So I have been thinking about the whole “It’s what my character would do” thing lately. I am the near forever GM of my group (I run about 95% of our games), and I am currently on break, playing in a VtM mini-campaign being ran by one of my players. By the second session I managed to derail the pre-made module, (and at one point said the oh so infamous “it seemed in character for Tiffany”). To be fair, my friend thinks it is hilarious, and the real problem is a poorly made module, which he has had to frantically adapt to be more flexible, but it got me thinking.
GMs love to gripe about meta-gaming or how to get their players to RP more, but at the same time “It’s what my character would do” is often an infamous line. I understand that it is basically the equivalent of “hold my beer”, often followed by PC death or the PC being an asshole. From my perspective, the issue lies in breaking with the group/GM expectations around how things should be played. Like, if you are running a low stakes farming simulator, it would probably be disruptive to stab a random NPC in the name of “playing your character”. A more, likely example of disruptive play, would be PvP actions in a game that does not explicitly allow for it (or even like, a rouge steeling from a fellow PC).
There is a middle ground though, between not being disruptive, and playing a unflawed character that always does what is best for their own survival (basically meta-gaming). My PC I mentioned earlier for example, is basically a vampire mean girl, and she is a bit, angry all of the time. She has high social and intelligence, but it is disproportionately in like, intimidation and blood magic. Basically, to play her, with the exception of like, the local prince, it is more in character to play her as more direct then diplomatic when talking to pretty much any other NPC. The point is that as long as you are not being disruptive about the game, it can make it more interesting to add in complications via character flaws or even just having a personality and motivations.
From a players perspective, it really comes down to keeping the good and the group in mind while making a character. If playing your charter means being disruptive, come up with a new idea. Aim for that middle ground. As for how to have flaws, you don’t need a fully formed character from the start, but as they develop, let them also develop aspects that are not ideal to a TTRPG. (Willing to believe someone regardless of how shady they are being, not super diplomatic, or paranoid (but still willing to bite plot hooks)). Similarly, if you GM, don’t punish the player for making more complex characters by making this deadly, allow for bumps in the road with out them turning into complete road blocks. I would also be mindful of trying to “win” a TTRPG, particularly if the win comes from breaking the game.
From a GMing perspective, well, its not just on the players. If the players can derail things by creating complex PCs who are not taking disruptive actions, it might be on you. If there is a “right” way for the players to do things, you are probably railroading, even if you don’t realize it. Even for a more linear story focused approach, let the players come up with their own solution for problems rather then limiting them to one single avenue of approach. Having one mode of success means the players only have one shot at things, encouraging meta-gaming as the players will not want to risk adding in other potentially negative factors from something as simple as giving their PC a distinct personality.
(I will add that technically I derailed the game by leaning into it too hard. The module did that thing where it turned everything into a flowchart, assuming player action, and I encouraged the group to take alternatives. All I was trying to do was solve the mystery without announcing who we were working for. (The prince told us to be discreet so of course we were discreet). I just took some angles the module was not expecting. Luckily my friend is an experienced GM who just wanted something a bit more low prep, so he has been able to adapt to our actions)
I don’t think any of it is straight forward, after all, different game systems and game styles will need different approaches to both GMing and playing. Different types of complexity are going to lend themselves to different types of games, what would work well in RP focused game will look different than a combat focused one. If the group wants to play something brutal with a high body count, well, an approach that is a bit more meta-game might be the way to go for the players.
I fully admit this comes from a narrative/RP focused perspective, where making more complex characters who take “imperfect” actions makes for a more interesting game. I don’t think that it only impacts this type of game though.
(Side note, I personally like the way FATE aspects work, and it is worth seeing how all that is setup if you are wondering how to make more, developed characters).
Edit: This is supposed to be focused on “It’s what my character would do”, my very strong opinions on how to make a pre-made module are another subject entirely.
Edit 2: To be clear, were a lot of my concern is coming from is that at one point I basically said “Crap I probably do say that out loud, it would be super in character for her” and I had a moment of panic because I had said the thing that bad players say.
Except, the play style matches how my group does things. We have an emphasis on RP and being in character, even when it is not the best way to handle the situation. Like, I get that the meme is funny, but we should probably discuss what is the difference between in character (and potentially causing fun problems) and disruptive.
We can’t bitch about meta-gaming if we accidentally send a bunch of signals that acting in character is bad. Also if we actually talk about what is good player behavior, we remove RP as being a tool for people who want to be disruptive.
Edit 3: So the player have their own responsibilities in a TTRPG group, not everything is on the GM. A pretty good base rule to have at your table is that all PCs must be able to engage with the group and campaign. (I am in the straight up ban lone wolves if the player doesn’t promise to play nice camp, as well as straight up tell the player they need to make a new PC if theirs can’t play nice per our discussed expectations).
If you don’t know how to discuss expectations, this is my current favorite session zero tool