The Character Filter

A lot of posts online from new players and Dungeonmasters seem to ask the same question: How do I get in character? It’s a tough question since most of us haven’t had several years of improvisational acting experience so they may not be used to the idea of thinking on their feet as someone other than themselves. Thankfully, my gaming career started in the Drama classroom back in 5th grade. I did horrible skits that weren’t nearly as funny as my friends and I thought they were and a lot of improv. We’d get a slip of paper, a couple of minutes to plan a scene in the hall, and then we had to perform in the scene on the fly. Because of the timing of this, I learned at the same time I started playing role playing games the very tricks I needed to stay in character. Now, my training (if you can call it that) was meant for grade school children and happened almost twenty years ago (which was a LOT of bourbon ago), so there’s probably a proper term for this, but I’ve always called in the Character Filter.

The character filter is simple. It’s a little filter set up in your mind that everything you take in and everything you send out – both in actions and speech – go through. The filter itself is just the question “What would my character react?” That’s all there is to it. Just run everything you see and hear through that filter as well as everything you do or say, and you’ll be in character. Okay, maybe it’s not that easy. It takes a lot of practice to get that filter in place without slowing things down too much and reacting normally. It can also be a hard concept to grasp as well, so let’s try an example.

I am Darryl. I’m 31 years old, out of shape, intelligent, logical, have no fighting training, am a human born and raised in the late 20th century on Earth, and I try my best to avoid confrontation as much as possible. My character for a time was Grimlock (yes, it was that sort of a game…we had more pop culture references than game terms flying in every encounter), a Half-Orc Fighter (who was basically a Slayer before Essentials was released). He was 19 years old, big and muscular, dumb as a rock, wielded an axe bigger than he was almost, was raised in a tribal culture, and loved to fight. If the troll with the big maul standing over me said to me, “I’m gonna turn you into jelly!”, I (as in Darryl) would probably need to change my shorts before whimpering, “I’m sorry I’ve offended you, sir.” Even Darryl playing the game would think, “This troll is a couple of levels higher than our average party level which means this is going to be a difficult encounter and our Wizard is the only character that can do fire or acid damage so his regeneration is going to be a big problem and I’ve only got two healing surges left and I’ll need to Mark him and his average damage output’s going to be blah blah blah metagaming blah blah blah.” Grimlock, however, neither thought nor said those things. He stepped up, greataxe in his hand, and said “Me Grimlock no be jelly! Me Grimlock make TROLL JAM!” and swung for the fences.

This entire event took exactly two seconds because it went directly through my filter. My thoughts were all tactical and game-related, but Grimlock’s thoughts were solely about his pride at being threatened and his need to respond to that threat with force. I took the insult from the troll, knowing that it meant he was targeting me with his attack as Darryl, put it through my filter of “What would Grimlock do?”, and that filter gave me the answer of “Respond with a similar threat and attack.” So that’s what Grimlock did.

It can take a lot of practice to get that filter in place. It’s even harder when you’re the Dungeonmaster as you have to change that filter constantly in order to portray the various NPCs in your game. There are a few tricks you can try that might help you get your filter in place. Try using an accent or different voice for your character. Don’t worry if all you can do is a crappy Sean Connery impersonation. Do you know what a Hammerfast accent sounds like? Maybe it’s exactly like a crappy Sean Connery impersonation. You can also pick up an affectation, like your Rogue talks with his hands or your Warlock constantly cracks her knuckles. Both of these can help you by giving you something to focus on to put you in character. You’ll start associating that knuckle-cracking or that accent with thinking like your character, and soon you’ll be doing it without realizing it. A filler phrase can also help. If your Dwarf says, “By Moradin’s Beard!” when he’s surprised, that not only helps get you into character but it also buys you a precious second or two more time to think of what he would say.

The longer you spend with a specific character, the easier it will be to predict what that character will do. After a few sessions, you should know if your character is tactical or brash when it comes to combat, if he or she is soft-spoken or loud, rude or courteous. The longer you play the character, the most history you’ll have with him or her and the more you’ll know how he or she will react to things. One trick you can do is writing a journal of your campaign from your character’s point of view. At the end of every session, take some time and write about what happened that week in your character’s writing. This way, you can take your time and really think through how your character would react to everything going on in the campaign. This will also give you the benefit of helping you remember smaller details about the campaign and the story your Dungeonmaster is telling.

Be sure to realize is that you’re sitting around a table with your friends. No one’s going to be expecting method acting and no one’s going to care if it takes you a few seconds to think of how your character would act. You’re basically doing improv for between two and eight hours every week or two. You’re going to do something silly in character that’s going to make everyone laugh. That’s part of the point. Give yourself license to screw up and turn it into character moments.

This goes double for a Dungeonmaster as he not only has to do all that, but he also has to switch between several if not dozens of characters over the same time period along with keeping track of the story, running the combat, adjudicating the rules, and everything else going on. Your players will definitely cut you some slack if you need a few seconds to figure out how an NPC will react to a player. You can also use stalls such as taking a bathroom break, refilling your drink, making a food run, or anything else to give you a few moments to figure out how Lord Greyson will react to the party’s Dwarf Shaman mooning him.

The most important thing to remember is that this is a game. You’re not on stage. Feel free to take your time and screw up if necessary. It’ll take a little practice, but once you’re used to using that filter, it’ll become second nature. Once it does, your character may end up doing things that surprise even you, the filter works so quickly. And that’s part of the fun.

Published in: on December 12, 2011 at 12:00 AM  Leave a Comment  
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