Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How to Play a Character (The 10,000 Word Post)

UPDATE:  This post has been updated and included in the recently released book, How to Play a Character & Other Essays, available for purchase from the Lulu marketplace.

You have rolled dice and scratched out the limitations of your character.  You have made a decision about gender, you've followed the protocols of your game in order to determine what your character knows and what particular 'education' he or she has.  You've poured over lists of equipment and plugged boots and clothes over your character's body, filled the back pack, strung belts and bands over the shoulders and hips of the character and stuffed or hung those with weapons.  You've named your character.  You've recorded all the things you're going to need to know about your character so that you can play the game.

What you have here is 'life.'  It is a gift.  It is the sort of thing for which other people say "congratulations" and for which they throw showers and fill the space with presents.  This character is alive.

More to the point, this isn't 'a life' this is 'your life' ... which is to say, this is a life you did not formerly possess, but which is now ready for you to toss away or propel forward at your whim.  It is a life you have never had.  It is a life free of parental influences, free from guilt bestowed upon you by authority figures, free from fear of the law or fear of the unknown.  It is free from these things because you are free from the restraining concerns having to do with pain, suffering, boredom or any other misery.  This character, this life you have just recently come into, doesn't need to bother with all that.

There are those players for whom the character will never be themselves.  They deliberately keep the character separate.  They do not invest.  "This is my character, these are 'his' aspirations, these are the things that 'he' wants.  I, personally, would never want these things, but this character is nothing like me, and therefore he has other wants and needs."

There is something clinical in that approach, which says that as a player, I can conceive of the things someone else would want.  I can process the methodology for obtaining those things, and I can take intellectual pleasure from the methodology succeeding ... but I would never, ever identify with the visceral pleasure in that success.  It is apart from me.

Naturally, we presume this means the methods and patterns of killing.  This is, after all, D&D.  Things are killed.  There's blood.  Mayhem ensues.  At the end of many a hard fight, bodies are strewn across the field.  That's something which, if it were to happen before us in the real world, would traumatize us.  We could not manage it.  We would turn and vomit and hope that we had to never see a sight like that again, and we would hope we could forget the one we'd seen.

We would certainly not revel in the violence.  We would not wash our hands in it.  We would not be stripping the bodies in glee or arguing passionately with our mates about how many gold teeth, ripped from the jaws of the dead, we were willing to share out.  These bloody fighters and thieves are NOT US.  They are our characters.


This is the shift, or move, which defends us from those things we do not wish to know about ourselves or the world around us.  It is a strategy that ties up the world in a pretty box with a pretty bow, that allows us to believe that where it comes to the world, we are exactly what we want to perceive ourselves to be.  This is an unconscious process.  We do not do it from any sort of strategy that we intentionally employ.  Long before we have come to the conclusion that we believe a thing, that belief has been installed - hard-wired, if you will - inside our minds by our need to have it so.

No person who goes off to war, who leaves behind a wife or family, who has grown up on football games and chasing the opposite sex, believes they have it in them to be some sort of psychotic killer.  Many may approach the matter from the standpoint that they are willing to kill ... but few imagine the full extent of what they may be prepared to do once the situation becomes hot and dangerous.  That is why the way people are affected by war - where there is suddenly no law, no right, no wrong, just the raw force of weapons and absolute application of will - is such a shock.  They didn't know they could do those things.  They didn't know anyone could do those things.  They'd heard of it, they'd had it explained to them, but all along the line there was that displacement that made it all seem far away and unreal ... until the full weight of reality came crashing down on their heads.

Playing a character isn't reality.  You're not really alive.  It's just paper.  And the brutality carried forth by your characters, that's unreal too.  And thank heaven, too ... because otherwise you'd have to reconcile your imagination, the one that allows you to cheer and feel your heart rate increase at dice bouncing on a table with the actual, real act of bludgeoning someone to death with a mace.  No one wants that.  There's only a small percentage who could remotely begin to deal with that.

So, yes, you've displaced your character from yourself.  The character may kill for coin and experience, but that's not you.

Except, of course, it is.

The radical game design that is incorporated into the process of D&D is that your personal psychology is being called upon to conjure the necessary tactics and processes that it takes to kill things and take what they own.  This isn't being done by a monopoly piece, with which you could hardly identify.  This isn't being done by a character in a video game, that looks nothing like you anyway and - really - doesn't begin to fall into the uncanny valley of matching your everyday frustrations against working out those frustrations with a roleplayed axe.  No, the character here is wholly imaginary.  You may sketch out how you perceive your character to look; you may steal an image off the web; but you know, and I know, that the brain of that character, defined by those ticks and marks on your character sheet, is YOUR brain.  You've got to figure out a way to get out of this goblin fortress, and there's no other entity you're leaning upon as a crutch to do that.

If you sit down and think about it, playing a D&D character, taking the necessary mindset that displaces you from your character, is a mindfuck that doesn't occur in any game except this one.  You are this character, this living breathing entity, and you're not.  You've made the decision to swing and hit, and you haven't.  It's just what you think your character ought to do in this situation, with your character's skills, if survival is the goal.  Which is to say, on some neanderthal level, it is what YOU would do if YOU had these skills and YOU were there.

So thankfully, you're not.  Because that would be too freaky.

It's a dance around the abyss, as it were.  There's the great yawning black pool, where the worst things we can imagine slowly swirl in a terrifying void.  While we don't want to fall in, we're going to just move to move as close to the edge as we can, and stand on our tip-toes, and look down for just a minute or so ... before falling back, getting up from the table and saying "whew!" ... glad its all just a game!


