Written by Squinty McSquint-squint
Roleplaying games have many attributes that define the game. Most notable among the many elements is character. A character exists in a fictional place and performs a daily existence that began before you (the player) decided to adopt that character as a vehicle for play. When you are going through the development of your character, keep that in mind.
Step 1) Know your group: Knowing those you play with will help you enjoy being someone else. The entire point of playing a character is to find an escape from you. It’s not that you don’t like yourself or that you don’t like your friends. The point is that it is fun. For a few hours you can become someone else, somewhere else. It stands to reason it is more fun that you are experiencing that with people you like and they like you. If for no other reason, know your group because otherwise no one can really appreciate the difference between who you are and who you are pretending to be.
Step 2) A Brilliant Personality: A personality is a way of thinking, doing, behaving, and relating that are consistent enough for other people to notice. Once they have noticed a pattern, it becomes the mental image of you that they have in their mind. That mental image in the minds of others is your personality.
A character is a personality you pretend to have. With that understanding, it makes sense that you initiate a personality to go with your character sheet. A personality isn’t something completely defined by the character sheet. The limitations and advantages featured on the sheet serve only as a guide to the driving forces of the character you are choosing to play.
Now just as a personality in a real human being takes time to mature and coalesce, so to does the character’s. The most expedient way to developing a characters personality is to start with something small. A trait or habit of the character can become the grain of sand that allows the pearl of personality to grow. Such a trait can be found on the character sheet or it can be something you as a player choose as play progresses.
An example of this is “the squint”. A squint of the eye is a trait that is not so unusual as to be hard to maintain (like an accent can become) and it is something subtle enough it can become phased out as its importance wanes. The squint serves as a marker to help shape a character because it helps create a constant, easy to remember, image in the mind of the other players.
Now allow that attribute to affect other aspects of play. Why are you squinting? Is it a wince when you think of something terrible? Have you spent years underground and can’t bear the sunlight? What happened that makes your character squint? It isn’t important to decide this before play. But as you behave noticeably different from how the other players know you, that character's personality will begin to drift from its similarity to you in their mind.
Step 3) By Any Other Name: Pick an easy name to remember. You are in charge of designing your character. Give that character a name that is easy to pronounce, easy to spell, and easy to remember. Now you certainly can write down “X’plicanderoutic” as your character’s full name but don’t expect the players at the table to use it. Defining your character and building a consistent personality requires that you give the players something they can call you when you are squinting (perhaps “Squinty”). Nicknames, handles, abbreviated names, and “rough translations” can all be given to your group so that they can more easily call to mind what to call you.
Step 4) Show up: Being there consistently, ready to play, will do more for building a character's personality faster and more effectively than any other method.
Step 5) Focus!: Your time at the table is not your time. It is the group’s time. That means that if you have decided to show up, you have decided to give your undivided attention to the game until the game concludes. That means you need to turn off your cell phone. It means you need to let everyone who is not playing in the game know you are unavailable during play. You need to have brought food or a full belly to the game. You need to cut off cigarettes for the night or play in a game that allows smoking at the table.
Your character requires time to grow as a separate personality in the mind of your fellow players. Dividing the game time into small sub-units of roleplay breaks down the group's ability to think of you as the character you have chosen to play.
Step 6) Roll with it: Roleplay in a fantasy world rests on the assumption of certain constants. The DM’s try to provide rich detail but time and attention spans require that description be brief. If a previously unmentioned detail suddenly becomes important, due to some unforeseen choices, then role with it. That means you need to accept that other people are making assumptions that are not true. It also means that if those assumptions suddenly become true, it is in your game's best interest to adapt to the new information and continue the game without stopping.
Players also add details without prior warning. The only strategy that helps build roleplay and develop character personality is to accept these flourishes of improvisation in stride. For example: If you sit down to a table of food and none of the characters say that they are not eating, it is assumed that everyone is eating. The basis of this assumption is your choosing to sit while food is present. If someone asks you how you like the food do not stop the moment to declare you are not eating. You sat down at a table full of food. The burden of declaring you are not eating is a forgone decision. Roll with it and give the other players something to play off. That is how you build trust with your fellow players. That is how improvisation grows as a more substantial element of your games.
Step 7) On The Books: Own your own set of books, dice, pencils, paper, miniatures, and character sheets. You have chosen to play the game. Invest in it. By not owning the prime materials of the game you are telling everyone at the table that you are not committed to the game. That lack of commitment will put a block in front of your characters ability to grow a full and bushy personality. Showing up to play fully prepared goes a long way toward preparing the group to rely on you for consistency. When it comes to roleplaying in groups, observable traits of consistency are the most valuable asset you can bring to the table.
Step 8) Sharing the Spotlight: A roleplaying game is an exercise of the ego almost as much as it is a process of building a pretend personality. If fact many players care less about the character they are playing than they do about stroking their own ego in front of others. Don’t be that player. However, ego is important. Feeling good about your abilities as a player and as a character is a crucial part of the game.
Everyone in a group of players is taking part in a game that allows extraordinary events to occur, albeit imaginary ones. It is a large part of the draw of the game. Sharing those moments during the game provides for everyone at the table to enjoy themselves and to feel like they have accomplished something. Here’s a good strategy for sharing those precious moments; when there comes a time for a grand moment of high adventure, let the next guy have it. Taking center stage every time the story climaxes is a sign of immaturity, selfishness, and general poor roleplaying. If the purpose of your play is to experience those moments it is probably best that you restrict yourself to videogames. Those do not usually require sharing.
Step 9) Group Actions: Participate in the games progress. Playing a dark and brooding character that prefers lurking in the shadows is fine. Using those character traits as an excuse to avoid participating in the group’s actions breaks down the group dynamic. If you are present but uninvolved it is better that you weren’t there. A non-personality is all that grows from apparent disinterest in what the group is doing. That lack of personality development can become a swirling vortex of killjoy that infects everyone at the table. If you have nothing to add then what you add is nothing. You can be dark and brooding and still build interest in the character you are playing. The way to initiate that interest is by making decisions that are consistent and based on the “reality” of working in a group.
Step 10) Last Man Standing: Be a mentor. The game is fun and it draws people together who have very similar interests. Playing in groups that have culled out the weak and unpracticed players are groups that are dying. Once you have gotten a group of stellar players together and have an awesome DM, all you have accomplished is built a deadend. If you have found yourself lucky enough to be in a group that has a broad mix of players of all levels of experience, you might know what I am going on about. The game is not about how well you enjoyed a night of incredible gaming. It is about people. It is about sharing this game and helping others to find it.
Interest in life is the purpose of every hobby, science, and art. Just like building a character’s personality, interest in life requires something, anything of interest in order to build. Once that first thing is found then a person will find ways of relating other things to their first interest. D&D and other face-to-face roleplaying games are a way of giving people an interest in life. You become a great roleplayer when you reach that understanding. Until then, you’re just squinting.
Now there you have it. I personally guarantee that if you follow these ten simple steps you will find yourself known as a great roleplayer. There are probably many more little things other gamers have encountered that could round out this list. I prefer keeping it to these ten for now.