The usual response, if you play a lot of tabletop games, is to start comparing roleplaying to other hobbies. Roleplaying is like acting without a script. Roleplaying is like a board game where you care about the pieces. Roleplaying is like writing a book with other people without knowing the ending. None of these answers successfully gets at the meat of what roleplaying actually is, however. They just highlight certain elements of the hobby.
No, the heart of roleplaying is that you stop playing your character and start being your character.
When you log in to a character, you're stepping inside another person's life, a person who lives in a world different from your own. He or she has different wants and desires from your own. To your character, this isn't a video game; this is the world. You turn off the modern you and step into a very different world, one where magic or advanced technology is commonplace and the idea of someone sitting at a desk with a computer is very distant indeed.
That means interacting based upon what your character wants and needs, not necessarily what you want or need. It means that instead of going out and grinding on enemies to level up, you sit in a bar and have a drink with some friends. It means that you have a passionate argument in the game that you personally don't care about because your character cares. It means building a tapestry of characters and interactions that combine into an overall experience in which the game world isn't just a game world -- it's the home of real people with whom you just get to ride along.
It means that last night, when I logged in my Smuggler in Star Wars: The Old Republic, I wasn't just leveling my healer. I was stepping into the shoes of a terminally unlucky pilot with a penchant for politeness. The first tell I received wasn't another player seeing how I was doing; it was a friend calling up to see whether my character was all right. And I spent two hours logged in without doing anything but sitting, talking, and interacting. It was a step out of myself and into the shoes of another person.
Everyone does it for different reasons. Some people like a chance to stop being an accountant and start being something else. Some people use it as a way to examine aspects of themselves writ large. Some people like to just tell a story. And some people just enjoy roleplaying and have never felt the need to question exactly why.
The downside to all of this is that you can see a big uptick in drama. Roleplaying means getting invested in your characters and their emotions, and when they get upset, so do you. If your character is knee-deep in a huge argument that's not getting resolved, even if you aren't actually angry, emotions are going to flare. That means people getting unhappy and possibly even quitting the game not over the game itself but over the company they keep. So that can look pretty weird on the outside.
It's also a lot of extra work. Roleplaying leaves you with two versions of every character: the version that you play in the game and the version that interacts with others. Your character type might be boring for you to play but a lot of fun to roleplay with or vice versa. That's without even getting into the amount of work that goes into creating a character with a backstory and personality that will get you where you want to go and allow you to have the sort of interactions you want.
On the other hand, roleplaying also can breathe new life into a game that you might otherwise be growing tired of. It gives you a motivation to log in and play and a context for seeing things beyond what you would normally try. Most importantly, it helps you see the world of the game through another set of eyes and enjoy a different level of play.
I wouldn't go so far as to say that it's the only real way to play the game, but if it's your cup of tea, then you will likely find it impossible to not roleplay, even in games that don't really support it. I've roleplayed in board games. Like, Monopoly.
It's part interactive storytelling, part improvisational acting, part fanfic, and part an exercise in self-exploration. It's a chance to form the sort of character you'd like and guide him or her through a story that unfolds around you.
And, yeah, weird romances do factor in. But that's another column.
Feedback is welcome down below or via mail to email@example.com. You know, the usual. Let me know whether you'd like to see more columns like this in the future or not, as I'm sure there's more space to explore the basics. Next week, I'm going to step away from the basics and talk about making interpersonal relationships ring true.
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.