Storyboard: For me, it was Tuesday

Yes, they're code names.  If you think you know who they are, you're probably right.
I want to tell you a love story. It's not a happy one. It's about Daniel and Rachel.

Rachel loves Daniel. She didn't expect to fall for him, but she did. The problem is that Daniel doesn't love Rachel back. More than that, he can't even conceptualize feeling for Rachel what she feels for him. She acquiesces, acts as a friend, listens to Daniel talk about his true love Samantha. She watches Daniel date Olivia. She gets attacked by Olivia for her affection. She pays attention to the fact that Daniel still talks about Samantha when she's been gone for a year, even though Daniel doesn't mention Rachel at all if she's not around.

This is not a happy dynamic for Rachel, but it is certainly dramatic. The problem is that Rachel and Daniel are characters, and Daniel's player is making a point of being aloof and dismissive toward Rachel because that's the whole point. So how do you ignore Rachel without making Rachel's player feel left out of roleplaying?

She doesn't look like a Rachel, I know.A short and friendly note

It's been a while since I've mentioned the importance of OOC communication, but this is one of those places where it's really relevant, especially since this is the sort of place where a roleplaying premise can turn into toxic feelings almost by accident over time.

If your character says something that outright hurts another player, you can both recognize and address it more or less immediately. It's the equivalent of a nail in your foot; it hurts like you wouldn't believe, but it's not something you can just fail to notice. But developing an asymmetrical relationship that makes sense for both characters is more like tying your shoes just tight enough to start cutting off circulation and causing blisters. Everything moves in small increments, and by the time you notice that your foot is completely ruined, it's too late to see a podiatrist.

The podiatrist in this metaphor represents OOC communication, I guess. I sort of lost track.

What I haven't lost track of is the need to keep an open line of communication with someone when it's clear that the relationship consists of one person taking and another person giving. You want to make it clear that this is significant to you as a player even if it's insignificant to the character. A lot of people are interested in the drama but don't want to feel as if they're being left out; keeping communications open helps maintain the balance.

That OOC communication can also show something off that otherwise wouldn't be seen by Rachel's player -- namely, what's going on behind the scenes with Daniel.

What'd I do over the weekend?  Hang out, I guess.Balanced asymmetry

You might have noticed that the love story from before was pretty much just from Rachel's perspective. It's not the whole story, either. Sure, all of the elements might be true, but it leaves out the fact that there's a core relationship between Rachel and Daniel that's positive enough to form the foundation of attraction. Clearly, they do get along, and it's possible -- probable, even -- that Rachel is very important to Daniel, even if it's not in the ways she wants or she isn't as important to him as he is to her. And he knows this, leading him to believe that she's going to leave without notice and he doesn't deserve to shed tears or think too hard about that when it happens.

None of this makes the relationship even, but it does mean that there's more give from the other side than may be immediately visible. You need to make the relationship at least plausible, and part of that is ensuring that both people have a reason to stick around. One person being in love and the other just caring for a friend can certainly have that overall impact.

The key is that the relationship matters more to one person but would work if it were actually balanced. If Rachel regarded Daniel as a friend only, it would still make sense. It can also work in the other direction -- if you have a pair of friends with one in a position of authority over the other, the relationship becomes asymmetrical because one of them has to be in charge. This isn't no give and all take, even if someone's giving a lot less than is being taken.

None of that means that the person on the wrong side of the asymmetry will see the impact. Rachel might well only notice that Daniel doesn't love her, even though it's clear to others that Daniel cares quite a bit about her.

I need you.  But pretty soon I won't, and you'll need me.A reversal of fortunes

Relationships evolve over time. That's natural and desirable. That also means that an asymmetrical relationship ideally won't say that way forever. Eventually, Daniel will come around or Rachel will find someone more accessible to fall for, and that will change the nature of their relationship.

One of the great risks in roleplaying is the acceptance of a certain sort of drama as the ideal state, the sense that a particular dynamic is so good that it can't be changed without ruining everything. This is actively counterproductive, encouraging you be stagnant. As nice as a good and dramatic unbalanced relationship can be, you don't want that to be a permanent state of affairs, just a waypoint.

The part that makes it fun is seeing what happens afterward. Rachel moves on, but maybe Daniel realizes he liked it when she was pursuing him. Or she gets her wish, but it turns out that being with Daniel as something other than just a friend wasn't really what she wanted after all. These events have long-term ramifications; they affect more than just a few scenes here and there.

When two people aren't on the same page, it's very dramatic. But don't think it's an ideal state or that the character relationship loses all appeal otherwise. That just means trying to artificially prolong the state of the game, and it never works out right. Let things balance out when the time is right.

You can feel free to voice opinions via mail to eliot@massively.com or by leaving comments down below. Next week, I want to talk about the death of RP that never actually happened, and the week after that I'm going to explain why it is I'm always so down on soap operas and stories that resemble same.

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. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.

This article was originally published on Massively.