The Art of Roleplaying in GemStone IV (guide)
Since returning to GemStone IV in 2013, I have been thinking about writing some explanatory notes and reflections on roleplaying based on my own experiences with the hobby over the last twenty years. I have been continually putting this project off in favor of writing more documents in the voice of Silvean, but Allereli's player finally shook me from this procrastination by asking for my input on an article. If you like what you read here, please feel free to thank me. If you hate it, blame her.
In contrast to my most well-known character, I am not an egomaniac. I cannot claim to be a perfect roleplayer and I cannot claim this guide is comprehensive. Roleplaying can be intensely personal, and individual players will have their own opinions about best practices. I have recently participated in some great conversations under the “General Roleplaying” category on the official forums and learned as much from disagreements as I have from the consensus.
I have titled this guide “The Art of Roleplaying” on the understanding that art involves creative personal expression. This does not, however, mean there is no skill to roleplaying and I think anyone can train themselves to be a better roleplayer with a little practice. My aim here is to provide a set of tools to help you practice the skill of roleplaying and a series of concepts to help you reflect on the art.
What is a Roleplaying Game (RPG)?
It is easy to become bogged down by semantics when puzzling over what counts as roleplaying, and it may be helpful to distinguish between roleplaying games (RPGs) and roleplaying (RP) as one possible activity in such games.
RPGs became popular in the tabletop format with the release of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. Itself an inheritor of miniature war games, Dungeons & Dragons allows players to create and develop a character over the course of imaginary adventures in a fantasy setting. A Dungeon Master sets the scene and controls the monsters. Dice and statistics are used to resolve conflict in the game: roll to see if your knight successfully hits the troll, roll to see how much damage is done. The success of Dungeons & Dragons led to a number of other tabletop roleplaying games, including the Rolemaster system and its Shadow World campaign setting. These properties formed the basis for GemStone's setting until 1995.
In the video game market, RPG is a genre distinguished by a concern for elaborate world building, narrative development, and enhanced control over the player character(s). Science fiction and fantasy settings are common and typical examples include the Ultima, Final Fantasy, Neverwinter Nights, Mass Effect, and Fallout series. It is becoming increasingly popular to include some of these RPG characteristics in games that would otherwise fall into another genre, e.g. football games that let you design and “level up” your own quarterback. GemStone is, of course, a type of RPG video game.
What is Roleplaying (RP)?
Last year I attended a Dungeons & Dragons event hosted by a gaming store. My group and I created characters and worked our way through a published adventure involving the rescue of some kidnapped Dwarves. During the game we rolled dice to determine if our attacks hit and used map grids to determine the range of our characters' movement in a given turn. We also spent time describing our characters' clothing and expressing their personality. My cleric, the aptly named Boltho the Fat, was an excellent cook and prepared a lovely stew from the baboon that inexplicably attacked us with a band of pirates. The party's ranger, a great lover of animals who refused to attack the baboon in the first place, was not at all pleased with this turn of events. By the end of the evening we had just barely finished the quest in time for the store to close and our Dungeon Master explained the delay to the owner, “We did some roleplaying.” Well, of course, we were playing a roleplaying game after all. What did he mean?
Roleplaying or RP generally refers to any effort to develop and express your character's personality. To roleplay is to dream up a role in the context of a game setting and play it out. With tabletop games, roleplaying encompasses your attempts to describe, think like, and take on the persona of your character. Dungeons & Dragons can be played with minimum roleplaying by focusing primarily on statistics and not bothering to explain whether or not your character is a baboon-eating glutton. Other tabletop games, like the popular Vampire: The Masquerade series, are more focused on roleplaying and even go so far as to swap out the title of Dungeon Master for Storyteller in order to emphasize narrative development.
