Writers & Roleplayers: Pitfalls, Hindrances, & Bad Habits

So in my previous post as well as in my brief history lesson, I had a lot of good to say about roleplaying. One might even call it “gushing.”

I definitely stand by everything I said, but nothing is all good. I mentioned before that those who have condemned roleplaying have their points. As much as I love it, I’ve also got to be honest. As much wonderful experience that I’ve gotten, I’ve also picked up my fair share of bad habits.

Now that I’ve defended probably my favorite pastime, it’s time to dig into the dark underbelly.

Let’s start off gently, shall we?

  1. Not everyone who roleplays is a writer.

    All things considered, this isn’t really that big of a deal, but it does bear mentioning. Roleplaying is a game. A method of entertainment, and a way to pass the time.

    So, not everyone who does it would consider themselves a “writer.” There are plenty of people who just like to write with their friends and have some imaginative fun but have no further interest in the craft. Their eyes glaze over when you start to talk about narrative structure, and they couldn’t care less about adverbs or passive voice.

    Does this make them bad players? Certainly not! But I’ve more than once clashed with such partners because I was interested in exploring more from a narrative or storytelling angle, whereas they just wanted to do the “good parts” and had no real interest in further discussion.

    I’ve still managed to learn a lot from such partners but was also often left hungry for something more substantial. This was hardly their fault; we were just not a perfect match. After all, I’m sure they were often just as frustrated with me for slowing down the game

    Sometimes, though, I don’t know why that would be a problem, considering:

  2. Scenes are often stretched out for an obscene amount of time.

    I mentioned before that conversations in roleplay often end up being an awful lot of painful small-talk. Sometimes, a player just doesn’t know how to move a scene forward, or they’re concerned on stepping on your toes or the toes of other players, but they also don’t want to stop playing.

    So, they’ll find some way to try and keep the scene going.

    And going.

    … and going.

    I don’t even want to think about how many pages and pages I’ve written where absolutely nothing happened. Nothing. Just vague and artificially inflated conversation while both I and the other players floundered for some hook, some idea.

    This does a new writer no favors when it comes to learning how to build tension, or learning how to keep a scene snappy and focused. A lot of my older writing ended up very meandering because I had gotten into this bad habit of going on and on about every little thing.

    If that wasn’t bad enough:

  3. Many communities actively encourage bloated text…

    Here’s the thing that every naysayer gets stuck on, and you know, I can’t even blame them. When it comes to learning bad habits, this one and its twin definitely are the most prevalent and can be the hardest to unlearn.

    At some point, someone decided that the only “good” response was a long one. I’ve been in more than one community that had a minimum of at least three paragraphs or more per response.

    I see where this thought process comes from; more than once I was left without a lot to say because my partner gave me a reply of only a couple of lines. This could be particularly bad if you’re writing on a forum or via email. Then, you’ve likely waited a long time for whatever reply, so to finally get it and be so let down… well, that can be frustrating.

    So yes, forum moderators. I understand why a “minimum response length” seems like a good idea. In the long run, though, it ends up being more detrimental than it is helpful.

    Why? Well, let’s take a snappy conversation like an argument or (gods forbid) something like a physical fight. There should be a lot of motion between the two characters. For every action your character does, you should allow your partner a chance to react. If you don’t, you end up “godmodding,” which means taking control of someone else’s character without permission. This is very frowned upon in the community as it’s really the only thing that is universally considered to be straight-up cheating.

    But there’s that arbitrary minimum to meet. What are you supposed to do? Usually the only thing you can do: pad your response with fluff. Have an inner monologue. Describe the scenery. Get really poetic with an extended metaphor.

    All elements that should not be there.

    Needless to say, between these length expectations and scenes dragging on for ages, I certainly developed a tendency for bloated text. It certainly doesn’t help that I’m naturally verbose. (If you hadn’t noticed by now.)

    But that’s not even the worst part. Oh no. The worst part?

  4. … and many support purple prose.

    For some reason, certain communities attract (and encourage!) purple prose. I don’t know where this insidious trend started, but it’s been around for as long as I’ve been a part of the scene.

    “Orbs” for eyes. “Pillars” for legs. Strange and wandering metaphors. Long and looping sentences. Oh yes, it all played in well to meeting a “minimum,” but more than once it just ended up ridiculous at best and incomprehensible at worst.

    This was never something that really impacted me (outside of the usual teenage propensity to want to be “deep” and “poetic” without having a real understanding of either), but it certainly was something I witness in other people.

    Each board, each group has its own little quirks. Not all of them were bad writing habits, but some were.

    Like any community, though, there is always the possibility of finding:

  5. Toxic people.

    Oh, man. I know the bloated and purple prose gets a lot of press, but I believe they’re often over-emphasized and hardly the worst threat to one’s writing. So what do I think is the most vile underbelly of the community?

    The sort of toxic people you can find, and what they can do to your creativity.

    Writing can be a very intimate and revealing expression, and even if roleplaying is a game, I have often found that it remains true. Players can put a lot of emotion into their characters and worlds and scenes, and through that, you can make some truly great and close friendships.

    … or, on the awful flipside, end up with some very, very uncomfortable situations.

    Just like in real life, sometimes it’s impossible to tell that you’ve found yourself in a toxic relationship (be it friendship, romance, or just as writing partners) until you look back on it. I’ve gotten to be very good friends with more than one person through roleplay… only to later realize how truly bad for me they were and always had been.

    It can be difficult to extricate yourself from a bad roleplay partnership. On a forum, it’s often near impossible to avoid just one person gracefully. If you’re doing a one-on-one roleplay where you have just the one partner, well, then you have to sacrifice the whole game and your characters if you decide to cut it off.

