“My character wouldn’t do that.”
We’ve all been at a game table where someone has said this. Maybe you were the game master, or another player, or even that player, but it’s happened. And it’s one of the most frustrating situations you can find yourself in no matter which of these people you happen to be.
As the game master and other players you are frustrated because this phrase typically grinds the story to a halt, and as the player who uttered the phrase you are frustrated because you’re having a difficult time reconciling the story with how you envision your character.
Here is the thing though: when you say “my character wouldn’t do that” and then stonewall any further discussion, what you’re effectively saying is “I refuse to participate in this story.” This, of course, is a problematic stance to take in a game that hinges on collaborative storytelling. So let’s take a look why we should avoid doing this and discuss some other things we can do instead.
I feel like I should take a moment to pause here and say that I’m not talking about hard moral stances, things like “my guy won’t let innocent people die,” although at times even this could be a fun dilemma to wrestle with (remember: Spock taught us that sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one). However, if this is the sort of stand you find your character taking on a regular basis then you’re probably playing with the wrong group of people. At the very least you’re probably playing the wrong sort of character for the style of game that everyone else is wanting to play. Anyway, I’m not talking about that sort of thing. What I’m talking about are less extreme situations and character traits that still evoke the “my character wouldn’t do that” reaction. Things like “my guy won’t go in to cities,” or “won’t get on boats,” or “won’t cooperate with members of a certain class or race.”
And here’s the irony: creating characters with strong convictions like this is actually a good thing – hell it’s a great thing – but there’s a catch: you need to be ready – eager, even – to explore what happens to your character when those convictions are challenged. It’s fine to make a dwarf that “doesn’t work with elves,” as long as you’re excited to roleplay (in a way that moves the character and the story forward) what happens when he has to work with elves. Why? Because stories are driven by conflict, and the characters that inhabit stories are at their most interesting when they are outside of their comfort zones. If “The Hobbit” were a three hundred page book about Bilbo Baggins sitting on his fat ass eating biscuits and having tea because hobbits don’t go on adventures it would be one of the worst books ever. Likewise, “Once upon a time there was an elf who didn’t trust humans and so never went in to cities, the end,” is a terrible story. So don’t write that story with your character!
The places where the narrative rubs against your character’s convictions, and the dynamic changes that happen to both things when this friction occurs, is the story. This point of friction is where the best role-playing opportunities exist for your character – don’t take these opportunities away from yourself and shut the game down by refusing to explore (or creating a character who refuses to explore) what happens when circumstances force that character to challenge his convictions and make compromises. Instead of thinking in absolutes and making a character who wouldn’t do “that,” whatever it is, describe you’re your character instead as being uncomfortable doing “that,” or just say he’s never done “that,” but give yourself the wiggle room to acknowledge that he might have to do “that,” and think about what will happen when he does.
I feel like I could keep rambling on about this, but instead I’ll wrap things up. The bottom line is this: Don’t do yourself and the game a disservice by creating characters that are so uncompromising that you’d rather shut the game down for everyone instead of evolving those characters through roleplaying.