- Basic Roleplay Assumptions
- Finding Roleplay
- Roleplay Mechanics
- Adversarial Roleplay
- Canon, Non-canon, Retconning and other Inconsistencies
A while back I did a guide for how to play a fire mage, which is one of my passions in the game. I thought it might be useful to write a guide for another of my passions, roleplaying.
One of the challenges of writing a roleplaying guide as opposed to a fire mage guide is that the former is primarily subjective and the latter can be quantified. For the most part, you can tell a good fire mage strategy from a bad fire mage strategy by looking at the damage meter. There’s no such thing for RP, and in fact one approach in RP can be wonderful to one person while being horrible to another. That does not mean, however, that there are not principles that one can follow. These are principles I try to follow, and have worked for me. What may work for you might be different. I encourage experimenting quite a bit and finding a style you like, because ultimately a style that works for you is going to be better than a strict loyalty to the principles I set forth below.
What makes me qualified to write a roleplaying guide? Well, I’ve been roleplaying within Warcraft now for about six years, on and off. Before that I’ve role-played sporadically, primarily in a fantasy setting. People seem to generally enjoy my roleplaying style, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I don’t think I’m the most qualified person to write a definitive roleplaying guide, but I do think I’m qualified to write my roleplaying guide.
In short, there may be other RP guides out there. This one is mine. It sets forth my beliefs and my understandings. I hope you like it and I hope you find it helpful.
The starting point to roleplay is to define your character, or characters, as you may have more than one. This can start at the character loading screen, but often you’ve already created a character and your definition will depend on aspects of the avatar you have already created.
If you are creating a character from scratch, it’s helpful to think about several things before hand. One of the most important factors in this decision is the person’s race. Each race in the game has its own history and for the most part you will want to keep your character as consistent within that race’s history.
Another big choice is the character’s class. This will define a large part of your character, and usually is somewhat determinative of the look of your character beyond what is shown in the avatar. Warriors are big and strong. Priests, mages and warlocks tend to be smaller and weaker. You can certainly play against type in that way, but that should be rarer (and if it is your first time, you may want to avoid going against type). Your class also tends to have a strong influence on your character’s history. The story of a mage is going to be different than the story of a paladin which is different than the story of a rogue. With this I highly recommend that you be consistent; it doesn’t make sense to play a mage with a rogue’s background unless you have a highly inventive story for it, and if you have a highly inventive story chances are you don’t need this guide.
The gender of a character is also a big choice. I trust I don’t have to say much about that. There are a few people who I have seen as choosing a different gender for their character model than for their character in the game, for instance to create a feminine looking man, or someone transformed by some accident or some such. My general impression is that this rarely works well, but it’s not all that uncommon.
Apart from that, the character creation process is about creating a look for your character, one that you’ll like. Try to get an avatar as close as possible to how you imagine your character will look.
One of the things to consider about your character is the stereotype assigned to a given look and how your character will differ from that stereotype. Consider Jana for a moment. A fire mage with flaming red hair is very much a stereotype, utterly typical for the class. No one will question that. A fire mage with a large figure, strong arms and strong legs is not stereotypical. The trick is to have a fair mixture of something that’s typical and something that’s not. For the things that are not, you will want to have an explanation as to why that is. It’s very fine to have a short warrior, but you need to be able to explain why someone who was short would get into the warrior business at all (instead of becoming a rogue).
In general, that’s a great approach to building a character. Start with a prototype consistent with your race, class and gender, and then consider how you want your character to differ from that prototype. For each difference create an explanation. The strength of your explanation should correspond to the extent of the deviation from the norm. Jana doesn’t need too much of an explanation for being a tall, full figured human (her mother was that way). If you want to create a five foot tall or eleven foot tall kaldorei woman, however, you’d better have a good explanation as to why she is so freakishly short or so freakishly tall. Determining and documenting the explanations for why your character deviates from a prototype will help to build your character’s backstory.
