As a newbie-friendly site, we aim to help users that are interested in role-playing with us, but unsure of how to get started. This guide will hopefully get the basic core concepts of role-playing and how it works explained. If you're familiar with role-playing, this guide most likely won't help at all.
First off, let's take a look at what role-playing actually is. Many times I've explained it to others outside the hobby as round-Robin style collaborative writing, and it is essentially this. Play-by-post operates on a system where one user posts something, and then the other user posts something else, neither touching one another's posts. There are other ways of doing this; play by email uses email exchanges, and we also have joint-posting, where users collaborate on the same post to thread together a cohesive story.
In role-playing, one takes on a fictional persona and uses that fictional persona to tell stories. To imagine what it would be like to be that fictional persona they created or adopted; how do they feel about certain things? What experiences and trials do they go through? Are they adventurous or do they tend to stay home? These are just some of the things you can think about when considering what kind of a character you want to make.
Creating a Character
So how does it work? Different role-players start in different places, so it really depends on what works for you. Some start with a very detailed character concept; essentially they create the character and then start playing them, because they need a solid idea in their mind of what they want. Other players have a vague concept that they roughly outline and then start playing and let the character develop itself. And still others are more in the middle. There is also a spectrum for each of these types. Some of those that need a solid idea need just a solid, well-developed and fleshed out history, whereas others need to know anything and everything about a character they can. You'll have to try a few things and see what works best for you, and how best you can create a persona that you can easily write for.
Role-playing requires a lot of getting into the mind of the persona you're portraying at the time. Actors often talk about getting into character, and this is much the same for role-players. We need to be able to react as that character fluidly, and maintain the character's portrayal consistently. A character that is calm and tranquil generally won't get angry easily, for example, and we'll need to remember these sorts of things when writing for the character.
One piece of advice I can give is it's good to remember that a good, well-developed character is as complex as another person might be. Their motivations are probably not very simple, and while they may or may not be a full-on villain, they likely make mistakes and decisions that are subjectively bad. Most people try to do the right thing, though, and well-rounded and interesting villains are the kind that have understandable motivations. I say this here because it's good to get into the habit of making a well-rounded character, whether they're intended to be a villain or not; too many people under-develop their villains because well they're a bad guy, that's all you need to know, but that's not actually how it works.
This might all sound really scary and complicated, but once you get thinking about it, you'll get adjusted and do it easily after a while.
Creating a Story
I suppose the most daunting part of role-playing is actually doing the role-playing. What if you don't write well? What if your posts are boring? What if no one likes your character? These are real fears and concerns, but I don't think there's anything for them aside from understanding how creating a cohesive story with others works, and going into role-playing armed with this knowledge.
In order to get this idea, let's talk about something called "Yes, And." This is a concept used frequently in impromptu theatre, and it is the single-most simple way of getting a good idea of how role-players play off one another, and build together. The base idea of "Yes, And" is that when one person posts something, the next player's response should boil down, at its core, to "Yes, And" - in example:
Player One writes that their character said something, and then sat down in a chair.
Player Two adds that their character responded, and then also sat down in another chair.
Now, it's hard to get it from this example if you're not familiar with the precepts of role-play in the first place, so let's talk about what's going on here. A standard, fundamental core of role-play is not contradicting your posting partner unless it's absolutely necessary that you do. So if they say that their character did xyz, you can't come in after with your character and in narration say that the other player's character did zyx. "Yes, And" is better covered in other places on the internet, so I won't go too in-detail here, but essentially it runs on the idea that you must agree with the player before you: "yes, that happened." And then, to progress forward, you add something new: "yes, that happened, and then..."
In situations where you have to contradict your posting partner too much, you most often end up with stagnated plots and stories. By placing a wall in the proverbial field your partner was trying to drive the tractor into, you're making it so that they have to find another way around it, but a lot of players will simply stop there. It depends on the player, and how severe the contradiction is. Similarly, the characters having two wildly different ideas of what's going on at the same time in the same thread can take players out of the story, and thereby ruin immersion.
