Things Writers (And Everyone Else) Should Know About Running A Roleplay
This article is primarily aimed to address the pitfalls that people familiar with writing but new to roleplaying tend to fall into - but it's also good advice for anyone, because even non-writers often expect their RPs to play out like the stories they read or watch. The reality is that while RPs and fiction have many similarities, there are some vast differences that need to be accounted for.
Table of Contents
- You need to make sure everyone understands the rules of the universe.
- People want to be playing, not reading.
- You don't get to have a "main character."
- Plot setups and worldbuilding need to be tight.
- The plot doesn't need to span the globe, and the entire world doesn't need to be at stake.
- Plots cannot be laid out in a straightforward list of progressive steps or plot points.
- You can't expect Hollywood-style fights.
- In summary!
You need to make sure everyone understands the rules of the universe.
When you're writing a story, you don't always have to give complete and thorough explanations of how things in your universe work. As long as you don't have any blatant contradictions and don't outright defy the laws of nature without a plausible explanation for it, you usually don't have to worry. It's not as if your characters are going to try to do something completely off-the-wall with it that will end up breaking the story.
But in a roleplay, it's a whole different ballgame. Players will often exploit anything you give them as far as they think they can get away with, and they'll find ways to do it that you never dreamed of - unless you make it clear from the get-go how this stuff works and does not work (or provide them with a handy-dandy guide to refer to!). So for any fantastic elements you provide in your game, you need to establish upper and lower limits. Check out Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This for more info.
People want to be playing, not reading.
While you do need to make people know the essentials, you need to be careful that you don't spend longer than necessary describing them - or worse, go on at length about things that don't actually affect or relate to the player characters. So prioritize describing the necessities - EG, what people need to know to understand what's going on in the setting, what their characters can and cannot do, how their classes and species work, which places and NPCs their characters might know about, which elements probably affected their lives in a noticeable way - as succinctly as you can.
Also, allow your players to read the documentation on a "need to know" basis. For example, a player who isn't playing an elf doesn't need to read everything there is to know on elves at the moment, especially if the player's character would know very little about elves. (And you might also make a "lite" page on elves that provide a simple overview useful to people who are playing characters who have probably heard of elves, but don't have any first-hand experience.)
If it's possible for your setting and/or game, you might also suggest that new players start out with characters who themselves don't know much about what's going on, thus allowing the player to learn what's going on alongside the character. Remember, it's often much more satisfying to learn by having your character ask things in-game than it is to read pages and pages of the game's history and lore. Of course this won't work for every game, but if it's possible, consider it.
You don't get to have a "main character."
Some people take a notion that they ought to be able to play the main character in some epic quest or emotion-filled drama, with everyone else essentially playing supporting roles - or alternatively, carry out their own stories as they like so long as it doesn't interfere with their own grand story plans. But that's not how a (functional) RP works. Everyone in the game gets to play a main character, and nobody's character should be more important than anyone else's.
Now, if you can gather up another player (or a few) who are okay with playing out a certain particular plotline with you, that's fine - just take it into a private roleplay where the only players will be those directly involved in making this plot happen. Otherwise, don't be a plot hog. That's just rude.
Plot setups and worldbuilding need to be tight.
When writing a story, you can usually get away with the occasional minor plothole - because you're in total control of the story, you can make sure there's never enough focus on the circumstances that create the plothole long enough for the problems with it to become too obvious to the general audience.
But with a roleplay, it's an entirely different story. Roleplayers are often incredibly inquisitive, and you never know what's going to catch their interest. A roleplayer might notice where something isn't quite adding up, conclude that this is evidence that something more is going on, and so decide that investigating this little discrepancy is of the utmost importance. And so without some fancy footwork on your part to explain away this discrepancy or railroading your players away from the discrepancy (and players do not usually like being railroaded!), you can end up with them exposing fatal flaws in the plot that destroy its credibility entirely. Once nobody can suspend their disbelief, the game loses its magic and it's all over.