After considering the character physically, it’s time to consider the character mentally. Creating a bit of a backstory is important because it guides you as to how to act in RP. I like to create a “defining moment”: a story about the character’s past that resonates with the character and defines what drives them. For Jana, that moment is her failed relationship with Jeremiah. She sought and continues to seek some form of reconciliation, allowing her to love without being driven to hurt or be hurt. For Saxsy, that moment is her leaving Auberdine to travel to Eldre’thalas. She is driven by justifying her decision to become a mage, defending it against her family, and maintaining a joyous attitude in the face of it all. For Traxy, it’s the moment she was killed and became a death knight. Her cherry personality was warped into something quite psychotic.
Once you have your defining moment you can build off of that. You can build your character’s basic desires and approach. Think about how he or she would approach a new person. Think about he or she would react when a person approaches him or her. Think about what he or she is looking to learn from people, get from people, and find in people. Once you have a good sense of how your character would do these things, you will be ready to roleplay him or her.
One final important note about the creation of your character’s backstory is how that character interacts with the canonical lore as described by Blizzard. I have always been of the mind that lore should be a guide, not a restriction. Unless you have some very specific ideas as to how your character relates to Warcraft history, you can get by without considering lore at all. If you want to create a character that is anti-lore, there will still be many people out there willing to RP with you. Just make sure you have a good explanation for it.
It’s generally considered presumptive for a character to have substantial relations with major lore characters. For instance, claiming you’re the love-child of Jaina Proudmoore and Arthas Menethil will get you ignored by many. If you really want to do something like that, research it to the hilt and get your lore justification down pat. You will be given considerably less leeway with such a character than if you are a random human from Westfall or a random kaldorei from Ashenvale.
Another thing that I think is important is to not be too rigid in your definition of a character. Some roleplays might ask you to change some basic things about your character, just for the fun of it. Sometimes you may be asked to play a pirate, or an investigator, or some role in a specifically defined roleplay. That can be fun. More generally someone else’s desires may tempt you to alter your character in more subtle ways. My advice is to let this happen. That’s one of the ways you can find your character and make your experience more enjoyable. Characters are living, breathing things, and are constantly changing. If someone expects you to react identically to similar conditions over the span of several weeks, that’s unreasonable. Time changes everyone.
Once you have your idea for a character, it’s time to document it. Make sure you have the MyRolePlay addon, and then fill out your profile. About six months ago I wrote a guide for doing so, and I think it still works well. If you’d like, look around a little bit to see what other MRPs are out there. If you find one you like, feel free to incorporate some of the things into your own description.
An important thing to remember is that the first thing most roleplayers will learn about you is what you write in your MRP, and the first thing they read in your MRP may well be the only thing they read. Make sure that it’s something good, and something that would prompt you to RP with yourself if you saw it. Don’t assume that people will read your entire MRP; I often stop reading MRPs when I get bored from the first paragraph (or, alternatively, when I see something in the first paragraph that sets off a red flag). Make that first impression count.
Basic RP Assumptions
The most basic of RP assumptions is that you have total and complete dominion over everything concerning your character. No one has any right to dictate to you what happens to your character, even if the consequences seem mandatory from the RP. No one has the right to even touch your character if you don’t want it to happen. A strict adherence to that principle is likely to swiftly end that roleplay, especially if it feels unnatural, but sometimes that may be a consequence worth accepting. Not roleplaying at all may be preferable to roleplaying with someone seeking to impose disastrous changes to your character.
Violations of this rule are called god modding, and it’s something you should strive mightily to avoid. Generally you want to couch your roleplay in terms of what your character does, and perhaps what the intended effect of your character’s actions are, not what their actual effect is. For instance, “I swing my fist at your face, breaking your nose” is an obvious no-no, easily cured to “I swing my fist at your face, intending to break your nose.” This principle can be taken too far, however, and generally mild effects on other characters can be written, so long as you have a genuine belief, founded by experience roleplaying with that particular person, that the other person would consent to such things. Consent is the guiding principle; if the person with whom you are roleplaying says OOCly that you can chop his head off, you can go ahead and do exactly that even though it would otherwise be a horrible god mod.
