Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tips For Roleplaying Monstrous Characters

Roleplaying games are all about escapism, and one of the most extreme forms of escapism is playing a monstrous character. Whether it's a vampire living out an immortal existence in the shadows or an orc war-chief seeking blood and glory, monstrous player characters have a certain appeal to them. For players who really want to get into the inhuman spirit though, it's important to really develop that persona. This week Improved Initiative would like to provide a few helpful hints.

See through their eyes. Or don't, if you don't have psychotropic drugs handy.

What Can They Do?

The easiest way to really make characters pop is to look at their abilities and ask how that would show up in day-to-day life. Monstrous characters are, well, monsters, and what they are shapes the way they view the world.

Let's start off with an easy example; take the tiefling. A tiefling with a prehensile tail will not move in a human way because of the additional balance this limb provides. Since the tail can draw items from a belt the character might use it to grasp objects in daily life without a second thought. Alternatively, a player might create a whole system of etiquette regarding the tail. The tail drooping might be a sign of submission, whereas whipping it back and forth could be a sign of aggression. The tail curled around the waist, or wrapped around the leg, might be a sign of fear or comfort. There could even be a sort of secret sign language amount tailed tieflings.

Let's try a few others. An ifrit naturally has fire resistance 5, and we may assume that's been the case since birth. How has that affected the character's outlook? Does she sit on stoves or sun herself on hot rocks? Does she rub a hot coal across her forehead when she has a headache, the way other races might use ice? Does she cook without utensils, simply plunging her hands into hot coals to take out meals without a second thought?

If someone is playing a dwarf, does that characters read or play cards in the dark since having darkvision makes the need for a light source moot? Do elves reference events from generations past, and then remember abruptly that may have been two or three generations before the rest of the party was even alive (sort of like how your grandparents will talk about what a building was fifty years ago like it was yesterday)? If a character has the ability to scent like an animal, will he refuse to go into certain places like low-quarter taverns or perfume shops because of his sensitive proboscis?

Whatever a character can do, if it's part of his or her nature ask yourself how it shaped that person's worldview and how it might make them act very strangely when compared to more regular humans.

Where Do They Come From?

After he was demoted though, we summered in Acheron. Lovely hot springs.
If you've ever been to another country, or even to an event like Gen Con or the Pennsic War, you've experienced culture shock. Things you didn't even know you took for granted, like running water or the fact that no one in the room would understand the game references you're making, are thrown right out the window.

Now ask yourself what kind of cultural norms inhuman characters grew up with.

How would a vampire who was originally born and raised in the time of William Wallace adapt to the world around him? Or one made during the reign of Vlad the Impaler, or during the voyage of Leif Erikson? Would the paranoia and casual brutality of the Middle Ages, or the cultural cornerstones of the Roman Empire just fall by the wayside, or would those habits cling for life? Unlife... whatever.

If you don't want to do a bunch of historical research, then how would characters from different planes of existence act? Would an Aasimar raised on the celestial plane be able to lie? Or steal? Would the character understand concepts like hunger, or want? How would monstrous characters who grew up segregated among their own kind act, particularly if the common culture of the world is still foreign to them? Would a half-orc raised by orcs take meeting one's eyes as a challenge, thus forcing him to punch people who were only trying to be friendly? Would a creature with djinni blood, or natural lycanthropy be confused that there are people who are born without the abilities they possess? Would they keep those abilities to themselves out of politeness or the fear of being mocked? Might they instead look down on those who couldn't change their form, or float on a gust of wind?

Once you understand the culture that spawned your character, it leads to a lot of interesting twists. Don't be afraid to get creative either.

What's The Character's Primary Language?

You wanna say that one more time, real slow, in English?
I've harped on this one before (right here in this blog entry, in fact), but the language your characters speak influences so much about who they are, how they think, and how they act. You see this all the time in real world languages and professional jargon. There is a Russian slang term whose rough translation means "I love you, but hate you in this moment." One word. German has a word that means "to enjoy someone else's misery." These are more than funny linguistic turns; they inform the sort of outlook your character might have on the world.

Here's a personal example. I was playing a dwarven paladin, and the elf triggered a trap that dropped large rocks on her head. The dwarf laughed, and I belted out a completely made-up sounding word. The party asked what it meant and I explained to them it was a dwarven word which meant to have large rocks fall upon one's head in a tunnel that otherwise looked safe. I proceeded to explain other words, and built a culture around the idea that every kind of accident involving stone, from huge cave-ins to single rock injuries had a specific word in dwarven. There were over forty-five by the time I finished my aside. They had one word for sky though, and they took it from Common. Their subterranean culture simply had no need for a concept they rarely had to face.

Non-human characters tend to get racial languages for free; the concepts of these languages can shape perspective. If one learned Infernal before common, is there a strict, grammatical order that must always be followed for every concept? How many different words are there for the different parts of a negotiation? Would that lead to a clipped, precise manner of speaking? If someone learned Elven first, does that character have a lilting accent and a slow style of speech? Do words tend to refer to concepts as a whole, reflecting the elven view that all things are connected and cannot be individualized? If someone speaks goblin, are there personal pronouns? Or would a goblin have to use her proper name, or a phrase like "this one" because she comes from a brood-style society where individuality doesn't matter as much?

In The End

At the end of the day what makes monstrous characters unique is the same things that make human characters unique; a distinct sense of personality, feelings, and a compelling story. While some players might not look twice at a human character who seems to be a little too similar to the man behind the character sheet, people might start rolling their eyes if the half-ogre starts talking and acting just the like player who gave him life.

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