Roleplay 101 – Part 2: What TO do

Over my years in Second Life, I’ve entered several roleplay sims and situations. Many have been great fun, but some have been… dire. (I’ve always said I’ll be nothing but upfront in this blog; there has been direness galore.)

Sometimes the direness has come about purely via the assholeish behaviour of others, but far more of it has come about through simple ignorance/innocence of basic roleplay conventions (not to mention common courtesy). While some may say that rules are there to be broken, there are some rules – unspoken among roleplayers, but nonetheless understood – that should not even be bent, let alone busted in two. And then, there’s all that other stuff.

This is the second post in the Roleplay 101 series, and we’re heading into a more positive note with stuff that you should be doing, in order to get the most out of a roleplay situation. Some of these may sound like “don’ts” but they’re actually “do’s”. Just tilt your head and squint, and you should see it ;-)

Previous posts
Part 1: What NOT to do

Yep, this is a looong post. Be warned…

Backstory is something you should spend a little time thinking about. In fact, it’s the one thing that you should think about before you start roleplaying in earnest. While your character’s backstory may not reveal itself until you have been in the sim for a while, you need to at least roleplay initially with one eye open to things that you could use in your backstory.

What is backstory?

Essentially, backstory is everything that has happened to your character, up until the present moment in time. It’s his/her history, or life so far. If you’ve just dropped into an RP sim that’s new to you, still wearing your observer or explorer tag, take a look around and don’t be afraid to ask residents for advice, or what the current storylines are in the sim (do this in IM, rather than open chat, though). A good roleplayer will be only too happy to fill you in, and possibly even help you out, and all of that could help you to develop your backstory.

A few starter points

  • Why is your character here? Have they lived here all their life, or are they recently arrived? If they have always been here, it will help to find out the local gossip and get to know some of the regular players, if possible. Recent arrival is the better option to pick, if you’re unsure or don’t want to contact other players just yet.
  • If you have arrived from your travels, what brought you here, and where have you been? Maybe you have family or friends here, or perhaps it looked like a welcoming place to rest your head for a few nights.
  • What is your status in life? Are you high-born/low-born, rich/poor, or slave/servant? How does your character react to that status, and the way it affects their life? Is a high-born woman in a medieval-themed sim being married off by her family, against her will? Is a low-born man in a gothic Victorian sim trying to start up a humble business but being threatened by other merchants who think he might ‘lower the tone’ of the area?
  • Who are your family, and do you like them?  It might seem like an odd thought, but take the above scenario of the woman being married off against her will. She’s not going to be very enamoured of her family, is she?
  • What is your level of education? Are you illiterate, or educated in the gentlemanly (or -womanly) arts?
  • What kind of friendships do you keep? Have you a large coterie of friends, or just one or two close ones? Either choice will give you further ideas for your character: the former probably being an outgoing and open character, the latter being less trusting and possibly more introverted.
  • What is the one thing you fear most? A person’s fears show their innermost self. Being married off by her family into a life of serving her husband might be our independent young woman’s greatest fear. Which then shows us that she’s wilful and free-spirited, and that then sparks off other ideas: perhaps she was a tomboy as a young child, always getting into mischief, learning to ride and fence, to the dismay of her parents… you get the general idea.
  • Do you have any issues? Every character has at least one issue: something that will cause them to react in a specific way to others. Taking our unwilling bride-to-be as an example: she may have control issues (not wanting to devote her life to serving a man), freedom issues (she wants to live her life, not be tied down) or family issues (hate the bastards for making her get married!) You may have a hatred of authority figures because your strict father beat you as a child, or a kneejerk reaction to just run whenever you’re in a fight situation because your best friend was stabbed and killed in a street brawl.
  • What are your secrets? I don’t mean where to get knock-off electronics or cheap legal highs, but the stuff you’d pay a great deal of money for others NOT to know. What would you keep hidden close to your chest? What would panic you if it was revealed, or you thought it might be revealed? And what lengths would you go to in order to prevent it from being revealed?
  • Are you in a position of power? If so, how did you come by it? By inheritance, lawful means, or dishonest means? Contrary-wise, if you are in a weak position (servant or slave, for example) have you always been that way, or were you perhaps once high-born and captured/sold?
  • What are your goals in life? Our bride-to-be might simply want to be independent, setting up her own stall in the marketplace, or exploring the world. We all have goals.
  • Do you have (or might you have in the future) any relationships with other characters in the sim? Exactly what kind of relationships are they? Lovers? Enemies? Best friends? Enforced civility?