I wrote about the concept in more detail about half a year ago and I think everything I said there still applies. Consent is the guiding principle and you can do pretty much whatever you want as long as there is consent between the people who are actually doing the roleplay. However, there are some general standards you should be aware of that sort of outline the “default” conditions. The following assumes no agreement to the contrary.
All roleplay should be consensual, and that applies to initiating it and terminating it. If someone approaches you in a manner that you don’t like (e.g., by trying to mug you), you should feel absolutely free to ignore that approach. If roleplay proceeds into a situation with which you are uncomfortable for any reason, you should feel absolutely free to say “Stop!” and go away. (Note that actually saying stop and perhaps discussing your discomfort is far more preferable than faking a disconnect, although if the person you are roleplaying with is making you seriously uncomfortable, logging out is always an option). You have no obligation to engage in any roleplay you don’t want to, nor do you have any obligation to continue in any roleplay you don’t want to, regardless of the logical consequences of the situation.
When you roleplay with someone you generally do it in a place that is accessible to others, both other players and NPCs alike. You should consider that for the sake of keeping the game running smoothly, there are likely to be all sorts of NPCs in the area that are not represented by actual physical avatars. Thus, for instance, if you are sitting at a table at the Blue Recluse, there are likely to be any number of patrons that are around but not represented in the game. Occasionally you can make reference to them, and even “control” them in a non-confrontational way (e.g., by saying a waitress brings food to the table).
The existence of these people should be considered when roleplaying. Just as you would not draw a gun and challenge someone in a restaurant without provoking responses from several people not known to you, you would not be able to do the same anywhere within a city, even if there are only a few NPCs. Consider that other acts may be embarrassing or scandalous if they are performed in public. There are ways around this, as I’ll indicate later, but in general if anyone else can hear it you should take into account their presence during your roleplay.
I’ll say more in the section on roleplay mechanics.
Depending on the type of roleplay you are interested, as long as you are on a fairly busy server at a decent time of day you should be able to find something. There are often people in Stormwind (and I assume Orgrimmar as well, or perhaps Silvermoon City; I do not play horde so I’m not certain) who advertise for various forms of group roleplay. Typically these will have you travel to locations such as Gilneas, Darkshore, or Lakeshire to participate in some plot driven scenario.
If you are looking for more one-on-one style roleplay, or less structured roleplay, the best way to look is to go to one of several “hotspots” within your realm. The three hotspots I frequent the most are the steps in front of the Cathedral of Light, the tables outside the Blue Recluse, and the Lion’s Pride Inn in Goldshire. Taverns are generally good places to go for these things, and you may find other places more specialized for different types of roleplay, including several in Ironforge and Darnassus. Generally it helps to explore a bit and look for places where people are talking, especially people with MRPs. (When a person has an MRP, a small circle with the letters MRP will appear near their portrait on your screen. Click on it to read their MRP. Also, when you hover your mouse over a person who has an MRP, it will show you some details that will distinguish them from characters that don’t have an MRP, including a full name and their “currently” status.)
In any situation where you don’t know people, I find it’s helpful to be a bit of a voyeur. Listen in on conversations. You want to do this to get a feel for whether their RP might be enjoyable to you, and also to figure out whether it’s an appropriate time to cut in. Don’t just barge right in; you’ll probably be thought of as rude, in an OOC way. (If your character is rude ICly, that’s one thing, but you don’t want to be rude OOCly.) It can also be just plain fun to watch stories unfold. While you are watching, scan the area for MRPs. Try to find ones that you like: ones that are creative, and ones who describe a character that may have interests similar to your own.
Once you’ve found someone you want to start an RP with, the next thing to do is approach them. You can do this in character (ICly) or out-of-character (OOCly). My preference is to start with an OOC approach, which generally consists of a whisper along the lines of “( I really like your MRP! Are you busy? )” (The parenthesis indicate that it is an out-of-character statement, which I’ll cover below.) The benefit of an OOC approach is that it can be brief, you can get a quick feel for how willing the other person is to RP, and you are polite to someone who might actually be busy. A person who appears to be standing around could be roleplaying in tells or party chat, could be discussing anything in guild chat, or could be doing some real life tasks that preclude RP — you will be unable to tell without asking.
