Diversifying your Roleplaying Portfoilo

A friend of mine cautiously told me he’d be making his first ever woman RPG character. This person has easily two dozen characters in various RPGs, and none of them were women. I didn’t believe him, I had him tell me his characters one by one to try and make sense of it all. This person I respect as a RPG player, who I’ve played with a number of times, has no women characters. How did I not notice? Mildly annoyed by my exaggerated candor, he explained he didn’t feel comfortable roleplaying a woman, because he wasn’t one. It was partially out of respect, and partially out of thinking he couldn’t adapt a female mindset while roleplaying. I told him, just be a person. If you create a character with a solid background, clear goals, and a concise personality, being a woman will only be a factor in the character, not their defining feature. He agreed with me, but then relented, he just felt it out of place.

I’m sure this is a feeling many RPG players have when constructing characters. We play RPG characters to be something other than ourselves; heroes, villains, saviors and the like, but we have a tendency to make these fantastical characters like ourselves in some ways; Theatrical, paranoid, rude, kind. Heck, all my characters have a shared mistrust of horses due to my experiences in high school. Being a larger-than-life character is easy, because there’s no real life expectation, there’s no harmful preconceived notions or stereotypes to worry about

In talking about this with my friend, his reluctance to play a woman. I did an exercise I often do when examining things, changing the subject. I changed “uncomfortable playing a woman” to “uncomfortable playing a black man”, to “uncomfortable playing a religious person”. The more I did this, the more barriers I began to see to people stepping outside “their” hero or villain. I’m going to talk about some ways to overcome this hesitance and pitfalls to avoid.

Not being a woman, I don’t think I’m totally qualified to give any advice how to be a woman. I am however a different ethnicity than most of the RPG players I’ve met, a black guy, and therefore feel some knowledge about roleplaying outside of (and playing into) different ethnicities.

To give some background my father is Black, my mother is White, my best friend growing up was Asian, My wife is White, and my day-job is in a majority Black neighborhood. I’ve been around a lot of communities and have seen the best and worst in them. Ethnicity is hard to play, especially if you’re not used to it. If you grew up in a homogeneous environment, you might not feel you have the experience or insight to portray people of a different culture than you. You might be worried that you’ll slip up and offend someone, damaging their feelings and your reputation. Here are some quick tips to help you portray someone of a different ethnicity.

  1. Find a good role model. I know everyone wants to make a super original character that has never been seen before, but even picking a group of role models can help you find balance or insight into your character’s mind. Seeing their actions or reactions to events can be helpful guides. 
  2. Find similarities. This is so important. Everyone in the world generally wants the same thing, a comfortable life free of poverty and violence. The difference is really the means different peoples use to accomplish those goals.
  3. Pick one or two customs to portray. Don’t try to be the “blackest” black person or the most “Asian” Asian person. If you try and do that you’ll stray into stereotyping and cliche (and maybe offensive) character creation. To give an example if you’re playing a black character, highlighting strong faith in a deity would reflect common African-American values as the community places a strong belief on faith.

I hope these tips can help you step outside your comfort zone and into playing characters outside of your heritage.

James Ballod

James blossomed into geekdom like a piranha plant in the crack of a sidewalk. Watered by the muscle-brained lore of Warhammer 40,000 and nurtured in the rough bosom of World of Warcraft, tabletop RPGs came late in life to James. The rich lore and real-world influences in games like Pathfinder inspire James to explore them from every angle. When not being an annoying anime-fanboy he can be found discussing the history of various cuisines and over-analyzing real world influences in works of fiction.

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