Have you ever known something to be true about your character, but you never had a chance to share it at the table? Worse yet, have you ever known something to be true about your character, and had other players assume something contradictory? Just like in real life, it can be hard to shake off the expectations that other people put on you.
It may even be harder if you are used to being a game facilitator because it is often seen as a positive thing to modify NPCs to fit the player’s understanding of that character, so that they can relate to them better. If you transition from facilitating a game, to running a single character, that desire to tailor a setting element to the expectation of other characters can be strong.
A Tale of Three PCs
I was in a Pathfinder 1e game where my character was a cleric of Besmara, the queen of pirates. While it wasn’t the most nuanced concept that I could have come up with, she was the daughter of an Andoran privateer who hated pirates, and who also didn’t think his daughter should serve in the navy. She often drank too much between adventures and was grudgingly participating with a “heroic” mission because she had lost her ship and her crew.
I was also in a Star Wars Force and Destiny game where my character was an Ithorian padawan who specialized in healing. He was a naturally peaceful character that tended the plants that he kept on the ship. He was traumatized by Order 66 and had become extremely attached to his crewmates. He eventually “fell” to the Dark Side when he used his healing abilities to harm a mutant rancor attacking the party, because no one was going to take away his adopted family ever again.
As a final example, I was playing a character in a Werewolf: The Forsaken game. I patterned his speaking patterns on Mitch Hedberg. He was living on the streets when he was found by the rest of the pack, but he used to be a software developer. He had the ability to see the spirits of people that had died, but he never liked to use this power.
- My cleric of Besmara wanted to become a hero. She wanted to prove that serving in the navy wasn’t beyond her, and that being a hero didn’t mean serving the nation of Andoran, and I wanted to perform something suitably heroic so that I could have that homecoming where she returned to her father to confront him with who she was.
- My Ithorian wanted to have a traditional Star Wars redemption arc. I didn’t want his fall to be too terrible, so it wouldn’t be too hard to reconcile his return to the light, but I also wanted to emphasize how easy it was for him to use the Force to directly harm others now that he had fallen. I just wanted some friends to offer to help.
- My Werewolf character had lost his wife around the same time that he became a werewolf, and he was afraid that he would see her spirit, and she would see what he had become. I wanted him to have that confrontation with his wife’s spirit so that he could learn that he was good enough regardless of what troubles life had thrown his way.
What Actually Happened
The group, especially one player, assumed that my cleric of Besmara was a dedicated pirate, and that all the cynicism and drinking was the core of who she was. The assumption wasn’t that she was a hero that wanted to know it was okay to define who she was, it was that there was nothing more to her than being a greedy, hedonistic anti-hero.
As soon as the group knew that I had fallen to the Dark Side in the Star Wars game, one member of the group constantly stunned me whenever I would do something that seemed too “bad.” Another member of the group would use their Force abilities to take away my ability to act on my darker impulses. Instead of anyone espousing the light side or telling me that there was good in me, I literally got other players trying to take away my ability to do anything “Dark Side.”
Because all of the other members of the werewolf pack in our game had important “day jobs,” and because I was the last one they found, my werewolf was treated as a burden. I wouldn’t use my powers, and I didn’t have a social standing in my human life, so I was the butt of jokes from all of the other members of the pack.
The first thing that I think is important in any of these instances is to realize that you may have a concept for your character, but others also have a concept for theirs. If you don’t want anyone assigning traits to your character or defining them in ways that you don’t want, make sure you are giving others the same consideration.
It can be fun to mention a recurring issue to show that you and another character have a connection. It is a little too easy to assume that you “know” everything about that character because you have identified patterns. If you find yourself referencing things that character does over time, try to find a way to work in an understanding of each other in game.
Ask a character why they always carry a certain item with them. Ask them why they make the same choice in every situation when that choice may not have worked out well in the past. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to ask the player what they are doing with their character. One of the biggest mistakes we make around the game table is trying to do too much “in game.”
All kinds of media have ways of communicating motivation that aren’t limited to character-to-character interactions. Sometimes a character will narrate their own story, and sometimes there are other outside narrators. Don’t look at asking a “meta” question as breaking the storytelling side of things, look at it as understanding the character in context of the story.
Make sure you have communicated what you want to do with your character to your group. It has been said many times before, but until something happens at the table, it isn’t really “true” for the campaign. This goes beyond just backstory elements, and encompasses personality traits, attitudes, motivations, and goals.
Don’t dictate your complete story arc to the game facilitator but do collaborate with them by letting them know you would like to hit certain story beats. Communicate to other players to clarify “you, as the player character, don’t know this yet, but you, the audience member enjoying the story of our game, should have this context.”
In my case, when playing in that Pathfinder campaign, this was well before I started thinking more deeply about collaborations in games. Discussions about what kind of game we wanted to have were usually limited to when games started to go off the rails. If we had a session zero, I could have clearly elaborated to the whole party what I wanted to do with the character.
In the case of the Ithorian character, I did, repeatedly, tell the group that I wanted to play out a redemption arc for the character, but we had a difference of opinion on what that meant. They felt that my arc was mine to tell, so if I was going to be redeemed, I should, without input from the other characters, realize that arc. They felt that their characters were doing nothing wrong.
