Published on December 10th, 2012 | by Reuben Poling1
The Secret Sauce, Part II
Welcome back to Dorkadia’s intermittently continuing series, “The Secret Sauce,” discussing how you can get a little bit of tasty roleplaying into your gaming experience.
In Part 1, we went through a general overview of RP: what it is, how it works, why you shouldn’t feel shame for engaging in it. And then when you, my hypothetical reader, were convinced that this sounded like a good way to spend your time, I left you hanging like half a high-five. So today, we’ll get back to it by talking about how to get started and common pitfalls to avoid.
Open vs. Closed Communities
Generally, most roleplaying games are going to fall somewhere in one of these two sections. In essence, a closed RP community is one moderated by the participants, and an open community isn’t – the difference between a small D&D group with your roommates on one end of the spectrum, and a Warcraft server on the other.
Roleplaying in a closed community is like meeting with your friends for a drink – you know basically what to expect from this outing, and when you’re done you’ll probably just head home. You can rely on their making the same assumptions about setting, characters, etc. that you do; often, one of you will be in a game master-kinda role. The power of moderation is yours; the story being told is tailored to your group.
An open community, by contrast, is a big house party full of acquaintances and strangers. There’s a pair of pants hanging over the doorway and someone’s pet lizard is loose on a kitchen counter. In the RP sense, everyone is telling their own stories, and moderation is in the hands of a distant entity that rarely intervenes. You’re one actor in a giant mess, forming your own little sub-communities.
There is of course a broad spectrum between these two things (a player-moderated chatroom community; LARPs (Live Action Role Play) of various sizes and commitments, etc.), but they do fall on the same sliding scale. Closed communities offer you awesome storytelling opportunities with more attention and control; what open communities have in exchange is opportunity. You meet new and interesting people and read their stories, and you can develop an audience, which is pretty cool for the egomaniacs among us.* A little experimentation is the best way to determine where on the spectrum you’re going to get the most enjoyment out of.
Using the System
So what about the actual game? Are you playing a PVP-heavy MMORPG? A one-shot heist improv game? A complex tabletop with game mechanics for “honor” and “glory”? And whatever this game is, are you going to have fun roleplaying in it?
Game mechanics don’t have to drive and contain your RP, but it’s absolutely going to affect your experience. You might find that the opportunity to develop the Jedi Knight you’ve wanted to write a story for since you were six years old doesn’t make up for the awkward game mechanics of Old Republic; you might happily spend hours designing the perfect 4th Edition D&D killing machine sorcerer, but have no real desire to explore whatever bullshit third-generation Tolkien pastiche your characters are wandering around in. Or maybe you just want to focus entirely on roleplaying, and try to find an IRC channel where things like “gear upgrades” and “character builds” are anathema.
I’ve known people who spent years in content-heavy games like WoW doing basically nothing but RPing and writing stories, and I’ve table-topped with people whose characters basically just stayed quiet until they had an opportunity to roll for some sweet, sweet crits. And that was cool, because they were having fun. Even the most enjoyable hobby involves a certain amount of downtime or even frustration; human beings are weird like that. If you can minimize it to your taste, congratulations, you have won at hobbies.
If the dichotomy isn’t working for you, talk to your community. Maybe they’d like to try moving this awesome space opera story to a different tabletop where the damage mechanics aren’t such a clusterfuck; maybe you can talk your IRC channel into slapping their sweet homebrew ruleset onto a cooler setting. Or just go exploring on your own.
Picking the Setting
On the other side of the coin is the setting; the world your story is developing in, the particular kind of funny-looking clothes you’re metaphorically (probably) dressing up in. This goes hand in hand with game systems, but I decided to split them into two sections. Similar questions and problems apply, of course, but there’s one big difference – you can disentangle your RP from game mechanics, but not from the setting.
Or rather, you can, but it’s kind of a dick move. By and large, if someone’s decided to roleplay in, say, Old Republic, it’s because they want some motherfucking Star Wars. If there’s a whole guild of people working on a big collaborative RP hook, it’s because…they want to tell a Star Wars story! Don’t show up talking about Starfleet and Klingons. You’ll just piss people off, and you won’t find a very receptive cast or audience for your own stories.
