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.

Character Interaction

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.


Accommodate Others

As we've noted elsewhere, many players try so hard to be extraordinary that it becomes banal because everyone has a woefully tragic past. In other words, many role-players want to be in the spotlight. But in anything that resembles a story, there can only be so many lead characters. The "drama queen" is a recognized part of the role-playing community.

In my opinion, a lot of RP'ers tend to need/want attention. (Guilty! :) ) Each of us is a little 'drama queen' just screaming to get out. As much as we enjoy getting together & having a scene with all of us together, we each crave our moment when we're the center of attention. [CoH, M, 30]

The drama queen is usually really easy to spot, as he's probably the one obsessed with winning the e-peen waving contest over who has the most tragic past, or who has the greatest greater destiny, or is just generally not happy with ever being a supporting player, even in someone else's plot. [WoW, M, 24]

Thus, what marks good role-players is their willingness to accommodate others, whether this means playing a support role or being responsive to the quirks of other characters. In sum, it is the ability to share the spotlight.

Good roleplaying is interesting, original, spontaneous and very open-ended. Good roleplaying does not impede the progress of other players in the game or interfere with their game experience, but rather, happens alongside it, enhancing the game for those passing through as well as those who are engaged in the act of roleplay. [AO, F, 40]

A good roleplayer is responsive to characters around him/her and doesn't feel the need to constantly be in the spotlight; a good roleplayer improves the RP of those around him/her just through the quality of the interaction. [EQ2, F, 37]


Develop Character Over Time

As we've seen, static and inflexible characters are frowned upon largely because they suggest a lack of imagination or a resistance to interact with other players.

A bad roleplayer tends to be stuck with only a few ideas (e.g. kill x-race on sight), have either stereotypical characters (e.g. Elminster wannabe mage) or wild ideas (I was brought up by a race that kills my own race on sight) and often struggles with thee/thou because 'that is part of roleplaying'. The character will remain the same even after 'life-changing events' and during roleplaying sessions with others they try to make their character the Hero or force things on other characters (e.g. when in a barfight 'I cast a spell and everyone falls on the ground writhing in pain'). [WoW, F, 31]

On the other hand, good role-playing allows for character development. In other words, these characters are open to interacting with other characters and changing because of significant interactions.

Good role playing involves the creation of a whole character, the ability to allow others to influence that character through relationships and interaction, and the character's growth and development. [EQ, F, 53]

Good roleplayer: is able to adapt to a situation and to make the character evolve throughout the time, gives the character the opportunity to learn and change his/her mind (with reasons to do so). [SWG, F, 29]

A corollary of this is that good role-players develop relationships to make these character developments visible to others and to create the potential for these developments. After all, no one knows you have changed (or can provide a context for you to change) unless they have known you for a while.

Develops in-game relationships with other characters, from romance and friendship to rivalry and feuds. Really good role players allow these relationships to grow and change over time. [DAoC, M, 45]

Good role playing involves the creation of a whole character, the ability to allow others to influence that character through relationships and interaction, and the character's growth and development. [EQ, F, 53]


Textual Communication

The second set of guidelines described by players revolved around expectations of writing skills and the conscious effort to bracket off out-of-character comments.

Writing and Spelling

The primary pet-peeves of role-players are poor spelling, grammar or incessant abbreviations. Specifically, leet-speak is very much frowned upon.

There are a few standard rules that really help roleplay. Actually spelling words out. The difference between 'What do you mean?' and 'wut do u mean?'. From my experience, this will get you slaughtered. [WoW, M, 25]

An attempt at good spelling is always appreciated, when you're trying to roleplay. No one is perfect, but lots of 'lol kthx u help me?' isn't going to go over very well. Doing that on an RP server will get you some pretty snippy responses, I've seen. [WoW, F, 23]

Mark OOC Comments

Secondly, consistent with the importance of staying in character, the deliberate separation of out-of-character (OOC) commentary is also seen as necessary. In an environment where all communication is textual, this means developing strategies to explicitly mark OOC comments. This is commonly done via bracketing.

Any chat that's OOC--out-of-character--must be marked as different somehow. Generally this means double parentheses--like ((hi!))--or brackets of some sort, like [ ] or { }. [CoH, M, 30]

The only etiquette things i can think of is declaring out of character comments, it tends to break up the flow if people talk out of character and are not declaring it. [WoW, M, 24]



We've looked at guidelines that players described related to character interaction and communication. We'll now turn to what players noted were unacceptable ways of story-telling in the context of an ongoing plot or role-playing event.

