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Storyboard: The problem in your group is you

Eliot Lefebvre

There are a lot of ways that roleplaying can go south. Over the past two years, I've tried to focus on how to look out for problems before they happen, how to identify problems coming from others, and how to solve problems with a minimum of drama. It's important to try to fix miscommunications, after all.

Unfortunately, there's a problem that comes from analyzing everything other than yourself: Sometimes, the real problem is you.

Maybe you've been trying to fix all of the problems in your group without realizing that the real pot-stirrer was the jerk trying to fix everyone else. Maybe you've been trying to enforce a specific standard that no one else wants to adhere to. Heck, maybe you're just playing a character that you like a lot but everyone else loathes. Whatever the reason, you aren't the solution any more; you are the problem that needs to be fixed. And that means figuring out what to do when you find out that you have seen the enemy and he is you.

"Remember, roleplaying is by definition a group activity. And when you're in the middle of a group activity, you have to think in terms of group benefits."

Sort it out first

Before you can solve a problem, you need to know it exists. And sometimes we have those flashes of realization when we look in the mirror and realize that we're screwing everything up. If that's the case, you can skip ahead to fixing things.

That's the exception, though. Most of the time we need to be told by someone that we're making a mess. And that comes with the need to really examine the source of the complaint, whether it's from one person or several, because even if the complaint isn't totally fair or accurate, there's a core of truth there, and you need to internalize it.

If it's just one person saying that you're ruining the group, consider that person's motivation. If said person calls you out in a huge screaming post on a public forum, odds are good that it's an effort to stir the pot and cause drama, but there must be a reason why you're provoking that sort of grandstanding drama. If it's just a private letter or a quiet chat, odds are good that this isn't meant as anything more than advice from one person's perspective. You can probably guess which I'm in favor of.

The message gets compounded if it's multiple people, however. If one person says that my character is problematic, it might be an issue of miscommunication. If half the people I've interacted with say that my character is a problem, odds are good that there's something to that. One million Frenchmen can most certainly be wrong, but odds are much higher that they're hitting on some central point just the same.

I'm not being defensive!  You're attacking me!  I'm just fighting back! Take a break

So you've been told or figured out that the real problem here is you. Your first reaction is to take a deep breath, huff, puff, and lash right back. That's why the best thing you can do is announce that you won't be on for a few days and head off to do something else until you've calmed down.

Seriously. Firing back with both barrels will certainly feel good for a moment, but it will also produce no useful changes or information. Heck, odds are good that it'll convince anyone who said you were a problem that yes, you are in fact a problem person.

Take a breather. Do something else. Maybe you've become so embroiled in a roleplaying environment that it's actively harmful to your ability to think outside of it, or maybe you just are too angry to reply right away. Addressing criticism or self-perceived problems with calm always beats rushing in while enraged.

Process what you're doing wrong

If you've gotten to this point, the odds are good that you actually want to fix what's wrong, even if it's a little less pleasant for you. That means understanding why your character is causing issues. It's rough because your first instinct is generally to like the characters you've created, but you need to step back and seriously ask whether the character is accomplishing the goals you want.

I've played characters who are meant to be disliked. I've played characters who are meant to be untrustworthy or dangerous or abrasive or otherwise strain-inducing. And sometimes I've had to back off of several aspects of those characters because these things were just too uncomfortable. If staying true to my original character concept meant alienating the people I wanted to roleplay with in the first place, then the fact is it wasn't a great concept to begin with, at least not for that particular group.

Remember, roleplaying is by definition a group activity. And when you're in the middle of a group activity, you have to think in terms of group benefits.

Honestly ask what problems you're causing, and do so without trying to make apologies for yourself in the process. It's tempting to say, "Well, everyone thinks my character is too silly, but I put in all this work into making things funny, and I spend so much time online that it shouldn't matter." It clearly does matter. People don't criticize other roleplayers for the heck of it; they do so because there's an issue that needs to be addressed.

A good experiment is to just listen to what others have to say out of character. If the people complaining about your character say that he seems autocratic, don't fire back with a defense that he's not really like that if you know more about him. Discard subtelty and nuance for a bit and really look at your character. It's all well and good to have layers upon layers of character traits, but if you stop looking from the inside out it might become clear that all those layers just make him a layered and complex jerk.

'I believe the first test of a truly great man is his humility. ' -John Ruskin Change...

Let's say you examine all the evidence and decide that yes, this character needs to change. In that case, do it.

And I mean quickly. If people say your character never fails, have him fail hard and stay down for a while. If people say he's an unrepentant bastard, start making him apologize. Find the stuff that needs to change and change it now.

Yes, I realize it breaks verisimilitude. Yes, it might hurt a bit. But you don't have time to gradually alter your character to the point that others can have fun playing around him if he's not fun to play alongside now. Story is all well and good, but you can hammer out the rough points of the change later. Make changes right away and stick to them.

You are not inviolable, and you are not a font of endless brilliance. Sometimes you'll have a character concept, possibly even one that you like, that is just not fun for other people around you. Being obstinate and avoiding changes to it means that you're veering toward being a problematic player rather than a player with a problematic character.

...or leave

Maybe you decide that the issue isn't you; it's them. Your character is fine, and it's just people whining for no reason.

To be totally honest, this is pretty much never the case. I have never seen a single complaint against my characters or another player's characters that did not have valid points. But if you're absolutely convinced that it's just some conspiracy to drag your name through the mud, then take the classy option and leave.

If you're in a position of authority, abdicate and depart without grievance. Let people know you won't be roleplaying with them any further and move on because if you're sticking around when people say you're a problem, ultimately you're saying that your character concept is more important than the enjoyment of others. And if nothing in that sentence sounds wrong to you, maybe you should cycle back to the beginning and read the column over again.

No one likes being the problem. But you can at least be the solution as well.

Feedback is welcome, as always, in the comments or via mail to Next week, I'm going to once again put my money where my mouth is and address characters that aren't problems in and of themselves but have the potential to be problematic -- as well as how I've addressed issues with them in the past.

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.

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