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.


  1. cartomancer says

    I think a lot of this comes from the expectations people bring to RPGs from other RPGs. An awful lot of people cut their teeth on hack and slash dungeon crawlers like Dungeons and Dragons which, traditionally, focus entirely on hitting people and stealing their stuff. Indeed, when accumulating loot is your only motivation you tend to act in very strange ways by normal moral lights. If your only experiences of roleplaying are in this vein then more realistic or socially-focused games can be hard to get into the mindset for.

    The current president of the USA seems to have fallen foul of this phenomenon.

    Of course, the obvious solution to people behaving in ghastly ways when you don’t want them to is to do what real world societies do to such troublemakers – long prison sentences or execution.

    More prosaically, it is always worth discussing new games before starting out, rather than just assuming everyone will get the tone and theme of the world they’re heading into. I didn’t do this when I started my lot out on Promethean: The Created, and so while I was expecting to run a complex symbolic exploration of the human condition my players were expecting a film noir melodrama or punching people to death with superpowered Frankenstein’s monsters.

  2. says

    As a counterpoint of interest, then, you might be interested in my current character (for an all-women D&D podcast, no less).

    “Valia Windrose” is a paladin of Ilmater (a god of charity and healing). She is in her early 50s, a lot older than starting adventurers usually are; her backstory contains a horrible tragedy in which she lost her family, and her holy calling is to relieve suffering. She lives it, too, even when her companions make it difficult. She takes in and heals NPCs, protects fallen enemies, and puts herself in harm’s way so someone else doesn’t have to get hurt.

    It is a much more role-playing and less hack-and-slash of a campaign than the ones described above. That might make all the difference.

    I believe in a world without pain. One blessed day, no person, no creature will ever have to suffer again. Life will still begin and end, but kindly, without pain, without prejudice, and without torture. I have suffered greatly. So have you all, so has everyone to one degree or another, but for me that is my purpose, to prevent suffering, no matter the cost, and no matter what it does to what remains of me. The part of me that could have lived in that world died thirty years ago.

  3. Glor says

    “More prosaically, it is always worth discussing new games before starting out, rather than just assuming everyone will get the tone and theme of the world they’re heading into.”

    This a thousand times. Then keep communicating to ensure everyone *remains* on the same page.
    The back of the head knockout is a great example, because the general assumption in the context of fiction (including RPGs) is that it IS safe. If it isn’t, that needs to be communicated clearly.
    Genres (and the associated expectations) can change behaviour extremely – a character that upon learning that 5 people are conspiring to do something that would harm (their home/friends/cause/whatever) proceeds to kill them in cold blood could be:
    -Par for the course in certain D&D campaigns
    -Borderline in Shadowrun
    -WTF evil in a realistic game focusing on social interaction/detectivework
    (-Pretty much a pacifist in a 40k game. I don’t play 40k games.)
    So if people are on different pages there the results can be… explosives. Same with evil characters… if everyone’s onboard they can be fun (not my cup of tea, ‘though), but that needs to be talked about.

  4. invivoMark says

    I think a major reason people are quick to violence in RPGs is because in most RPG settings, violence is the most interactive thing a player can do. If your only button is “swing sword at throat,” you’re eventually going to get bored and end up pushing that button a lot.

    I don’t mind playing a character with questionable morals, someone who is a moral relativist or a nihilist, or even a character who is straight-up evil. But I won’t play a character who’s a dick. I mean, even if I’m playing Lord Sinister McEvilson in a campaign to lead his seven armies of Hell against the Guardians of Happiness and Sunshine, I wouldn’t kick puppies. Even the bad guys usually like to see themselves as the good guys.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I remember eavesdropping on a college-age group who were all playing vampires, and competing over who could keep their castles best stocked with helpless prisoners they could feed off of.
    To the list of possible problematic aspects from @1, I would add “young.” In my experience, that sort of behavior seems to have faded away by the time people reach their mid-20s — either they grow up a bit and explore more complex characters, or (more commonly) they move on to other hobbies.
    I think that the real truth is, roleplaying evil is kinda boring. For mature people, the rewards of roleplaying really come from creating and inhabiting the world of an interesting, fleshed-out character — the same as the reward of acting. Being evil is about as interesting as munchkin gaming and just trying to become the most powerful. If you don’t get into a campaign that makes you think every once in a while, I think it stops being fun.

