I’m starting to think that I don’t understand what makes a good role-player. I was pretty sure I did, but the more I watch other people and see what they think is “good” versus “bad” role-playing, the more I think that there’s some misunderstanding, some step I missed that everybody else has ingrained but doesn’t articulate.
I think we can all agree on a few points. A good role-player acts as the character would, not as the player. They don’t analyze everything from the standpoint of a game at a table, they build characters as people (or mice or gods or robots) rather than bundles of stats, and they’re driven by believable in-game reasons. They interact with other characters as much as other players. And, perhaps the most difficult requirement, they’re willing to make decisions that harm themselves if it works with the story or the character’s personality.
What gets me is the number of people whose “good” role-play is the willingness to inflict themselves on other people and characters. A “good” role-player will make a decision that the player knows would be bad, but that the character approves. That’s fine. But a lot of these decisions have the potential to negatively impact the fun at the table. A character might be a hair-trigger gunman with no foresight who shoots the king after a mean-spirit insult. Everybody knows that this is bad, every other character is trying to stop it, and it immediately, drastically, and irreversibly changes the nature of the story, the campaign, and the intra-party dynamic. But because somebody build a character knowing full well that the character would make these bad decisions, that makes them a “good” role-player.
In keeping with the above, the worse the decision, the better the role-player must be. A player who snarks at a police officer is cute, but a player who ignores the officer and speeds away is good, and a player who attacks the officer is better. Because of this, there’s no room among “good” role-players for even-headed characters. I tried playing a problem-solving, go-with-the-flow character in a recent campaign, and I was told that I was playing the character incorrectly, as though there was a specific personally I was required to have. If you’re not actively trying to make decisions that cause problems and force other players and characters to solve them, you’re not “good”.
Some games, players, and DMs can handle this better than others. In Paranoia, for example, backstabbing and intra-party conflict is expected. But I’ve seen it across a half-dozen systems in a dozen campaigns from dozens of players. Universally, it seems that the more a decision makes other players react to the situation your character creates, the better you are.
I hope it’s clear that I disagree. I think that everybody at the table should be having fun, ideally in equal amounts. I don’t think that having one short-sighted character controlling things, making the plot revolve around them, contributes to fun. It’s just like how I think combat isn’t fun if only one character is good at it, or how politics isn’t fun if only one player understands it, or how NPC interaction isn’t fun if one player does all of the talking all the time. If a DM consistently forces the story in a specific direction, it’s called railroading. How come when a player does the same, it’s good role-playing?
I could list a series of examples stretching back nine years to the first character I played, but most of them are uncomfortably discrete. I’d prefer not to call out specific incidents, characters, or players, because I’m not trying to attack anybody or their style of play. I just want to understand why it’s “good” role-play to have other players clean up your character’s messes, and why it’s “bad” role-play to have a character who thinks like a calm, rational person.