You’re Playing Your Character Wrong

Today’s Dork Tower illustrates a session recap where one of the heroes wound up doing tons of cool things the previous week , when the character was played  by different player.  I found great humor in this, as I have experienced this situation myself. It happens to all gaming groups: one guy can’t make it the table and so his character is picked up by someone else.  The big fear in this situation is that the character will die at the hands of someone else’s mismanagement or at least without the owning player to have a chance to make that death save himself. But what really ends up happening many times is that the character performs the same or better under the temporary player.

Does this mean the original player is playing wrong? Maybe.

It’s really hard to answer if someone else is playing your character better with only one or two data points over a few years. But assuming that’s enough data, let’s explore what I mean by “the character performs the same or better.” Firstly  I am referring to the character’s effectiveness in terms of usefulness in battle and influence among NPCS (as expressed by charisma checks, participation in interactions, etc). What I am not referring to is how “true to type” you think the character should be role-played (e.g. your dwarf is dour enough or your paladin isn’t preachy). Like any other art, role-playing is highly subjective and can be interpreted in many different fashions, including how well the artist (i.e. player) portrays a character. Like other arts, you can also apply “objective” measures of technical proficiency and use of the medium, but those are also a topic for another day.

At the risk of offending someone, I’m going to continue this article written from perspective that your character is being played by someone else. In this scenario you’re out sick for the week and your buddy picks up your character and proceeds to use him to kick ass and take loot on level that you never acheived. Why might this be?

  1. He’s got loaded dice, the DM likes him better, or it was just a lucky day. There are so many variables from week to week that it’s hard to say. Perhaps if you were present, the numbers would have come up in your favor as well. Either way, this is the least useful assement because there’s not much to learn from it. And without you missing multiple sessions with your character being picked up by the same player, and performing glorious exploits each time while being a dud with you, it’s impossible to rule out. This means you can stop here and go check out you tube, but if you are willing to entertain other possibilities:
  2. He’s got extra attention. When a player volunteers to run someone else’s character, odds are that he’s the one with the most extra energy that night to put into a second character. Especially if you game at night, it’s to be expect that some to everybody is pretty tired. It’s not anything you’re doing wrong, so much as that night your buddy was able to manage all that was going on. In fact, maybe it’s good exercise for everyone to take a turn at hosting two PCs. The extra burden of two characters might force you to be more efficient in terms of managing powers and choosing actions since you have to do it twice as often per round. With two characters, there’s no time to fumble through rule-books because your turn will always be next. In fact you’d have to spend more of the battle paying attention if you have to strategize for two different characters, meaning you might make better decisions for one.
  3. He can build synergies. Unless your friend is a role-playing superstar, he’s going to be tempted to play the two characters like they were of one mind, basically giving the player twice as many actions in a round. Because 4e is really built around PC combos, he can be really effective using movement and attacks. In the 8 ways your character can die, we joked about launching a fireball into melee, but when you have two characters you can have one hold back until after your other’s fireball explodes and then rush the first into battle. I find Hold Actionis not used optimally since everyone is vying for the glory of the kill. So it’s not that he’s playing your character better, but just being more effective with two independent weapons. The same synergy and holding action can be used in skill challenges with equal ruthlessness. If you’ve ever played in a party where another player has a Shaman with a spirit companion, you know what I’m talking about.
  4. He’s got more experience than you. For example, you recently started playing an elf ranger, but your buddy’s been playing elf rangers for the past two years and has a better feel for how they’re effective on the battlefield. Or even if your character is a new type to him, he might have a system for tracking conditions, using powers, or taking advantage of enemy weaknesses that might have escaped your notice. If this is the case, don’t get defensive or upset, but instead ask details of specific exploits so you can learn from him; watch what he does with his character and see if any of his style is applicable to yours.

This assumes you want your character to do be doing the types of things he did under the control of your teammate. Perhaps you’re playing a shy peacenik who would never charge into the middle of a battlefield, no matter how “cool” a scene it was. This should hold true for when you’re playing someone else’s character: you should try to be faithful as you can to how the character normally acts. Even if he has a +4 broadsword of smiting, if the character always hangs out in back and shoots crossbow, try to stick to that gameplan; you’ll be thanked by having your character portrayed accurately in your absence.

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5 thoughts on “You’re Playing Your Character Wrong

  1. Perhaps when someone else is playing your character they will actually end up playing them more faithfully to what is on the character sheet rather than being influenced by your own personality or where you desire the character to go.

  2. The other strong possibility is related to #2. Our D&D group is made up at least 50% of “casual gamers.” These people are there mostly to hang out and screw around with dice and have fun. As such, they often are not interested in optimal play.

    Then, when the casual gamer has to miss a session, it is generally a very dedicated player who volunteers to run a second character. The dedicated player is often much more familiar with the various rules and optimal tactics. As such, they are less likely to forget to use Power Attack, and more likely to choose a daily allotment of spells that do a fantastic job of augmenting the team.

  3. Oh, I’m so glad there IS nobody else to play my druid because they would totally play it better than I would. I definitely don’t know my spells as well as I should. Last game, I found out *after* I prepared my spell list that Call Lightening didn’t work quite like I thought it did. It actually takes prep time.

    At least it does in 3e. I don’t know about 4e, since that’s not the version we play.

  4. @Lugh,
    Good point. It must vary from group to group.

    @Spring
    In 4e there are no more casting times, so powers happen right away. Controllers still have spells that can be used or sustained over multiple turns, so it takes a little more planning for those, but the consequences of “wasting” a spell aren’t bad because of the huge amount of powers available.

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