For a term that is used so often in tabletop RPG circles, and one that is often deemed crucial to our play experience, it generally seems to me that many, if not most, RPG players still struggle with understanding what roleplaying means and entails. I count myself among these people, as I am still not completely sure what the term means or should mean, even after having played RPGs for more than 5 years and having done quite a bit of research on the topic.
The specific goal of this article is to take a closer look at roleplaying as found in tabletop RPGs and try to analyze it in a way that allows us to facilitate and enhance roleplaying itself. In other words, we will attempt to create a design framework for roleplaying. Any definitions proposed by this article are to be seen merely as the foundation used to analyze the various facets of roleplaying, and to see if we can find a way to reliably and continuously inject roleplaying in our RPG sessions. They are not be-all-end-all watertight definitions that must be taken at face value, and they remain open to discussion and change.
1 Roleplaying - a brief definition
A basic definition of roleplaying is something along the lines of “acting and speaking as if you were someone else”. While this definition is generally ok, I don’t think it is completely applicable in an RPG scenario since we don’t necessarily have to speak in first person, and unlike something like a LARP, we don’t do what our characters do. Instead, we narrate and describe.
For these reasons and as the basis of this article, we will define roleplaying as any action stated or described by a player and that translates or pertains to the actions of that player’s character.
This definition is intentionally fairly broad, but the key takeaways are:
- Roleplaying are primarily actions undertaken by the player, not by the player character.
In a vast majority of situations, these two will overlap, meaning that the player’s actions directly translate into the character’s actions.
Player: “Korg laughs at the evil orc’s threats and challenges him to a duel.”
Player: “Sir Cedric says: “Dear Sir, this is no way for us to discuss the matter at hand.”
And the like.
However, there are sufficient exceptions to this to make this distinction of player and character. For example, if a player describes his character’s (internal) thoughts, the other characters in the game-world know nothing about this. However, the player’s decision to inform the other players of these thoughts has helped fleshed out the character to the other players. As such, it was a conscious and deliberate decision made by the player to inform others of his character’s personality. While a lot can be said here on the topic of “show, don’t tell”, let’s not get too bogged down by minutiae. Maybe in some future post.
- Roleplaying translates or pertains to the actions of a single character.
This eliminates worldbuilding and the players affecting the story externally from their character as roleplaying. In other words, designing your character’s hometown will not be considered roleplaying within this article, and neither will affecting the story in any way that is not in direct control of your character.
With this common ground established, we can work our way towards examining roleplaying in general, and towards a solution to reliably incorporating roleplaying in RPG sessions.
In order to do so, we will first take a look at the player side of the conversation. Since at its heart, roleplaying is all about the expression of character, we will take a look at a few guidelines on how to create a character that can be expressed during play.
2 For the players - creating a roleplayable character
In order for a player to intentionally express his character, that player must have some sort of understanding of that character's personality. That’s simple enough - the player has created a character and when that character finds himself in a given situation, the player will undertake activities that are in line with the character’s personality traits. However, the question arises - what informs a character’s actions? How does a player know what the character would do in a given situation?
To help us answer these questions, we will describe a character using the following three simple axes, dubbed 3M.
M1 - Motivation: what the character wants
This first part is fairly simple - it is the general goal that our character is pursuing. The rogue wants to become infamous, the paladin wants to protect the innocent and the wizard wants to become the greatest spellcaster in the kingdom.
Note that this same principle can also be applied to a negative motivator - the rogue does not want to live in poverty, the paladin does not want the innocents to get hurt, the wizard does not want to be homeless. These negative motivators can most frequently be described using fear - what does the character fear? What state in life does he seek to avoid?
One (sort of) mistake that players can make is mistake motivation for finite goals. As opposed to the almost intangible and unattainable desire or ideal represented by the motivation, many players simply create a goal that can be achieved over the course of a single adventure.
For example, our paladin’s finite goal may be to slay the demon that decimated his village. This is a very finite and tangible objective.
However, the danger with finite objectives is that they significantly limit the range of situations your character would reasonably be interested in, thus narrowing the scope of situations your GM can hope for you to be interested in. If this scope is narrowed by all of the characters at the table, it will be very difficult to create situations that all of them are interested in.
Put three characters with finite and narrow objectives into a standard D&D party and tell them to go kill some goblins in a cave. Unless these goblins are tied to those finite goals of all three characters, they are unlikely to be interested in doing this quest. Contrary to this, a broad motivation enhances the chances that your character will want to meaningfully interact with the world, while at the same time allowing for a broad palette of scenarios for him to engage in.
Our rogue believes that freeing the town from goblins will enhance his reputation. Check.
The paladin wants to protect the townsfolk from these dastardly monsters. Check.
The wizard believes that taking on challenges will allow him to improve his arcane skills. Check.
Once you have an appropriate general motivation, you can slap on as many finite objectives as you want and use these to further inform your character’s decisions.