Let's lift all the battle mayhem and drop it on a shelf, and just explore the angle of being the character without the PTSD.

I said you had a life to live, and a lot of players embrace that life.  It is an opportunity to try things they can't otherwise try; to build up complex structures and networks, to explore unidentified worlds or meet imaginary beings.  For some, this isn't their 'character' doing these things ... it is they, themselves.  "I am the Grey Mouser," says the player.  "I am touring the streets, examining each target, each simple minded fool who doesn't stand a chance against my worthy brilliance ...!"  and so on.  This is identification with the character, and it isn't as though it doesn't have considerable and enduring precedents that go back through the ages.

This is, after all, acting.  I have been given a part - say, a mass murderer of Auschwitz.  It is my role in this play or film to represent the verisimilitude of that persona, to involve myself into the mindset of a person who is capable of doing that.  I don't concern myself with the reality that it isn't something I would do ... because to achieve the respect the part demands, I have to become that frightening antagonist for the course of the performance - or else the audience won't believe.  So, temporarily, I toss my proclivities aside, leaving them on the chair of my dressing room like a old cloak.  I am "Klaus the butcher."  I laugh at suffering.  I take glee in the mass rape of the innocent girl that happens off stage.  I order my men, bellowing at them, to enjoy themselves.  This is the part.  These are the words and the stage directions.

What have I become?  Surely, not Klaus.  Klaus is killed at the end of every performance, his evil deeds wrapped in a cloak of ultimate justice (we hope) and the audience comes away feeling that we must be vigilant against the Klaus's of the future.  So I've played my part.  But what have I become?

For the run of the play, I have chosen to express a part of my humanity that I understand to exist.  The difference between me and Klaus is, as anyone can tell you, a matter of time and chance.  If I, or you, gentle reader, had grown up in the proper families of Germany in the 1920s, joined the proper organizations in the 1930s and excelled at our positions, we could have found ourselves in the comparatively cushy and lucrative positions of executing Jews in the 1940s.  If I research my part, and examine it closely, I must admit to myself how lucky I am not to have been brought up in the cultural frame that would have directed me to do those things.  There are none of us who are so innocent that we could not have been seduced into that.

So I have re-examined myself through the expression of acting the role.  I have caused an audience to re-examine themselves.  It is an opportunity.

Granted, we're not talking about players being part of the Final Solution.  Hopefully, we're asking ourselves to examine more wholesome lives we could never otherwise lead ... to be farmers and merchant bankers, buccaneers or landlords, kings or queens of land and empire.  But along with those things, too, we must include pirates and vampires, mercenaries, master criminals, cult leaders and so on.  Once again, we must recognize that the profound element of D&D is that everything is on the table.

It isn't like a video game, where what you are is limited to the programmer's conception for that game.  It isn't like a play, where the only part I can play is this, and the only lines I have are these.  The field is wide open.  There is no 'law' in the arena.  The same character I run today as a missionary can turn sour and heretical tomorrow; he can plunder and pillage this month, and the next he can seek redemption and make amends today.  My character is not limited to my being male, or my being human.  So when we say, "express" yourself, it is the deliberate attempt to become this other being, this other sex, this other idealogy.

Surely, the further I invest myself into the role, the more expressive the role becomes.  I'm not saying that the character is a puppet that I move with strings, and the more adept I become the more lifelike it is ... I am saying that for a time, I forget that I cannot actually die as I sit at the table and run my character.  I forget that I'm not actually falling through the air, watching the earth rise menacingly towards me, as I furtively roll dice hoping the right combination turns up before its too late.  I'm there!  I'm in the body of my character, and that's possible because when I close my real, human eyes, I see what I think is there, and I don't want to stop.

If the reader dreams like I dream, the reader has been a scientist and a race car driver; the reader has been old or young, or the victim of a deranged killer or someone holding the stopwatch at a racetrack.  When these things and more occurred in the reader's dream, the reader knew those things were true ... but in the dream, they were.  It wasn't someone else falling out of an airplane.  That was you.  And as the ground approached, there was no displacement.  You either relished in the conceived rush of air as it went past, knowing you were dreaming, or you awoke sweating as you realized that you were about to die.

Whatever you may have been doing, or whatever you might have conceived of being (sometimes I am a zepplin in my dreams), you never thought upon waking, "that wasn't me."  You knew it was you.  You said to your partner, "I was a zepplin in my dream last night."  You never said, "I dreamed I was running a zepplin character last night."

Well, okay, maybe you have.  I don't know you.  You're a stranger.  And if you think of your dreams that way, you're stranger than I am.

Immersing yourself in the game means expressing yourself through your character ... and by means of that, you gain experiences as that character that you couldn't have otherwise.  And that is a powerful drug.


Then what do we want to do with this opportunity?  The answer seems obvious.  We want to win the game.  Or we would, if this was monopoly, and a 'win' was something as clearly designed as a goal post.  It isn't in an rpg.  Winning is this fairly amorphous quality that means different things to different people.  For some, just gathering all the money they can in the shortest space of time defines a win.  For others, having a good time is the measure.  For still others, challenging themselves, either by overcoming the odds or 'solving the problem' is the ideal.

I'm as much in the dark as anyone where it comes to defining a 'win' when there are no finish line involved.  There's an entire self-help industry designed to aid you in deciding how, in real life, to win, and how to tell when you have won.  The reason for that is that as people we've lost the clear definitions our culture once had; three or four generations back, the business of winning was obvious.  Make money, use it to make more money, use the massive amounts of money you've gained to build a personal world of power and triumph, use that to beat back the other fellow and - if you're really successful - use it to tell the state and the other fellow what to do.  You know you're winning when everyone around you is clearly on their knees.  If you're still on your knees to someone ... you're not there yet.

