Abandoning Tabletop Soap Opera: Roleplay in Text-Based Virtual Worlds
While role-play (RP) is traditionally associated with table-top gaming and many-sided dice, the online worlds made available by MUDs, MOOs and MUSHes offer an RP experience of a potentially wider breadth than the conventional D&D game.
Before someone jumps up to beat me about the head for making that sweeping statement - allow me to explain. As a petite young woman with a distinctly bubbly personality, it has always been hard (impossible would be a better word!) for me to convincingly RP anything taller than a Kender in tabletop RPGs.
I may have a very good warrior character, but when I squeak, 'Die, foul fiend!' everyone at the table just tends to fall over giggling at my performance - which is where RPing online comes in.
I'm aware that there are IRC-RP (Internet-Relay-Chat-Roleplay) sites as well, but since I know MUDs best, I'll limit this article to RPing in MUDs.
WHAT ARE MUDS?
For those unfamiliar with what MUDs are, the acronym 'MUD' is an abbreviation for 'Multi-User Dungeon'. If you already know what a MUD is, you may wish to consider skipping to the next section. (HOW MUDs PRESENT A UNIQUE PLATFORM FOR ROLEPLAY)
Though the name 'MUD' is possibly derived from those very old computer role-playing games which offered little other than dungeon crawling, monster-slaying and the accumulation of wealth - MUDs are far more than simple run-of-the-mill dungeons populated by a few inhabitants.
MUDs are essentially text-based virtual worlds containing objects (continents, landscapes, furniture, trees, buildings, food, etc) and people (players) as well as mobiles (NPCs) to interact with. They are made up purely of descriptive and (depending on the situation) narrative text, and interaction by players is via text-based commands.
The virtual world provided by a MUD can in turn be the foundation for a virtual community of players. Should you find a MUD with a large enough community, there is bound to be - as is usual in any human society - politicking, scandals, romance, murder and so on, and so forth.
HOW MUDs PRESENT A UNIQUE PLATFORM FOR ONLINE ROLEPLAY
MUDs are unique from other graphics-based online worlds and communities due to their text-based interface, which allows for far greater customisation than is possible in graphics-based online worlds of the same type. This is simply because in a graphics-based interface, you tend to be limited in some way by the range of graphics you have available to choose from. In comparison, a text-based interface allows the creation of an environment where your imagination is given free rein (within the constraints of language proficiency), thereby allowing for the uniqueness that is integral to memorable RP.
MUDs also differ from forums and chat rooms in that in the first instance, they offer real-time interaction with another person; whilst in the second, they offer objects and environments which give meaning to interaction - as opposed to chat rooms where the only things that exist are 'thee and me'.
HOW MUDs OFFER A BROADER SCOPE FOR ROLEPLAY AS COMPARED WITH TABLETOP SESSIONS
The nature of the MUD online experience means that you are far more in control of the signals you send out than you would be in a tabletop D&D session.
The greatest difference between RPing in a MUD online, and RPing face-to-face is the lack of visual and aural clues. Body-language and tone of voice are missing. Far from being a limitation, however, it is this very lack that gives the MUD RP experience its wide-ranging scope.
When RPing in a MUD, you are in almost total control of the signals you choose to send out - without the distraction of what you look or sound like breaking the spell.
An instance of this would be how, in a MUD's text-based environment, you can define your speech - both by mannerisms and speech patterns (which can be done face to face), and via descriptions that replace the normal aural cues. (E.g. A lovely black-haired maiden say, 'Good evening,' in a voice low and sweet as music.)
This applies to visual cues as well. In graphics-based or tabletop situations, you are limited in the first case by the graphics available to you, and in the second by your own physical appearance. In a MUD's text-based environment, people can only 'see' what you describe about yourself - and thus the distracting visual cues that result from someone like me attempting to RP Thor while people are seeing my wimpy little self - are removed.
It is this control of visual and aural cues offered by MUDs which allows you to explore the experience of living in a totally different body - of literally being a different person, as opposed to the tabletop RP experience, where in order to be convincing, there is a tendency to play characters somewhat similar to your given body type.
Additionally, MUDs present an environment which is truly a world. Actions have contexts and consequences, and RPing in a MUD is akin to being immersed in an ongoing story. In table-top sessions, I more or less know my friends - their personalities, and how they behave - even when they are acting in character. In a MUD, I 'know' someone only through the actions they take in different situations, and there is no option to buy the GM a pizza with extra bacon and anchovies with a six-pack of beer to mellow him down.
