A guide to adding depth to your roleplay.
Archived here because I love it so much and sometimes it moves around or vanishes on the Internet.
Although there have been many RP guides for beginners there have been little to no material available for developing a higher level of RP. Although this is meant to target experienced RPers in search of a way to expand their RP capacity, it is by no means limited to such people alone and should serve as a useful guide for beginners as well. The objective is to draw more lines between acting and RP while providing a guide to help develop your character and improve the quality of your RP and RP abilities.
DISCLAIMER: This may be distributed freely but must be sent as a whole. I also ask that you site anything from the packet as you would any other writing.
In the Russian school of theater that produced the Stanislovsky method of acting (which later became the bastard Method Acting style) the very first component of every single character is the Magic IF. It is the point in your character development when you ask yourself, “What IF I were and 80 year old man with a horrible, disfiguring scar?” “What IF I were an obese woman of 45?” “What IF I were a 7 year old orphan girl?” MUs (MUSH, MUSE, MUX, etc . . . etc . . .) do not always provide a chargen (character generation) process for you to decide on the specific traits of your character. Most importantly the Magic IF is what pushes you to portray a character unlike yourself. Characters that are 23, Caucasian, attractive, successful, and rich are a cliche to the world of MUs. Push yourself to portray a character unlike yourself, new, and original to both you and the MU*. Characters that are ugly, obese, disfigured, ethnic, or even comic are a breath of fresh air and greatly appreciated.
Take for example a MUer that we will call Matt. He played all of the cliche aspects of the traditional MU character, he even played the cliche memory loss routine at one point. Matt started trying something different, he developed parts of his background that served no other purpose than to help give him a stronger sense of character. For instance, it never came out in a RP session later that he was from Denver, Colorado or that he got teased a lot when he was a kid. It may seem like nothing but when Matt became the ex-class dork it made his character more dynamic, it changed the way he reacted to the events around him AND within one week you could very easily tell the difference between Matt and his character. He has become one of the finest RPers I have ever encountered.
Nothing in your background is pointless. Never forget that. Existentialism teaches that every single choice we make in our lives shapes who and what we are. Do not get caught up in the frame of mind that a piece of info is only valuable in your BG (background) if it has the potential to be told later. RPing, like acting, is about showing not telling. Each choice you make in your character’s background helps develop a stronger sense of character and will–with time and work–affect the way your character reacts to future events. Take for example a character I played on Marvel 2099 MUSH, Alexander Beaumont. He was an African American, male and leader of the Nation of Mutants. Although reserved, at times militant, and rational to a fault he had a very irrational reaction when his twin sister, Vanessa Beaumont, would date his friends. I did not plan this. I did not even think that Vanessa may end up dating one of Alex’s friends. It was part of my background that Alex got into a fight in the locker room when he was in High School. It was because his friend was talking about this girl, not realizing it was Alex’s sister, and said things that he would come to regret. This was a small event in Alex’s background–which I had cleared with Vanessa some time ago to make sure it was okay with her–yet shaped the way Alex reacted when he found out she was dating one of his friends.
No background is ever finished. The second you stop defining your character’s past is the second your character stops growing and becoming more 3 dimensional. If you choose to play a character unlike yourself; someone who is handicapped, or a different gender, race, age, etc . . . etc . . . research what it would be like to have that trait that is different than your own. This goes back to the Magic IF and I encourage you to try it, personally I’ve found it much more rewarding on an RP level. By research I don’t mean just looking something up in an encyclopedia (although not a bad idea) find someone that you can observe or talk to.
A director I once had my Sophomore year in High School forced me to do the observation exercise. A man and a woman got into a huge argument about which ring he was going to buy her for there wedding, in the middle of Columbia Mall, yelling, screaming, threatening to call off the engagement. I sat and watched. Two days later I came back to the director with part of that man inside in my character. I can’t tell you I did better, better is a relative term, but I can say it became much easier to hold my character. I did something similar with a character I play on Battlestar Galactica MUSH. There is an almost inexplicable quality your RP takes on when you have researched your character well, it shows, I know many RPers–far better than myself–who do the same thing and for lack of a better word I can only say they seem more “real.”
