Actors, singers, dungeon masters, and roleplayers all talk about getting into character, stressing how vital it is to the quality of the performance / game to have good roleplaying. And we know what it is, or at least what it looks like, just by intuition. But how does one get there, without years and years of practice or innate talent (or psychopathic manipulation)?
The answer is (not-entirely) simple: what would your character do, and why?
Roleplaying will come more naturally if you understand your character’s background and why their personality has turned out the way it has. This requires some more effort on the development side, but will reward you with increased immersion. It’s one thing to have your character obsessively collect puppies and paint them sky blue. It’s funny a few times, but after a while, with no apparent reason for it, it can quickly become a mere annoyance.
But what if he had a strong reason? Strange as it may be, what if his reason for painting puppies is because he’s secretly part of a doomsday cult that believes the world will end under an invasion of blue dogs, and he is setting up the end of the world by painting the dogs blue and indoctrinating them into hyper-aggressive dog soldiers when no one else is looking? Not only is it more interesting and possibly generating its own involved storyline, it’s also freaking hilarious, and evolves from slapstick to an inside joke.
Here’s my example:
Jenny has decided (or been coerced by her impatient and demanding DM) to expand her horizons and roleplay someone besides the standard-issue lithe, manipulative rogue type. So, she goes with a gruff male fighter named Jeff, because she wants to use the line from 22 Jump Street. But her DM isn’t satisfied with that. ‘What’s his personality like? Why is he a fighter? Why is he going out to save his village?’
Now, the easy way out is to make him a gruff mercenary who is (naturally) grizzled by his years of experience, and is saving the world for dimes and dames. But such a character is so cliched it’s difficult to play him well without spending an exhaustive amount of time developing the history of an already matured character.
So Jenny makes Jeff a nervous, withdrawn momma’s boy. And before her DM can pester her again, she preempts him and thinks about why he might be this way, and how on earth such an individual would become an adventurer.
“Jeff was never really any good at anything. He was always middle of the back, and never stood out. He wasn’t really that strong, or smart, or clever or talented. The only thing that others ever noticed about him was that he was always there, rain or snow, sleet or hail. He knew he would never stand out here, and he feared the loneliness of growing old without someone beside him or real friends. So though he’s not really brave, strong, smart, or any adjective that would indicate a hero, he’s got a heart of gold and a will of iron, and no matter how many times you knock him down, he’ll get back up, again and again. The strongest warriors are those that don’t quit. And though he hasn’t received a lot of love from his village, and has little to keep him from leaving, he wants to be the hero. He wants to save the day. And he wants something to matter enough to him that he’d die for it. Realizing that nothing will matter that much if he doesn’t try, he’s decided to risk it all, do or die to be reborn a hero.”
Jenny’s DM stares at her, and slowly begins to grin.
More important than mannerisms, accents, quirks or oddities, knowing why your character is risking his or her life is the most important part of roleplaying in D&D, and roleplaying in general. Embedding yourself in the character’s desires and emotions will allow you to more easily perform their associated verbal tics and make player decisions that feel like they really matter. From this proceeds a story that makes more sense, requires less DM prodding, feels freer, more organic, and much more entertaining.
Quirks are just icing on the cake (very much appreciated and iced cake is preferable to plain cake).
P.S. Doing young or inexperienced character with a fairly shallow background is actually better for roleplaying than some guy who’s had decades of experience and taken every sort of blow a man can take. Those young characters can still have traumatic events that define them, but their youth and relative inexperience means that the adventures they undertake can still leave a mark on their still impressionable minds. Plus, the younger the character, the less time you have to cover when making your background.