Beyond the Dice: Breath of Life

I remember the first time that I cried when playing D&D. I know what you’re thinking, I probably have the waterworks going all the time, right? Well, not as much as you may think. I was playing with a bunch of dudes, so letting the tears out wouldn’t have been a good idea. Teasing aside, I was trying with every fiber of my being to fit in, to be accepted into this social circle. I believed that being emotional in this group would have sealed my fate and that I’d never be allowed back for another game!

So, what made me cry? Simple, a character in our group died. That was it, that was all.

At this point in my gaming experience, I’d played a lot of games and I was no stranger to characters dying. It had become a fact of the RPG world that character death would happen. I was inured to it. Characters could die at any time and if it happened, you made a new one and the game moved on. My characters had seen death at the hands of assassin’s poison arrows, goblin armies, magical fire, gunshots, bombs, lightsabers, demons, and tentacled horrors that had no name. Why would one more character death cause such emotion in me?

Because he was ALIVE!

This character had become something more than stats on a piece of paper. He had gained a level of sentience, a level of reality to his existence. Brought to life by the man who was playing him, this character had become more. The moment when he died in that game, was the moment that I realized that the game had changed for me. It was no longer simply paper, pencils, and dice. The game had become REAL to me. At this moment, I began to understand that what I’d been experiencing during games before was nothing more than two-dimensional. And from that moment on, I’ve always tried to bring my characters to life, just like that man had brought his to life.

I found that when you bring a character to life, you step beyond the curtain of make-believe. Your character becomes something MORE than stats, scribbles, and dice. You edge into an almost alternate reality where things gain more depth, more color, more vivid detail, more reality. It’s addictive. And it’s insanely satisfying, infinitely rewarding, but always such a rush!

How do you do it? I can tell you, but you’re going to have to do a little work.

#1 – Get a Prop!
Actors on a stage have a much better time creating a scene when they have some appropriate items nearby that help the imagination. The audience gets pulled into the action easier when the scene is believable. You should apply the same ideas to your character, and each layer you add will help your friends see someone completely different sitting at the table with them! Playing a wizard? Get a wand! What about a hat? Some herbs in a pouch for spell components? Got a robe? What about a gunslinger? Can you get a toy gun and a holster and make them look right? Playing a computer nerd? How about putting a keyboard in front of you and typing on it whenever you’re hacking a database? Playing a warrior monk? Get a headband! Watch some old Kung Fu and Karate movies to come up with odd, yet wise sayings from your master!

Think out of the box, bring some items to the table to set the scene, and help change the perceptions of your friends so that they no longer see you. They see your character, and as such, they will respond very differently!

#2 – Speak your truth!
Voices matter more than you may realize. It’s the primary way that we communicate and is at least half of the identifying part of our personality. The way you speak, the tone, the inflection, your accent, even the way that you pronounce certain words, are all reflections of you. So, you can understand that it’s really difficult to separate you from your character when you both look and sound the same? If someone has ever asked you “Did you say that in character?” then you know what I mean. I’ve had characters almost come to blows in my gaming groups because someone made a flippant out of character comment and the other person didn’t realize that they’d broke character. Confusion like this slows down gameplay, causes issues, and takes away from the action. But if everyone knows that when your voice changes you’re playing your character, then all that confusion and incongruity falls away.

Now think about this, does a Dwarf sound like an Elf? Think about every movie, every video game, every portrayal you’ve ever known of an Elf and a Dwarf. They don’t, do they? If you were to play a Dwarf and then halfway through the game switch to playing an Elf, how would anyone know that you’d switched characters if you hadn’t told them? And even if you tell everyone, how many times in the course of the session would people forget that you’d switched characters?

Role-Playing, as opposed to Roll-Playing, doesn’t always have to be finesse either. Would a Dwarf have a deeper voice than an Elf? Then try to keep your voice lower than normal. Would an Elf talk like an aloof aristocrat or a rich frat boy? And if these exercises are easy, maybe you can try something harder, like an accent. Scottish for the Dwarf, English for the Elf? What? You’re really terrible at doing accents? Do you think that’s air your character is breathing right now? Tell me, what world is your character in? Is it REAL? Doesn’t that mean that your “fake” accent is just as real as your character is? And if another player wants to make fun of you, just ask them to speak one of those languages they have written down on their paper. When they can’t you can look at them and say, well I guess my accent is more real than your ability to speak a language that doesn’t exist!

#3 – Get physical!
Just because you’re sitting at a table with paper, pencils, and dice, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use your body to flesh out your character. Simply sitting there like a lump on a log, droning out everything that your character is doing is FAR more labor intensive than showing everyone. If you want to bring your character to life, you have to SHOW the people at the table what you are doing rather than making statements. Someone acting out some part of a scene will stick in your head a lot longer than talking about it.