The fact that such a small detail of my background in the Beaumont twins example became so useful later on was chance but it is greatly due to family.
Family makes us what we are. They are one of the strongest factors, if not the strongest, in our own personal development, so “WHY do so many MU*ers choose to play orphans and only children?” Making your character an orphan, only child, or having had their whole family die off has its place but it is a very small place and not to be beaten to death. Family should be a large portion of your BG. Make each personality as real to you as your character, you don’t need to cast players as your actual relatives in order to have relatives. Make your 60 year old mother a puppet and maybe ask an on-line friend of yours who knows your character and understands what you are going for with your mother (they don’t have to be mind readers, just tell them about your mother). Have children and ex-wives and grandparents and crazy Aunt Lucys and a cousin named Junebug (hey, we all have a cousin named Junebug).
The most rewarding experience I’ve had developing a BG is with my Alex character and that is all because of an actual player who played my sister, Vanessa. We are IRL (In Real Life) friends and we developed our BG’s together. Another person, particularly an IRL friend, can help push you to make your character deeper, to take the character to new limits. In my often cheesy middle-age-men’s-fitness-magazines they always tell you to work out with a friend. Why not do the same with RP? The point is to have someone who can spot you in the development of your character.
You do not need to be a great writer to have a great desc. Here are two examples, taken without the player’s permission (thus it will be anon) from the same MUSH that I believe illustrates the difference between a poor desc and a great desc. Example 1:
As you take a quick look at this warrior you first notice his expression. There is no emotion present. No glimpse into his soul can be taken from his eyes. You can only assume that those eyes have seen more than any mortal man should have observed. Feeling uncomfortable, you survey the rest of hi attire. You note that his long black hair is the same color of his armor. The armor is quite interesting as it is shaped to fit his exact body features. Around the collar there is attached a long cloak of the same black color, but with the inside a deep red.
1) Who says I just looked quickly at him? Assume nothing when you make your desc. I could have stared at him for an hour.
2) “no emotion present?!?!?!?!” Ever?!?!?! I’d hate to RP with that guy.
3) “No glimpse into his soul can be taken from his eyes.” Poetic kind of anti-cliche, I like that. About 85% of character’s I have seen seem to have some hidden background that you can tell by looking in their eyes. I personally don’t go around examining people’s souls and dispositions by looking into their eyes so it is a nice touch. Even kind of poetic which is always nice.
4) Never tell me what I assume by looking at you.
5) Never tell me what I feel by looking at you.
6) Refrain from telling me that something is interesting. Make it interesting. Nothing is eternally interesting. Just as people will look at you and assume and feel different things, they will find interest in different things about you. Tell me your armor is unique, not interesting. Describe an intricate pattern that lines it. Make it esthetically pleasing and it will be interesting.
7) This whole desc is through and I know only one, true thing about how you look, that you have long, black hair which is pretty cliche in itself. What color are your eyes? What body type are you? I assume you are a cliche, hulking, He-Man but you have never told me for sure.
The whole desc has no substance. I’ve seen worse but for the length of this desc it sure tells you very little.
She is tall with a slender well-toned figure. The unusual color of her hair is definitely an odd yet distinguishing feature; its basic color is a deep auburn with strands of blonde, black, and other shades intermingled to create a striking affect. Its pulled back into a single braid that falls down her back. Her eyes are a light brown with flecks of gold that capture and reflect the light. Her smooth complexion is an even ivory cream tone that accents her facial features and adds to her strange attractiveness.
She is wearing a long hooded cloak of ebony, with intricate gold-colored embroidery, that falls down around her ankles. She also has on a plain white peasant shirt with ebony trousers, made of a comfortable yet slightly worn wool-like material, that are tucked into the top of her sturdy leather boots. Hanging from her belt is a small brown pouch and strapped to her left thigh is a sheathed dagger with a silver hilt. Slung over her shoulder is a travel pack filled with various items.