That doesn't allow for a win for very many people ... but in a strongly heirarchical society, everyone understood that humbling yourself before authority was expected and ultimately  unavoidable.  Unlike the present, when really we simply avoid authority or snub our noses at it.  Faced with the expectation that we will never enjoy the appreciable qualities of massive amounts of power, we simply ignore the whole matter and find interesting ways to amuse ourselves.

The roleplaying game has a lot more in common with the old heirarchical system than with our modern avoidist philosophy.  You're not only awarded for increasing your abilities and influence ... you're positively punished for not taking the power-acquisition path.  How?  Well, the game is boring.  There's nothing interesting about pretending to get a job in a roleplaying game.  It's not like your steampunk character can sit down for the evening with the words, "I read all the plays of Shakespeare.  How much experience do I get?"  There's no percentage in it.  If you're not fighting ... and thus increasing both the level of your danger and the potential reward from the risk you're taking, it's just a dull, dull game.

Whatever your personal motivations - coin, fun, challenge - you must first and foremost recognize the social structure surrounding your eventual achievements:  right now you are nothing.  With time and effort and perseverence, you will be something.  To be something requires acquisition - of power or wealth - and that acquisition will come, must come, from someone or something else.  There's nothing to be done about it.  You may be a nice person.  You may have no personal desires for global domination.  But someone has, and your meager acquisition of wealth and power (in the beginning) is, at the very least, an annoyance to someone.  Eventually it will become an annoyance they can't ignore, and in the interest of keeping all the wealth and power they already possess, they will have to put a timely end to your existence.

Well, usually in an rpg, they are trying to kill you.

So where it comes to the subject of winning, we can at least acknowledge that you will have to be taking something from someone.  Who you take it from is up to you.  Your gamemaster is probably going to make this very convenient for you, nicely standing up strawmen you can beat into submission easily with your pain stick ... but if you have any influence on the decision-making process at all, you really ought to sit down and think.  "What is it that someone has got that I would really like to have?" ... and ... "Who is it that has things that I think really ought to have nothing?"

Those are two very simple questions, and they will greatly help you in establishing a purpose for your character.  In the greater sense, they will build up those goal posts we were saying earlier didn't exist.  The questions are open and non-moral in structure.  The who and the what could be anything, after all.  It does not matter if they're nice people or bad people ... the decision making process is not in how they behave towards their minions, it is in how YOU would behave towards their minions if they were nicely out of the way.  Getting them out of the way is the win.  One presumes that the thing you want would be the tool that would help with that.  So first and foremost, go get the thing you want.


I want to avoid calling this part of your journey as a character the 'setting.'  That's really something for the DM to worry about.  For you, all that stuff that makes up the world is just a screen you stand in front of.   You do not need to be involved in all that.  You don't need to invest.  Granted, if something comes screaming out of the backdrop at you, you will have to adapt and overcome ... but regarding the principle  of all that environment, you're free and clear.

Where are we?  You've come to a reconciliation that you are the character.  You recognize that being the character gives you the opportunity to do things you wouldn't normally be able to in life, and so its rational you're going to pick things that interest you.  And towards that, you've made up your mind to rid some poor bastard of all their wealth and power, and along the way get some of the great materialistic things that bring happiness to your heart.  What now?

Well, now we assess that backdrop we're not invested in ... the main feature of which is that stoogy, largely untrustworthy creature whose imagination unfortunately thwarts most attempts at close dissection and examination.  (You can dissect the DM physically, but it makes for poor gameplay the next gamenight).

For you, the player, the DM is the backdrop.  The DM is also the possessor of all the material you want and all the power you're bent on usurping.  Fortunately for you, the DM is not personally involved in his or her wealth and power.  He or she is only pretending, acting in a passionless manner on behalf of creatures and personalities that do not in fact exist.  The DM is a little like a pro-bono lawyer designated to look after clients who are now dead, leaving the lawyer with obligations and no expectation of remuneration.  In other words, the DM is a bit of a sap.  Fundamentally, the DM wants you to win - that is, achieve your goals.  That is your edge.  From your perspective, success or failure matters.  From the DM's perspective, success or failure is a matter of making all the right ticks on all the right boxes of documents that fill filing cabinets in an immense warehouse that won't yield up all its paperwork in the DM's lifetime.

Like I said, a sap.

To achieve your goals, you are playing the DM.

Note, I do not said playing against.  The DM is not in competition with you, and you are not with him or her.  Those who insist on seeing themselves locked in a struggle against the DM for gain have deluded themselves into thinking the structure of the roleplaying game is simple and clear.  They see themselves as the protagonist and automatically brand any apparent opposition as the given antagonist.  It's a me versus the world philosophy, whether the gain is rank or information or personal conquest.  Like the heckler at a comedy club, this individual has missed the point.

The DM is potentially your ally.  You need his or her judgement to succeed at your tasks, and as I said, the DM's inclination is that you should receive it.  Oh, the DM will try to give the opposite impression; the DM will seem to mind fuck you and confront you with obstacles at every opportunity ... but it is all smoke and mirrors.  Deep down, the DM's real desire is that you will thwart all of his or her obstacles and ultimately triumph.

He or she just can't say so.

