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For many years, I thought roleplaying games involved only the most surface-level style of roleplaying. But one night on a roleplaying-required game online revolutionized my entire conceptualization of what roleplaying can be.

Roleplaying, in most of the gaming world

In most of the gaming world, roleplaying involves very limited personal input from players. It operates like how today’s “RPG” video games do: players have limited ways to affect their world, and only the most surface-level interactions with other characters or players.

In the tabletop gaming world, roleplaying games might even bring a character’s race, class, or alignment into play somehow. Players usually choose these traits as a means of maximizing benefits or minimizing penalties for the kind of play they want to have in the game.

For example, in Elder Scrolls games like Skyrim, if you want to make a strong warrior then you’ll probably choose to play a Nord, Orc, or Redguard. If you’d rather make a strong magic-user, you’ll likely want to go for a Dark Elf, Breton, or High Elf. People might choose other races for these roles, and sometimes they can come up with some interesting and offbeat combinations! But overall, that’s how it works. For the most part, people react to things ingame the way they themselves would, not in the way their character would.

What you probably won’t ever be doing in these kinds of games is living the life of your character. Your time in the game is spent doing the exciting parts of that character’s life. Generally speaking, you won’t be stocking their shop, visiting the market every day for dinner ingredients, chatting with friends, updating your ingame journal, and reading in front of a nice, roaring fire.

Rather, most roleplaying games offer a much more action- and combat-oriented style of play. You do take on a role, so it’s technically roleplaying. But you aren’t breathing life into a character.

So you can probably imagine my shock when I first brushed up against a game that asked its players to do exactly that.

On the scariest night of the year, I showed up in town

For years, I played hack-and-slash text games online (called MUDs, or Multi-User Domains). After a while, probably 25 years ago now, someone mentioned that they’d tried a very different kind of MUD. It was based on an obscure British tabletop roleplaying game. This person hadn’t decided if they liked it or not, but it was definitely quite different from the usual MUD.

Intrigued, I tried it out.

The first thing I noticed was that this new MUD required players to submit character applications. Tabletop game masters (or GMs) often require this step of players. Pre-vetting prevents an unbalanced party—and often winnows out people who won’t be good team players. But I’d never heard of a MUD requiring it.

So fine, fine, I read a bit of the game’s lore online and created a character: a scrawny Nordic street rat. The application asked a lot of questions that I’d never before seen a MUD ask, like the character’s background and overall goals in the game. I filled these out with perfunctory information, then submitted the application.

In an hour or so, I got an email telling me that my application had been accepted.

With a mounting sense of anticipation, I logged into the MUD for the first time.

This roleplaying game was not like anything I’d ever seen in my life

Though I’d played a fair number of MUDs up till then, this MUD wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. First, it walked me through a quick introduction to the game. This introduction stressed that the game was both level-less and class-less. If I wanted to pick up a skill, I needed to practice it. If I wanted to pursue a new job or avocation, I only had to do the thing.

This lack of clear categories already rattled me, but then the game told me it was permadeath. If my character died, I would need to apply for a whole new one—and the new one had to be completely unrelated to the old one. Man, I’d never seen a permadeath MUD. That sounded metal! Okay, I thought, I’d need to be very careful.

After selecting some colorful newbie clothes, I entered the game.

I found myself in a very well-described town full of shops and non-player characters (NPCs) walking around, talking amongst themselves, even juggling and doing tricks for coins. This place was fun to explore, but I was really just looking for the game’s newbie area.

Searching for a roleplaying game’s newbie area

Every MUD had a newbie area, after all. It would be full of small critters to kill for experience points, coins, and gear. The yields wouldn’t be enormous, but the area was just meant to get you started. You’d learn the combat system in low-risk circumstances, and come out of it able to purchase better gear later on.

In fact, MUDs shared a lot of the same characteristics. They all had areas, which were themed zones that generally contained material suited to people of particular levels in the game. A 100-level MUD would have areas meant for levels 1-5, 5-10, 10-20, and so on. Usually but not always, each MUD’s stable of builders created areas specifically for their own MUD, though plenty of free-use areas could be dropped into the game fairly easily.

They also all had various communication channels:

  • Tell or whisper, for person-to-person private communication
  • Gossip, for MUD-wide communication; if someone didn’t want to hear a lot of chatter, they could disable this channel
  • Say, for communicating only within the room
  • Yell, for communication only within an area
  • Shout, also for MUD-wide communication; it could not be disabled, but admins could turn off a player’s ability to shout if they abused it

But this game seemed to lack most of those channels. It also didn’t have a listing of characters who were online right then, nor a listing of areas for the different levels.