M2 - Method: what the character will do to get what they want
This is the juicy part that often informs our character even more than point 1 and it is directly linked to our character’s motivation. It boils down to a simple question of “What will my character do to achieve his motivation?”
Will my rogue steal to get rich? Will he kill? Will he betray friends and family?
What would he never do? Are there any limitations to how far he would go to achieve his goals?
Setting up the method not only fleshes out our character, but even more importantly, it creates further potential for internal drama and allows our characters to more meaningfully interact with their environment and be shaped by these interactions. We will explain how later on in this article.
M3 - mannerism - the characterization, how the character speaks, acts on a surface level
This third part is the surface-level personality of our character - his clothing, voice, history, looks… Although we often spend the most time on this part, it is actually the least important part of making a roleplayable character. While it is most definitely useful and good to have, it is generally not vital in creating a roleplayable character.
To illustrate these points, let’s pit two superhero characters against each other - the Batman vs the Punisher.
First of all, their M1 - Motivation is practically the same - they both lost loved ones to criminals, and now they fight crime and want (violent) crime to cease. A decent, strong motivation. All good.
Their M3 - Mannerism is also very similar - they are both dark and brooding loners who have been let down by the world. They have no real superpowers per se, but are intelligent and motivated. They frequently use guerilla tactics against numerically superior enemies, and are very skilled in all manner of combat. So far, these two characters are very similar.
However, where they vastly differ is their method - while the Batman makes it a point never to kill in his quest for justice, the Punisher has no such limitations and kills freely. Their method provides them with an interesting differentiation.
For now, let’s agree that whenever we create a new RPG character, we follow the 3M rule - we establish our motivation, our method and our mannerism. Whether you have an existing RPG character in an ongoing campaign, or if you’re planning to make one in the future, write down the 3M for your character on a piece of paper right now.
Now take a look at what you have written, and note one very important rule: nothing that you’ve written down is set in stone. It may not be pleasant for him, it may not be easy, but your character should be able to change in some way during play. You should not make a character who would never do something, or who always does something, and then stick to that statement like a dogma. Contrary to what hundreds of online guides and tutorials will tell you, Batman would be boring as hell to play in an RPG. Do not create lines that your character would never cross. Instead, create lines that he may not want to cross, or that he thinks he would never cross, but you as the human person driving that character may push him across any of those lines given the right circumstances.
An additional useful tool in this regard are the so-called lies your character tells himself. These are general ideas or a vision of himself that your character holds and that he believes are the lines he would never cross. However, you as the player are fully aware that he may cross them under the right circumstances. For example, Gimli’s player has Gimli lie to himself that he would never be friends with an elf. Yet with certain death looming, he realizes that Legolas is a true friend and admits this, both to Legolas and himself.
Furthermore, note that the above advice refers primarily to creating your character and setting up the initial personality that you start a game with. In line with the advice on keeping your character open to change, you should feel free to modify any of the M3 axes as appropriate, create new ones or abandon existing elements altogether.
3 For everyone - types of roleplaying
Now that we've defined how to make a character able to participate in roleplaying, let's take a look at a few various shapes and flavours of roleplaying itself.
Within the scope of this article, we will define three general types of roleplaying: pastime, depiction and action. While these three types of roleplaying are fairly distinct, as showcased below, note that the lines between them can sometimes be blurry and a single roleplaying action can possess qualities of multiple roleplaying types.
To kick things off, I’ve found that what many people refer to as roleplaying usually occurs during the quiet moments of a session, when there is no danger and there are no real stakes involved. The characters will be sitting in a tavern, enjoying their drinks after an epic adventure, and the unhinged half-orc barbarian will start a bar fight. Or the party bard will sweet-talk some ladies, or the rogue will go pick some pockets for small change, you get the idea. This is “pastime” and let’s define it as in-character activities that carry little to no consequences to the player characters nor the fictional world.
Roleplaying is also often used to refer to the descriptions of how a character does a specific something. The wizard’s player describes the runes on his staff flashing as he casts a powerful spell, the fighter’s player describes how he hacks away with his sword at the goblin king, the ranger’s player describes the arrows unerringly flying towards the dragon circling overhead. With the description completed, dice are rolled, end scene. We will refer to this type of roleplaying as “depiction”.
There is one other, commonly-accepted type of roleplaying - the talky-talky bits. Basically, if a player talks in first person to an NPC or to another PC, we will declare this to be roleplaying. Note that, under this assumption, speaking in third person does not constitute roleplaying. I firmly believe that this classification of roleplaying is, to be frank, idiotic. We can put it in the camp of pastime, if our PCs are doing the talky-talky in a low-risk situation, or depiction, if they are speaking in a special voice. As I said, I consider this classification of roleplaying to be irrelevant and I will not analyze it further here, but I might discuss the topic in more detail at some point in the future. Note that I do not consider the activity of speaking in a special voice idiotic, I merely refuse to acknowledge this activity as a special or separate type of roleplaying.
