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HomeThe Elements of Roleplay

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I was thinking again, just now, and I was thinking that this sort of thing hasn't been done before. I was talking in length to Rockie in IRC earlier today and we had a good long discussion about creating characters, plots, and making a good quest. It occurred to me that no one has really come out and said what they think makes good characters and good stories. And since we had JUST had the chat, and I've been around UO for so long and have seen a lot of what works and what doesn't, and also because I'm and English Major and study a lot of literature (which, believe it or not, has a LOT in common with roleplaying), I thought I'd take the time from my busy schedule (cough, cough), and write up what I think makes for good Roleplaying.

I start with my opinion of what makes a good character, because at the heart of any story, is the character. The character is everything. If a story doesn't have at least one character, it most likely isn't a story. Take whatever you like from this. I am being a little arogant, yes, in saying that I think I know what makes for good RP and what makes for good story. If you respect me, then listen to what I say here. If not, please don't simply flame me for doing this, but write up a response outlining what you think good rp is.

Section 1. What Makes a Good Character?

When you sit down to create a new character -- for a storyline, a new establishment you're creating, to be a PVP character, part of a quest, or just to make a new RP character -- what is the first thing you decide? No, really! Stop reading. Think about it long and hard for a minute. Try to remember the last character you made and how you went about doing it.

Now, what was the first thing you decided? Was your answer something like: "taming/veterinary/animal lore/magery/meditation/resist/eval"? If so, you have broken my first rule for creating a character. A character should be like a real person. Absolutely no one decides on the day they were born that when they grow up, they want to go to The University of North Dakota to study marine biology and then work for the US Government doing studies of the deep ocean floor. No. That's just not how it works. They discover, as they grow up, things that fascinate them.. or are pushed in certain directions by what happens to them. This is how your character should be. There are elements of design you must finish before choosing the skills he or she will have:

A. Family History.

Detail the biological history of the character. Go at least two generations back. Who are the character's great grandparents? Who are the character's grand parents? Parents? Immediate brothers and sisters? Important cousins, nephews, aunts, uncles? Come up with their names. First and Last. Come up with a vague understanding of their lives, as well--their jobs, duties, important events in their life, accomplishments. You might even consider making a family tree.

B. The Character's Name.

This is not something to be done in a second. My number one peice of advice is not to use names from a movie or book you love. Don't do this. You will have zero respect from me if you do this until I get to know your player. And even then, I'll probably make fun of your character's name. If you really love a book or movie SO much that you HAVE to put something into the game from it, pick an obscure name. Second, don't take names from UO fiction. This.. this should be a given, but I don't understand why people still do it. Dupre? Iolo? Mondain? STOP THAT! STOP THAT, STOP THAT, STOP THAT! Also, don't put "Sir" infront of your name. You have to EARN a title like that. The same goes for calling yourself something like "Dark Shadow". Sure, it sounds cool, but .. c'mon. Who is named Dark Shadow? R-o-l-e P-l-a-y. Give your character a real first and last name. Make it pronouncable. Xxarylsra'sxtan might look interesting, but can you say it? You don't have to give your character a name from real life. You don't have to name her Sue Ellen or name him David Jones. Just use english grammar. A silent e changes a vowel's sound, and usually consanants are not found more than two in a row. Ullar DeVane. Morash Kallore. Notice that in both examples there, the first and last names have two syllables. This makes them catchy--it has to do with the rules of poetry. If you want a long first name or long last name, be sure to counter balance it. If you want a long last name, have a short first name or vice versa. Good: Don Valahumansa. Good: Mylanatambra Ven. Bad: Toramala Kansusaman. Bad: Ellanoria VonDesbrenka.

C. Childhood.

Detail the character's youth. Where was he or she born? Did he or she have many friends? Are they still alive? Where did the character go to school, if any? How was the character raised? Did she have brutal parents? Did he have nice parents? Spoiled rotten?What events happened in your character's childhood? Did he witness a murder? Did she get raped? Was he saved from being murdered by a friend? Did she meet someone famous? Keep it real though. No one is saved from the clutches of an evil wizard, a horde of orcs, escapes from the lair of a sleeping dragon, and meets a god all in their childhood. It doesn't have to be something spectacular. In fact, the more seemingly less important, the more impact it will have. The child who witnesses a village get stormed by orcs is TRAUMATIZED, not changed. The child who is kidnapped and held prisoner by an evil wizard is DEPRESSED for life, not changed. But the child who sees a warrior spare an orc pleading for its life is inspired and IS changed.

