The Protocols of Role-Playing
One way to understand role-playing is by asking role-players to describe what counts as good role-playing and what the etiquette of role-playing is. Responses to this question were surprisingly similar, with a key set of attributes articulated over and over again by many players. These guidelines fall roughly into three aspects of role-playing: 1) character interaction, 2) textual communication, and 3) story-telling.
The primary set of guidelines that players articulated revolved around how a player's character should behave and interact with others.
Stay in Character
The most common guideline given was that good role-players "stay in character". There are two layers of meaning in this phrase. The superficial one is that role-players should avoid making out-of-character comments (OOC).
Maintaining an in character presence is definitely one of the top rules. Personally, I have no problem with the occasional out of character comment, such as 'brb' or 'phone' or something similar (and most people that I know of don't), but to come out of nowhere and start asking about game mechanics ooc'ly...that just comes across as either 'newbie!' or 'idiot'. [Neverwinter Nights, F, 23]
But the underlying assumption is that good role-players can stay in character because they have a character personality that has sufficiently depth and can deal with a wide range of scenarios.
A good roleplayer knows all aspects of their character; they have a thorough background and a concept of how their character would act and react and they go with that. A newer roleplayer will often drop out of character, or they will forget that they are roleplaying a certain character and not only drop ooc but revert completely to their personality, or the personality of one of their other characters. [EQ2, F, 23]
Good role-players stay in character when on-stage. Newbies generally have limited ability to respond; their conversation armamentarium is small. [Second Life, F, 57]
In this second reading, a player breaks character because of a limited behavioral repertoire. A good role-player is not only consistent, but draws from a coherent character story or psychology to react to a wide range of scenarios.
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