Creating compelling and believable RP characters

In case you haven’t noticed, I play on an RP server. In general, this means that people tend to be a little more civil and well behaved. This has been true about RP servers from as far back as EQ, and it’s why I’ve played on RP servers exclusively in every MMO I’ve ever tried. Yes, it does mean that the pool of hardcore raiders is smaller. Yes, it does mean that the population itself is generally smaller and therefore the economies a little out of whack. I really don’t care. The fact that I can log in, wander Dalaran, and not see named like “Dahlongwang” makes all other minor inconveniences a reasonable price to pay. ((Except Moon Guard where I am told you may very well see *female* characters named Dahlongwang and variants thereof.))

Of course, there are other types of annoyances to find on RP servers. For example, the rampant bad RP and swarms of Marry Sues and Garry Stews. I’ve given it a fair amount of thought, and I believe the problem with most of these people is that they never played pen and paper RPGs. When you have a good Dungeon Master who’ll stand up and smack you from across the table for being an idiot, you learn how to RP pretty quickly. And if that didn’t motivate you, your character’s sudden propensity to find every bottomless pit in the campaign would.

So, for a generation who did not grow up secretly playing D&D in garages and basements, how do we salvage their ability to express themselves creatively without making people who actually pay attention to the game lore want to strangle them? Fortunately, it’s actually not hard to RP well. You just need some basic guidelines, and creating a believable, non-Sue character is firmly within your grasp.

Respect the Lore:
You are not a vampire cat girl. You are not a Drow. You are not a half-dragon. You are not an undead High Elf (unless somehow you’ve managed to roll as a Banshee) and you are not a hybrid of two races who did not meet until less than 10 years ago unless you yourself are less than 10-years old.  You just aren’t. Deal with it. Part of being a good actor is confining yourself to the script with only plausible adlibs. Part of being a good RPer is confining yourself to the bounds of the setting in which you play. Yes, it is your $15 a month, and if you want to be a Twilight vampire that bad then might I suggest you save your $15 a month until the Twilight MMO launches.

Learn the Lore:
You can’t respect it till you learn it. If you are not absolutely sure about a part of lore, then ask people. If they don’t know or if you doubt their reply, head over to WoWWiki.com or find a copy of the WoW Pen and Paper source books. Most of the information there is still canon and has not been officially retconned. Some of the information seems implausible, such as the lifespan and age of maturity for Tauren, but if there’s a part of canonical lore you’re not comfortable with, then avoid it in your RP. Say you’re an “old” or “young” Tauren but don’t give your exact age for example.

Your Character’s Starting Point:
Everyone seems to want some grand, sweeping epic for their character’s past. That’s great, but it’s not believable. You can’t be the deposed king of some land no one’s ever heard of that doesn’t exist on any maps and was never a part of any of the great wars. You shouldn’t even start there when building your character. Rather, assume the role of your character and ask yourself these simple questions. And put the drama away for a moment, please. It’s fine to have dead parents but not all of them were raped to death by Doomguards, OK? Just stop.

  • How old am I?
  • What was my childhood like?
  • Who were my parents?
  • Where are they now?
  • Do I have any siblings?
  • What did I want to be when I grew up?
  • What is my greatest fear?

Now you have a very simple, very basic foundation to build the rest of your character’s personality upon. Just as these factors made you who you are IRL, so too would they shape any believable RP character. These answers, too, help to limit other possible mistakes in your RP. For example, if we get it out of the way right now that you’re 40 years old, we can just straight up nix the whole idea that you’re a half-Draenei. ((With the *possible* exception of half-Orc, half-Draenei… though hardly any of those are supposed to have survived and most will /eyeroll if you say you are one.))

Putting Meat on the Skeleton:
So, now you have a foundation. Let’s put up some walls. Your character needs to have a motivation for what they do. People rarely do anything without a reason IRL, and it should not be any different for RP. If you’re a bartender, then why? Were you once a warrior? Did you suffer a debilitating injury in the war? Do you just *really* like mixing drinks? Or maybe you felt it was your obligation to take over the family business after your father died in the Plague?