Yes, it hadn’t quite sunk in to me yet that this game didn’t have levels at all. That didn’t even make sense. They were here somewhere. I just didn’t know where. A MUD without levels would be like a supermarket without aisles, a restaurant without tables, a French wine shop without a single bottle of sauvignon blanc, a cheese shop without a single wedge of cheese on the shelves. It’d be a world gone mad.

YouTube video
Apparently, however, such cheese shops may exist.

And yet, here I was.

My brilliant hack-and-slashing in the newbie area

Finally, I found what had to be the newbie area: a long, twisting alley full of rats and cats. No guards at all patrolled here.

This had to be it!

But killing the rats and other such alley critters yielded nothing whatsoever: no messages of experience points, no coins, and no gear at all. In fact, my character sheet didn’t even seem to contain a field for experience points.

I must have killed every small critter there, and twice over at that. I even skinned them, thinking that maybe the rewards came from that. Nope. Nothing, though I did get some nondescript skins.

Well, heckies. Maybe I could at least sell the skins?

But no NPC shop owners would buy them. This, too, was quite odd.

Thinking I must have gotten something very wrong, I decided to find the town’s main inn. Every MUD had one of those, too. It’s where players congregated between adventures. Once I found it, I could ask those other players where the heck their newbie zone was.

That’s when I really understood that this game was very different

I went back to the town’s central square, the one where the juggler hung out. I saw a couple of PCs heading into an inn, so I followed them.

Inside, I found the usual MUD inn: a lower-floor tavern containing shopkeeper selling food and drink—but oddly, no potions or scrolls—and a half-dozen players chatting among themselves. But their characters were all sitting in chairs at the tables, which was very unfamiliar ground to me. And they didn’t just say stuff and sometimes use socials.

(One popular social, “nod,” shows everyone else in the room “Cas nods her head.” You can see one game’s list of coded socials here by searching for “social actions.” In 1996, someone even did a Master’s Thesis on “nonverbal communication” in MUDs.)

Instead, the folks in this inn were using elaborate gestures and real conversations to discuss a recent—and, as it happens, very alarming—happening in town:

A tall, red-headed man shakes his head. “You don’t understand. There were dozens like that. Dead and skinned.”

A petite, black-haired woman’s eyes widen in fear. “That’s horrible, Captain Stefan! What do you think it means?”

A tall, red-headed man casts a petite, black-haired woman a curt glance. “Cultists, of course. It’s the Night of Demons. What else would it mean?”

A white-haired old priest begins to pray under his breath.

As you might have already guessed, my handiwork in the alley had not gone unnoticed.

They were talking about me.

Well, now I found myself in a dilly of a roleplaying pickle

I’m sure every every person in that room noticed the obvious new player in their midst. Newbies stuck out like a sore thumb on most MUDs, and on that one doubly so. And I’m sure they knew that someone very new to roleplaying might have made exactly this mistake.

But now, how was I supposed to handle this situation?

I mean, I could admit that I’d done all that critter-murdering, just because I hadn’t realized what kind of game this was. That would, of course, likely short-circuit the scene unfolding before me.

But I suddenly found in myself this urge to go along with what I was seeing to find out how it might develop.

So I didn’t say anything.

Instead, I bellied up to the tavern’s bar, bought a tankard of ale, and listened.

That was the first real roleplaying I’d ever seen

As it happens, the red-haired guy was a town guard.

(PCs playing town guards! What was the world coming to? What was next, dogs and cats living together?)

He’d noticed the dead, skinned critters and had come to the inn to warn people that cultists were afoot. This night was the game’s version of Halloween, and their gods and demons were actually real. So he was worried that these awful cultists might have used the critters in nefarious rituals. Worse, they might not stop at harming the alley critters.

More people came into the inn, all bearing terrifying tales of seeing critters dead in the alleys. The guardsman calmed them down and asked them to stay in the inn. “We’ll stay here, where it’s defensible, until dawn. By dawn, this’ll be over.”

One guy asked what would happen if the cultists or demons came here. The guardsman replied with a brave, stirring speech about resisting evil to the end.

I was completely, utterly enthralled. But I hadn’t seen anything yet.

