Let's Play...a Mute!
As we continue the "Let's Play" series, we are looking today at a mute character: a character that cannot speak or chooses not to speak (more on that later), and how this can make your gaming experience and character concept more interesting and evocative.
It should be noted that this particular character concept comes with more potential pitfalls and issues that most of the other concepts in this series, so we will spend more time discussing how to avoid those than we normally do in this series. We will start as we always do with a good "high concept" for the character to avoid potential pitfalls in character development and gameplay, and then we will go into practical ways to roleplay and build your mute character.
I. Why Play a Mute?
So, as we mentioned, this series is for those who have played roleplay characters in the past and are looking for a different roleplay experience in their upcoming campaign. So it is worth reminding you at the outset that if you are going to play a new and, dare I say it, more advanced style of character, talk with your game master first to see if they want this in their game. Because it can be difficult on a GM to integrate this kind of character.
First, you would want to play a mute because they are people too. Roleplay is a way for us to build empathy, and seeing firsthand the struggles of another can make you a better person. So it's worth at least considering playing one, just so you know how the other half lives.
Second, there are various reasons why a character might be mute. It could be a physical reason, lacking a tongue or possessing damaged vocal chords, all of which give us ample room for vivid backstory and plot elements. It could be incidental, like not knowing the language and thus being very quiet around others, especially when they are speaking.
It could be vocational or contractual, giving your voice to a sea witch in exchange for legs, or taking a vow of silence, so your voice is stolen or refrained from use as an act of devotion, penance, or contract. All of this is excellent, as it gives meaning to the muteness, and it shows a strength of character from the character and a line that cannot (or will not) be crossed.
It could be due to age: the character hasn't learned to talk yet, though admittedly this will be rare in your games as it is likely that the child is not yet at an age where they could meaningfully contribute to the party. We talked about this in our previous post on playing a child, but we'll address situations where this is possible in more detail below.
And there are other niche versions that are similar to muteness but aren't, so I'll mention them in passing here just to cover all the bases. I had a player once who played a character who could only sing - it was an act of penance and contract with a fey, but as part of the deal the person had to sing every word she said. The result: a player who enjoyed singing and loved hunting for just the right song to insert in the moment got to sing a lot in a campaign. And it worked really well with similar types of restrictions as you'd see from a mute. So while not quite the same thing, it's a related concept that is worth considering.
So all told, there are plenty of good reasons to play a mute. Now we just need to assess how a mute would act, and what that will mean for us as we set about to build the character so that we can still be of use to the party.
II. How would a Mute Act?
We will look at several examples from tv shows and movies to show you how this can work effectively, adding to the gaming experience. The first person we will examine (because you probably haven't heard of him) is Holyman from Starship Troopers: Invasion. Now, I should say upfront that this is not quality literature by any metric: it's a Japanese-American animated movie set in a cool universe, but it's not the highest quality of production or scriptwriting.
That being said, the characters are pretty good, and one of them is Holyman. In the case of Holyman, he has sworn an oath of silence, so his muteness is not a physical deformity but a vocational choice. This is an act of spiritual devotion, and he treats it with that level of reverence.
But this does not leave him unable to communicate. In a brilliant turn of fate, the design team fixed the potential issue of communication by covering him with holy symbols that are pictures and words that allow him to communicate with others. So if you are going to play a mute, consider using tattoos (grab a piece of paper, draw a torso, arms, legs, face, etc., and literally map them out if you have to) as a way to quickly "talk" to other players. You can also just narrate what they say while you point to a place on your body.
Another good example of this is "Bob" from Tom Cruise's The Last Samurai: a bodyguard and watchman of the protagonist who can speak, but doesn't speak for most of the movie. We don't know why he doesn't say much of anything, but it fits him because he's a guard who is supposed to watch over someone. That job does not require a lot of talking, except when warning someone that they are about to be shot from behind with a rifle (ergo his one line in the movie).
So don't assume that being a mute means you can never speak: it means that you should only speak when it makes sense, and that means that most of the time you may be hanging around in the background, using body language to "speak" for you.
