This guide is written with the intent to help those who want to roleplay in an online setting to get an idea of what is expected by the standards of most serious roleplaying sites and formats, such as forums and chatrooms. Because this guide is meant to be relatively brief, it will not be able to cover every possible aspect of online roleplaying. Hopefully, however, what is covered will be sufficient to give those who wish to do real roleplaying a good head start.
Some of the very first roleplaying that we do as children are games like cops and robbers. In those games, we first encountered the childish interaction: "Bang! You're dead!" "No I'm not - you missed!" This is why many games institute rules and number randomizers: to provide a way to prove whether or not something could happen, and how well it happened.
However, in those cases where the rules are unclear, or where they are not present at all (as is very often the case in forums and freeform roleplaying channels), it becomes the responsibility of the players involved to be fair to everyone. And that includes the Game Master, or whoever it is controlling the monsters and other Non-Player Characters! Everybody should be allowed to win every once in a while, and it is unfair for somebody to always win. Even GMs like it when they win every so often - it makes it all the more satisfying for the protagonists, after all, when there was a very real chance for them to fail in their tasks. It can also be even more satisfying to fail at first, and then come back and succeed on a later attempt at some seemingly-impossible task. Being able to roleplay fairly like this is a sign of maturity, and makes it much more fun to roleplay with you.
Grammar, Punctuation, and Spelling
Almost everyone online complains about the poor grammar, punctuation, and spelling of everyone else. This is nothing new: people have been complaining about the bad language skills of everyone else ever since language skills were first used to distinguish different classes of people - literally for thousands of years now. It is also true that nobody really uses language exactly the way that the rules for it are written, though some get closer than others.
Just because nobody gets grammar just right, however, and just because everybody commits some errors of spelling and punctuation, does not mean that they are not important. As everybody knows, or should know, first impressions are very important. Grammar, punctuation, and spelling are the way that you, as a roleplayer, make your first impression to the people in the online world, in the same way that your dress and grooming make a first impression on a first date. Online, as in the real world, you seldom get a second chance to make a good first impression to individuals or a community. Because of this, they are very important indeed. Thankfully, like all skills, one's ability to use the rules of a language improve with practice, and eventually become instinctive.
Two important notes about grammar, punctuation, and spelling
- Checkers: Most word processing programs, as well as many browsers, have optional grammar and spelling checking software. However, in order for you to use these correctly, you will have to already know the rules for grammar and the proper spelling of a word so that you can make the right selection. If you do not, then you may commit the sometimes even worse crime-against-grammar of using the wrong word in the wrong place. Do not, under any circumstances, simply hit the "correct all" button, if it is present, on your error checking programs, as this will likely ruin your document completely. Also, grammar checkers are notoriously buggy, and unless you are skilled in their use, or trying to become so, it is generally recommended that you just turn them off.
- Do not be a grammar cop. People make mistakes, especially when they are typing fast, as is often the case in chatrooms, or when they are caught up in their ideas, as is often the case in forums. So be nice, be patient, and be polite. In this way, you can encourage others to gradually improve their levels of roleplaying to meet and match your own. It is acceptable to expect a reasonably high standard of writing from those that you play with; just try not to be rude about it.
Length of Posts
Whether short or long, posts should be meaningful. Generally, it is a good idea to type out as much information as you feel that your roleplaying partner or partners need in order to keep playing with you, and then stop (but see the Descriptions heading below).
As a general rule, it is a good idea to start a roleplaying session with a post of decent length - something big enough to provide at least the beginnings of a setting, the first sketch of a word-crafted playground for all the participants to enjoy. In chatrooms, the length should be about two to three "blocks" of text, however much that might be, depending on the program used. This is roughly a good-sized paragraph worth of information if it were translated into a word processing program. More may be required, depending on the situation, or less if the other roleplayers already have a decent idea of the setting, or want to flesh it out as they go along.
In forums, an opening post should be quite a bit bigger, though, again, the length may vary depending on the shared desires of those involved in the roleplaying. This increased length is because forum roleplaying is intended to be done when a person has the time to post, and there is usually a longer period between posts than in chatrooms. Hence, when you do post, you should have very carefully worked out your post in advance. You should also provide lots and lots of details, because these provide the other players in a thread (the accepted term for a forum-based roleplaying posting area, dealing with a single, focused line of roleplaying) with lots of things to do in their posts. Generally, this means that you should write at least two paragraphs of well-formed, solid text, and probably as many as five or more large-sized paragraphs if there is a need to create the first inklings of an entire world for roleplayers to play in while posting in a thread.
Specific Post Lengths
Short posts are sometimes acceptable in chatroom-based roleplaying, so long as they are not the only sort of post that is done. This is because chatroom roleplaying can be rather conversational in nature, and sometimes our sentences in conversations can indeed be quite small. But too many short posts, or short posts in awkward places, can leave other roleplayers unable to find any 'footing' to continue playing, and creates an unpleasant taxing on their imaginations to try and keep the short poster entertained. These problems with short posts are especially true of forum-based roleplaying, where short posts might be considered a waste of time, considering how much time and effort can go into a single post. Thus, posting too little can be a serious problem: it indicates that you are not taking the roleplaying seriously, and are making unfair demands of the other players.