As a player, you must rise above appearances.  You must realize that this individual running the game has no animosity towards you or your character (or should have none ... but more about that later).  Hopefully, the DM is a friend.  It is up to you as a player to tap into that friendship and make it work for you.  Having the DM on your side in a game, whatever the reason, is the brass ring ... and even though with a very good DM it will be hard to have, you've got to keep reaching for it.  Otherwise, you're stuck with the success the dice can give you ... and the dice are somewhat less than reliable.

Most often, most players do that by playing the DM's game.  This is easiest, after all.  The DM clearly wants things from the party ... adventure to this place, kill this monster, achieve this victory and so on.  Ordinary players approach the game with the expectation of buying into that agenda - it is much easier than trying to push their own, and if their DM is at all high strung, there's less table drama in the bargain.

It takes a little more chutzpah to deliberately subvert the DM's wishes in order for the player to achieve his or her personal ends ... but that is what's needed!  Remember, you ARE your character.  You have needs and wants too; and in the long run, your needs and wants should trump those of the DM.  You're the one down on the ground, fighting the monsters, suffering the losses and taking the risks.  It is your character that is going to live or die here ... a character into which you've sought to invest.  If those monsters opposed to you die, the DM's world will go on.  The DM can make more at a whim.  But if your character dies ... that's it.  Something that you have cherished and perhaps loved is gone forever.  The DM in no manner can suffer a loss like that.  You can.  And because you can, you must recognize that this game is hinging on your emotion and not the DM's.  That gives you precedence, here.  You are the active ingredient, and so it is your actions that matter.

You must stiffen yourself, then, towards winning the DM onto your side in order to win the game (achieve your goals).  Some do this with rules lawyering, to corral the DM into actions that correspond to mutually agreeed upon limits to the DM's behavior.  Some manipulate through wheedling, whining or out-and-out complaining.  Some keep notes on every word the DM has said in order to flash those notes at the right time in order to compel the DM to adher to his or her own rulings.  And some innovate.

The first examples above, and other things players do along those lines, are terribly overt and any long-time DM with experience can see them coming and he or she will often ignore such attempts through gravitas: "I am the DM, and I do not sympathize."  Some DMs will respond less kindly.  Some DMs will fix rules against tactics like lawyering  out of sheer meanness, in the sense that they will get their backs up rather than give ground, even when they're wrong.  But 'innovation' is a very difficult thing to subvert as a DM, and in fact it is what all DMs crave.  It's the sort of thing that softens a DMs heart ... so in a situation where the player is trying to innovate, and failing miserably, DMs will nevertheless go gooey and give more ground than they ought.  Innovation is the DM's Achilles' heel, and it is what you want to shoot for as a player.

What is innovation, however, and how to you achieve it?  Well, to look at that, first we have to talk about your tools.

Gearing Up

I have often made jokes about players who set off to adventure and without having purchased any boots, stockings, food, belt pouch, quiver, harness and tack for their horses (though they usually remember the saddle), etcetera.  The reason why is easy to understand.  They've remembered to buy armor and weapons because those are things which they know they're going to need when the fighting starts.  They've remembered to choose their spells for the same reason.  They've remembered to buy backpacks and sacks because they have their eye clearly on the loot they're going to haul away.  There's nothing worse than having to take off your rope and makeshift a sack out of it.

What these players haven't learned to do is to visualize themselves in the world where they've chosen to run.  They are 'there.'  They're comprehension of the game is on the game itself, and that is no path to success where it comes to D&D.  The game allows for far deeper introspection into the behavior and success ... and a good player knows to take advantage of that allowance.

In the Thomas Covenant series, the main character, who is a leper, is compelled from time to time to give himself a 'visual serveillance of extremities,' or a VSE.  The purpose of this results from the deadening of a leper's nerve endings, so that the skin lacks sensitivity to cuts, bruises or other damage ... and for a leper, this is deadly.  An unobserved cut will be an untreated cut, which will fester and perhaps turn gangrenous before anything proper can be done.  The circumstance can lead to the loss of body parts or potentially death.  As a side note, I once slipped with a knife and severed the nerve connection between my thumb and forefinger, through the web of my left hand, and ever since there is a definite 'dead zone' in the touch of that my index finger.  This is undesirable, as when I cook this is the finger that holds whatever I am cutting, and as such I must concentrate on not letting that numb digit stray out a little too close to the flashing knife in my right hand.

The character, for all the player's identity with it, is like a large entity that lacks any tactile feeling.  It is an extension of the player's emotional desires and motivation, but it cannot give back any physical signal that it lacks something important.  You cannot feel its bare feet upon the road, and therefore you don't notice you haven't any boots until three sessions after the last journey to the market, when you're seeing suddenly that you've forgotten to purchase them.

If you can look at your character in this specific way, you can see how important it is to have an organized, successfully sketched out representation of that character - the character sheet.

The sheet is your VSE.  It's not only the information you need to fight battles and measure your odds of success, it is also the indication of your general wellbeing.  It is the only possible representation of your character's physical body, and far too often a casual approach to your character sheet will result in missed opportunities, confusion and - occasionally - epic failure.  I once had a character who died because they had forgotten a potion of extra-healing they had received far, far into the past.  The character got into a situation where they were cut off from the rest of the party, alone and bleeding.  Without any surcease, or time to bind wounds, the character simply bled out.  The potion was discovered when the rest of the party had recovered the body, and were dividing up the character's things.