It is also worth noting (lest this be used as an excuse for laziness in roleplaying) that Bob is quick to help with literally anything required of him. He will carry you off to safety when fleeing a fortress, fly into action if an ambush occurs, and walk with you in the rain if you are going out for a stroll. So if you are going to imitate Bob, be the proactive member of the team, contributing through action instead of words.
We already showed Cotton from Pirates of the Caribbean above, but he represents another option: an actual mute who trains a parrot to talk for him. Consider asking your game master if you can have a free pet who can talk on your behalf (a parrot or raven if no magic is in use, but if you have a world with talking beasts this gets even easier). Bonus points: this allows you to use a crazy voice AND play a mute AT THE SAME TIME, so how cool is that?
Also, because it's 2020 and how could we not mention him, "The Child" (who I will be referring to here as "Baby Yoda" because that's the name I prefer, and I don't want to give spoilers for Season 2) is another great example of how to do communication without words. For Baby Yoda it's the use of facial expressions and sounds, not words (though in Chapter 10 it certainly sounds like he is trying to speak words, albeit in another language, so who knows). But most of the time they are just nice squeaks, giggles, and cries.
And yet, we still know what he is "saying" at any given moment because of facial cues from the character, not to mention other sounds that help to set the tone and mood. So if you play a mute, consider using physical cues, sounds, and facial expressions as a substitute for words. They might even be more effective than words at times.
One final example to drive this point home: Ariel losing her voice to Ursula is a good example of a contractual muteness. For Ariel she has the advantage of already knowing the language, so she can at least pantomime what she is thinking to others. So get creative in how you can pantomime your thoughts to others. Are you an interpretive dance person as a player? Are you good at charades? Are you a mime? If so, put some of those skills to use when you roleplay a mute character.
Suffice it to say, you get around the muteness with other ways to communicate, that way you get to play an evocative, different character without hurting the group.
III. Mechanics for Mutes
As always in this series, there are five elements of character creation: stats, class, equipment, skills, and magic. For your stats, your ability to speak might affect your social stat (Charm, Charisma, etc.), but it might not. Baby Yoda and Ariel are really good examples of mutes that have high base stats in this category, so you don't have as many natural pitfalls as other advanced character concepts do.
For your class, keep in mind that some game systems require you to speak in order to cast spells, so that may limit your ability to play, say, a magic user if you play a mute (it may not, though: not every spells requires verbal cues, though that list in any game system is typically pretty small). If your game has a prayer mechanic that differs from the magic system (like Zurn has), consider asking your game master if you can pray in your head (see Holyman above as one example) if you want to pursue a priest class.
For your equipment the big consideration is how you will communicate. If you need a parrot, you'll need a parrot. If you need a mind probing device that can translate brain waves into words on an LED screen (or whatever your game system allows for based on technology, setting, etc.), then grab the equipment you need. If you need a cowbell for waking up people at night because you can't shout for them to wake up, grab your cowbell. Whatever your needs are to communicate, make sure you have it.
For your skills, consider how the lack of your voice has affected you. Do you have an iron will? Has your lack of a voice toughened and strengthened you because you were bullied or pushed around? Do you hear more because you speak less? Do you see through what others say because you hear what they are not saying? Can you read body language? Did your muteness come with a cost? All of this is prime ground for picking out your skill proficiencies, adjectives, etc.
And finally, for magic, again, consider whether this is even an option. If not, let it go. If it is, and if you think that you can play a magic user well as a mute, then by all means look into whether you'd like to take spells. But again, this may not even be an option depending on your game system (you will have literally a handful of spells in D&D and Pathfinder, and only a few more than that in Zurn, with most of those being shadow spells which are more utility-oriented and less damage-oriented).
Perhaps the biggest thing to remember when using any of these advanced character concepts is that this is a challenge, not a gimmick. You should be taking a character like this because you want to grow as a player, not just because you want it to be hard to work with (or, still worse, a sign of laziness in wanting to contribute). Use a mute character to stretch you to the limit in how you share knowledge, insight, and aid with others, and through the experience gain greater empathy for mute people in the world. Your world will be more vivid because of it.
In our next post we will take a hiatus from this series to return to the #Rethinking series, this time looking at how you use conspiracy theories and secret societies in your campaign setting.
Until next time,