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Storyboard: Getting into the scene

Eliot Lefebvre

So, I lied. While I had originally been planning on something different for this week's column, I had a new topic more or less thrown to my doorstep from Bio Break. It's all well and good to talk about roleplaying as if everyone has been doing it since small times, but there are plenty of players with a vague curiosity who have never tried it out. For them, roleplaying is like heroin, vaguely promising a good time while always seeming dangerous, with the failures so publicly visible that...

You know, I'm dropping that analogy right now before it starts looking terrifyingly appropriate.

The point is that people are interested who aren't sure quite where to start. Thus, we're taking this week to put together a few things that help make it just a little easier to get into the joy of roleplay without getting bored, unintentionally stepping on toes, or winding up as the butt of everyone's in-character jokes. We can be a catty bunch. But you can get started without drama or too many issues, and it's not as bad as you might think.

The first part of getting into the waters of roleplaying is to find someone else to roleplay with. This first step can seem almost embarassingly easy -- after all, nearly every single game's forums will have advertisements for roleplaying guilds. On the off chance they don't, a simple search via Google will often turn up a surfeit of information. But you might want to give yourself just a little more time before you take part in a roleplaying guild. After all, if you start learning to juggle, you use rubber balls instead of chainsaws.

Your best bets here are your friends. If you know people who roleplay and who play the same game you do, they're a perfect starting point. Failing that, impromptu roleplaying is a great way to get a sense of what people expect and how interactions can flow. Generally speaking, if there's an area in a game that is accessible, visually interesting, and almost completely useless, there will be roleplaying taking place there.

Don't believe me? Head to Pocket D in City of Heroes, or Quark's Bar in Star Trek Online, or the international district of Yak's Bend on Guild Wars. (At least, it used to be Yak's Bend. It's been a while.) More likely than not, there will be people there who are roleplaying -- and odds are good that you'll find people there who are eager to find someone else to roleplay with. Just as they will in any other activity, people will flock to others who are interested.

If you join an established guild, you're jumping in feet-first to an established culture of roleplaying. Sometimes this can be a good thing, but more often than not it can lead to the impression that the way you're doing things is somehow wrong. Most of the rules about how RP works in established organizations are unwritten and based entirely on standing consensus. You might really want to do light-hearted character vignettes and dialogue, but if you wind up in a guild where everything is super-serious and dark enough to blind someone, you're either going to do something you like less for the group or find yourself soured on the idea unnecessarily.

As an aside, guild leaders? Please make every effort to write down these consensual rules for new applicants. Almost every RP guild I see has rules of conduct that start and end with "don't be a jerk," which is a nice sentiment but devoid of information. If you like running bigger stories or smaller stories or whatever, just say that up front. You'll be the better for it. But that's another column.

Once you've found people to play with, the next step is to start getting used to your character's voice and how he or she thinks about the world. And I'm going to recommend something unorthodox but useful: letters.

No, really. Writing in-character letters via in-game mail systems is an excellent way to start getting a feel for your character's worldview. By nature, they have to be fairly short, and they're a way to start incorporating roleplaying into your normal game routine. Unless you haven't got a mail system in-game, you generally make a habit of checking your mail on a regular basis to start with. A few minutes extra to dash off a letter to your in-character companions doesn't take anything out of that.

I'll admit to being a big fan of the letter system from having watched it work successfully. My girlfriend started playing World of Warcraft with me about four years ago, and at the time she started, she had zero interest in roleplaying. Because we were living separately at the time, we would generally talk and send letters to one another in game, and when she started a new character she just idly started writing her letters in character. So I responded in kind.

From that foundation, she got comfortable enough to start acting out little scenes with her characters, then taking part in events, then helping run events, and so on and so forth. It helped ease the concept into play instead of jumping straight into the deep end. It keeps the sheer enormity of roleplaying from being overwhelming and lets you focus on the cool things.

And if there's one major thing to be taken away from all of this, it's just that. Roleplaying adds more cool to things. It takes more time out of your play sessions, yes, but it means that when you stand down your enemies of choice there's something more going into it than needing another quest completion.

Put in brief, all of the personal story stuff that's being thrown around for Star Wars: The Old Republic has been taking place in roleplaying for years. Bioware is just backing it up with systems.

That's all for this week, and next week we'll get back on our previously scheduled track with a talk about backstory NPCs. Comments and suggestions are welcome, either in the comment thread or via email at Eliot at Massively dot com. I will admit to really liking getting mail, but that's neither here nor there.

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