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The Truth About Having A Truly Character-Driven Roleplay

DavidI spotted this article on RPG-Directory written by Drae from the roleplaying forum Sizael, which hits upon some home truths that resonated with me. I got permission to repost it here for your pleasure and education :-)

As a few guys and girls might know, I run/own/painstakingly-work-on Sizael, which is an original fantasy WRPG that’s been online for a good few years. Since running it, I’ve been asked a few times how I go about running a character-action driven board. Those whom I advise or who join Sizael then attempt it themselves seem to think it’s a piece of cake, and as nice as the rewards are, a board reliant on character actions is heavy in admin-work and is in constant threat of dying. What’s worse? You’ll be getting a bad reputation because of those other sites that say they’re character driven but are actually linear and/or plot driven.

1. Character Actions are Needed, but not Always Found
I’m not sure if people are simply intimidated by the amount of information Sizael provides about its world (it’s not the biggest in lore but neither is it the smallest), and I know its current version’s guidebook (V1.9) can be confusing. However, even when it is encouraged that members not be afraid to affect the storyline, to purposely pursue an attempt to affect it, there are many members who will shy away from it or roleplay actions that though they’re not shying away, don’t really affect the storyline.

So obstacle one: characters might not actually be affecting the storyline.

Then, you’ve got the issue of characters doing something great but, when reviewing it as the story analyser, is so out of the blue and away from everything else taking place that you’ve no idea how to incorporate it into the storyline. These aren’t too bad – keeping them in mind does mean you can plant hooked consequences in because of it, but then you come to the next area…

(Oh, quick note! The less active your memberbase is, the less their characters do. Simple one to remember but it’s not great for a character-driven board to have members who only post once a week, every other week, in a blue moon. More activity creates more consequences!)

2. When those Affecting Characters Fall Inactive, a Decision Must be Made.
When a character who has affected the storyline goes inactive, what should you do? I consider the consequences of their character’s actions and decide if it is worth allowing their actions to affect the storyline – would other active characters be interested in the consequences? This can seriously back-fire though, and should the inactive come back, it can provide further complications. This comes with a lot of work too – you’ll need to look at all future events you have figured out, see if there’s a way to tie them in, upcoming chapters too for the same reason, review all their character’s actions and interactions again, every thread, every post by this member. Two hours? Depending on the character’s player, you’ll likely looking at at least six hours of work simply reviewing one possible event that could have happened because of Character X, which you were beginning to tie into future events, create consequences for/create new events, were planning Major NPC posts for…

So obstacle two: the actions of characters that have affected the storyline may only gain the consequences after the character has gone inactive, meaning more work for the storyline analyser and less time to RP.

3. No Special Event will ever go as planned.
This is where I get asked a lot, “how do you do it, Captain?” Truth is, half of it is winging it. You’ll have your planning area hidden away on the board, and if you’re anything like me, a few notebooks you carry around and a notepad you make notes on whilst reading the normal roleplay threads of others. A character will do something you didn’t anticipate. You’ll need to react, and fast. So every event you do prepare for must be flexible enough to adapt and incorporate in other actions of characters – even the actions of characters in normal threads could be affecting it.
And here’s another note on this one: though a lot of members love Sizael’s events, and other admins may respect Sizael’s success in events, I’ve personally always considered them to be 50/50 successes at best. Why? Because after a huge climax, they more often as not have a weak ending.

Obstacle three: you’ll need to be able to wing it and still have a powerful ending that fits, which isn’t easy.

4. Myth Debunked: “I’ll always have a special event up my sleeve, because of the character actions!”
Um. No. If your special events are ever to invite as many characters as possible to join in, you can’t do this, and the chances of a special event coming your way because of a character’s action is not a promised thing. Sizael’s been online for years and we’ve only had one event caused completely by one character’s actions – our most active assassin character attacking the pirates and causing an all out feud. You need to incorporate the actions of the character into upcoming events, create events caused by them but not narrow-minded events, and be able to bring events in yourself that will affect everything, even in ways the characters can’t see.

Obstacle four: It’s on you to make EVERYTHING work out ok.

5. Hooks are a required necessity 
Hooks? What are hooks? Hooks bleed new sub-plots, events, changes to events and consequences into the storyline. This can be done as a staffer just enjoying their roleplaying and worming it into their personal posts, or as specially created accounts, in-world news and spoiler events. To be fully character driven, don’t think you’ll be looking at recent stuff for this either! Sizael has recently seen a hook wormed into the storyline due to something seen over a year ago!

Obstacle five: you can’t afford to forget anything that has happened, no matter how long ago it took place. 

