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Playing the Obnoxious One

"I'm tellin' ya, he's going to have a little accident on the stairs."
"I'm going to push him off a cliff!"
"Can I kill him now? Huh? Huh?"

The object of all this ire is a character in a play-by-email game, an arrogant and racist grey elf who managed, within the very first two days of the campaign, to offend every other character in the game (even the other elves!). These comments and many like them were made to me in person, in email, and in ICQ messaging.
But when the characters stop talking and the players start, I get an entirely different set of comments. "He's doing a great job," "I must say, he's playing his character perfectly," and perhaps the highest praise of all, "You know, it takes a mature roleplayer to stick to his guns like that when all the other characters are mad at him."
When the racist elf was pitched to me before the game began, I was dubious. "It's going to be a mystery," I said. "He's got to be able to talk to people." The player replied, "I know. I think I can do this, though." If I hadn't trusted the player's roleplaying skills, if I hadn't already seen him negotiate touchy roleplaying scenarios on the AD&D listserv, I would have balked. Instead, I decided to take a chance. And every day when I read the vitriolic exchanges between the elf and the other characters, I wince. But the player is sticking to his guns, and I think that, in the end, the campaign will have been more interesting as a result of the racist elf having been included in it. Will the other characters ever come to like the elf by the end of the adventure? I wouldn't hold my breath. But that's not the point. If the player roleplays true to his character conception and entertains the other players—and me—then he's done what every good roleplayer should do. He's created a memorable character and enhanced the game.
'Cause roleplaying ain't necessarily about being liked.
Now, I'm not saying that player characters shouldn't get along. They have to get along if they're going to be working together for any length of time. To negotiate the kinds of life-and-death situations most characters find themselves in, mutual trust and cooperation are essential. But are mutual trust and cooperation the same things as mutual liking? I don't think so. I've played in and GMed several excellent campaigns in which some of the characters have respected but not liked each other, and of course we've all seen the same scenario in countless movies, books, and television shows. The repartee, the rivalry, and the rancour between characters can be extremely entertaining to watch.
Of course, to roleplay an obnoxious character whom other characters will tolerate but dislike takes a lot of skill both on the player's and GM's part. Moreover, it can only be done when all of the players in the game are excellent roleplayers who understand the difference between interactions in the game and interactions in real life. Under no circumstances should a character conception be used as an excuse to bring real-life resentments into a roleplaying game!

The Player

• The player must make certain that the obnoxious character has useful skills, so that the other characters don't just give Nasty his or her walking papers. This is especially important at the beginning of the game, when it would be relatively easy for the other characters to say, "Go away, we don't want to travel with you."
• The player must confine the character's rudeness to a tolerable level. The occasional rant is tolerable; resorting to physical violence is not. Arrogance is tolerable; cruelty is not. As long as the nastiness is confined to words and behaviors, the character will be considered unpleasant but unthreatening. As soon as the nastiness begins to cause harm to others, the character will be perceived as a threat that must be "dealt with"—usually in a terminal manner.
• The player must give the obnoxious character a vulnerable side. That side may not show up at once, but the player should be prepared to roleplay it out over time (a short time if the adventure will be short; a longer time if the character is in a campaign). Most unpleasant people have become nasty as a form of self-defense, to protect themselves from being hurt in some way. The player should develop a backstory for the character that explains why the character has retreated behind such an obnoxious facade. Over time, that story should come out, so that even if the other characters don't like the nasty character, they can understand the character's motives. For example, I've sympathized with The Smoking Man (aka Cancer Man) on the X-Files ever since I learned he was a frustrated novelist! Poor guy. No wonder he's trying to take over the world.
• The player must be willing to allow the obnoxious character to mature over time. People change, and a good roleplayer should permit that change to occur naturally and logically within the game. If the character was defensively rude because s/he had been bullied as a child, then over the course of the campaign, as the character becomes more powerful and respected, and perhaps even learns to trust his or her companions, that rudeness should begin to fade ... at least with regard to the character's adventuring partners. This gradual maturing of an initially rocky relationship is the kind of cliche we love to watch in movies or on television, and it can be just as satisfying to watch or act out within a roleplaying game.

The Game Master

• The GM must be prepared to keep the characters together at the beginning of the game. Part of this is ensuring that the obnoxious character has skills or information that the other characters will need. Force the characters to stick together and hope that they'll eventually decide that they can work together. (I've described a few ways to bring characters together at the beginning of a campaign in my essay on starting an adventure.)
• The GM must provide opportunities for character development. This should be a given anyway, but it's especially important when there's an obnoxious character in the mix. The GM should try to work in the unpleasant character's backstory somehow, so that the other characters learn it. Bringing in an old enemy from the nasty character's past usually does this well. Moreover, the GM should give the obnoxious character a chance to work through that backstory, psychologically or physically or both, preferably with the help of the other player characters.
• The GM must encourage relationships to mature. How often in movies or TV do we see two rivals plunged together in a situation where both must cooperate to survive? It's an old cliche, but a good one. This may require running a mini-session between the two of them, or perhaps it can be done within the larger game. The goal is to encourage the development of mutual respect between the obnoxious character and the rest.
• Finally, the GM must be ready to arbitrate should the obnoxious character finally become intolerable. Sometimes things just go too far; at that point, the GM needs to pull the player of the offending character aside and discuss how to address the problem before the other characters kill the nasty one. Roleplaying may not mean being liked, but it does mean being tolerated! Sometimes the only answer is to retire the character, but often the GM and the player can work together to come up with an interesting way to redeem the unpleasant character within the campaign.

Playing an obnoxious character is a gamble, and it shouldn't be attempted or permitted unless the GM and the players are capable of using good judgment in and out of the game. Even then, it can backfire. I'm not entirely certain that the racist elf in my campaign won't "accidentally" slip down the stairs and break his neck some night. But I'm gambling that his inclusion in the game will end up being more entertaining than disastrous. Certainly he's aroused a lot of player interaction and character melodrama already, which is always a good thing in a PBEM. And maybe—just maybe—the racist elf will become a better person over the course of the game. Assuming the other characters permit him to live that long, of course....

originally written January 31, 1999


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