Roleplaying is a finicky business. If organizing endgame raid groups is like herding cats, organizing coherent roleplaying is like herding cats with even more ego. And no promise of rewards. And with only other players to provide a threat. And you're herding them with a Nerf bat that many of them are more inclined to just play with. And you have to balance it around activities such as endgame raiding.
It takes a lot to get roleplaying going and keep it going, is what we're getting at. It's a testament to how passionately people feel about roleplaying that, despite all of this, it happens on a consistent basis and usually without too much (unintentional) drama. But it's hard work for everyone involved, and that just inspires people to be more passionate about it as an aggregate. Hence the creation of a column entirely devoted to roleplayers and the careful art of crafting, playing, and working through characters.
Where better to start than ground rules? I've found over the years that there are certain things that do a great job of discouraging drama, hurt feelings, and general burnout. (There are so many obvious ways of causing those things that they hardly need mention -- and if you really feel the need to stir chaos, this isn't the spot.) They're not ironclad rules, but they're concepts that help keep things on-track and together.
On the one hand, communication should be the simplest thing in the world to handle. After all, the whole point of roleplaying is inter-character communication. But it's really easy to get sidetracked, or fall silent, or just forget to talk with people about the plans you have for your character, your priorities in the game, and so on. The results? Misunderstandings, hurt feelings, drama, and a general collapse of order.
"Involve new characters and old, have victories and losses, have things people can look back at with real emotion."
And if the player behind the character does feel that way... well, that's another topic altogether.
Talking to people is such a big point that it could almost be the entire column by itself. (Admittedly, that would involve copying and pasting the first few paragraphs over and over, which would save on time but get old fast.) Expect it to come up again.
When it comes to roleplaying, I tend toward detailed characters. Overly detailed, even. I spend time thinking about character motivations, voices, and preferences. I really focus a lot of effort on keeping my characters unique, distinct, and convincing.
With that preamble and my focus on thorough characters established, there's an important follow-up point: an ironclad character whose concepts can't be altered in any fashion is going to cause serious problems. One of the biggest tricks to good roleplaying is being able to roll with the punches. Complications in any sort of storyline or spontaneous RP will arise, and your job is to let those things flow into what's happening.
Sometimes it's something as innocuous as a debate over whether or not a certain ability should work properly outside of a combat scenario. Other times it's a debate on the fine points of the lore and how it interacts with character backstories. And in each case, it's essentially the time-honored tradition of arguing on the Internet with the added bonus that you're actively obstructing people from having fun. Far better to compromise and keep things active.
Organisms that adapt, survive. It's a principle to live by.
The usual list of "bad" roleplayers don't honestly bother me too much. Well, the character who is somehow the love child of seven fandom characters, four of whom are from totally separate universes, does grate on me. But we all made our horrible fancharacters when we were twelve, and I genuinely believe that for some people, the awful and stereotypical character was just their first attempt.
Here's the question: do you want them to make a second attempt?
Pushing their head down and forcing them to smell how bad their character actually is will accomplish nothing constructive. It will teach them that roleplayers are elitist and condescending, and then they will stop trying. The idea of creating a truly new and organic character is pretty intimidating, even if you've done it before, and it's downright horrifying if you're making one for the first time.
One of the best tools we have as roleplayers is to encourage others in what they're doing. We get a lot out of simply hearing someone else say that they're doing a good job, and we're a lot more likely to accept constructive criticism after some kindness. The same goes for experienced roleplayers -- encouragement is what keeps us coming back to try new ideas and take part in events.
So be a force of positivity. Be generous with praise, and don't dismiss new ideas out of hand. Don't be the guy who finds a reason to criticize every character you see for one flaw or another. Treat newcomers with respect and welcoming arms.
And that ties in naturally to the last point...
We just talked about encouragement, and more often than not it's the biggest reward that roleplayers have for one another. Don't be stingy with it. Praise people for neat concepts, praise people for good play, and praise people for showing up and being consistent.
But there's more to the concept of rewarding roleplaying than simply saying nice things. We roleplay to be part of a story with our characters at the center. So help make that happen.
Keep your story going. Keep it immersive and diverse. Involve new characters and old, have victories and losses, have things people can look back at with real emotion. I've had scenes that have made me laugh, ones that have made me cry, ones that have been culminations of years of work. I've been the antagonist and the hero, sometimes on the same character, and I'd like to think that most of the time when I roleplay with someone they enjoy the experience. (If I'm wrong, people aren't telling me different.)
That's the core of good roleplaying. It's hard to pull off, certainly, but it's totally worth it when you can.
Leave any comments, opinions, or assorted in the comments thread, or just mail them directly to Eliot at Massively dot com. Since the column is new, I'm more than happy to get any feedback, albeit with the knowledge that it's going to be a couple installments before I get the formula just right. (Occupational hazard, you know.)