Telling Stories: Roleplaying is stressful

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Here’s the thing about roleplaying – a lot of people who have never done it have very strong ideas about what it entails, which are usually some mixture of well-meaning and wrong.  Mostly wrong.

This is not out of malice but out of simple reality.  It’s very easy to understand what’s required to get good at PvP in a game; there’s plenty of supplemental material available.  Ditto raiding, small-group content, or whatever else your game offers.  But one of the reasons that I felt (and still feel) that having a regular roleplaying column is valuable is because no one talks about what that requires.  No one mentions how much effort goes into making these things happen.

Mike Mearl, a designer working on Dungeons & Dragons, said at one point that tabletop roleplaying is twenty minutes of fun packed into four hours.  Roleplaying online offers a slightly better ratio, but if you’ve never taken part, you don’t realize that there’s a lot of work that goes into it.  A lot of the advice I’ve given, both here and in Storyboard, is about trying to minimize that work, or at least make the work as pleasant as possible.  But it’s still work just the same.

Let’s start with the obvious target: the idea that however stressful roleplaying might be, you don’t have the same pressures that you do when, say, you’re raiding.  This is strictly true, except that it frequently does have the same restrictions, sometimes even harsher ones, and you’re not just fighting against game mechanics but against the reality of everyone trying to get things done in a timely fashion.  It’s kind of crazy.

For example, roleplaying isn’t racing against a clock or working on progression!  Except that it totally is.  If you’re trying to line up your roleplaying with story developments in the game’s overarching plot, you’re working on the same clock as everyone else in the game.  If you’re roleplaying with people, you’re also trying to develop your stories at the same time as they develop their own stories – and sometimes their plot advances to a point where you just can’t any more.  Yes, you and Sven were having some great RP sessions, but Sven’s character is busy dealing with Crystal’s machinations now, and there’s no space for you and Sven any longer.  Too bad, so sad.

There’s no mandatory attendance?  Sure there is.  If you’re trying to wrap something up that involves four other people, you are by necessity waiting until those four people are all available.  And relaxed enough to take care of the scene.  Most big RP is scheduled in advance just like raids, and in some groups missing major RP events is treated just like missing a raid.  You can’t have a coherent story when people show up or not at random.

Remarkably, most of those reasons were not cat-related.

This scene took months to happen. For many reasons.

Time commitment?  Lord, is there ever a time commitment.  Leaving aside what I just said about scheduling, there’s the simple fact that an RP session between two people who are quick typists can easily run for an hour.  Get a big group together and you’re quite possibly looking at 3-4 hours if you’re moving quickly.  That’s not counting any extra time spent writing backstory or analyzing motivation or talking about scenes beforehand, and anyone who has tried going into emotionally touchy scenes without doing so can tell you how well that works out.  (Hint: poorly.)

Hell, progression is your only reward in roleplaying.  You take your character from their default state and bring them through periods of growth to who they’re going to be in the end.  Sometimes that means they end up in a good place, sometimes… not so.  (A friend and I have joked, many times, that her character is basically just one pseudo-angelic transformation away from Final Boss Fight.)  All of this while working within the constraints of a game engine which is designed to make an interesting play environment rather than facilitate storytelling.

Throw it in the blender for later, basically.

You haven’t really been a roleplayer until you’ve spent a whole bunch of time working on your character concept only to never actually roleplay with your character.

And all of that is without getting into the sheer, skin-bleaching horror that you can find in the RP community.  The people who are using a fantasy world to do what they would do if they could get away with it, for example.  Or the people who have no interest but describing what we’ll just call anatomically improbable encounters.  The people who take everything personally.  The people who have set up their character’s arc as The Chosen One, something that gets somehow even dumber than it sounds.

These folks do not wear signs, and you don’t get an easy indication.  The guy who steals gear gets two pieces and then you kick him, because it’s pretty obvious.  The guy who’s actually a racist and sexist twit in real life can easily slip under the radar for months or even years, because it’s hard to tell where the character begins and the player ends.  I’ve watched at least one person basically coast by on the basis of having a very well-developed character, despite the fact that his well-developed character made almost everyone uncomfortable and he made a long-standing habit of bullying other players.

But I still haven’t even talked about the in-game work you have to do.  The hours spent comparing the looks of pieces of equipment.  Thank heavens for dye systems that at least don’t force you to save four variants of a chestpiece so you can have different colors available, but that still doesn’t fix everything.  Right now, on WildStar, my main character has three different chestpieces that fit the same set… but with slightly different patterns of lights and armor.  The texture is the only slight difference, but I need to keep them in case one of them fits with what I’m doing better than the others.

Time spent collecting equipment, sometimes spent on content you don’t particularly like because that’s the only way to get it.  Spent getting dyes.  Finding locations.  Planning events.  Writing ideas.  Sending letters.  And, you know, hopefully playing the actual game, too, which is going to eat into all that time as sure as you want.

None of this is to say that being really involved in roleplaying is somehow more stressful than being really involved in other activities in your game of choice.  They’re all a lot of work in the name of a hobby.  What makes roleplaying different is mostly just the fact that it’s the one course that isn’t acknowledged as being stressful or reliant on hard work.  It’s seen as the activity you can just blow off and do whenever.

That’s not accurate, and is in fact problematic.  It’s like assuming that because you don’t know what an engineer does, they must have an easy job.  And having done both large-scale roleplaying and large-scale raiding, I’d hesitate to call either one simpler or less demanding.

Feedback, like always, is welcome however you’d like to leave it, whether it’s in the comments or by mail or by Twitter.  Next week, advice about in-character stage productions, and the week after that, I’d like to try something different by sharing some roleplaying moments that really resonated with me.


About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

One response to “Telling Stories: Roleplaying is stressful”

  1. Aly says :

    Good article, El. I think I know which bully you’re talking about too. 🙂 People don’t realize what goes into good RP, which is one of the reasons we get a bad rep sometimes. Interesting to think about.

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