Some gentle readers will snort at the character's stupidity; others might recognize a sad tale for what it was.  Certainly the player was less that happy about it.  However you personally see it, we all know how long time play can pile up the sheets with notes and bits of information and so on ... and we know that not everyone at the table is doing as neat a job keeping all that stuff under control as others.  Most everyone has had the experience of losing a critical sheet with the exact amount of experience, written in haste at the end of a running; or not being able to find something you know you have, except that it isn't written down.  No matter how detailed and comprehensive a player's character sheet is at the beginning of a campaign, session after session piles up the data and information and material wealth to the point where it's management becomes a challenge for everyone.  Being up to that challenge is more than merely having a head for accountancy ... it is being a good player.

I can make some important suggestions, as follows:

Don't keep loose sheets.  It seems like a practical solution, as things that are loose can be moved around and reorganized, but if it's loose it greatly increases the likelihood that it will be lost.  D&D tables tend to become terrific messes, and very often a sheet with scribbles on it that don't look important will be thrown out with the chip bags and the rest of the packaging that comes with game nights.  Spiral notebooks are more secure - though I would recommend that you don't rip pieces out of them as you go along.  An absent-mindedly discarded sheet can have things on it that were important and not necessarily noticed before that sheet hits the trash.  Keep your work!

Write neatly and label everything.  It doesn't hurt to date things, either, as that gives a sense of how old a particular bit of information is.  If you write the experience you want to add to your character somewhere, write that this random five digit number IS experience and add a date underneath.  A date is only six figures with two dashes, and can save you a lot of misery.  As regards neat writing ... I'm not clear why people who have been graduated for ten years cannot train themselves.  Me, I don't write at all.  I have literally lost the large callous that used to be on my middle finger, from the days when I wrote whole novels on paper ... and my writing is past legible.  That's why I've moved all this sort of thing to computer - and things on a computer are very neat.  So ultimately, I'd say get a computer.  Barring that, however, force yourself to practice your letters, like you ought to have done in grade 1, and get past that bad habit.

Rewrite your character often.  Not only because it needs it, but because the act of rewriting is a VSE.  It will move things from the paper into your conscious mind, so that when you are playing the game next week you will know where that thing is because you wrote it down.  The worst thing is to have a very neat, very tidy sheet that contains a bunch of stuff you use all the time, but which you haven't actually looked at for more than a year because, well, that sheet doesn't need rewriting.  Not looking is not thinking ... even if you've memorized the sheet.  If you have memorized it, say it out loud every once in awhile to reinvest that stuff into your mind.  In the real world, you could just look around your house to see what you had.  Think of rewriting your character as a sort of general cleaning you would do in the spring or fall.  By actually having to move around fifteen things in the storeroom to get at that summer stuff, you're reminding yourself of the books and gear and general stuff that you've forgotten all about.  You may remember you still have all that, but the process of cleaning reminds you where it is.

Organize your character valuably.  The worst sort of organization for an rpg player would be to record all your equipment alphabetically.  It is just as bad to push all the details about your character's background into a set of pages where they make up a story that you're probably never going to read again.  Subdividing and cataloging a character is antithetical to the character's living self ... you wouldn't subdivide your own experiences.  You wouldn't place the objects in your house in a circle along the walls alphabetically.

By grouping objects together in the meaningful groups, we make them convenient for use.  The kitchen things in the kitchen, the bathroom things in the bathroom.  We keep some books on the shelves of our study and others in the bookcase in the hall.  Still others we keep behind the toilet.  So why would you list every book on one sheet, separate from the rest of your equipment list?  The logical answer would be, "so I can find them."  This seems systematic and reasonable, but it doesn't cause you to stumble across those same books in a way that would be useful to your character at an appropriate time.

Your mind is NOT an organization of neat rows ... it is a group of clusters that makes interconnections randomly, depending upon chance and circumstance.  The more sterile you make your character sheet, the less opportunity you will have for a happenstance idea that might make the difference between success.  As an example, you're looking for something to burn, but because you have your books buried in a sheet at the back of your character, it doesn't occur to you at that moment or at that time that books are flammable.  However, the player next to you records his stuff according to where it is on his character, and because he has 'book' written under 'three torches,' he makes the connection immediately.

This may seem strange and counter-intuitive ... but in fact it is very pro-intuitive.  Requiring yourself to remember what you have on the basis of where it is as opposed to what it is called or what category it sits in compels you to redirect your investigations towards seeing the character's collection of things as a whole.  This, in turn, makes your character more real, more something like you would be in real life.  The bag you carry around with you is probably a jumble of a lot of things, but you don't have any trouble finding anything in it because you remember what you've put there and you're able to retrieve it at will.  I'm recommending that you try to achieve the same results with your character.  And if I might add, rewriting your character often will help with that ideal.

Another general comment I'd like to make would be about the intrisicality of things a character possesses.  I have noticed there is too strong a tendency to see objects as whole parts.  What I mean is that all too often a player will forget that backpacks and shields have straps or that the handle and head of an axe come apart.  I'm astounded at players who find themselves stumped at having to haul something small up from 100 feet below when they only have "50 feet of rope" ... because they've forgotten that rope is made of strands that can be pulled apart and tied to make three times as much length.  Perhaps it would not hold a character, but it will certainly drop a bucket down to a pond of unreachable fresh water and raise it again.

The issue is that words written on a page do not have the 'sense' that real objects carry.  No one would fail to notice that the straps from a pack would make serviceable bonds for a prisoner if the pack were visible ... but players will cast about for something and come up shy because all they have it the word on a page.  Try to see past the word and at the nature of the thing itself ... so that when you are struggling to innovate an immediate solution to a problem, you recognize that you have more options than are necessarily self-evident.