    I’ve actually been driven completely off the internet for years at a time over huge fallouts surrounding roleplaying. I’ve been stalked and harassed over my choices to leave games or cut ties. I’ve often joked that I’ve had more trouble with my ex-writing-partners than I have my ex-romantic-partners, but it’s sadly true.

    What’s worse is that these sort of toxic people, relationships, and fallouts can (and often do) directly impact your writing. Nasty people can try and purposefully tear you down. It’s hard to muster creativity, or excitement in a character or plot or setting, when you’ve recently come to blows over it.

    I actually still suffer a lot of anxiety about my ability to craft plots because of this sort of thing. Unfortunately, I’d had a number of people intentionally undermine my ideas or attempts enough times that I felt like I just must not be any good. It’s taken years to even begin to undo the damage they wrought on my self-confidence.

    That’s the worst-case scenario, but it definitely is an unfortunately common possibility. Everyone I know who has roleplayed for over five years has at least one “horror story” along those lines.

    But let’s say you manage to completely evade any sort of toxic environment. Good! However, even then with the best-intentioned of people, it’s all too easy to get:

  6. Pigeon-holed.

    Even in the most well-meaning groups, this has happened to me more often than I’d like to say.

    See, I like to play secondary characters. After realizing just how fun playing The Coward can be, I took to writing the “supporting cast” with a great deal of zest and zeal. I found a lot of pleasure in rounding out the characters of my friends with foils of various types, with taking up the minor players in plots and stories that primarily revolved around my friends.

    And that was great! I enjoyed it! … but, you know, sometimes it’s nice to, well. Have a plot line all to yourself? See, I have this idea…

    Well, it turned out that I was so appreciated when it came to writing the “supporting cast,” I was always put off to the side when it came to having the limelight. I was always passed over when it came to playing a central character.

    I don’t think it was ever truly intentional, but it certainly was pretty consistent. See, I was usually the most accommodating personality of a bunch of people who were always fighting over the spotlight, so I consistently got the short stick. Plus, I played everyone’s favorite supporting cast. I was always getting roles to fill in a game—many of them!—but never as a Hero or central figure.

    It’s the writer’s equivalent of being typecast. I was Supporting Cast. I’ve known others who were always stuck playing roles like The Romantic Interest, or The Villain, but never getting to branch out much.

    When you’re stuck in the same roles over and over again, it really undermines the point of getting the chance to practice with a variety of situations. Not only that, but it can be easy to wonder, “can I even play a different type of character? Maybe they’re not listening to me because I’m actually shitty at it…”

    This certainly happened to me. I doubted my ability to play a Leading Role. When I sat down to write my solo projects, I was terrified my main characters weren’t interesting enough or made of “the right stuff” to carry the story. It took me finding someone who let me write Leading Roles with them to realize that no, I’m okay. It was just that my previous partners were a little self-absorbed and didn’t give me the chance.

    It wasn’t just that, though. I’ve noticed a particularly virulent misconception across every roleplay community I’ve been a part of. It’s incredible when it comes to shattering confidence in one’s characters, and it’s:

  7. The misuse of the label “Mary Sue.”

    Oh, yes. The phrase every roleplayer fears: “Your character is a Mary Sue.”

    If you’re a writer of the internet age, you probably know exactly what this means—or rather, you think you do.

    The term has been so used and abused, I daresay it barely means anything nowadays. There’s actually so much to say about the term, how it applies to the roleplaying community, and what it means for a writer’s solo projects… I’m actually going to save it for next week.

So, does all this mean that the detractors are right—that the online roleplaying community is full of self-absorbed amateurs who are content to wallow in their own bloated and purple prose?

I would hope it would be obvious, but no. After a good fifteen years on the scene, I’ve definitely gotten my fair taste of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the roleplaying community. This is merely all the worst parts I’ve experienced, and the bad habits I’ve gotten from it.

No matter how you choose to practice your craft, there are going to be pitfalls. Roleplaying is no worse than just writing alone. After all, I’ve known more than one writer who has only ever written on their own and come out with completely incomprehensible text, flat characters, and over-blown explanations because they’ve had no reference point. No direct correlation of their writer to a reader response.

Sure, you can say a writer should just read more and that’ll fix the problem. But let me tell you, I’ve known some people who were avid readers with exceptional taste, but they were unable to see the flaws in their own writing. After all, they knew what they were saying! You just must not understand their artistic vision.

So no. One is not inherently better or worse. They’re just different, and suit different people.

Before I wrap up, though, I’d like to offer a little advice. Whether you’re an already experienced roleplayer, or you’re just thinking of trying it out, this is what I wished I’d been told when I started. Anyway, without further ado, here’s:

Hex’s Top Three Rules for Every Writer Who Roleplays

  1. Be prepared for some communities or roleplayers to equate “length” with “quality,” and know that’s wrong. Find creative ways around it.
  2. Know there are toxic people out there, and know when to walk away. There are more fish in the sea. Pick up your characters and your ideas and find someone who will appreciate them.
  3. Don’t let anyone break your confidence. Even if you are weak in an area, anyone can improve. Find someone who supports your improvement as opposed to maligning you for your imperfections.

I hope, armed with this information, you can go out and make the most of your roleplaying experience. There’s a lot of good to be had, and well worth the pitfalls.

Stay tuned for next week when I talk about the dreaded “Mary Sue,” what the label means and if it has a place in either roleplaying or solo writing.

Want more about Writers & Roleplayers? Check out my other articles:

  • A Little History: An introduction to roleplay, a little bit of where it comes from, and how I got into it myself.
  • The Benefits of Collaborative Storytelling: All the reasons why I can’t recommend roleplaying highly enough.
  • Coming next week! The Dread Label “Mary Sue”: What it means, where it comes from, and if it has a place either in roleplaying or solo writing.
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