Most of us, of course, aren’t barkeeps. We’re out there killing things and taking their stuff. In this case, there are four basic categories that you could find your character fitting into.

Mercenary:
This character is out there fighting for personal gain. They are a soldier of fortune, and while the ultimate goals of the war may match their own ideals, it is far from their primary concern when deciding who’s orders to listen to.

Military:
This character is a part of the dominant military force of their faction. They are fighting because they are told to, and continue fighting because they believe in the goals and wisdom of their leadership. It’s also very likely they are in the military in the first place due to a sense of duty and obligation to defend their homelands and family.

Idealist:
The Idealist does what they do because they believe it is right. They are not after rewards, and they do not listen to any orders that violate their sense of right and wrong. Typically, you’d find Paladins and Priests in this category more often than other classes.

Freelancer:
Falling somewhere between Idealist and Mercenary, this type of character is out there for personal gain, but it’s not necessarily treasure or tangible wealth of any kind. It could be the gain of wonderful stories to talk about, or gaining knowledge of the past. Bran, for example, is a Freelancer. His personal gain is knowledge about the Titans. Sure, he will probably benefit from discovered artifacts and what not in monetary ways, but it is not his motivator.

Pondering where your character fits in these four categories is a great exercise to help you further understand this personality you’re building. Spend a good amount of time putting your character into hypothetical situations and seeing how they’d react. If they were ordered to burn a village and kill everyone there, would they spare a lone child they found crying among the ashes? You may think such a question is obvious, but your character likely does not find it so cut and dried. Remember, they do not exist in our world. Their conditioning has not been the same as yours. Agonize over it, and see what you come up with.

The Darker Side:
There are flip sides to each of these categories. For example, there are Mercenaries who happily victimize the innocent for pay. There are members of the military who are disgruntled with how things are run, and may be disobeying orders or committing outright treason. Idealism is not always sunny, and a Warlock can be just as strongly convicted toward his version of idealism as a Priest or Paladin. Freelancers, too, might be taking advantage of the war to deal in slaves, drugs, or selling arms to the enemy.

Diversity Does Happen:

Lastly, I urge you to remember that there are no sure fired rules about how to RP a given race/class combo. Please be sure to keep it under control though. Not all Blood Knights are pompous asses. Not all Priests are sweet and sunny. Not all DKs are emo and bitter. Not all Warriors are brave. Just as with real life, the deviations from the normal are what makes us special. However, remember that in RP, it is the radical deviation into “special snowflake” territory that makes people hate you.

I’ll have more posts about being a good RPer in the future. For now, if you do RP, take your character through the steps I outlined. You might be surprised to find out things about them you didn’t yet know. If by chance you don’t RP, maybe this will motivate you to get started.

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~ by Udiyvli on 01/20/2010.

3 Responses to “Creating compelling and believable RP characters”

  1. I’ve played on Moon Guard for two years and can’t recall ever seeing a female character named “Dahlongwang.” However, I don’t go near Goldshire if I can avoid it (stupid holiday quests…).

    Thanks for the post! It’s great advice. I never played pen and paper RPGs, but I recognized from the start how to learn the lore and use that when creating a background for my character. It helps that the lore is probably my number one reason for playing the game too.

    • I was actually shown this by a guildy who has an alt on Moon Guard. To be more precise, we saw no less than four female characters with the word “futa” in their names in less than 10 minutes.

      By contrast I have never, not once, seen that on Sentinels XD

      Not bagging on Moon Guard (so to speak) but that is an awful, awful high rate of females with uh… extra equipment. >.> And yes it was in Goldshire actually.

      Anyway! Thank you for the comment. Some people just “get it”. It’s really not that different from writing good fiction. Really, it’s just tacking on adlib in reply to unexpected acts from other people. Of course, the amount of horrible fan fiction in the world is probably not a fully separate accuracy from the amount of bad RP.

