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How to write a roleplaying description that pops

Anne Stickney
Anne Stickney|January 28, 2012 2:00 PM
All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. In World of Warcraft, that player is you! Each week, Anne Stickney brings you All the World's a Stage with helpful hints, tips and tricks on the art of roleplay in WoW.

We're taking a break from our whirlwind tour of Azeroth's finest roleplay locations to address an issue that has come up time and time again -- and will probably continue popping up until the day Warcraft closes the doors to Azeroth for good. There are several addons out there for roleplay, and all of them allow a certain amount of customization to help you build your character whatever way you see fit. Most allow for some degree of character description, and some even allow players to write up a brief character history, as well.

But time and time again, players point out errors in the descriptions of others or flaws in fantastical backstories that simply should not exist in the Warcraft universe. So what makes a good roleplaying description? What should it have, and what should it definitely not mention at all? And perhaps most importantly -- what do you do when you run across a roleplayer whose description is blatantly out of line with Warcraft canon, taking liberties with the lore you love?

What's in a successful roleplay description?

Whether you're using a simple addon or going all out with Total RP 2, the description is pretty much the key to making your character your own. One of the most common mistakes that people make with character descriptions is that they confuse them with character histories. Both are used to describe your character, that part is true, but your character description should never detail parts of your character's life. That's what most addons have a history tab for.

When you're trying to put together a description, think of it this way: If you were a random stranger who happened upon your character while walking down the street, what would you see? What would your character look like? How would he or she be acting? A character description is basically a verbal description of a snapshot of your character. It's a physical description, not an in-depth description. You can't tell a person's life story by simply looking at them; the same applies to the character that you play.

There are plenty of things that can be included within a description, however.
  • Age Don't include your character's exact age -- most people can't tell a person's age from a glance. But they can tell whether someone is young or old, usually ... unless there's a lot of magic or plastic surgery at work.
  • Height Again, an exact measurement isn't necessary, but you can definitely tell whether someone is short, tall, or average just by taking a look at them.
  • Weight Weight is one of those things that is subjective, depending on the person who is observing. Some people notice when someone is overly thin; some people don't take weight into account at all when they're talking to another person. Generally speaking, unless your character is incredibly thin or incredibly overweight, it's probably not worth mentioning here.
  • Eyes A lot of people take a great deal of time writing about their character's eyes. Is it necessary? Not especially. But the eyes are said to be the window to the soul -- and if your character is sad, or happy, or tired, or angry, their eyes will more often than not give that emotion away.
  • Demeanor This is probably the most tricky thing to add to a description. It's also something that you may want to change from time to time. Remember how I said you can't really tell a person's life story from simply looking at them? You can't -- but you can get a general impression of how they're feeling or what sort of attitude they have. Things like posture and stance, smiling or frowning, or even a neutral expression are all subtle hints at what's going on in your character's head, and they're all things that would be noticed by someone watching your character.
  • Scars and other features Does your character have noticeable scars on their face? You may want to mention that in their description. Does he have a tattoo of a Celestial Steed on his rear end? Unless he're walking around sans pants, it's probably not worth mentioning in the description. Does she have a visible piece of jewelry that she wears all the time, like a sparkling ring or an ornate necklace? That should be mentioned.
  • Smells Some people go out of their way to give a full experience and write about how their character smells. Is this really necessary? Probably not. Unless your character absolutely reeks of perfume, cologne, or unpleasant body odors, chances are that a random passerby really isn't going to take note of how they smell.
The general rule of thumb with descriptions is that if another character can see it or notice it, it should be mentioned. So things like hidden tattoos, scars, or piercings shouldn't be placed in your description. But things that another character would pick up on, like oddly colored eyes, a really strange set of armor, or your character's tendency to constantly recite limericks under their breath would definitely be on the list of stuff you should include.

Points to avoid

When you're writing a description for your character, there are a few common things that tend to raise people's eyebrows. While you can certainly add these in if you really feel it necessary, keep in mind that these are the sorts of things that upset people, and don't be surprised if someone calls you on it.
  • History Anything having to do with your character's history likely shouldn't be added to their description. By history, I mean a factual presentation of the events in their life. If your character is wearing something that is a family heirloom, you can always mention that, because it's a physical representation of their history. But talking about how many years they lived in Dolanaar is something that should be relegated to the history tab, not included in the character description.
  • Attributes Let's just use the delicate term here, all right? By attributes, I'm talking about things like bust size or how shapely or endowed your character happens to be. Is it something that people notice? Some do, some don't. What you should ask yourself before you write it down is this: Does it really add to what people need to know about your character? Is the fact that they are well endowed something that everyone needs to know? Do you wander around telling random strangers what your bust size is? If the answer is no, then maybe you should think about what including that information really says about your character -- because chances are, the first assumption that people are going to make with a descriptor like that is that your character spends their off nights working in the Goldshire Inn.
  • Godmodding Yes, roleplayers of the world, you can godmod via your character description, and there are an awful lot of players who go out of their way to do this. Sentences such as "You are frightened of this draenei," or "The moment you see this troll, you feel instantly attracted to her," or "The human turns toward you and winks, leaving you flustered and confused" can be considered godmodding. Godmodding is pretty much any time you as a player make a statement that can be construed as controlling another player's character. Maybe your character isn't as intimidating as you'd think, or maybe that character that is approaching yours isn't at all attracted to your character. The point is, it's up to them, not you, to decide.
  • Obscenities or pornography It's a fact of life -- there are roleplayers out there who are all about one thing, whether it's sex or being as blatantly rude as possible. Roleplaying is a creative experience, and some choose to express their creativity in ways that others don't care for. That's fine. However, this game is played by a multitude of people of varying ages, and these roleplay addons are downloadable by anyone of any age. Now think about this, and think about it really hard -- if you had a little brother or sister or a child who was playing this game and decided to try roleplaying, would you want them to read your description? Would you want them using the same language you used? If the answer is no, don't put it in your description.
You have to keep in mind that you aren't the only one reading the material you put out there. Other players look at descriptions for a quick clue on your character and how their character should react to yours. Players are free to choose who they do and do not wish to roleplay with, and if your description includes any of the above, there is a chance you could be missing out on roleplay.

When people break the rules

So what do you do if you see things that break the general rules of character descriptions? Here's the thing about roleplaying addons -- you cannot report a player for something that exists in a player-created addon. Blizzard's got no way to monitor these addons or what is included in them, and since it is not a Blizzard addon, it doesn't really have any responsibility to monitor that content. You can certainly send in a report if a player is engaging in public channels with language or actions that could be viewed as reportable, but a roleplay description? You can't really report that.

You can try to correct the player on what should be in a description if you like -- but outright attacking them for what they've written is the wrong way to go about it. Some players simply don't realize that descriptions are for descriptions only; some are beginning roleplayers who simply haven't figured things out yet. If you're polite and friendly, you're likely going to get a friendly and polite response in return -- and if you're rude, be prepared to end up on someone's ignore list.

But in the end, nobody can force you to roleplay. If you find someone's description offensive, don't roleplay with them. Don't bother reading their description, and don't bother interacting with them. If they ask you why you aren't roleplaying, you may want to gently let them know -- it could change their mind. Roleplay is a social activity, and as with any other, being rude or offensive will likely get you nowhere.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!