1) I like that she divided it up into paragraphs with a line in-between them. Its almost impossible to read all in one lump.
2) What is great about this desc is that it assumes nothing and does what it is supposed to do, describe. She doesn’t tell you how you feel, only describes. That is the #1 component of a good desc.
3) I can get a relatively good idea of what she looks like from this. I know her traits. I know the way she looks. If you can’t visualize the character at all, the desc isn’t worth keeping. This is a damn good desc.
Try to get an image in your head of what your character looks like first and then try to describe it from that image. Don’t just piece together traits that you think will look cool.
For entertainment’s sake here is an example of a stupid desc as opposed to the bad desc that I already showed you in Example 1:
You see a tall brown haried and brown berded man wearing black cloths and looks like a evil character from a cartoon or something. His eyes are shaded where the give a deep glow. He is Human.
I won’t even touch this desc. I sincerely hope that if you are reading this you do not need for me to point out why this desc is just plain bad.
The famous casting director, Michael Shurteff, who gave actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Barbara Streisand, and Ben Vereen their “big break” always tried to teach the difference between a weak choice and a strong choice. Situation: Young guy, Ben, is caught after having a three month long affair with a woman old enough to be his mother, in fact she is his mother’s friend. Mrs. Robinson is by no means a spring chicken but she is incredibly attractive, in her late 40’s, and a true seductress. Ben is now involved with Mrs. Robinson’s daughter and she has just found out.
Question: Why did you do it?
The Strong Choices may seem negative, which they don’t need to be, the greatest of the strong choices is most likely that Ben feels an attraction to Mrs. Robinson. The strong choice is simply what gives you the most room to RP with. If Ben wasn’t attracted to Mrs. Robinson he wouldn’t have kept coming back. Never do anything “just because” if you give everything you do purpose, reason, it will become more exciting. Without purpose there can be no conflict.
Conflict is the soul of drama. Do not get caught up worrying about success, as many do, and worry about what your character would do. In a truly wonderful packet I read by email@example.com named THE JOY OF TINYPLOTTING the author brings up the point that MUSHes are social and people tend to rarely make enemies. Its is always pure good vs. pure evil, however there is no reason why two “good guys” cannot get along. It is okay to let IC misunderstandings run their course so they evolve into a bigger, longer lasting disputes. All out war is fine and dandy but there is nothing so fun as a constant, passive-aggressive, battles of wit between two “good guys” particularly when the person is someone you respect OOCly as a fine RPer.
Brothers and sisters fight.
A spouse does not always like their in-laws.
Boyfriends rarely like anyone, esp. their girlfriend’s son (JERK)
Some of the most fun RP I ever had was with a woman named PhantomWalker as we had a feud that lasted months on end. We insulted each other publicly, yelled, gossiped, we did subtle things to piss the other one off. Something as simple as saying hello to everyone at a table except for her made for some serious teeth grinding and knuckle cracking. WARS ARE MADE UP OF THE SMALLEST BATTLES. Don’t yell every time you see your worst enemy. Try insincerity and the wide range of polite and discreet ways to spit in someone’s face without actually spitting in their face. Just make sure it is ICly justified. You can’t attempt to kill someone because they cut you off in the middle of a conversation unless you are absolutely insane and homicidal, insane characters are nothing but twinks with a lame excuse.
Animosity is a wonderful thing to RP, never forget that.
Again this is a topic discussed in THE JOY OF TINYPLOTTING by firstname.lastname@example.org and if you cannot get a copy from the author I’d be more then glad to give you one (mine is junked up with forward message info.) Here is a short excerpt: Remember Dynasty? Knots Landing? Ever watch EastEnders or All My Children? Don’t sneer…shows like these last for years. They’re long-lived because they cleverly blend drama with intrigue, mystery, and comedy. They’re not afraid to be outrageous. They’re not afraid to recycle stories and use them. And they know how to balance all the ongoing plot lines so that from episode to episode the audience isn’t overwhelmed.
