Some of my previous questions (see What should I do when other players refuse to engage with my character's flaw? and Excessively clever characters vs. narrativist RP?) have alluded to my severe trouble with classical roleplaying and story structure -- for as much as I try to RP, I find myself stepping all over the underlying constructs of narrativism, much to the chagrin of many players I meet. This has been a thorn in my side for years now, to the point where I know players who refuse to RP with me because they cannot trust me to not stomp on their narratives!

If you skipped the background links, it should also emphasise that I mostly do GM-less/cooperative freeform roleplaying online -- this is in a proto-MMO environment that is used largely as an augmented play-by-chat.

The problem at hand

With some help from the awesome BESW and Doppelgreener (and others, too!) in chat, I was finally able to pin down where my roleplaying edification went awry: I see characters as systems instead of people, and stories as about the interactions between systems, instead of as about interactions between people. This renders emotions and individual character mistakes nearly irrelevant, and shifts the focus from authorship-for-drama to design-for-robustness, which severely undermines the foundations of Narrativist play -- many of the issues explored by stories under this formulation are quite inherently inhuman, and direct paths to solutions are favored much more strongly than the "winding road" adventures encouraged by classical narrativism. It also denies the role of emotions in conflict, treating conflicts instead as rational problem-solving exercises where the character strips away the entire emotional framework of the conflict so that she can solve the underlying problem, instead of engaging with the emotions of either party.

So, as the title asks, how do I reframe my roleplay so that I start seeing characters as people, with the properly fleshed-out set of emotions, capacity for illogical behavior (not just errors based on say incomplete information), and human desires that people have, versus as systems which have logically deductable behavior and rational goals?

For those who are psychologically confused: While seeing people as full-fledged people IRL isn't the most natural thing in the world (by far!) for me to do, I find it far easier to do so when I have a flesh-and-blood person in front of me! So, if you are after how to distinguish this from a straight-up "how do I not see people as systems" psychology question, the factor here is "how do I apply 'people-as-people' thinking when my brain does not naturally apply it in an abstracted environment, such as online, yet has an easier time of it when the person's there in front of me?"

  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not entirely sure the problem statement in this question is clear enough to prompt a reasonable answer. There appear to be multiple problems tied into this question - would it be possible to edit this question to simplify and clarify them? Thank you! \$\endgroup\$
    – user8248
    Jan 11, 2015 at 5:35

4 Answers 4


I don't think it's as much a problem of empathy, as it is of suspension of disbelief. The problem probably isn't that you aren't capable of relating to people, but that you aren't forgetting you are playing a game.

What makes a book or a movie exciting is when you forget you are reading or looking at a screen and you start "living" the piece, as it was true. Do you have the same problem believing the characters of a book/comic/movie? e.g.: When you watch a movie, do you see characters living a story or actors performing a role? In the latter case you need to work on your general immersion skill, but in the former case you just need to start looking at the campaign's story as you look at a book/comic/movie.

Start with your own character. If you can't believe your character you can't believe NPCs. Imagine you are him/her. Try to figure out how he/she thinks. What he/she thinks or would do, not what you would think or do. If you have problem separating what you think from what your character thinks, try giving him/her strong, exaggerated personality traits. Make him/her extremely childish, grumpy, greedy, racist (if everyone is OK with that), righteous, distrustful, naïve, innocent, silly, or any thing that would mark his/her opinions. This way what your character thinks is clearly distinct from what you think.

e.g.: If your character is flirty, he would like to see if NPCs are handsome and playful, and could start inserting some insinuations into his conversations.

Now that your character has a strong personality, focus on his/her thoughts when dealing with other characters. It should be easy now. Take your time to figure out how his/her personality and the other characters' words and actions determine his/her opinions towards them. Then, act in consequence, as your character would do based on those opinions. Think if your character likes or dislikes the people around him/her, how he/she dislikes them, and what he/she would do about that.

Seeing your own characters as people is the first step of seeing other characters as people. Then, the only thing you have to do is get inside their heads and see what they actually think.


Anchor Characters to People

If characters you encounter in an RPG (NPCs, and your fellow players' PCs) are feeling too abstract when they are just words online, try assigning pictures to them. For each character, use a tool like Google Images to find some pictures of real humans that you think can match the character's description.

Look at the picture(s) of the character, and image them sitting in front of you. Concentrate on how you would feel talking to them, and how their voice might sound to you. The purpose of this exercise to trigger the same part of your mind that accepts face-to-face people as real and relatable. You want to imagine the character into being fully present and human. You can try other stimuli as well, such as listening speaking samples, or touching a piece of clothing that's similar to what the character would wear.

Describe & Examine Personalities

For a PC you are playing as, write a short description of the personality, wants & needs, and flaws of the character. Put this into very human terms, preferably terms that you might use to describe a real person. For example:

"Jen cares passionately about helping others, and is easily hurt by seeing people suffer. This leads her to act courageously to support and defend her friends, but also can inspire recklessness. Jen will disregard her own safety to protect someone she cares for."

The important part of this is to see how the character thinks and feels. Backstory and skill-set might inform their thinking, but don't define it completely. Personality traits, values, and outlook are the things that will help you see from the character's perspective. It's seeing something from another's perspective that is a catalyst for both empathy, and the ability to role-play the character's narrative more faithfully.

The capacity for things like "illogical" behavior stems from emotions, and from values and perspectives that differ from one's own. An impulsive person might act illogically in the heat of passion, but only because they experienced a strong emotion and sought out the most ready means of satisfying that feeling. For example, a feeling of anger can cause someone to physically or verbally last out in a way that isn't strictly to the person's benefit, but ameliorates their immediate sense of anger.

