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Over the years, I've encountered no shortage of people who felt daunted by the prospect of having to create nuanced RPG characters out of thin air when all they had to go on were just a few stats on a blank character screen. And if you consider yourself one of those people, perhaps this PCGamesN article, that details its author's journey from playing every game as mostly just himself to coming up with detailed backgrounds for his characters any time he plays an RPG, may help you.
I remember making a couple of half-hearted teenage attempts - something something rogue, something something tragic past - before becoming accustomed to leaving BioWare’s generic blurb untouched. I know I am not alone in this: our very own Phil has roleplayed every RPG he has ever played as a Caucasian man with brown hair. Named Philip.
Which is to say, a lot of us have never really roleplayed very much in roleplaying games - to the point that the name of the genre has become a slightly silly misnomer. Where on the tabletop you are required to come up with all your own dialogue, CRPGs provide you with framework enough to coast through 100 hours without ever really deciding on who you are.
You might play with the vague idea of making choices according to your own moral compass, and see how well the philosophy of Philip functions in Thedas. Or perhaps you will not play as a character at all, but as a build - a container for a bunch of stats, skills, and weapon proficiencies. If you had asked me who my Neverwinter Nights protagonist was, I would only have been able to tell you that he was the kind of man who dual-wielded magical longswords because the particle effects looked nice.
It might be that, by brandishing that biography, RPG designers are asking for something unreasonable. Real-life personalities are formed by context, after all - the people and situations they come into contact with. But, at any given character creation screen, the family, culture, and personal trauma that might have shaped our protagonist are mysteries yet to be uncovered.
Unless you are willing to build an entire identity around an extreme haircut - as generations of rock music frontmen have before you, granted - then attempting to define a personality before the story even begins is a mug’s game. Even aesthetic choices are potential minefields. Case in point: my first Dragon Age character, a dwarven noble with a face tattoo. Only a couple of hours in did I learn that tattoos were a mark of the casteless in dwarven society, and I had inadvertently trampled all over Thedas’ lore.
Yet, over the past couple of years, I have found myself filling in the blanks of my characters. I cannot tell you the exact moment roleplaying started to click for me, but I do remember interviewing Chris Avellone shortly before he exited Obsidian, and being surprised to find him a firm exponent of traditional character creation.
“My belief is that you should not guide players down a role that’s like, ‘I see your destination, here’s where you’re going’,” Avellone said. “I think players should have the freedom to create their own destiny because at the end of the day, their story is the one that’s the most important - despite what you intended. What you should be giving them is a playground for them to roleplay their opportunities.”
At the time it felt like an unpopular, even archaic, opinion in the face of the increasingly popularity of Geralt and Shepard. But, playing Obsidian’s Tyranny months later, I found myself roleplaying as Avellone intended.