Don't "God-Mode"

Above all, role-playing is a shared consensual experience among players. Thus it's important that actions are not forced on other players. Breaking this rule was referred to either as "god-moding" or "power-emoting" by respondents.

The most common rule that is broken, that I know of, is forcing someone into something they might not otherwise do. For example, a role player would emote, Laeque leans in to kiss Joe. A non-role player would emote, Laeque kisses Joe on the cheek. The first emote is open ended. The other player chooses to back away or accept the kiss as his character would let him. The second emote is typical of the novice role player. It allows nothing to react to and dictates the action. [DAoC, F, 50]

Well, there's a big one. Don't godmode. Do NOT act like an action that you roleplay succeeds immediately. Roleplaying is all about mutual consent. If you are going to do something that could totally alter the other character, ASK. Don't even try to do it at all and allow for failure. Ask the player in private. [CoH, F, 18]

Don't "Meta-Game"

And finally, echoing the early guideline to stay in character, players noted that it was important that players are consistent with what their characters know and do not know about the world. This was referred to by respondents as "meta-gaming".

You also should never meta-game. This is when you have, for example, played WoW to level 60 once already and have seen the enitre world. Then you start another roleplay character, and you use knowledge from your first character in your second, while your second character shouldn't actually have this knowledge, because it hasn't seen all these places and things yet. [Seed Beta, F, 24]

Most roleplaying newbies and 'outsiders' don't understand the concept of 'meta-gaming'. Meta-gaming is applying knowledge or influence from an out-of-character context to an in-character situation. For example, talking about the inner layout of a high-level dungeon as a low-level character who could not possibly have first-hand knowledge of such a thing. [WoW, M, 29]


What is Role-Playing?

One internal conflict I've side-stepped so far is what actually counts as role-playing. Many respondents commented that perspectives of what counted as role-playing vary from player to player and is a constant source of tension. Given this underlying tension, it is actually interesting that a coherent set of guidelines could be extracted from role-players. Indeed, the most common source of tension did not involve the guidelines themselves, but rather, from how strictly and how often they were to be followed.

An alliance my guild was in during the relatively early days of DAoC had a rather strict policy of not breaking character in alliance chat. While it seemed like a good policy at the time, the steady scolding after every slip ended up leaving alliance chat mostly unused. When this same alliance announced that they were going to focus even MORE on role-playing, our guild (and several others) left. The realization we made at the time was that role-playing is at it's best when it just happens, and at it's worst when it is forced. [EQ2, M, 37]

There are wide differences in degree of tolerance for adherence to roleplay, and significant disagreements can be sparked over these disagreements. I find that roleplaying guilds in particular suffer from this, and rarely enjoy the longevity of a more accepting and varied guild, though a common thread and recognition of other's characters in their roles and some perhaps 'lighter' roleplay certainly adds to the fun of a good guild. [EQ, M, 51]

In other words, for some role-players, having strict guidelines and enforcement diminishes the spontaneous fun of role-playing. The rules begin to constrain, rather then enable, creativity.

I have been a member of a guild that took their role playing very seriously and had rules of conduct etc. which I didn't agree with as I found it constrictive in a similar way to how I view the raiding guilds which are non-rp but have numerous rules on how you should behave. I suppose that my thinking here is that real life has lots of rules in it, why create more in a fantasy world that is (for me) a form of escapism? [WoW, M, 32]

I've been in very strict RP guilds where any conversation that took place that was not in the 'approved' vernacular of the Guild had to be noted as being 'OC' (Out of Character) before the conversation took place. Failure to abide by that rule could result in the offender being kicked from the guild. Most guilds aren't that strict because it does, at some point, make it more difficult to have a good gaming experience (diversion from real life) when you're constantly having to look over your virtual shoulder for the RP Police. [WoW, M, 43]

And finally, I'll leave you with one interesting "is it role-play?" dilemma that several players articulated.

As to what constitutes RP, many will say anything goes (and this is the school to which I subscribe) as long as it's sensible, but their are many views on this too. A favourite quote of mine is 'Your character isn't a Night Elf that has fallen through a wormhole to find herself in Eve. Ever.'. Some people will say that anything which refers to another game/world/life and so on is effectively 'disqualified' from being In Character (IC). [EO, M, 19]

See Also:

- Introduction to the Role-Playing Series
- The Demographics of Role-Playing
- Faces of Role-Playing