Is there a person in personality?

I have recently become involved in a conversation about roleplaying which is not new, but this time is with people new to me, and more importantly is with people who do not seem to argue for the sake of arguing nor argue solely to win.

The question at hand most recently has been the degree to which the player informs the character. Some in the discussion take the side that no matter what, the character played is nothing more than an avatar of the player. Others, myself among them disagree – to varying degrees.

Before going further, I feel it is probably necessary to define what I mean by avatar in this case. In this usage, the physical characteristics of the character are represented through the game system, but the mental and social characteristics are your own. The skills, knowledge, and awareness of the character are an amalgam of what the system says they can do, and what you can actually do. The character is a vehicle for the player to operate within the game world, it is not a required to play it with a personality distinct from your own – although you may if you like.

Who can it be now?

When I was first getting into gaming, I didn’t spare a moment’s though to how other people gamed. Everyone seemed to game more or less the same way, and in an environment where we were all just learning how to use the rules, craft interesting environments for play, and were experiencing the game for the first time, there were few things which would challenge a game to become different. In the core game groups that I spent the most time with as a kid, there was a strong tendency to develop characters with personalities different from our own. These ideas developed in play. Sometimes this was fast and sometimes it was slow. Over time, however, the character would emerge from our mood as we played that set of statistics, the history that was being established as they moved from scenario to scenario, and the spark of creativity that draws people to the game in the first place.

I am actually not aware of meeting gamers who did not engage in personality development for their characters until college. I probably did meet a few, but didn’t play with them long enough to recognize it. I have never met anyone ever who claimed to be a ‘rollplayer’ or claimed that their game was not interested in real ‘roleplay.’ The existence of the idea of roleplay vs rollplay belies those assertions more handily than I can.

There are some who feel that the rise of character over challenge as a gaming focus is a new thing. I am not in agreement with that idea, and not only because of humanity’s ongoing tendency to anthropomorphize anything it can.

The After-the-fact Revolution

White Wolf and games that appeared around that time are often credited with revolutionizing the hobby with their emphasis on character and the struggles of character as a source of focus in a story or campaign. The game mechanics of that period shifted focus from being mainly about the physical, occupational, and cultural aspects of the character to being about their personality. It was not that these ideas had not existed in games before, or around tables before, but the overwhelming popularity and accessibility of these games made it seem that way. These games grew out of the practices their designers had been having around tables – both positive and negative for all the years prior. They didn’t really revolutionize anything in the truest sense. They shared and reinforced one aspect of gaming. It was an important contribution, but different from how it appears to people now.

Exploring the personality of my character and of my fellow players’ characters has always been as much a part of my enjoyment as the exploration of the story has been. Now that I do examine how I play, and how other groups play, and how we all report our beliefs on how we play, I have to say, that my assumptions as a new gamer that ‘everybody plays this way’ are likely as false as the memories of those who feel that ‘no one played that way.’ Extremes will get you every time…. except when they don’t.

What’s in it for me?

All of this talk of character and personality can be a rallying cry for some, and at times it can be for me too. I choose who to invite to my table after all,  and I like to know that the people who accept my invitation can keep up and are willing to do what it takes to evolve with us. I think that is a true statement for any GM who is interested in honing their style of play and ensuring their group has the most fun that they can – no matter what style or techniques they incorporate in play.

Discovering a character in play can be extremely rewarding and is something I heartily recommend. Different from acting, or performance, this approach to characterization is one based more in discovery and growth. This approach exercises a different set of creative muscles, and offers different challenges to the player in terms of balancing consistency with natural growth, and recognizing the influences which shape change, invite development and outreach, or cause walls to be built. Not unlike allowing a story to unfold on its own without narrative influence, allowing a character to grow organically from its base stats and concepts over time can be both rewarding and surprising  – no matter how many times you do it. Whether this be in campaigns where you are rigidly bound to occupations and styles of characters, or those in which you have free rein, discovery is always within a heartbeat of happening.

The I in my character

Can we portray characters which are not in some way ourselves? That may not be a question we can answer. I suppose we can commit to saying that we probably cannot at first, nor perhaps even all the time, but from time to time, flashes of creation will settle into a character and you find yourself playing – and being immensely satisfied by – a being whose relation to you seems even more distant than the gulf between reality and fiction. Many of us will be content with characters which grow outward to greater or lesser degree from some aspect of ourselves, but those who develop the facility to handle questions of character on the fly, as the GM learns to handle questions of action and  reaction within the story, will know a level of enjoyment in the game that elevates it to something worthy of actual myth and legend~

6 Responses to “Is there a person in personality?”
  1. I’m with you on all points here. I started gaming when WoD was getting huge, and even played a few games myself. It wasn’t my first gaming experience, but still pretty early on.

    It didn’t differ at all from the way I played characters in dungeon crawls or cyberpunk noir games. I have always enjoyed developing the characters I play, and watching as they grow. Since I’m a big fan of player diaries, I even get to return to old entries and see how roots of personality developed through game play.

  2. morrisonmp says:

    This is a fine piece, and a good discussion. I agree that the “White Wolf” age of gaming really didn’t invent this style – just legitimized in a very public way.

    I have struggled with the Rollplayer vs. Roleplayer conflict over the years and have found that I need to be more careful in how I select players (and which games I choose to play in) when the ends of the spectrum get too extreme. And I know folks who take the “roll-playing” way too seriously.

    Your piece made me reflect on my own playing processes over the years. I’ve always been interested in the personality I craft for each character (though I won’t argue for a second that every single one of my characters is – at least in part – based on some bit of me) but how that comes out has changed over time. I would say that when I first started playing I really wanted the personalities to be “big.” Later I aimed at having them be more subtle but still very defined and a little rigid. Now I’m at a place where I usually only have a proto-personality in mind for a character when I hit the table and then the fleshed out personality only happens when I start interacting with the other characters/players.

    For example… I had an Amber character a few years ago who was supposed to be this quiet, introverted sort who had little experience with the courts of Amber and Chaos… but when put into the action and interacting with the other PCs she took on this very emotionless, dangerous personality that emerged from feeling very threatened by the other PCs right out of the gate. And that coldness became a defining trait that set her on a very interesting path… but it was never in my plans at the beginning.

    Great conversation. Thanks for another cool post.

    • Runeslinger says:

      I like your description of “big” characters. I agree with that. When I was writing this initially I was thinking of this solely as a factor of youth and inexperience, but now as I think about it I can remember a few adult first-time gamers who have opted initially for archetypes and strong, broad character elements who later grew into players with much more nuanced characters.

  3. mxyzplk says:

    Totally with you here – it’s weird to me that this was the default mode of play with most of the groups/people I knew until the last decade really. Not it’s seen as some weird fringe thing while most games’ agendas are just “win” or even are too narratively meta to allow for good immersion.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Yes, exactly! There are a lot of game elements which have appeared in the last ten years or so which require the explicit attention of the player and directly interrupt immersive moments. Interesting…

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