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Storyboard: Operatic soap

Eliot Lefebvre

If you've never watched a soap opera before, you owe it to yourself to do so at some point. I don't just mean a single episode; I mean spending a month or so really following a show, unraveling the plot and character interrelationships, and trying to really get what's going on. Let me tell you, these things are crazy. Silver age comics crazy. And they're dying out, so you want to catch them before they're gone.

Despite that, I generally use soap opera as a pejorative term because while the shows might be entertaining, they're not good at character development or drama or nuance or most of what makes RP enjoyable most of the time. They're well-written only insofar as they're written to convince you to watch the next episode, not in the sense that they form any sort of overarching narrative. And while RP can creep into that territory at times, that's generally a problem rather than an acceptable endpoint.

Filling you in on all the things that had happened here would take more columns than I've got.Inert motion

To start with, one of the defining characteristics of soap operas is that a lot of time is spent making nothing happen. It is entirely possible for an entire hour-long episode to consist of cuts between four or five groups of people discussing problems without anyone ever actually doing anything about what's under discussion. Tense music plays in the background, everyone makes a point of uttering dramatic statements, but when the next episode starts up, it's the same cast talking about last episode's conversation rather than anything new actually happening.

When this happens in your roleplaying, it is stagnant to the point of being legally deceased.

Things need to happen when you roleplay. You don't need to change everything on a weekly basis, but you do need to feel as if you're not just spinning your wheels, and restating an established conflict over and over just makes it tedious.

By way of example, let's say that you're trying to build up that Sergio doesn't like Katie. You do not want to spend a month in which Sergio just restates to everyone over and over that Katie is up to no good while Katie never actually does anything. That's not conflict. If Sergio's so convinced, have him do something, confront her, figure out what she's doing.

He could shoot her, of course, but that brings us to our next point

All my reactions are overreactions

I am pretty sure that I have never seen a single character on a soap opera take a moment to actually think something over. If you've been finally spurred into action by the week of supposedly tense conversations with people regarding your boyfriend cheating on you, you don't confront him and break up with him. No, you sleep with his best friend and set his car on fire.

In an episodic medium designed to keep people watching, this sort of works because it creates this sort of escalating race of villainy in which someone is always much worse than the last jerk. It's also silly as hell.

Soap operas exist in a world wherein everyone is constantly talking but no one ever resolves conflicts that way, attempted murder is a more common crime than downloading MP3s, and a relationship that goes a week without anyone cheating is eligible for platinum anniversary status. I'll trot out one of my old favorite words: It's lacking in anything approaching verisimilitude.

There's no reason for Sergio not to talk to Katie or talk about putting a plan together to prove what Katie is up to, but it would be kind of ridiculous if he just straight-up stabbed her in the middle of the street and then married her sister. Forward motion does not mean doing the craziest possible thing at all times. There should be some nuance in your behavior.

Besides, if he stabs someone he's probably going to jail, right?

Yes, it's another red-haired cat, but not the same red-haired cat.Zany no-consequence land

No one ever goes to jail in a soap opera. He gets acquitted, or the case is thrown out, or something something and now he's not in jail any more. Even if it's a known fact that he killed a man. The only consequences to the constant overreactions are interpersonal; if the writers want to get rid of a character, that character dies and then is later revealed to still be alive when the writers want the character back again. There's no ultimate penalty or threat or danger or anything.

Even beyond verisimilitude, your actions need to have consequences. It's one of the most basic lessons you learn as a child, and it's the reason why children raised without consequences grow up to be awful adults. There's no mental connection between punching a cop and being thrown in jail, or there's a thought that it's somehow unfair, that this cop deserved a gut shot.

The threat of things like death and jail and loss needs to be real to your characters. There need to be stakes. Yes, the only thing you lose upon death in Star Wars: The Old Republic are a few credits for repair costs, but that's a game mechanic, not the state of existence. People die, it's unpleasant, and nobody wants to die, least of all your character.

If Sergio's right about Katie, that should stick with her. If she's plotting to overthrow the government, she should be tossed in jail or at least be exiled. For that matter, that creates more roleplaying chances and gives you new stories to tell. Exploring consequences can be even more fun than just hand-waving away the ones that seem too harsh. If you can't handle the heat for murder, avoid the murder kitchen.

The narrative landscape

I am trained to write fiction. That means I am also trained to analyze, deconstruct, and evaluate fiction on a hopelessly nitpicking level. It used to irritate the heck out of Ms. Lady until she trained herself to do the same thing, and now no one wants to go to the movies with us. But that's not the upshot here.

Soap operas have some pretty big narrative problems that exist mostly by design. The goal isn't to create a coherent story so much as it is to keep you watching the next episode to see what crazy stuff happens next. This is entertaining for a bit, but it wears on you pretty quickly.

Hopefully, roleplaying doesn't. You get the idea or you don't.

Feedback is welcome down below or via mail to, just as always. Next week, I'm talking about how roleplaying isn't really one thing; the week after that, I want to talk about pre-planning.

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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