By sheer coincidence, we’ve recently played two different games set in fictionalized versions of historical England. One was our Dresden Files Victorian urban fantasy campaign, and the other was a supers oneshot game set in early World War II. I played a very different character in each, but both were English. Yet, in one game I did my best to not butcher an English accent, while in the other I just spoke in my regular, Midwestern American pattern.
This wasn’t an oversight. This was, in fact, an effect of one of my core role playing strategies. What might that be? Read on to find out!
Know Your Goal
I found it extremely helpful to consider what exactly I was aiming for when role playing of a character. I’m not talking about specific characters here, but rather as a general goal. When I play a role, any one, what’s my focus?
Am I trying to portray a fictional person as realistically as possible? Am I trying to tell a good story? Do I just use a character as a vehicle to roll dice and kill things?
When I considered the many possible options, I came to a big realization. I can never play a character perfectly, because I’m just not that person, and I’m not in their shoes. So, because I can never win that battle, perhaps I should focus on evoking the character rather than some immeasurable notion of accuracy.
The Devil’s in the Details
A couple weeks ago in my Victorian Cheatsheet series, I mentioned that I wasn’t so much interested in creating an absolutely historically accurate Victorian era as I was evoking the feeling of the time. Similarly, when I play a character, I don’t concern myself with trying to do everything exactly as the character would. Rather, I try to get 90% there, focusing on the parts that make that character unique.
Letting go of that last 10% frees me of the parts of the character that could constrain the game. Ever had a player use the excuse “it’s what the character would do?” Ever realize that what your character wants to do would drag the game down? Ever notice that your character has no reason to be where she is? Most of the time, for me, that all goes into the lost 10%.
For instance, in our recent Victorian Dresden Files game, I knew that my character would have been mortified to have a bunch of unmarried men and women alone together at night without appropriate supervision. Resolving the situation, however, would have dragged down the game. Therefore, I chose to ignore that little social hiccup.
It also gives me license to use the character to maximize the things I enjoy in RPGs: story, characters, and fun. If there’s an action I could take that would bring the game to a cool place, I have room to maneuver. I’m not going to disregard the character, of course, but if it’s something he might do, I’m just not chained to something less fun that I think he probably would do.
What Will the PC Do?
The easiest way to determine how a character will act is to figure out the main things that drive him. What are his goals? What is he good and bad at? What are his core beliefs? Fate is great for this, because figuring these things out is built right into character creation as Aspects.
I’ll stick with my Dresden Files character, Jon, as an example. He was a bit of a romantic as a young man, and sees himself as a latter-day knight, protecting the weak, and fighting dragons. Also, his main focus is his quest to rescue his fiance, kidnapped by a vampire.
Knowing these things about my character, I understood that he would risk his life to save another’s, especially if it was a woman, and he repeatedly jumped into fights a Pure Mortal should probably have avoided. Though he’ll go to great pains to observe social protocol, he’ll ignore them if there’s a woman at risk, or vampires are involved. His quest has been stalled for some time, but when he recently stumbled upon the trail again, he threw himself back into the hunt in an instant.
How Will the PC Behave?
Knowing the forces that move my character allow me to figure out what he’ll do, but I still need to figure out how to play him as he does it. In many ways, this can be even trickier. Some of it will be obvious from the character’s background, but personality doesn’t always follow logically from anything in particular.
For instance, Jon was born into a “high class” family, but rebelled, forsaking his duty to his family. He’s been somewhat ostracized for that decision, leaving him cut off from his peers. He might logically react to this by abandoning this upbringing. He could repent, trying to regain his wealth and status. Instead, I decided that Jon was too prideful for either. He stubbornly continued to act the gentleman, while refusing to apologize for his choices.
That’s all well and good, but in order to do any of that, I have to decide what his motivations and personality are in the first place. Again, some of that will be obvious from the character’s concept or background. For much of the rest, though, I look to the rest of the group.
I do my best to be a team player, making sure everybody gets a chance in the spotlight. Still, I want them to stand out. Thus, when I’m determining how to play my character, I start with the things that set him apart from the rest of the group.
If the group seems full of impulsive characters, I would play more level-headed. An average person in a group of grim-faced heroes will seem like a coward, so I might emphasize that. In a combat-focused group, I would add social skills, which also has the benefit of broadening the mechanical capabilities of the party. In other words, I create and play my character relative to the rest of the group.
Examples: Englishness and Accents
In the case of Jon, I initially considered having had him convert to Islam in his adventures through northern Africa. However, when I noticed that half the characters of our “Victorian England” group were American, I decided that the group needed more “Englishness.” Thus, I decided to play up aspects of his personality that would evoke the Victorian English gentleman. In our previous Dresden Files game, I had initially intended to play my young Focused Practitioner as a bit of an angry teen. As the game progressed, however, I noticed that we had more than enough anger in the group already, so I changed to more of an unimpressed, “too cool for you” attitude.
Due to the cultural makeup of the group, Jon would have to sound different from the Americans, which has resulted in my attempts to maintain an accent. In our World War II supers game, however, the whole group was English. In that case, my character’s accent should sound the same as everybody else’s, so no accent for that game. Instead I’ve tried to portray his quiet and contemplative personality. In another example, our recent Pathfinder game had me playing a mercenary from a very rural area. Since he would have seemed very rustic to the other characters, and nobody knows what his regional accent would sound like in that fictional land, I attempted a rural southern accent.
Rule #1: The Game Comes First
As always, however, use moderation. This strategy should only be applied far enough to give your character flavor, and, potentially, a unique mechanical role. You know you need to scale it back if you begin to cause tension or hold up the game. The character should still fit well within the group, even if while her unique qualities are being emphasized.