6. Myth Debunked: It won’t take up too much time, and I’ll still be able to roleplay every day!
You may still be able to roleplay on a daily basis on your board, but at the same time you’ll need to read through every thread, every post, and make a mental note of what characters have said as well. Did they say they oppose someone in public? What if somebody had heard? You can’t rely on a small team to do this. Though they may note things in your planning area, what they notice might mean nothing to you, and what they miss could be a gemstone in the rough. I spend on average four hours on less busier periods to review the actions and spoken words of every character on site, and during our last super busy period, I was spending on average eleven hours (which meant very little sleep or roleplaying for me).

Obstacle six: it takes up a lot of time, and can take a higher amount of time when busier. Time you possibly shouldn’t even be using for roleplaying. 

7. The Story Analyser Knows Everything
This can be both a positive and a negative. It’s been my experience through hanging around RPGD for two years and through roleplaying for over ten years, that there are those who dislike it if the staff have become important characters in the storyline. So if you’re a character-driven site, you’re increasing your chances of scaring these otherwise potential members off from joining. At the same time, if little of consequence is happening besides special events, it’s the story analyser who knows the perfect plot idea to affect the storyline.

Obstacle Seven: you can scare potential members off just by being the one to affect the storyline yourself.

8. Special Events will need to be redesigned from scratch often.
Pretty much what it says on the sub-title, we’ve had events that have been redesigned from scratch nine times due to character actions, and the current chapter we’re in has been redesigned five times.

Obstacle eight: you’ll need to start again. And again. And again more often than you might anticipate.

9. Some will take advantage of the ability to affect the storyline
There are those who try to strong-arm their character into being a main character. These are often characters who are designed to be ‘bad guys’ in my experience. At some point, the story analyser has to decide exactly how much impact they have, what they can get away with, and what the consequences are. We had one such member some months back, and I was preparing to arrest their character for the illegal use of magic, and in particular the use of mind-probing magic (all of which he was unaware that consequences were on their way). Such characters wouldn’t go completely unnoticed, but at the same time, allowing such a character to become the next ‘big character’ could also shake up too many characters, storylines and such. Would I allow them to become important? Sure, but at the same time, the limelight must be shared, not hogged. This member has since gone inactive. Why, we’ll never know, but I suspect it was also because he power-played other people’s characters without permission and was reminded not to do this quite a few times.

Obstacle nine: you will need to make hard decisions that can affect the storyline positively or negatively, may upset members, and must be able to see the bigger picture for the sake of the whole board.

10. Not everyone will join in the special events
Some people just don’t like them, even if they can make their own threads within the special event and still affect it. Some say for their character (for example, political, not magic is their character’s cup of tea). No one event will be suitable for everyone, so those characters whose players can’t figure out a reason why to get their character involved will not affect the special event and as a result the storyline. It doesn’t matter how much help you provide either – some people will stick to their guns, which is their choice admittedly.

Obstacle ten: even with the ability to affect the storyline, not everyone’s interested in it or the special events.

11. Hang on, you’re the admin…
So you’re already spending x amount of hours every night just reading and taking notes. But you’ve got advertising, networking, answering questions (some of which you’ll think are so obvious you’ll wonder about everything you’ve ever done for your site), reviewing applications (which are related very much to being character-driven), advising your staff team, roleplaying, and a ton of other things you need to do! And don’t forget your life offline! I’ve had to cancel sometimes on people Posted Image

You are 100% likely to get admin burnout due to the amount of work that comes from being character-driven by every thread and event, but nobody can do your job on the forum. What will you do when this happens?

And if you fall ill, the board will keep going (depending on your active members and other staff), but you’ll then have to catch up, or force yourself to work on the board.

Obstacle eleven: Your board will never take you on a date, give you chocolate or anything, and is a slave master to boot who is never pleased with you. 

12. Don’t expect appreciation
This probably goes to all the different types of boards out there, but you’ll spend even more time on a board that’s character-driven (no matter how you do it backstage), and the appreciation you’ll get will be few and far between. In the years I’ve been running Sizael (over three years now), I’ve only been thanked once for providing the board and being truly character-driven.

13. And Another Note…
Some members will try and get into the storyline by requesting that they get fed information or a relationship with a Major NPC. You’ll need to decide how to react to this and if you’d allow it. I don’t allow it – I ask members earn this. You’ll also get members saying “I really need to speak with you”, so you’ll go out of your way and then find out they’re probing you about an event currently in play, if their character is affecting something or about an upcoming event that has been revealed but other through teasers. Crafty but loveable :Halo:

And in conclusion
I need to learn how to spell “analyser” and “obstacle”, and have probably forgotten a lot as this is pretty much second-nature to me now :D Oh, and I need to do my other hobbies more often.

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  1. May 27, 2012 at 11:41 am | #1

    “No Special Event will ever go as planned”.

    I personally use a modified version of a von Moltke quote – “No game plan survives first contact with its players”.

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