This is why you should try to keep your roleplay plots fairly simple - the less complicated it is, the less likely it is you'll overlook a plothole. Don't overcomplicate it with murders, cover-ups, conspiracies, characters, phlebotinums, or MacGuffins it doesn't actually need - a simple case of someone stealing something for straightforward reasons (EG, fencing it, using it for personal gain, stealing it to spite or sabotage someone) can be just as effective a plot as someone stealing something as part of some grand ancient conspiracy that has fingers in every level of every government. This isn't to say you can't ever use a more complicated plot, but if you do, be prepared to give it extra thought and scrutiny before presenting it to your players.
World elements also need to be kept tight. When you write a story, you can have a character off-handedly mention a magical cave and not put too much thought into what might be in the cave, because you don't have to worry about any of your characters running off to check it out before you're ready. But if you mention a magical cave to a bunch of roleplayers, you'd better have something to give them or be prepared to come up with something fast because there are good odds that they'll be raring to go check it out as soon as you mention it. Basically, don't throw in or mention anything you're not prepared to have players at least try to go and check out.
The plot doesn't need to span the globe, and the entire world doesn't need to be at stake.
With a few exceptions, you should leave this one to the JRPGs and big-budget Hollywood movies. Instead, try to think local plots and local stakes most of the time.
Now, keeping plots local doesn't mean that each and every plot needs to happen in the exact same location, but rather that individual plots probably shouldn't require too much travel away from wherever they they start out in, and they probably shouldn't involve a globetrotting journey to complete. It's usually easier to manage the logistics of a plot that takes place in, say, a small town than one spanning an entire continent. Plus, when you develop a small area you can aim for quality worldbuilding in a relatively short span of time, whereas if you try to develop the entire world you'll either have to sacrifice quality for quantity, or spend much, much longer in development - and because players are inquisitive little beasties with unpredictable whims, you might find them poking into quite a lot of things that you haven't put any substance into whatsoever.
Local stakes means that rather than the player characters going after, say, an evil overlord trying to take over the planet with a superweapon, they might instead go after someone who's trying to use some strange/alien gizmo to enslave an isolated town.
Remember - a problem doesn't have to be epically big to be important. Finding a missing child might not save the whole world - but it saves the family's world. Stopping a crook who's been extorting the residents of a small community doesn't solve every problem in the world, but to the residents it might mean everything. So perhaps instead of trying to come up with thing that the characters could save the world from, come up with things they could do that mean the world to someone. You'll be spinning your wheels trying to come up with fresh plots a lot less. Of course, this isn't to say that you can't ever have the whole world at stake, but it's far from your only option - and most of the time, you probably don't really need stakes that big, anyway.
If you're having trouble thinking up smaller-scale plots, TV shows - particularly ones that have plots and conflicts that get wrapped up in a single episode - can be good for inspiration. It's also a good idea to check out a variety of shows - different shows have different storytelling styles, and you might find that some work out better for what you're trying to do than others. Also, even if your game will involve supernatural or science fiction elements, don't overlook more reality-bound shows (EG, crime dramas like CSI or Criminal Minds) for inspiration, either - there's often a lot in them that you can apply to more fantastic settings.
Plots cannot be laid out in a straightforward list of progressive steps or plot points.
A writer can plan out a story's plot just so, intending the characters to get from Plot Point A to Plot Point B and so on to Plot Point Z. But in a roleplay, players might start out at A, skip right to G, then take a swerve to go see M and go check out C before moving on to J. In other words, you don't want to make a plot that hinges on any specific order of events, or else things are likely to go pear-shaped very fast.
You also shouldn't have to constantly put your foot down on a player's choice of action Because Plot. If you find yourself doing this, this indicates that something has gone very wrong somewhere - most likely you didn't make your plot flexible enough or leave yourself enough wiggle room to improvise if things went differently from what you'd planned.
You also can't just plan for one eventuality or end game. You can have a loose idea of a few ways things might end up, but that's about it. The best you can do is try to figure out how to make every possible path the PCs take eventually end up more or less where you need them to be - even the ones you didn't originally expect them to take. In practice, this might mean having a lot of NPCs who know a little something scattered all over the place, or even improvising some kind of small clue into an area you didn't originally plan to have a clue in, especially if the players have been putting in a lot of effort looking around that area.
You can't expect Hollywood-style fights.
