Dice Tales: The Character Lens

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the tenth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


Playing a character in an RPG is, at least for me, rarely like writing a character in a novel.

As I said in my last post, this is because as a novelist, I have to be paying attention to ALL THE THINGS. Not just that one character, but all the other characters, and the plot, and the pacing, and the sentences, and man my last six paragraphs have all been the same length and began with the same word — you get the point. I’m looking at the whole picture, which keeps me from getting too deeply invested in any single bit of it. In that sense, writing a novel is much more like being the GM for a campaign than like being a player.

Does this mean I feel like there’s no connection? Of course not. In fact, I think playing in RPGs is really good for me as a writer. (So is GMing — but that’s another post.)

Back at the beginning of this series, I said that when you’re a player, your PC is the primary frame through which you interact with the story. This is because your PC is the only thing you actually control: their actions, their opinions, their reactions to other characters and the events around them. Out of character conversation can sometimes persuade other players to do things a certain way, but for the most part, if you want something to happen in the story, the only way to make that a reality is through your own PC. If I’m looking to create a romance between my character and an NPC, I have to look for ways for us to interact, opportunities to say and do things that will foster attachment. I can (and do) tell the GM what sort of behavior would attract my character’s interest, so they’ll shape the NPC accordingly . . . but even then, this is all still passing through the lens of my character.

The result of this is that I think a lot about character when I’m playing in a game. In order to roleplay well, I need to know what my PC thinks of other characters, what she wants out of life, what she’s willing to do to get those things. What’s more, I need to create a character whose reactions to things will potentially be interesting. A happy, stable, well-balanced person who pretty much has everything she wants and harbors no particular animosity toward anyone is a bland character to play. So is the brooding loner who won’t talk to anybody about her hidden angst: if it stays hidden, then it’s not interesting to anybody but me. For my money, a good RPG character is one who is usefully broken in some fashion. Maybe she’s a psychic in a setting where letting people find out you’re psychic means being kidnapped and brainwashed by the church . . . but not using your powers can cause bad things to happen that will also give you away. (My Fading Suns PC.) Maybe she was raised by an abusive enchantress in the aftermath of a demon apocalypse and knows a crap-ton about magic but is really lacking in social skills and yet craves connection with other people. (My Buffy/Angel character.) Maybe she dreams of being a great hero of the Empire, but was too young to fight in the recent war and literally slept through the greatest moment of heroism in a thousand years, leaving her afraid that she missed her chance. (My L5R PC.)

It isn’t just the broken-ness, though that’s part of it. (There’s a reason why disadvantages, whatever name they may bear in a given game system, are a big part of how I develop my character concepts.) I wind up thinking about things like what PC does with her spare time. Who her friends are, outside of the other PCs. What her house looks like, or where she sleeps if she doesn’t have a house. A hundred details that will never come up in the actual game — but knowing them means I know her better, and so when the roleplaying gets really going, I don’t have to stop and think about how she would react, the way I might when I’m writing a novel. I know, or at least can make a good snap decision about, whether she knows how to play poker. I can answer questions about family and childhood. I can be hostile upon meeting a new character because he reminds me of my father — or rather, PC’s father. If I’m thinking in terms of “I,” then I’m really in character, and things are going well.

And when it comes time to make something happen in the story, I get a lot of practice in figuring out how to make it happen within the strictures of the character I’ve created. This doesn’t just mean the backstory and the facts of the game, though of course those matter: sometimes the biggest hurdle is the psychological weight and momentum of the character herself. I want my PC to ally with this other character, but she would never do that. Okay, then, what has to happen for such an alliance to even be conceivable? Can I do it just by a trick of thinking, reframing the situation in my own mind, or do I need to coordinate with other players or the GM to engineer an event that will help catalyze a change? This crashed and burned for me once in an ongoing LARP, where a recent event had so thoroughly screwed over my PC that she was deeply depressed. I tried to explain to the GM that the event he’d arranged had made it such that playing my character was no longer fun, and asked that the little ongoing personal plot I was about to wrap up (which wasn’t particularly load-bearing for the game as a whole) conclude in a fashion that would give my character reason to believe in hope again. That didn’t happen, and I stopped playing — because at that point, I simply could not see any narratively coherent path ahead of me that didn’t involve my PC crashing and burning in a ball of despair. Which wasn’t a story I was particularly keen to play through.

As a writer, I have the ability to make those moments happen where they’re needed. But they have to fit into the story: they must be logical, not violating the plot and situation up to that point, and they have to plausibly create the effect I’m looking for in the character. Gaming has given me a great deal of experience in thinking about how to get the effect I need, within the context already established . . . Because remember, there’s no takebacks.

It’s no surprise that, when I rework concepts from games into pieces of fiction, it almost always centers on character. Francis and Suspiria in Midnight Never Come — a rare instance of adaptation from a game I ran, rather than one I played in. The protagonist of a trunked YA novel; she’s fine, but the story around her needs a major overhaul. The crossdressing naval lieutenant of “False Colours.” Ree Varekai, who is the exemplar of everything I’ve discussed in this post: for four years she was my character in an ongoing Changeling LARP, and a de-Changeling-ified version of her will soon be appearing in the novella Cold-Forged Flame. When I’m a player, my character is the story.

And when I sit down to write, the story is the character.




Dice Tales: The Character Lens — 2 Comments

  1. And what you’ve just described is why I find GMing so much more work than just playing a game. So long as I have sufficient energy to interact and get into character (the bar for the latter varies depending on how good a sense of the character I have, but still usually lower than GMing), I can play, and often I can take a more passive player role than usual if necessary. But as a GM, I don’t have that option: I have to coordinate all of the things that aren’t controlled by the players, and usually also guide the overall story . . .

    Which is not to say that there have not been games in which the players took the story and ran with it, and pretty much all I had to do was run alongside and maybe provide NPC dialogue sometimes.

    • I suspect very few people would call GMing less work than playing. 🙂 You’re doing much of the work of writing a novel, plus some: you can’t just plan one sequence of events, but have to have contingencies for what you’ll do if things go a different way. (“If this NPC dies, then X. If he lives and the PCs let him go, then Y. If he lives and they imprison him, then Z.”) Either that, or you have to be *really* willing to pull stuff out of your ear with no warning whatsoever — and that’s exhausting in an entirely different way, one I personally like even less.

      Playing can also be exhausting, but it’s usually more of an emotional effort than an intellectual one.