Long posts are usually preferred by all online communities. This allows plenty of time and space to draw out and develop ideas, and also to provide the other players involved with plenty of details to work with when they make their own posts. However, long posts can also be tedious or even rude in certain situations. The following are good rules to follow regarding post length:
- Before you have the complete attention and enthusiasm of other players, long posts might overwhelm them. This is especially true in chatrooms, where a wall of text can be like a bombshell. It is usually less of a problem in forum-based roleplaying, where the only ones who might get involved in a thread are those who are ready and willing to read through everything that is written.
- It is usually considered a good idea to have posts of roughly the same length as your roleplaying partners. This shows everybody that you are as interested in the roleplaying as they are, and creates a roleplaying rapport that can develop into understanding and friendship. Some people just naturally prefer to post at a certain length and speed. People who tend to post at similar rates and quantities are those who usually get along the best.
- Some long posts can exclude other players from roleplaying, rather than include them. This is because, when a post gets especially long, especially in chatrooms, it means that you are taking up time and space for others. It is the natural inclination of most healthy individuals to be somewhat narcissistic, or to care about themselves and their characters at least a little bit more than about other people and their characters. This is fine and healthy, in controlled amounts. However, it can quickly get out of hand, especially with massive posts that focus primarily on one's own characters. Doing things like this is demanding attention, and can be seen as hijacking a thread or a channel, and so is very, very rude.
Descriptions are the meat and drink of roleplaying. Without them, very little actually gets done. This is because, in text-based roleplaying, there are usually very few pictures available, except, perhaps, for a few still images or animations that are linked within a thread or roleplaying session. In order for people to do any of the actions of their roleplaying, there has to be an understanding of the setting in which that roleplaying takes place. Additionally, whenever actions are taken, it is important to establish where in that setting a player is having a character do things, and how. It is the responsibility of all players in text-based roleplaying to take part in creating this sense of solid-state realism.
The following senses might be invoked by a roleplayer, to provide inspiration, besides others not mentioned:
- Sight: What parts of the world does your character see? How about your characters - what do your characters look like? Do they change their clothes from time to time, maybe use different hair styles, or are they fairly consistent in their dress and grooming? Colors are very important, as are the visual textures of things.
- Sound: What does your character's voice sound like? What about other characters? Sound is excellent, as in movies, for creating an essential sense of atmosphere in a region. Peaceful bird chirpings and babbling brooks and whispering winds create more serene environments, while blaring trumpets, tromping feet, and the cries of battle create a very different environment indeed.
- Scent and Taste: Scent and taste are connected, and are also some of the most primal, instinctive senses we have. Because of this, they are excellent ways to create truly effective descriptions, in a way that others can relate to that goes beyond mere words.
- Touch: Describing the sensation of sunlight on one's face, or the wind blowing through your hair and clothing creates a layer of depth to descriptions that can really help your fellow roleplayers to immerse themselves in a setting.
- Spatial: Where is something? And, more importantly, where is it in relation to everything else? This is especially important in establishing where your character happens to be at any given moment, so that you know how close you are to things, and how close they are to you, which can greatly change how you might interact with them, and they with you. Besides this, it gives other characters a good idea of where things are, so that they can make similar decisions.
- Kinetic: This has to deal with the movement of objects and characters through space. Where are you going, and what are you doing while you go there? Be sure to describe directions, degrees of force, and acts of violence in as much detail as you can manage so everybody else knows exactly where something started, where it ended up, and what happened to it along the way.
- Emotional: While it is important to describe things, it is often equally important to describe how your characters feel about what is sensed. This helps you to establish what sort of person that your character really is, both to others and also to yourself, besides allowing others an opportunity to react to what is experienced in similar fashion, especially if they can sense what your character is feeling.
This is another very difficult subject to review, but it is nevertheless a very important one. Think back on your own life. Now consider: how many times can you recall where you went through a very significant, life-altering event? Now consider a little deeper: how many times did you enjoy this significant, life-altering event? And still deeper: did this significant, life-altering event make you a better person? Generally, the answer to the middle question is no, when real, permanent change was involved. The answer to the last question can vary radically, depending on the individual and the change involved.
This brings us to the next consideration, however, which is that most of the books and movies and other forms of entertainment that we enjoy so much usually have characters that undergo periods of sometimes very intense change, be it for good or ill. Very often this change is the focus of the story being told. Character development can be as satisfying in roleplaying as it can be in other forms of entertainment. However, because making a character requires some significant thought, and because playing a character requires a certain amount of immersion in that character, this is something that is often intensely difficult.
Character development might be seen as the most mature thing that can be done in roleplaying. It carries a significant risk: some changes will make a character unplayable, and others can affect you almost as much as they affect the character. On the other hand, moments of character development can be some of the most satisfying, emotionally rewarding moments in gaming. They tend to be rare, just as they are in real life, but when they are present, it is best to reach for them.
On a smaller level, most changes in character happen over time, by gradual degrees. To do this in roleplaying requires that you be an active, or even proactive, roleplayer, and go out of your way to play with others, to experience new things, and to create new situations, rather than simply having them handed to you by others. In this way, you will develop your characters, gain skill as a roleplayer, and gain maturity and confidence as a person.
The most important part of online roleplaying is that you should be having fun. As in most games, there is usually some transition, which can be painful, as you learn the rules of the game and then practice to get good at them. But once you start to get the basics down, enough so that you can play without annoying the other players, then online roleplaying can be quite a lot of fun. This is an opportunity to explore new worlds with other people, and because of this, it is an effort that must be taken seriously, because the seriousness of the act is also a part of the fun that comes from being a part of a roleplaying community.