How intolerable this broken immersion is varies between player to player; some can handle this very well, essentially viewing the contradictions and differences from the established concept in their own head as a written manifestation of the difference in how people see things. Ergo, the character's contradictions may not seem right to xyz, but it's right to them because that's just their version of things, and somewhere between character one and character two is the truth. Others cannot stand these kinds of contradictions very well at all, and find it easier to cohesively work together with other writers when all writers are on the same page.
It also depends on what, exactly, is being contradicted. Things like the time of day and the state of the sky are pretty objective, but don't have much bearing on the story itself. Other things like what the other character said or what they look like is a little harder to ignore. Given how some people can ignore these anomalies, but most can't, it's best to simply not get into the habit of contradicting anything.
This leads to site lore. Each site has a specific setting relatively unique to itself. Even two sites in the same fandom will be notably different in structure, administration, and lore. What do we mean by lore? In a role-play, the term lore refers to the site setting and world-building elements. Things like the in-character cultural environment, the sociopolitical atmosphere, what races and types of characters can be created, these are things that count as lore. And unfortunately, most administrators will expect that your character and the story you tell with that character fit into the world lore. If the world lore says that the northern people hate the southern people and the two are in a cold war with one another, it would be lore-breaking to say that a northern character has lots of friends in the south. If a site's vampires are weak to holy water, it'd be lore-breaking to say that one's vampire character doesn't have trouble with holy water.
Mistakes, however, happen, and quite frequently. Never accept a site staff being truly rude to you simply because you made an honest mistake.
The Mary/Marty Sue
One character concept you may hear a lot about is Mary and her male equivalent Marty Sue. I'm of the belief that a Sue is played, not made, but we will touch a little on the concept here. Essentially the Sue archetype is a character that has no flaws at all, can do no wrong, is loved by everyone, and is always the best at everything, etc. Originally, I believe the Sue character was a self-insert of a sort, a means of fulfilling personal fantasies of being the best, where the writer creates a character that is essentially themselves and lets them do all the things the author wishes they could.
The only real way to avoid this one is to remember that characters, like people, are dynamic, and not without flaws. In many instances, a character's flaws can be very interesting to explore, because the point of role-play and telling stories is not that everything's perfect and no one makes any mistakes, but that there is growth and learning the characters do in response to hardship and making mistakes. This is called character development, where a character changes and grows over time, overcoming obstacles and facing new ones. Stories are not interesting without a solid conflict and a goal or so for the characters to reach. The same can be said for role-playing.
The IC/OOC Divide
IC stands for in-character. OOC (sometimes mistyped as OCC) stands for out-of-character. This division is important to understand, because understanding it prevents a lot of hurt feelings and misunderstandings.
The first thing to know and understand is, you are not your character, and no one else is the same as their character, either. Never mistaken character purview and ideologies as being held by the player as right and true. Someone can play a white supremacist without being one themselves. There's always a place in a story for conflict and antagonism, and all role-players will come across characters that have ideas and values that they themselves don't agree with. The player also does not necessarily agree with these. Similarly, someone criticising your character does not mean they are criticising you.
Understanding and accepting that not everyone is going to love all of your characters is a good idea, especially early on when you're still figuring out how all this role-play stuff works. People can dislike your characters without it meaning you've done badly with them. In fact, it's almost kind of a good thing; in disliking them, someone finds them notable enough to put forth the energy of disliking them rather than having a neutral stance, if they even know who that character is. Some people are very good at making characters that other players love to hate and hate to love, and there's nothing wrong with that. This happens in real life, too. Some people just don't like certain other people, and it doesn't mean those people they dislike are bad people, just that not everyone likes them, and that's okay.
