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What would my character do?

Role-playing is about more than moving a game piece around a board, or even moving a mini around a map. You’re not playing a mini — you are playing a character. Role-playing is kind of there in the name “role-playing game,” and that means pretending to be another person, speaking in their voice, and making decisions like they would. But sometimes, a certain course of action is in-character but problematic for the game or other players.

What does that mean? And what can you do? First, an example story!

A few games back, I played a character named Safi. She had been imprisoned for a petty crime and desperately wanted to escape her sentence. The premise of the game was that some mercenaries and prisoners were pressed into service aboard a ship heading out to investigate a dangerous mystery at sea. Great, Safi was stuck on the ship so that I was “forced” to go on the adventure.

But then we had to make a supply stop along the coast and I told the Storyteller that it was very much in character for Safi to try to run away, but would like her captured and brought back to the adventure. No problem, the Storyteller gave the other characters some easy rolls to catch my little runaway. But somehow, they all utterly failed these checks. Against all odds, Safi got away.

That… wasn’t what I wanted. While it was in character for Safi to run, I never intended for her to escape. After all, the ship was where the adventure was, and I didn’t want to miss out! But things had gone sideways, so how was I going to fix it? I already had Safi flee, so why the hell would I have her go back? Yet I had to do precisely that.

I needed a moment to think. Luckily, the story followed the other player characters going back to the ship to explain to the captain that Safi had escaped. The Storyteller must have been pretty confident in me, because the NPC captain didn’t dispatch more people to go find Safi. He just shrugged and said that they would find her body on the rocks in the morning or not at all. (My escape had been a daring cliffside climb in the dark.)

So during that other scene, I started running through scenarios in my head that would get Safi back onto the ship. Dragged back by one of the dock guards? Maybe, but I didn’t want the other players to feel like their heroic characters couldn’t accomplish what one NPC guard could. Perhaps Safi left something important on the ship? No, too contrived.

But what if she went back for a person? I liked that better, but as the cranky prisoner who just wanted to escape all of this, Safi hadn’t exactly bonded with anyone. But I suddenly remembered Danya, an NPC girl — also a prisoner — who I had protected a little bit early in the story. Just from a monster tentacle during a shipboard fight, but still. We had the most tenuous of bonds, but when the Storyteller came back to me, I narrated Safi feeling guilty for leaving Danya on a ship full of people who didn’t care about her and wouldn’t protect her. I had Safi slink back to the ship and tell everyone that she wouldn’t try it again. At least, not while Danya was on the ship.

Great! I was back in the story… But Safi’s relationship with Danya really wasn’t that strong. So now I had to sell this change of heart by actually bonding with the other girl. And you know what? I started having Safi spend time with Danya, and enjoyed it so much that the two eventually ended up falling in love.

I never would have had this role-playing opportunity if things hadn’t been flipped on their head — but that’s the fun of an RPG! You never know what is going to happen!

Image: A figure standing with their back turned to us, staring out at a great glowing tree growing up from the ruins of a burnt-out house.
Art by Tithi Luadthong

Alright, so how is this generally applicable to other situations? Well, none of us know everything that’s going to happen in a role-playing game, what circumstances we might find our characters in, or what the dice will do. The result might be a situation that puts you between a rock and a hard place — an in-character action that you don’t want to take, or need to modify.

It’s alright, don’t panic. You don’t have to tank the game just because it’s what my character would do. But neither do you need to ignore the contradiction and throw out the delightful chaos that is a role-playing game.

Take a moment. Either hand over the limelight to other players, ask for a snack break or go hit the bathroom. Don’t be afraid to let your table know that you need a breather to think things through. Now you have some space, and you can sort out the possible solutions to this contradiction. It might be in-character to do something problematic, so look at the things that you — as the player — want to do, then do a deep dive on your character to look for reasons they would do what you want in character.

Spin out as many different scenarios as you can, then examine them for which one would be the most fun or the easiest solution. (I personally vote for the fun option.) Now consider what effects this choice will have going forward — like Safi needing to bond with Danya — and make sure that you’re alright with them. If not, then look to one of your other solutions.

If you’re really strapped for ideas, consider asking your Storyteller or fellow players for some. They are likely happy to help a friend out of a jam, and might have some great solutions that you never would have thought of, or a way that their own character might be able to help. Finding a reason to do something against character opens whole new vistas of role-playing opportunities.

When the game session is back on, now it’s time to execute the new plan. If you want, you can let your Storyteller or group know that you know you’re taking a bit of a left turn for your character, but that it’s important. Most often, they’ll understand. (If not, then maybe it’s not a great table for you.) And be open to the new things that this change of plans will bring to the table — a new love, or a new adventure that you never saw coming.



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Erica Lindquist

Erica Lindquist

Writer, editor, and occasional knot of anxiety for Loose Leaf Stories and The RPGuide.