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Storyboard: Getting back the spark

Eliot Lefebvre

People occasionally ask me, "How is it that your roleplaying is so exciting?" To which I can only ask, "How is yours so boring?"

A lot happens when I roleplay. Relationships start and stop, alliances are made and broken, plots are hatched, crazy schemes are set into motion, and things generally just happen. I've had characters kill other people off permanently, had characters killed off, run through cycles of desecration and redemption. Some scenes have gone better than others, but at the end of the day, I can say that my roleplaying has been full of stuff happening.

But I see a lot of people who feel their roleplaying is stagnant. Their groups have dissolved, their stories have been told, there is no more spark there. So today's column is all about getting back into the paint and turning your roleplaying experience from stagnant to dynamic, taking you from a boring set of routines into a series of stunning and enrapturing revelations. In other words, here's some advice to get the spark back in your roleplaying.

You know the guy who seems to just be begging for someone to ask what his deal is?  Try asking.Meet people

I've discussed the fact that Ms. Lady and I are roleplaying partners through and through. We've played foils, friends, lovers, enemies, parents, children, siblings, spouses, students, teachers, the whole spectrum. I know her roleplaying as well as she knows mine, to the point where we've got a character planned for the future that's essentially being played by both of us. The point is that I'm extraordinarily comfortable roleplaying with her.

This means that sometimes it's imperative that I find people I'm not comfortable with and roleplay with them.

Sometimes losing the spark is as simple as getting stuck in a feedback loop wherein you know what everyone's going to do. You have a very careful plan, you all know one another's habits, and the whole thing becomes an exercise in waiting for the game to catch up to what you already know comes next. I see people talk about not wanting to roleplay in public areas, and I can totally understand why because often it feels like wading through hip-deep mud just to find a nugget of gold.

But that gold is so valuable. It's what knocks a stable system off its axis. I've found that striking up conversations with strangers in public RP areas has something like a 10% success rate... but each success leads to months of storytelling and character dynamics, the sort of thing that makes all of the muck-wading beforehand entirely worthwhile.

If you've found yourself stuck in a rut, the path out of that rut will not be found with the familiar routine. So get out there and meet some new faces.

It's not a dumb outfit, it's a fashion statement!Act dumb

Sometimes roleplaying becomes too detached. You know what the right thing to do is, even if your character might not, and you provide that gentle nudge to make sure that he doesn't do something catastrophically dumb. He doesn't cheat on his spouse, he doesn't tell off his guild leader, he doesn't start drinking after years of recovering from alcoholism. You wipe the metaphorical sweat off your brow, happy that you just dodged a bullet.

The problem, as I've mentioned before, is that dodging bullets is not interesting. Drama relies on things happening, and in the case of roleplaying, you want your characters getting into trouble because that's just plain more intriguing. Instead of nudging your characters into making the correct but somewhat boring choices, you should be making the entirely incorrect ones every so often.

We like to think that avoiding these risks makes our characters happier, but the truth is that you get more interesting stories from letting yourself fall. I just recently had a character nearly ruin everything she had worked toward -- relationship destroyed and career demolished -- only to pick herself back up stronger for the experience. She's not sinking into misery now, but she's got a lot more stories to be told because she came pretty darn close.

A character in motion is more interesting than one stagnating. Sometimes, the most obvious motion is "down."

Why you leave the house is sometimes a valid question.Find questions

Part of roleplaying is discovering how another person works. We know how we ourselves work, but not so much other people. I have 30 years of experience figuring out my own way of looking at the world and much less figuring out how everyone else in the world understands the constant onslaught of life. Roleplaying is a chance to be someone else for a while... except that we all too often find ourselves asking the easy questions, getting answers, and never looking any further into the character.

Sometimes the reason you lose the spark is because you're just leaving things blank. So the trick is to stop and actually start asking what makes this character tick.

I wrote a coulmn a while back about questions to answer about your characters, but that's just a starting point. Ask yourself what your character would do and come up with an answer. If you're really not sure, have her do something and synthesize it into a complete picture later. You don't need to analyze everything right away, and in some ways it's better to just jump to conclusions and ask yourself after the fact why she did something.

Years of studying fiction will make you well-suited to analyzing character incidentals. (And ill-suited to finding employment, but you knew that.) Instead of assuming you know your character, ask more interesting questions and throw yourself for a loop. You'd be surprised how invigorating it can be to let a character speak in her own voice.

Feedback is welcome down below or by mail to, as it always is. Next week, I want to talk about asymmetrical relationships and how to keep both people feeling welcome without destroying the whole "asymmetrical" angle.

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. If you need a refresher, check out the Storyboard Library.

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