RPG Authenticity

~ “Remember: your character does not exist outside of the things you say in game.”

^ This was a relatively simple tip I found while researching how to be a more effective Dungeon Master and guide for my Dungeons & Dragons group. Specifically, this tip concerns the vital ability to role-play. The above is generally good advice for a player in the world of a tabletop roleplaying game, and for a number of reasons.

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~ art source

Role-playing, i.e. playing a character / playing someone you are not, in a place that cannot be / playing make-believe, is a special kind of recreation. In a game of tabletop fantasy, as DM and as players, at any given moment in-game, there is someone you are trying to embody, for a specific purpose and to an audience. This someone is not you, not exactly. That is the fun of it. The sentiment in the above reminder has to do with action, and the choice of actions one takes with the character they are playing. This commentary was written primarily for players, the stars of the show, urging them to play their characters through actual in-game, realized actions and rely less on their (perhaps robust) backstories which exist only in their minds (for the time being).

The idea is this: even if you have the most incredible past for your character, along with all of its finely tuned and internalized character developments for him or her to get to following their vivid origin story — in truth, none of it really matters unless you say or do something based on those things within the game actually being played in the present. In a tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, it is only through playing that we discover the characters. As a group, players and DM alike, we all want to discover the characters. And in the end, there’s only one way to do that.

For the DM, the job is a bit different. Like a storyteller, you are trying to create a world to be experienced by your players, populated by exciting events and intriguing characters — whether they be inspiring, lovely, terrifying, hated, all of the above or something in between. One way or another, you want your players to care about the world being fashioned, and if possible, the characters within it. The job of DM requires considerable effort both in and out of game: brainstorming, writing, acting, planning, and ultimately (most importantly) improvising. Playing D&D, or any tabletop RPG, means building a world together and telling a collective story with your friends. It’s different than most other games, video games, board games and card games especially, in that it is more cooperative than competitive and it requires some level of genuine creativity in order for anything at all to happen in the game. This is incredibly gratifying and challenging all the same, and it’s why I love it. In my opinion, these aspects are what makes Dungeons & Dragons – or more widely, role-playing experiences – the best game of all.

But it does require work, preparation, and this uncanny ability to role-play. Naturally, as DM, I always want to improve my ability to inhabit a character — namely, my NPCs (non-playing characters). How best to act out a character, enraptured within a story you are in the process of trying to tell, concurrent with a personal backstory your actual players may or may not give a damn about? The effectiveness of any given character lies within the context of how you play them. And the effectiveness of your play as DM relies on you convincingly creating a variety of characters and scenes for your players to interact with.

From my own short time playing on both sides of the tabletop role-playing game, I have resolved this simple truth: In order to be effective as a player, as a dungeon master, {and as a person} — you have to try to be authentic.

As a DM and as a player role-playing, you are having to pull a character from the void of non-existence and slam them down into the game. This is no easy task. One has to invent a character, from out of nowhere {or from somewhere within your own self} —inventing their backstory, their personality, their behavioral tendencies and complexes and nuances. And then, once you have laid the foundation in these ways, through planning, then you play the character. Through this process, you might learn new things about the character — they might not like what they see the player characters doing, they may alter their plans or intentions. By the end, the character might become something entirely different than what you imagined them to be, with the persona you thought they had disposed of, manipulated or overruled. This is all to say: to manifest any character, you have to seriously play the game.

Imperatively, you must have the characters do stuff. A cliche as old as time – actions speak louder than words. But of course, a character must do both. Conveying a character well requires nuance. I believe non-playing characters, large and small, must carry a level of subtlety, a subtext in their movements and speech, a realism attached to how such a person would maneuver within their world, often reacting to whatever kooky and disruptive actions the players are undertaking (dealing with the constant thrum of player chicancery as a DM encompasses that all-important improvisation part).