Some people like doing an in character introduction, and if that’s your preference then there’s nothing wrong with it. Walk up to the person and greet them in a manner your character would. My advice here, as with the out-of-character greeting, is to be brief. I’ve had some people approach me with three paragraph introductions that I’ve rebuffed either because I’m already engrossed in other RP, doing something out of game, or just find the style of the introduction not to my liking. Save your effort for things more likely to succeed; a multi-tell introduction may seem impressive but more likely than not it will actually be oppressive and uncomfortable.
You will be able to tell a lot about a person from their initial response, especially if your approach is OOC. Some people will respond with a curt “ty”, while others may swamp you with emoticons such as “:)” and “<3”. You will be able to tell from the response generally how interested that person is in roleplaying and perhaps more specifically how interested they are in roleplaying with you. At this point you can throw the impression left by the MRP out the window. I’ve met many people with incredible MRPs who are bad and indifferent roleplayers, and many people with marginal MRPs that are fantastic roleplayers. Their MRP should guide your approach but after that it just becomes a character description.
So, you’ve found yourself in a roleplay. Great! How do you go about it? Well, there are many sorts of ways, and I’ll try to cover some guiding mechanics here.
Very generally you will want to be able to differentiate between in-character chat (when you are acting as your character) and out-of-character chat (when you are acting as yourself). The typical way to do this is to put any out-of-character communication within parentheses or brackets. Parentheses are generally better because there is an addon called GHI that interprets brackets as custom item signals, which results in your message being delayed to that person for several seconds. Out-of-character communication should generally be limited to non-public channels such as party chat or whispers, as it is incredibly rude to people around you to banter on OOCly while they are trying to roleplay. In general, once roleplay has started you should try to limit your out-of-character communications.
The mechanism for roleplay messages can vary depending upon your common understanding. Without any understanding, you roleplay through /emote and /say. Generally if you want to describe actions your character takes, you will do them in emote, demarcating speech within quotation marks as in standard books. For instance, you might do:
/e brushes a hand through her hair and smiles warmly. “Hello,” she says in a even-pitched alto.
An inferior alternative is to enclose actions within asterisks during a /say message. For instance:
/s Hi there! How are you? *smiles warmly*
Alternatively, you may be in a very crowded area, filled with trolls who like to do nothing better than to make a nuisance for themselves. In such circumstances, you may want to roleplay in tells or in party chat. In these situations you will want to use a combination of the above techniques: quotes to indicate speech, asterisks to indicate actions. For instance:
/w <target> *Jana walks up to you and smiles. She offers you her hand.* “Hi, I’m Jana Aliston. What’s your name?”
Sometimes you will want to say something that takes longer than the four-and-a-half line or so limit for each message. To get around this you can use an addon called UnlimitedChatMessage which will split apart large messages into chunks the system can handle. Unfortunately, that addon is considered out of date by the game, though I’ve seen people continue to use it. The other downside is that when you type a very long message, your roleplaying partner might think you’ve gone AFK or something. Without the addon, you can append ellipses or “(cont.)” or “(c)” to the end of the message to indicate that your message is not complete.
As noted above, in many roleplay situations there will be an assumption of other people present, not represented by avatars. A prototypical example of this would be the waitress of a tavern. Generally it is considered acceptable to “control” these non-player characters to the extent necessary to fill in the scene. For example, you could do this:
/e smiles as a perky waitress approaches the table. “Hi,” she says with a bright smile, “my name’s Melanie! May I take your order?”
You should only control NPCs to the extent necessary, and never to the in character detriment of another. It may be humorous to suggest that Archmage Malin performs a mass polymorph on combatants outside the Blue Recluse, but don’t expect anyone to take that seriously.
One on One
The above mechanics are generally applicable to a one-on-one roleplay and will cover most situations. One important consideration in a one-on-one roleplay is that, though your efforts are directed toward only one person, public emotes can be seen by anyone. Thus, unless you are absolutely certain that you are alone (e.g., you’re in an instance), you should avoid using second person pronouns in your emotes. Thus, “/e shakes your hand.” is bad form, and should be replaced by “/e shakes Saxsy’s hand.”
