The first time you see a big gathering, your first instinct is to jump right in and get your feet wet as soon as possible. This is an understandable impulse, and it's probably also a bad one. There is absolutely nothing wrong with just lurking at the edge of roleplaying for a while, seeing how it works, and getting an idea for how people play in the game you're playing.
Personally, I've always found that one of the roughest parts of adapting to roleplaying is getting a sense for how all of the ideas you see on paper are supposed to work in practice. There are a lot of articles on how to roleplay, but even the ones that strive for examples ring a bit hollow. It's only when you see others roleplaying that you really get the sense for how this can work in reality rather than in the mind of a writer.
Make your first character likable
There is a time to play a villain, a time to play a morally conflicted individual, and a time to play someone who will turn almost everyone else off at first glance. That time comes quickly. It does not, however, come with your very first character when you've never roleplayed before.
Your first character doesn't need to be everyone's friend, but it's probably a good idea to make the character at least somewhat fun to be around. Diving into the complicated interplay of IC hatred versus OOC friendships is best reserved for later characters. If you're socially awkward like I am, the idea of having everyone hate you right off the bat is pretty inherently terrifying, and it's only after you've gotten your bearings that you can start separating the two.
Talk OOC to people
When I barge into someone else's roleplaying, I always make a point of apologizing after the fact because however in-character it might be, and however welcome it might be, it's still bracingly rude to shove in and declare that you are now a part of this scene.
Meanwhile, if someone apologizes to me after doing the same thing, I tell him that there's nothing to be sorry about because it added a nice bit of spice to the scene. And whenever I apologize to someone, he says the exact same thing. After roleplaying for nearly a decade, you'd expect to have at least one or two people get upset, but no, every person is happy that I involved myself. People appreciate the new experience.
If you come to people with your hat in your hand, at least in the roleplaying community, a lot of people are going to be friendly and welcoming. This is an added layer of work that we put into the game because we love doing it, and that means we love sharing. Talking to someone OOC when you're first getting involved gives you a chance to get some feedback, get some pointers, and reassure yourself that you're doing it right.
Your first character might be dumb
I don't know whether everyone's first character is dumb. Certainly I've got several older characters that I think came out quite nicely, although I'm quite possibly not remembering some of the ones I made before that. But you should be open to the idea that the first character you make is just plain stupid.
This is just a thing that happens. Maybe you're young, maybe you're new to the idea, maybe a lot of things. The point is that there is no penalty for making a first character that is bracingly dumb because we all make a lot of dumb characters, often early in our roleplaying careers. You can laugh about it later.
You shouldn't feel intimidated by this. Yes, your character might be dumb. A lot of people make dumb characters. I have a list of dumb characters I've made; I've even written articles specifically regarding some of the dumb characters I've made. If your first one is dumb, that's par for the course. Accept it as a possibility and let it go.
Don't let the man get you down
Roleplaying communities are not places of light and wonder. I can say that they should be, but I can also say that we should live in a world where people don't spend hours arguing about whether Star Wars: The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2 or The Secret World or Darkfall are worth playing. In that magical fantasy land, people just play the games they like and are happy for players who like other games because they want everyone to have fun. Also, there are unicorns.
There are going to be jerks. I've played alongside them. Every so often I've even been suckered in by one of them. There are poisonous people in the community, and sometimes they burrow under your skin and refuse to let go, like dog ticks. Except that most dog ticks won't turn your entire gaming experience into some ersatz tribute to their own personal egos or something.
I can't give you any useful information regarding dealing with poisonous people that I haven't given in previous columns, but you need to know they exist. And you need to know that as awful as they are and as bad as they will make your experience, there are also wonderful, charming, enjoyable people who will be thrilled to play alongside you. If you want to put in the effort, maybe the first person you play with won't reward you, but there are rewards. Don't run off after one bad experience.
Feedback on this -- whether it's useful advice or not, agreement or disagreement, other tips, and so forth -- is welcome in the comments below and by mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, I'm going to talk about the media that roleplaying most resembles.
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.