Innovation begins with seeing and restructuring that which is taken for granted.  Remember too that the DM will likely take for granted everything your player has ... and by creating more use out of objects that seem to have their purpose neatly rendered, you will impress your DM; that's what you need to get out of this poor situation you're in and into one that lets you succeed.


If it seems I'm presenting the DM as a bit of a dupe whom you can manipulate, I mean that only as a half truth.  I don't mean to say the DM will actually bend the rules to ease your way (though some will, either though inexperience or indulgence).  You can't quite count on that.  But the DM is a human, and humans are inclined to like those with whom they get along ... and strangely, DMs are soft where it comes to players who cleverly manipulate the world they've built.  That manipulation ... or 'innovation' as I've been calling it ... is proof positive that their world is inspiring thought and creativity in the player.  That is the DM's bread and butter, believe me.

So if you've begun buttering up the DM by demonstrating how smart you are, your DM is bound to let you dig around with things that might otherwise be discounted out of hand.  A DM, for instance, is ready to be a little more 'sandbox' with a campaign if the players show a willingness to play it well.

What's needed are proactive players.  I've already set a bit of a baseline there.  You know what you want.  You know who to get it from, or perhaps who to beat to death with it once the thing's in your hand.  You recognize that to get those things you're going to have to be more organized in your character and ultimately in yourself ... and that should result in quicker reaction times when you're asked what weapon your carrying or whether or not you've got bandages ("Of course I have, they're in the pack on top of my spellbook, folded and halfway wrapped around the potion of animal control").  The next step is to carry that approach into the DMs world ... and that will bump you against the denizens of that world:  all the NPCs and the monsters you'll find, some your friends and allies, some neutral and dismissive, and some of whom are wondering if your bones carry much sweet and juicy marrow.

It is your role in the game to set out in their direction, direct the allies, influence the fence sitters and deny your bone packing to the rest.  How you do this is up to you ... but it is important that you recognize the responsibility for doing this is YOURS.

It must be said that many worlds and DMs are not anxious to give you this responsibility.  For them, the game is to be presented like a set of midway sideshows, with the DM as barker to shout you onto this ride or urge you to bet your money on that booth.  Here's the Funhouse, here's the Matterhorn, here's the ring toss, here's the coin toss.  "Throw your dice and take your chances, hurry, hurry, hurry!"

That's derisive and simplifying but what it isn't is unfair.  The very act of seeing the Haunted House involves paying your money, getting into car on rails and being taken through a series of pre-planned, preset moments of thrill and split-instant terror.  This or that jumps out at you and gets your heart racing and it IS a lot of fun ... when you're 16.  When you're 16, the world is new and there are no cliches; there are no predictable endings to films and there are no flat and wooden characterizations.  When you're 16, every word you write is brilliant and every thought you have is the first time anyone anywhere in the world has thought that.  It is only with time and reading many books and seeing many movies that you begin to realize that most of what you thought was great in your youth depended so much on your perspective.  Of course, this assumes that as you get older you do read a lot of books and see a lot of movies, and not all of one type.  Some people never grow up.

If you're prepared to spend all your time in prefabricated funhouses, then much of what I've written above is going to be of little use to you.  Some of the details about the character sheet might be helpful, and some of that about having the DM on your side ... but all that I've written about winning and being the character will not be of much help.  You're like Riker, Data and Worf in that very bad hotel from the second season of the Next Generation, described in the show thusly:

"... I awakened to find myself here in the Royale Hotel, precisely as described in the novel I found in my room. And for the last 38 years, I have survived here. I have come to understand that the alien contaminators created this place for me out of some sense of guilt, presuming that the novel we had on board the shuttle about the Hotel Royale was, in fact, a guide to our preferred lifestyle and social habits. Obviously they thought that this was the world from which I came. I hold no malice toward my benefactors. They could not possibly know the hell that they have put me through. For it was such a badly-written book, filled with endless cliché and shallow characters... I shall welcome death when it comes."
  Put in that world, you do what you can.  There's no opportunity to be proactive, and therefore the responsibility for 'running' your character is not yours.  At best, like the characters in the show, you can 'solve the riddle' ... but unlike the characters in the show, who move forward to their version of the real world, you're put into another Hotel Royale to solve a different riddle.

On the other hand, in a sandbox the responsbility IS yours ... and what you do with it reflects on you.  For some, that's not a very good thing.  It does not suggest a good time.  To them, it is the difference between being asked to visit the carnival in town and in having to stay at home and make their own fun.  They will take the carnival, everytime.

What I've tried to do is to offer some basic premises upon which to make your own fun.  Be the character.  Have a goal.  Take care of yourself by taking care of your 'physical manifestation,' the character sheet.  All that's left to tell you is to set your jaw, be brave and make your own way in the world.

The thing about being a hero in the books, you see, is that as the hero it's all laid out for you - like a video game.  You know what you're supposed to do.  But life isn't like that.  Life is frightening.  Life is full of opportunities to make the wrong choices.  In life, there's a chance of humiliating yourself and looking stupid.  No one appreciates that.  So even though in D&D your actual person won't die (your avatar will) there are still things to lose ... the respect of other people, for a start.  Specifically, people around a table with whom you're mostly not forthcoming.  Or so I suppose.

I've found that where you have a group of people who are prepared to be embarrassed in the eyes of one another, running a character in a sandbox is a lot easier.  Expectations are lower and more indulgent.  People are prepared to look 'silly' ... and therefore, far more willing to take risks and dare themselves to do things that might otherwise seem like a bad move.

