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The Art of the Play-by

This article is written by Silent Hunter, & appears in Phoenix Roleplaying‘s Jan 2015 newsletter.

Art of the play -by (some faceclaims)

‘Play-bys’, or as they are known on many sites ‘face claims’ are one of the most common practices in RPing; many bigger RP sites keep lists to avoid duplication (we keep an entry on our wiki ourselves). For those of you not aware of the term, this is picking an actor as the ‘face’ of your particular character, hence ‘face claim’.

The ‘faces’ chosen will reflect the personal tastes of a player and can very much also reflect which shows happen to be in vogue at a particular time.

In this article, I’m going look briefly at the history of the ‘PB’ and give some of my personal tips for picking them. Finally, I will look at four of my characters and explain why I chose that specific actor.

History of the play-by

This appears to be one of these things lost very much in the murky mists of history, but probably go back to the very earliest days of table-top roleplaying, i.e. Dungeons & Dragons or Traveller. I’m sure that some kid somewhere in the United States, Canada or for that matter Western Europe during the Carter administration decided to use a picture of Barbara Bach as Major Anya Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me.

In terms of the online segment of the community (which dates back to the late 1980s), the concept seems to have arrived as soon as the technology could support it; it’s been going on Starbase 400 since its start as USS Pegasus back in 1995. It appears to have become more prevalent overtime, especially since 2010; while people could and still do create custom images for their characters, this is somewhat less common today. Of course, it’s something well-suited for those who are timestrapped or have problems drawing to a high standard.

Some personal tips

  • Try to pick an actor of the same ‘broad ethnic sub-group’ as the character; for example, a Frenchman could easily play a Brit or a German, but you’re starting to seriously stretch credibility if they’re being Afghan. Europe can be divided between West and East; Slavs (i.e. those of Central/East European heritage) look noticeably different in facial appearance to Celts. The ‘Russian played by American’ trope is somewhat harder to justify now that the collapse of the Iron Curtain, which along with the expansion of the EU has put many actors from that part of the world on the market.
    • a. You can also use the wider ‘diaspora’; especially for Irish people and other countries with a history of producing emigrants. Wikipedia’s actor pages tend to have some information on immediate family background that can be quite useful and even help develop a character.
    • b. Casting Japanese people as Chinese and vice-versa can cause offence; I personally avoid it.
  • As a counter-point to that, you can certainly have an Indian or Pakistani actor playing a British character as there is a substantial South Asian population in the UK; Ali Hussein in Fighter Ops had a Pakistani play-by, with his background adjusted to make him the son of immigrants from that country. The same applies with many countries and their ethnic minorities.
  • It is perfectly acceptable to base a character on a play-by; I do it all the time.
  • Try to pick an actor of a similar age to the character; you can go about 5 years either way. Of course, you can ignore this rule in settings with life-prolonging technology.

With thanks to Charles Star, Chas Hammer, Mike Bremner and the Role-Play Wiki for some key background information. You can download Phoenix’s Jan/Feb 2015 newsletter here.

  • Elena

    I hate the rule “Try to pick an actor of a similar age to the character; you can go about 5 years either way” It limits drastically the playby base. The idea is to pick an actor’s photo looking a similar age to the character. It needn’t be correlated with the actor’s age now, but with the likeliness of the character. I use lots of actors who now are old or deceased, but the photos reflect the character’s age (Alain Delon and Sarita Montiel in their 20s, Erroll Flynn in “Captain Blood”, I had Yul Brinner in “The Buccaneer”, Hilary Swank in “Boys don’t cry” and in a previous movie for a more girly look, Eduardo Palomo, etc.)

  • Yeah I agree, the age they are now shouldn’t matter. As long as they look right in the photo

    • Silent Hunter

      That’s why it’s a ‘tip’ and not a ‘rule’.

      • Is there a story behind this tip perhaps? Maybe some people see a photo of an actor and assume their character traits instead of the character’s?

        • Silent Hunter

          Not really – more a bit of common sense. It’s jarring to see a 25-year old playing a 42-year old starship captain outside of a Honor Harrington sim.