D. Personality.

The character's personality should be carefully decided based on what you have chosen for his/her childhood and now based slightly on what you think the character's profession should be. Will she be sympathetic? Heartless? Will he be outgoing or introverted? Easily prone to anger or generally calm? I include in this section things like hobbies or quirks. You should figure out the trivial stuff too. Does she have a rock collection? A shell collection? Will he refuse to eat a certain type of food? Is he afraid of magic? Does she have allergies to cats? Does she hate people who

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E. Goals and the "Fatal Flaw".

If the character is involved in a quest, he or she should probably have a goal. It might not be much. The character might just be a throw away that gives the players a hint. But she should still have some sort of goal. He might just be frightened of the players and trying to get them to go away as soon as possible. Or she might be the sort who likes to amuse herself and keeps toying with the players. Regardless of whether a character is in a quest or not, she should have, what is referred to in literature as a "fatal flaw". In Hamlet, his flaw was his inability to decide and act. This is a complex thing to describe, so I can only do it by an example. A very sterotypical examples but it gets the message across more easily:

Example: Say your character had a brother once, and that brother was killed by orcs. Not just killed by orcs; butchered by orcs. And forced to watch. And then forced to watch as the orcs drank his blood. Now.. your character goes a little insane after this and goes on a killing rampage, destroying every orc clan he can find. Nothing stops him. Nothing gets in his way. Nothing will prevent him from eradicating the orcs. BUT! The character comes upon four orcs. One orc immediately comes at him, trying to prevent him from getting to the others. He easily kills that orc, then stops. The other three orcs are obviously a mother and father and a small child orc. The child is quivering, terrified to death, and the two parents are defiantly keeping the child behind them. The character is immediately taken back to the scene with his brother. Hasn't the character become the very monster he was trying to destroy? Can he kill the parents? And moreover, can he kill that child? Can he force any of the three to watch as he murders their very kin? This dilema is the character's "fatal flaw". It keeps him back. It keeps him from getting his goal. It creates an internal conflict. CONFLICT IS THE HEART OF ANY GOOD STORY. I'll touch on that important note a little later.

F. Skills and Stats.

Now is the time to choose your character's skills. Pick them based on the character's history and the direction her life has gone. If, like the example of the child who witnessed the warrior spare an orc, the character witnessed something like that, she may decide to become a spiritual monk type; a protector of life, as she believes all life is precious. Being practical, you might choose something like: healing/anatomy for the protective bit, and then resist/magery/tactics/swords/parry. This is wrong. Totally wrong. All though the character is practical and able to survive, you've just gone against everything you took SOOO long to create. Here is a more proper template for the character you've just developed: healing/ anatomy/ spirit speak /veterinary /taming /magery /meditation. Even that is a little bogus, as I cannot picture the character that has been described as having magery. But the meditation does fit in. Obviously, you don't want a worthless character--as it would have been without magery--but you should keep it as realistic as possible.

F. The Interview or Bio-Quiz test.

You should know your character like the back of your hand. He or she should be to you as a real person. Here's two ways to determine if you know enough about your character. Find one of those Bio-quizzes that people sometimes email out in chain letters. You know the type I mean. It'll ask your favorite color, your favorite food, what sort of music you like, what your hobbies are, what you said when the teachers asked 'what do you wnat to be when you grow up'. Then, take that survey and fill it out as your character would do. If it asks for out of character stuff (like, "your favorite car" or "your favorite movie"), fill it out with a response that WOULD be the character's favorite car/movie if cars and movies existed in UO. If you are caught at a few questions when you're not certain, then you may not have done enough work. Though, the survey should help you along. It often helps to base a character on someone you know in real life. Another way to determine if you know a character or not is to interview them. You might actually go far enough as to have someone else give you an interview and you respond as your character would. BUt you don't have to. You could have a conversation with your character, so to speak. The same rules apply with this. If you catch yourself not knowing an answer, you might want to do more work.

