Storyboard: Red light

When it comes to roleplaying, we've got more than our fair share of elephants in the room. Things we all know are taking place, that fall under the same aegis as the rest of the hobby, but things we don't really want to acknowledge publicly. Partly because you can have good roleplayers, people you know and play with, who have some less-savory elements lurking in the background. It's hard not to notice that a fellow roleplayer is cliquish, isolationist, and condescending... but it's very possible for a friend to be heavily into erotic roleplay (ERP) without you realizing it.

And it needs to be talked about. It needs to be addressed, because there's something strange about the entire roleplaying community pretending that it doesn't exist. From a combination of factors -- squick, inappropriateness, and just plain disinterest -- we've allowed a shadow community to grow up in the space around roleplaying, with the tacit hope that if no one mentions ERP as if it were a part of roleplaying, it'll just go away and we can go back to what we were doing before.

Before I go any further in this column, I'd like to note that some stuff in here might be squickworthy. It's the nature of the beast. Please tread carefully, and I apologize in advance to anyone skeeved out.

The fact of the matter is erotic roleplaying is not going anywhere.

Actually, the moniker is a bit of a misnomer. There's often nothing particularly erotic about what's going on -- it's a fantasy fulfillment in the same vein as, well, any other form of roleplaying. The difference is that instead of pretending to be capable of slaughtering magical beasts by the dozen, you're pretending to be capable of feats in the bedroom that would cause the Pope to burst into flames. It's living out a very different fantasy, but it's still living out a fantasy.

That being said, it's also a fantasy that not everyone wants to be living out, nor is it a fantasy for which everyone necessarily is an appropriate audience. There are some really squicky areas when it comes to this subject matter in the real world, as evidenced by the fact that I've been using euphemism and wink-wink-nudge-nudge throughout the article thus far. Putting it into a fantasy setting can result in the very real possibility of thinking that rules of the real world don't apply, and the less said about that the better.

ERP is usually on the top of the list for any guild as a "Do Not Want" item; most every guild I've run across has had a strict disclaimer saying that it's considered inappropriate. The few guilds without that warning, either by design or by virtue of the lack of said warning, quickly degenerate into something you don't want to show your parents or your ten-year-old cousin. There's a definite sense that if you open the doors to ERP, you open the floodgates.

Ironically, it's largely because of that nigh-universal prohibition that ERPers flock to any spot where they're not explicitly banned. After all, if you're not allowed to go anywhere else... but I digress.

Unfortunately, these factors compound into making ERP something that no one will actually talk about, but something that still goes on in the back corners of the community. It's something with no standards, no rules, no restrictions, and more often than not a lot of people in uncomfortable situations as a result. And it'd be nice to say that it can just be stamped out and removed from the game space entirely, except for the fact that nothing to date has actually gotten rid of it.

Seriously, it's expressly against the terms of service in some games, and yet you can still find people taking part in it if you go to the right spots. Maybe you'll see something in /say or /emote, or maybe you'll just wander into an alley and find two characters without any gear equipped...

Clearly, the plan of "ignore it and it'll go away" isn't going to work. And I'm not entirely convinced that it ought to go away. I think it runs facefirst into some territory that I would rather not explore, but at the same time, I have a hard time sitting in judgement of people who happen to enjoy thinking about their character's life in more intimate settings.

I mean, there is clearly a limit. When things get into stuff that's creepy or illegal in real life, that's pushing beyond the pale. When you're hitting on others in a common area where the players may well include children, that's not okay. But let's avoid reductio ad absurdum for a moment and go with the most vanilla situation possible -- two characters have a private moment as two consenting adults, with players who are entirely capable of understanding the consequences of this action in-character. Is there anything innately wrong with that?

Some people will say "yes," and that's fair, because everyone has different levels where something is uncomfortable. A lot of people, however, either will find that situation perfectly acceptable or at least hard to argue against. Even those who don't want to necessarily take part are going to be hard-pressed to find a good reason why that situation specifically violates some core principle of roleplaying.

Am I saying that ERP is totally fine? Heck no. For better or for worse, at least for me, there's a huge minefield of weirdness there that makes me uncomfortable with the concept. But even in light of that, I think that the roleplaying community really needs to stop looking at ERP as a forbidden corruption of roleplaying. We need to start understanding it as something that's going to exist whether or not we like it. If we want to do something about all of the massively squicky situations it can lead to, there needs to be some attempts made to actually deal with its existence rather than ignoring it.

As always, I'm interested to hear what you think, either via comments below or mail to Next week, I'm going to chat about roleplaying drama, and how to make sure that you don't get so burned out by it that you lose interest in roleplaying altogether.

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.