A Character's Personality Flaws & Character Immersion

edited July 2016 in Story Games
By character immersion I mean attempting to live in the skin of that character, like a fusion, without having to think as a player separate from the character.

I'm not sure that it is possible to maintain that without many immersion breaks, particularly when you're dealing with character flaws and you want a character arc of growth where those flaws are overcome. Has anyone any thoughts or experience they want to share?

I was just thinking that one may be able to lessen that immersion breaking player/character split if one did not define flaws per se but areas in which your character feels misunderstood. Whether it is the world at large that is wrong about you (the character) or you who is wrong, or maybe even something in between, could be something left unanswered that you "play to find out". Any thoughts? Any games that do it this way worth looking into?


  • The way I've thought about it is that character flaws fall into three categories depending on how the character himself views his traits: either the character feels that their trait is no weakness at all, or they are unaware of the trait to begin with, or they acknowledge the trait as a flaw, but are unable to shake it.

    For an immersive game, perhaps the only way to have a character possess the first type of flaw is if the player himself genuinely believes that it is not a flaw at all. The player needs to be able to convince himself that his character e.g. a control freak is a good thing. Often this type of flaw would presumably flow from the player's own flaws: they're racist for example, and their character is as well, but they do not think that this is a flaw of character. This way the immersed player will be fully capable of behaving the flaw realistically, the way real people do with flaws that they do not acknowledge: they will deny having the flaw, and will hold onto it as an essential part of their personality, cherishing it.

    For the second type of flaw, probably the best way to accomplish an immersive flaw the character doesn't know about himself is for the player to be unaware about the flaw as well; for example, the game might allow the GM to determine that the character is rather shy and awkward, which they might communicate to the other players as well, and everybody would then treat the character this way. The player himself would not know, although they might come to realize over time that they're not as charismatic as they think they are.

    The third type of flaw is easiest for an immersive game, I think, because they can be applied as simple mechanical constraints on the character's actions. The only thing required is for the group to accept the idea that character immersion is not identical with complete character control; it is psychologically realistic and ultimately immersive to have your character fall victim to their lower instincts, and thus end up doing things that the player might not want their character to act upon. For example, it is probably conducive to immersion in a character with an addiction if the game rules mandate some sort of a will save or similar when the character is tempted, such that the player gets to experience the helplessness of will that occasionally overcomes a person, even to a self-destructive degree.

    Immersion is, of course, a relatively shallowly understood psychological phenomenon. Most significantly, it is apparently a psychological response that may be applied by a player in a variety of situations. Thus it's not like I can say that this or that approach will certainly be the best for immersion; it depends on nuances that aren't conducive to general treatment, I think. Best to consider suggestions such as the above as merely some of the possibilities, rather than a general solution.
  • Any games that do it this way worth looking into?
    I'm wary of any game mechanic in which roleplaying a character has metafictional consequences, like Inspiration in 5e or fate points in FATE. Yes, I think those mechanics can be pretty immersion-breaking, but I mainly dislike them since I think that roleplaying your character is an organic process that should not be mechanized. That said, in FATE all your character's Aspects are potential flaws, and as you reach milestones in the game you're given the opportunity to adjust those Aspects in order to reflect experiences that character had.