I will admit with no small amount of shame that I was forced to watch Days Of Our Lives and Dallas and Falcon Crest. I even gulp got to like Santa Barbara before it went of the air. Even though the melodrama can be a bit thick at times some extremely talented actors end up on soaps. Part of this is for money, true, but it is also intriguing. If your RP starts to sound like a Soap Opera be happy Soap Opera RP is some of the best kind. Just try and steer clear of the cliche motif. The tiny plot packet said it very well when they said “recycle stories and use them.”
You can’t go on hero quests every day, or save the world from alien invasion every Thursday. Bastard, evil, twin brothers are a dime a dozen for some reason though. . . .
I had the good fortune to RP with a woman who went by the name Mary_Xao. She was by far the most fun person to RP with that I have ever seen. She spoke in a thick, Mandarin Chinese accent and would–in the most serious of moments–throw a wrench into the big, dramatic workings by saying or doing something incredibly odd and playing it straight. For example, I was playing the somewhat of a tight-ass Alex character and enraged that a hospital was going to let this young woman, Gya, go out into the street, half dazed and very weak, simply because she had no insurance. No money is enough for them as they are dead set on setting her loose and they can’t seem to find anything wrong. The doctors gave up. Alex begins to get enraged and he starts to work the this-is-my-serious-moment monologue with a perhaps over-zealous desire to exploit the hospital’s failure and negligence. Alex erupts into a climactic plea of some sort and right in the middle it went something like this:
Mary_Xao says, “Want banana?”
Mary_Xao shoves a curved, yellow fruit in your face.
Alex’s eyes narrow in on the fruit just inches from his face almost making him cross-eyed, “Umm… no.”
Alex says hurriedly, “No, thank you. I- I mean no thank you.”
Mary_Xao says, “You take the Gya?”
Alex says, “I- uh well, I- …sure..”
Mary_Xao produces a clipboard and a pen which she thrusts at Alex, “Sign here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.”
The genius of Mary_Xao is that she managed to undo everything Alex was carrying on about by simply offering him a banana. Comedy isn’t something you can ever really explain but the great comedic RPers, such as Mary_Xao, manage to be at their funniest when their character is totally serious. Anyone can act a fool but really good RPers can be funny by taking outrageous actions and situations totally serious, in a word “deadpan.”
Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard on acting/RPing: “Don’t act. React.”
Vanessa and myself started our friend on MUSHing. I have never seen anyone take to RPing so fast, and so well. What fascinated me most about his RP style was his attention to detail. His first character was a medical scientist named Philip and he RPed a surgery with me, where I was the patient. He did not just give me ether and tell me to lie in bed for a couple days. He took the time to note each, individual instrument, name it, and use it as it should be done. It sounds tedious for me to be stuck, just lying there, but somehow every action that he did involved me with me even having to respond. Its has something to do with his stage presence, he’s a very fine actor IRL, and I can but hint at that quality. He managed to captivate me, lifeless and for the most part unconscious I was somehow still a part of the RP session. He then proceeded to let me know exactly what kind of symptoms I would have for such a surgery and the duration of each stage of symptom. This is where research is greatly appreciated and respected. There is very little room for talent in RP, people get good at RP with work, Philip was well aware of that when he started the surgery RP session. Every object you encounter (esp. if it is not actually an object that someone @created, an object of shared imagination alone) needs to have its own life. Just as an actor pantomimes a prop that is not real you must show the other people in the room what it looks like. Show them by the way you hold it. Do not simply pose:
Alex picks up the baby and cradles it.
Alex lifts the infant slowly, softly so as to not wake her, and cradles her balancing his forearm underneath her back, lining it up with her spine, and supporting her neck and head with his open palm.
The second pose is not only descriptive but delivers important info to the other people in the room. The baby is an infant. The baby is female. Alex has to hold her very carefully because she is so small. Descriptive does not mean figurative or loaded with archaic words and poetic sounds. It simply means to deliver the facts. Just as you desc yourself with only your traits and not emotions you must do the same thing with each action. Make each movement meaningful, clear, concise, and to the point. It is as Shakespeare put it in Hamlet Act III Scene II,
”. . . Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus;
(actor makes a big, fake, gesture that is extremely melodramatic)
but use all gently: for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as a I may say, the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.
Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the word to the action. . . .”
Every time you pass through a door, sit at a table, or enter a vehicle you enter into a totally new environment, a totally new situation. As an RPer you must connect with that environment. Look at the objects in this new place, the real and the imaginary ones, read the desc. Give the objects and the room its own descriptive life as you did the objects in the Details section. If there is a hole in the wall inspect it, do not be afraid to toy with a salt shaker and pour the contents out onto the table forming little cocaine lines, ask the owner of the house about the painting on the wall (I’m sure they’ll be glad to tell you its hidden meanings or pretend to know its hidden meanings.) Do not just wander about telling someone they have a nice home, tell them that you like the dream catcher hanging from the ceiling, or the oil painting on the wall, or the mirror above the bed, anything that gives details and shows the person that you have taken the time to read carefully something they have put work into. Even if they have not put work into the desc of the room it simply adds a new dynamic to the RP.
Take for example someone that I feel may be the greatest RPer I have ever encountered, a man we’ll call Thorne. He always paid close attention to descriptions. He always knew what was in the room and would at times make something up, for instance a salt shaker may not be an object in the room or even described as being at the table but it is perfectly logical to assume that there may be one there. He would then give the imaginary object a life as he toyed with it subconsciously during the conversation. The actions still contributed to what he was saying though. He did not just pose to have something to pose as if he needed it, he posed–perhaps without even realizing at the time–actions that corresponded to his current mood, temperament, and what he was trying to express.
The Tiny Plot (TP) is simply a prearranged course of events for an RP that may be as big or as small as you like. Its basically a matter of respect. If you plan on doing something ICly that will effect other people in ways may not appreciate write up in detail your agenda and submit it to the other player, get their input, find something you agree with and give a copy to an admin. That is all there is to it. I have seen MUSHes where they make you define every detail of what is going to happen. This hurts the MU*. Don’t confuse a TP with a screenplay or a short story. TPs are at their best when they define key points that need to be hit and leave the rest up to the RP to decide. A TP is very little fun when you know the outcome and all the plot points while you’re going into it. The reason why you are making the TP is very important also. Often times a player will design a TP so their character can look cool. Everything goes right for them. It is defined way to specifically and there is no room provided for accidents. Its greed plain and simple. Good TP etiquette:
Russell wants to trigger some RP and doesn’t mind a little damage done to his character in the process. He decides a great way for this to happen would be for his wife, Robin, to find out he has a girlfriend, Sarah.
Russell contacts Robin and Sarah OOCly and sends them some rough ideas he had. Russell had intended on Robin catching him in the Motel 69. Robin, however, had a different idea. Instead of making it one, single event Robin could pick up on several little clues:
a) A phone number written in a matchbook to a hotel lounge. b) Lipstick stained cigarettes that aren’t a color she wears in the ashtray. c) Russell comes home late from work and takes a shower when he normally takes a shower in the morning.
All three players like this idea so they proceed and this is all that they plan for. No ending is planned.
None Of This Was Planned (but still follows good etiquette): As the TP starts up Robin watches too much Opera and talks with her best friend Talika. (Thus Talika gets more RP out of this.) Talika puts together the clues and says it has to be Debbie from down the street. Robin contacts Debbie OOCly and lets her in on the TP. Robin confronts Debbie and her husband only to find out Talika was wrong. Debbie and Talika get together OOCly and plan a little side confrontation between the two of them on the side.
Even though the initial idea of Russell getting caught was never reached it still made for some cool RP and was left loose enough that the RP itself could dictate the ending not the TP. TPs don’t always turn out how you expect but with good etiquette and patience you can get some good RP going for yourself and the players around you, and that is the whole point.
For a more thorough guide to TPs I again refer back to . . .
