TMC: RP101 (part 2)

RP101: (Part 2) Taking the Stage
by Wes Platt June 5, 2004

Of more than 1,600 text-based games listed here at The MUD Connector, most of them are hack-and-slash monster killing and loot collecting games. Those games are great. But a smaller percentage of these games focus on interactive storytelling. OtherSpace and Chiaroscuro creator Wes Platt introduces readers to concepts in roleplaying.

RP101: Part 1 | Part 2

Roleplaying, with its primal, deep-plunging cultural roots, gives people a chance to exercise their imaginations and participate in what-if experimentation.

So, let’s dispense right away with the myth that our text-based roleplaying environments are “just games.” They’re not. They do contain game-like competitive aspects, and they’ve even got referees for purposes of resolving in-character conflicts. But, at its heart, what truly sets a roleplaying game apart from roll-playing is the immersion of the player into an assumed identity as part of an evolving storyline. The story may be driven by staff-crafted plots, player actions, or a synergy of both. No matter what form of engine the storyline uses, the player’s assumption of a specific role within the saga is a constant.

In a true roleplaying game, the player takes on a job that is equal parts writer and actor.

Repeat after me: “It’s not just a game.” Keep repeating it until you’ve got it. I’m not sure you’re repeating it. In fact, it’s possible you don’t buy that premise just yet. After all, I’ve been referring to these environments as roleplaying games, so isn’t it contradictory for me to argue otherwise? No! Because I’m not telling you to convince yourself it’s not a game. I’m arguing that it’s not just a game.

What else is it, then?

  • Improvisational theater: Players interact in real-time, and bounce unrehearsed, impromptu actions and reactions off each other.
  • Creative writing: Players experiment with language, descriptive writing and dialogue.
  • Cheap therapy: Players can use the roles they play to work through frustrations and real-life issues.
  • Community: Players from around the world aren’t always “on stage.” Behind the scenes, friendships grow and communities are built.

So, roleplaying games offer potential to be far more than just the waste of time many detractors would have us believe.

Wait. Perhaps you hadn’t heard that roleplaying of this kind has detractors. Well, it does. Many of these detractors are also convinced that our true roleplaying environments are just games. They simply don’t understand.

Among other things, they think:

  • Roleplaying is a waste of time; hours and hours of your life you’ll never get back.
  • Roleplayers are geeks without lives.
  • Roleplaying without graphics is pointless.

I’ll address these misconceptions one at a time.

First, roleplaying’s not a waste of time. It’s an activity that takes advantage of modern global communication technology to hone creativity and social skills. It combines aspects of a traditionally solo activity, writing, and a traditionally social activity, theatrical acting. It gives players a chance to entertain themselves and others with minimal expense. In “the real world,” some people collect stamps, some sing karaoke, and some plant gardens. Their hobbies are no more valid for the expense of time involved than online roleplaying.

Second, all right, I concede that many roleplayers are, to some extent, geeks. Yes, you too are at least a minor geek. If you know words like “Telnet,” “blog” and “retcon,” then you have to admit at least a small percentage of geekitude. I’m a geek. I’m fine with it. But even geeks often have lives. Roleplayers come from many different walks of life. Very few of them, in my experience, are shut-ins. Most are high school and college students whose attendance waxes and wanes depending on homework, exams, school activities, vacations and dates – yes, dates! The adults who play often come from technological fields – information technology workers, Web customer service workers, computer repairs, web designers – but I’ve also seen law enforcement officers, soldiers, actors, journalists and artists. Almost all roleplayers I’ve met have lives, even if they frequently insist they don’t. Nevertheless, even if a specific player arguably has little social life in the real world due to their circumstances, the fact that they seek socialization in some form, even if it’s with a bunch of relative strangers via the Internet, is positive in my opinion.

Third, I’d argue that roleplaying with graphics doesn’t exist yet. Roll-playing with graphics, such as Everquest, Planetside and Star Wars Galaxies, makes for great eye candy. I’m not sure I’d want to spend $15 a month for the privilege to wander around a graphical version of a MUD, where socialization is minimal (usually limited to grouping for monster hunts), killing is rampant, and character development can only be gauged by increased experience points and improved skills.

So, it’s okay to roleplay. It’s not a complete waste of time. Those hours spent watching Star Trek: Enterprise, however, are hours you’ll never get back. You should have spent them roleplaying instead.

Now, one final point before we conclude this lesson: Although true roleplaying games are more than just games, it is imperative for the player to separate themselves from their character. Our hobby can become mentally unhealthy for players who fail to make this all-important distinction. The player is an actor who brings to life a character.

In that vein, consider an actor like Harrison Ford. His characters have included Han Solo, Indiana Jones and Jack Ryan. All three characters experienced triumphs and tragedies during the movies in which they appeared, and although Ford certainly imbued each character with emotion and personality, the actor is clearly distinguishable from the characters. What happens to those characters stays on the screen. You aren’t likely to find Harrison Ford lamenting how unfair it was that Han got frozen in carbonite and shipped off to Jabba the Hutt.

On the other hand, you’ve got actors like George Takei, who in recent years seems to have become obsessed with how much he deserves to command a starship. Er, wait, no, how much Hikaru Sulu, his character from Star Trek, deserves to command a starship in his own series. The line between actor and character is thinly drawn. It’s not a healthy situation. If Sulu got killed off, Takei would likely be the roleplayer who spins off the deep end, crying about the unfairness of it all and embarking on a campaign of truth to protest.

In a roleplaying game, it’s great for players to throw their energy and creativity into a character, bringing it to life. But for your own mental health, keep a clear distinction in your mind between the player and the character.

One rookie mistake that tends to foster confusion between player and character: Creating a character that is little more than an Internet puppet version of yourself. If you’re just playing you, then, naturally, you’re going to take it more personally when bad things happen beyond your control. Players who fail to make an adequate distinction between themselves and their characters are often the ones who end up complaining that they have to deal with bad things happening to them in real life, they shouldn’t have to deal with it in a game.

But, remember, it’s not just a game. Winning and losing aren’t the point. Developing a character and sharing a story: Those are the real points. Conflict, failure and strife are part of building character. So, if you don’t want those bad things to happen to you, don’t create yourself in a character’s shell.

It’s okay to imbue a character with some aspects of your personality, but you’re always better off creating a character that’s different enough so that when you log in and jump into roleplaying mode, you feel like you’re slipping on a mask and a costume. You’re not you when you take the virtual stage. You’re playing a character. One day, by your choice, by someone else’s choice, or by accident, that character’s going to be gone. Dead. Lost. Accept that now. Every story has an end. Make the most of these characters while they last, but understand from the outset that their existence is finite and separate from your own.

Comments / Discussions about this Article

Wes Platt is the creator of OtherSpace: The Interactive SF Saga and Chiaroscuro: The Interactive Fantasy Saga. He’s a head-wiz on Star Wars: Reach of the Empire. (All games can be reached through his official site at

RP101 – copyright © 2004 by – All rights reserved.