Prequel time but not really!
For some players, betas are like a roleplaying prequel. You roleplay all of the behind-the-scenes stuff that should be in place when the game goes live, and then everyone can segue in as if nothing had happened. The problems are twofold: That's not how prequels work, and it's not actually fun in the first place.
Backstory, as a rule, is the least interesting part of a character's story. It can have interesting effects on the character now, but you should be roleplaying the most interesting part of a character's life. That means that filling out backstory via roleplaying in the beta means you're filling in the tedious parts without any of the more interesting bits. You already know how this wraps up, but you're still going through the motions in something that could be fleshed out with only a couple of lines in a character biography.
If you're lucky, going through those motions winds up being interesting or winds up deviating from your plans in entertaining ways. But then you're not actually doing a prequel any longer; you're just roleplaying normally. That creates a different problem.
Join the club
Not every game has an open beta phase. Not every open beta phase allows you to carry over progress made during beta. That means that not everyone who wants to play the game will be in the beta, and even those who will be in the beta will not necessarily be inclined to play heavily. Your reason for being there is testing, and past basic test of chat clients and emotes, roleplaying offers only the slightest testing opportunity.
On some level this is just part of the roleplaying condition. People are not all going to be around at the same time, sometimes you're going to miss out on roleplaying due to real-world concerns, and so on. But at least most of the time it's because of more relevant factors than not being in the exclusive roleplaying club. If something major happens to a character during a beta, someone else who should reasonably be there may or may not be able to take part.
This is even more true during a beta for an expansion, which is usually run alongside the live game as it continues to operate. While your character is still around in the "real" world, the version running around in the test world is somehow at once in the future and past of the continuity. It makes the already bewildering problem of time in roleplaying even worse, something that's about as neccessary as a fifth eyeball growing out of your elbow.
All that having been said, as I've mentioned in the past, roleplaying is frequently something that you'll do whether it's a good idea or not. So is there anything you can do in beta that's much easier than when the game is live?
Yes, there certainly is. You can test.
We're all testing here
Roleplaying during the beta gives you a chance to break out a completely unexpected set of characters. Since it's not in whatever loose continuity you would normally associate with roleplaying, testing winds up being in a gratifyingly consequence-free bubble. This is the best thing you can do with beta roleplaying: Use it to run tests, the same as everyone else.
Is your character going to undergo a major change? Test that out. Are you trying a new set of traits for a familiar character? Test that out. Do you have a completely new character you want to play with? Test that out, too.
Normally, the greatest risk associated with testing a new character is the fact that a failed character accumulates stuff and play time that you don't want to lose. But you're going to lose tons of progress in beta on a regular basis anyway. If it turns out that a character totally doesn't work, you can completely change his or her personality or just scrap the character altogether without worrying about retaining what you've earned. It's all dust in the wind anyhow.
I know, it's always transitive. That's not actually the point.
Instead of trying to force your roleplaying into a structure, enjoy the fact that you're in a test environment where anything goes. Throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks. And if nothing sticks, well, you can at least come up with something useful by the time launch rolls around, right?
While I have to get back to my undisclosed beta testing and other activities, you can feel free to share your thoughts down in the comments or via mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. (But please, if you're testing something with an NDA, do not break that NDA.) Next week: a discussion of how mechanics can influence characters and why that might not be such a bad thing.
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.