THE JOY OF TINYPLOTTING by email@example.com
TPs come down to a matter of respect more than anything. Communicate well your intentions and objectives with all of the people it involves and take any ideas they give you into consideration. One or even several people do not own a TP. A TP belongs to all the people it involves. Always keep that in mind.
Not all FCs are Apollo from Battlestar Galactica or Han from Star Wars. Some FCs maybe make one or two appearances. More power to the person that can play Charles Xavier on one of the many X-Mushes, but not all of us can pull off the level of obsession required for such leading roles. Obsession is good. I know a woman who has been playing Sheba on Battlestar Galactica for a very long time now. She just recently, after pouring over her collected video tapes that Sheba may be left handed. There is something to be said for the insane attention to detail. Do not fall into the trap that all big characters are good characters. Personally, I hated Apollo and thought Han was nothing compared to Lando. A good character is a character that is three dimensional and has room to RP with. Holocaust from the Age of Apocalypse is pretty damn big but he is FLAT. He kills and wants power. Big FUCKING deal. If you are going to try and play one such character, and someone always will, talk to the admins and see if they will allow you to play the character slightly different to give it more dimension and potential. Don’t make Holocaust watch Oprah and cry every time he sees Annie that would just be untrue to the character (funny, but untrue all the same.)
Look for characters that are sometimes overlooked because they are not big. Read up on them. It took me less than $10 to read everything there was to read on my very first FC (although that didn’t stop me from pouring another $30 in later to have the “designer” covers.) The leading man is a hard role to play, kudos to anyone that can pull it off. Leading men are traditionally pretty well defined in comparison to the one-shot FCs. Do not overlook the small, three dimensional, characters that leave you plenty of room to develop.
No line is ever happy or sad. Characters are not “angry characters” or “bad characters” or “nice characters.” If a character is generally more hostile than other characters it is for a reason. If a character says something harsh give it a reason why. “WHY” is the most important question you can ask yourself about a character. Work from your BG. WHY is your character so hostile? If you give it a reason then it gives your character more dimension and the possibility to change in the future. Giving your character the possibility to change gives your character dimension. An extremely passive character that used to be a murderer has dimension.
Do not play hulks and aloof, successful women. If you want dimension play hulks that used to get beat up on the playground as a kid so they bulked up out of insecurity. Play women that have lost all their money before. There is nothing wrong with these initial characters they are just the two most common character templates I have seen. Men favor hulks, women favor success. I see these templates more than any other. If you want to play a hulk or a successful woman, fine, but make that an element of your character not the basis.
Remember that character I mentioned before, Matt? He was a hulk. When he revamped his character he played the opposite of his nature stronger. He was big but used to be small and got picked on by the other kids in his class. Matt seemed very peace loving. Slowly his temper started to show itself on rare occasion. Later I would find out Matt had lost his temper when he was young and set off a bomb that killed the majority of the people that had picked on him when he was little.
You can always revamp your character. Don’t take back what you have already done, keep it. Add secrets. Make things you have said in the past lies. Make excuses to give your character dimension.
Give your character, their actions, their choice of words, their relationships, their strengths, their fears, their everything a reason and your character will become more dynamic, your RP will gain urgency, and you will be a heck of a lot more fun to RP with. Know when and who to share your intentions with and when to keep them to yourself.
The communion between an RPer and her character’s background, family, descriptions, purpose in each action, personal conflicts, reaction to other events and characters, intricate and detailed use of objects and the environment around her, all starting with the moment when the player asks herself “What IF I were . . .” is the greatest and most enlightening experience a MUer can have. I do not claim to have reached any such enlightened state nor believe I will at any time soon, but I have tasted its sweet lingering honey. MUers are as we sometime ignore performers because we plug into the shared hallucination and ask to become part of this new world. We spill our very entrails out onto the virtual tables in virtual bars in virtual cities that are all part of a virtual universe that we come back to because “chatting” is a dull opiate and we seek the cocaine of the internet.
The great RPer, as any great performer, has something inherently wrong with her. She like those of us who strive to be like her needs something different, something more because as we may love our engineering jobs and full-time student duties by day we need to purge our very soul through a good RP session by night.