The general procedure to a one-on-one roleplay is for each person to take turns. Thus, you would get one emote or say, and then the other person would respond, and so forth. As noted above, use means necessary to indicate when you are not finished after a single /say or /emote if you are not finished with your turn.
Each turn should build upon the other person’s response. It’s poor roleplay etiquette to fail to take into consideration what the other person does, and thus you should typically not begin drafting your emote or line until the other person has completed his or her turn. Roleplaying is a very reactive process, and although some RP is dominated by one person, it generally isn’t very satisfying that way.
In general you should try to match your message length to the length of the messages the other person sends, at least in terms of content. There are limits to this: if someone goes off the reservation and takes nine message turns describing every little piece of irrelevant detail, don’t feel that you have to match. Try to match the message in terms of time it would take your character to do something instead (and hopefully you can bring them back to something reasonable). In general people who RP in paragraphs will be annoyed by people who RP in single sentences, and vice versa.
It goes without saying that in a one-on-one roleplay your focus should be on the roleplay. You can talk to other people, but when the other person says something you should immediately start crafting your response. If you find yourself focusing on other things, then it’s likely a good time to end the roleplay in one way or another. Also, absent exceptional circumstances you should not try to engage in multiple roleplays at the same time (through whispers it is possible), because getting your wires crossed can be very embarrassing.
With one-on-one roleplay you have the option of sending messages publicly through /emote and /say, or privately with /whisper. The first method is generally preferred (as it maintains the possibility of opening it to other people), but in noisier areas and for more private roleplay, whispers are the preferred mechanism. In general, if you are roleplaying as being in an area inaccessible to the public (e.g., a private house), you should stick to whispers.
If you are roleplaying with /say and /emote, /whispers can still be used for two things: one, an actual IC whisper to the person (usually marked with an emote that you are whispering to someone), or two, a roleplay effect that can only be felt or noticed by that person, as in if you cast a directed but not obvious spell.
Small group roleplay (i.e., three or four people) presents additional concerns. Generally you will continue to take turns, going around in a circle of some sort. The trouble with taking turns in this fashion is that roleplay that may be directed at one person could not be responded to immediately by that person, but would rather be delayed until that person’s turn. My advice in such circumstances is to not be completely wedded to the turn taking process. To give an example, with A, B, and C roleplaying in that order, if “A swings his fist at C’s face”, then it makes more sense for C to react immediately to it than it does for B to get a turn immediately. Such circumstances are relatively rare.
Roleplaying through whispers is no longer a possibility with small groups, but private roleplay can still exist by roleplaying through party chat. This will be preferable more often in small group roleplay, because it’s more likely that you would be in a location inaccessible to the public or otherwise not want people to be able to jump into your roleplay. (Note that you can still use whispers, as above, to indicate actual IC whispering or to describe an action seen or felt by only one person.)
One consideration in small group roleplay is the possibility that one or more of the people involved in it will become a “third wheel”. The roleplay may be more focused between two people, or in a four person group people tend to focus on individuals (e.g., A and B are focusing on each other, while C and D are focusing on each other). In this case, it may make more sense to not take turns, or simply to break off into individual roleplay. One-on-one roleplay is generally faster and preferable when you are really only focused on one other person.
In group roleplay it doesn’t always make sense to try and keep equal length responses. Sometimes you won’t have a detailed response, and simply because other people are writing paragraphs doesn’t mean that you have to if your turn consists of you simply sitting there quietly and thinking. Don’t be hesitant to “skip” your turn if your character wouldn’t be doing much. This helps the flow of the roleplay and will be greatly appreciated by the other people in your group.
In general during group roleplay you will want to try to keep your responses briefer. Group roleplay can bog down considerably if people take minutes to formulate detailed responses. Focus primarily on the overt acts of your character rather than providing specific details; most of the time, people will be able to fill in those details on their own.
