lost part way through the first session of play, and even for experienced players, certain character traits can prove difficult to role-play.

Of the familiar stat’s that a character may have, strength is the easiest to role-play, and this is probably because it is more easily defined, with most people attuned to a similar definition of strong and weak. It’s easy to act the part of a character with a high strength statistic – “I step up to the grate, and flexing my finely honed muscles, I heave at it in an attempt to pull it from its hinges.” Likewise playing a wimp – after being passed the Barbarian’s mighty two-handed sword, “I try my best, but its no use, I have to drag the sword along the floor as I rush to keep up with Barbarian.”

Strength
Strength is probably the easiest trait to role-play.

Agility or dexterity is also relatively easy to portray though can easily be forgotten about until the GM happily states that, “Your character has fallen from the table on which they were currently dancing, and has landed in the lap of Shab the strangler!”

Of the common physical statistics, possibly even of all statistics, constitution is the most difficult to bring to life, and it often hides away, becoming just a number to refer to every now and then. I think the reason for this is that constitution isn’t always obvious to the eye.

Constitution –
A person’s physical state as regards vitality, health, and strength

English Oxford living dictionary

How do we measure vitality or health? This is where the problem lies. We can, for the purposes of role-playing, measure strength; it can be as simple as how much a character can carry or lift above his head. We can also physically tell by observing someone how agile they may be – do they stumble over every crack in the pavement, or are they doing somersaults along a tightrope?

It is then simply a case of assigning a number to represent the degree of strength/agility a character may have, and because we as a player can relate to what this number signifies, it becomes easier to role-play.

Constitution
Dwarves are usually regarded as having a high constitution.

The problem with vitality and health is, how do we recognise it in a person? I’ve known people who, in appearance, look frail and weak, and yet stand up to the most rigorous of exercise and hardship – they have a high constitution. In opposition, a person can come across as buoyant, full of beans, built like the proverbial brick building, and yet the slightest ailment turns them into a bed-ridden cry-baby!

In the end, even for the best of actors, constitution is often best left to being just a number on your character sheet!

Wisdom is the constitution of the mental abilities…

Wisdom – The quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgement; the quality of being wise.

English Oxford living dictionary

Take a look at yourself in the mirror – try to put a figure on how wise you appear, say from 1 to 10, with 10 being a wise old owl. Not easy, eh? Bet you plumped with something in the middle, say a 5 or 6?

Again it comes down to there not being a standard by which to measure against. We often tend to pair wisdom with age though, but does this really bear true? Certainly, the older you are then the greater number of life experiences you have to call upon, but what if that elderly person has led a sheltered life that has been quite unfulfilling – can you tell this from the way the look or act? Can you tell if they have a store of good, well-based general knowledge? What about good judgement? Maybe that youngster over there has travelled the world, explored the unknown, and seen desperate things – are they not wiser?

Okay, there are ways you can gauge these things from a person if you spend enough time in their company. Trying to role-play these qualities is another thing entirely, how do you act the part of someone supremely wise? Maybe you take the stance of a know-it-all, who’s been there, done that? How infuriating would that be to your fellow players and characters alike, and does it really display wisdom?

You could portray the part as that of a venerable monk, wise beyond all years, quietly spoken, often talking in riddles that only they understand – how long do you think you’d keep that up for?

No, wisdom is something that should not be forced – just play the character’s wisdom when it really matters, it won’t happen often, if at all – in the end, wisdom is best left to the wisest person at the table, and that of course, is the GM!

If there’s on statistic that causes more laughs than any other, it must be charisma! There’s nothing funnier than seeing your character confront a band of heavily armed thieves, hell bent on reliving you from your hard earned stash, and just when you think you’ve talked your way out of things, you roll a charisma check… “Oh, dear,” the GM says, “You appear to have made a closing remark about how manly the chief bandit’s side kick is, but unfortunately, that’s his wife…”

Funny, but in the above example the humour is caused by a die roll and the GM giving the result – why shouldn’t the player act out their blunder and improvise?

Fair enough, that’s not everybody’s cup of tea, but can lead to some superb gaming moments. Charisma is easier to role-play though than you may at first believe.

Charisma – Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

English Oxford living dictionary

You see, it isn’t all about the gift-of-the-gab, it can simply be the way a person holds themselves, the actions they carry out, or even their attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Playing a character of high charisma, even if you class yourself as been somewhat backwards in this area, can be as easy as stating that, “I stride purposely to the front of my companions and, holding my head up high, I confront these bandits with an air of superiority.” Then, based upon your charisma check, the GM can do the rest. Some GM’s, especially the ones who like a free flowing game, may base the result solely on your rode-playing if your acting reflects the level of your statistic.

I really enjoy playing characters with a low charisma, much to the annoyance of the other characters (if you role-play accurately, then the other players should accept that some of the things you say and do are going to annoy their characters!). The odd remark dropped under the characters breath, just at the wrong moment, can cause some very worrying results for the party – Calvin the True has just sweet-talked the Mayor into agreeing a considerable up-front payment for our services, when Grob (me) mutters in jest, “We can put it with the loot we stole from the village, eh?” Needless to say, the Mayor quickly changed his offer to payment on delivery!

Intelligence; surely this is something that can be defined and therefore shouldn’t present too much of an issue role-playing, right?

Wrong! Yes, intelligence can be defined to an extent; the Intelligence Quotient (IQ) gives a total decided upon by the scores of several standardised tests used to assess intelligence – it’s by no means, ‘the be all and end all’ of intelligence grading, but offers an idea as to where you maybe placed within society.