Hopefully those ideas will get you started on creating your character’s backstory :-)

“Taking turns?” I hear you cry. “This isn’t a game of Monopoly!”

Well… no, it’s not. But taking turns, as far as you can possibly do it, is a good way to keep RP flowing. In an RP of three or less people, as long as you’re all fairly quick with your responses, a smooth and flowing RP can quickly ensue. In larger groups, however, you’re best reacting as and when you can.

The reason I suggest taking turns is simply because quite often confusion can arise, especially when characters are asking questions. An example exchange between Amanda and Bruce might go thus, if no turns are taken:

Amanda: “Greetings. Is this seat taken?”
Amanda sits down.
Bruce: (composing reply to question)
Amanda: “Does this tavern have rooms to rent?”
Bruce gestures to the seat. “No, please feel free.”
Bruce: (composing reply to second question)
Amanda looks around. “It’s a nice place. Do you come here often?”
OOC: Bruce is completely confused!

Poor Bruce! Amanda hasn’t given him a chance to reply to one question before she fires off another at him. And in the first instance, Bruce’s reply of, “No, please feel free,” looks like a confusing and contradictory response to Amanda’s question about available rooms. Amanda just needs to have a little more patience, and the RP would flow much more smoothly.

In smaller groups, an agreed-upon pose order (a pose is the name given in many RP circles to your response) can help. So, if it was agreed in advance that A would pose first, C would follow A, and B would pose after C (a simple call of: “Pose order A, C, B?” would do it), everyone would know where they were:

A unsheaths his blade and takes up a ready stance. “Sir, for that insult I call you out!”

C arches an amused eyebrow. “Then you are a foolish man.” He draws his own blade: clearly a well-kept, finely-honed, and much-used sword.

B: “A, my friend, withdraw that challenge! Do you not know that C is the finest swordsman in this land?!”

Etc etc. Without a pose order, such a roleplay might dissolve into confusion. Write the pose order on a Post-It note and stick it to your monitor, to help you remember it ;-)

Also, remember that English is not the first language of everyone in SL. Be patient when waiting for replies.

“Mary Sue” (and its male equivalent, “Marty Stu”) is a fandom term for a self-insert (the author writing themselves into the story, however thickly-veiled) in a fanfiction, usually where the self-insert is just too perfect to be true. Mary Sues are often irresistibly beautiful (violet eyes are a common stereotype; the Elizabeth Taylor effect), and can handle almost any situation. Think every heroine you’ve ever heard of, all rolled into one, and that’s Mary Sue. Likewise, Marty Stu is hunky and strong, smart and able to take on (and beat) anyone in a fight.

Flaws? Good grief, those two have no flaws! Why, flaws would make them…

… actually, flaws would make them a damn sight more interesting than the bland perfection they seem to be projecting at the moment.

They don’t have to be huge flaws or physical imperfections; just think of something that you  could use in roleplay. A good flaw to have is some kind of weakness. Maybe Mary Sue is a little over-fond of the booze, and that can lead her to mess up when her normally clear-thinking brain would let her pick that complex lock in a few minutes. And Marty Stu could play on his good looks with a serious vanity flaw that leads him into trouble when the local gang use a gorgeous woman to flatter and distract him before they beat the crap out of him.

What’s that? You don’t want to get beaten up? You don’t want to not be able to pick the lock? Well… enjoy your perfect (and very boring) roleplay… because you ain’t gonna have much in the way of storyline to work with if everything goes your way all the time. Sunshine and fluffy bunnies and rainbows doth not a great plot make. Angst and pain, however? Oh hell yes.

It’s hard to react to nothing. Think about it a bit. Imagine you’re roleplaying with someone, and they’re not speaking out loud. While you can keep that kind of RP going for a short while, without conversation it’s not going to last long. Try to never write more than two ‘silent’ poses in a row, before giving your RP partner(s) something to respond to.

What is a ‘silent’ pose? Mainly, it’s just expressing your thoughts as your pose. If our character Amanda was posing silently, she might be writing such things as:

Amanda looks to the sky, thinking back to when she met Bruce, and how handsome she thought he was. She turns her head and looks up at him now, admiring the figure he cuts as he stands over her.

‘I would marry Bruce, if he asked’, she thinks, recalling the time when her father told her he wished to see her wedded. ‘If only he would ask!’