Section 2. What Makes a Good Story?

At the base of a story, there are really only three things that make it good. The first is characters. A story needs good, lively characters that seem real. The second is conflict. Conflict is what this section is mostly about. Without a conflict (be it an internal conflict, a conflict between two people, or a conflict with nature), a story is nothing. A story cannot be a story without at least one conflict. And last, a story needs a change. Usually, the change is in the character or characters, but it can sometimes be in a set of ideas a group of people believe in or even a change in the enviroment or culture. You've got a good character already. Let's assume that the story you want to work on has several of these good characters.

A. C O N F L I C T.

As I stated at earlier points, conflict is what drives a story. What makes you keep reading that 800 page book? Is it the way the writer uses such good prose? Is it because you are fascinated by the world the writer is describing? Is it because Modanor is a badass mage and could kick Eliminster's ass from here to neptune? No, probably not. It's probably because Modanor has fallen in love with Tabitha, but has been ordered to kill her by his boss. Only, there's Tabitha's friend and loyal companion, Sir Dawain, who knows Modanor loves her and knowns he's been ordered to kill her, and will stop Modanor at any costs -- because Sir Dawain is in love with her too. WHEW! Now that makes for a page turner. Still not convinced? Let me give you an example of something that might appear on stratics from time to time:

"Da'banth turned from the painting on the wall he had been studying for the past few minutes. He gazed out to the horizon, resting his hands on the crenelations of his tower's roof. He smiled inwardly as he saw the dark clouds gathering in the distance. The dark heart of my master is awakening, he thought to hismelf. He let his inward smile spread outward as the clouds he watched rolled and thundered. Soon, he mused, the forces of good will be crushed under my master's might.

Da'banth turned and walked down the steps into the heart of his tower. There, his servant waited for him. "Jorin," he addressed the humble servant, "inform the troops that the time has come." His servant nodded and exited through the tower's front metal door. Da'banth smiled with delight. Good would be crushed. None could stand in the way of the dark master. He returned to the tower roof to begin to make preparations for his arrival"

Bllleecch! And barf! Now usually, those types of posts are about three times as long. Why is it so dull? There's two reasons, really. One is something I describe in the third section. But the primary reason? Lack of conflict. What keeps the reader going? The ONLY thing that keeps the reader going in that sort of post is the omininous tone. But imagine if it was five pages long. NO one in their right mind would bother to read it, unless it was the author--who, *of course*, finds the story interesting, because he or she is the one who wrote it! If you're still not convinced, ask yourself why I keep posing questions in this essay. What purpose does it serve? Why keep asking you questions? The answer is because I am setting up a feeling of argument. And by argument, I mean conflict. Believe me, it would be a lot less exciting if there wasn't an argumentive feel to the essay (not to say that it *is* exciting. Just that it would be even less exciting).

Something I like to call a fallacy of RP is that people think a quest without player involvement is not good. No. No, this is not true. A quest is about roleplaying and conflict. A quest is like watching a play put on in game. Running a quest is like storytelling. That is why conflict is so very important. Sure, on one hand, it might be interesting and fun if a quest is about a witch who needs the player to go do tasks for her. "Go get me frog legs," says the witch. You bring her frog legs. "Good, good," She says, "now go get me a mongbat stew recipe." You do that. At the end, her potion is complete. And then? And then? AND THEN?! Oh, wait. That's it. You were just being her little bitch. End of quest, what fun. No, a quest is about a story. What determines a story is the conflict. Below, are the literary types of conflict as well as an example of how it would be used in a quest in UO. (are you starting to see how literature and roleplaying fit together, by the way?)

