Just Talking: Communicating Your Character

Over at Ars Ludi, Ben Robbins brings up some interesting points about sharing one’s character’s point of view.

I think it’s very important to note that good roleplaying isn’t something that just happens, nor does it happen in a vacuum. If you want your character’s personality and backstory to feature prominently in play, you have to put something on the table. No one’s going to drag your character’s secrets out of you!

This has come up a lot in White Wolf games I’ve played in, especially LARPs, but I’ve seen it in other games as well, including old-school D&D. Someone designs their character with dark secrets—drug addictions, broken families, betrayed masters, forbidden loves, and so forth—then works so hard to cover their tracks that no one ever finds out about those dark secrets. At which point they’re puzzled and disappointed, because the whole point of having all this cool stuff in your backstory is to have it come out in play!

The point is, if it’s important to you for your character to have a Big Reveal in which Stuff Is Found Out—or even if you just want them to notice the little things about your character’s behavior and persona—you have to arrange it out-of-character. You can’t depend on people noticing your in-character clues. After all, they’re all busy with their own business, not to mention whatever the referee is throwing at the group!

Hell, I’ve done it myself, playing taciturn characters who never let anyone past their guard. But if no one else at the table knows what’s going on inside your character’s head, how important is it?

There are a number of useful expository techniques for sharing a character’s inner life with the group. These include:

  1. Monologuing: This is where you turn the old adage of “Show, don’t tell” on its arse and tell the group what’s going on in your character’s thoughts. This can be a first-person or third-person monologue. If you do this, keep it short. Non-interactive presentations on the table get boring much faster than you might think!
  2. Blue-booking: This is where you write your monologue down and share it with the group between sessions. This can be a brief excerpt or a full-on short story. Unlike a monologue, you can be as verbose as you want because you’re not stealing spotlight time at the table.
  3. Staged scene: Here you work with your fellow players and the referee to set up a scene in the game that showcases your character’s issues. This may be best accomplished troupe-style, with other players running relevant NPCs—your character’s friends, family, rivals, etc—as appropriate to the needs of the scene.

The one thing I don’t recommend is running long solo staged scenes. No matter how cool your character is and no matter how masterful a thespian you are, a two-hour scene with just you and the referee is likely to bore everyone else to tears. Solo scenes are useful, but keep them short and snappy!

Lastly, it’s important for referees to remember that if a player presents a secret in their character’s backstory, that’s a red flag indicating a point of conflict. Secrets are there to be revealed! You shouldn’t expose it directly without the player’s permission, but you should threaten its exposure on a semi-regular basis. It’s a good way to up the tension, and it offers a good avenue for giving the player a meaningful choice.

2 Responses to “Just Talking: Communicating Your Character”

  1. 1 Greengoat
    March 3, 2010 at 4:13 pm

    A good and obvious point Eric,

    The act of keeping story points hidden from others is a subconscious problem that always bites me in the ass either as player with a PC, or even worse, when running a game as a DM with a table full of clueless players.

    Bad, bad, bad DM.

    I think it stems from the hiccup that occurs between thinking about the narrative as a solitary “writer” like when you are writing fiction alone, and the actuality of play as you are forming the story as a group. Clear signs and broad gestures are absolutely necessary to get a flowing characterization across to the other people you play with.

    I still end up hiding things without thinking about it and end up kicking myself once I see the hassle it causes.

  2. March 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm

    Yeah, we’re both on the same page here.

    As you note, managing information flow as a DM is also a tricky issue. It’s necessary to find a balance between giving away too little and giving away too much at once. I’ll put together a post on that subject shortly.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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