Finally we get to large group roleplay, which I’ll broadly define as having five or more people involved. Very typically you will want this to be a scenario oriented roleplay, with specifically defined roles. There will usually be a leader, or perhaps a couple of people in leadership roles. They will be primarily focused on crafting the broader picture of the story or alternatively the rules by which people will interact (as in a game, for instance).
With such a large group turn-taking makes little sense. Instead people will pipe in with actions or speech as they think of it. A problem this raises is when some of these actions are inconsistent with one another, for instance when two people indicate they are sweeping a gnome into a big bear hug (ignoring for the moment the potential consent issues such a thing raises). In such circumstances, whoever gets there first “wins”. If you feel that between the time you’ve started to craft an action and the time you are ready to hit enter, the action makes no sense, it’s best to cancel it and start anew.
Group roleplay as a result can present problems for newer roleplayers, who are generally slower to react to circumstances and slower to type in their actions. This rather frustratingly leads their actions to lag behind the general roleplay and seem out of place. If you are a newer roleplayer you should consider this problem, accept that such things might happen, work hard to respond more quickly, and as a final resort consider sticking with smaller group roleplay. Good leaders will anticipate this problem and work to specifically cue responses from weaker roleplayers in their actions, OOCly advise people to allow more time for responses, or otherwise make efforts to be inclusive.
Because there is no turn taking and there is a danger of inconsistent messages, you should keep your messages very short during unstructured group roleplay. Hardly ever should you reach the maximum message length, and very typically you will want to say only one sentence or two.
Within a large group roleplay there will inevitably be splits in the group. Some aspects of the roleplay can be handled as one-on-one or small groups, although there should be specific efforts to avoid whispers unless they are ICly warranted. For instance, if you direct speech to someone, you can indicate it in an emote: “/e looks at Bob and says, ‘Wow, that’s a nice haircut.’” It’s preferable to direct speech in such a way because if you /say “Wow, that’s a nice haircut” without any context it might confuse people. At times it may make sense to split a group off entirely, and that’s fine. Just let people know OOCly what it is you’re doing and why.
One type of roleplay deserving of its own section is adversarial roleplay, which is when you get into combat with someone else. This may not always be knock down drag out combat to the death. It can involve more subtle efforts to manipulate a character (e.g., through the use of poisons). It can be a friendly spar. In any case, I’ll define it as someone ICly doing something to a character that their RP partner ICly would rather not have them do.
Adversarial roleplay is a lot trickier than normal roleplay and must be subject to a greater understanding between the people involved than non-adversarial roleplay. The issue of consent still applies: no one can alter or affect your character in any way without your OOC consent. The trick is that adversarial roleplay by its very nature involves altering or affecting another character without his or her IC consent.
I wrote about adversarial RP in more depth a while ago, and I think that what I said there still applies. Summing up that article, there are several things you should take into consideration:
- You should always get permission for adversarial RP first, and insist that others get your permission first.
- You should consider whether your location is appropriate for such an RP.
- You might think about discussing the outcome of the RP beforehand (i.e., in simple terms who might “win” and who might “lose”).
- Use only the skills you reasonably could be expected to have or have otherwise disclosed.
- Every action should be considered an attempt, whether it is explicitly labeled as such or not.
- You should let some actions succeed to the detriment of your character.
- Let the other person flee if they want to end the RP ICly.
- If you are victorious, don’t push your luck (i.e., don’t insist on permanently altering the character of the person you are RPing with).
- Feel free to end the RP at any time if it makes you uncomfortable or you sense that the other person is being abusive or unfair.
There are more sophisticated mechanisms for engaging in adversarial roleplay involving rolls. One system I like in theory (but I have not tried, since I tend to shy away from adversarial RP) is for a person making an attempt to roll 1-4 after making an attempt. A 1 indicates complete success, a 2 indicates a mostly successful attempt, a 3 indicates mostly failed attempt and a 4 indicates a spectacular failure. For instance, if your attempt is “A attempts to punch B in the face”, a 1 would indicate a direct hit, a 2 would indicate a more glancing blow, a 3 would be a miss, and a 4 would be a miss leaving A off balance. Generally I don’t like to leave RPs to chance like that and I prefer more cooperative adversarial roleplay (if that’s not an oxymoron), but you may like it. There are other systems around and if it interests you, I’m sure there are other guides that can describe such things in more detail.
