Unchartered Territory: Role playing in groups/settings that are unfamiliar to you – Part 3 of 3

I bet you had given up any hope I was going to finish this series hadn’t you? I had my doubts. Life has been crazy busy and the writing muse has been fickle so I’d better get to it before it gets away.

In this final episode we’re going to discuss strategies for making an interesting and well balanced character for a long term LARP or Table Top RPG in a setting you’re unfamiliar with. Most of my experience with this is in Vampire or Changeling LARP or other Vampire RPG.  What can I say – I have a thing for vampires! Here are some initial points to keep in mind:

  • It’s more important to know who your character is and what motivates them than to have an intimate knowledge of the setting.
  • You can keep your character history vague and fill it in as you go along so long as you know who your character is.
  • It’s easier to start with a younger character in a setting where you are not familiar with the rules because it makes sense that a young vampire, for instance, wouldn’t know all the history or social protocols, etc.

Start off by getting at least a thumbnail sketch of what the setting is. A few years ago the Girl Game group I was in did a long running vampire game set in the Victorian era. I didn’t really know shit about the Victorian era and I knew some of the other players did know it quite well and had at least read a fair amount of fiction set in that era. I got a book on the subject since I have an interest in it anyway. I recommend getting a book or two from the library and/or borrowed from friends that cover the culture and/or time period you are wanting to play in. When I wanted to make a Gypsy character I borrowed some books and got reliable on-line links so I didn’t make an ass out of myself playing a bad, tired stereotype. I also talked to a friend who’s family is Rom (Google it). Documentaries and some fictional series/movies work as well to give you an idea of the time. Talk to your friends about what shows and movies they might recommend.

Yes, I just told you to do homework. If you were writing a story you’d have to do this kind of research or be excoriated in reviews of it – role play is really not that different. It’s one thing to have a bad accent, because it takes time to learn an accent reliably unless one is immersed in the culture. It’s quite another to be completely ignorant of the culture or time period you are representing. At least know enough to know you *are* playing a stereotype if you do it. Really, though, the stereotype has been done to death.  Be different. Be original. Create a character rather than a caricature!

Things I recommend you put thought into while creating your character – and by that I mean *before* you start crunching numbers and figuring out stats:

  • What does your character look like?
  • Where was your character born?
  • Where did your character grow up (not necessarily the same as above)
  • What does your character usually wear and why?
  • What kind of music does your character listen to? Do they listen to music? If not, why not?
  • What do they read? Do they read? If not, why not?
  • What other interests do they have? (read about those if you’re not at all  knowledgeable about them. You don’t have to be an expert but it will make the role play much better if you know at least a little)
  • What is your character’s native language? Is that different than the native language where they are currently living?
  • Does your character have family? Are they local?
  • What about friends? Contacts? People they do business with?
  • Where does your character live? What is it like? What kind of security do they have there if any?
  • What kind of lifestyle are they accustomed to? If it’s different now, how did they adjust?
  • What does your character eat and how do they go about getting it?
  • What kind of spiritual beliefs does your character have?
  • Does your character have a business? What? Where is it located? Did they come to town to open a business perhaps?
  • Do they have a code they live by?
  • What brought your character to this setting?
  • What motivates your character? What drives them?
  • Figure out one goal for that first game.

That may seem like quite the laundry list but I guarantee that you will have a more interesting character to role play with if you know this much about them. Remember, we’re talking about long term/long campaign characters here – not short term (that was in the previous part). I have found it much easier to figure out what stats I wanted to attach to my character and what made sense for them when I had figured these things out in advance.

If you are planning to do a LARP game, put some thought into your costuming. Thrift stores are your friend here. You don’t need an elaborate and expensive costume. It could be as simple as one or two items that the character always wears – but it needs to fit the character you made, to make sense, to really work. Do please do the world the favor of laundering and ironing (if necessary) any costuming you come up before a game. Seriously, nothing ruins a costume more than having it look & smell (quite literally) like it was stuffed in a gym bag between games.* Consider organizing a LARP clothing exchange to help yourself and others expand their gaming wardrobe. It’s not uncommon for players to pick up items for a specific character that they would not otherwise wear and would be willing to pass on when they are done playing that character.

For a Table Top game you should be able to describe your character and be able to tell the GM what kinds of items they would carry with them / have in their equipment bag. The more talented folks I’ve gamed with have even drawn pictures. The GM of the Marvel game I’m in drew a picture of my character as I described her. I’ve also used image searches to find equipment, accessories, etc that my character might have.

