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All the World's a Stage: Roleplaying 101


When it comes to various high-brow roleplaying concepts, it's amazing how difficult it can be to find some basic common gaming ground. I've spent time roleplaying in MMOs, MUDs, tabletop games and Live Action Roleplaying environments. I've played elves, vampires, cyborgs, angels and robots. I've had the honor of being the game master for massive LARPs and the immense pleasure of being the dungeon master for a small D&D pen-and-paper game.

The thing that I've had constantly reinforced between all of these experiences is how radically differently the diverse groups can approach the idea of roleplaying. For large network games, for example, roleplaying is about existing in a sort of pervasive sim. Their games run 24 hours a day and 7 days a week -- whenever a player has the ability to answer email, their characters are assumed available for roleplay. By comparison, in a tabletop game like Dungeons and Dragons or Rifts, you only have the option of running your character during game sessions.

So let's have a short discussion about World of Warcraft roleplaying and help introduce players to the basic ideas. The natural caveat here is that Blizzard doesn't mandate much about roleplay, so there's a lot of variance from group to group and server to server. My guide is just some general rules of thumb I've seen over the years.

Taking the role

The basic idea of roleplaying is something with which every kid is familiar. Remember pretending to be a knight on your way to slay the dragon? Playing cowboys and cattle rustlers? Every time you imagined yourself in the role of a hero or other character, you were roleplaying.

There are a wide variety of schools of thought concerning exactly how deeply you immerse yourself in the role. Some people only roleplay when the opportunity comes up in groups and raids. They wait until the mood strikes and simply take part in a little light immersion. They speak in guild chat or party chat as if they were the character and don't give it much thought beyond that.

Of course, other folks get very deep into their roles. They are completely in character whenever they log into the game, and they constantly view every quest and experience through the eyes of their character. This level of immersion isn't incredibly common but is incredibly rewarding for this style of roleplayer.

Define your character

Of course, if you're going to roleplay a character, you should spend a little time defining that character. While this information usually doesn't become public, it's still a vital part of your experience. You want to boil in some character history and probably some personal flaws. There are a few different tricks to help you find this definition; we talked about the "Sin" method of fleshing out a character just a few weeks ago.

Some advice for new roleplayers: don't spend a lot of time telling anyone and everyone all about your character. While most people will be happy to help you out and will have genuine interest in roleplaying with you, it's a little too easy to become "that guy." It's a running joke at roleplaying conventions, for example, to wear a button that says, "Yes, tell me more about your character." It's a tough line to walk -- the whole point of writing a character is to tell the story, but you don't want to end up boring everyone. Let the details come out in bits and pieces: a tidbit of information here, a slice of back story there.

Ultimately, the better the job you've done defining your character, the more rewarding your roleplay experience will be. Things like character history give you story hooks for later in your roleplaying life, as well as natural reasons for you to interact with other characters.

Avoid a few important pitfalls

There are a few pitfalls new roleplayers should attempt to avoid. These traps will make your starting roleplaying life more difficult.

First, don't be a loner. I know everyone wants to be that hardcore lone wolf, wandering Azeroth as a masterless warrior searching out adventure or revenge. The problem with a loner concept, though, is that it leaves you without much reason to interact with other players. If you can't interact with other player characters, you won't have much chance to roleplay.

Second, avoid "unique" and "interesting" concepts. This is going to seem like odd advice, but mostly I'm talking about character concepts like "I'm the son of Illidan" or "I'm a vampire." The problem with these character concepts isn't that they're necessarily bad in and of themselves but that they've been done to death. And when someone's introducing themselves as the fiftieth unique snowflake, it starts to get a little frustrating. There's just a lot of bad associations with stuff like vampires, demons, half-demons, related-to-famous-characters and so on.

Start considering storylines

A "storyline" is a simple roleplaying plot; they tend to have beginnings, middles and ends, just like any other story would have. A character arc tends to have a series of storylines put together, usually with the sense of an overall progression. This single article's a little short to talk about the archetypical Campbellian Hero Cycle, but the idea in a more general sense is that your want your character to experience, grow and change over time.

Storylines should not be focused solely on your character, though. Again, a lot of the point of roleplaying is interacting with other players, so you want to avoid writing storylines like "My character is so awesome, he totally just got done singlehandedly killing Arthas." Good storylines aren't really about action or the simple climax; instead, a roleplaying storyline sets up conflict between characters. The characters then interact and move towards the resolution of that conflict at the end of the story.

The conflict isn't necessarily violent. Two single characters being introduced to one another and starting to fall in love counts as a romantic conflict. The inexorable movement of those characters towards pairing up -- or losing the entire relationship -- is an example of resolution.

Communicate the story

When you've wrapped up a storyline, many players then take the time to post about that story to official forums or other roleplay medium. They usually write up the story in a narrative format, but there's not really any rule of thumb about whether it's more common in first or third person.

There's a couple different reasons for doing a roleplay writeup. First and foremost, it's fun. It lets you relive the roleplay and put it together as a bit of fiction. Second, it totally lets you show off. People are proud of the stories they've created, and one of the best parts is getting to tell people how cool it was. Remember my saying you have to be careful about "tell me about your character?" While that can be rough, it's almost always fine to tell people about the story. The focus isn't just on your character but on the overall experience and interaction. That makes it "okay." Even more importantly, though, posting the resulting story to a public forum lets the audience decide whether or not they want to read it. They opt in to the experience, which tends to make everyone a lot more interested.


Yup, those are the three foundations of roleplay. Define your character, assume that role, and progress with storylines. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? At a high level, roleplaying really is fairly simple. Of course, pursuing game theory and advanced roleplaying complicates matters in a dozen different ways, but anyone can get started fairly quickly by just doing these three things.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. You might wonder what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, or to totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying, or even how to RP on a non-RP server!

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