One of the things most players do when creating a character is develop some sort of hook, or “shtick” for their alter ego — it could be a defining trait, skill, weapon or look, something that makes the character easier to connect with for the player, and the others at the gaming table. Having a shtick is nearly essential for a pulp-style game: the fearless, slightly (or very) unsavory archeologist who ultimately does the right thing; the earnest, down-on-his-luck pilot that finds a rocket pack and turns into a hero; the two-gun toting “shadow” that uses his powers to cloud men’s minds fights crime in a manner that is itself highly questionable; the whip wielding Mexican (well, Californian) hero out to right wrongs…. all have something quickly definable about them.

Shtick is good. It gives a character personality almost immediately, and while it might change or develop over time, it gives you a nice shorthand for describing the character to others and yourself.

Shtick, however when taken too far, or when too well designed can actually hijack a character and make them hard to relate to, or makes them unsuited for the game world they exist in. Here’s two examples of very similar characters…one worked, one did not:

In our Hollow Earth Expedition game, we had the action sidekick in the form of Jack MacMahon. He was a Columbia-trained lawyer who couldn’t pass the bar due to being a bit thick and lazy. He was the son of a politician, rich and well-connected, a bit spoiled, and generally somewhat untalented…except when it came to having guts and fighting. Put his totemic (and at the time, very rare, Registered Magnum) in his hand and he was nigh unstoppable. He was a two-fisted, gun-slinging combat monster — but he also was careful not to go so far over the line he would be arrested for his actions. He was always in the right (well, mostly…) He was a sucker for women to the point he couldn’t hit the female ninja kicking the crap out of him. He was loyal to a fault, almost puppy-dogish.

Jack kicked ass, threw off memorable quips, and always did the stupidly brave thing. And he got his ass kicked, even when he won fights. He was human.

The character was retired when the player could no longer make it to the game. I retooled the campaign, helped one of the new players who obviously liked being the action dude build a “Jack replacement” — “Daredevil” Dan McCoy, a movie stuntman and sometime wing-walker for flying circuses with a sideline in two-story thievery. He was enthusiastic, brave to the point of lunacy, and so damned good at just about anything physical as to be unstoppable. He was a showman and the player obviously enjoyed taking him right to the limit…and over.

The shtick became unmanageable. He would get into scuffles with important NPCs they needed and screw over the other players. He notably chased down bad guys by (unnecessarily) ramming a car through the lobby of a fine hotel in Lisbon, drawing the attention of the military police (Portugal being fascistic at the time), and otherwise was a rabid dog off the chain.

The problem was the combination of the character and player made for shtick run wild, and it ruined the verisimilitude of the world, even though the other characters were also over-the-top…but in a way that was believable for the world. Think Indiana Jones. In real life, he would have had local authorities up his ass on any number of times in the real world. (But then, there also wouldn’t have been Nazis running around British-allied Egypt, either…) He was just enough, but not too much, to make the movie setting fly.

There are ways to manage shtick run wild, and you can see some of the techniques in “the best there is” characters who are suitably restrained by plot and their world. One that springs to mind is Starbuck from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. We see her in action in the cockpit  the first few episodes of the show – she’s lunatic, better than the best, and unstoppable. So what do the writers do to make it not “Starbuck saves the day” every episode? They break her leg after a crash caused by, frankly, being too damned good in the cockpit and taking on too many Cylon raiders. She has to do other things that are outside the character’s purview.

An example of a similar combat monster/same player in out Battlestar Galactica game: SGT Cadmus is a marine that aids in trying to uncover the Cylon menace. In combat sequences against people or skin jobs, he’s the ruler of the roost. So I stuck him on a number of investigatory adventures that required him to be subtle, use his brain. He’s outside his element, but the player loved it because, eventually, he got to shine in a fight. But the character was restrained so that the shtick was important…something that, when used, made the character stand out, but didn’t stomp on the other characters’ moments in the spotlight. (Eventually, he got to meet the centurions, did very well, but was nearly killed. It gave the players a sense of how damned dangerous the toasters are close up and personal.)

Another example would be Cliff Secord from The Rocketeer. We are led to believe he’s an incredible pilot, and we see some evidence of that in the movie…but what does he he wind up doing most of the movie? Investigating crime, trying to stay out of the clutches of the FBI, and throwing punches — not his strong point. When he gets to fly, he’s a bit out of his element because of the nature of the rocket pack, until he gets the hang of it.

Another way to control shtick gone wild, other than make it a less important element of the game adventure, is to have consequences for folks that, say, blast bad guys when it might not be strictly legal. The cops could be an ever-present issue, requiring them to disguise themselves, a la  The Shadow or Batman, or Zorro. Your war on crime in the 1930s, your raid of that “evil” creature village in your fantasy setting, that murder of an important figures still-beloved zombie wife or child leads to hordes of not-shambling dead coming for your head. The forces arrayed against you are large, well-funded, have the monopoly on the legitimacy of violence, and will eventually get the character, if they don’t step it down a bit. It’s not railroading…it’s a bigger challenge.