That being said, as a DM controlling your NPC pawns, queens and kings – there should probably be a fair share of “what would a reasonable person, of this stature and comprised of this past, do here…🤔” as well as “what would be most fun! 😈”

d&d art
~ Art by Todd Lockwood

In all these ways, D&D, or any game in its role-playing aspect, forces you to be authentic with your character.

The character occurs in the vacuum of the game, so you know it is in some way pure. You have to create something from scratch, which can make authenticity more challenging to capture. Or to the extent that you are playing a template {I am playing Legolas!} or are lending aspects of your own personality to your toon – the level of authenticity comes commensurate with your commitment to that act.

For some, ‘playing’ the character comes as an afterthought to combat or exploration or just learning the lore of the world that the DM is crafting. Regardless of one’s level of effort, this person you are trying to be and are inhabiting to travel through this world for a few hours at a time becomes your primary concern.

Certainly playing your character as purely authentic as you can has payoffs. Consistently playing a character in an RPG campaign encourages this in that if you are not trying your hand at being authentic, then you won’t have as good of a time, and consequently, neither will those playing with you around the table. When player and DM are determinately acting out character (s) —  their whole story and their essence or telos as a (fictional) individual, with both their steps and their sayings  — you tell a story. When everyone at the table is committing to this, it becomes a symphony of interactive storytelling prowess. Altogether, you have the opportunity to make something incredible. {e.g. Critical Role, The Adventure Zone, many other RPG shows.}

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~ Vox MachinaCritical Role – {Art by Kent Davis}
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~ The Adventure Zone {Art by @mickequ}

Tabletop RPGs are perhaps the exemplar for the concept of: you get out what you put in. The game, the character, and the experience will only matter as much as you want it to. The world of a tabletop RPG is as open a world as there can be. The possibilities are boundless because the only limits are the imaginations and desires of those sitting at the table. Through DM and player together, the experience is crafted along the lines of what everyone wants to be doing.

In D&D, the DM necessarily has more control, affording the players with a balanced level of agency for their party’s actions in the world. The players may go and do exactly what the DM thinks they will do or wants them to do, as he or she lays down a path forward. Or the party of players may choose to go their own path. The job of the DM is to make either path equally viable and interesting to explore. The stream of player decisions naturally builds out consequences in the world, and some kind of narrative commences. As a result, everything your character is doing in D&D is creating canon. Each step and each word is a decision and is adding to a continuous tapestry of experience. Upon which, at any time, you can stop and look back at the art you have generated, causing further ideation and creative instincts to flourish in response to such a past. Even in the moment of reflection, you are yet still embodying your character — as in: your character would interpret their own past, and such conclusions would naturally contribute to their future actions.

The reasons for why you created your character that way specifically, for why you are choosing for them to make that decision, and for how you plan to make this all happen, are your own. There are probably reasons. But maybe not. Perhaps the character is someone you have deeply considered. You have laid out their personality traits, their ideals, bonds, flaws. Or maybe you are just winging it, discovering who your character is as you play. Either way, sooner or later, if you are genuinely playing — you will come to know the character well. These actions, even within the confines of a game, require exercise in some vital human attributes: imagination and improvisation and empathy and authenticity.

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~ art by Todd Lockwood

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Instinctively, thinking on this got me thinking existentially — about the game and about my life {which sometimes feels like one}. All of the above can be taken and considered away from the table. The game is your life, the character is you, and the quality of your experience hinges upon how authentic you find yourself being at any given moment. You can choose to go about your life’s adventure in any way you choose. But you know the truth. You know who you are — your ‘authentic’ self — and step by step, over time, you know just how far you are straying from it.

Beyond the escapism of a game, such thinking is integral to building relationships. I believe that playing D&D has more than a few things to teach one about authenticity in their own non-fantastical, real life. In many ways, since childhood and on through adulthood — we can learn some pretty important truths about ourselves and about those around us when we make the conscious and sincere decision to play. Whether it be hide-and-go-seek on the playground, youth sports, drama club, board games with grandma — we have all been playing our entire lives with a variety of casts. There is socialization within these games. And bonds can be formed, and memories created, given some level of commitment to them.

