When “Just Playing My Character” Doesn’t Cut It

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It’s not unusual for RPG players to find themselves in situations where, if they’re being honest, the character they’ve established would make a choice that the player knows is a bad one. In these cases, a good role-player acts according to his character’s established background, goals, and personality even when it isn’t the most advantageous course of action. In such cases, “I was just playing my character” is a perfectly valid reason for doing something that complicates things, and generally the other players aren’t going to be too upset about the problematic turn of events. In fact, some will applaud the bad decision because it fits the character and makes for a more interesting story. The GM may even give you Yum Yums.

Those aren’t the kinds of “just playing my character” moments I’m talking about here. I’m talking about the player who constantly disrupts the game and annoys the other players and, when confronted about it, says, “Hey, I was just role-playing my character!”  In these cases, “just playing my character” isn’t a reason for making a particular choice, it’s an excuse to avoid taking responsibility for bad behavior. While there are as many types of bad behavior as there are annoying players, there are five general categories of fuckery where “I was just role-playing” is a common excuse.

Sabotaging the Game Premise

This is when a player interferes with the group’s ability to play the game they’ve all agreed upon, usually by creating a character that is woefully unsuited for the kinds of stories the group has decided to tell. It’s the guy who decides to play the Druid in the city-based campaign, or, more often, the evil character in a game whose premise assumes the characters are good guys. Or Samuel L. Jackson the Barbarian in a game that’s supposed to be straightforward heroic fantasy. Or a character who talks like Scooby Doo for absolutely no reason in an atmospheric horror game. Characters don’t always have to be a perfect fit for the party and game concept. In fact, well-crafted outliers can often make the story more interesting, and even stupid one-joke characters don’t always ruin a game. However, if your character concept forces major changes to the nature and focus of the story or ruins the tone of the game by merely existing, you’re sabotaging the premise.

Sabotaging the Party

This brand of dickishness is often the logical extension of creating a character that sabotages the game premise. It happens when “being true to the character” requires the player to constantly do things that interfere with the goals of the rest of party. As I mentioned in the introduction, good role-players often have to make decisions that result in negative repercussions, sometimes for the whole party. The main difference between them and the party saboteur is often a matter of who suffers the repercussions of the character’s bad decisions. In the former case, most of the fallout usually hits the character who makes the decision, or at least affects him and other party members equally. The negative backlash of a saboteur’s actions, on the other hand, nearly always fall primarily on the rest of the party. In many cases, the saboteur himself benefits in some way from the decision. Having a mole or double agent in the party can be fun in some kinds of games, but only if that traitor’s player understands that things are destined to end badly for his character. When the party saboteur gets caught, “I was just role-playing my character” isn’t going to save him, usually because retribution is the only way for the other players to stay in character.

Taking An Idea Too Far

If the DragonLance novels didn’t make you hate Kender, the first game you played with a Kender PC almost certainly did. The player annoyed everyone else and constantly sidetracked the game so he could steal shit from the other party members. One-note characters like Kender (at least as they’re played in a typical D&D game) are a common example of taking an idea to far. Another surprisingly common one-note character is the mad bomber–the guy with a demolitions skill who blows things up constantly and gratuitously, usually to the detriment of the party. In these cases, the problem is mainly one of bad character design. In other cases, taking an idea too far is a matter of not understanding context (most often as it applies to humor): the player gets rewarded (through game mechanics, story outcomes, or just positive feedback from the other players) for a particular action, so he repeats the action over and over again in a bid for additional positive reinforcement, blissfully unaware that not all actions are appropriate for all situations and that a lot of things are only cool or funny the first time.

Monopolizing GM Time

Players should always try to introduce subplots and supporting characters, so there are always going to be scenes that focus on individual characters, often with no involvement from the other PCs. This character takes it too far by constantly creating situations, either through character design or character actions, that force single-character scenes where the other players are demoted to audience members. To add insult to injury, the player regularly drags out such scenes far beyond the point at which they’re still interesting to anyone else. Some players don’t even give the other players potentially interesting character development to watch; they just split the party at every opportunity because “that’s what my character would do.” The worst example of the latter is the “loner” character. The loner is also to some extent also guilty of sabotaging the game premise and taking an idea too far. RPGs are by definition group activities, so if you create a character that’s going to constantly split with the group, you’re intentionally creating a problem. If you want to play a character who “isn’t a group player,” follow Batman’s example of getting the point across by constantly reminding the group you’re working with (or in Batmans’ case, the half-dozen or so different groups you regularly work with) about it. Don’t expect the GM spend half the game running a solo adventure for you.

Just Being A Jackass

Some of the most beloved characters in fiction (especially action heroes) are complete jerks, so it’s only natural for RPG players to create characters who are jackasses from time to time. In most cases, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as the character, like most fictional assholes, has some redeeming qualities to make the audience (in this case, the other players) appreciate him despite his douchebaggery. Without the redeeming qualities, nobody’s going to want to be around him, so the other players are legitimately just role-playing when they move to another town without leaving a forwarding address or volunteer the jerk character to find out whether the dragon’s breath is hot. Particularly dickish jackasses, either for shock value or because they’re terrible people, use the jerk characters as an excuse to say and do things that they know the other players will find offensive, disturbing, or hurtful. Those people should be asked not to come back.

There are a lot of situations in which role-playing requires a player to make choices that are detrimental to the character and the party or distasteful to the players, but nine times out of ten those situations are going to make everyone involved enjoy the game more. If your “in character” actions are constantly interfering with the other players’ enjoyment of the game, however, “I was just playing my character” is a bullshit excuse. It’s not the character; It’s you. The character, after all, is a fictional construct with no agency of its own. You’re the one who created a character who annoys the other players or doesn’t fit with the group’s goals for the game. Don’t blame your own bad decisions on imaginary people unless you’re trying to beat a criminal charge with an insanity plea.