  2. Sure, now here is an EXCELLENT lil’ set of RP guildelines. While I do engage in written roleplay on a near daily basis…it’s all admittedly on the forums of Fanfiction.net, where everybody else ranges widely in roleplay skill. Thankfully I have managed to befriend a few people who take the time and effort to create interesting, believable characters and help contribute to a storyline that can stick to the logic of the fandom, but for the most part the rest of the people are all still ‘young’–inexperienced, and wanting to jump into everything to try out ideas that have no particular rhyme or reason.

    For example, let’s take a look at a Kingdom Hearts forum I run, which, being a crossover game, is already fairly extravagant but works out beautifully. One of the guys on this forum has an original character who is a mixed hand-to-hand martial artist with budding telekinetic abilities. You’d think he’d be straying close to Gary Stu borders, except he makes it WORK. And not just because Kingdom Hearts has the capability to host a wide range of skill sets, either. His character, when not napping, fighting, or otherwise preoccupied, spends his free time training, training, and training more to increase his skill. He tries, he gets beaten on numerous occasions, and he keeps trying until his skill level increases from the work and he is able to move on to the next challenge (Of course, as you can imagine, such a high metabolism requires him to eat a LOT…). What’s more, he has PERSONALITY. He’s not just a self-righteous, self-appointed hero of the worlds. Sure, he has a strong sense of justice, as is typical to many male protagonists, but for the most part he is pretty laid-back, and is easy to get along and converse with (just so long as he gets his thirteen hours of sleep a day. 😛 The guy loves to nap.)

    Now let’s look at some other roleplayers from the same forum, one of which was booted from another KH forum I help admin after violent complaints when his character was turned down there. He ended up posting the same character for submission at my place–after some tentative thought I gave him the go ahead, on the fact that he tone down his all-powerful warlord. Remove the excess weapons, get rid of the capability to raise the dead, get rid of Envy from FMA and ease off on the ‘evil bad guy’ role–his role may be an antagonist to the main group, but c’mon, even bad guys need to take a break now and then. So I also had to get him to ease up on the issue of springing an ambush every page. Still a little bumpy when roleplaying, but at the same time I can gladly say he is improving.

    As for the THIRD guy…err, not so much. From the beginning his characters were grossly overpowered. A group of hunters, the main of which had just EIGHT weapons by himself, and a Nobody with not one, not even two, but FOUR Keyblades, when it was enough of a rarity for the cannon Nobody Roxas to own just ONE. And then, when I get him to adjust these two characters, he keeps springing up more and more characters who are just as equally impulsive and poorly thought out, until his total character count numbers close to TWENTY, as opposed to my five or six. Plus his attempts to bring in cannons from non-fandom games or remove in-game cannons from their respective environments, for no reason other than “wouldn’t it be just awesome for so and so to show up here?!”

    This guy I’m talking about is one of the green roleplayers who does not quite grasp that even being a fantasy, the fandom has boundaries. It’s astounding how many people try to use characters who all are pimped up with Keyblade-O-Rama, or are “in love” with the pretty boys of Organization XIII. It happens, regardless of however many tips you place in the Rules thread in order to guide people towards making better characters. Many of them will either gloss over them and then post piddly characters anyways, or even just straight out overlook rules and post horribly thought out three or four liner clumps that hurt the eyes to try and make sense of. Tarnacious whippersnappers. 😛

    But hey, even the more experienced roleplayers flub up sometimes. I myself used to have a tendency of impulsively posting characters, very few of which would actually survive to have an important purpose to the storyline. For that reason, I tend to limit myself now–stick to the characters and forums I known, and build up on what I already have been working on before introducing something new. And it’s still only because of advice from the better people out there that I’ve moved on past that green phase of newb-ness.

    In the end, I suppose what makes a good roleplayer is, like you said here, understanding the lore, history, and boundaries of a fandom, putting effort into fleshing out a likeable character, and PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

    …apologies for the rambling post. AWAY! *unsheathes axe and rushes right back to chopping down hapless Nerubis Guards*

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