Well now, poor Bruce is standing there, and his player is reading those poses and probably wishing she would phrase that in a way whereby he could ask! But since he can’t read her mind (unless telepathy is a character skill of his) he doesn’t stand a chance, and it would be bad RP if he suddenly asked her immediately after that. Blurting it out, as a long-suppressed thought of his own, after some time has passed since Amanda’s initial thoughts, however, might work.

So how could she phrase it, to give him the chance to respond? How about:

Amanda looks to the sky, thinking back to when she met Bruce, and how handsome she thought he was. She turns her head and looks up at him now, admiring the figure he cuts as he stands over her.

“My dashing friend,” she says softly, tempering the words with a smile, lest he think her too forward. “You look particularly fine this eve. Would that my father could see you, for he might put you forward as a suitable husband for me!”

She looks down with a blush, adding an abashed, “That is to say… I… I think he would be most impressed, and I should not have… um… oh dear…” Oh, now she has done it. She wanted him to know of her admiration, and yes, her desire, but not in such a humiliating manner!

Okay, that’s fluffy and schmaltzy (going for the Harlequin award there), but Amanda has shown her willingness (and managed to embarrass herself in the proceedings!) but her foot-in-mouth words are endearing, and her blushes give Bruce something great to react to. He can either accept the unspoken invitation, or – if it’s not something that he wants – he can use the excuse of deflecting her embarrassment (in a gentlemanly fashion, of course!) to let her down gently.

Remember: your RP partners can’t read your mind (unless you’re in a sim where mind-reading is a character ability) so you need to give them something to respond to. If you really have no dialogue, then at least respond with actions. You can show many things that are just as good as verbal responses, merely by your physical actions.

A simple one, this, but a little research goes a long way. Some basic hints:

  • If a sim has rules, read them! Likewise, if they offer notecards giving guidelines or suggestions, read those also. Keep them, too, for future reference.
  • In a themed sim, make a point of looking up a few words and phrases online that might be suitable to use, but don’t go overboard. Nobody in a Shakespearean sim would expect you to speak in iambic pentameter, but peppering your conversation with a few thees and thous, and knowing some good Elizabethan curses (or even Elizabethan-sounding curses: “God’s teeth!”, or “God’s death!” anyone?) will make your RP sound a little more true. Instead of “yes”, try using “aye” and “nay” for “no”, for example. Instead of “goodbye” try “safe roads”, “safe paths”, or “fare thee well”. Think of it as akin to visiting a foreign country: it helps if you can ask for directions, order a meal, and understand train timetables in another language, but you don’t need to know how to read poetry in that language in order to get by.
  • Likewise, in an historical sim based on RL (or based on a fictional world) make a point of at least becoming familiar with the basics of that era or world (eg: if you’re thinking of going into Gor, at least find out the rules of John Norman’s world, and for Bladerunner City, watch Ridley Scott’s movie). There are plenty of good primers available online on most popular themes used in RP areas.

Amanda and Bruce are still in our historical sim:

Bruce rises as Amanda enters the tavern. With an extravagant bow, he gestures to the chair he has just vacated and says gallantly, “A lady should never stand when there is a chair to be had. Please, my lady, take my chair.”

Amanda: Thanks.

Bruce smiles. “Can I fetch thee a drink? The day is hot enough to parch any throat. This place serves good wine, or if mead is to your liking then their honey mead cannot be surpassed.”

Amanda: Mead, please.

Bruce executes a lesser bow and heads for the bar…

Yes, and probably never to return! Poor Bruce! Look at the effort he was putting into his RP, and all that Amanda gave him in return was a few short words. It might simply be inexperience on Amanda’s behalf, or maybe even a lack of confidence in her own RP skills, but Bruce is giving her a good example there of how RP can be done, and you know… it’s not that hard to RP well. You just need to make an effort…

Laziness and coasting are two things that RPers bitch about among themselves. I’m sorry to say it, but there you are. It isn’t going to cost you hours of sweat and toil to add a little bit of description to your pose, and it’s a courtesy that you should show to anyone who is making an effort with you.

Take the example above, where Amanda simply responds with “thanks”. If I were Bruce and that had been the response to my first pose, it would have coloured my entire view of Amanda and made me less likely to enjoy the RP. Her follow-up would have confirmed that viewpoint, and if it had continued in that manner I would have ensured I gave Amanda my full attention and detailed RP for that one session, but probably would avoid getting into RP with her again.