A. Man versus Self

This is a conflict between a human being and her/his internal self. It is the most common type of conflict in every day life, but the least often used in UO. In fact, this type of conflict happens every day. Do I eat at McDonald's or do I eat at Hardee's? Should I study for that midterm exam instead of seeing my boyfriend? This sort of conflict strongly comes in to play with a character's fatal flaw. The key moment in a portion of a quest using this type of conflict, should in fact, be the moment involving the fatal flaw. Let's say, for example, the main character of the quest is searching for a childhood friend who she believes is lost somewhere in Ilshenar. She desperately wants to save this friend, but her "fatal flaw" is that she has trouble knowing who to trust (due laregly in part because of her father leaving her early in her childhood). She has been told that her friend is lost in Ilshenar because she murdered a diplomat of Yew and fled there. She was told this, however, by someone who has a dubious reputation. Now, the conflict created here is within: who does she trust? Her friend? Could she have been so wrong about her friend? Which opens up other questions: Would it be right to save her friend? What if this person is lying? Wouldn't it be disloyal to her country to look for her friend? All of this should be played out in game, with occasionally the players involved helping. She might ask the players for their advice in deciding. Or she might ask the players to find out the reputation of the person who told her why her friend was in Ilshenar. Yes, player involvement makes a quest better, but simply giving the players tasks to do and then rewarding them with phat lewt is not the answer. There has to be something resolved. There has to be a change or resolution. Just having a person ask for a bunch of stuff and then give phat lewt with no purpose to it all is a cop out.

B. Man versus Man

You may not believe it, but this is the least common type of conflict in real life, but it is the most common portrayed in UO and in television and movies. It's the easiest to do. This is, obviously, a conflict between two people. The only thing I have to say abuot this in regards to UO, is that it is overdone and sometimes done poorly. I would avoid this type of conflict because of this. If you do want to use it, just make sure that there is a victor and there is reason behind it. Never do people fight because they enjoy it. They fight over land, they fight over women, they fight over religion. And never does the fight continue on and on and on and on. If you make a quest's main focus war, then make sure it ends. Don't leave those watching hanging forever. They'll get bored with it, and guess what? They'll stop paying attention to your quest.

C. Man versus Nature

This isn't a very common type of conflict in real life and I've never seen it done in UO. But, it's still worth mentioning. This is a conflict between man and beast or man and the elements. Such as a group of people trying to survive in a blizzard. How can it be used in UO? Well, it's definitely hard to do. I'm not sure if it can be used as the main conflict of a story.. but it can certainly be used as an element. A recent storm that left a group of characters stranded somewhere could be a possibility. The players would then need to rescue them. Though.. you can't really use nature as the main conflict of a quest because Ultima Online has no storms. It's possible that you could come up with some sort of quest involving killing animals that are threatening something. Maybe a simple quest given by a farmer to kill rabbits that are eating crops could perhaps work. As mentioned bofore though, that shouldn't be the extent of a quest. No one wants to be ordered around like a slave.

D. Man versus society

This is the least common type of conflict in real life but is slightly more common than Man versus Nature in UO. It is a conflict of one or many people against culture, society, or an accepted practice. The best example I can think of is the short story The Lottery. The accepted practice is that each year, the village in the story gather around to have a drawing. The "winner" of the drawing is stoned to death. It's one of those sacrificial things to try to get better crops. At first the main character does not object to the common practice of culture. Until she wins the lottery and decides then that the society is wrong to hold a lottery like that. Thus, she is in direct conflict with society. An example of this being used in UO would be something like a rebellion against the government in one extreme, or in another extreme, one lone orc struggling to convince his brothers and sisters that killing humans is bad. Both ideas have much potential.

Now, let me take those elements and work them into a write-up for a website like stratics that could be used to introduce a quest. For reasons mentioned below, I won't work them into the previous fictional example, because the story presented in that example has some fundamental flaws.

"Marley sighed and looked away from the painting on the wall. He clutched his right hand into a fist and clenched his teeth together tightly. Try as he might, the tears still came. They came in waves, flowing down his face and dripping onto his clenched fist. He struggled to get the dark thoughts out of his head. She had to die, he affirmed to himself. It was the only way, he told himself. But try to convince himself as he might, he couldn't control the grief, the anguish, the staggering guilt.