Then, the priest piped up with an idea to pass the time

By now, we had about a dozen people in the room. Everyone was being very careful not to be a pest in the crowded area. I kept quiet and listened.

Then, the priest spoke up. He had an idea: to make time pass more merrily, perhaps we could amuse ourselves by telling stories or jokes or riddles or something!

That idea caught on fast. Unanimously, the crowd asked the priest to go first.

With gusto, this priest spun a stirring tale of how the evil god of this game had come to be, and why he let his forces loose upon the world of this one night every year.

Then, he yielded to a woman who talked about how she’d decided to move to this town.

And then, we all heard from a man who told a funny little story about a foolish little coppersmith who lived long ago.

All of it was in keeping with the game’s setting and lore.

In between, people smiled at each other, chatted privately at their tables, ate and drank, and sometimes glanced nervously at the door. Every time someone barged in all wide-eyed because of my handiwork in the alleys, the other PCs calmed them down and got them into the spirit of the evening.

Not one person asked me what I knew about the situation.

Thank goodness.

Their roleplaying had changed my world forever

Finally, about two real hours later, the dawn came. People began to filter out of the inn—leaving to go to their own homes, or else quitting out right there.

I only wished for more time to sit and listen to these folks. By then, I’d gotten a great crash course in not only the game’s setting, but also in how to roleplay.

More importantly, I’d learned why to roleplay.

I ended up playing that game for another few years. That character survived. She grew into one of the town’s foremost citizens. She owned shops, did business, dabbled in politics, and organized countless player-participation adventures to serve her interests.

I never, ever told anyone about my first hour or two in the game. I kept my silence even when people brought it up as an example of how bad Demon Night could get.

Really, why wreck a great thing?

These folks could easily have put me off roleplaying forever

To be sure, the admins certainly knew it’d been me the whole time. They could see anything they wanted in the game. And I’m positive that at least a few people in the inn that night, especially that original bunch, guessed who’d actually done that stuff.

But nobody ever threw it in my face.

Instead, everyone around me simply drew me into the plot coalescing around my actions. They let me pretend I had no idea why any of this had happened, and that I too was just as scared as they were about evil forces lurking around the town’s dark alleys.

Most importantly, they showed me how to do things the right way. They modeled the ideal behavior for me. And once I began making my first few steps into this very new style of play, they encouraged me to keep going. They kept the bar high, while at the same time giving me the inspiration and encouragement I needed to keep meeting it.

Very quickly, I began to get lavish compliments on how well I roleplayed in that game. My fiction writing also improved by leaps and bounds as I learned to show, not tell.

There’s probably some interesting lessons here for management types to learn. For me, though, it’s always stood in my memory as the best way to bring newbies onboard in any environment. That first night could have gone so poorly, and yet it turned into one of the most formative experiences of my life.

Years later, I’d see this video and think about how similarly my fellow roleplayers had treated me:

YouTube video
“First Follower: Leadership Lessons from Dancing Guy”

Resources: Learn roleplaying in your spare time

If you should find yourself wanting to learn this kind of roleplaying, lots of resources exist nowadays that simply didn’t 25 years ago.

First, find a venue. Me personally, I like roleplaying MUDs, but MMORPGs also offer potential roleplaying experience. TopMUDSites just went read-only, but they still feature a MUD search window here. If you’d rather play an MMORPG, search in your game of choice’s forum to find roleplaying guilds (search for “roleplaying guild” on forums devoted to these games; here’s one result I got for World of Warcraft).

Play-by-email/post roleplaying games also exist. That link is run by Greg Lindahl, who has contributed enormously to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA), which is another great place to roleplay if you’d rather do it in medieval costume!

LARPs, or Live Action Roleplaying games, tend to be more fantastical than an SCA event, but they contain every bit of the combat and politics—it’s just more overt.

As for the actual roleplaying itself, here’s a good guide to learning how. And another. And a third with some intriguing ideas. Here are some basic rules of courtesy common to almost all roleplaying environments.

And lastly, here’s my best advice:

Hang out in common areas in your game. Actively listen. Observe how other people use the game’s commands to communicate. Start small, while doing likewise. Remember to play cooperatively, sharing the spotlight with others. Trust them to share with you, too.

Go forth and breathe life into your characters. For my money, that’s the best kind of gaming there is—and often the most challenging. This is how you tell a story you’ll remember for years to come.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...