The Overpowered Character
So what is an overpowered (OP) character, and how do we avoid one? Much like the Sue archetype, the overpowered character is played, not necessarily made, but depending on the site one can purposely create an OP character, too. OP characters are Mary Sues for battle: impossible to defeat in combat. I've played in and run several different games that had a very ability-angled purview, and a character's abilities and powers made a big difference, and one of the ways I tell my players to avoid making a character too OP is to imagine their abilities and try to counter them. If you cannot find a single way of effectively counteracting one of their powers, it's probably too powerful and needs to be toned down. If you find yourself thinking long and hard about an ability, wondering if it's too much, it very likely is.
In battle threads, where players pit their characters against one another, one needs a good understanding of the rules of physics, combat, tactic, and the rules of the universe (its lore). It takes an amount of mental comparison between the other character's abilities and your own; in tabletop games, we simply roll dice with modifiers to account for skill, in order to leave a sense of spontaneity and surprise, and some text-based role-plays will do similar. However, it is possible to do this without dice, it just requires a little logical extrapolation.
In similar vein, each player has a different way of playing; each has different limitations on what other players can do with their characters, and what they'll allow outcomes of encounters of any kind to be. It's good to check with your partner to be sure you don't step over these boundaries and do something they aren't okay with happening.
One big thing that occasionally falls by the wayside is communicating. Most people will be understanding of most things; if you're busy, just mention that. If you don't like how a thread, or a plot, is going, just say that. If you've lost interest in a story-line or a character, that's okay, just let people know. Don't be afraid to talk to other players, because this is a collaborative hobby and too many people get too selfish with it. Everyone will always tell you that role-playing should be fun, not a chore, so look out for you, but I believe that role-playing requires a little of taking care of you, and a little of thinking about everyone else, too.
Some players may also have survived traumatic experiences that led to an inability to play out certain scenes because of the content of the interaction. It's not really your job to prevent running into one of these, but if someone else tells you they're not okay with something, just work something out, and don't be afraid of reaching out to your partner if there's something going on in a thread you're not okay with.
Metagaming, Power-Playing, and God-Moding
What do these two terms mean? Metagaming is when your character has IC knowledge that they were not shown to have acquired in-character. For instance, if they know or magically guess that their brother is dating someone whom this character has never met before, when no one told them. There are some instances in which metagaming is okay, for instance if you have a character that is clairvoyant, and there are some instances where guessing correctly makes sense for the character in context. It is however best to avoid knowing anything that hasn't been said to them directly. Most players find this annoying. It's not very fun when a character's husband just somehow knows already that she's pregnant.
Power-playing and God-moding are somewhat difficult because depending on who you talk to, their definitions may switch. One is playing an OP character that cannot and does not get hit in battle, or can tolerate attacks and damage that they shouldn't be able to, while the other is when the player controls or writes for a character that they do not play. Now, much like many things in this hobby, each player has different lines for this. Some don't mind your posts being written with some mild assumption, while others believe that every character is free-game, and still others think that no character should be controlled in any manner but your own. It's good practise to ask a player before doing something like taking their character's hand and dragging them off, or picking them up, or such. Many won't mind, but it's best not to assume.
As for the other, just remember your character's weaknesses as well as you remember their strengths, as well as those of your opponent. It makes sense for a speed-trained fighter to be able to dodge a lot - at the beginning. Sooner or later, their stamina runs out, and they stop moving as fast.
How do role-players handle plot and time progression? This one is a little tricky, because like most things it varies between players and sites. Some sites run on fluid or liquid time, this means a character can be in multiple active threads at once, even in the same place, as long as it's accepted that the threads/scenes occur at different times, usually within a set time frame. Other sites will only allow a character to be active in one thread/scene at a time.
We also have the question of how a thread is decided to have moved forward in time. How do we decide this? This is dependent on what's happening in the scene. Much like in movie and book scenes, we don't write out the entire day; rather, we focus on a certain part of that day and capture only that part. During travel in threads, or any other activity that may be somewhat tedious to write, we may time-skip slightly, but this is typically left to the two writers to decide on.
