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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
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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