For both Table Top and LARP I have found that both personal and game soundtracks can be helpful to get me in the right head space and set the mood. A game soundtrack can also be helpful for getting people into the game and keeping in character – particularly if one is doing a period game or the game is in a specific setting. Recently, we had a game setting be in an opera house. I don’t really have much in the way of opera but between some of my world music, soundtracks, and borrowed CD’s from friends I cobbled together enough to get us through the game. I did the same thing to make a general game soundtrack – our game setting being in the depression era. Oh sure, some of the music and/or singers are a bit more modern than that era but it’s close enough to give us the general feel. For a personal sound track I usually have a combination of music for which either the lyrics or the emotion/feel of the music fit my character and help me get into their head space. It’s not uncommon for this to change over time just as my character grows and has different experiences that shape her. My 4 year old Requiem character, for example, had at least 3 different sound tracks representing different phases of her “life”, if you will.  Why yes I do know I’m a big goob – why do you ask?

If you’re a GM/Storyteller planning to run a game in a specific setting, it behooves you to give your players lead time to do some character research and development before starting. You will have a much more interesting game that way. I also recommend getting at least some of your players together early on so you can make sure you’re all clear about the general setting and get an idea of the group dynamics that are developing. This will give you a chance to figure out if there are gaps that need filling – which a new player or one struggling to figure out a concept may be happy to take on. Otherwise a little character tweaking of existing concepts could fill the gaps.

At some point you should really consider a long term goal or two for your character. Something they will spend time working to maneuver towards as the game progresses. A skill they don’t currently possess but want to learn and master. An enemy or rival they want to get the better of. A political position they aspire to. Some sort of spiritual enlightenment perhaps? Whatever – the point is not the goal but the journey to get there. It will also give you something for your character to work on when the current major game plot may be slow, stalled, or uninteresting to them.

A long term campaign is more interesting with more developed characters. You don’t have to fill in all the blanks before your first game – but have a reason for why that is. Are they the suspicious type who take time to warm up to and open up to strangers? Have they had a recent trauma that affected their memory? Are they new to this existence (new vamp, new superpower, etc) and are floundering to find their way? Maybe they are just mysterious and will reveal more later. There are a myriad of ways to explain away gaps in setting knowledge while you get your bearings. Talk to the GM about it and see if they have ideas or at least let them know you’re still working out the details so they can work with you to work around it for the time being.

Finally, don’t be afraid to let the character go if it’s their time or you are bored with them or you have a new concept you’re more excited about. By this I do not mean switching out your characters every few months. In a long term campaign that can be confusing, annoying, and disruptive. If you are easily bored, you’d do better to find a group interested in doing short campaigns to role play with. One of my biggest pet peeves in the Camarilla LARP is the players that sweep in with a new character, rapidly gain positions of power, then aren’t seen again for months and have created a new character when they do return. It’s disruptive to the game and rude to the other players who are left in a lurch and /or with gaps in the in-game chain of command that other characters me be dependent on or otherwise expected to follow. Or, maybe another players character is left hanging to dry on a venture your character started and then dropped the ball on when you got bored. Don’t be that person. At the very least don’t do power grabs and then disappear. Decide to commit to the game or play a side character. Don’t make your character important to the game and then drop out of the game or drop that character without at least informing the GM so it can be dealt with. /rant

The vampire LARP games I’ve participated in have run for years at a time. If after a year or several years you’re finding yourself lacking motivation for the character you’re playing or, for whatever reason, are having a hard time moving forward with it, then by all means retire the character and move on. I recommend working with your storyteller to do an end story for the character or otherwise transition them out of the game. In movies or long running TV shows it’s not at all uncommon for characters to die periodically or to go their own way at some point. Storytellers for RPG & LARP games don’t always get the opportunity to play with that part of the story for the sake of player happiness. It will give you some closure and last enjoyment for a character that has served you well. I did this with a character I loved – partially in response to a global game plot that was going to make it difficult to continue playing her as I wanted to. I could have had a way out of the character death, but I decided to go with it because it made sense for the character. Even though it got emotional towards the end (mostly because I was totally in my character head space at the time, honestly), the events surrounding her death made for some great and powerful role play for myself and others. Two characters lost humanity points over it. It was actually pretty cool when all was said and done and was one of the most satisfying role playing experiences I’ve had.

It’s good to remind myself of this. I’ve been on hiatus from the Camarilla for the last year for a variety of reasons. I hadn’t really intended to be gone this long. I won’t bore you with the details – the bottom line is that given my current time constraints, I need to make a new character(s) that can better fit into a game I only have time for once a month and may miss entirely for a month if the scheduling doesn’t work out. I had both a Requiem and a Changeling character and due to changing game dynamic, problematic resets, and dwindling player base (in the case of Changeling), I just wasn’t having fun with them anymore. I was also feeling a bit burned out on LARP in general. Now that I’m finally letting go of the idea I have to keep playing these characters, I can see a day when I return to LARP.  I would love to find a troupe game that spent less time on on-going bureaucracy and more time on role play. In the mean time, I’m enjoying my Marvel RPG.


*I know it will come up so lets just cover it now – I’m mostly referring to people who have costuming that is obviously supposed to look nice.  That said, if your character is the sort whose clothes would look untidy then, fine, put them in a bag +after+ you have washed them so they will be nice and disheveled before game. No one appreciates realistic STINK in a game setting.

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