  6. EveryZig says

    My default play style is “generally nice aside from putting up with party members’ shady antics”. As I mentioned in an earlier post here, in the last year or so I have been making an effort to make more distinct characters, but they have still ranged from good to neutral. I don’t think I would enjoy playing a character who is outright evil rather beyond being kind of neutral selfish, since I am generally not into cruelty in games (with the exception of Dwarf Fortress’s elaborate death traps).

    By the way, in your earlier RPG post I described how Query the radically honest alien robot. Last time I described how it got in a fight with the rest of the party and was forced into stasis over refusing to cooperate with covering up a politician’s assassination that the party was tricked into assisting. Things actually turned out a lot better then I had expected for Query, as the party brought it back later (as an NPC rather than a player character) at a point when the truth of the assassination was kind of a moot point. While the actual party went on to mess up in the main plot due to their dubious competence and unclear directions from overly secretive NPC superiors, Query was interviewing and getting to know an alien the party had discovered who was the last survivor of a lost civilization (a major win in terms of Query’s priorities). It ended up as one of only two characters to come out ahead of where they started the campaign (and in my opinion turned out to be more or less right about all that secrecy being ultimately counterproductive).

    On RPGs bringing out the worst in people in general, I think its several reasons. In addition to genre expectations like cartomancer said and the “when all you have is a +5 vorpal sword…” effect like invivoMark said, many tabletop games such as DnD have incentive structures centered around fighting, where EXP and power are gained mostly or entirely from killing things and/or taking stuff.

    @ abbeycadabra
    Do you have a link for the podcast you mentioned? I am interested in RPG podcasts of the more story focused variety.

  7. lanir says

    I had a rash of intensely selfish PCs and groups that would not work together at one point. Sometimes they included evil characters, other times they were technically something else but realistically evil. I got a bit tired of it so I threw down the proverbial gauntlet.

    I ran a game based on the Planescape setting. I used a different system than D&D to run it with but mostly that just let me be flexible about what sort of characters the group made (one PC was a vampire for instance… and it didn’t mess up the story at all). The setup was that each PC could be as evil as they liked. I didn’t care, but they knew they would be working for a powerful evil boss who cared nothing for them. If they got results, all was good. If they failed, he’d ask the group who had been holding them back and eat said person.

    I only had one actually evil character by the time the game got going. It was amazing to watch the same people who had been prefectly content to be selfish assholes just a couple weeks earlier turn into timidly pro-cooperation group cheerleaders. I have to admit I went a bit easier on them than I should have but by the end of it they were mostly working together. Even the truly evil PC felt self-preservation came before gratuitous orneriness.

    Another aspect of this was portraying NPCs that were more intelligent than me. This involved setting up situations where the group could make choices but both choices benefited the NPC in different ways. Sometimes this was achieved by a false dichotomy, which is something that you might be able to pull off as a PC. It’s certainly much easier as a GM though. Basically you don’t reveal what the character would get out of either choice and then whichever way it goes, you find a way to claim a win. Even if you didn’t get exactly what you wanted, this can look like a brilliant ploy come to fruition.

  8. says

    OMG you guys, lot of stuff to respond to here, and work and life are running me ragged. I’ll hit this up as soon as I can do so thoughtfully – as much as that’s possible for me, haha.

  9. says

    @ EveryZig

    Sure thing. ZeroD20 is the collective of progressive-oriented D&D podcasts. ‘Fracturia’ has been running for a long time, ‘Faun’s Heart’ is a few months old, and the other two are brand new.

    Mine is Faun’s Heart.

  10. EveryZig says

    Recent events in my current campaign are relevant to morality in RPGs: My character in my current campaign with the Query group is an amnesiac knight who is very heroic, brave, and compassionate but is also does not consider the implications of things, is overly optimistic, and is too trusting. The other four members of the group are two neutral characters (an alchemist motivated by curiosity and an ex-assassin/”lawyer” who wants to find a less evil occupation) and two evil characters (a semi-corrupt inquisitor for a theocratic nation in the setting and a prototype magitech cyborg). The cyborg’s implants are of a type that are new to the setting and often cause personality deterioration over time, which I am now pretty sure his player is having happen as character has gone from a more chaotic neutral (and slightly endearing IMO) edgy angst and tendency towards punching brawls to outright murderous as the sessions have progressed. In last week’s session the cyborg killed a man who had been accused (by extremely untrustworthy enemies of the party) of multiple murder. In this week’s session the Knight confronted the cyborg about this and said there was only so much murderous behavior the knight would put up with, which the cyborg brushed off (and continued to suggest murder where remotely relevant). And then near the end of the session the cyborg snuck away from the party and murdered an NPC teenager who had been painting graffiti on a wall. But here’s where things are about to take a turn: because of magical events the party were involved in during recent sessions, the player characters have started developing magic powers based on their personalities or desires that activate in specific circumstances (which the players are encouraged to keep secret from each other). And the Knight, who has been getting frustrated about being fooled several times recently recently by NPCs only to find out later (like two separate cases of bandits convincing him they weren’t bandits), is gaining the ability to automatically read the minds of people who he hears lie about violence.

