Three Rules

A year ago, I wrote this in response to a Formspring question. I felt it merited being scrubbed up and given a more serious treatment.

A younger me was included in a conversation in which a group of roleplayers on the internet were glad-handing themselves and suggesting that their fun as roleplayers was basically the same thing as the work of a writer. They spoke as if their writing was enhanced by their roleplaying, and even went so far as to suggest that their roleplaying was worth publishing as a story. At the time, I disagreed, what with my notions and airs, saying that there were things that roleplaying did nothing to improve – and indeed, that roleplayers were prone to degrade over time, due to the forgiving, multi-author nature of RP.

While I was quietly looking down my nose at these people for daring to think they could touch the lofty goal that is describing themselves as writers, I jotted down three quick things that I knew all of them were bad at, and that all of them could bear to improve. None of them bothered to ask me about it. A friend of mine, however, did, and thus I explained the following.

Verisimillitude

That which goes on, goes on; things that happen while you’re not there to see them still happened, and they will effect things even while you are not looking. The chair that was moved stays moved until acted upon by an outside force. In any social RP environment, this sort of thing is easily ignored as ‘not very important.’ There’s no good tracking for this sort of information – the flow of roleplay, back and forth information, is too important to keep checking or double-checking older details. Heck, an attention to that level of detail is often seen as hampering RP. Check out how often roleplayers will repeat the same gesture in their behaviour – moving their head, moving their head back, touching a part of a person, reassuringly squeezing an arm – all without ever offering reference to the fact that these actions are heavily repeated.

The vast majority of character interaction people do focuses on the one or two people who see it. A few conversations may drive it, but really good writing has things that anchor events together. A line of cause and effect should, in a good story, be drawn between the events of each set of the story – anything else is excessive coincidence, which diminishes the meaning of action. In roleplay, pulling coincidences out of the air is fine, because getting people active and involved is more important than any greater ovearching theme to the story. Indeed, roleplay is very bad at communicating points.

A great example of this is how hard it can be to introduce new characters to a story while how easy it is to introduce them to a roleplay environment. In RP, you can introduce a character, then have them claim to have existed for a long time, and other characters – if their players are respectful and helpful – will often claim to remember you, and cast that information back, and maybe even reference you as if you’d always been there. That’s really nice for RP, and hell, it’s positively encouraged. In a story, though, to have a character show up out of nowhere and suddenly be a part of people’s backstories, without any prelude or earlier signalling, feels forced. If the character existed before, the writer should been indicating their existence.

In writing, the writer can go back, adjust the plan, add the character in, make signs, and write to change that. Roleplayers don’t and can’t. Instead, bwoomph, here’s your Uncle Tusky, sitting at the living room table, and hasn’t he been part of your life for years now?

Realism

You can tell the reader any bullshit you want to in the first five, ten pages of the story, and they’ll swallow it. But you have to stick to that bullshit. If you tell a reader ‘the genie will grant you three wishes,‘ and you grant them a fourth wish later, the reader will rightly have a very world-shifting reaction. You can do anything in a story, but you shouldn’t. The most important example of this is not in the magical bullshitty stuff, but in the mundane stuff. People should still be people.

Originally, I avoided giving an example of how this was done badly, because most of the people I knew had some direct contact with the origins of this bad example. Freed from this concern, freed from having my friends effectively in a position to be emotionally attacked, I’ll trot out the wonderful example of Paul Ocean. Without getting bogged down in him, one of the Challengers claimed that Paul Ocean, a dissociative personality disorder manipulative lying serial killer who had joined their Avengers knockoff to fill their Whedon Hulk slot had, after only a few months, attained an 85% approval rating. 85%. In the real world, 85% is the sort of positive reaction you can’t get out of apple pie and baseball. That is to say, Challenger RP required you to accept that 85% of Americans would forgive a serial killer who publicised his murder on youtube and was still an enormously arrogant, unpleasant, rude asshole who whined about being not trusted in public, and think he had redeemed himself.

That is not people being people. Consider for example, Chris Brown. Chris Brown beat a woman and is a generally unlikeable asshole, and he has a strong fan following, particularly amongst Americans, because Americans don’t mind beating women and being an asshole. So I can see a case being made for, in-universe, there being some diehard idealists ala Kazeno who liked Paul Ocean, mixed in with a lot of lack-witted knuckle-dragging fuckwits who didn’t have any sense of object permanence. That’s fine. That’s interesting and it would, to me, seem realistic for there to be strong, mixed opinions on the behaviour of a contentious, controversial figure. There was no such thing, however, from Paul Ocean’s writer. There was nothing but self-aggrandising persecution complex, and the people of the world around him existed to serve that – he was loved by 85% of the population, but that pesky 15% who didn’t love him were somehow unreasonable.