If you’ve just finished a battle and you’re going to interrogate the prisoners immediately, why not breath fast and heavy like you just ran ten miles? Swinging five, ten, or fifteen pounds around is one hell of a workout, I know from personal experience! So why not act that out a bit to flesh out your character some more? Or maybe you’re questioning a beggar in an alley and he smells horrible! Why not cover your face with your shirt or make it seem like you’re trying to breathe without getting too much of his smell into your nose? Are you a sniper getting your sights set on a target? Why not simulate holding a rifle and zeroing in on your prey? Are you a wizard casting a spell? Why not move your hands around some for that spell casting?

I once had a wizard character that I’d choreographed the hand movements for their favorite attack spell, complete with rude gestures and a finger drawn across the throat at the end! There was no doubt what I wanted to have happened to my target, and I made sure that everyone at the table knew that! I once had a barbarian character, whenever they went into a rage, I would swish spit around in my mouth and squeeze it out between my teeth so that I was literally frothing at the mouth! I looked like I was losing my freaking mind with rage, and I tried my best to make myself look about as scary as I could! And all these things are appropriate for the character I was playing at the time. All these things gave depth to my characters, which in turn gave depth to the game!

But don’t think that it has to be serious all the time either! I once played a cleric whose deity’s holy symbol was a book and every time I cast a cure spell I would recite the “Latin” from Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail then smack my forehead with my holy book as the verbal and physical parts of the prayer! It was hilarious! Especially when I had to heal a bunch of people at once! I swear that I almost gave myself a concussion!

#4 – Breath of life!
The suggestions I give here are only that, suggestions. Don’t take what I say as law and make it the only way you do things. But what you should be doing is getting into your character’s head. If this is a person, a real, living and breathing person, what would they be thinking? What would they be doing? Do they have any dreams? Do they have any aspirations? What do you think they want to do when they are ready to retire? Would they want children? A home? What are their parents like? Do they have siblings? Do they have a phobia? It doesn’t have to be anything detrimental, but it can help to bring your character to life!

Thinking out of the box is more than just what I’ve suggested here. If you limit yourself by what I’ve written, you’re doing nothing more than jumping out of one box and into another. You have to completely challenge everything you know in order to get to the point that your character is reaching this level of reality. So, let me share some of the things that I considered to be completely out of the box that I’ve seen over the years.

A human fighter with a duck as a pet. That’s right, and no, you weren’t allowed to eat the duck even if you were starving. The man was a vegetarian and the duck was seriously, his best friend!

A half-elf thief who carried a mop everywhere he went. It worked for more than just cleaning up messes!

A high elf barbarian who fought with two hand axes rather than a sword and could only count to ten. So, the number ten was his way of assessing threats. If he counted more than ten goblins, he ran away. If he counted less than ten dragons, he would charge into battle! Fortunately, the other players were able to talk him out of this ill-advised standard eventually!

A half-elf wild mage who reveled in the powers of chaos and would purposely try to make his magic as well as the magic of his opponent’s warp into a wild surge!

A human paladin who understood that law and order were necessary, but not necessarily needed in all situations. His small gestures of kindness in giving coins to the poor or taking a moment to help a farmer with a broken cartwheel weren’t necessary to his vow. He saved innocent lives by playing dangerously close to the edge of breaking his vows in fact. He spared those he believed could be redeemed and brought holy wrath to those that couldn’t. He stood between the weak and the strong, allowing his strength to hold back the tide of evil that would overwhelm those who couldn’t withstand it. Just as he stood in front of my character and defended them as they lay bleeding and broken from the onslaught of a powerful warlord bent on destruction. And he died for it when he could have stood aside. He knew he was going to die, and he did it anyway, even though it wouldn’t have violated his vows. Because his sacrifice was precisely who he was, and not simply a “character” in a game, I cried. And I still occasionally cry for that paladin.

Now, anyone who knows me knows that I can’t stand paladins. It’s the only class I haven’t played in my over twenty years of gaming, and I refuse to play that class. I can’t stand the thought of having to play some boy scout with a self-righteous stick in my backside. Almost every paladin I’ve ever had in a game group has annoyed me to no end. Inevitably I would gather a few others who also couldn’t stand the prick and we would go off on our own every now and then to get things done that needed doing. We’d deal with the paladin when we got back.

But not that paladin. He was real. He was a man who cared. He was a man who wanted to make a difference and did everything he could to save everyone worth saving. And he was NOTHING like the man who played him, similar in some ways, but definitely not the same guy.
And that is what you are trying to do. Become someone else, make them real, and make people miss them when they’re gone.

~ Cindy

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