    @ abbeycadabra
    I have listened to the first episode of Faun’s Heart and like it so far. Your group are good at puns.

  11. says

    To all – Sorry to have not answered comments sooner. I get so few I prefer to address them all, but life got lifey on me. Belatedly,

    cartomancer @3-
    I like your “more prosaic” solution best. In-game solutions have some major failings, as much as they are often useful. Of course, during beforehand discussion, you could face players who don’t know what they want or don’t get what you mean, and in their enthusiasm to play just plow ahead into disaster town. Sorry about your Promethean adventure. In both your intent and the player’s misunderstanding, it reminds me of that failed Dean Koontz pilot for a modern Frankenstein series with Parker Posey and Adam Goldberg. Interesting stuff.

    abbeycadabra @4-
    Valia sounds like good IRL people. I came up with a concept for an Ilmatari monk once, never got to use it. Forgotten Realms was a kewl campaign setting.

    Glor @5-
    The 40k pacifist gave me a chuckle. And yes, good ideas on keeping communication open and expectations clear. It’s not bulletproof – nothing involving humans is – but it’s a lot better than going in blind.

    WMDKitty @6-
    “…am I the only one…?”
    See abbey @4, haha.

    invivoMark @7-
    I’m sure the “only button” problem is a factor, even without combat rules. In the situations I referred to, the players were dealing with a very open world. When one can do anything without IRL pain as a consequence, what might one be capable of?

    I have mixed approaches to the evil characters. I run some NPC puppy kickers, but I’ve also done a few evil NPCs that aren’t a problem 99% of the time – they just don’t earnestly care about anyone and will do evil to get what they want.

    IRL evil is a weird shitty mess, often accompanied by the desire to see oneself as the good guy, like you mentioned. Fictional evil is less painful to examine, especially if you’re in a setting like D&D where it has some metaphysical properties. What does that mean?

    brucegee @8-
    Young players being more evil – holds true in my experience. As Glor mentioned @5, evil can vary a lot with the setting. I think it could lead to thoughtful play, or just not be a big deal in some campaigns. I think it’s worst for me in a realistic world. That’s what I have usually been running when players shocked me.

    EveryZig @9-
    Robot morality can be a very cool subject, or very played out. At the moment, I’m finding it interesting.

    lanir @10-
    I fucking despise the “technically something else but realistically evil” characters, like sensitive sighs Oliver in my article. Sounds like your in-game solution was a good one.

    Ah, the old “I meant to do that” gambit, haha. Good stuff.

    EveryZig @14-
    Who convinced the GM to let them play Ren Faire Robocop? Heh.

  12. EveryZig says

    @Great American Satan 15
    The DM made the setting and the cyborg stuff was actually a pre-existing setting element, as the setting has a sort of mad-scienceish theme between the various alchemists and the recent discovery of other magic. Another setting element I did not mention in the earlier post is that becoming a sapient undead is a normal part of life, with the cyborgs being a rare subset of those and my character (the Knight) also being a skeleton.
    Since the last post the Knight has found through his power that the cyborg was simultaneously telling the truth and lying about doing a murder, which the Knight thinks must mean the cyborg is possessed by a mythical type of malevolent ghost (though as a player I think it is a Jekyll/Hyde split personality except where Jekyll is non-murderous but also a jerk). After another attempt by the cyborg’s evil persona the Knight is trying to do an exorcism. As a player I don’t think this will work, which means the next time the evil split comes up the Knight will most likely be convinced the cyborg cannot be cured and instead just straight up attack him.

  13. says

    Wotta scene. Reminds me one of my favorite elements from the D&D 3.0 book Libris Mortis was the “Necropolitan” monster. It was, I think, what people would do if the choice was final rewards or a slightly ghoulish continuance. A pretty harmless type of undead.

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