His servant Patsy gently stepped quietly into the room. Marley, hearing his entrance, immediately wiped his face and breathed in sharply, held it for a moment, and then turned to face Patsy. "You should have knocked first," Marley chided him.

For a moment, Patsy said nothing. Then he spoke up, definantly. "But you said that I should tell you whe-"

Marley slammed his fist against the wall, under the painting of his dead wife he had been gazing at. "Dammit, man! Don't talk back to me!" Marley had intended to continue his lecture, but stopped abruptly. In his servant's frightened state, Patsy had dropped a ring. Marley looked for a long period at the ring. It bore the insignia of Duke Wallenston. The only witness to his wife's sacrifice. The man was still alive, Marley realized. He had to be stopped. "Put forth a call, Patsy," Marley ordered. "I am putting a reward out for the head of Duke Wallenston."

My writing style isn't perfect, but I hope you can see how it differs. There is internal conflict and man versus man conflict while still introducing the plot of the quest. The real trick, after this, is to ensure that the conflict in the story continues in game.

B. CHANGE

okay, so you think you might take what I've written here and put it to practice by running a quest. You setup your characters involved and introduce the story and get players interested and everything is going well and you're all set to end it. Do you end it just with a resolution of the conflict and by giving players some sort of reward? Yes, you do those things, but that's not all. There must be a change. The plot line that has just ended will happen again and again, realistically, if a character does not change or learn something, at least. Before the quest, perhaps the character was mean and arogant towards women. At the end of the quest, maybe because a woman helped the character, he is nice to them. At the beginning of the quest, the character had trouble saying what she meant. She dodged around issues and didn't give her real opinion of anything out of fear of offending somene or seeming judgemental. Perhaps because at one point during the quest she was forced to take charge, she became more straight-forward at the end. This is an abstract idea and isn't always visible to other players. It's more about How you roleplay the character. But, in my opinion - and all this is highly opinionated - it needs to be there. It's a little bit like Lassie. Lassie save timmy from the well! Lassie save timmy from the vicious wolves! Lassie save timmy from falling over the waterfall! Lassie save timmy from the vicious flesh eating virus! Either Lassie needs to decide not to save timmy again or timmy needs to learn to be more careful. A character needs to change in some way in a quest, or like the Lassie episodes, it just becomes a cycle. Further, it just gives the quest more meaning and finality. It imparts a lesson of sorts. You may think it trivial because the players on the quest won't know the character has changed immediately, but because of the change, the way you RP the character should reflect the change, and the players will eventually learn that he or she is different somehow.

Section 3. What Are the Finer Details?

I move on now from my opinion on individual Roleplaying and Quest creation to the finer aspects of RP. RP in the day to day routine. Or, essentially, what are the Do's and Do Not's of RP.

Do Keep it Real

Keep your RP grounded in reality. Earlier I said that the first example of a fictional post to stratics had some fundamental flaws. This is what I was referring to. Not everyone can be a super hero badass character from the ninth circle of hell. Not every storyline has to be about the emminent destruction of the world because the master of uber evilness from that ninth circle of hell is coming to destroy everything. The best quests are the more miniscule ones. The ones that deal with things on a very intimiate, very personal level. Which sounds more exciting? A quest about a group of dark shadowy figures waking up from the deep sleep they've been in for 500 years, coming back to destroy Britannia? Orrr... The farmer whose pies keep getting stolen out of his window sill by some pesky ratman? Or, with characters, which sounds more interesting? The vampire lord Das'sutan who has the ability to turn people to stone with his gaze and can destroy a soul with the flick of his finger? Or the knight who was removed from service under Lord British because of a drinking problem and is now bitter, but refuses to blame himself? In both cases, I really hope you think it's the latter.