Judgementalism, not just coming from the DM, is a large part of the reason players beg to avoid sandbox play.  It takes guts to have your character swagger into a bar, slap around a few of the customers and do it in a way that makes the other players at the table impressed.  Too much finger wagging kills it very quickly - and for the gentle reader who has gotten this far, ask yourself how much finger-wagging you've done yourself, in the name of telling others 'the best way to play.'

It isn't that you haven't meant well.  You've only done at the table what I've done here ... tried to give your best advice.  But human beings who are unfamiliar with getting up on their hind legs and taking action are easily overwhelmed.  If you're a player (or a DM), you have to do more than BE proactive ... you have to encourage it in others.

Each player must, in girding on their weapons and armor, gird on a sense of confidence in playing this game.  It is not enough to pretend to be the character ... if you ARE the character, then you are taking the character's emotional risks and making those your own.  And that is the brilliance of this game.  There may not be another place where for three or four hours at a stretch, you can enjoy the emotion of spectacular overconfidence.  In ordinary life, you have to worry about injury and disapproval - but in D&D you can be an enormous jackass, literally wallowing in your own glorification, and you can do it whether you prefer to be a 'hero' or not.

It takes energy to reach down into yourself and find the will to be all that you would be if it weren't for the lack of resources or confidence ... but the reward is greater than merely a good show on the midway.  The reward can be a transforming experience.  It can tell you things about yourself you did not know; it can give you confidence in things you do that are not D&D.  It can give you experience from your dealings with people that will contribute to your success no matter what you decide to do.  There arn't many games that will do that.  You're very lucky to have come across this one.

So lift your character off the ground, walk boldly up to that guard and introduce yourself.  Tell the guard what you intend to do.  Tell the guard he better help you, or so help him you're going to explain it in clearer terms.  Be gutsy.  Take chances.  Don't just dangle your toes in the water ... dive in!


I wonder how useful any of this has been.  I haven't filled this post with suggestions on how to find dungeons or how to set up traps to capture monsters for later fun and profit.  I haven't given 18 ways to slyly get rumors out of townspeople or how to go about exploring the wilderness out of town.  There's not a word here about the best possible order to march a party or how to pick a selection of weapons that will save your life when things get dark and scary.  In short, there hasn't been any practical advice at all.  And this was supposed to be about how to play a character.

It isn't that I don't have opinions on how to do those things - I've been playing this game a long time, and I've written tens of thousands of words on this blog.  There is a right selection of weapons to pick.  There are good ways to explore the wilderness and towns are a good source of daily rumors (though I hate when a player asks for one like ordering ale in a tavern).  Still, I think there's something suspect in anyone's perception of what's right and wrong about how to play YOUR character or what's bound to work best for you.  Lest we forget, the rest of the faculty of which Neils Bohr also had years of experience where it came to physics.  It isn't only how long you've been doing a thing ... it is also about how open you are to new ideas, and how willing you are to throw out everything you've believed in favor of an argument that's better.

So I prefer to leave the practical day to day tactics of playing your character in your given world up to you.  You know that world better than I.  My firm belief only extends so far as to argue that you're not divided from your character, and that like in the real world, your success will arise from how you innovate your way out of troubles.  That's all this has been ... a call to living, and living well, through D&D.

It is a bit embarrassing to explain to others why you would play this game.  Words like pretending and fantasy do not carry much weight with the adults of the world.  If you were to tell them that you spent your evenings experimenting with quantum physics in an attempt to demonstrably prove that all we see is false, that might put your listeners back on their heels.  But if you say that you're experimenting with your own personality, in the hopes of determining a better way to live or face the trials of the daily struggle, that seems ... unlikely.  But no more unlikely - or simple - than facing down the demons of numbers and atomic structure.

Introspection and self-improvement are laudable activities ... all you have to realize is that in playing D&D, that is what you are doing.  It may be dressed up with combat and monsters, but the principles are there.  You are acting the part of someone else, but someone else of your own creation.  Which you are, in turn, shaping and reworking to suit your personal tastes.  How is that different from what you've done this morning in waking yourself, washing and picking out your clothes, then heading into work to earn your daily bread?

In fact, it isn't different at all.  Only you're on the 'edge' when you're playing the game.  In real life, the edge is a little too real, and mostly all you learn from it is to stay far, far away.  In the game, you can get up close and personal ... and imagine what it would be like to be there, without having to be there.

If you're playing with someone who won't let you go as far as you want - if they're imposing themselves between you and the edge 'for your own good' or because they've decided what edges are appropriate for you ... then you owe it to yourself to agitate against that.  Even if you would hesitate to speak up for your rights in the real world, when your boss or your clients patronize you ... in playing D&D, you really ought to rise to the occasion.  If 50,000 can stand on the steps of the Capitol and shout against exploitation and the curtailing of their freedom, surely you can stand up at the table, stare your DM in the face and say, "No, I will not go where you say!  I will take the road north, because that is what pleases me!"

It helps, obviously, to know what pleases you.  You're not a child and you're not taking the north road out of sheer petulance.  You have reasons for what you want to do, and like your real self in the real world, you don't like being told what those reasons are.  You're prepared to strike north, find what you may find, deal with the consequences and see where the road ultimately takes you.  And what you ought to expect is that the DM will facilitate your desire to do this.  The DM has, presumably, designed something along the road that will be seen, that may take place, that will ultimately show the way to the next road and the next course of events.  And when it happens that something is not going according to your tastes, then you, the player, will change your course and set off otherwise.

And if it should become evident that you are somehow a dupe for others ... that every road leads to the same pre-determined Funhouse, and that you have no freedom at all to choose the path you will, then as a player, defensive of the character you respect and perhaps love, stand at the table and call "Foul!"

