Hello, and welcome to Roles to Play, a new column about roleplaying games! I’m really excited to start this column and share with you some experiences and thoughts about a topic I’m this passionate about. I’ve been playing tabletop RPGs since I was a teenager, and while ten-hour Middle Earth roleplaying sessions were not how most of the other teenage girls I knew usually spent their Saturday nights, it worked just right for me. It encouraged me to be creative, boosted my confidence, helped me meet new people with similar interests, and brought me and my closest friends even closer together. And in the years since, I’ve found that what I first thought was an obscure hobby is actually one of the most widespread forms of gaming in the world.
Starting this column made me think about the excitement of fresh starts. Downloading a new game, meeting new and interesting people at the D&D table, these are some of the thrills I live for. But my favorite gaming marvel, hands down, is the charm of the blank character sheet. That’s what made RPGs so appealing to me from day one: to be able to start, I first had to create something new. And new characters, like new columns, are just brimming with potential!
Every roleplay gamer I know approaches character creation in a different way: some are all about the numbers, some like to focus on their character’s background story, some start by drawing their character and designing their outfits. Whatever method helps a player feel involved is the right way to do it. As a game master, I have spent whole sessions going over the game manual with my players, laughing at weird, made-up abilities, rolling dice, discussing lore-friendly fashion, and exploring the many possibilities that the system and the game universe offer. I try my best to help everyone come up with a character they feel strongly about, one they will be excited to play. And these sessions, where nobody gains XP or slays a single orc, have been among the most fruitful I’ve held and the most fun.
I think role-playing is essentially acting, and the more invested a player is in her character, the more effort she will put into acting the part and developing her character in a compelling way. Rolling critical hits and killing the baddies is important, but deep and multifaceted characters are what good stories are made of.
Of course, this is not how every RPG works. For example, there’s a great game called Paranoia, where player characters strive to survive in a dystopian setting while betraying and usually murdering one another. It is a very fun game, but these characters tend to die very quickly, so their creation has to be fast and as impersonal as the world they inhabit. Also, sometimes you might find yourself at an RPG club or festival where you get handed a pre-made character ready to play. Am I flexible enough to give these characters my best? I like to think so, but admittedly, I don’t attend this sort of events as much as I did when I was younger.
For many of us, long-winded campaigns with intricate storylines are where it’s at. And with this in mind, I’d like to bring up one of my most beloved game series. I found out about BioWare games in late ’14, around the time of the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I had never considered myself a “gamer” before, mostly because consoles and PCs were never a priority within my family’s budget, so I made do with whatever old, preferably free, game my PC could handle. But Dragon Age looked so absolutely epic, I just had to play it. So, I bought a pre-owned gaming laptop and ventured head-first into Thedas. Needless to say, I didn’t catch a lot of sun that summer, but who needs the sun when Alistair is your boyfriend.
I think a huge part of what has made the Dragon Age franchise so successful was the introduction of three fantastic player characters. While they’re all memorable in their own way, the Warden’s origin story is fully interactive, and playing it helped me understand my character’s motivation and empathize with her; in contrast, your character’s backstory in Inquisition is mostly yours to headcanon. I don’t have a problem with that, but it does take me a while each playthrough to decide whether or not I’m “feeling” my character. It helps when they have a very distinctive look, and DA:I’s character creator is a joy to play with. There’s no telling how much time I can spend pushing sliders and tweaking eye color, hesitating over eyebrows, Qunari horns and Elven vallaslin. Sometimes, I open a new game just to play with the character creator for a while; to me—and, presumably, many BioWare fans—the character creation process is a kind of mini-game, enjoyable on its own right.
These details are important to me because they help me connect with my video game characters similarly than I do with my dear pen and paper alter egos. This connection is essential to me; my gaming style has been deeply personal ever since I created my very first character. Her name was Morwen, and she was a beautiful Noldor elf with long, flowing red hair. She was tall, slender, skilled, independent. I was 16, my hair was certainly not flowing, and I was the biggest nerd anyone had ever known. But during our game sessions together, I performed. I was daring and confident; there is no bullying a Noldor elf. I understood that I wasn’t really her, but she was me. She was the part of me that I was most proud of, the part that was brave.
When we create a character, they can be anything at all. More often than not, they will be a reflection of us in a way or another. They can express our most shining qualities or our worst fears; they can do things we would never do, say things we wouldn’t say with our own voices.
It has been a long time since Morwen and I killed dragons in Middle Earth and stood up to bullies in high school. And since then, every character I’ve created has provided me with an incredible outlet for my creativity and self-expression, akin to my writing, but with an element of distance to add shelter and safety. This is, I think, what I see when I look at a blank character sheet: a fresh canvas where I can reinvent myself without fear, where I can rediscover the excitement of a new beginning.