Before we continue to “action”, we should note that both pastime and depiction are extremely useful in that they allow the players to express their characters in a low-risk scenario, and to better drag everyone at the table into the game world, providing immersion. While it can be said that repeated 3-minute descriptions of the wizard casting fireball can become tedious, I believe that in this case, it is better to err on the side of too much, than on the side of too little.
The crucial difference between pastime and depiction vs. action is that the former are first and foremost player-initiated, and as such we cannot reliably design for them. We can definitely facilitate their occurrence at the table, but we cannot demand them. Furthermore, pastime and depiction commonly carry no consequences to either the character nor the world beyond that character. This is not true in all cases, and I would even argue that the GM should at least occasionally aim to provide consequences in proportional measure to these types of roleplaying. Action, on the other hand, almost always necessitates some sort of consequence by its very definition.
With that said, let’s take a look at what “action” is.
4 Girl, we need some...
We will define “action” as impactful actions that a character makes as the result of the events and world around them and that have tangible consequences. This is your fighter drawing his sword and attacking the town guard. This is your wizard, deciding to collapse the bridge under the retreating peasants so as to annihilate the zombie horde on their tails. Your rogue, opting to snitch out on the thieves' guild to the local law enforcement.
These actions are informed by the character’s personality on the one hand, and the very events that occur in-game on the other. Since we’ve covered the character personality using the 3M approach above, the only thing that’s left to specify are the events that occur in-game that trigger these actions.
Let’s take a look at a simple example.
The rogue that wants to become infamous, the paladin protecting the innocent and the wizard looking to become powerful walk into a bar. The innkeeper tells them of the goblins that have been attacking the town. The three characters have different reactions to the innkeeper’s plights - the rogue will do it if word of his deeds will spread far and wide, the paladin will do it to protect the innocent and the wizard will do it as vanquishing foes will make him more powerful. Great, we now have a game at our hands.
Now, this is perfectly fine as is, to be honest. Our characters have a motivation and they embark on a quest. They return some time later with the goblins’ heads, collect their rewards and we move on.
However, this adventure as written did not really create a lot of points wherein our players were able to or express their Motivation (M1) and Method (M2). Mannerism (M3) will pop up as initiated by the players via pastime and depiction, but expressing M1 and M2 needs a bit more work on the design-side of things. So, how do we do this?
Let’s take a look at the rogue for example. Let’s say our rogue’s player previously told us that his character wants to become famous (M1), and would do anything to achieve it except flat out kill innocent people (M2). Let’s challenge his M2.
What we will do is have the rogue find out that the goblins plan to ambush the town that night and kill as many villagers as possible. The player is now faced with an interesting decision - does he:
a) warn the townsfolk of this ambush to save their lives, or
b) wait for the ambush to start and then start killing off the goblins in front of the terrified townsfolk?
The first scenario will save more lives, but the second one is in line with our established M1 and M2 as it will further enhance his reputation and he won’t be directly killing any innocents.
By designing this scenario, we’ve just asked a meaningful question to our rogue’s player: what will your character do? Will he stay true to his method - will he let innocent people die to fulfill his motivation? Or will he change and act in the interest of the people?
Regardless of what the player chooses to do, we have effectively created a springboard for the player to express his character, and his character will have become more fleshed out than it was at the outset of the adventure. Additionally, we may have helped the player change or slightly alter his character’s motivation or method. Let’s say he prevents the ambush - this informs us of the character. His motivation may have stayed the same, but his method has changed. He still wants to become (in)famous, but he has realized he will not let innocents get hurt in the process.
The above examples showcase what is meant by designing for roleplay. When you plan your adventures in such a way that you challenge a character’s own beliefs and values, you create a situation in which the player by design must roleplay. Using in-game events, you are asking the player a concrete question about their character, and they must answer that question using actions in order to move forward. Furthermore, you are creating vital opportunities for the player to flesh out his character and express his personality. Much like a good story that twists and turns this way and that, the character will continuously shift back and forth in his motivation and method. This approach both continuously asks the players interesting questions about their characters, but it also serves as a way for the players to express those characters, or in other words, to roleplay.
In the following entry in this series, we will analyze how to consistently design roleplayable scenarios and the benefits this type of design will bring to our RPG sessions.
Roleplaying is the act of expressing the personality of a single fictional character. We can nominally distinguish three types of roleplaying: pastime, depiction and action. All three are beneficial and useful, yet action is frequently the only one that carries consequences, but even more importantly, the only one that can be reliably designed for.
In order for a character to partake in any roleplaying, but action even moreso, the character needs to be roleplayable, and this can be achieved using the three M-axes - motivation, method and mannerism. Once these axes have been established, the GM may create situations that ask the player interesting questions about their character and allow them to discover who their character really is.
As a final note, I would posit that discovering one’s own character is at least as alluring as discovering the hidden secrets of the fictional world that the GM has created. These two discoveries - one of character and one of story, are not mutually exclusive, and there really is no reason for them not to happen simultaneously.