Far too many people make roleplay plots that are intended to lead up to the kind of fights you see in film - dramatic speeches, one-on-one battles between good and evil, fancy combat moves, near-defeats for the heroes, dramatic escapes, the whole nine yards. But this doesn't really work for most roleplays.
In the movies, fights are scripted and choreographed. Every little move is carefully planned to look impressive and create dramatic tension while leading up to a pre-decided outcome. But in a roleplay, you typically have a very different situation. You have multiple people acting off the cuff who are more interested in coming out victorious than entertaining an audience. There's really only one thing you can count on, and that's that combat will be chaotic and unpredictable. If you're using dice or anything else to randomly determine success, an action you were banking on to be epically badass might just turn into a hilarious fumble. Have your character pause to deliver a dramatic speech, and your character might just get attacked in the middle of it. Send a villain into a fight planning for your villain will make a dramatic escape when things get too rough, and you might find that one player decides to block the exits to keep just that from happening - or even end up with all of your players determined to chase your villain down and end the fight once and for all. (A good rule to follow - any villain you don't want potentially trashed, don't have come into direct contact with the player characters.)
If you really want Hollywood-style fights, you have to work it out with all of the players involved beforehand and make sure that everyone understands that the fight is supposed to play out a particular way. But remember that this isn't necessarily the best way to run a game - most roleplayers want to have a genuine chance at doing something important or awesome, so if they find out that a fight must go down a certain way and that they have no say in the matter, they may be very unhappy - especially if their own characters would have no reason to hold or fall back under the circumstances.
Another thing about roleplay fights is that they take much longer to play out than they do in film, what with the time needed to write out/describe actions and to calculate dice rolls (or if no dice are used, try to figure out how much damage the character probably took and whether the character can keep going). This means that a combat scenario that might take up fifteen minutes of screen time might take hours to play out and resolve in a roleplay. So you probably don't want to set up combat scenarios to be any longer than they need to be, lest your players get bored or have to leave before the fight's over.
Another big difference between Hollywood fights and roleplay fights is that huge power disparities might be disastrous. In the movies, having a team of underdog heroes who are outmatched by the villain and win because of a lucky break or a last-minute realization can make a good story. But in a roleplay, particularly one where outcomes depend on dice roll, odds are good that such an incredibly powerful villain is just going to squash the heroes. So it's better to have the characters more evenly-matched.
If you're worried that putting them on even footing will make things less exciting - it won't. Things are plenty exciting when the players believe there's a real chance that their characters could get seriously hurt or even killed. And if you're still not convinced, consider that there are always plenty of opportunities to create suspense just through the mystery/problem-solving portions of the game. Another thing you can do is make the players work for what they need to defeat the villain, which will make the payoff feel rewarding even if the actual fight isn't as epic as one in a Hollywood film.
- You need to make sure that players understand how your game's universe works and does not work, because muddled understanding of the universe and its rules leads to confusion and powerplaying.
- On the other hand, players want to be playing, not reading. Don't take any longer than necessary describing the essentials, and don't force them to read anything they don't actually need at the moment.
- You don't get to play the "main character." There is no main character in an RP.
- Your plot setups and worldbuilding need to be tight. Keep plots simple and straightforward, and don't throw in anything you're not ready for your players to try to explore.
- Your plots don't have to span the globe and the world doesn't need to be at stake; most of the time, you're probably much better off making smaller similar in scale to something you might see in an episode of CSI.
- You can't expect your players to follow a specific plotline out point-by-point; they need freedom to explore and poke around in whatever order they will.
- You typically can't expect Hollywood-style fights (EG, big dramatic speeches, fancy-dancy moves, victories through last-minute lucky breaks, or last-minute villain escapes Because Plot). Fights should also be much shorter, because unlike movie fights, roleplay fights don't play out in real time.
Other pages you should look at:
Basic Tips To Create And Run A Good RP Plot
Starting & Running Roleplays & Bringing In New Players
When A Game Master Or Roleplay Admin Might Be Power-Tripping - And What To Do About It
Setting Rules & Limitations In Your World: Why & How You Need To Do This
How To Roleplay Villains Fairly
Tips To Write Better & More Exciting Action & Fight Scenes