Storyboard: The back-and-forth of roleplaying

Should or shouldn't?

The other night (Tuesday), I had a pretty terrible roleplaying experience. I don’t want to go into too much detail, only note that it happened in a game with a name that starts with a “W” and ends with an “orld of Warcraft.” But the actual content of it isn’t terribly interesting, nor do I want to necessarily litigate everything that happened there. What made it stand out to me was a particular moment from it that at least provided a segue into a topic that sticks out in my mind a lot.

Basically… roleplaying is a bit like tennis.

That’s probably not going to make a lot of sense, but I promise you, I’m going somewhere with it. And to understand that, first we have to identify what the goal of tennis actually is. Not the game’s win condition; you can find that on Wikipedia. I’m talking about why you would go onto a tennis court with a friend in the first place.

Your obvious rejoinder might be that you wouldn’t run in and play tennis in the first place, but that’s not the point right here. Assume you would play tennis for this analogy. Why are you doing that?

The answer, of course, is to play the game with someone.

In the backyard of my aunt’s house, we used to set up a net for playing tennis with the family during large gatherings. This wasn’t because anyone in the family was very good at it or because there was a family tradition where the winner mattered in any way. It was because this was a social game that the family could play together with minimal social friction, and as a result it was a fun thing to do when we were all together in the same place.

The goal was to play with one another. If that meant handicapping a bit or someone being a little less than optimal or changing teams midway through or whatever? Sure. The point was to play together, and that was far and away our goal.

It certainly wasn’t as productive and we definitely weren’t quite playing by the right rules and it wasn’t a regulation court and all that. But the goal was playing a game together. More important than anything was getting a volley going back and forth between members of the family.

That’s the thing. RP is like that. Because all of the best RP advice in the world is worth less than nothing if you’re not picking up the racket and trying to volley the damn ball back.

We were born to run.

I see this crop up far more than it makes sense, where one player reaches out and the other is content to more or less let every story hook offered drop to the floor without doing anything to keep it going. The defense, invariably, is something along the lines of, “Well, that’s just what my character would do.” And it’s a weaksauce defense because the point is that someone is trying to roleplay with you.

You’re well within your rights to say that you don’t want to roleplay with this person. But if you’re supposedly there to roleplay with someone and you’re just letting hooks fall around without seizing on them, you’re doing the equivalent of standing on the tennis court and refusing to pick up the racket. That’s not operating in good faith.

I’ve talked before about how character motivation is something that you determine as the player, and this is the core issue here. You are ultimately¬†choosing to shut down RP. You have decided to completely not engage with the scene being laid out, and you’re then acting as if it were some sort of natural consequence, like if someone had tried harder you’d be more amenable.

To which I say: Pick up the racket. Volley back and forth.

If someone wants to roleplay with you and is putting in the effort, your options are to either say “no thank you” or to actually participate. Failing to participate by passive action isn’t just poor form; it’s actively dismissive and kind of unconscionable. It’s bad practice.

And again, saying “no” is an option. You have every right to say that you don’t want to roleplay with someone whose actions are the equivalent of just grabbing the racket and smacking the ground in the hopes of digging up as much dirt as possible. There are people who aren’t making a good-faith effort to engage, and you don’t need to make a good-faith effort to engage yourself in that scenario.

But when someone is trying and you’re just letting everything drop? Whether you mean to or not, you’re sending a message that you don’t want to bother, and that’s because you’re not bothering.

Try a little.

I already hear the defenses to this. “But it’s not me; it’s just how my character would act!” Leaving aside that you’re the one choosing how your character acts, someone is trying to roleplay with you and you’re opting to not volley back. Would you just keep smacking the ball into the ground and claiming that’s just how the racket acts?

“What about the split between OOC and IC actions?” That applies to attitudes and demeanor, and it doesn’t create some inviolable barrier where nothing you do in-character can be construed as related to your behavior out of character. There’s a world of difference between your character being angry at someone whom you’re not angry at out-of-character and shooting someone down mid-session while claiming that it shouldn’t be taken as remotely related to your feelings out of character.

“Oh, so I should just alter my character to make the scene happen?” Again, there’s that binary, the idea that there’s only One True Reaction to things in a character sense as opposed to a range of possible responses that you choose between. You have options. Choosing the option that lets potential RP die because you want to says more about your priorities than the character you’ve created.

“But I don’t want to play tennis with this person.” And that’s valid. But if that’s the situation,¬†say that. With words instead of just casual, dismissive actions.

The thing is, if friends are trying to roleplay with you, they’re not doing it for random reasons. They’re doing it because they want to interact with you on some level. I’ve had a lot of sessions with friends where our characters just did not click for whatever reason. But several of those scenes also managed to be interesting and fun to play because we dug into the conflict, played with that friction, kept volleying back and forth even though we both understood that this was not going to result in a profound character connection.

Those are people I’m still happy to roleplay with. Because, well, they’re trying to volley. They’re playing the game. The results may not be quite what either of us intended, but neither of us is just throwing our racket in disgust because the other person doesn’t meet some arbitrary criterion that we had no way of knowing ahead of time.

Because let’s be honest: If someone’s trying to roleplay with you and you’re just rejecting them out of hand? There are words for what you’re doing, but none of them include “being an amazing roleplayer.”

This is a group activity. Pick up the racket and return the serve.

If you’re an old hand at roleplaying in MMOs, you can look to Eliot Lefebvre’s Storyboard as an irregular column addressing the common peaks and pitfalls possible in this specialized art of interaction. If you’ve never tried it before, you can look at it as a peek into how the other half lives. That’s something everyone can enjoy, just like roleplaying itself.
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