Playing the Role
Roleplaying in an online text game is something like creative writing. It's about breathing life into your character, infusing a personality, and making the whole creature into something more than the sum of its stats and equipment. When this is done well it looks effortless. The catch is – as with many things that look effortless – it comes naturally only to a few people. The rest of us have to practice.
Why roleplay, you ask? It gives the imagination a workout. It adds dimension and depth to the hack-and-slash routine. Roleplay gives your online alter ego a purpose. In real life terms this gaming style develops written communication and creative problem solving. Those are valuable skills in any real world career.
So how do you actually game this way?
Develop something memorable about your character. Maybe you play a dwarf who loves to go swimming. Perhaps your barbarian does fine embroidery in her spare time. Your rogue has a pathological hatred of cats. Choose something that fits into your game environment, something you can really incorporate into daily play.
One character of mine makes a useful if somewhat repulsive example. Her existence began as a playful misuse of a random name generator.
Snotslicer, the hayfever paladin
Backstory is a technique of professional writers. A fictional backstory is everything important that happened in a character's life before the opening paragraph. Where were they born? Who were their parents? How did they grow up? What experiences shaped them?
Here's Snotslicer's backstory:
Cursed with incurable allergies, this child was abandoned several times by her fastidious gnome parents. She always managed to find her way home by following a trail of...never mind...
Finally sold as a slave to ogres who lost no time in naming her, Snotslicer grew to hate evil and ran away to become a paladin.
Her life's quest is to defeat the evil demon Hayfever in his native plane.
This backstory began with the simple goal of explaining why a gnome character has an ogre name. Writing this gives me some idea of who she is. Snotslicer is an escaped slave whose family rejected her. She's got incredibly low charisma but she fights for good. That's enough material to roleplay.
A backstory can explain something odd about your character or it could introduce new elements. A dark knight could be a disinherited nobleman with a grudge. A rogue might be the last survivor of a family of murdered acrobats. The proud priestess may be concealing her origin as the daughter of humble beet farmers.
A backstory gives your character a perspective on life. You could publish the backstory if you like. What really matters is how this information affects your character's choices as you play.
borrow with a twist
There's a little nod to Hansel and Gretel in Snotslicer's story. It wouldn't be interesting if she followed a trail of bread crumbs. Something has to be different. In this case we get adolescent humor.
Basically you can borrow from any source as long as you change it significantly. In a perfect environment your inspiration would keep morphing until it fits your character completely and no one but you would guess the original source. Don't worry too much if someone does spot the inspiration. Just make sure your version isn't a ripoff.
That is, don't lift a ton of material from the Spiderman movies and comic books and try to call your guy Spyderman. That won't work. Don't pretend it's any better to change the color of Spyderman's costume. Instead take just one element from an inspiration, switch it in some way, and place it in a completely different setting.
Snotslicer would emote plenty of sneezes and sniffles. If there's a handkerchief item somewhere in the world she'll likely find it, or create the appearance of a handkerchief through restringing. She'll defend the weak and the dispossessed. As she grows she might help new players or become a holy avenger who smites evil. She'll turn off a lot of people at first. The player base may grow to like her in spite of her shortcomings.
Let's say you want to play an evil genius who wants to conquer the world. That's a tried and true villain type. It isn't copyrighted or trademarked because it's been used so often. How will your evil genius be different from all the others?
Geekus left Evil Genius Academy when his parents couldn't afford the tuition. Their underworld empire fell to the meddling of Annoying Dogooder. Necessity forced Geekus to pick coffee beans to support his widowed mother, her French poodle, and their last 15 servants. As Geekus looked down from the hills of the coffee farm and watched his former classmates graduate, he vowed to outdo them all – even though he had failed spelling, earned mediocre marks in demented laugher, and could barely code a functional computer virus. Geekus would rise from the depths of poverty and restore his mother's French poodle to its former glory.
My style tends to be comic. Yours might be very different. If you're not sure how to begin, one good starting point is to imitate the style of a writer you admire. Choose anyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Douglas Adams, read a few pages to get in the mood, then apply that style to your own character. Over time the tone of your writing will depart from theirs. This is known as finding your voice.
Novice writers often try to make important statements in sweeping terms. That usually impresses readers as vague, unconvincing, and insincere. What rings true are life's little details. Your elf nearly lost a finger to a splinter infection and vowed never to fire a bow again. Go for particulars.
Most of all, have fun.