Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Introduction to roleplaying, part 2: find out who you are

This is part 2 of a series of posts designed to introduce fellow MMO players to roleplaying. Part 1 covered the basics of what roleplaying is, hopefully in enough detail for people to decide whether they want to get involved or not. Here, I'll assume that you're interested enough to want to give RP a try and want some starter tips about how to go about it. I've listed the process in terms of three steps, but it's important to understand that these aren't linear - it's perfectly OK to switch between these as you refine your ideas and even go back and change things if a better idea comes to you later on. Step one of this process is deciding what you character is like as a person, which is what I'll be discussing in here. Step 2 is about how you portray your character to the world around you and step 3 is about how you interact with other people - I'll cover those in future posts.

When I used the word "you" in the title, of course, I meant the character you play, rather than the person you are in real life. When you're roleplaying you are taking on the part of someone who lives in a fantasy world, who may well have a very different life story and personality to the real you. That means you need to take time out to think about how they would act. For a newcomer to RP, this can be quite a daunting prospect, so feel free to start out with quite a sketchy character concept and refine it as time goes on.

To start off with, you need to have a general idea of what your character is like and what part they play in the world. A good way to kick this off is to start with a role model, either from fiction or real life and then tweak that character to make it your own. When doing this it's best to avoid major characters (such as Darth Vader or the eternally-irritating Legolas). Instead, base them on someone you know well or a supporting character from fiction.

One thing to avoid is creating a person that is just a "super me" - like you, but more important, better looking, smarter & cooler. Sadly, this is a very common trait in authors of fan fiction, to the extent that there is a special name for characters like this: Mary Sue. It's that kind of super-powered wish-fulfillment character that Thellus was mocking in the description I quoted in Part 1.

Another thing to watch out for is creating characters that only work if they are the main hero. This might be fine for a book or a single player game, but the nature of MMOs is that you are one player amongst thousands, and the central roles are already taken by the likes of Thrall.

What you're looking for is a real person: someone who is interesting enough for other players to want to speak to, but not so domineering that they demand to be the centre of attention all the time. Questions you may wish to ask yourself include:

  • How do they see the world? Is it a wonderful exciting place fully of opportunities or a dark place that can only get worse. Maybe it's just sort-of-ok.
  • How do they react to that world-view? Eternally optimistic despite all odds, bitter and cynical, lazy and apathetic, or full of practical ideas for making the world better?
  • If you knew them in real-life, what would you find intriguing or irritating about them? 
  • What is it about them that others would find memorable?

Back story
Next you need to think about the character's past and how they fit into the world:

  • What kind of family are they from and how important are they in their life? Try to avoid the lazy option of making your character an orphan - I know there have been a lot of conflicts in WOW, but the orphanages are full! It's perfectly OK to put this one in the "I haven't decided yet" bin if no good ideas spring immediately to mind.
  • Who are their friends and enemies? By enemies I don't just mean "Arthas destroyed everything I love and now he must die" - how about the handsome drifter who stole the heart of your childhood sweetheart or that bitch who won the Silvermoon poetry competition with her awful whining dirges?
  • Why are they doing what they are now? Is your warrior someone from a military family that felt obliged to join up even when they'd really rather have become a carpenter, or a philosopher and poet who sees the martial arts as a means of perfecting themselves?
Pulling it all together
Right - that's enough guidelines. Let's try to put together a practical example to show how it all works. We'll start off with our role-model: in this case I've chosen the glorious Huggy Bear from the 70s cop show Starsky & Hutch. Now at first sight Huggy doesn't seem like a good place to start for a fantasy game, but that's what makes him interesting.

The obvious choice of class for Huggy would be rogue, so naturally I won't be using that! Let's make things a bit trickier and call him a troll priest.