Let’s take another example, Death Note. In Death Note, criminals the whole world over started shitting their pants and giving up all their life of crime, because the death rate for convicted criminals in Japan went up by a fraction of a fraction of a percent. Think about that. Does that sound like the behaviour of a world’s worth of people? Or does it sound more like the actions of a small school’s worth of people when they hear a rumour started by one of the popular boys? Light becomes effectively a god, with a suicide cult worshipping him because all crime has vanished everywhere. For perspective on how much impact there would be, given that Light was operating in his afternoon periods and getting through a handful of names a day through his policeman father, there are two murders a minute, worldwide. About three thousand a day, and that’s just murders – the story later claims Light starts on other targets like rapists and muggers!

By claiming the whole world’s worth of crime could be distorted so massively by one person’s individually targeting and killing people in his or her own sphere of influence, the writers of Death Note showed us that the world in which they were creating was not a real world. It’s a world as understood by a child, someone who thinks the world is about twenty five people.

In both of these examples, the people that make up the world around the characters are not behaving like people. They are behaving like how the writer wishes people behaved. Readers are people and they interact with people all the time. Do not devalue how much it matters to a reader that the people in the story are people. You can make things fall upwards, you can make magic real, you can put gunfights in the streets, but people are the driving force here. This is why Zombie Apocalypse fiction is so popular, by the way – because it’s fundamentally character-driven, about observing a small group of people, behaving as people, in the real scenario of losing their world, with social barriers and conventions all broken down.

Roleplayers are generally bad at treating people who are not directly and immediately meaningful to each other as people. People are the thing that drive the realism in most settings. When you use magic or super science to achieve things, those things have to be repeatable and reliable in order to fuel that sense of realism. Most characters aside from their own are shallow, transient, or one-dimensional expressors, signposts to direct the other roleplayers’ attention.

Show, Don’t Tell

This is a huge one. You can’t tell me your character is ugly, you can’t tell me your character is charming, you can’t tell me he’s clever, if you then don’t do anything to show it. You have to show a character following through on what he can and can’t do in a way that is demonstrative and meaningful. You don’t have to show me all the steps – for example, I don’t need you to explain how Kazeno looks at a vinyl record and can immediately tell what it plays – you just have to leave me with that impression of how she did it. I can think of all sorts of Uberdetective abilities and What The Fuck things you can indicate without just having a character say ‘Oh, she can do this and this and this.’

A few examples of this – negative examples – in writing are Dan Brown’s books, where he tells you his protaganists are geniuses (and then show them barely managing to get ciphers many cipher fans bust in a short amount of time). Another example of a writer fucking this up is the Witcher Novels. Geralt is described as basically looking like shoe-leather and the guy gets tail up and down the coast. Sometimes that makes sense – women drawn to his power and to his being clean, in a world full of shit. Sherlock Holmes was regularly shown to be the smartest man in the room because Doyle did a good job of actively surrounding him with clever people, rather than dunderheads, and that made a large number of his reveals much more meaningful.

To use my own character as an example, I didn’t say Lock was hot. I intended for him to be hot, I tried to make him hot. I wrote about his mannerisms; the slow curl of his lip as ideas slid into the melting pot behind his eyes. I wrote about his body; the flat definition of his chest into his midriff, hard muscle unshaped by gyms, taut and toned and pantherlike; the way his hands were pockmarked with scars and missing hair, the damage to his thumbnails that left dark ridges down at the cuticle; the way his hands and feet were both a bit larger than normal, in a way that made Lock feel clumsy but instead seemed endearing. I wrote about his bright eyes, glittering with intelligence, the sudden grins, and the furious intensity of fire that rose inside him when his rage was up. I did not tell the reader “Lock is Hot” and left it at that. I didn’t copy-paste a hot celebrity’s appearance, cut out the eyes and photsohop filter the hair and tell you that that’s what he looked like. Lock’s attractiveness – which, two years on, I am now quite confident asserting – was conveyed and realised through the way he did the things he was going to do anyway.

These are the three skills at roleplaying does nothing to improve. I think that if you integrate these things into your roleplay, well, shit, you’ll improve your quality of RP and enjoy it more. But RP does not encourage or provoke improvement in these fields at all, and they are common pitfalls into which everyone falls.

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