Roleplaying is one of the easiest things to get into but one of the hardest hobbies to truly master. No, I’m not talking about putting on your robe and wizard hat and going to town, and I’m not referring to putting a bunch of randomly generated numbers together and using either real or virtual dice rolls to hit monsters until candy comes out; I’m instead talking about actually pretending to be someone else in a collective storytelling environment.
Roleplaying is the only hobby I can think of that’s a mix of both writing and acting. There’s many different forms it can take, but for the most part you need to do it with others, as roleplaying by yourself is either called writing a novel or suffering from multiple personality disorder. You can RP around a kitchen table, through a series of e-mails or instant messages, in your favorite MMORPG (if you don’t mind the hardcore raiders and PVPers making fun of you), or if you’re particularly fearless – or if you enjoy being uncomfortable – you can do it in a LARP format.
Now, I’ve only been to two Legacy events so far, but I’ve been roleplaying since I was in elementary school and one of my closest friends at the time let me borrow his copy of Unearthed Arcana. It wasn’t long until I was waiting for TSR to publish their 2nd Edition rulebook, back when the comic book store across the street from Oscar’s Books in Huntington Village still existed and I could convince my poor parents to let me go hog wild in there every once and a while.
The thing is, as much as I loved the prospect of getting awesome loot for my character that allowed them to smite evil in more interesting and efficient ways, I was always more interested in the storytelling aspect in roleplaying, which drew me to becoming involved in both acting and writing as hobbies; in fact it was a toss-up between pursuing either a career as an author or one as an actor up until college, where I tanked my theater audition and I changed to an English major, but if there’s one thing that hasn’t changed it’s the fact that I still love good character-driven RP.
There’s always a balance between acting and writing when it comes to roleplaying; the proportion differs depending on what sort of game you’re playing, since a play-by-post forum game or playing on a WoW RP server is more like collaborative playwrighting than it is acting, while a tabletop game or a LARP is much more dependent on actually acting out your character in response to other players’ actions than it is taking turns writing dialogue. However, whether you’re at one end of the spectrum or another, you’re never completely in one realm; even the most action-oriented LARP requires solid writing skills, while the collaborative aspect of a forum or other online RP requires the use of the kind of improvisational skills that you can only pick up through the study of acting.
How could a roleplayer that spends most of their playtime at a keyboard benefit from learning acting techniques? Well, think about it – one of the worst sins you can commit in an online environment, power gaming (or “god moding”), involves disregarding the other person or people you’re playing with and instead writing scenes that have you, as a writer, taking control of their characters in order to fit in your own idea of where you want the story to go. This is the equivalent of kicking your RP partners right in the junk whenever they try to open their mouths; if it ever gets to the point where you’re power gaming, you need to step back and ask yourself why you’re not just writing a novel by yourself – if you’re not willing to engage in the give-and-take that’s the bread-and-butter of improv actors, you’re pretty much just jacking off into your Cheerios.
Meanwhile, it can be just as bad at the other end of the spectrum. I’ll be calling upon my incredibly detailed and exhaustive LARP experience for this one. It’s easy to think that the only skill you’ll need in a LARP – besides a grasp of the rules and the ability to beat the shit out of someone with a foam sword – is the ability to act well. Unfortunately I’ve seen this as not being the case; this isn’t like a stage show where you’re reading off a script. Your character’s history and background isn’t written up by someone else and handed to you – it’s created by you, and unless you know at least enough of how to create a compelling, realistic character that fits in with the setting, you’re going to have trouble once you get in game. Even if you’ve written an amazing character and you can’t wait to start playing him, you’ve still got to know one other important rule when it comes to interacting with other characters: show, don’t tell.
Yeah, I know what you’re going to say: you’re not a veteran LARPer so what the fuck do you know about it? Well I can tell you what I am: a professional published author with a Master of Arts in English Literature, so I know a thing or two about narrative structure and character development. I can’t tell you how many times during that first Legacy game that I heard the same person blurt out their entire character history every time they met someone new, but the thing is nobody wants to hear all that shit right away. Characters need time to come into their own, and if you blow your load in the first five minutes of meeting another character, you’ve just completely destroyed any sense of wonder or mystery about yourself. Not only that, but who the fuck goes, “I’m Candace Greyfart, of the Fenland Greyfarts, the last of my line, as my family was banished from the Fenlands after it was discovered by the Ruling Council that we all practice blood magic, but I’m still going to do it anyway, so you better watch out that I don’t lick your blood if you ever get hurt” every time they meet someone?
Can you imagine the same thing happening in real life? It would be like me saying, “Hi, I’m Dave DeMar, I had cancer seven years ago and when I was three years old I shat myself in the Marshalls in the Big H Shopping Center in Huntington.” I’m sure that would go over great at job interviews.
So do yourself a favor: if you’re ever going to LARP, create your character with care. Make sure that it fits in the setting, and keep in mind that you’re actually going to be playing that character, so don’t create a character that will be too much of a stretch for your acting abilities or is too different from your own personality to allow you to play easily – otherwise your performance is going to be inconsistent, making it jarring to the other players you’re interacting with. Moreover, if you’re engaging in a more sedentary RP experience, don’t forget that you’re playing with people, and that you’re supposed to be working together in order to tell a story, so don’t run roughshod over other people by power gaming – or you’ll soon find yourself out of people to RP with.
Oh, and before anyone gives me shit for ending two sentences in a row with the same preposition – go eat a bag of dicks.