IC - In-character: this means something that has bearing on the story being told.
OOC/OCC - Out-of-character: anything pertaining to the players instead of the characters.
PB/FC - Play-by/Face-claim: a visual representation, oftentimes a real-life celebrity, or a particular character from an anime or manga, rarely drawn by the player or another artist, of what a character looks like. Think of it as kind of a fan-casting for a movie, the concept is the same. Most players don't want to share their PB/FC, so claim lists are commonplace, and new players cannot use PBs/FCs already on the claim list.
Canon - This refers to information about a famous work, such as Harry Potter, that is established as true by the author/creator. Alternatively, it may refer to characters that a work's author created rather than the person that plays them. For instance, playing Harry Potter the character is playing a canon.
AU - Alternate universe: This refers to a setting in which the canon of a work is changed from the original work in order to set the stage for either a certain plot-line to be possible, or to allow for player freedom. Ergo, if someone said that New York got blown up, that'd be an AU of the real world.
Plotter/Plot thread/Shipper - These often refer to the same basic concept, and they are threads where a player details their character(s), and any plot ideas they have in mind and want to do with said character. More recently, one often details what kind of friends, enemies, and lovers the character may be interested in, and other players can read and offer ideas based around either plot wants, or the friends/enemies/lovers set up. It's simply a way of listing in public what you're looking for and what kind of connections a character is open to.
Application/Biography - These two are not mutually inclusive, a site can have an application that isn't a bio, and a bio that isn't an application, but essentially these are character information sheets that players fill out. An application must be looked over and approved by a staff member before the character can be played, whereas biographies are simply for reference. It's a good way to remember information about your own character if you have a bad memory, as well as present this information to other players for plotting. Some players can't live without them, others detest them. It depends on the site what kind of environment it has and whether it has either or. Some sites also have their applications unable to be edited once submitted.
Account switcher - This refers to the ability for a player to switch from one account to another by using a drop-down menu.
Wanted advertisement - A post detailing a character role, such as a brother or a close friend, or plot idea that someone has that they need another player to take on. Most wanted ads are very loose, and the player that takes the role can develop the character. Always talk with the wanted ad's poster to be sure you know what they want for the role. Some ads are very tight and specific.
Jcink - A free host, this is the most common platform for forum-based role-plays. You will often register an OOC account first, and then create subaccounts for your characters, but some may still run character-account-only. Check the site's rules and joining guides first.
ProBoards - A free host, this is another common platform for forum-based role-plays. ProBoards has a global account, but I do believe it has an account switcher for individual characters, so you'll need to link them.
MyBB - Many self-hosted sites run MyBB, which also has an account switcher, though I'm not sure it still works. MyBB sites may require logging out and back in before posting.
SMF - Another semi-popular self-hosting option, SMF has an account switcher.
IPS/Invision - The more updated version of the software Jcink runs, IPS is becoming very popular for role-play sites thanks to the IPS Character Mod.
Gaia - A software I wrote and maintain, Gaia has both a free and self-hosted option, and was designed from the ground up specifically for forum role-plays. It doesn't have a switcher, but characters are managed through the main account, so there's only one login.
Tumblr - Tumblr is a very popular role-play platform, and from my understanding works by reblogging and adding to posts.
Discord - There are a large number of role-plays based on Discord, which is an instant-messaging software similar to Skype that was designed for video games.
Nova - This is a cohesive centre for play-by-email style roleplays, that operates on a joint-posting style. It can be difficult to get used to if you're familiar with play-by-post, but many good games run on this.
- And many more.
The best advice I can give new role-players is, don't be afraid to ask questions, and don't be afraid to leave sites that act like asking questions is a big problem or you're being rude for asking. As well, don't get too attached to a certain software; role-plays run on many platforms and take many forms, and remaining flexible enough to adapt to new software types as you come across them will ensure your options remain open.