The preceding paragraph smacks a little bit of STOP HAVING FUN, GUYS, of course – I’ll cover that in more detail in the third installment of this series. But if you do want to mash together various fandoms, maybe transport the cast of the Dragonlance RPG settings/novels into George RR Martin’s Westeros*, then you’re looking to join or form a closed community. And that is cool! Such things exist for a reason.
In the meantime, one of the things that keeps unmoderated open communities together is a shared respect for the setting. If I’m roleplaying in World of Warcraft, there’s an unspoken accord that everyone I RP with is trying to tell a story, and play a character, that could conceivably exist in that world of orcs and humans and [insert whatever bullshit Time Panda Bear Devils From Space the last patch invented**]. Those shared assumptions are what hold up the whole silly house of cards.
*Spoiler: they all die of gangrene.
**World of Warcraft is a bad example because they are making this shit up as they go along, but that’s probably another post sometime.
So you’ve picked a game you think you’ll have fun with, and a setting you want to base a story in. Now comes the role part of roleplaying. Who do you want to write about, inhabit, and explore? From a macro perspective, the possibilities are literally endless; you just narrow them down to some extent once you pick a game setting. (And in the right community, you don’t even have to narrow them down that much.)
My advice for what to do is purposefully limited, because this is where your imagination takes full flower. Tell the story you wanted to tell; subvert the character archetype you’ve always been annoyed by. Hell, go pretend you’re an actual fairy princess, bro; that’s awesome and we respect your choice. What I will do is throw a few tips regarding common pitfalls of character design.
-Go light on details until you need them. You don’t need to lock down every aspect of your Imaginary Person’s background; Donald Trump will not be demanding your long-form Imaginary Birth Certificate. Oversharing in RP is just as annoying as it is in real life, and the less details you include, the less petty little mistakes about the setting annoying people can call you on. (“Well, actually, if your character is thirty-five, he couldn’t have been born in that city because it was destroyed by the Dragon Emperors in the Year of the Weevil.”*) Besides, you might want to fill in those backstory details with something more interesting down the road.
*Read that in your nerdiest voice.
-Play the character, not the class. This is a mechanics-oriented thing that people run into in a lot of MMORPGs, but can extend to tabletops. Just because you clicked “rogue” at the character creation screen doesn’t mean you have to script for the dagger-wielding, poison-using, smoke-bomb-dropping archetype. Make game mechanics work for you; gloss over or subvert the things you don’t like. If you’re playing a game with a lot of character design options, find the ones that inform your storytelling choices while still helping your gameplay experience.
-RP to have fun, not to prove a point. One of the things to remember is that roleplaying a character is not necessarily the same as writing one in a story or book or play.
You’re getting in their head a little more, and the actions you have them take affect other people’s experiences. Which means that if you want to explore a particularly unpleasant or challenging character, you have to be ready for not only the adverse reactions of others, but the thin layer of grease you can accumulate while playing in a particularly seedy headspace. Indulge your villainous urges, sure, but be ready to cut your losses if the experience isn’t fun for you, and be ready to compromise if it’s not fun for anyone else. Wheaton’s Law applies here, as ever.
-You’re in charge. One of the most common refrains I have heard, over and over, is some variation on “My character wouldn’t do that.” And I fully understand and sympathize – you can tell when a character isn’t ringing true. It ruins perfectly good books and TV shows; it can sure fuck with a roleplaying game. But the question you have to ask as a follow-up is, “What would they do instead that could keep this thing on the rails?” Refusal to compromise is a cool character trait, but from a player perspective, it’s just annoying as fuck. Always take a moment to step back, discuss, and consider alternatives. And if a whole plotline has to be scrapped because it demands your character act in a way they never would, then so be it, but motherfucker, you better have another idea to replace it, or nobody’s going to invite you to the next one.
Well, I think that about sets you up for an intro to the wonderful world of RPing. I think there’s enough left to explore in this topic for another entry; when the Secret Sauce returns, we’ll talk about OOC/IC boundaries, ducking drama, and dealing with people whose expectations and investment vary wildly from the group consensus. I also take requests and am happy to step off the soapbox for feedback, so feel free and chime in.