Telling Stories: The space between “can” and “should”

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.Let me make two points that are so self-evident they should be entirely unnecessary, and yet they come up time and again.  The first is one that has been discussed to death: You can make any sort of character for roleplaying that you want.  The second is equally obvious: There are a lot of things you should and should not do when making a character.

These are not contradictions.

It can be hard, at times, to separate the two.  But the entire purpose of this column, and the one I did before this, and any subsequent columns on the same topic I do after this is talking about what you should do.  A column talking about what you can do with roleplaying would be extremely short and boring, consisting of exactly one entry (“you can do what you want”) and offering no useful advice.  But among all the things you can do, there are a lot of things you should or should not do, and just because something is in fact possible does not make it a good idea.

It winds up with a lot of broken pieces along the way, but that's part of the goal.

There are some characters for whom “can” is barely even a question, of course.

I’m willing to bet that everyone reading this understands that the dictionary definition of the two words mean two different things, likely due to a snarky English teacher or two asking if you can go to the bathroom or not.  But there was a valuable lesson hidden there which could easily be missed, and that lies in the fact that what you can do does not overlap with what you should do much of the time.

Case in point: jerks.  I have talked about jerks in the past.  It is entirely possible to make a character who is a complete jerk and play them straight as a good person deserving of respect.  You can do that.  You also should most definitely not do that, because it’ll make your character miserable to play around and will likely inspire people to just stop roleplaying with you, full stop.

You can make a character who breaks every single point in the lore and gleefully abandons all pretense of jiving with the setting.  You can definitely ignore in-game continuity and trample over other people’s storylines.  You can godmode all you want.  If that’s fun for you and the people you’re playing around, then no one is going to stop you, there are no roleplaying police, and so forth.  But odds are high that people are not going to want to play with you.

“That’s okay, I have a group!” you say.  But groups do not stick around forever.  It is entirely possible that the people you’re playing with now are going to leave the game at some point, and what then?  Are you going to deal with new people who may not be all right with the state of affairs?  How are you going to adapt a character who is part of a very different sphere of behavior than is the accepted norm for the majority of roleplayers?

You can do it, but you probably shouldn’t.  And that should be a foremost concern in your mind when making and playing your character.  What you can get away with is not what is advisable to do.

What you should be doing, on a regular basis, is making your character as accessible and satisfying to interact with as possible for a majority of people you meet.  You shouldn’t abandon your concept for market appeal or something equally dumb, but you should put your concept in the least troublesome form, so to speak.  If you want a character with a very firm sense of right and wrong, that’s fine and good, but you should not automatically assume at tat point that said character is usually in the right or even will be liked by most other characters.  You may well have created a villain!

Sorry not sorry.

Yes, you were the asshole.

If you don’t want that, then spot-check what you’re doing.  And if you do want that, fine, but own it.

This also gets to the heart of people arguing that their character fits perfectly with the lore, which may very well be the case in spots.  But “fitting the lore” doesn’t cover sins any more than violating the lore causes them.  The heart of the problem with creating a half-vampire blood elf is not that it violates the lore, seeing as World of Warcraft has explicitly created several vampiric blood elves already.  It’s that when the whole thing is simply an effort to make your character special without spending that time on personality or the like, it becomes noxious, boring, and frequently an attempt to cheaply cross genres.

I can think of a half-dozen good vampiric concepts for pretty much every game in the span of seconds.  I could write a great vampire story for Star Trek Online.  I can do it.  But I probably shouldn’t, because the vast majority of people roleplaying in that environment aren’t there for vampire antics, no matter how lore-appropriate those vampire antics might be.

Always ask yourself this.  Always be aware of this.  Always spend time not asking whether or not you can do something, but whether it will actually do something worthwhile.  I don’t write those aforementioned Starfleet vampires because all that I’d accomplish with doing so is proving that it could be done, and before I accomplished that I’d be making several people uncomfortable and probably turning them off from the story arc altogether.  It’s not a good idea.

Maybe you do have a really grand idea for the exact same concept, and maybe it only works if you explicitly make an honest-to-whomever no-fooling vampire.  And that’s fine.  You can, in fact, do that.  You should never be made to feel as if you can’t do it.  But you should know that you shouldn’t, so that you’re making an informed choice before doing it anyway.

Next week, I want to talk about making concise text descriptions that work without being too ornate or too unwieldy.  The week after that, let’s talk about why you might not be able to get the people around you into roleplaying when you’re trying.


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.

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