Telling Stories: The tone police
Just because two people both roleplay doesn’t mean that their roleplaying is compatible.
What I try to do with these columns is give you a picture of how to be a better roleplayer and offer some character-development food for thought. That’s the long and short of it. Best practices, good ideas, verisimilitude, all of that. I very occasionally touch on stories that are pretty played out and hard to take seriously, but the reality is that if you and your friends are comfortable roleplaying half-dragon vampires over in Star Trek Online, more power to you. Enjoy yourselves!
Not everyone is willing to be cool.
Tone policing is essentially the act of going around and telling people how they should be roleplaying based on your personal idea of what characters should be like. It’s imposing your own rules on what someone else is doing. It’s also really shitty behavior that gets sort of glossed over on the flimsy pretext of “but I care about roleplaying” as if that somehow excuses you from making other people’s play experience demonstrably worse.
Obviously, you are not going to like everyone’s roleplaying storyline. I blame absolutely no one for saying that they want no part in the aforementioned half-dragon vampire stuff on STO. And there are legit critiques to be made there, even – it’s sure as hell lore-breaking, it’s probable that most of the characters are poorly written, there’s no reason to believe that it’s being played out in the right game, and so forth. All of this stuff is completely legit.
And you know what? If you come in there stomping and shouting, you are still the asshole.
Whether or not someone is aware of lore violations or whatever literally does not matter. If they are having fun and not bothering you, you walking in and raining on the parade accomplishes a fat lot of nothing. If they are bothering you, that’s a slightly different story… but even so, you are not going to change anyone’s mind with volume and demands. You’re just going to be a prick.
But, of course, those are never the groups that people go after. No, it’s another roleplayer whose stories you just don’t like or whom you find obnoxious or whatever. You make a point of yelling with great vigor just how wrong their characters are, how they violate lore here or there, how it’s impossible for your character to be a whatever…
Again, you are wrong.
Lore is just a word. Lore is a story that someone else came up with, and roleplaying is trying to fit into that story as seamlessly as possible. Lore is not ironclad or absolute, it is flexible, and anywhere between 60-80% of the roleplayers I’ve met who do not fit firmly within the confines of lore are simply tweaking the edges to logical ends. That’s without getting into the hard details about lore, more specifically the fact that it doesn’t have hard details; one person’s lore-nudging character is another person’s totally understandable one. One player’s low-key characterization is someone else’s boring slog.
In a tabletop game, this is what the gamemaster does, in part. If I have my group sitting down and I want to run a specific sort of game, I have the right to look at a character and say that said character is not valid for this setting. That’s because I’m in charge of the setting.
You know who’s in charge of the setting in Final Fantasy XIV? Square-Enix. And they don’t ask you to run your character concept past them before you play their game. They don’t care. Or, if you want to be very technical about it, they have an ongoing storyline that explicitly doesn’t care that the open world doesn’t allow for hundreds of White Mages and Dragoons and Black Mages even when there are, obviously, hundreds of White Mages and Dragoons and Black Mages. If they cared about reconciling that conflict, they would. Guess what? They don’t.
I tend to follow a rule of pragmatism in situations like this – obviously my character wasn’t the White Mage of the story, there are other White Mages out here, the story must be more archetypical than personal. Some people don’t. Barring an official ruling on that, I am just as right as you are.
For that matter, the stories I like to tell in the game are just as right as yours. My pansexual, murderous spy and engineer is every bit as appropriate to Final Fantasy XIV as your blandly heroic stubbly white dude who is in every way a stand-in for the main character in cinematics. Tales of romance, betrayal, and people with sharp teeth are just as valid as tales of, well, bland heroism that involves marching off to stop whoever from trying to take over the world yet again. The game tells both stories. You can argue that some stories fit more comfortably with the rest of the game’s tone, but again, why would you want to?
Yelling at people or getting upset with them for telling the sort of stories you don’t want to play doesn’t invalidate the stories they want to play. It just makes you look like an asshole who can’t have fun unless everyone else is having the right kind of fun, which ironically is exactly the same sort of fun that you want to have normally.
There are going to be people with different ideas about how to tell stories, different concepts of characters, and different ideals. You are not necessarily going to want to tell the same sorts of stories as other people. And that’s great; one of the joys of roleplaying is that you can tell stories you won’t get anywhere else. But if you don’t like someone else’s story, unless you’re being asked to take part, you can just leave it to one side. And if you are asked to take part – you can just say no.
In an online environment, you are not the mommy. Trying to be just makes you a jerk.
Next time around, I want to discuss recovering from failure in-character and the climb out of that pit. The week after that, let’s take a look at your responsibilities to your fellow roleplayers, because you do have them.
About expostninjaI'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.
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