Canon, Non-canon, Retconning and Other Inconsistencies
There is a general understanding among roleplayers that for the most part you are playing a single character, walking through time as any person does, experiencing things generally in a linear fashion. Everything that you experience becomes a part of your character’s history. In certain exceptions you can specify that a roleplay does not become part of a character’s history. The former bits of roleplay are called canonical, the latter non-canonical.
I feel an obligation to say that most people will consider every second of your roleplay to be canonical, and some people will take offense at the notion that you would even want to engage in non-canonical RP. Because this is my guide, however, I will now offer my advice and opinion.
The insistence that roleplay be canonical is bunk.
A few days ago I described a set of four different roleplay scenarios Jana was involved in. None of those roleplays makes any reference to the others, and in fact some of them cannot be reconciled with each other. All of them involve different approaches concerning Jana’s character that could be considered inconsistent. If I insisted that everything Jana did be “canon”, I likely would not have been able to engage in a few of those roleplays.
Which would be a shame, because they were all fun in different ways.
Let’s go back to the basic roleplay assumption that you have complete and total dominion over your own character. This applies not just to the specific actions taken toward a character in current roleplay, but also to the history of that character. If you kiss A a week ago and decide that it was a mistake, you don’t have to acknowledge it as part of your history. If A insists that such a thing happened contrary to your desire, it is just as much of a god mod as them slapping you across the face without your consent. I want to state this again because I think it is a vitally important principle: you have total and complete dominion over the official, canonical history of your character. It may upset people for your RP with them to be considered non-canonical, but they don’t have to roleplay with you if they don’t like it.
The general problem with treating everything as canonical is that it closes off a good deal of RP you could engage in. There might be something you would like to try but would refrain because you’re afraid of permanently changing your character. There might be some person you’d like to roleplay with but are worried that it would affect your relationship with a person who isn’t logged in. My advice is to go for it, and worry about the consequences later. Very rarely will it matter.
I generally treat RP with one player (or a specific group of players) as canonical relative to them. Thus, if Jana gets into a roleplay with A, and A kisses Jana, the existence of that kiss will be taken as canonical in further roleplay with A. But in Jana’s roleplay with B, if that roleplay is completely separate from A, I wouldn’t necessarily take A’s kiss (or its effects) into account. Thus, if Jana acts completely smitten with A as a result of the kiss, I don’t feel it necessary to carry it over into my separate roleplay with B. This is especially true when Jana has established a different attitude or approach in her roleplay with B that’s inconsistent with how she feels about A.
One would suspect that these inconsistent bits of roleplay would sometimes come crashing down into a mess. In my experience, however, they do not. Roleplays that you think would present a problem end up petering out because the other person has lost interest in the game or found something more engaging. Merging seemingly inconsistent roleplays can be done with less effort than you might think. The problems are mostly overblown. Now, if you regularly roleplay with a group of people who also roleplay with each other, you should probably treat events as canonical at least as to that group. But beyond that is at your discretion.
I treat roleplay as the live telling of a story. Not only is it possible to tell two inconsistent stories with the same character, sometimes it can be quite fun. The worst thing that can happen is that at some point you will have to clarify which of the inconsistent stories is actually true, and this may undoubtedly frustrate someone whose interactions are now treated as part of a fantasy. This problem doesn’t come up nearly as often as you might think, and in my view if you are fun to roleplay with, you are fun to roleplay with non-canonically, so people will get over it quickly.
To those who insist on everything being canon, the truth of the matter is that 90% or more of roleplay is forgotten. I’ve roleplayed Jana now for almost six years, with some gaps in between. During that time I have roleplayed fairly intense relationships with numerous people. As to people I meet generally, very few of those relationships I consider to be significant enough to have altered her story, and treated as “canon” going forward — not because the RP in the others wasn’t fun, but because it just didn’t have a lasting impact on her.
It does help to have one official, canonical roleplay that you think defines your character. Others can be woven in. But don’t ever feel like you should forego roleplay because it would be inconsistent with what you might consider canon. That would be a shame.