How might she have responded? Let’s look at the RP again, and let’s allow Amanda to respond with a little bit of effort put into her poses:

Bruce rises as Amanda enters the tavern. With an extravagant bow, he gestures to the chair he has just vacated and says gallantly, “A lady should never stand when there is a chair to be had. Please, my lady, take my chair.”

Amanda: “Most kind of thee, sir. I have walked far this day, and my feet will be glad of the rest.” Amanda sinks into the chair, giving the stranger a grateful look.

Bruce smiles. “Can I fetch thee a drink? The day is hot enough to parch any throat. This place serves good wine, or if mead is to your liking then their honey mead cannot be surpassed.”

Amanda returns that smile. “I will have the mead, upon such a recommendation. Again, my thanks, good sir.”

Bruce executes another bow and heads for the bar…

And this time he’s much more likely to return with a drink, because Amanda has actually engaged him in good RP, making an effort to return the courtesy he is showing her, in character.

In your RL, you might use words such as “OK”, “sure”, “kid”, and “hi”,   but use them in RP when you’re in, say, a medieval sim and you’ve just committed the cardinal sin of Glaring Anachronism.

Your very first words in a new RP sim will probably be ones of greeting when you run into another resident. Let’s assume that Amanda and Bruce are roleplaying in a sim which is based in the Elizabethan era. While Shakespeare often used slang of the time (and indeed made up a great many of his own words), when you’re in that sim, modern slang just looks all wrong.

Amanda: “Hi!”
Bruce: “Greetings. I see you are new. Would you like me to show you around?”
Amanda: “OK, sure.”
Amanda: “Who’s the kid?
Bruce: “This area is the… oh ignore the child: she works in the tavern.”

Amanda is using nothing but anachronisms here, and it’s cringeworthy. Let’s see how it could be done:

Amanda: “Greetings.”
Bruce: “Greetings. I see you are new. Would you like me to show you around?”
Amanda: “My thanks. I would like that very much.”
Amanda: “Who is that child?
Bruce: “This area is the… oh ignore the child: she works in the tavern.”

That kind of language is a lot more in keeping with the idiom of the whole sim. A little bit of research goes a long way, especially in historical sims. Again, I’m not suggesting you try to speak in iambic pentameter, but knowing when to use your thous and thees can be useful.

A common newbie roleplayer mistake is to do all the taking and none of the giving.

What do I mean by that? A roleplay sim is not there to service all of your wants and needs only. Of course, you want to have fun, but so does everyone else in the sim. Don’t expect everyone else to join in your roleplay, to let you have things your way all the time, to forsake their own roleplay just because you need them to help you do X. They will do that, just as long as you join in their roleplay, as long as you let them have their way sometimes, and as long as you forsake your roleplay to help them do X.

By all means take; just remember to give, else you’ll find that everyone else ‘forgets’ to give in return.

When you’re new at something, it’s hard to take the initiative. You’re afraid you don’t know the world well enough, and you’re scared of being slapped down for making a mistake.

Get over it, kiddo! Your RP is what you make of it, and although others can help you to build it, it’s up to you to ensure you have a good time when you’re roleplaying. The other players are not there to ensure your happiness.

If you’ve been playing for more than a few weeks in an RP sim, other players will grow tired and annoyed if they have to babysit you through every action. They may come to feel as though you are expecting them to take the lead and entertain you and find something interesting for you to do. You can’t make other players responsible for ensuring you have a good and interesting RP. That’s your job.

If you have nothing to do, think of something! Get drunk, fuck the Master of the house (fuck the slaves, even, but expect consequences from that!), steal, pick a fight, be sly, despise, lie, fall in love, fall down, get a nosebleed, make someone jealous and then pretend to be totally innocent…

Whatever it is you do, it’s up to you to do it. Don’t expect others to run your RP for you, even if you’re a slave. Even the sweetest and most pliant slave still has a little nip of fire deep inside him or her somewhere. To be a slave does not mean to be slavishly submissive. Even if you only have wicked thoughts (ones that, if your Master remembers his good RP, he cannot mindread!) that’s giving you more character and more fun with your RP.

In Summary

You get out of roleplay what you put in. There’s very little more to it than that. Quite the same as life, if you think about it. Give a bit and you’ll be given a bit back. Sure, you’ll run into the occasional selfish asshole, but don’t let that spoil your enjoyment of a roleplay location.

In the next post in this series I’m going to be sharing snippets of various roleplay sessions that I’ve been involved in, and analysing them for good and bad points, and where improvements could be made. (Other players’ names will be changed, of course.)