"Though this be madness, yet there is
-Hamlet, Act 2.2
In his monthly column A Method to the Madness, Edward Falconer explores the means and skills that both veterans and novices alike should utilize when approaching the madness of roleplaying. The first installment of the series, The Spyglass offers advice on digging into the theme and story of an environment prior to formulating a character concept and background.
Darmaerun Annureus turned the knob at the base of his lantern with weathered fingers, the radiance of the light flaring brightly as the released oils met and combusted with the burning flame. It was difficult to write convoys toward home on nights such as these, when the cascading waves pounded against the slender timbers of his cabin, threatening to rip the entire vessel asunder. A knock came at the door. "Who is it?" Darmaerun queried in a harsh voice. The oaken portal opened and in stepped a pudgy, rain-soaked Boramurian. "Carug, my lord."
"And your business, Carug?"
"My lord Annureus, there's land ere."
Good. You've found through word of mouth or detailed website searching a gaming environment that promises everything you're looking for. Perhaps you're a novice, on your first voyage to the worlds of roleplaying and have finally found the perfect haven for you to build a home. Perhaps you're a Marco Polo who's sailed halfway around the world and back, seen all the sights and never been satisfied. You may have been ousted from your prior home by a closure or you may merely be full of wanderlust and have finally spotted a potential port at which to land. Regardless, the method in which you anchor your ship and head ashore will be the same.
There will be the urge to rush in and spike your flag as quickly as possible, to enter into play while still channeling the fervor you've received from your discovery of the game. There's nothing wrong with this, and in fact it should be encouraged. But there's a method to this rushing as well.
Start by climbing the mast and gripping your spyglass, examining the world you've located from afar. Most quality roleplaying MU*s will have either set up a website with information pertaining to the theme and history or will have a detailed set of help files that will convey similar information. If the game does have a website, give it an initial look-over while keeping an absent, open mind. Already, ideas for a character within the game should be swelling into you and these should change and strengthen with each link that you click. Of particular importance will be a page that highlights suggested roles for new players. Browse over the list, noting the roles that appeal strongly to you and then as you course over the remaining documents, any reference to the race or organization will stick out like a blade in a pacifistic monastery.
Annureus commanded the ship to anchor a half-ti-arc away from the shore where a cul de sac of coral and coastline spurred a sense of tranquility from the ferocity of the surf. Pointing toward Carug and a handful of sailors near the Boramurian, Darmaerun spoke curtly. "Take the longboat and head to the beaches. Make sure we're safe, assure that we're alone here. I want you back to the ship by nightfall." Already the sailors were unknotting the hemp ropes from which the longboats were suspended. "And Carug, we've come too far for you to be a fool."
For roleplaying games that do not have an approval system (where all new characters must submit an application outlining their character concept before entering play) or for games that allow "Guest" characters, set foot within the game as a scout. Breeze through character creation without making any decisions, but take careful note as to how the coded system operates and how it connects with roleplaying. For example, if the game utilizes social statistics such as charisma it can make an important difference in how you define your character.
Once inside the gaming environment, be polite and courteous to the players and staff that have already invested a great deal more time into the realm than you. If they invite you to ask questions, be responsive and do so. There is nothing more aggravating to a staff member than to have a newbie give them the silent treatment as they walk about trying to find a good 'victim' on which to test the innovations of the combat system. You should, from your encounter with the website, already have a list of questions drawn up to ask the natives and on most games, they'll be more than thrilled to answer them. That is, if the questions are the right ones to ask.
Almost every roleplaying environment I've encountered has had a strict policy on Out of Character versus In Character knowledge. It's a tricky business, trying to draw enough in character information from a game with which to create an intriguing character while still following the policies the staff has laid forth. The answer to this quandary comes in the form of CIK-common, in-character knowledge or information that the staff feels is appropriate for everyone to know. An abstract of a particular race or organization is usually included in this list while the specific location of an organization's 'headquarters' is not.
Examples of good questions to ask:
-Could anyone tell me a bit about the common knowledge relating to Mesoportians? I'm working on a character concept. Even directing me to a help-file would be great.
-I'm interested in which of the suggested roles on the website is in the most demand currently. Are there other roles besides these that someone could suggest?
-I'm a new player working on my first character concept for the game. Does anyone have suggestions?
Examples of bad questions to ask:
-Where is the Freeguard guild located? (IC knowledge.)
-What character role will give me the most power and best skills? (Turn off.)
-Can I play Gandolf or Luke Skywalker? (The majority of RP environments frown on allowing new players to create characters that are either well-known or don't pertain to the game's theme.)
Once you've had your questions answered and have poked around in the help files, be sure to thank those that assisted you. You should have the majority of the information you need to know in order to begin developing your character concept. Before you begin, go back to the webpage and read through the documents again, paying special attention to the history or timeline of the world.
A Historical Artifact
Carug had lead the sailors across the beaches and into the periphery of the jungles that rose up from the sands, until they had come across a massive stone outcropping, at the base of which was the hollowed maw of a cavern. Slowly they made their way into the darkness, their hands tightening around hilts and torches alike. There, in the antechamber of the subterranean passage was a spectacle greater than the Station of Mesoport. Engravings and primordial pictures were etched into the rock, depicting battles fiercer than any troubador's tale could have ever described. In an instant, Carug knew it. They all knew it. They were not alone.
If, like Carug, you've been able to locate a history or timeline on your RP MU*'s website, count yourself as extremely lucky. It is here where you'll find unlimited resources for a character concept as well as information that can be utilized in creating a description, a background and a highly intriguing base with which to work. If possible, determine where in the history the actual in-game story began and what were the prior contrivances of the staff. By now you will probably have determined a handful of possible roles that interest you and you can chart them throughout the game's timeline. Pay particular attention to the descriptions of historical characters that the staff created, as they will speak directly to the values the staff is looking for in a well roleplayed persona.
Many games will also have log files from roleplaying events that have taken place throughout this history. It isn't necessary to read every one of them (as some gaming environments have upwards of two hundred lengthy transcripts), but by reading one or two from each segment of recent history will certainly help. As you read, pay attention to other player's character concepts as well as the way they react to other characters. Oftentimes the relationships between factions and races aren't laid out bluntly, but rather implied through the storycrafting. Grasp these and you'll already be leagues ahead of the game, much more so than if you had logged in with the sole purpose of testing out combat.
Next month's A Method to the Madness: Now that you've gleaned and hunted out a game's thematic information, it's time to put what you've learned to use. In June, we'll take a close look at the creation of a character concept and discover how to turn that suggested role into a living, breathing personality.
Edward Falconer is a veteran, online roleplayer that started eight years ago on the freeform channels of the IRC before entering the MU* community. After serving as a roleplaying coordinator and administrator on a handful of games, he has begun work with programmer Brian Lindahl and site administrator Yui Unifex on The Cathyle Project (http://www.cathyleproject.com), an ambitious, massively scaled roleplaying environment currently in Alpha. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org