Do I really need to tell you how to play “pretend”? You’ve only been doing it since you were about two year old…but role playing games are a bit different. While they are just as collaborative as when you were kids (some of you still are, you’ve just got two digits in your age), the structure of some RPGs require a different approach to how you play your character.

There’s a lot of theories of role playing game design, GNS, Threefold Model, Big Model, Turku (or as English-speakers might call it “immersive”)…throw all that out and ask yourself this question, “Why are you playing?”

The answer should, in part, be “to have fun with friends”, but I’ve found that’s not always the case. There’s plenty of folks who view tabletop gaming and LARPing a more social form of acting practice. Game long enough and you’ll get one of these players. They’re in character the whole time. They lift their hand or some other signature to let you know when they are out of character. It’s like dealing with Christian Bale on set. They’re great players while the game is ongoing, but I’ve found they aren’t into the socializing aspect as much. (This, admittedly, could just be my experience…but there’s been a bunch of them that have crossed my path.) Really — LARP is probably going to be more of a draw.

Others want to just socialize of beer and pretzels — a board game, computer game, movie night would be just as enjoyable. In the middle you’ve got folks who like to do problem solving and tactical exercises (here be “gronards”), and others like the storytelling aspect. The latter are even happy when they aren’t the center of attention; they want to be entertained by the story and other characters, as much as anything.

Which of these you are is going to shape your interactions with the other players and their characters. If you’re an “immersive” player (the actor) in a group of the latter folks, they’re going to love how well developed your characters are, and hate how much you try to hog the limelight. If you’re a beer and pretzels guy, you probably just aren’t going to be as into the game as the other types.

This is okay.

However, the GM is going to have to balance the group members’ goals for what they get out of the game. If you’ve got a bunch of B&P players, this is easy. Short one-shots, a few different, rules-light games will fit the bill. If you are the sort that likes character or plot-driven storytelling, you’ll want to find the balance of how immersive you want to be. Our group tends to slide in and out of character, and can often find themselves on the sideline for a while as the story necessarily focuses on one character or another. There’s no one “right” way to play. Rather, it’s about managing your expectations of what the group will be and how you want to interact.

Traditionally, gamemasters try to sell their groups on what to play. Maybe you picked up the latest copy of The Morrow Project, or have been dying to bust into that copy of Nobilis you’ve had for almost a decade without playing, but often I see posts (and have written one, myself) on selling your group on the latest game obsession of the GM. It’s not surprising: GMs have the bulk of the work to do in creating a game world, setting scenarios in motion and telling the main structure of the story. New, more collaborative games work differently from this set-up, but this post is to suggest that the decision of what to play should be more of a group effort.

As a player, part of your responsibility to let people know what you want to play. If you join a group that plays only fantasy, but you really wanted to play science fiction or maybe some kind of horror-suspense game…well, if you didn’t let them know this, you might find yourself feeling less than interested in playing with the group. This is okay. If you’re not having fun, find another group…

…or you could suggest another game. I wound up running a Supernatural game for a bit because I had folks that were into the supernatural horror/conspiracy genre. I’m really not. But the players wanted to do it, so I boned up on the supernatural, and put my all into running a good campaign. We all had fun.

Players can really help their GM, and each other, by figuring out what people want to play. Maybe you’re lucky and you all want to play Dungeons & Dragons. Well, what kind of campaign do you want? Dungeon crawls? The usual Tolkein-rip off “great quest:”? Something a bit more barbarian and violent?  Court intrigue and story-driven drama? Serious or comedic? Immersive role playing, or something a bit more beer & pretzels? The trick to this is finding out what everyone wants and compromising to give everybody as close to their desired play experience as possible.

Recently, I reconstituted my Hollow Earth Expedition game to bring in new players. One of the players was keeping his archeologist/adventurer. His action sidekick was being replaced by a new gonzo stuntman/gunman/wheelman who had very little restraint — to the point he was instantly bringing them up on the local police and military’s radar. The other player chose the phenomenal big game hunter, but that meant he was often outside the main action. He was supporting them, but there was no opportunity for real interaction in action scene. Outside them, he was bland as a character.

One of the reasons the hunter didn’t snag the player, and that the game ultimately stumbled through 2/3rds of an adventure was the characters didn’t mesh. The archeologist was professional, careful, and politic; the stuntman destroyed any chance of his character pursuing his goals stealthily; the hunter had no real reason to be there than curiosity. The players didn’t mesh, which meant the plot couldn’t work because the characters didn’t have a connection or shared goal

Once you have an idea of what game and style you want to play, now what character do you want to play? Here are a few tips:

You all have to work together, at some level. Even if you are at cross-purposes, you don’t have to start off that way. Recently, I was watching Hannibal, where the eponymous character works with the FBI investigator Will Graham to catch killers, while trying to manipulate the latter into madness. Why? Because he’s realized the guy is capable of discovering who Hannibal is, but also because he likes the guy, and he wants his “friend” to be just like him (i.e. a murderer.) Think of Londo Mollari and G’Kar from Babylon 5 — they hate each other, but ultimately, they keep having to work together.

