Are you going to be your character?

I was reading the blogs this morning and stumbled on Noism’s Monsters & Manuals blog where he had recently posted an interesting read about ‘Life Lessons.’ One of the things that struck me was his ‘life lesson #1’:

You really, absolutely, definitely, unquestionably, indisputably, do not need a detailed character background before play begins. In fact, all you really need is a name, a class, stats, and some equipment, and you’re good to go – because within five minutes of the game beginning you will without fail find your character beginning to take on a personality of his own. This strange and almost mystical emergence of character through play is one of the best things about the hobby, and it amazes me that people have been so determined, for decades, to kill the concept.

I thought it was a good summation of some of my recent disenchantment with ‘new school’ rpgs (if I may use such a broad term).

But as I thought further on it, I began to question if the ‘character’ (or ‘avatar’ or whatever you want to call it) really needs any personality of his/her/its own. If I sit down to play D&D and I create the character ‘Stumbo the Dwarf,’ do I really need to justify what I have ‘Stumbo’ do beyond the idea that I may want to do it? Is “Stumbo will open the door because he is by nature greedy and curious and he hopes to find treasure,” to be considered better roleplaying than, “Stumbo will open the door because I want to see what is behind it“?

I’m starting to wonder if all characters can’t just be an excuse for ME to have fun exploring the fantasy construct of the imaginary world with my fellow players (without death and other consequences). Sure, as Stumbo I’ll do things I would never attempt in real life, like staring down medusa or jumping over pits filled with poisoned spikes, but start to think that creating a ‘character’ in terms of personality attributes begins to fell a bit artificial to me, or a case in which we are trying to make Dungeons & Dragons more like a cooperative novel. And I question if it is suited to that role.

6 Comments on “Are you going to be your character?”

  1. Andrew D. says:

    You don't need a *detailed* personality, but maybe a few guidelines on how this character is different from your last character.

    Otherwise, you'll be role playing a dwarf fighter that is exactly the same as every other dwarf fighter anywhere ever (because when you face an obstacle without a distinct personality for your character, you'll think, “what would Gimli/Flint/Bruenor do, or what do the rules for dwarves and fighters indicate is most effective for me to do in this situation?”).

  2. Limpey says:

    Maybe I'm just spitballing here (and, well, I think that is what a blog is for), but I don't know that I think that 'playing a dwarf fighting that is the same as every other dwarf fighter' is really that bad.
    Part of what I am thinking about is questioning the definition of 'roleplaying' as we often use it (we being people like you and I who write and read these blogs). In our very very early games, our characters didn't have much “personality” and we didn't have much “motivation” beyond just wanting to overcome the monsters and obstacles, get treasure and XP and survive till the next session… but I remember these games very fondly. There was roleplaying — not in the sense of 'what would Stumbo do in this situation?' but in the sense of us imagingining the situation as it was described to us, talking it over amongst ourselves and trying to decide what to do and then discovering what happened.
    The last several games I have played in have involved 'player backgrounds' which have begun to seem increasingly stale to me. Other players in my regular group love them, so I have no problem with saying that this isn't the 'wrong' way to play, but I also want to explore a more bare-bones approach — roll up a character and dig in, I guess.

  3. Brendan says:

    I don't think I am in danger of playing every other dwarf fighter anywhere ever, because I am different than other players (and so are all other players; this is not some sort of statement of exceptionalism). More likely, all the dwarf fighters I play might be similar. But even then, I find individual characters take on their own personality due to the experiences they have in the game more than based on backstory, which tends to get forgotten. I think the 2E PHB gives an example about Rath the dwarf (I may not be remembering the details correctly) getting brutalized during his first few adventures, and thus turning into a very cautious character. This rings true to me.

    I think the characters that I play that I consider more similar to myself in temperament and motivation (magic-users, mostly) are more likely to be like periodic incarnations of the same character (more directly reflecting my own personality), if that makes sense. Characters that I personally identify less with (like a dwarf fighter) are more likely to have a more individual character, I think.

  4. postgygaxian says:

    Okay, so D&D isn't supposed to be about literary characterization, fair enough.

    Is there any tabletop game that IS supposed to be about characterization?

    One of the best D&D games I ever played was all improv theater, with strong (but shallow) characters and a lot of player-to-player interaction.

    We didn't need the D&D stats – we didn't get into any situation that needed them. We DID need a strong inspiration, which our DM provided from an excellent historical novel.

    We also needed excellent theatrical ability, which is hard to find. It's easy to find beer-and-pretzels gamers; it's hard to find improv actors.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Excellent post. I agree, but I also think the player should do what feels right to them and what works. If that means letting a personality develop, there's nothing wrong with that. But we shouldn't put down the idea of using the PC as a mere playing piece to act out our own ideas, either.

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