Roleplaying, the Secret Sauce: Part 1
Probably one of the most awkward experiences I’ve had with all my clothes on is trying to explain the idea of “roleplaying” to someone who doesn’t really roll enough dice or click enough buttons to grok the concept. “So…you pretend to be a character?” I hate answering “Yes” to that almost as much as I hate the mealy-mouthed equivocation of alternative answers. “Yes, but…” or “Not exactly…” or “Well, the thing is – LOOK, A CORGI DOING SOMETHING!” And then I flee the room.
But, you, Dorkadia reader, I imagine that if you’ve found your way to this site you have a pretty good idea of what roleplaying (or RPing as the kids these days call it) is. Heck, odds are good you’re a participant, even if you don’t have several novels’ worth of story for your junior high D&D character. Have you ever played a single-player RPG – say, one of the Mass Effects – and chosen a dialogue option based on what you think Commander Shepard would say? Congratulations, you just roleplayed.
I’ll wait while you work through the shame.
Anyway, as you might guess, I think RPing is a tremendously fun – I can’t even say hobby. It’s like something you stack on top of other nerd hobbies. I suppose it’s an integral part of tabletop gaming, but even then, there are contextual degrees. I think of it like In N Out burger’s secret sauce – sure, you could go to In N Out and order a burger without sauce, and get a decent fast food meal out of it, but with the sauce it’s a revelation. And I am happy to spread the good word.
This, then, is the first part of a series on roleplaying, and the gaming dishes that contain it, and how you can apply your desired quantity of secret sauce for the perfect outcome. (My series on terrible, forced analogies will come later.) Today we’ll just talk about some general stuff related to working RP into your game experience.
So why don’t you explain the idea of roleplaying, without screaming and leaving the room?
Yeah, okay, fine. I like to think of it as basically improv acting for shits & giggles. You are in a scenario, you have a character (or several characters) to play, and you react to the world around you as they would. It can be as low-key as the RPG decision-making example I gave above, or you can take it to the extent of LARPing, walking around and really acting it out. Usually some form of game mechanic will determine the outcome of those in-character decisions and inform future ones. You probably know all of this already, but it’s good to define our terms.
What should I expect from roleplaying in different mediums?
There’s actually a large and interesting logistical gap, I’ve found, that depends on your distance from your character. It feels very different sitting down to play Dungeons & Dragons with a roleplay-heavy group, than it does logging into World of Warcraft on an RP server. When I’m behind an avatar, or a wall of text in IRC, I feel more like a writer, someone designing and manipulating a character in a story (even an interactive one.) In-person roleplaying is more of an improv acting feel; inhabiting part of a cast of characters.
There’s also the question of timing; I can take my time composing a sentence or description of actions online, whereas in person there’s a certain pressure to come up with something without sitting around for a couple minutes every time you’re called on to make a decision. I’m not a LARPer myself, but I imagine that takes that immediacy to the next degree (and in all fairness, people who’ve tabletopped with me might ask what, exactly, distinguishes my occasional bouts of scenery-chewing character improv from LARPing.)
Is this going to be embarrassing?
Yes. Oh, fuck yes. To some extent, any character you play will have some idealized facet about them, something that makes you think the local equivalent of “I’m a scruffy little hobbit of a man with a portfolio of First World Problems, pretending to be a charming, ruthless assassin with his brother’s blood on his hands.”* Forget it. Let it go, or own it. Huge chunks of your personal life probably involve pretending to be something you’re not, even if that something is “An adult who has his or her shit together”; why should you feel bad about doing that for fun?
A good dose of perspective is useful, of course. You don’t want to take yourself too seriously, whether in terms of an unhealthy obsession with the trials & tribulations of your Imaginary Mans or just getting butt-hurt if someone points out the inherent goofiness of your twice-born Death Knight, survivor of the Unholy Scourge**, etc. You’re meant to be having fun. I love the phrase “Dance like nobody’s watching” and try to apply it to everything; it’s pretty handy for RP. Just find your equilibrium and don’t worry about how silly someone who doesn’t understand might find it.
*My current Dungeons & Dragons game.
**A World of Warcraft character I played at one point.
Okay, but how do I find that balance when there are other people around?
Ah, yes, the other part of the equation. Any RP beyond the “making Skyrim decisions as if I really was a meatheaded Nordic berserker” will probably involve someone else; from another person doing in-character quests in an MMORPG, to five tabletop buddies, to thirty people in a big ambitious IRC roleplaying channel. And they’re all different! Some WoW guilds insist that everyone who joins have a developed character with a personality, background story, family tree, and list of fears & sexual fantasies*; some D&D games pretty much just pay lip service to RP and focus on 5×5 squares, counting platinum pieces, and sweet, sweet critical hit damage, brah.**
But when you get right down to it, finding the right balance of “playing a neat character” and “acting like a sane human being who other people want to spend time with” is…well, it’s a lot like any other social interaction. Find out what the group around you is comfortable with and work with it; if you’re in an established group bringing in a new person, gently introduce them to the atmosphere and don’t be a choad if they’re expecting something different.
The difficulty, of course, is that as the stereotype goes, if we could comport ourselves appropriately in other social interactions, we wouldn’t be playing Dungeons & Dragons. I trust that everyone reading Dorkadia knows what that idea is worth, and if you do end up gaming with someone who has no idea of the appropriate…well, there are ways to deal with that, and we should discuss them in a whole ‘nother post.
Okay, I’m convinced! LET’S DO THIS!…
So uh, what now?
Yeah, that’s usually what comes next. But my word count is getting way up there, so we’ll tackle that in our next post in this series! And if there’s anything you’d like to discuss – whether it’s something you’re not sure about as a neophyte RPer, or something you’ve learned in your years at the table and think other people should know – feel free and leave a comment and I’ll get to it in Part 2 of...the Secret Sauce.
And now, here is Part II!