Storyboard: You are not a storyteller

I know that some of you are looking at that title in disbelief. Others are probably just reading already, figuring that in a few lines I'm going to set up what the central joke is and explain how I'm subverting the title -- you know, a nice eye-catching title that draws everyone in, then a paragraph or two where I explain how I'm not being serious.

That's not what we're doing here. That title is one hundred percent accurate. If you are a roleplayer, you are not a storyteller. Close, maybe, even in the same basic food group, but you're not a storyteller.

I've spent the better part of the last several months talking about how to work on telling a story, developing a character, all of that stuff. But it occurred to me that I was leaving out a very important part of the equation, something that I was aware of in the back of my mind -- and many of you likely are aware of, as well -- but I never said outright. I'm saying it right now. Roleplaying is not storytelling, and if you're trying to be a storyteller, something is not going right.

The problem is that I see this all over the place. I see people talking about a character's story arc as something that's going to happen, not as something that's already happened. I see threads and topics of discussion about planning a character story and planning a character arc. And heck, I've talked about planning your character's story before, so perhaps all I have to say is some unspoken knowledge that everyone else already has, even though I've seen people going into RP scenes with the express statement that the character's story will progress along these lines so you had better not deviate from it.

If you're doing that, let me put this as gently as possible -- you're wasting opportunity. And when RP can sometimes be a sketchy hobby anyway, wasted opportunities are pretty terrible.

When you're telling a story, you have the advantage of absolute control over everything. You know what's going to happen, who talks to whom, what everyone is motivated by, and so forth. The advantage to a story is just that: the fact that one person is at the helm and can craft things into the perfect shape. Roleplaying is nothing like that -- you have control over one character, nothing more, and the other characters will act without any sort of requirement that you agree with what they do. The world itself can change even though you want a character to develop further in the extant universe.

And that's the whole blessed point. What makes roleplaying fun is that you throw a bunch of people together and you see what develops. You let characters move forward and play off one another without any idea of what's going to happen except what your character is thinking. It's more like improv acting than telling a coherent story, hence why people who intend to turn roleplaying sessions into novels never wind up making it very far.

Yes, I do plan out my characters ahead in broad strokes. I have some footnotes for character motivation when I get started, things like "he wants to explore the northern continents" or "she'd like to find out what happened to her sister" or "he doesn't want to work with non-humans." These are motivation tags, not ironclad rules. I put them in place to add to characterization, so that if he never makes it to the northern continents he has something interesting to draw on. Is he resentful? Annoyed? Happy? Relieved? All of the above?

I do not, however, refuse to go out and adventure with someone because my character wants to go north and you're going south and that's not part of my story. Because if that's how you want to run things, you might as well just be writing all of this down for your own benefit. You're taking a form of play whose whole advantage is not running on rails and putting it right back on rails.

(Planning out a story arc for a group, on the other hand, can work well. That's a totally different issue. Events and vignettes can work... but those are the sort of thing you plan when people are already established, not from character creation onward. It's a different issue, and while I'm not going into it today, it's worth noting.)

Some of my characters do wind up hopping games -- sure, Rhio in Star Trek Online has a world-appropriate backstory that's distinct from Rhio in Final Fantasy XIV, but they're functionally identical. But the characters still turn out differently because the circumstances are different. in Star Trek Online, I found myself with a far more pragmatic version of the character by virtue of the command structure and a military environment. Final Fantasy XIV's incarnation is more light-hearted and a bit insufferable at times. (I may have been over-influenced by Ammar ibn Khairan, I admit.)

Neither one of them had a capitalized Story, just a set of history elements and a loose sense of where the character herself wanted to go. If I had just decided ahead of time what I wanted happening, I would have lost out on the opportunity.

Your goal when making a new character shouldn't be to plan out his or her story but to create the opportunity for interesting conflicts that make a story. Reasons he might not want to do something are great. Reasons he might do it anyway are better. And then I see characters who are planned out to the smallest detail by their players, and it breaks my heart, because the player isn't looking for RP so much as for a supporting cast to fit pre-determined roles.

We can do better than that. We're not storytellers, and we're the richer for not trying to be.

Worth saying? Already known? Preaching to the choir? I don't even know any more. Feel free to let me know in the comment field or via mail to eliot@massively.com. Next week we're moving back to the archetype discussion for another of my personal favorite options -- and a chance for me to reference Stephen King, Inigo Montoya, and Final Fantasy X all at the same time.

Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.

This article was originally published on Massively.