In my last campaign I tried to play a druid. I made quite a detailed background story that involved him being rejected from his dwarf clan and had travelled the world after that without too much human contact, but lots of adventures that made him a wise man. Deep inside he still regrets having lost all contact to his race, so he is quite a sad fella.

When we started playing I found it quite hard to role-play him convincingly and give him some personality. My DM also complained to me about it, saying he didn't really know what to do with my character. As the campaign continued I noticed that due to this difficulty I was effectively changing my character, making dirty jokes, funny comments etc. although I didn't imagine him to be at all like that.

Also an observation on the rest of the party: we are a group of 6 players, 1 DM. All new to the game, this is our second campaign. I think that out of the players I have invested (by far) the most time into coming up with background and personality for my dwarf druid. Nevertheless their characters are a lot more convincing/entertaining: We have a rogue who hits on all the ladies and it's really funny. We have a half-ork who likes violence and dirty jokes and it's extremely funny. We have a wizard who is being a creepy pervert and it's hilarious.

I think my problem should be clear by now, but I will try to formulate the exact question: How do I play a serious character in an entertaining way and avoid transitioning into a clown because it makes it easier to be entertaining?


4 Answers 4


Comedy, tragedy, and drama are subtle and tricky-- smart people like Aristotle have tried to figure it all out and no one has really definitively nailed it. And even Aristotle wasn't worried about role-playing games. But based on observation, here is what I think.

First and foremost, in order to play a serious character well, you and your character need something serious to act against: Either the overall setting needs to be serious, or the setting at least needs to have serious moments. This might not be as obvious as it seems at first blush, though. I think most people would agree that a religious war is a serious thing... but I could be wrong. Consider the two following passages.


“It was in that year when the fashion in cruelty demanded not only the crucifixion of peasant children, but a similar fate for their pets, that I first met Lucifer and was transported into Hell; for the Prince of Darkness wished to strike a bargain with me.

-- The War Hound and World's Pain, Michael Moorcock


Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!" He said, "Nobody loves me." I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"

He said, "Yes." I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?" He said, "A Christian." I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?" He said, "Protestant." I said, "Me, too! What franchise?" He said, "Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?" He said, "Northern Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist." I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region." I said, "Me, too!"

Northern Conservative†Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?" He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912." I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

-- Emo Philips, stand up comedy routine

The first is from a novel set during the Thirty Years' War, a horrifically destructive religious war in Europe. The second is from a late 20th century stand up comedian. It's perfectly possible (and a perfectly valid choice, subject to tastes of the group) for a GM to subvert a serious background and play it for laughs.

If that's what the GM actively wants out of his or her game, you have a real challenge on your hand.

Second, and very closely related to the first, you need co-players who broadly support-- or at least tolerate-- your desire for moments of a serious tone. Comedy is tricky, and no one has properly nailed it down, but one definition I find persuasive and explanatory (if not perfect) is that comedy stems from the incongruity between expectations and results. Which means, if you play with an expectation of seriousness and the other players simply don't accept it, that incongruity itself can become comedic. (Specifically, your character might become a type of straight man.)

Third, and finally, some concrete suggestions on (my paraphrasing) playing a serious character without either being overwhelmingly grim (i.e., entertaining) or degenerating into a clown:

  • It's hard to sustain overwhelming seriousness all the time, either as a person or in drama. A movie or a play is one thing, a long form TV serial or RPG is another. It is also hard to be overwhelmingly serious about everything. Consider having one or two particular things that the character considers not funny, and play it that way.

  • This works best, I think, when the GM is active and on-board, so that situations can be presented with reasonable pacing between them-- too much is overwhelmingly grim, too little can see your character's default become comic. It also works better when they stem from the character's past, either background from before the game, or develop in-game.

  • If it's serious enough and not overplayed, Tranquil Fury can be an effective manifestation. Several examples at that site are from notionally comedic or light-hearted characters, ranging from the cosmic (Doctor Who) to the borderline downtrodden (Dan Conner.)

  • If the notion of being serious about only one or two things doesn't seem like it's "enough" consider also that humor is also a defense mechanism, and that this is the mechanism that has driven some of the most successful dramedies of the 20th century. I am thinking specifically of MASH, but even more than the series I am thinking of the characters. Especially Hawkeye, a surgeon whose comedic defense mechanism against the horrors of modern war was almost indistinguishable from insanity... but when the time came, no one could question his commitment to medicine.