Intelligence
Magic-Users would benefit from having a much higher intelligence!

The problem of intelligence comes when you have to role-play a character that is far removed from your own intelligence level. The majority of people who play these types of games would probably fall within the average sector of the intelligence grading for characters, presuming that in most games the highest intelligence levels tend to be graded well above those of the ‘real world’ human being.

Trying to accurately play an outstandingly intelligent character can be very hard work, especially when you think of how a genius in real life often behaves. They say genius is just a step away from madness, and this can be seen in many walks of life. High intelligence often comes with a few quirks – conceitedness, overbearing, an unswerving belief in how right they are, silent brooding, or even an unwillingness to communicate with those beneath them.

Whilst these quirks go hand in hand with a high intelligence, and can be highly entertaining to play, they are often best left to the more experienced player.

A good GM is a players biggest asset when playing highly intelligent characters, as they can feed the player information that the character should know but may be unfathomable to the player – for example: The characters come across a laboratory that has complex mathematics scrawled across a wall. Whilst the player makes an intelligence check, the GM slips him a note highlighting the meaning of all the equations, the player can then use this to role-play his character as intelligently as his numbers imply. Of course, not everyone wants to go to this level of role-playing, but it makes things a little more interesting than just skill check after skill check.

At the opposite end of the scale, is playing the half-wit – the character whose intelligence doesn’t even surpass their shoe size! This is far easier to role-play, as it is simply a case of dumbing yourself down, that said is can still prove a challenge.

Playing the not-so-bright character also leads to another issue – holding back information that you, as a player knows, but your half brain-dead character has no hope of ever learning, and that leads us nicely into player/character knowledge.

To those who have played RPG’s, think back to your very first experience, where everything you encountered was new. You couldn’t tell Goblins from Orcs, though that Black Pudding was a food, and you had no idea a Manticore could do that!

Playing for the first time is often the greatest experience of all, as it may be the only time you role-play a character through a campaign accurately, being totally naive about the things you come across. As your character progresses, then so does your knowledge of the universe in which you are playing, and that’s realistic and all well and good. But, the problems begin when you start another character back at level 1.

When your new character hears the GM give the description of the monster in front of you as being, “A reptilian humanoid, around 2ft tall, with reddish brown scaled skin and orange eyes,” you’re most likely going to know that you’ve encountered a Kobold. The difficult thing here is trying to remember that this is the first time your character has met one, so, how will they react?

Things get more difficult when you meet monsters that are powerful but have a single weakness, one that you as a player know about from a previous game. It is oh so tempting to allow your character to take advantage of this knowledge, and sometimes it is just second nature that, when confronted by ‘A’, you do ‘B’ to defeat it.

The more you play, the more knowledge you accumulate; it’s inevitable and unavoidable, but it isn’t just this prior-game knowledge that you should be keeping from your alter ego.

Knowledge you have as person in the real world can also influence your character – take for example a total solar eclipse. You as a player know that the moon obscuring the sun causes it, but what does your character think, especially if within the world they are exploring eclipses don’t occur very often?

The more experience you have, both in playing RPG’s and in life in general, then the harder it becomes not to impart this knowledge on to your character. So, what can be done about it?

In my experience it is pretty much impossible to stop a player’s knowledge from influencing their character, it just can’t be helped, no matter how hard they try. The GM though, can play an important part in trying to keep a divide between player and character knowledge, and the easiest way to do this is by keeping things fresh – trying to vary encounters by using experiences and monsters the characters have never come across before, or better still, make a few changes to the ones they have, especially at lower levels.

Giving lower level monsters access to a magical item (limited in power, of course) can make the players stop and think a little, or maybe, this new breed of Kobold is a little more intelligent than the previous, and so they use advanced tactics against the characters.

Making the players think carefully when approaching something they may have prior knowledge about is what you’re aiming for – it may be that that Goblin really is a just Goblin, but if they’re unsure, every encounter will feel new, irrespective of how much experience the player has.

Failing this, the GM has a few more options at his disposal if the players are blatantly using their own knowledge to help out their characters:

  • Reducing the number of experience points gained from the encounter: The GM can quite simply state that, ‘As your characters obviously have some knowledge of the monster encountered, however they may have come across that knowledge, means that the encounter wasn’t as challenging as it could have been for them, thus, the characters only gain a portion of the experience that they would otherwise have earned.’
  • Curtail any table-talk between players that may be construed as ‘player knowledge’ – This often takes a strong GM to carry through, and though it prevents a player from sharing any knowledge with others, it doesn’t prevent them from using it themselves. A better way to implement this is by allowing them to share the knowledge, but only by role-playing their character – Malfo, the magic-user, steps back away from the Manticore, “My master warned me of such beasts, beware their spitting tail, for it fires deadly spikes.’ – though not preventing the use of player knowledge it does introduce it in a more realistic and interesting way into the game.
  • Finally, and as a last resort, the GM can come down hard on a player, especially if they are abusing their knowledge to artificially advance their character or if it is causing disruption with the other players, by telling them straight – ‘your character is in no way privy to that kind of information’, which can be followed by a mild punishment, ‘…and in their confusion they slip on the rocks gaining disadvantage!’ – after a warning or two the player should get the message, but if they don’t then they need to be spoken to away from the game, either individually or with the rest of the group.

I cannot recall ever having to speak with a player over this issue; there is nearly always a better way to deal with it, and each GM has his or her their own methods.

So, that’s a quick insight into player/character identity and knowledge, hopefully it will give something for players of all experiences to think about next time they go adventuring, and it would be interesting to hear about any of your thoughts on the above – comments below – thanks for reading…

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