This leads to a very equal sort of playing field, in terms of the world being as impersonal and indifferent to any individual's particular needs as the everyday world is. It is strange that an impersonal world is a plus, but in this case, it is - since it induces going out and making friends with people.
EXPLORING GENDER ROLES AND STEREOTYPES ON MUDs
RP in MUDs also provides a safer venue in which to explore gender roles and stereotypes by combining both the anonymity of the Internet with the ability to play a role freed from the constraints of others visually or aurally determining your given gender. (Safer than what, you ask? Well... depending on where you live - possibly safer, and much less of a bother, than physically cross-dressing and going out.)
However, this is not to say that gender roles, stereotypes and cues do not exist. On the contrary, there is an almost unspoken understanding that a player describing themselves as 'A cute 18-year old with huge breasts and legs up to her neck' or some such variation on this theme is almost certainly a man (or boy).
Conversely, the same is to some extent true of male characters. If you meet a terribly charming man, the odds are it may actually be a woman! This happens less often than the former case, however - possibly because there tend to be more male players in general than female.
In both instances though, there are cases where the RPer in question has a good enough grasp of gender cues, roles and stereotypes to convincingly portray the other sex - by keeping some, and breaking others. This is a little different from the conventional idea of roleplay, since it means that the RP itself, in order to work, has to be essentially undetectable. However, it also opens up a whole new world that allows a glimpse of what it is like, however vicariously, to be someone of the other sex.
ROLEPLAYING STYLES AND RE-INVENTION OF THE SELF
With the tools for a total re-invention of the self at your disposal, it is even possible to present this re-invented 'self' as the real thing. To me, this is one of the greatest attractions that RPing in a MUD holds - it is a type of RP which simply cannot be achieved in table-top situations. The textual medium allows for a suspension of disbelief which is impossible in face-to-face encounters.
I have been RPing for roughly 10 years, 3 of those in tabletop D&D sessions, and 7 online, in one particular MUD (although I do also explore MUDs other than my regular one). Over this period of time, I have found that RPers can be divided into 3 main categories or styles. This is not to say that one style necessarily excludes the other - roleplay is dynamic, and it is perfectly possible for someone to utilise all three styles at once. However, from observation, most RPers tend to lean towards one main style when playing.
The three styles are:
1) my character (alter-ego or alt) as myself
2) my character (alt) as someone else
3) my character (alt) as someone whom I become
MY CHARACTER AS MYSELF
This seems to be the most common style of roleplay, wherein there is arguably 'no' roleplay, and I have simply pulled myself lock stock and barrel over into an alternate world. While there may be changes in race, appearance and body type (which are so common as to go without saying), my basic personality remains the same. My character naturally gains skills that are relevant to the world, that I, myself, don't know - but all events are taken very personally, with no detachment and no real sense of my character being a separate entity from me.
An example of this would be, if insulted, my character and I are essentially the same. I don't think - "Oh, my character just got told that his mother is uglier than a diseased frog," - I think that someone just called MY mother ugly.
This style of roleplay is suited to tabletop roleplay, as it allows for fast and convincing reactions (after all, I really feel that way!) but it is far from the only style available in a MUD environment. It is also a style I usually choose if I want to simply enjoy the world and its gaming aspects.
MY CHARACTER AS SOMEONE ELSE
This next style is a very structured one, and is conventionally associated with roleplaying. It seems to be the second most popular method of doing things. Using this style, I create my character by building up a list of unique traits, writing a brief character history, and defining my character's appearance. My basic personality may be very different from my character's - so that when situations present themselves, I am very careful to remain 'In Character' (IC) with my reactions.
An example of this would be, if insulted, my character and I are NOT the same. It does not occur to me that I, personally, am being insulted. Instead, I think something more along the lines of, "Oh, he just called my devout priest a 'lecherous scrap of pork floss', my poor priest! He is traumatised, horrified and angry... he's not allowed to eat pork!" While I am thinking this, though, I may in fact be rolling around squealing in delight at this particularly choice insult. While laughing, I structure my character's reactions to the insult along those lines, having thought it out how the insult would affect them.