    Personally I don't find playing a character's flaws any less immersive than playing other aspects of my character. In nearly any game, my character thinks differently than I do, and I try to play that accurately. My main gaming group doesn't have any problem with "flashlight dropping" as long as it's genuine – if your group does have a problem with that, then that'll definitely be an impediment to roleplaying flaws immersively. Here are some example situations that have come up in our group's 5e campaign (we don't play with Inspiration) – I think each example illustrates a slightly different aspect of roleplaying a character's flaws:
    • I'm fighting a werewolf for the first time in my life. I don't have a lot of combat experience. I attack and my blow does no harm, since my weapon isn't silver (as a player, I don't know how werewolves work in this setting; as a character, I've probably only heard discreditable stories). The werewolf fights back and nearly drops me with a single attack. Considering the circumstances, I don't know what to do except panic and run out of melee range immediately. This provokes an attack of opportunity (as I knew it would, as a player), and the werewolf actually does take me down to zero HP. But it's still a learning experience – next time I cross paths with a werewolf, I'll know what to do (thereby overcoming a sort of micro-flaw in my character).
    • Someone badly flubs an Insight check, so they're convinced that our guide for a would-be cave expedition is leading us into a trap. As we're about to enter the cave, the PC reads a scroll of fog, grabs the guide (PC is wood elf, NPC is deep gnome), and starts to make off with him, intending to either kill him or leave him for dead. This is not a learning experience for anyone, except perhaps the gnome in his final moments. I think another PC also ended up running screaming/crying into the cave during this conflict, but I don't remember why.
    • I challenge a demon to a game of chess and agree to unwise stakes, since my character just isn't very wise about this sort of thing. I lose and end up being bound by a Geas. Next time I can advance an attribute, I advance Wisdom to reflect what I learned from the experience.
    • A squad of soldiers from the high elven regime comes into the inn where we're staying and demands the presence of everyone inside, at the penalty of death. I distrust authority and think we might all be killed anyway, so I hide (successfully) instead of complying – which is a big risk. Note that this is not necessarily a flaw! Perhaps my character is right, and someone who is more trusting of authority would walk right into imprisonment or massacre.
    None of these decisions felt unnatural to me, and no one said "Wait, seriously?" when the players made them. In addition, they led to interesting and unexpected situations!
  • How Eero's flaws feel as a real person, to me:

    - the character feels that their trait is no weakness at all - pride, feeling indignant, condescension, amusement, skepticism that others can't see it's not a weakness... feelings like that.

    - they are unaware of the trait to begin with - I didn't notice it until I was aware of it

    - they acknowledge the trait as a flaw, but are unable to shake it - I am usually aware when my brain+body is doing something I do not endorse. There is my conception of "I" which includes times/situations when my brain+body overrides what "I" want to do. This feels frustrating but I do not feel like my immersion in life is broken. It's part of who I am that I cannot always control my brain+body.
  • edited July 2016
    General thoughts on this topic:

    I've always thought involuntary character actions were interesting. If that's pitched as part of the game and you get in the right mindset to accept them, then you can see the realistic/immersive quality there -- none of us in the real world choose every action optimally, instead we are often guided by our predispositions and then afterward think, "Oops, bad move there." So I'm on board with a game mechanic that says, "When you see that, you vomit," or, "When that happens, you panic and engage in whatever your panic response is." Unknown Armies' Stress checks can be parsed in this way -- you encounter something mind-blasting, you roll dice, if the roll goes badly the GM takes control of your character and then you "come to" after having done something.

    The gentler version of this is Cthulhu's Sanity, where the number goes down as scary stuff happens, and you're expected to play to the number -- with a low Sanity stat, you should internalize that, and play your character as more crazy than you were playing them before.

    As for flaws which are not absolute compulsions, but are rather some sort of incentives, I think what's required is to get on board with those motives. Define for yourself why your character would rather steal than buy, or flee than fight, or whatever. Make it make sense with your concept of who they are.

    If it's too late and you already know who they are and the system sticks you with a flaw that you can't fit, then screw it, find a better flaw from elsewhere in the book.

    Specific thoughts on the OP idea:
    . . . if one did not define flaws per se but areas in which your character feels misunderstood. Whether it is the world at large that is wrong about you (the character) or you who is wrong, or maybe even something in between, could be something left unanswered that you "play to find out".
    That sounds really cool. I would absolutely have fun immersing with that.

    I suspect most misunderstood bits defined by the player would probably come with a bit of an answer baked in -- either, "I do this noble or at least neutral thing, but society is messed up and therefore sees it harshly" or "heh heh my guy's a little nuts and thinks that doing X is actually normal!" That's fine by me! But if you wanted to aim for gray areas and unknowns, I think you'd need to offer a lot of guidance to keep players in that zone. Absolutely doable, I think, just requires some clever design.
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