Roleplaying Tip: Distinguish Players From Characters

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1043

Roleplaying is tough. And sometimes players don’t separate themselves from their characters. This causes problems.

RPT Patron Richard Grilley asks:


How do you help a game table to distinguish players from characters?

It is great when the brawny footballer can do a high pitch voice with a twist of Scottish accent for his female halfling.

But how can we add flavour, know when a PC is talking etc., when the college grad can’t/isn’t comfortable talking like a 6 INT with his half-orc barbarian?

Good question, Richard.

We want players to be separate from their characters.

I always notice when GMs mix up these terms.

“Killed one of my players last game.”

“I have a half-orc player who attacks everything on sight.”

“My gnome rogue is always late for sessions.”

We should lead by example and make sure we keep player and character separate.

Run a Session 0

Next, for new campaigns, run a planning session to get folks comfortable with each other before adding the layer of roleplay.

During the planning session, spend time with each player to explore their character.

Start with the character sheet.

Run through the stats. Ask the player to interpret high and low stats.

Then cover character race. Show them the game manual if they get stuck for the race description. Most games offer roleplay suggestions in terms of culture traits, likes, and dislikes.

Then go over abilities and equipment. Highlight just the extraordinary stuff that might cause a player to stumble.

The idea here is to use the character sheet as a map. Allow the player to fill in the blanks with your help.

When you detect uncertainty or discomfort, that’s great! You’ve surfaced this before it becomes a problem during the game.

For these areas, offer ideas and demonstrations. Your goal here is to fill the void with something specific the player can latch onto. A specific idea of behaviour, guidance on parameters, or examples of thinking.

Now is the time to discover if a player feels uncomfortable or lost in playing their half-orc barbarian.

You Are Not Your Character

This is a tough one. When ego and fiction mix, you’re going to get toxic emotions and behaviour.

Emphasize with players that they are not their character.

If I tease you about your battleship piece in Monopoly, you are not going to get offended.

But if I tease a player who’s meshed ego/identity with character, they’re going to take it personally.

Even more treacherous is a player who’s living out a fantasy of their character as themselves.

Be direct at this point. Have a chat and see if we have this problem.

An ideal solution is making characters different from players. Different backgrounds, strange new traits, and different personalities.

It’s also ideal if you add flaws to the character and reward the player when they play up these flaws. This will help break down ego, which always wants to be right.

If you can work more on character development so player and character become distinctly different, you might prevent the ego and identity meshing problem.

And think about calling out, “You are not your character” when you see a player getting sucked into character identity.

Play to the PCs

During play, run encounters and situations that play up to the characters.

Allow skill checks to resolve things instead of player acting.

For some players, acting is where the fun’s at.

For others, though, the game is different and about character decisions.

My style is more of the latter. “If I were this character in this situation, what would I do? What would it feel like? What’s the story here?”

Meet players where they are at and facilitate both modes and areas in between.

This is different from catering to player preferences. Keep doing that.

It’s more about angling play to character sheets.

Give the dumb half-orc some dumb half-orc NPCs to roleplay with. Show how these half-orcs have great qualities of grace, honour, and quiet strength to serve up examples for the player to explore later.

Accents and acting are fun. They’re just the surface of roleplay, though. Encourage players to explore their characters as heroes in a story they are the authors of.

Lay Down Ground Rules

No matter what, players will want to win at some level.

For some, that’s about party victories. For others, it’s about personal victories.

You cannot control how your players regard life. They’ll see themselves as victims, heroes, sacrificers, or unlucky. You cannot control their limiting beliefs. And you cannot control their levels of narcissism.

But you can control the rules of engagement.

For example, I don’t allow evil characters. That encourages intra-party conflicts.

I also don’t allow PVP. If players want to attack each other’s characters, rob a character, or diminish other characters in some way, I intervene.

You might establish from the start how you’ll approach these situations when they arise so players know what to expect.

You might pause the game, describe what game issue you’re seeing, and explain why you are intervening and blocking a particular action, for example.

Ground rules create safe spaces in which to roleplay. New players and players uncomfortable with their characters who can take risks, even small ones, can learn and evolve.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Accents are fun and all, but they aren’t the meat of roleplay.

Roleplay comes from facing interesting situations and experiencing how a unique character faces and overcomes that situation.

Offer good details, hooks, and situations for this level of play to occur.

Don’t reward players just for gaming up accents or making everyone laugh.

Also consider the deeper game yourself to see characters as different from players and what decisions players make at what costs.

I believe a character’s actions are important. I base my milieu on consequences of those actions.

If a character makes a joke about the king, whispers may reach the wrong people….

If a player has their character take a risk, reward that risk over and above the thrill of that roleplay itself. Avoid arbitrary punishment.

If a character takes an action, it reflects on the party as a whole. Reputations, access to resources, and character values are at stake.

I think it’s important to help players develop their character’s background, traits, and personality so characters feel distinct.

This helps some players from running character sheets as mere extensions of themselves in the game.

It’s also important to notice discomfort and struggles to roleplay and help players with examples both in-play and through GM-to-player chats.

Check for table behaviours that might limit players from taking risks and portraying their characters.

And create encounters so the spotlight shines on what makes each character distinct from time to time.

I hope this helps, Richard.