You have probably have heard about “getting into character” before – usually in reference to actors – but what does that really mean? And how does it factor into playing tabletop role-playing games (TRPG)? I mean they're just games, right? In actuality, TRPGS do include a form of acting and getting into your character’s head which can help you to enjoy the game more while having a lot of fun.
Feb 4th, 2019 - The fundamental difference between acting and playing a TRPG game is essentially control. The great things about TRPG characters is that you are simultaneously the actor and director. You get to create the character and decide how they will react in circumstances and the why. It’s a powerful and brilliant place to be, but it can and usually is exceptionally daunting. This is particularly true for people who find empathy difficult.
You can't get more into character than Maven does...
Your character’s head space
If you’ve ever acted before, or been around actors, you’ll often hear them talking about getting into their character’s head space. This is essentially practicing a type of empathy that gives the actor an insight into what likely motivates and drives their character, what they love and hate, how they would react in certain scenarios, and what kind of emotions are running through their heads in scenes and situations. This is where directors come into play, helping to “direct” the actor to a better performance by helping them get to that headspace.
As mentioned earlier, the great thing about TRPGs is that you are both that director and actor. So you get to decide what that character’s headspace is and why. You get to inform yourself, so to speak, about how that character should act in any given situation and how it will affect them and inform the story. You see, by it’s very nature, TRPGs are a group story-telling experiment. The DM is not the director. They can’t tell you how your character will react or might feel, they can only give you the story and let you interact with it.
I wish my handwriting was that good.
Planning, Backstory, and Justification
So how do you get into this new, exciting, but daunting headspace? The first step to getting into your character’s head is to plan them out. What motivates them? What are their values? What events have shaped their thinking, morality, and ethics? What relationships do they have and how have they informed that character’s being? And what effect does that have? And you should have and understand the whys for these. If a character’s parents are dead (common trope, I know), you'll want to have an idea of who your character thinks did it and why. Were your character’s parents cruel and abusive, so she feels their death is a blessing and doesn't really care about the why? Or maybe your character's family was extremely rich, but fell from grace and now feel nothing except hunger and resentment? Does your character see society as nothing but a thin veil ready to be ripped off and exposed? Or do they feel law and order is paramount?
You might recognize this as “alignment” and you’d be right. But where you’d be wrong is thinking that alignment explains everything. It is a great guide and a way to easily sum up your character in a two word label, but it’s only a label. Alignment can and is fluid. A character might start off hating the world and wanting to see it burn, only to be saved by someone unexpectedly and feel that they’ve wasted their lives hating everything, only to turn around and be burnt again and hate the world. The joy of playing this game is that you get to tell these stories.
By thoroughly planning out your character’s background and backstory, it helps you to understand what motivates and drives them. It helps you get into that headspace by being a roadmap of their identity.
That's a party fault, Mr. Smee.
Give your character faults, flaws, and poor behaviours
No one is perfect, so why should you character be? On the D&D character sheet there is a section for flaws for a reason; imperfection makes perfection. It’s these flaws that help round our characters out and help them feel like real people with real issues, real goals, and real motivation. Does your character have a stutter and was bullied for it incessantly and now they have a vendetta against anyone who is a bully? Or maybe they were a princess but felt claustrophobic due to their cloistered upbringing and now fight to end the monarchy but she can’t hack closed in spaces?
There are a million and one ways you can tackle this particular aspect of getting into character, but the critical piece is making their flaws believable, impactful, and meaningful. Having a character who lost their sister and now cannot bear to see children her age be harmed or in danger and will throw themselves into harms way to save them – that has real impact to your character and the story.
Gotta love VectorStock for those hard to find images.
Like people, characters grow –
No one stays the same and the same goes for your character. As I mentioned in the backstory point, you could have a character go from being chaotic evil to lawful good and back again over the course of an entire campaign. Shifts like this can happen rarely, abruptly and usually due to external stimulus. But over the course of sessions, the entire group should ideally grow and change with the movement of the story.
This means keeping tabs on how your character is changing and what are the elements of that shift. Your notes from each session are critical here as they help you define and shape that change subtly, as well as prompting discussion between you and the DM on how best to effect those changes. You can read more about the important of note taking in my piece on preparing for a gaming session here.
A Final Fantasy Happy Moment. Eh? EH? Yeah.
Misery, sorrow, and loss are great, but...
As I mentioned briefly in the backstory section positive interactions can have real and lasting impact on your character. Don’t discount the importance of happy events and the impact they can have on your character.
Negatives events often have a very powerful and lasting effect on us as human-beings, so we can sometimes discount the happy ones; such as the birth of children, marriage, our first kiss, etc. One of the beautiful things about playing TRPGs is that you can experience life again through the eyes, mind, and heart of someone else. Some who, by the way, was created by you. It’s a powerful experience and something many players miss.
So do yourself a favour and don’t focus on all the bad things that have happened or will happen to your character and slot in some time for happy, positive, and supportive interactions as well.
Sometimes we forget that TRPGs offer experiences above and beyond combat or action-focused encounters. While those are really fun and enjoyable, often the most enjoyable and memorable moments are the ones where role-playing takes front and center. Whether it's the gnome who got a little too frisky with questionable hoteliers, or two dwarves who inadvertently set off the apocolypse with a self-fulfilling prophecy. Growing and developing your characters offers a plethora of possibilities for a truly awesome gaming experience. Personally I think alone makes it worth investing some time into it.
So don’t be afraid to explore something different and see what it takes you!