“I’m Sorry, But That’s What My Character Would Do.”

Good god, I’ve come to dread that sentence in games.

Most of you recognize it, right? The cry of the dedicated roleplayer when a character choice causes problems.

“I have to be true to the character.”

No matter what the cost. That’s what being a true roleplayer is all about right?

Once upon a time, I would have agreed with that. But after several years (Hell, who am I kidding? After nearly three decades!) of gaming, I’ve come to a different conclusion.

Let’s look at the evolution of me as a gamer, because I’m going to assume I’m pretty typical for gamers in my age bracket. Yeah, that’s a big assumption, but I’m trying to make a point here. How about we suspend judgment for a bit, and just go along for the ride?

When I started gaming, back in high school, it was all about the hack ‘n’ slash. Kill things, take their stuff, repeat until you collapse. It was fun, and I still run one of those games today for a group of beer-and-pretzel gamers.

But after a while, I wanted something more out of gaming. In the heady days of the ’80s, I delved into more and more complex systems, looking for more realistic simulations. While this held my interest, the more complex rules meant I had more problems finding people to play with.

So, things turned around again with the publication of Vampire: The Masquerade. Simple system, strong emphasis on storytelling and characterization. And that’s the way I went. Right into the heart of being a completely dedicated true character roleplayer.

And that’s where the problems came in.

See, another character in the game did something that infuriated my character, and passed it off as, “Sorry, but that’s what my character would do.” This led to my character (who was a bit of a prick, truth to tell) retaliating in petty little ways. And her character would retaliate. And so on.

By the time the campaign wrapped up, we had been playing the last several years with the GM and the other players and even us going through these bizarre contortions to get the entire party together in the same place, or working on the same problem. When really, they should have killed each other off long before.

I swear to God, it was like the A-Team. Every week, you wonder how they’re going to get Mr. T on the airplane, and the methods get crazier and stupider.

And here’s my point:

It’s a game.

You’re there to play. With other people. Who also want to have fun.

Now, I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t play their characters, or that the experience shouldn’t be immersive, but you gotta keep your eye on the prize, and the prize is for everyone to have fun.


Here’s why I’ve been thinking about this the past couple of days.

I’ve started playing in a new D&D campaign with my group, and one of the players is the one who played the character that my character feuded with all through the Vampire campaign. Saturday night, we butted heads again, our characters pushing each others’ buttons, and getting into a situation where, for a while there, I thought that I was going to have to retire my character or face a repeat of the whole Vampire campaign.

(“C’mon, BA, just drink the milk. We didn’t drug it this week!”)

But I made my character make a gesture of conciliation to her character. Then she sent me some e-mail the next day, saying, “Let’s figure out how to make this work between our characters so that we don’t go down that road again.”

And you know what? We did.

Over the course of a few e-mail exchanges, we turned a potentially disasterous encounter into a bonding experience for our characters.


We communicated. We explained where we were each coming from in playing our characters the way we had. And then we did a few in-character conversations via e-mail. And now, our characters are closer and more loyal to each other than they were before the incident. They respect and understand each other more. And they’ve each grown in interesting ways.

Notice I said that the characters have grown, not that the characters have changed. Nothing about how we see our characters has been invalidated; if anything the whole experience really reinforced our concepts. But they’ve expanded and deepened, in ways that work.

We met each other half-way, and turned what could have been a really souring experience into a positive one. I can’t wait for the next session.

So, I’ve come to see the cry of, “But that’s what my character would do!” as a bit of a selfish grab for the spotlight. It only gets said when the culprit has brought a problem into the gaming experience. Notice I didn’t say, “Into the game.” Complications from character actions in-game are fine. But the phrase is usually only trotted out when there’s a real impact on the fun for the players or GM.

It’s a lame excuse.

Be true to your character, but be truer to your friends in the real world. You’re there to have fun, and so are they. Keep that in mind when you make choices for your character, and consider what the impact will be on the play experience for the rest of the people sitting around the living room with you. Roleplaying is a co-operative endeavour; make sure you do your part to make it fun for everyone.

And when problems crop up, as they will, as they did for Penny and I on Saturday, work it out. Communicate. Compromise. Co-operate. If you meet each other half-way, you can turn a potential problem into a real nice moment for both characters.

And now I’m getting down off my soapbox.

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7 Responses to “I’m Sorry, But That’s What My Character Would Do.”

  1. Zib says:

    There was a Sons of Kryos podcast on largely the same theme. Any time you’re saying “It’s what my character would do”, “it” is almost invariably “being a jerk”.

  2. Penny says:

    Jumping in here as the other person involved…

    I have a tendency to immerse myself in my characters and then simply react (I suspect this is the case with Rick as well). Mostly, this just adds to the fun of gaming, but it sometimes leads to characters clashing in a destructive way (as it did in this case). When this happens, I have been finding it useful to remind myself that a good role-playing game is an exercise in collaborative story-telling. And that my character is not always the centre of the action.

    This time around, all it really took was for me to step back from the situation mentally and think “if I were writing a story instead of playing in a game, what would I do with this?”

    Having the characters stomp away angrily and never speak to one another again? Not very interesting, and certainly not very satisfying. Having them work out their differences makes for a more interesting story. In a book, this would have been the event that caused them become closer friends – so we discussed the options and found a way to make that happen. Makes it easier on the poor GM too.

  3. Rick Neal says:

    Yeah, I really don’t want to sound like I’m blaming what happened on Penny – it wasn’t her fault. We both tend to build very strong-willed characters. Hers usually have short fuses, whereas mine are arrogant. Both have long memories. Sounds like a real recipe for harmony, huh? 😉

    Anyway, even with the best of intentions, conflicts come up. The whole key is that Penny went out of her way, after the game, to enlist my help in looking for a way to turn the negative incident into a positive, interesting one. It’s tough to do in the middle of game, but neither of us made any truly rash decisions, so we were able to work together to resolve it. I’m very grateful to her for taking the first step, and letting me work with her to turn the incident around, because I was trying to figure out a way to keep my character in the game after it happened.

    Communication, people. It works. Give it a try.

  4. (I found this post from someone who shared his RSS feeds, Tommi’s probably)

    Great post Rick.

    While I’m loath to call both your approach to a potentially unfun situation as ‘mature’ it’s the simplest way to define it and I applaud it.

    Shameless Selfishness (pardon the alliteration) kills RPG campaigns faster than anything else.

    Your proposed solution of tackling an inter-character situation gone bad fast and through dialogue is a great one.

    I’m saving your post for further discussion on my side.

  5. Rechan says:

    Ugh. This. Yes, I know and feel your pain.

    I am starting to desire terminating a game I am running because it’s devolving into PC vs. PC and “Our characters not only have nothing in common and no reason to go together, but your character offends the sensibilities of mine.”

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