In D&D, or any TTRPG game, it can be tough to fully embody your character in the way that you’ve envisioned, so asking yourself “What would my character do?” is a helpful device to enhance roleplay. Unfortunately, it’s also used by people as an excuse for shitty behavior at the table. There’s a thin line between roleplaying your character and being an edgy piece of crap. I’m here to thicken that line, so you can have full rein to play your character as you wish while also being respectful to your other players. As someone who struggles with anxiety and depression — a combo that is less than ideal for a journalist or a game master juggling seven different players in a six-hour Dungeons & Dragons game — I know full well that it’s challenging to roleplay let alone do something gutsy and hope it’s not taken offensively.
In this week’s column of Tabletop tips from an anxious GM (all of which can be found on our DND tips hub), I’ll be talking about the “What would my character do?” trope and a topic in reaction to shitty player behavior I’ve seen from across the table.
At my table, you can play the most evil character around, but there are limits and boundaries you must respect. Just because you’re evil doesn’t mean you have to be an ass. See Dimension 20’s Escape From the Bloodkeep, where a group of evildoers come together over their love for each other and their people in order to kill the heroes. There’s a lot of depth to being a character that’s not inherently good, but you shouldn’t use their neutrality or evilness as an excuse for your boorish behavior. Let me explain.
Communicate! Tell your party what your alignment is. Write what you know! Don’t think about fantasy, think about the human experiences that your character may have struggled with that shaped them into who they are. Don’t be a jerk! If you’re evil or neutral, don’t commit terrible behavior because it’s what your character would do. However, if it makes sense for the story, ask your fellow players for consent! Playing Neutral or Evil is fine if your goals are aligned. You and your party members need to want the same thing in order to function as a unit, but the difference between you and them is the tools you use to get there. However, respect people’s boundaries and receive consent anytime you want to do anything morally gray or black all together. Be open-minded! People can change, so can your characters — be open to it and don’t be so stuck in your ways, good or bad.
What would your character do — An in-depth look
Communicate! This advice is always important no matter what the topic is. Tell the other players at the table what your alignment is. It doesn't matter if you want it to be a surprise because no one should be metagaming anyway. The reason you want to tell them is so they, as real people, can adjust their expectations and comfort zone. People at the table deserve to know and set their own expectations for a game that'll likely last years, if done well.
Enhancing roleplay. Focusing on the positive implications of this question, think about who your character is as a person. Don't think of them as someone with fantastical experiences. Sure, you can write all the wild backstory you want, but for your roleplay, focus on the human experiences. How do they experience love? Loss? Trauma? Happiness? What are the moments in their life that have defined them? You've heard people say "write what you know" and that's because it works. J. R. R. Tolkien didn't know what it was like to have a ring corrupt his very mind and turn into whatever the hell Gollum is, but the ring is a clear metaphor for addiction. So when you roleplay, focus on the human elements, not the fantastical ones.
Don't be a jerk. As far as the negative implications go, don’t use “it’s what my character would do” to justify terrible behavior. Bad behavior includes anything that negatively affects one of your party members. Just because you’re all playing pretend doesn’t mean you can say whatever you want. This isn’t your own personal power trip. Everyone is there to have fun, so don’t ruin it for them. If you want to do something that may negatively affect a player, receive consent first! For example, if your character would rather attack the monster than heal a downed player character, ask them if that’s okay! Choosing not to save a PC can create interesting tension within the party, but tension shouldn’t bleed to real life. That’s why you need to ask your fellow players for permission before doing something that negatively affects them.
How to play Neutral or Evil. Being respectful doesn’t mean you can’t be neutral or even evil. As long as your goals align with your party members, then you can use whatever means you would like to get there. For example, a good character might want to persuade an enemy to give up information, but your evil character might want to invade their mind instead. You’re both after the same thing, it’s just that the means of getting there are different. That’s what should define you from the rest of the party. Of course, your methods can still create tension within the party, but restraint is always better than recklessness. Don’t go over other player’s heads and do something wildly terrible — unless you have consent!
Be open-minded. Whether you’re good, neutral, or evil, you should be open-minded about your character’s morality. Sometimes hanging with the right or wrong people can affect your outlook on the world. Maybe that evil character is not so bad, or maybe that good character isn’t so frustratingly pure. A person’s behavior is informed by a lifetime of experience, and depending on how much time you spend with your party, that behavior can change.
I hope this helps new players and GMs out there who are just jumping into TTRPGs. If you liked this column and want to see it continue, you can send me your own questions concerning mechanical, narrative, or social issues in the tabletop gaming space. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Twitter.