July 28, 2010 by Jeff
Playing a character in a tabletop roleplaying game is about more than numbers and dice-rolling. The tactical exercise of defeating your enemies is richly rewarding, but most players find that the true joy of an RPG comes from the personal interactions between the various characters of the campaign. Many folks take this a step further, crafting a personality and an intricate backstory that provides depth to the piece of paper covered with statistics. If you’re one of those folks, congratulations! No doubt you’ve played a character who grew up on the mean streets, or who vowed to keep her home town safe from marauding monsters.
Unfortunately, you’re doing it wrong.
Yeah, I can hear the gasps out there on the interwebs. “How dare he tell me how to roleplay my character?” Ease down, pal. Now that I have your attention, let’s talk about how to create an active character.
Plenty of characters have personalities or backstories, but these don’t necessarily lend themselves to active participation in the campaign storyline. The rogue defined only by where she came from doesn’t inform her player how she should act in a given situation. The paladin whose only goal is to react forcefully to attacking monsters has no roleplaying contribution to make in other situations. These aren’t active characters, these are reactive characters, waiting for the DM to put them in the right situation so they can shine.
If you’re playing a reactive character, you’re making the DM’s job harder than it needs to be. You’re like a jack-in-the-box that never pops up, and eventually the other folks at the table will get tired of winding you up.
An active character doesn’t just have a personality or a background, she has goals and points of friction that inspire her player to actively participate in crafting the ongoing story of the campaign.
A reactive character says, “I am fiercely loyal to my homeland. If anyone attacks my home, I’ll fight them to my last breath.” Well that’s super, but how often is that going to happen? If your DM’s obliging enough to provide the right stimulus, your character gets to shine, but how do you expect to convey this element of your personality during the other 29 levels of play?
On the other hand, imagine the paladin who makes this bold claim: “I am fiercely loyal to my homeland, and I am dedicated to seeking out and destroying the orc marauders who plague our eastern border.” That’s a goal that inspires action on his (and your) part, and a good DM will grab it and use it not once but potentially multiple times throughout a campaign.
And that rogue from the mean streets? All she needed to add was, “…and I don’t trust people who never experienced poverty.” Right away, the player has created a point of friction between her character and some of the people she’ll meet. A point of friction is anything that suggests that your character won’t act in the most logical and efficient manner when dealing with a situation. These points of friction create roleplaying opportunities by suggesting a particular attitude or course of action during encounters (and, if your group can handle it, between the characters in your party). Now you’re not just “a 3rd-level female half-elf rogue,” you’re “the woman who enjoys embarrassing rich people” or “the woman who thinks she’s better than the comfortable middle-class scribe she’s interrogating.”
It’s easy to accidentally create a reactive character. Plenty of popular fictional characters seem reactive on the surface: most superheroes, in fact, are horribly reactive. (Can you think of the last time that the Avengers or the Justice League went looking for trouble?) John McClane didn’t ask to be in Nakatomi Plaza when Hans Gruber attacked, right? I can imagine crafting a McClane-style character who just wants to protect innocent folks from bad guys. Pretty reactive, right? But look more closely and you see a man who a) doesn’t think much of the snooty crowd, particularly in L.A.; b) finds great pleasure in getting the better of people who count themselves as smarter or better than him; c) holds a grudge quite effectively; and most importantly, d) can’t stop himself from putting his own life in jeopardy to get the villains. Those are some interesting points of friction that will lead him to take actions that a bland, reactive character wouldn’t imagine.
Here’s another example: For all the whining that he does early on, Luke Skywalker actually has a pretty significant goal that hugely affects the storyline: he wants to become a Jedi Knight, both to live up to his father’s example and (one imagines) to avenge his father’s death. This will, among other things, cause him to, yes, leave the party for his own “side quest” during The Empire Strikes Back, which in turn sets up his battle with Darth Vader, which allows him to learn the truth about his father, and, oh, by the way, sets up the entire first act of the next movie. How do you think this would have played out if Luke had simply done everything that a purely reactive character would do? He also believes wholeheartedly in the power of the Force, which creates a point of friction between him and Han Solo.
To craft an active character, think about what your character wants to achieve during the campaign. (It helps to know the genre or world you’ll be playing in, so spend some time with your DM to learn what you can.) Don’t wait for adventure to come to you; come up with some reasons to seek it out. This doesn’t mean that you can’t also go on adventures for other reasons—not everything has to be about you.
In addition to having goals, creating a point of friction also helps you play actively by ensuring that you don’t always take the expected course. Create a little conflict: friendly conflict, of course—you’re not looking to alienate the DM or the other players at the table with your annoying troublemaker, just to keep things from getting predictable. What makes your character angry, or happy, or uncomfortable, or jealous? Pick something and find ways to display your point of friction in a manner that’s fun for everyone.
A table with active characters is not only more entertaining, it leads to a more engaging, rewarding, and memorable campaign for players and DM alike. Give it a try.