RPGs: The Truest Test of Character?

Why is it that role-playing games seem to bring out the worst traits in people? Even people you would never have guessed had it in them, people you may have liked before, but come out liking less. I wish the inverse was true – that players displaying good morals would be surprising or have a nice impact – but it’s far easier to be outlandishly awful than it is to be pretty decent. There are millions of ways to harm people and only a few ways to nurture or protect them. Either way, RPGs keep turning into morality tests, no matter the GM’s intent.

I’ve run situations where all a character had to do was say hello to an old friend, and before long the friend has been encouraged to shoot heroin for the first time with a dirty needle. Where all a group of characters had to do was walk down a sidewalk, have a funny interaction with some randos, then one PC goads another into viciously assaulting them.

And I’m sure most of the fellowship of Game Masters have encountered similar. The adventurers pass a travelling show and end up killing everybody for XP and a few silver pieces, or because the entertainers didn’t sufficiently stroke the PC’s demonic egos. The encounter was just meant to breathe life into the setting, give the PCs a chance to experience a different world. Turns out the life they want to experience is that of homicidal warlords.

You often hear the lament on forums, how do I deal with this terrible player? He’s my best friend in real life, so I can’t tell him to fuck off. How can I rein him in? Sometimes, if it’s extreme enough, the bad player’s friend may wonder if there’s something seriously wrong with them. Is my best friend a potential serial killer?

There are a number of reasons, some addressed in my Pitfalls of RP series, that lead players to behave worse in a game than they would in real life. The most obvious reason is that it is just a game, so depending on how real it feels, one could feel no more responsible than they would to video game NPCs. The flipside of this is that some nice people would never dream of killing the jerk rat-pelt collector in Everquest, let alone a character voiced by a present living person. Still, failures of imagination can be understood. The best of us get big body counts in GTA.

Another failure of imagination is just misunderstanding the scene or the world and its rules. In cinema and in many games, a blow to the back of the head will knock someone out harmlessly. In real life and realistic games, unconsciousness isn’t guaranteed but brain damage is certainly a possibility. Likewise, a PC could read an NPC as more dangerous than they are, and end up shooting unarmed characters.

Excuses aside, many players genuinely feel fine playing characters as utter bastards. Can you play evil? Do you like to? I’ve found that the only way I can deal with that is playing a character who is meant to be disliked, meant to be unpleasant and probably doomed. The aforementioned rando-bashing and heroin needling was conducted by a character that was pretty well defined as a jerk, so it wasn’t too jarring, even if it was gratuitous and ugly.

What blows my mind is that people will write a character as all sunshine and light, cutesy woobliness, then turn around and have those characters commit atrocities. I’m sorry, Braden, but blushing boy band-lookin’ sensitive sighs Oliver comes off like a David Lynch villain the second you make him party to a serial killing. His loverboy styles are instantly upended into depraved creepiness, his looks corrupted by the dark light behind his eyes.

It could be a problem of people playing characters beyond their own natural abilities. We don’t physically lift the castle gates when our characters do, but we do have to make words happen, make actions happen, within the limits of our own real life ability. Playing characters as more intelligent or charismatic than we actually are? Very difficult. Playing characters more compassionate than we are? Maybe it’s impossible. How would you even know you were fucking up?

If that’s the case, then the key is knowing yourself and playing within the limits of your ability and imagination. And if you’re paying attention while you’re playing, you might learn a lot about what those limits are.