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RPG Evolution: Bad Vibes in Barbieland

Something's rotten in Barbieland ... and in RPGs too.

Something's rotten in Barbieland ... and in RPGs too.


In the recent Barbie movie, Barbieland exists in a role-play universe that has a symbiotic relationship with the reality of the people who play with Barbie dolls. If that sounds familiar, it's because the movie's plot is a lot about role-playing. Please Note: Spoilers ahead if you plan to see the Barbie movie!

The Value of Role-Play​

Before role-playing became synonymous with tabletop gaming, it was often used in the context of therapy and children's development. Many toys for children are still identified as "role-play." Role-play toys are usually cosplay-like props, which are meant to enhance children’s personal, social and emotional development by providing opportunities for playing with others. The benefits parallel tabletop role-play: building social skills, communication skills, and empathy by exploring other people’s points of views. Role-play can also be a medium for to explore their life experiences, including both joyous and sad emotions. And that's where Barbie comes in.

We're All Going to Die!​

In the film, Barbie begins developing thoughts of her own mortality because her owner is facing those same problems. This doesn't match the happy vibe of Barbieland, which causes considerable consternation (and eventually, political upheaval) in the harmonious society of the Barbies. These emotions are not only a reflection of her character's journey but also a poignant parallel to the phenomenon of "bleed" in tabletop role-playing games.

Barbie's worries about mortality and the desire for independence mirror how role-playing characters in tabletop games can be inevitably influenced by the emotions of their players. Just as Barbie's existential crisis stems from her owner's concerns, a player's real-life experiences and emotions can seep into their character's story, leading to "bleed."

Bleeding In​

"Bleed" is the emotional connection between a player and their character, where the character's experiences affect the player and vice versa. We've previously discussed how bleed can be problematic for players of intense role-playing game situations, but the reverse happens too: what if you play an upbeat character and don't feel upbeat that day, or play a grouchy character but you're actually in a good mood?

For new players and game masters accustomed to playing one-shot characters that might not show up again in the game, it's an easy mistake to make. I've created several characters who seemed fun on paper but were exhausting to play after several sessions. One was a near-hysterical Joker-like character hopped up on happy pills in a Paranoia game. The other was a dour purist who was vehemently against cybernetics and believed strongly in honor in a Shadowrun game. In both cases, the original character concept didn't leave a lot of room for emotional nuance, and I stopped playing both games as a result.

What to Do About It​

When you're just not feeling your character, that are several options, but not every option is viable depending on what's happening in the game.
  • Don't Play. The obvious choice is not to play the character. Sometimes this is problematic, particularly if the character's skills are valuable or needed in the game (in Dungeons & Dragons terms, it can be a bad day when the cleric doesn't show up). This also means that the player doesn't get to play that game.
  • Play Something Else. Like not playing, there are consequences in shifting gears. This might involve playing a different character in the same game, or not playing that game at all. When other players are involved, playing something else requires buy in from the group.
  • Evolve the Character. Characters who are primarily defined by certain attributes might find they have a lot more nuance, just like their players. There's nothing wrong with a character changing over time or in reaction to circumstances, but taken to an extreme this can be just as disruptive as not playing at all. A fighter becoming a pacifist has significant implications that should involve a discussion with the other players.
  • Retcon It. When two of the characters in my game decided to mass murder the rest of the party so that the players could leave the game, we ended up retconning the entire incident. Less extreme behavioral shifts can be ignored by NPCs or written out of the overall game's campaign.

Does it Matter?​

Role-playing a character differently than you might have originally envisioned isn't necessarily a bad thing. Game masters can easily overlook or retcon something drastically different if the player agrees that they were feeling off that session; conversely, these types of personality changes can sometimes make for a fun game.

It's not always immediately clear if these changes are permanent. Players experiencing serious stress in their lives might not want to play a dour warrior but also not want to put the party in a lurch. Communication when these sorts of mood swings happen are important to keep the other players informed so that the entire campaign doesn't fall apart like it did in Barbieland.

Your Turn: Your character isn't as fun to play as you hoped. Now what?

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Maybe I am odd, but I rarely play characters who are very much different than me...on purpose. I like to think "what would I do in those shoes?"

Playing a character that strays far from my own personality, beliefs, quirks etc is not something I generally do. When I want to be "someone else", I do that as a GM, not a player. As a player, I very much put my "self" in the shoes of the character with whatever skills or powers they have. I do not feel the need to be something I am not, and enjoy essentially simulating "me".

Obviously, there has to be some differences. The character will have different skills, probably different genre and setting (though I very much like real world, non-fantasy, non-sci-fi settings), and have different background. But I still essentially think "what would I do?". In essence, the character is an avatar of myself.

If the character dies, so be it. It can be harder, since I kind of envision the character as "me", but I try to see that as a simulation, and in a simulation all data is good data because that's how you learn.

I have often played games with troupe style settings (ala Ars Magica), or modified them to be like that. In some Vietnam campaigns I ran, everyone ran multiple characters, because the odds of being killed or seriously wounded were very high. In the aforementioned Ars Magica, that was a kind of exception, where the "me" was a Companion, but the mage and the grogs I played as their own unique identities.

Barbieland shouldn't a very fun place to live awesome adventures, because all it is perfect, and nothing may be wrong, may be it?

How would be Mattel selling Barbie version of D&D PC species? Including autognomes, gnomes and halflings.


I haven’t had this happen as a player but I have had it happen to me as a DM and the player by level 3 wasn’t enjoying his character. We talked it through and came up with why the character exited and brought in a new character he created next time he was in town.

Typically my charachters all just end up like me. I'm not a good enough actor to stay in character long enough.

For me "bleed" happens when I had a long day at work and so my character takes out my aggression. The DM has some weighty drama lined up but I need to blow off steam and out comes the Murder Hobo sass talking the king and solving mysteries with the fire and iron.


Victoria Rules
Your Turn: Your character isn't as fun to play as you hoped. Now what?
I will find a way to make it fun; and if I kill the character in the process then I'm off the hook for playing it, and if it survives I've made it more fun/interesting.

If it still doesn't work out after that (it's happened many a time :) ), I'll find a good in-game reason for the character to retire and then I'll roll up something new.


Roleplaying games is a great way to get a peek behind a person's wall and facade of what they present in the real world, now some can separate themselves from a character and play as such, most are DM's. From my perspective as a DM, I try and pick up on if a player is having fun or if something is off and adjust the game accordingly, if he is down I give the character a chance to do something great and to gain recognition to help pick up their spirits. A DM needs to be a chess player, a psychiatrist and a professional cat herder and sometimes a mind reader as a player tends to never say someting is wrong and then just disappear because they had an issue and just never told you.

Thomas Shey

I suspect this is a bigger problem the farther down the road you normally go from being Director to Deep IC. I swing both ways, so I can usually back up if the characterization has problems (either in game or for me personally), but its not impossible for it to go otherwise.

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