Player Agency vs Character Agency | A rebuttal to "but that's what my character would do!"
Recently I did a little piece called "How to create a fantastic character for Dungeons and Dragons and other TRPGs" (what a mouthful) and I wanted to make a noteworthy addendum to that topic. This topic is universal to all tabletop role-playing games (#trpgs), not just D&D (#dnd)!
The character has no agency.
A character is at the mercy of their player. Everything a character is, does, or says is determined by the player controlling that character. From conception to session one all the way through to the campaign finale — that character does exactly what the player explicitly makes them do. With the exception of Dungeon Master (DM) shenanigans and magical compulsion, both of which should be used sparingly.
In other words, the player has all the agency and the character has no agency. The character has no control over their race, class, stat distribution, background, gender, flaws, or virtues. The player sculpts the personality and disposition. The player crafts the tragic backstory. The player fabricates the character's impulses and misgivings.
To some readers, this may be an obvious observation. To other readers, they may feel their character comes alive and grows into its own entity. As if the character is an individual separate from the player. This is a valid feeling, for sure! The way we interpret and explore our characters is a rather personal experience. But, that doesn't change the fact that the player still holds the reins — the playstyle and investment are just heightened and more emotional for that player. And I say "emotional" in a good way, not a negative way.
Why does any of this matter? Because of the ever-prevalent phrase:
"But that's what my character would do."
This phrase often gets used in defense of negative traits and "bad" behavior that causes friction at the table among the players.
In "how to create a fantastic character" item four was all about not making a character whose defining trait provokes player versus player (PvP). When negative traits are a character's defining quality it can make playing with that character a bit taxing on the table. Some quick examples of "negative" defining traits:
Steals from everyone, including the party. Directly or indirectly.
Compulsively lies, often, to NPCs and the party.
Takes the chaotic part of their alignment to extremes, at every opportunity.
Loner-syndrome prevents the character from participating. Ignores quests and party goals. Does not get invested in the hooks or fellow PCs.
Avoids combat or fails to help in combat, possibly due to instilled principles or cowardice.
Juggles multiple personalities on a whim or regularly tricks the party with new changeling personas.
The seductive one. Overly flirty, groping, and hyper-focused on wooing NPCs and party members.
A hot-headed character that picks physical fights with other player characters (PCs), to the point of attempting to maim and/or kill a PC.
The lawful good alignment is an all-consuming personality.
The bloodthirsty character kills every enemy, always, no matter what the party wants.
It's crucial to understand two things about these examples. First, is the emphasis on the word defining. Second, is that most of these traits often come into conflict with the party. Either by directly harming a party member or by shutting down potential hooks, information, and roleplay opportunities the players wanted to explore.
A character built with traits resembling the above can make players feel powerless. For example, a character that steals from their allies may consistently get high sleight of hand checks to stealthily nab loot before the rest of the party notices the shinies. The players know it happened, but the characters didn't see it. The players, in an attempt to not metagame, will just have their characters deal with the loss. Oblivious. Yet, the very real humans sitting around the table may also be on constant lookout for opportunities to catch the thief in-game. To the point of disruption. Further examples include:
The loner may refuse to split loot in meaningful ways, keeping all the potions and avoiding dangerous combat while the party does the hard work.
The bloodthirsty character will kill any and all enemies, even if the party intended to question one for information.
The lawful good character takes their alignment overboard and actively prevents any less than savory approaches to a situation. No torture, no violent threats, no lying to get past the guards, no stealing from the NPCs, and no jobs from questionable sources.
Meanwhile, the chaotic character looks for every opportunity to mess with people, the environment, steal anything that isn't bolted down, trick party members, and cause, well, chaos everywhere they go.
Any one of these traits can accidentally replace having a personality and all of them can be defended with the phrase "but that's what my character would do."
Why is that what the character would do? Because they were made that way by the player. The phrase gets used as a tired excuse to do something contrary or mean. It's brandished as a shield to absolve the player of their character's behavior. It's a phrase that rarely comes up in a positive light. Notice that it's most frequently uttered by players when they are confronted by someone at the table who is unhappy or uncertain about what is happening.
Aside: I've noticed the dreaded quote also gets used when a player feels cornered by their own character and locked into particular choices. "I can't do this, because it's not what my character would do." Or, "I have to do this thing I don't want to, because it is what my character would do." The power is in the player's hand! Let the character adapt and change and find reasons to not do those things.
The problem is when "but that's what my character would do" is used to abstract the morals and ideals of the player from the character, replacing those scruples with some obnoxious trait or quirk.
That being said, there are valid cases for "but that's what my character would do."
A calm player may have a character that is easily goaded. This sometimes causes arguments with the party or ignites tavern brawls with NPCs.
A player with no addictions may create a character that struggles with addiction. This addiction may cause narrative tension or occasionally lead to in-universe consequences that impact the character.
A generally non-violent player may have their battle-hardened character torture an enemy for critical information.
A generous character may spend all their gold reviving a PC, even if the player wanted to buy a fancy magic item with that gold.
These are all simple examples of a character with traits and behaviors the player may not be able to relate to. The crucial difference here is that these are merely facets of a character's rich personality, and not what solely defines them. These qualities are only relevant occasionally. Nuance and moderation are key.
Keep in mind, just like D&D is a reflection of our reality, characters are typically a reflection of ourselves. Even if we design characters vastly different from ourselves, there's still some shred of the creator in there. Given that we are pilots of these fictional beings, it's very difficult to completely separate ourselves from them. We are the character, the character is us.
So remember, it's not "that's what my character would do." It's actually "that's what I made my character do." Reflect on why the character does that (what "that" is), how it impacts the party dynamic, and what adjustments need to be made (if any) for a healthy gaming environment.
To utter the phrase in question is not a crime. The speaker should not be made a villain for it. It's a learning opportunity and a chance to grow as a tabletop gamer! We all have unique beginnings with tabletop role-playing games (#trpgs) and everyone's individual style of play evolves at a different pace.
Thanks for reading! I hope this musing has been insightful. Of course, if you have a different opinion on the subject please share it in the comments below or send me a message on Twitter @CritCatastrophe. This topic was also featured in Episode 1 of my companion podcast, which I will link to when it is available.
Author's Note: I'd like to clarify that just because the player is always in control, doesn't mean they always premeditate the character's actions. It's important to remember that playing a character can be very impromptu, off the cuff, and fluid experience of things just happening. Much like in reality when we speak without thinking or say the wrong thing on accident, we can make our characters do something with no particular intention or forethought. This blog post is more about the big character traits we consciously assign and less about the moment to moment interactions a character may have. We're here to have fun, not micro-manage characters.