RPG Evolution: Bad Vibes in Barbieland

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


That guy, who does that thing.
I've had this happen a handful of times while RPing, most notably in a friend's Forgotten Realms game during the D&D 3.5 era where I decided to play a paladin who had deliberately dumped Intelligence, based largely on a feeling of frustration that my own 'smarts' weren't allowing me to succeed as well as I thought I should, and that therefore, 'ignorance was bliss'. Most of the rest of the party was happy to let him be the public 'face' of the party, knowing that when it came time to actually decide what to do, they could easily manipulate him into supporting the traditional murder-hoboing by presenting the bad guys as 'bad guys'.

Our main arcane casters in that game were Charisma-based, so when the party started getting Intelligence-boosting magic items, my paladin chose to take them and wear them. This started an interesting 'Flowers for Algernon' type character arc where he kept improving his Intelligence and in the process growing into the kind of moral leader he always imagined himself as being.

He ended up being one of my favorite characters.

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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.
I try to reiterate this with players, especially new players. I can find a way to work your character out without it being the 'end' of the character. I feel Babylon 5 really did a good job of this with several actors, notably the series lead who was having real life struggles and opted to move on. All of the characters had 'trapdoors', and some of their traits may move on to other characters. In the end, the character came back, and got a very satisfying close to their arc in a way I don't think would have worked otherwise.

If you long-term don't feel the character, lets work on a way to move on. If you want to come back to the character, let's. If not, no harm.

aramis erak

As a GM, if a character is unfun, and the campaign's early, I'm likely to just have them generate a new one.

I've not asked anyone to play a an unfun-for-them character for more than 3 sessions. I set that bar only when char gen is random these days. Traveller, etc. Give the character a chance. Especially with random walk systems like Traveller, where the random takes a chunk of time.

More than half the time, by session 3, they don't want to change, having "found" the character, or at least a role in the group for it.


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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.
Looking back on when this happened to me, it was part of my transition from a game master to a player. As a GM I could make character personalities in broad strokes that had funny accents, but "living" with that character as a player in multiple sessions wasn't nearly as fun as I imagined it.

Or rather, what I thought was a good idea at the time while wearing my GM hat required a different approach while wearing my player hat. I still do this to some extent (as my favorite GM is fond of pointing out, I make PCs that are so complex they may as well be DM NPCs anyway), but I know the PCs will be playing in only one or two game sessions so it's not nearly as much of a problem.

It's the first time I ever considered that being a GM for so long caused difficulty in how I approached being a player.

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