Setting yourself up as the one guy that is the outsider sounds “cool” — mostly because it places you in the position that gains the most attention. “I’m a super-super-smart engineer, but I’m really an individualist that doesn’t like Starfleet…working for Starfleet.” Sounds great, except a) Starfleet is a paramilitary force with rules of conduct, b) it’s full of a lot of super-super-smart folks. You’re not rare. c) This character is designed to create big drama and conflict, not to help the group succeed in their efforts.

You don’t have to be the biggest, baddest person in the game. In fact, it’s the weaknesses of a character that make them interesting, not how hard they hit. Some players like the mathematics (in a point buy character generation system) of maximizing their character in a speciality — what older gamers call min/maxing. It can be annoying to players and GMs when their characters are fairly balanced and you have the galaxy’s best [insert skill/ability]. It’s okay to do this, but honestly, check with the GM first. If you are too whoppin’ powerful at an important skill or ability, you can force the GM to give the group higher/stronger opposition than their characters are prepared for. No if Nobrains the Barbarian can pretty much take on a platton of guys on his own, but the rest of the players would have a rough time with one guy…well, read The Iliad and see how Achilles’ Myrmydons do while he’s slaughtering everything in a straight line.

Lastly, If you are a man playing a female character just a suggestion: about 5-10% of the female population are lesbians. So if you play ten women…only one should like chicks. I’ve played female characters, and a few have been lesbians. But not all. Not even most. “But I’m playing an Amazon warrior!” Read the myth — Amazons took men as breeding stock, they just didn’t marry them or take long walks on the beach.

Ultimately, you should get an idea of what everyone wants to play and all tweak your characters a bit to make them work well together. Sometimes this is easier than it sounds. The above example of the pulp game is an example. We’ve been tweaking the characters to rescue the game. The stuntman remains, but he’s been toned down a bit, at least in personality. The archeologist and hunter are gone, replaced by a manservant working for the other character, a gentleman spy/adventurer. The characters hopefully well mesh better because at least two of them have a connection that requires or makes adventuring together make sense.

You can do something as simple as put together your group based on what you need: a fighter, magician, cleric, thief — the case of a fantasy setting. Everyone has their schtick to do. The GM now knows the kind of encounters and obstacles to throw at them so everyone has their moment in the spotlight. Let’s talk the Supernatural campaign from above: we had the priest/exorcist to handle the bad guys spiritually, the FBI guy that provided some legal coverage and had physical combat experience (as well as a connection to the “bad guy”), and the super-geeky computer expert/conspiracy theory nut that found them their targets, but was otherwise useless. Everyone has their thing, everything is designed to push a story. Skill and purpose overlap will occur from time to time, and this is okay, as well — if you have two fighter pilots in your Star Wars game, or two “faces” (infiltration specialists) in your spy game, that doesn’t mean you won’t have challenges that play to your other strengths and skills.

Even if you have cross-purposes, there should be enough things driving them to work together. Players want their characters to be unique, but you can do that and still have similar goals.

It isn’t too surprising that most gaming blogs deal with the subject of gamemastering. The role of GM is central to most RPGs — they’re the one that handles much of the world building, they present the scenarios and challenges for the players, adjudicate the rules. A lot of players don’t want the added “work” load of GMing; others thrive on it. So there’s a market for GM advice. But what about players? What kind of advice can an RPG player benefit from?

Let’s start with the basics — You are not the only player (unless you are.)

1) If you are playing in a group of people, all of the players are expecting to get some share of the “screen time.” This means you should avoid trying to hog the spotlight when another player is taking their turn during an action sequence, or is currently the focus of whatever the scene requires. This is especially important if your party is split, and those your character is not with are currently having their storyline addressed.

2)  Don’t be rude. Taking shots at other players for their sexuality, gender, color, whatever is not cricket. If you can’t behave like an adult, you should find something else to do with your time.

3) To that end, characters can (and probably should) have some level of conflict; players should not. Role playing games are more collaborative than competitive. Often the GM and group is relying on the characters working together toward a goal. So if you are the only one holding up the action (“My player wouldn’t want to [enter activity that the story requires here]!”) maybe you should consider the role you’ve taken and do up a new character. No one wants to spend a session trying to convince everyone to get on board, they want to get on with the story and action.

4) Do offer to help cover the cost of food/drinks, or gas if you are getting a ride with someone. Anything else is douchey.

5) Be on time. Yes, it’s a game. But, especially for students and working adults, the other players have had to block out time for play. If you have three hours a session, no one wants to be waiting for an hour to get started because you were late. If you can’t make it on time — or at all — give the group plenty of notice. It’s just basic consideration.

6) Dress appropriately. No, that doesn’t mean business casual or a tie. That means don’t show up in fetish gear unless everyone is on board with it. (Yes, this has happened in one of my games…) Don’t wear slogans to do the passive aggressive tweak of whatever group another player is part of — that just makes you a dick. Wash. With soap. (Yes, this has been an issue.)

In other words, exercise basic civilized behavior.

Next — Choosing what to play.