Get your RP on

timcurryYes, I’m a roleplayer. I could give the rambling “started in the 80s, did this and that in the 90s, do this and that now” but really, my gaming history is the same as that of almost every other gamer my age; the only thing that changes is what we played at a given time. I have no problem pretending I’m someone else and, if required, putting on a silly accent or a silly costume. I’ve even *gasp* done some semi-live RP (LRP or LARP, depending). Only semi- because the type we did wasn’t so heavy on the rubber swords and relied, instead, on intense politicking and GM-decided outcomes, if necessary, of things like spells. We used the Ars Magica game setting, where people are more likely to poison each other’s jam sammiches than they are to draw a sword. I not only played a bunch of those, I co-wrote a bunch with some extremely talented and much-missed friends in the UK. (I’d link you up but sadly it was a decade ago and we weren’t so smart about keeping stuff online for posterity back then…)

Point being, I have no fear of performing in front of other people, and I’m quite practiced at conceiving, writing, portaying, and retiring tabletop and live RP characters. But when it comes to roleplaying in an MMO… I’m a log. I’m so wooden, I’ll probably get contacted by the History channel for some lumberjack reality TV action.

I just can’t do it. I’ve tried, many times, and in many different settings. And while I can “fake” it to some extent — my characters can say the right things and I can type the right emotes and whatnot — to me, it just feels fake. Now if you never roleplay and you think the whole thing is stupid to begin with, you won’t get this, so don’t worry about it. But if you do, maybe you’ll understand the unease one gets about not being able to get “into character” at all.

It’s a problem I have with all online games, though more with some than others. At base, my discomfort comes from the fact that I feel too distanced from the whole thing — I’m typing and looking at a screen at content (images) that have been determined for me by someone else; that in itself is imagination-death for me. (Waiting for replies is even worse. Angry RP remark…. wait…. wait….. wait some more…. Cutting retort!) Interestingly, I know a lot of role-players for whom that very anonymity and distance is what allows them to attempt it in the first place — there are quite possibly far more online-RPers than tabletop-RPers nowadays. For many, it’s a safer environment than sitting around a table where you have to see that the gossamer-winged fairy princess is actually a man well past his fairy or his princess phase; for me on the other hand, that’s not a problem — I can see past the voice and the looks and imagine what I need, but the actual presence of other players in the room is what helps trigger the whole imagination-thing. Call it consensual not-quite-hallucination.

A fair few of my friends and acquaintances think I’m ass-backward when it comes to RP. Online, you have the right looks and you have no need to know who’s at the keyboard, AND the whole world is there, drawn right for you. I know. I understand how that helps many people. For me, it just makes it more difficult.

And the more generic a setting is, the harder I find it to even try to roleplay there. All the standard fantasy-style settings just kill me — yes, even WAR with its rich lore. I’ve played Warhammer-not-online (the RPG, not the armies game) and that was a whole lot of fun. But the thought of trying to do justice to a character online just leaves me cold. WoW is the same. Vanguard had some interesting possibilities. Oddly enough, the easiest I’ve found it to roleplay in MMOs was in SWG and CoX, and I’m not sure if it’s just a matter of not being some generic fantasy setting; after all, CoX is just some generic superhero setting.

Maybe part of what puts me off online RP is how uptight a lot of RPers seem to get — theeing and thouing and ye-olde-shoppe-over-yondering, which usually makes me want to snort rather than engage in deep RP. To me, real people who really lived in these fantasy worlds wouldn’t sound like they had a brick up their backside, unless the character called for it. Yes, we need to speak just a little differently in fantasy, because that reinforces the setting for us… but not so much that it starts to smell of ham.* Actually, WAR should get an honourable mention in this respect, since its NPCs are pretty universally down to earth and believable for their environment — they swear and they’re both tetchy and somehow salt of the earth, and it goes hand in hand with the PCs occasionally exclaiming “Bollocks!” when something goes wrong.

Even so, no matter how conducive the setting I suspect I would still find it extremely difficult. The fact that I’m typing and staring at a chat box (or worse, speech bubbles) does for me what having to see the other players does for other people. If you can’t suspend your disbelief and get your imagination going, you can’t roleplay. You can pretend to roleplay, but you won’t be getting from it what you should, which is that sense of people telling a common story and making it up as they go. Really GOOD roleplay requires people to give up control — over their characters, over what’s going to happen, over how other people react — so anything that distances you from the experience makes it harder to get to that non-controlled stage.

In one of my trademark changes of heart tangents, I’d like to make the case that this whole giving up control thing is what differentiates great roleplaying from merely competent roleplaying. The idea isn’t to be competent, the idea is for everyone to have a blast and/or be moved if it goes really well; it’s entirely possible for RP experiences to be as memorable and affecting as a great book, play, or other form of entertainment. And yet there’s a subset of roleplayers (both tabletop and online) who not only can’t begin to give up that much control but also want to control everyone else — if you’ve RP’d, chances are you’ve met their type. They’re the people who decide not only what their characters do and say, but often also what your characters do, sometimes even what they “ought to” say, what their name should be, how they should dress, or how other people should react to what your character does; they’re the people who get pissy when stories don’t come out according to whatever script they have in their own head. That’s not RPing, that’s directing. Get a camera and find a location, or put on a play in a game. Playing a role /= roleplaying, weird as that may sound to non-RPers.

I don’t have a final point, really. I just wanted to ponder RP as it applies to games, not necessarily even MMOs. Do you roleplay? Do you find yourself sneakily thinking in character during Fable2 or L4D even though you’re a tough, gruff, non-RP type who thinks RP is for sissies and girls? Do you drop into character really easily no matter what the medium? And if so, what tricks do you use for doing that in MMOs? I could use the info!

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*Ursula K LeGuin gave a great talk on this general subject back in 1972, which was later transcribed as “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” — not an easy article to find these days, but it’s part of several other anthologies, including her own The Language of the Night, which I can heartily recommend to any aspiring or interested fantasy/SF/general writer. I doubt it’s still in print, but it should be findable second-hand. I guess back then they didn’t call it “immersion,” but that’s what it is.