Some people style the DM as the 'referee' of the game.  The referee does not determine the outcome.  The referee does not judge both sides in the contest and then tilt the playing field in the direction of preference.  The DM asks the player what the player wants to do, and then the DM enables the player to do that.  And if the DM won't, the player must rise from the table and cease the game - because the player has self-respect.

That is the hardest decision a player can make ... but for the good of the game and in the long run for the good of yourself, it must be understand that you, the player, play the character, and no one else.  It is no different than the decision that you make for yourself as a human being.  You do not compromise your personal being simply because the liquor is available and the drugs are good.  When you recognize that someone who's being nice to you, giving you a good time and all, is really just trying to fuck you, that's where you draw the line and leave.  Give your character the same privilege.  If the game's aim is to exploit you, the game isn't worth it.


I love this game. It's been some great time since I've been able to play it, but if I could play, it would be actly along the lines described above. I think I might surprise a DM; I think I would buy a farm, something on the edge of the wilderness, and I would patiently tend my farm for a few years in the expectation of learning all there was to learn about that part of the world. Rather than depending on the locals for their intelligence, I would gather intelligence of my own. I would learn the names of all the local nobles and their children, I would investigate the river beds and chat up the miller and the local shepherds, who would know me by name as I knew them. I would walk through the forests and venture to the foothills or perhaps the ergs, if that were the environment. When I came across something dangerous, I would withdraw – perhaps after a fight or two – carefully noting down the location and determining the best means of encouraging my friends, the townspeople of whom I was one, to join me in eradicating that threat. I wouldn’t worry at first about how much experience or treasure I had … I think I could be part of the village in merely a running or two – for after all, in D&D, there’s no definite need to play each day in enormous detail.

Then, by the time I was ‘ready’ to adventure, I would have the world in my pocket. It would be up to the DM to recognize that I was one of those locals who tells the party where things are, and what to do. So I would know not just the pathway between town and the abandoned mine, I’d know on a daily basis who used that pathway, what they used it for, why the mine was built, the descendants of the miners and which legends were true or false.

It's the sort of approach that is usually not available to players, but only because they've been shoehorned into expectations they did not create.  Rules about time and opportunity are for the most part unwritten rules which players had no part in making.  And what is strange is that, on the whole, there are no horrid consequences for not following these rules.  They only exist because it suits the sort of shorthand DMs need in order to manage a very complex world with far more opportunities than they're prepared to run.  Players are short shrift because they have to be hammered into nice round holes that convenience DMs.  The game is more than that.  Players deserve more than that.  I would like to see a gaming philosophy that argues that its the DM that must adapt his or herself to the square personalities of players.  That can only begin with players who recognize that to play their characters properly and to the full extent of their opportunities, they need freedom.  Not a little freedom.  Lots of freedom.  Freedom unending, without limitations on what choices they choose to make.  This is, after all, a fantasy world.  It is the player living out the fantasy.  It is not the DM's fantasy.  The DM making that fantasy possible.

And if the DM doesn't like that, well, tough shit.  That's not something the players need worry about.


Arduin said...

Spot on, sir.

YagamiFire said...

I pity anyone that reads this and doesn't "get it". This should be at the front of a mandatory d&d book. No lie. No glad handing. No bullshit. Excellent post. In the words of Stan Lee...'nuff said.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Thank you. Put that on your WOTC bulletin board.

joe said...

Oh, I was also going to say something about how a such a complete player character concept is an absolute joy for the DM. The more you feed the DM the more he will feed you and so forth. Insert ham-fisted jazz metaphor.

Anyway, that enough before I get lost in my own bullshit. Again.

Jay Murphy said...


Are Braaten said...

This post made me late for my bus this morning. Thanks.

Still, there are plenty of practical stuff here. I particularly like the part about organizing your inventory. Lately I've begun keeping a hardcover notebook that logs EVERYTHING. And god damn if it isn't helpful. Your stuff about stuff is gonna help me advance my (usually lacking) abilities to keep track of EVERYTHING. (and thus play better.)

Matt Williams said...

This is a very valuable post. The notion of a 'VSE' for my character has already forced me to re-evaluate some of my past decisions as a player and find them woefully oblivious to my characters' basic human needs. Never again will I go down into a cave without blankets!

Ozzie Pippenger said...

One of the crushed-skull people finally brought up something semi-logical. Goober wants to know how you deal with players who have conflicting goals, and now that he's brought it up I'm curious as well.

Do you leave it entirely up to your players to work out when they have a conflict? What if some of the players insist on doing something the rest have no interest in? Do you ever run extra games or one on one adventures for independent goals?

I know my players can have trouble with this. Sometimes two or three of them are working well together, feeding off each other's energy, and making the game much more interesting. Sometimes though, a single player dominates the game and the others slowly stop paying attention. Now, I'm not sure how much the DM can really do here beyond telling the players to act like adults when they disagree. It's just a problem that comes up from time to time in my games, and if you have any methods of dealing with it I'd like to hear them.

Rory Klein said...

A most excellent read! I would like to see your point of view on the questions that have been raised.

Eid said...

I love this, its pure, clean, and murky-grey as my own mind.
I just wish my old game crew could read this: thank you for putting this to page!

I would tire at the lack of meta-game discourse, or lack of awareness that personality and power dynamics have around the game table. Whenever I'd be diplomatic or 'play lame' for the sake of group cohesion and story-line, others just thought it was my character's neutral outlook.

All the minds about the table need to engage in open discourse regarding personality dynamics (which govern the game too).