While I think our game facilitator should have stepped in when we were effectively descending into player versus player activities, we also didn’t have a session zero to confirm what was and wasn’t on the table for that kind of behavior. Now, I would have left the table, because my playstyle didn’t mesh well with the table assumptions, but at the time, I had the Ithorian character leave and made another character that wasn’t looking for validation from other player characters.
I had communicated my thoughts for my Werewolf character to my game facilitator, and expressed that I, as a person, wasn’t comfortable with everyone treating my character as a burden. The facilitator gave me an important purpose where I had to use my ability to speak with the dead to solve a crisis, and I appreciated her response to my concerns.
What If I Don’t Know What I Want to Be?
It’s perfectly fine not to have a deep, well developed story arc in your head for your character. In fact, it’s probably much better to not get much deeper than having some story beats you would like to hit. But even if you don’t have those, you may have an idea of what feels right for the character and what feels wrong.
In these cases, you may not be able to tell your facilitator that you want certain things, but you should be able to tell everyone when they have made an assumption about your character that doesn’t feel correct. People will sometimes say “so is this like when character X did that thing in movie Y?” and that may feel correct or incorrect. Don’t be afraid to say that, no, it’s not quite the same situation.
Meta-Character Concepts and Safety Tools
Adding formality to your discussion of things sometimes reinforces that the discussion means something important to you. While we usually talk about using safety tools to move past harmful material, losing sight of the character you want to portray can be detrimental to your enjoyment and comfort in the long term.
It’s easy for a conversation about your character’s motivation to have a casual tone and to feel like two people disagreeing over how a superhero is portrayed in a movie. But this isn’t a situation where everyone’s input is equally valid. This is your creation, and your means of interacting with the game.
If you feel strongly that you are losing the narrative of your own character, don’t be afraid to use safety tools to emphasize this. If you are using a consent revoking tool, feel free to use it to point out that you are not okay with the assumptions other players are making of your character. If you are using tools that allow you to pause the game or rewind it, use those tools to explain what your character is thinking and why, so that the group doesn’t just fill in the gaps themselves.
It’s Not You, It’s Me
One thing to give serious thought to when your character does seem to be redefined by the rest of the table–make sure you made a character that works in this campaign. Sometimes people are projecting their own biases onto your character, but other times, they may be hoping that your character has a reason to be on the same page with everyone else.
Think about your goals, and if those goals will force the entire party to do something they may not be inclined to do. Think about your motivations, and if those motivations would make it unlikely that they would work with this group to attain their goals. Talk to the game facilitator about what you want to see but make it clear that you want to work with them. It may turn out that you drifted into a character that just doesn’t fit the current campaign.
In that case, you need to decide if you enjoy the campaign, and want a character that is a better fit, or if you need to wait for a campaign that is more aligned with your interests.
Players, Not Player Characters
It’s also important to understand that other people may understand something different than their characters on the “meta” level. Just because a player character constantly assumes something wrong about the character, that doesn’t mean the player doesn’t understand what your character’s motivations are.
Make sure whenever situations like this come up, you have a discussion with other players about this situation. In fact, it can be too easy for a situation like this to turn into a snowball effect, with you assuming another player thinks something about your character, and that makes you ascribe consents to their character.
Sometimes it’s fun to know that someone in the party doesn’t get your character, while they player completely understands what you are trying to do with your character.
When It’s Time to Change . . .
I talked about how you may not have a strong concept, but you know what feels right or wrong. You may also have already had a concept, but the assumptions that others have made about your character actually sound like more fun than what you came up with. If you honestly like the character details that other players or the game facilitator are providing to you, and you want to pivot in that direction, feel free to do so.
It’s not wrong to change your idea of who you want to play, it’s only wrong when you change because there is pressure to deviate from a character that you want to play, when that character fits with the campaign structure.
The Biggest Disclaimer
We’ve already touched on making a character that fits the campaign, but the other thing I cannot stress enough is that none of your character’s motivations or goals should be an excuse to be a jerk at the table. Don’t be that person that says, “it’s what my character would do.”
In fact, you can be proactive in situations like this. Pause the game and say, “I think my character would do this thing, but I also know that will screw up our ongoing plans. What does everyone think?”
Other players may help you think of ways to be true to your character or they may be okay with your proposed derailment. The important part is not just to unilaterally act in a way that torpedoes the fun of everyone at the table. If you think it will impact the group and the game, bring it up before you commit.
Pause the game and say, “I think my character would do this thing, but I also know that will screw up our ongoing plans. What does everyone think?”
- If the group agrees, session zero a campaign or have discussions in the run up to the game about who everyone is and what they want out of the game
- If you have a clear concept of your character, make sure to share it with the group
- If the group makes assumptions about your character that you don’t agree with, let them know where you think they are mistaken
- Tell the game facilitator if there are issues with how the group is relating to your character
- Don’t be afraid to have meta-discussions about motivation and goals
- Don’t be afraid to correct people about what feels right and wrong about assumptions made about your character even if you don’t have a clear picture of them yet
- Don’t be afraid to use safety tools to emphasize the importance of communicating your control over your own character’s story arc
- It’s okay to change your mind and take direction from others, if you really like the concepts presented to you better than your own starting point
Have you ever had a character that was viewed much differently by the table than how you viewed them? Did you ever change a character based on the assumptions that the table made about your character? How often have you changed a character’s motivation and goals from when you first conceived them, to when those desires were addressed in the campaign? Tell us about your characters in the comments below!