Perspectives shape actions in ways we don't always expect. The famous (and mistranslated, but that's its own issue) line from Marie Antoinette "Let them eat cake" angers people because it's ludicrous to think that peasants who cannot buy bread would have access to cake. However, consider it from the (fictionalized) Queen's perspective: she has been so insulated from normal society, and so pampered by her wealth, that she has no conception of going hungry. The suggestion was an honest attempt to solve the problem as she saw it. It was a gross mistake and perfectly in character. She was acting logically based upon her understanding of the situation, but that understanding was deeply flawed.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I like it! However, you might be better served by an example of someone who makes a "poor" decision on purpose rather than someone who says something silly out of ignorance. \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Dec 23, 2014 at 1:17

Another Anchor

Something similar to Jessa's anchoring idea is to try and compare RP characters to people you know. It doesn't always work, as you have to already know someone that seems similar, but it can help you model behavior sometimes. For instance, if you have to RP with a very artistic character and you happen to be friends with someone that does theatre, it can be helpful to try and imagine (or even ask, if you have the chance) what your friend would do in the situation you're encountering in your RP.

Try and Remember Your Character isn't at a Table or Screen

I can sympathize in that I have some trouble on occasion with allowing my characters to do the wrong thing, even if it makes sense for them to blunder. It's easy for me to spot various pitfalls my character could make- and should make, based on their personalty and circumstance. I have to remind myself that, for my character, this is really happening. If it's in the middle of a fight, my character is probably nervous or amped up. Pressed for time. Maybe terrified or worried about allies or friends. They shouldn't always make the 'right' or 'logical' choice. Working on getting your character to react naturally is a good first step.

RP Buddy System

As a final bit of advice- if you're lucky enough to RP with a very character-focused player, ask them for help! I don't just mean in general, but actually run posts by them before you officially tag. Getting real-time advice on specific actions can be really helpful.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I had something along these lines come up at my table last night. The game system I play has metagame resources that allow the players to influence die rolls. One of the players had story elements he wanted to explore with his character, but he spent resources to pass a roll that would have better furthed the story with failure. It didn't dawn on him, until I pointed it out, that a failure for the character may be a success for the game as a whole. \$\endgroup\$
    – T.J.L.
    Oct 5, 2015 at 15:46

I know this question is old, but I feel somewhat compelled to answer it, because I feel that I struggled in this way as well when I first started playing RPGs. I had no idea what kind of character I wanted to play, so I usually loosely based them on myself, which was boring. However, I was lucky enough to play with enough people with genuinely interesting characters that I started to "get it" because I found that I really liked their characters, and adapted piece by piece. I was not able to create a character I was attached to or related to much at the start because I didn't know that much about writing a good character.

As you begin to create more interesting characters with memorable personalities and actions, you will become attached and begin to see them as people, the same way we humans get attached to dogs when they exhibit behavior we find endearing and assign them human characteristics in conversation.

So my suggestion is similar, but slightly different to the "anchoring" suggestion:

Creativity is glorified theft, diluted with a lot of hard work. Most great artists admit that they were inspired by someone else before them. Many people have this idea that visionaries like Van Gogh or Beethoven simply "had an epiphany," or were naturally born with their master abilities. This is far from the truth. In reality, the artistic process of defining one's own style is born over an arduous process of study, practice, and re-study of others' works.

So, until you see characters as people, just re-dress characters that you like from other media. If you're worried about putting others off with characters that are too derivative, you can perform this exercise in video games like Neverwinter Nights or Divinity: Original Sin as well. It's tough to suggest this without sounding like a jerk, but I find it to be an extremely helpful part of the learning process of making interesting characters. As you analyze more and more characters that you find interesting, eventually a few things from all of those different pieces of media will stick, and that will result in a completely unique character all your own.

Hell, I just finished playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, I'm now playing through Peace Walker, and I can definitely tell you that my next character, regardless of system, is going to exhibit at least a few traits of Big Boss. Some even argue that this type of influence is unavoidable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ We don't mind necromancy here. We encourage it, in fact. There's even a badge for it. The goal of this site is to collect questions and answers that remain relevant even after the passage of years, so as long as a new answer adds something new and relevant to the question, it's valued. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Oct 6, 2015 at 22:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ While the necromancy isn't at all a problem (been there done that :), I find that the characters I like from other media are few and very far between (Charlie Epps from Numb3rs is one of the very few examples that comes to mind), and also fall into archetypes that expose other issues with my RP -- the simulationist/tropist divide poses a major hurdle to me playing STEM-focused chars in most RPG settings, for instance. \$\endgroup\$
    – Shalvenay
    Oct 6, 2015 at 23:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, the best suggestion I can give at that point is expose yourself to more media until you find characters you do like. I think that it's very hard to be creative when you have no relevant cultural base to build off of, no matter who you are. My last character was a female fighter that was based off of the ancient trope of the Greek hero: amazing physical fitness and great courage, with a glaring character flaw. In her case it is that she is obsessed with fame. Going back to the roots of fantasy tropes and reading mythology often brings pieces to light that were lost to pop culture. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2015 at 14:03
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also, there's a great question that talks about roleplaying characters that are more intelligent than you if you're worried about playing scientists or engineers. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 7, 2015 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ The problem I have with STEM-focused characters in most RP settings skews the opposite way from the linked question -- I can easily be too scientifically aware for settings that assume that literary tropes and setting construction trump RL science and engineering. (Imagine the look on the local blacksmith's face when he's asked to deliver a dozen 85-foot rolled I-beams held to a crucible composition report so that the town can have a wagon bridge...or a fire elemental being snuffed out by a flood of lamp oil) \$\endgroup\$
    – Shalvenay
    Oct 9, 2015 at 22:23

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