Our fantasy version of Huggy (I'll call him Farjin) needs to be similar to the role model, but changed enough to not be a direct clone. Let's start with the questions I asked above, with some comments in italics:

  • Farjin sees the world as full of hope and opportunity, where the light can offer salvation. This makes him a pretty nice guy to have around, although he may frustrate his more jaded friends.
  • He's continuously looking out for new ways of raising funds for the needy, although he doesn't always think them through properly. This is a great roleplaying opportunity - it allows us to go up and speak to strangers to try to get them to help the church. It also offers the opportunity for some light-hearted moments as another plan goes wrong in ways that were entirely predictable to everyone except Farjin.
  • If I knew him in real life, I'd probably find him charming, but feel slightly annoyed that I kept agreeing to help out with his crazy schemes. I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd pretend to be out if Farjin came to call early on a Sunday morning. Hangovers & building a new play area for the orphans don't mix.
  • Farjin has an extremely loud taste in clothing and favours bright colours that hurt the eyes. He's also very friendly, chatty and enthusiastic. You don't forget him, but even if you do, he remembers you! Whilst you don't want to be over the top, the best RP characters are memorable in some way. Not everybody is paying as much attention to your character as you are, so some interesting quirks help them place you when you meet again.
  • Like many Darkspear trolls, Farjin and his family were forced to flee the Echo Isles, and they arrived penniless in Orgrimmar. His parents were street-traders and soon started a new business - a knack Farjin has picked up. He's extremely protective of his younger sister, who is continuously attempting to escape his watchful eye & go off & have fun! Another roleplaying opportunity: "'ave ya seen ma sista? She be 'bout dis 'igh."
  • Farjin tries to be friends with everybody, but is nervous around the more traditional trollish shadow-priests. Not very good, so I'll leave this for now - some better ideas may come to me later on.
  • Farjin became a priest because he loves helping people - he's a sucker for a good cause. This means that more scheming players may be able to manipulate him, which is another great opportunity to set up interesting RP situations.
Farjin has come quite a long way from the original Huggy-style street hustler, but that's good: he's starting to turn into a unique person. In part 3, I'll explore how you communicate that to the other players around you.


  1. Another great post! I would like to add one more thing to the Mary Sue archetype: do not force your way around cliches. Everything has been written or thought before and you are bound to repeat it. There is nothing wrong with using cliches, you just must not overdo. For example, one of the best characters I ever had was this:

    Angrak Longtusk, Orc Warrior of old age. He was one of the Warlords in Third War, captured in Naxxramas where he befriended a certain Dwarf Thane (my other character). They traveled back together as for saving his life, the thane swore to accompany Angrak back to homeland. Whent they reached Angrak's hut near Razor Hill, they found his wife and daughter murdered. Dwarven Thane left Angrak pursuing his own path, Angrak stormed into Orgrimmar to punish the opposing Warlord who he believed was responsible for the death of his family, however ended up "dishonorably discharged" and fled to exile. He came back many years later, more moved into the Shamanistic way of life and pursued his revenge. Now, all abovesaid is one big cliche, from start to end. I am first one to admit that. Important on the story is, it never has been played out as cliche. There were only few people amongst Angraks closest friends who knew what really happened, what has driven this old Orc. Heck, even his adoptive blood elf daughter had close to no idea. She knew something happened to his family and that some Orgrimmar general was involved, but that's it. Angrak never walked around shouting and emoting how powerful and mighty he is, bragging about his deeds and having it all written in his FlagRSP. All his FlagRSP said was Angrak Longtusk, former Warlord (Please bear in mind the difference between Warchief=Thrall and Warlord=General).

    Character quirks - do not be shy to borrow character quirks from your favourite books. Back to Angrak, when he was thinking about spilling blood, or considering tactic/strategy before an attack, he very often cut his hand/thumb with the tip of his weapon and licked the blood drop (Gotrek Gurnisson from Warhammer by King) and as much as I was convinced everyone else is same Whammer junkie as I was, most of the people I encountered never connected Angrak's quirk to Warhammer.

    Last note that probably has been said before - roleplaying is a team thing. The best fun you will ever have is by creating non-godlike character that actually gives others a ways to interact and a space for their own development.


    PS: Sorry for the lengthy post :)

  2. Thanks Rahana - all excellent points. There is a point in every player's life where they feel comfortable enough in their role (in the job sense, as well as the RP sense) to break the rules and know why they're doing it. For a raider, that may be the moment when they realise that the cookie-cutter spec they picked up from EJ isn't the best one for a specific fight and for a roleplayer it can be when they can do things that may seem like a cliché at first sight.

    However, that line can be pretty hard to walk for beginners, so I've tried to stick to the basics in this introduction. If I ever get around to writing a more advanced series, it will probably start with something like: "You know all the rules I told you in the first series. Ignore them."