This is what tabletop RPGs amicably provide to the cerebral, reality-based adult person — a ready-made environment to exercise the creative gene no longer readily available amidst the higher responsibility of being a “grown-up.” A role-playing game wielded with collective sincerity cultivates this innate urge for us to continue playing throughout our entire lives. Alongside this is a real development of communication skills and faculties for storytelling and the fulfillment of a desire for deeper companionships. Through the world of play, we better understand ourselves and those around us in tandem. We create experiences together, though simulated and in realms of fantasy – are no less real in posterity, when the stories and characters are remembered and relayed in stories to tell.

All of these aspects, when engaged with effectively, are fielded within tinges of the sincerest self — via a character. The RPG framework simply provides a sandbox to freely explore authentic communication and action via this character, under the guise of make-believe.

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~ art by RalphHorsley

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Ultimately, in order to act out the character – or person – you wish to be, you have to take action, you have to take chances, you have to say stuff. Things become especially interesting if you actually make yourself vulnerable to being known.

In each instance, it is about communication. Authentic communication, radical honesty, sunlight upon the shadows within us. These things are necessary for everyone. To be in the game, you have to learn to express yourself through your character. And it isn’t easy, I understand all too well. Knowing this quite pervasively in my own life, might be part of the reason I am drawn to these types of games. RPG gaming, live and among friends, is somehow a more secure means of genuine self-expression; a form of proving grounds for the authenticity I consistently fail to inhabit elsewhere in my life.

To do this well —to live well— at the table or away from it, there must be a sincerely empathic connection with the person you are trying to embody {yourself / your character} and among those you are trying to interact with.

In communication with other people, strangers and loved ones alike, you must confront the fact that you don’t really exist, in any meaningful way — your internal life, your loves, fears, motivations, ambitions — outside of what you consciously choose to say and do in the presence of these persons. Our mind’s inherent egocentrism – i.e. that feeling that ‘we are the only ones that really exist’ – make this fact harder to accept.

You can, of course, decide to be insincere, weaving deceptions and hiding your true self, telling those around you a completely different tale, letting your truth consistently fall by the wayside. And to the discerning observer, perhaps you are still there anyway, eventually. But with everything you leave unsaid and undone, you are still crafting a storyline. Although, in the end, it’s quite likely not the one you want to be penning.

Put simply {in life/in the game}: If you don’t talk about yourself, then people can’t trust you and be in relationship to you, because they don’t know who you are.

On the other hand, if you don’t take the actions you need to in order to create the life you envision, then you end up becoming another character entirely from what you imagined. Put another way: in order to properly manifest your envisioned self, you have to tell everyone your backstory! And then, within such authenticity, you can work to create the world you wish for.

These are some of the things I have learned in my time playing, watching, and experiencing sincere role-playing in role-playing games.

Saying and doing, that’s all there is. Those are the tools we all have to build ourselves out to be the person / character we wish to become.

I know this should be obvious, it’s all-encompassing and ever-present — the things we choose to tell each other and do to each other are happening all the time. And I realize this is all a bit melodramatic. But that is kind of the point of D&D! And also life! Self-expression and communication and allowing yourself to love and be loved — it’s all drama. It’s good stuff. It is the purpose of stories, especially fantasy.

As a nascent Dungeon Master, I do find value in considering this radical, personal authenticity in terms of the player character or non-player character being unveiled before those at the table. There are many important decisions being made in those intervening moments between these fantastical characters’ inextricable introduction and inevitable exit from a story arc. Similarly significant decisions are being wagered and executed in our own interpersonal lives as well. The goal is to implement such authenticity on and off the table in equal measure. I’ll continue to work at it in both arenas. ~

Some useful role-playing game resources: