A Rant on “Good” Role-Playing

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.

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2 Responses to A Rant on “Good” Role-Playing

  1. Dave Fried says:

    This deserves a thoughtful response, because I understand that it is at least partly referring to stuff I’ve done.

    What makes good roleplaying? I don’t think there’s one answer, because there are many different play styles. Most of the time, if everyone agrees in advance, people can settle on what they want for a particular campaign. It’s almost never discussed, though, which is why the same page tool is so useful. People can alter their styles a bit and still have fun, but they need to know ahead of time that they’re supposed to (and most people don’t even think of all the play style differences that could potentially cause problems).

    The rest of this response is purely my opinion; take it with a grain of salt.

    I differ slightly with you on what a “good” roleplayer is. I think a good roleplayer can play both as player and character at the same time. It’s not a question of “what would my character do”, but rather “what would be consistent with my character that would also be interesting?” A good roleplayer communicates what they want to see and helps other players bring their characters into the spotlight, expecting the same thing in return.

    The problem is that in roleplaying there is very little room for subtlety. If you want to put your character’s issues on the table, you have to jump at the chance when plot hooks present themselves, especially in a game like D&D where it’s the GM’s world and you’re just playing in it. I don’t apologize for being aggressive – but I do apologize for sometimes short-circuiting your fun in the process.

    I think the problem is a lack of communication. I like to talk about what I want to see for my characters and what I think would be interesting to see from other players’ characters. I like to help other people explore their characters and have fun. If I’m failing at that, I might not realize it. I want you to tell me!

    I know that’s not a great answer. What you want from a game might be genuinely different from what I want. But at least you know where I’m coming from.

    Now, regarding the king…

    Shooting the king isn’t good roleplaying. It could be decent player behavior if that’s what the characters were going to have to do anyway and people are tired of dancing around the issue or the plot isn’t advancing.

    Standing up to the king and demanding satisfaction for some ill he did to your family a generation ago (at great personal risk) might be good roleplaying because it illustrates courage as well as fleshing out backstory. So would pledging your undying loyalty to his cause (also at great personal risk) for the same reasons. Being deferential or obsequious might be good roleplaying if it says something interesting about your character (he respects authority; he owes the king a debt; etc.), or it could be a boring, safe choice of a player who doesn’t want his/her character to get in trouble. In reality, anything can be good roleplaying if it adds to the story, just as anything can be bad if it’s defensive or derailing.

    Snarking at the king is no different. It can be entertaining if done well. It can be good roleplaying if it says something interesting about your character (i.e. “I’m fearless and I don’t respect authority,” or “the king is an old buddy of mine and he lets me rib him a little.”) It can also be a safe choice – a way to take the spotlight when you know the DM won’t have the king put you to death for your insolence. It can be a derailing choice for the other players if they have to then run damage control for you, or if it disrupts the mood of what should have been a serious scene.

    Absent context, there’s no difference between snarking and shooting the king in the face. It’s entirely situational.

    To sum up…

    An act is “good roleplaying” if:
    * it helps us learn something about the character
    * it creates plot opportunities (“plopportunities”, if you will)
    * it has significant and interesting consequences for both success and failure

    An act is good player behavior if:
    * it entertains the players
    * it moves the party towards achieving their collective goals
    * it helps to highlight other player’s characters

    There is some overlap in that Venn Diagram, but it’s not huge. Not every action is good roleplaying. Most actions should represent good player behavior. When those two overlap, great! I think your frustration is with potentially “good” roleplaying that is also bad player behavior. Or that opportunities for good roleplay can be few and far between in a game like D&D when you’re not fighting for them. Mostly, I say don’t be afraid to jump in and just do it – I think you’d be surprised at how much your fellow players want to see your characters have more time in the spotlight.

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