Fourth and finally, because so much of this depends on the mood of the GM and players, I would strongly encourage talking to your GM and the to other players in that order. It may be that you are not the only one in this situation of wanting to be serious but feeling trapped by a group dynamic. (Or the opposite-- but either way, knowing will help.)


Be the straight man (Warning TV Tropes link)

It sounds like the group you're in has a lot of comedy going in it and that is possibly a bit of the focus of the play. In such a group the pull of the group will be for you to join in with that, to do the gags, to do the jokes and keep the laughs rolling. I usually play straight characters (typically snooty wizards) and it can be hard to avoid this pull but it can be just as rewarding setting up the pins as knocking them down.

There are things I've found useful in keeping my character grounded:

  • Speak to the GM. Storylines and characters dictate how the game feels, speak to the GM about your character and make sure he's on board with how your character is.
  • Serious business. You can laugh all day but there are serious issues out there. Grab these plots and stories by the throat and go for it. The Ork might like dirty jokes and violence, but there are many situations where it's just not appropriate. Missing children? Death of a villager? Take the serious line and maybe add a sigh every now and then. Someone has to be the responsible one!
  • Deadpan. Be the wall the comedy bounces off. It can make things funnier as the situation is more ridiculous.
  • Set 'em up. Make serious statements that you -know- will give the other players the opportunity to make a joke. This is a straight man job. You're providing the comedy and never breaking a smile.
  • Out of character - Let the other players know where you are with your Dwarf, the serious nature of the character is important to you; but after the joke, have a good laugh out of game but keep your Dwarf frowning (or whatever he does to deal with the doom/inappropriate comedy)

As you say, some character stereotypes appear frequently in fantasy settings, and those are basically those who are quite adapted for a casual entertaining game session, from a player and narrative perspective.

Now, original characters without such stereotype are somewhat more difficult to play both because the expectation of the players : such character is less predicable, and may require more work to play and interact with.

My subjective option is that experienced player will more and more enjoy such complex characters, for example by adding dark secrets, hidden traits, etc, the player will build up something more interesting to play. The campaign setup may also push in such direction, by adding politics, diplomacy, soft power struggle, court intrigues, where stereotypes just don't match due to their lack of depth and subtlety.

You claim to be a relatively new player, but you are probably the kind of player who will want to go deeper in such deeper play, and to clearly separate yourself and your character. Just continue playing and challenging yourself in the game by adjusting it to your own taste. I'm pretty sure you will have tons of fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for advocating patience. This stuff just needs time and practice to develop. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 23, 2016 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ I very much like this answer, although I will not accept it for now since I would like to hear some more advice on how to specifically play a serious, rather than a complex character. This answer was before I re-wrote it to get it reopened. It was the only reason I could see why my initial question was misleading since I didn't actually want to ask about how to build a complex character. But this answer still helped me since it answered that :) \$\endgroup\$ Jan 24, 2016 at 20:37

Personally, I've always like the idea of having all characters be played with the help of all present at the table. By this, I mean that if you want to play a character with more wisdom than you can easily display, there is no reason the other players can't help with ideas/suggestions that your wise character might think of that you did not. The key is that the final decision always rests with the player of that character.

As for role playing, I like the (controversial) idea of rolling actions before role-playing them. For instance, if you want to smooth-talk somebody, you'd first make a roll and then role-play (with the help of the group) according to what the roll indicates. This allows a somewhat socially awkward player to play the smooth-talking character, and prevents the smooth-talking player from using their player abilities in lieu of abilities the character has. If your character can smooth-talk and you cant, this allows you to roll, get suggestions from everybody on how you might role-play it, and then play out the actual result. (This is much more relevant in systems like GURPS, but it applies to any system that codifies more than just combat).

Personally, I've found that the serious character is better speaking up only occasionally, and then keeping it short. Using humor occasionally can help build contrast with the character's usual seriousness, too. Compile a list of aphorisms and find lists of quotes from people like Yogi Bera and memorize a few. A good example IMO is the character "Silent Bob" - not what you might think of when you hear "serious character", but I think he can be a good model for how to play one.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the "characters be played with the help of all present" idea is the most useful bit of advice, here. It's very hard to play a serious character in a comedic campaign, much harder than playing a comic relief character in a serious campaign. Perhaps that part of this answer could be expanded upon? \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Jan 26, 2016 at 23:03

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