Do Avoid Roleplay Masturbation

Okay.. this is one I hear a lot of objection to. And like a lot of my other ideas that I have way too much time to come up with, I've given this one a name. Simply put, Roleplay Masturbation is when a character tries to Roleplay with someone who isn't roleplaying. Exmample: Knightly Character A encounters dewd B. Knightly Character A asks "how fare thee?" of dewd B. Dewd B responds by saying "wtf" and then proceeding to tell Character A that she is a newbie trammie and should go back to playing nintendo games. Should Character A continue to try to roleplay with this sort of immaturishness? Some would think so, but I disagree. To do so is just Roleplay Masturbation. You're only fueling the dewd by continuing to RP and not only that, you are really just entertaining yourself. It's like yelling at a TV character when watching a horror movie. You know that big breasted blonde is going to go into the dark cellar alone, yet you yell at her to stop anyway. Why? It doesn't do you any good. The TV can't hear you. Besides that, the more time you spend trying to RP with a dewd, the less time you spend RPing with people who care.

Don't Arbitrary Roleplay

This is something I find myself crying out in outrage against. I know people don't like to be told what they can and can't roleplay, but the simple fact is that you can't RP something the game's mechanics can't allow. My favorite example (and fictional) is the character who says he has a sword of soul stealing. The only way you can steal souls with a sword is to emote it. Player A walks up to Player B and emotes, *hits with sword* , followed by *steals soul*. "Eh? what?" says Player B. "I dodge," says Player B. "No, you can't dodge. I'm too quick," Says Player A. And here we reach an impasse. Neither can get any where with that kind of RP. Unless both players have agreed to the way it works before hand, it's just silliness. Have you ever been in IRC when two people are mock dueling? One person will slap the other with a fish.. the other will return by stabbing them. Then the other decides to block, then the other decides to drop a house on them. Then, of course, the person decides to catch the house. This is what Arbitrary Roleplaying is. If we're going to RP this way, anything is possible and we're all Gods. You might object then and say that you can't really RP anything in UO. But that isn't the case. Orcs? Elves? I have no problem with this because roleplaying them doesn't require the player to assume any special powers. You can RP an orc within the confines of the game. Orcs have no special abilities. It's all about attitude and behavior.

Don't Assume Anything

There are some aspects of the game that are very tempting to touch. But you shouldn't touch them. It's a big no-no. I'm referring to assuming fiction that you don't have access to. That's still vague. Let me give an example. You're wanting to start a quest about a group of evil necromancers that have been around for centuries. Okay so far. This evil group of necromancers were the ones who created the wisps. Ehh... you're getting on thin ice there. This group, in fact, created the wisps to be the guardians of their hidden knowledge. Wait a minute, wait a minute! Hold the phone. If you go to Ultima fiction, wisps are actually manifestations of a different dimension and were created by no one in Britannia. What you have done by creating this group of necromancers is decided the fiction of the world for yourself. Other examples would be to say that Dupre gave you permission to house troops of your guild in the homes of Britannia. Or that Sherry the mouse is a good friend of your character and sometimes tells her stories. In those cases, you are taking Prime Fiction characters and putting words into their mouths. Let me offer an alternative to that first example presented. Let's say your ancient group of necromancers created a special type of wisp, after studying the real thing. And that special type of wisp they devised is still around, indistinguishable from the others. Now you have something of your own, and it doesn't step on the toes of UO, and only with such a simple change!

Don't Refer to Yourself in the Third Person

This is a given. Or it should be. But people still struggle with it. I have seen on many occasions people who are roleplayers and who were supposed to be roleplaying at the time they were talking to me refer to their characters in the third person. What the heck do I mean? Have you ever heard someone say this: "This character needs to get his fencing up"? If you slip up and do this, stop. Stop. Stop and log out of the game. Get some fresh air. You just broke the most basic rule of roleplaying. That was not your character talking. That was you, the player, inserting yourself into your character and talking through him or her. This is the absolute worse thing a player can do who calls herself or himself an RPer. If you're somehow reading this as a non-rper looking into the world of an RPer, this is your first goal. Become your character while you are playing. Don't use the character as just a manifestation of yourself.

Well. I think that's all I have to say for now. Long winded, I know. If you got this far, I hope you take something away from the essay that's new to you. I don't expect anyone to agree with everything I've said here. But do keep in mind that none of this was an attack on anyone. I am not trying to preach. Just giving my opinion :) If you have a different opinion, please post it somewhere so we can see all perspectives.

-From the desk of the player of Redlowwinski and Dr. Jerred Ghyss