There Are No Mistakes in Role Play (Just Character Moments You Haven’t Explained Yet)

One of the greatest things about role playing is that you can never make a mistake when you play your character.

“But but but!” the people who like to say “but but but” interject. “So and so on such and such stream plays a druid/vengeance paladin/eldritch ice cream scooper and as such it was a mistake when they had their character do what they did in episode 212 when – ”

Or, alternatively, people (like me) who are prone to second guessing themselves might say “This is all warm and fuzzy and all, but I know for a fact I screwed up two sessions ago when I didn’t have my table lamp domain cleric react more strongly to that NPCs comment about someone being dim-witted. That was clearly a mistake!”

And to which I say – nope. Those are not mistakes.

Sure, there can be mistakes with the rules. Those happen all the time. You thought your character could run 30 feet and actually it’s 25. You and your GM handle it and move on, no big whoop.

But we’re talking about role play. And in role play there’s really no right or wrong for your character. Your character is a person (or elf, or vampire, or whatever) and as such is not made of absolutes. Sure there are things they would generally tend to do, but that doesn’t mean that’s what happens all the time.

So when moments come up, either because of a bad roll or because in hindsight you realize you had your character do something that you wish they hadn’t done, ask yourself why did that happen? Now something that you felt was a bad moment of play is actually a tool you can use to give depth and layers to your character.

Look at it this way: the fact that it happened is done. You can’t change it. All you can do is explain it.

The best example I’ve ever seen of this in a game wasn’t due to a player mistake by any means, but still encompasses the idea of taking a moment that didn’t go the way you would have wanted for your character and turning it into character development.

The player in question is the lovely Tracy, in a game I currently play in. Our policy when players need to miss a session is to have their characters stay quietly in the background while those present do all the combat and RP. Normally this works great. Except in a session that she missed, our characters came across a caravan transporting people into slavery. Naturally our heroes did heroic things and set the people free but her character Lilli, a cleric who had once been a slave herself, did nothing.

Had Tracy been there, she would have had Lilli right up in the thick of things. It was well established at that point that Lilli had passionate feelings about slavery and slavers, and that she had a fiery (literally) temper to go with it. Lilli being quiet during this moment after multiple occasions of her being brash and outspoken could be argued to have been out of character.

Lilli by Jason deBit
I mean she looks like someone who’s totally chill, right? (Lilli artwork by Jason deBit)

However, when Tracy was able to rejoin the game, she as a player did not throw a fit over this out of character moment but instead took it as a springboard for character development. She had Lilli question in game why she froze up, and what did it mean for her to want to fight against slavery so badly yet be unable to do so when confronted with it. This then led to multiple RP scenes with Lilli and other characters as she tried to process what had gone on.

(Note how here she’s actually using two great RP techniques: one is making the “out of character” moment one of character development, and two is using conversations with other characters/players to help figure out why it happened instead of handling it all on her own.)

You can see now how this is another variation on never using the phrase “My character doesn’t do that.” One version is when talking about actions that are about to happen. Another is in discussing what has already happened.

Think about reasons why your character might not do something. Perhaps they had a lot on their mind. Perhaps they were distracted. Perhaps a previous encounter rattled them more than they thought. Perhaps they themselves were surprised at what they did or did not do and now have to figure out why.

Once you have a kernel of an idea of why it happened, take the next step and have your character reach out to others in the team to talk about it, or do something about it. Maybe after freezing up in battle they sit down with someone in the party to discuss the fear they had about someone in the party dying. Or perhaps they want to learn how to fight better so that they never freeze up again, and thus set up regular practice time with the team’s barbarian. Perhaps it’s all of the above and more.

The important thing is that at no point was any of this wrong. It’s another tool in your RP toolbox. If anything, enjoy it!