A final thought concerns what to do when your canonical roleplay has led you down a rabbit hole and you don’t like where you’ve ended up. Let’s say that roleplay has changed you character in a way that you’re no longer comfortable with. Or perhaps the person you’re roleplaying with has left the game for SWTOR. Or perhaps they just turn out to be a jerk you want nothing to do with anymore.
At that point you can retroactively change your canon, otherwise known as a retcon. The way to generally do this is to announce to people who might be affected by it that you are treating some event or relationship as non-canonical, and how your character is proceeding going forward. Whatever you’ve retconned then ceases to exist as far as your story is concerned.
To take an example, let’s suppose that A kisses B, and B acts like a complete jerk about it, bragging to everyone and anyone that he “owns A” and that A and B are in an exclusive relationship. A then realizes that B is a possessive jerk and wants to have nothing more to do with him. At that point, A should tell B and anyone else who roleplays with the both of them that A kissing B never happened. B will undoubtedly be upset by this, but the feelings of possessive jerks aren’t worth worrying about. A should be prepared to explain why she is doing this.
It’s easier to retcon something if someone simply stops playing. Sometimes you don’t even need to announce it to anyone, but rather just explain how you’re treating the character going forward. It doesn’t make sense to maintain a strong connection to someone who isn’t going to be there.
One thing you might want to explore as an alternative to retconning is working through the problem with directed roleplay. Given the above example between A and B, A could simply just tell B off and, while not denying the existence of the kiss, say that she will not roleplay with B going forward. The advantage and disadvantage to treating it like this is that it is not quite final; B could come back into A’s good graces. In more complicated circumstances you can have a shadow priest or warlock perform selective amnesia on a character, or use some other mechanism by which a character will ICly deny the existence of a relationship. Sometimes, however, it is simpler and easier to do a retcon.
Retcons don’t necessarily have to be complicated. If you’re in a one-on-one roleplay with an understanding partner, and you’ve said something poorly which causes the roleplay to veer off in a direction you don’t like, feel free to ask your partner if you can go back to that point and correct your speech to something more eloquent. Usually they will agree and you can proceed along a better path.
There is a general feeling in the roleplaying community that a major retcon is an extreme action and is a bad form of roleplay. As to characters who continue to play the game and continue to be a part of your roleplaying circle this is undoubtedly true. It may be, however, the simplest approach to getting rid of a circumstance you don’t want to deal with. With characters who have quit the game, it’s far more common and accepted.
The upshot of this is that you should be wary of retconning something serious, and never do it loosely. But ultimately the history of your character is within your complete dominion. If you don’t like it, it is absolutely within your right to change it however you like, as long as it doesn’t require some active change from some other character. (For instance, A can retcon to say that A and B were never married, but A could not, without B’s permission, retcon to say that A and B were never divorced.) Exercising that right may have consequences, but you absolutely have that right.
We’ve come to the end of this lengthy guide to roleplaying. I hope that after reading this guide one with little experience will have enough confidence to go out there and give it a shot. I’d like to sum up the way I approach roleplay, in the hope that my approach will help you.
There is a tendency to try to take everything seriously in roleplay, which I think is an unfortunate reaction to criticisms by other types of players have of roleplay. Roleplayers want to be taken seriously, but too many conflate that to mean that their roleplay should be serious. I am a strong proponent of silly roleplay and experimental roleplay, all achievable by exercising the dominion I have over my character to mold her to the circumstances and shape her history appropriately. The one thing you should never be afraid of when roleplaying is what will happen to your character: the answer is nothing that you don’t want to have happen.
Try to be open to new things. Listen to the people you are roleplaying with. Try to figure out what they want out of the experience and whether you can give it to them while remaining consistent to your desires. The best roleplayer is someone who is flexible. It undoubtedly helps to have a good sense of your character and lore and such, but those things should be considered malleable and secondary to the goal of telling a good story.
So get out there and roleplay. The more you do, the better you will be at it.
(briefly edited on 3/23/2012 for clarity)