Friday, June 5, 2015

The Dangers of The Phrase "I'm Just Playing My Character"

There are certain, inviolable rules at any gaming table. Critical hits from a player must be confirmed by an outside source, preferably the DM. All character sheets must be given the rubber stamp of approval before play begins. No player may dictate to any other player what actions they have to take or not take, and no character can force another to do anything barring the use of some form of mechanical compulsion.

The last example is most often shut down by the phrase, "I'm just playing my character."

Mic... dropped.
It doesn't matter what game you're playing, or what the situation is, this magical phrase instantly ends (most) discussion on the matter. However, are we too quick to hide behind this shield as a way to excuse our behavior, or to duck fully legitimate criticisms of the way we're making our characters act?

You Are The Man Behind The Curtain

The entire goal of roleplaying games is to create living, breathing characters whose stories you can tell. These characters might be refugees from magical realms spat back into reality as twisted reflections of their former selves, archmages who have mastered the arts of magic, or government agents who investigate the strange and unusual; no matter who or what they are, you're the one who created them, and you're the one who decides their actions.

Some character concepts are weirder than others.
So, let's use an example. Say you're playing a garden-variety cleric. You wear white robes, worship a god of light and life, and your magic is used to heal the wounded as well as turn back the undead. The party comes to a destroyed monastery with the goal of delving into its depths and slaying the necromancer who killed all of the brothers. Now, because they were members of his order, your cleric feels it is his duty to go and give the last rites to the brothers. The first time this happens, the dead rise and attack you. It happens the second, third, and fourth time, too. Despite this, your cleric doggedly insists that the party stop and provide the necessary rites to every single corpse you come across.

Yes this is detailed in a comic strip, and you can read it right here.

Now, your cleric has a choice to make at this point. He can stolidly demand that last rites be given to every body discovered, which will likely result in the party having to fight the entire monastery. This will put the cleric, as well as the party, in serious danger while wasting resources they could be using to accomplish their goal of killing the necromancer and destroying his grip on the region.

If at this point you, as the cleric, continue to insist on a harmful and wasteful course of action and you justify it with "I'm just playing my character," you're ignoring the fact that characters sometimes have to make decisions that are hard. Put another way, your beliefs or desires are shown to be reckless, and ill advised. For example, as a holy man ostensibly charged with protecting the living, wouldn't it make more sense to destroy the necromancer first, and then grant the bodies the proper burial rites after the threat has passed? After all, if the dead have waited this long, surely they'll be able to wait until you're no longer under fire, as it were?

All too often we point at our characters like they're someone we aren't in control of. We say, "look, that's what he'd do," as a way to justify actions which we know will have negative effects on the rest of the party. The point is, though, that as players we are in control of our characters. If you're stubbornly insisting on a course of action that you, as a player, know is bad then you may have motivations beyond remaining true to your character.

Either that, or you brought a knife to a gun fight.

Don't Bring A Monkey Wrench

Character conflicts happen. The paladin wants to accept an enemy's surrender, and the cynical rogue thinks the only safe course is to kill the guy holding the white flag. The halfling bard wants to share the party's food and drink with a wandering NPC, but the barbarian sees that as both a waste, and a weakness.

These things are going to happen. Ideally the characters will work out a solution through roleplay, and the players will be open-minded enough to seek an equitable answer. The problem is when one player answers any criticism of his or her character's actions with, "I'm just playing my character." Just as any man who must say I am the king is no true king, if you find yourself using this phrase too often to justify your actions you might want to take a step back and re-examine what character you're actually playing.

My character, my rules.
What you may have done, without even thinking about it, is brought a monkey wrench. For example, are you playing a paladin with a very narrow view of right and wrong in a party made up of renegades, rebels, and rogues? Did you bring a killer-for-hire to the table, and set them down in the middle of a bunch of servants of the god of life? Are you trying to take a bloodthirsty pillager into a game where you're actively attempting to stop a civil war from breaking out? In most of these situations the problem isn't that anyone is wrong, but it's that you're trying to put a square peg into a round hole.

If you realize that, it doesn't mean you have to play an entirely new character; simply let the one you have actually grow to reflect his or her experiences. Does the paladin learn that sometimes the spirit of the law is more important than the letter, allowing the knight to keep his vows without dotting every I and crossing every T? Does the assassin learn to appreciate the value of life, understanding that blood cannot be measured in gold? Does your marauder figure out that there are greater fortunes to be made with the signing of a treaty than the drawing of a sword, becoming a kind of bandit king through diplomacy and guile instead of through sheer brute force?

All of these are options, but if you insist on keeping the original character totally and completely unchanged regardless of what experiences that character has, then none of them will ever happen.

This is why it's a good idea to have an idea of what you want to play, and to get a feel for what you're going to have to work with, before you show up at the table. If you want to play Judge Dredd, then it's a good idea to make sure you don't have a bunch of people interested in peace, love, and harmony. Otherwise your party members are going to spend all of their time fighting each other, and none of it actually inconveniencing the villains.

If you'd like to support Improved Initiative then stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to become a patron today! If you want to make sure you don't miss any of my updates, then follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.


  1. Judge Dredd is completely dedicated to Peace, Love, and Harmony. And, he'll KILL to get it.

  2. omg, this came at the PERFECT time for me. Thank you!!!

  3. Additionally, someone who uses this defence has the implicit belief that they and they alone can violate the social contract of "don't screw the party". I've seen it happen several times, and the rogue who steals from the party member is always the player who throws a temper tantrum when the knight cuts off his hand when he's caught, punishing him to the letter of the law, using the exact same justification.

  4. This is the ubiquitous excuse given by people who see roleplaying as a way to get away with being an arse.

    As mentioned by Lee above, they are also the sorts of people who take grave exception to facing the consequences of their actions.