So you listen to actual-play podcasts. That’s no surprise, you’re reading this, aren’t you? I listen to a lot of them, too. I’m more often than not amazed at the roleplaying. The first thing I’ll tell you is this: Don’t compare yourself to the podcast players. Depending on the podcast, sometimes the player will take a lot of time coming up with something but you the listener won’t hear it. You’ll just hear the beautifully edited and delivered line, as though the player thought that up right off the cuff. Sometimes that happens, but not always. Just don’t compare yourself, okay? Now… let’s get into the nitty-gritty, shall we?
How to <start> Roleplaying
Lesson #1: Try.
Honest to god. Try it. You’re with friends in a safe place.
Lesson #2: Come up with a theme
When building your character, think about a general theme. I’m not talking alignment, just a general personality. Do you want to be the clown and funny guy? Do you want to be serious and battle-hardened? This is going to help you shape your character and therefore how you play the character. Make sure it’s a theme you know you can stick to, at least in a vague way. For example – I have a really hard time playing a truly evil character. Even in video games, I have a hard time killing innocent people or making choices that cause harm to them. So I know I can’t create a character that likes to hurt people or a character without empathy, because I know I won’t be able to stick with that theme.
Lesson #3: Play to your Character
I’m currently the GM for a Star Wars Age of Rebellion game, and at the beginning of the game I asked my players to fill out a simple chart that they could change over time, but ultimately that would help them play to their characters. They had to check one of the boxes where they felt their character would react to situations (if you’ve checked out the Campaign Podcast Character page, they did something very similar). This is what mine looks like this:
Ultimately, my players could move where they originally checked off a box. For example: maybe they used to be extremely emotional, but throughout the game they’ve become a bit more balanced between emotional and logical. So the check moves from the far right to the middle. This has created some really great conversation between the players, and my players still use this on the odd occasion as reference when making crucial decisions to help them stay in character. For new roleplayers, it really helps build a reference and starting point on how to act. This isn’t a hard and fast rule – it’s just a guide to help you on your way.
Is a backstory really necessary?
Well… yes and no. I feel like in some ways it depends on the kind of game you’re playing, but also the kinds of people you’re playing with. Many years ago, I was a player in a game and came up with this massive extended backstory and it never got used once. I was playing with some friends who were really only interested in playing a hack-and-slash. Exploring character development wasn’t interesting for them. I currently play with a group that is very interested in exploring characters. But I haven’t developed a big story for my character, because I want that story to come naturally. Creating a backstory isn’t essential to roleplaying.
I like to create a vague backstory with one or two interesting tidbits. My backstory in the current D&D game I’m playing in is that I’m from a wealthy Dwarven family, I trained in gem-cutting (the family business), but now I’m a thief. That’s all I really came up with. This gives the GM the power to create hooks for me, introduce NPCs that may know my family, etc. In fact, when one of our player characters was killed, he rolled up a Dwarven cleric that happened to be my cousin, so that there could be some tension. Neither of us have any backstory of our relationship, but the roleplay is helping us shape that history. In our last game, the Tiefling and the cleric were having a bit of a one-on-one. The Tiefling doesn’t really trust my character, so he asked the cleric for any dirty history of mine. The cleric denied any knowledge, and that has helped shape our combined history. We’re letting our backstory come in through natural roleplaying, versus a pre-planned existing story.
But… I’m not good at roleplaying!
Balderdash. You don’t know until you’ve tried. And guess what, if you’ve tried and you’re still feeling unconfident, you just need to keep trying! Roleplaying is something you get good at. You practice. You keep practicing. You use little references or notes for yourself. Every time you react in a certain way to a situation, write it down! Remember it! Now the next time you’re in a similar situation, you can remember what you did last time and think “Would my character react the same way? Or have they learned from that last situation and will make an effort to react in a more logical way?”. Soon enough, you won’t need the notes anymore, because your character’s personality will have been shaped and you’ll begin to find it easier and easier to roleplay to that character.
The GM of Godsfall, Aram, brings up a great point in one of the first episodes of his podcast. What is the point in creating a level 10 character or starting a game at at level 10? Part of character roleplaying and development is starting off small. Let the adventures you take from the start help you shape your character and who they become. Keep practicing roleplaying and you’ll develop not only a great character, but you’ll feel more at ease roleplaying as you go along!
Now go listen to one of the many awesome Adventure Podcasts I’ve got listed on the site.