This style of roleplay is particularly suited to both tabletop and online roleplay, as it allows the opportunity for me to act out my character's reactions after due consideration and thereby play them to the hilt. It is a very common style in MUD environments, and usually what people think of when someone mentions 'roleplay'. This is a style I generally choose if I wish to make people aware that I am roleplaying.
MY CHARACTER AS SOMEONE WHOM I BECOME
The third and last style of roleplay in my list is the rarest. It is perhaps most well-embodied by the concept of 'sprezzatura' (coined by Balthasar Castiglione in his book The Courtier, in 1528), which can, as a concept, be said to mean 'effortless grace'. To quote the man himself, sprezzatura ...'conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless...' and '...true art is what does not seem to be art; and the most important thing is to conceal it, because if it is revealed, this discredits a man completely...'.
In this style, I am concerned with the weaving of a persona rather than the construction of a character. It is not necessary for me to know anything about my character, nor is it necessary for my character's personality to bear any resemblance to mine. On the contrary, it tends to be a kind of psychic 'pot luck' wherein I pluck a name from the air and simply go with it.
When playing in this style, I do not think ABOUT what my character would do. I BECOME the character, I ASSUME the persona. My reactions are unthinking, and processed in character, with no consideration in between of "Now, what would I do if I were..." I AM, I DO.
An example of this would be how, when insulted, for that duration I AM the character. I sublimate myself, and let my character's reactions take over, much like how some writers say that some characters have minds of their own. Should I/my character be called the "bastard son of a leprous rat", I/my character is perfectly capable of instantly retorting, "No, no, my father was rabid, not leprous!" In some of these cases, I may not even know that my beloved Daddy Rat was rabid, and not leprous, until the response pops from my/my character's virtual mouth. This way of playing also bears some resemblance to the second style; for when I shed the persona that I have assumed, I very well know that my father was (hopefully) not a rabid rat, and simply find my character's pedantic indignation hilarious.
This form of roleplay is unique to the virtual worlds provided by MUDs, and is almost impossible in face-to-face RP sessions. I can BE a barbarian, but, unfortunately, I'm still going to squeak - and so, alas, the spell is going to break. It is also arguably the most dangerous way of RPing, as my real self is sublimated and/or hidden, which leads others to believe that the persona they have been interacting with IS my real self. It is the most self-sustaining of the three styles and if done well, the hardest to perceive - which is the entire point.
'BAIT AND SWITCH' AND GENDER-REVERSAL ROLEPLAY CHALLENGES ON MUDs
Earlier I touched on the topic of gender cues and perceptions, whereby a good enough RPer may be able to convince others that his or her player is of the other sex. This differs from roleplaying, say - a fallen angel, because regardless of which style of RP is used, my audience is NOT going to believe that I am a fallen angel sitting at the keyboard and typing while folding my wings out of the way.
This very disbelief, however, provides the perfect foil for a 'bait and switch' technique, whereby I give others the 'unbelievable' (E.g. I when I spit at something in disgust, my saliva turns to fire.) to believe as RP, while the foundation of the persona - gender included - is accepted as the 'real' person.
Where gender-reversal is concerned, this 'bait and switch' technique works for both the second (MY CHARACTER AS SOMEONE ELSE) and the last style of roleplay (MY CHARACTER AS SOMEONE WHOM I BECOME) - on the assumption that the player in question is familiar enough with gender cues. It works because gender is something we tend to take for granted unless it is over-emphasized to the point of caricature (as mentioned earlier).
Gender-reversal in roleplay is something that I, personally, am very interested in, and because MUDs are like continuing stories, it is not a challenge that is surmounted once, then dismissed. To be convincing, gender-reversal (while in character) has to be flawless, whole and above all effortless. It is this which presents me with enduring challenges and entertainment.
In short, MUDs - with their text-based interface - provide an environment where a character's almost every action and reaction is defined and controlled by the RPer. In the absence of visual and aural cues, a total reconstruction of the self is possible - with additional challenges being provided by gender-reversals.
These are aspects of roleplay which are simply impossible in face-to-face RP sessions, simply because it is too hard to suspend disbelief and tell yourself that your 90lb friend who is squeaking 'Die, foul fiend!' while waving her dinner fork around is really, truly a burly and terrifying warrior.
Thus, when it comes to roleplay, MUDs and text-based virtual worlds of the same cloth offer users an RP experience that is of a far wider and more immersive than that of the conventional D&D game played over the table.