August 18, 2020

What Does “Having” A Character Mean?

Over the years, you’ve probably heard someone talk about “their” character. What they did, their abilities, their items, their backstory…whatever it is, you’ve probably come across people who talk about a character in a tabletop role-playing game story as if they are their own.

For folks who have never played a tabletop RPG before, the concept of “having” or “being” another character can be confusing. So today’s Newbie Tuesday post aims to help clear up what “having” a character is all about and why it’s so much fun!

Playing a Role

Typically in tabletop stories, there are a group of players. And each player controls a character within the story they’re all playing/experiencing. Connect that concept to your favorite books, movies, plays, and video games. In Harry Potter for example, instead of Harry, Ron, and Hermione being written by an author, the choices & actions of those characters are up to each corresponding person playing Harry, Ron, and Hermione.

In that way, “playing a role” is the idea that, instead of acting as yourself within a story, you’re making choices as someone else. The role can be that simple – instead of you, you’re Harry Potter. Or a bit more complicated, you’re Harry Potter, the group’s Auror & Defense Against the Dark Arts Master etc.

Think of the role both as the character, and their purpose in the group, as well as the role in the story as a whole. Harry Potter is the central figure of his story, the nucleus of his friend group, and the focal point of many plot threads. As an Auror, he would naturally encounter all sorts of powerful, dark magic. So if Harry were your character, you would be interacting with the other players as well as the story facilitator in each of those capacities.

Making Choices as the Character

And when you get comfortable with the character and their role, it’s much more natural for you to think about making choices as that character. Sticking with the Harry Potter example, if your character was Harry in the Sorcerer’s Stone, let’s say the GM – the person who runs the story – has just told you that Malfoy has just stolen Neville’s Remembral and is now floating in mid-air on his broom, taunting Neville. They then ask you a very common question in tabletop RPGs, “what do you do?”

If you’re brand-new to playing stories, answering that open-ended question may seem a little intimidating – and that’s okay. But ultimately, putting yourself in Harry’s shoes and deciding among the many choices – confronting Malfoy, persuading him to give it back, doing nothing etc. – is a critical first step for new players to understand how their character and their role impact what choices they can/should be making.

As you and your fellow players make more and more choices as your respective characters, the story will of course naturally grow and evolve. And as time passes, as you might imagine, it becomes more and more natural to think of the character you’re playing as your character. Investing time, energy, and thought into your character – especially in a group of like-minded players & GM – in a great story is a truly wonderful experience with incredible rewards, both in the story and in the small community you’re forging with the folks at the table.

So go out and make a character of your own! You won’t regret it…