Critical Insight: Your Character and You

Hello, again. Today I want to tackle a difficult subject. Your Character. And You.

Now, for someone whose experience with table top RPGs—or LARPs, or any kind of role playing game where you actually interact with people face to face—is through YouTube videos at best, what I’m about to say may seem like the most obvious thing ever; for the person who can quantify their experience with these games as more than half their lives, this is like preaching to the choir; for the person about the delve into their very first RPG, or maybe only have one campaign under their belts, take heed:

You are not your character.

I can hear a collective “Well, duh!” from some of you, but take heed from your elders!

Character/Player separation is the most important skill a person needs when role playing. Sure, being clever, and being decisive is useful. Being funny is a plus. But, those skills can come with time; no one’s going to be brilliant right from the start. The one thing you can work on teaching yourself now, before it’s too late is to not take things personally.

I can only explain this rule with examples from my own life, so names will be changed for the sake of plausible deniability.

Back is high school I did not have very many friends, which never bothered me much to be honest. Due to the constant ridicule I received from my peers, I adopted an “I’m better than them” approach to life—which probably didn’t help ingratiate myself to them—and pretty much withdrew from everything, except my few, very close friends.

What began as a simple three-person Vampire: The Masquerade campaign, eventually exploded into a seven-person… disaster.

With the exception of a few D&D delves with my brother through the years, I had never really played a role playing game—emphasis on the Role Playing. As such, my first character was nothing short of a Mary Sue.


Only back then, I took the time to remove the blue things from her face

Elysian Sylvan DiVino (El S D… get it? Oh man, I was hilarious when I was 16), was a Toreador (because I was not pretty), who was embraced for her singing voice (because I love to sing but was a bad singer). She was half French (because I am a Francophile) and half-Italian (because I’m half Italian). She had high social skills (which I lacked), and high mental skills (which I admire). She had some occult skills (because I was the weird girl into Wicca), owned a bar (which I wanted to do), and actually lived in the house where I lived (because…. I don’t know why… probably because I didn’t want to be bothered trying to imagine a different area of Staten Island to live in). The character design for the avatar was Belldandy from the anime/manga series Ah! My Goddess.

This is a trap I’ve seen a lot of first timers fall into, and while I have a hypothesis as to why, I’d prefer to get a government grant to study it rather than share it with all of you*. Regardless of the reason, there’s nothing too wrong with your very first character being some sort of version of you—idealized, maybe, or just having those one or two traits you wished you had. Maybe they’re braver than you, or stronger than you. It’s easier to role play someone that is familiar to you than to role play someone different.

The problem arises when you don’t remember that this character is just that: a character. They are not real, and they are not you—hence the danger in playing yourself.

I relay my character information to you to pose you this question:

Given everything I saw myself as, and given everything Elysian was: How could I not take someone, telling my “character” that they were useless, personally?

Answer: I couldn’t at first.  It wasn’t until I took a brief three game break from Elysian to play Cecily, a Giovanni, did I get the character/player separation concept.

Playing Cecily, who was still a version of me—that internal version of me that ignores that voice that says “Don’t do that, people will stare”—let me see things a bit differently.

It was maybe just the experience of a new character, I don’t know these things, I’m not some sort of fancy degree wielding psychologist, but the point is that after the Cecily interlude—in which she dressed up as a giant penis to go to a swanky Masquerade party—going back to Elysian, those same insults to the character no longer felt like an insult to my character. So, for the next year or so, as we continued to play, insults to Elysian were left on the table.

Of course, that’s not an interesting story, and all it does is glamorize the fact that I am more awesome that you. But, let me continue, because the story isn’t about me overcoming Character/Player separation. This is a cautionary tale. There’s a moral at the end.

During the time playing V:tM with this group, we managed to destroy our GM, and destroy our friendships. And I’m, of course, not blameless in this. A few, what I thought were, funny sarcastic jabs here, and laughing at a character’s death every now and again, and before you knew it, playing became a chore, rather than a joy.

After a session of shouting at each other—who did what wrong, whose character is most at fault, why did you fuck my character like that for no in game reason, etc.—we left our friend’s house, exhausted, emotionally. I know I wasn’t looking forward to the next week’s session, and I know the GM wasn’t either. All of our friendships became discussion The Game—our characters, their motivations, what we wanted to do, what could possibly happen.

On the one hand, this speaks to the quality of out GM—she did tell such a great story that we wanted to know the end (but, more on my opinions on GMing in a later column); on the other hand, before the game, we could talk about a lot of things—current events, school, religion, etc… we were very real friends, but with the wrong mix of personalities involved, we became focused on the game, and our characters, and nothing else.

When things fell apart, they fell apart big time—because of all things that happened in game. Accusations of meta-gaming and Power Gaming abounded. These accusations made us all more critical of each other’s characters’ motives, and, eventually, hyper-critical of each other.

One evening, wanting a break from gaming, we (the GM and myself) decided to go to the local coffee house get some coffee, some sandwiches, and sing some karaoke. Which drove some of the other players insane. It was a dangerous situation, since everyone was tense anyway, and this blow up, where one of the group stormed out, and  the rest of us went a different way home, was the one from which we never recovered.

Then I went to college.

How do you not take getting stabbed in the back personally?

There I played in my very first LARP. The character/player separation there would seem to be even more difficult to overcome: you’re not rolling dice and sitting on a couch, you’re actually throwing spells, running around your environment, swinging foam swords. And of course, some people fell into the same problems: shouting at a character in game was like shouting at the person out of game. Friendships were ruined, tears were cried, and I learned to avoid these type of players.

On one great night of role playing, there was a civil war going on, races against each other, factions had been formed, and a large group of us stood, angry at each other, shouting curses and epithets and ultimatums, at the edge of the dorms. The yells echoed, so much so that someone had called campus security thinking we were in a legitimate brawl.

Then we all went in for the night, went to our friends’ apartment, and said “Hey, that was fun! Is there anything else we need to do tonight?” went out for a few more minutes of Role Playing, came back in, and drank and played video games. No hard feelings, no destroyed friendships, but the game benefited from it.

So, how can you help prevent someone taking in game things personally?

If you’re a GM:

If you’re a player:

Most of all, make sure that, if you are for real friends in life, you do more than meet up just to Role Play. This reinforces the friendship as a friendship outside of the game.

You may already have a problem if:

None of these things are necessarily telling, but you may want to take a step back and reflect if anything in this list, or this article, struck home.

Confronting the individual, or yourself with this will bring a better overall enjoyment of what should be a fun game.

So, take this all into advice, and enjoy!

Have Fun!

*Who am I kidding, I’m never going to get a government grant to play Role Playing Games. I expect that it’s because many of us first start role playing in high school, and are socially awkward at best. We were, generally, unpopular, and wished to be a lot of things that we weren’t, so for our very first character in something we are using for escapism, we want to play someone we like, and someone we can relate to, generally a “better” version of ourselves.

Posted on July 3, 2010 at 20:42 by Jillian Pullara · Permalink
In: Columns · Tagged with: , ,

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jillers. Jillers said: RT @geekingoutabout: Critical Insight: Your Character and You […]

  2. Written by Dale Friesen
    on 2010-07-05 at 22:20

    In my games I often come up with a concept beforehand, and when we get together for the first session I explain that the players are running characters who are all from such-and-such a family, or are part of a certain organization, or whatever. I encourage the players to talk about what sorts of characters they want to play before they commit, which helps party cohesion.

    Good post, by the way. :)

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