Roleplaying in GemStone is enforced by policy in the sense that you are expected to remain in character (IC) and reserve any out of character (OOC) communication for whispers or a private room. To be IC means that you are speaking in the voice of your character, and GemStone mandates that anything said in public must be IC. This is a minimum requirement, a requirement to avoid disrupting the environment by communicating out loud about game statistics or the latest football game. An especially antisocial person could effectively play GemStone and avoid violating the roleplaying policy by never speaking to another character. And while there is a certain amount of fun to be had in GemStone through the hunting of monsters and leveling of characters alone, the opportunity to develop and express your character's personality is one of the best aspects of the game.
As a text-based game, GemStone is well-suited to roleplay since your ability to develop and express your character's personality is not limited by available graphics. If you have a particular vision of what a Halfling pirate should look like from head to toe, you can ultimately spell that vision out with custom-made items. If you have an idea of how such a pirate should speak and behave, you can make that idea a reality through your interactions with others.
With a massive VERB list and some fine control over the way your character might SAY a phrase, GemStone provides substantial options for players looking to craft a persona. In fact, the parenthetical power of the ACT command lets you do just about anything you want but some modesty is recommended. The lingering question, however, is just how do you determine what sort of character you want to roleplay?
Every character begins with an idea, a general concept you will want to explore further after a look through the game documentation (http://www.play.net/gs4/index_documents/world.asp). This concept may amount to only a couple of words and can even be reduced to the minimal concept necessary to create a GemStone character, i.e., race and profession.
For instance, let's consider a Sylvan ranger. We'll assume you chose this combination not just because you like the stat bonuses but because there is something about the idea you want to explore further. The basic character concept immediately brings up new questions. What does it mean to play a race with a special relationship to the forest in a profession exemplifying that relationship? How will this character relate to life in towns and cities? How will this character view other races and professions?
Perhaps you are interested in the theme of power and want to play out the role of a power hungry Faendryl sorcerer. There are certainly people who stop there and never really develop the character farther but what you have already is a spark, an idea, something that can be pursued. Why is your character power hungry? What is he blind to because of this drive? How does he reconcile his ego with the daily indignities of being an adventurer?
By thinking through the questions generated by your character concept, you will create a deeper understanding of your character's background and worldview.
Effective roleplaying demands some sense of your character's background; it is important to know where your character has come from to get a sense of where she is going. While the initial character concept may amount to a few words composed after a cursory glance at the game documentation, a working background will start with at least a full paragraph more tightly linked with Elanthian history and culture. As you begin to roleplay with your character in-game, I think a short background is sufficient while you get a feel for things. There is no rule preventing you from developing a character's background with the character itself.
Some players greatly enjoy writing backgrounds for their characters and spin out dozens of pages about family turmoil, loves lost, epic quests, and sworn enemies. There's a whole category for “Character Histories” under the “General Roleplaying” topic of the official forums where you can post your masterpiece. My only caution is to remember that less is often more in terms of the claims you make for your character. It is perfectly believable that your human rogue is the third son of a minor Turamzzyrian noble family. It is ridiculous to claim that your character is the son of the empress or the Baron of Bourth.
Once you have an idea of your character background, how do you use it? Here I can recommend some classic writing advice: show, don't tell. There are few situations where it is appropriate to begin narrating the story of your character in-game and you are not really exploring your character's personality, not really roleplaying deeply, by doing so. Instead, let your character background inform her attitude and actions. Let an ambiguous comment about the background slip from time to time if the setting seems especially appropriate. The background should be something that breathes life into the character and shapes your roleplay rather than a mere prop.
However you may choose to use your background, there are at least two fundamental questions you should know the answers to as you begin to explore your roleplay:
- How did your character end up in their profession?
- Why has your character become an adventurer?
Character worldview is often folded into discussions of character background but I think it helpful to separate the two topics. A good portion of the character background may be taken up with things that have happened to your character: dates, places, events. Ultimately, as you begin to play out the role of someone so formed, you also get a sense of how they might see the world around them. Let's look at a few more fundamental questions:
- What is your character's relationship to their cultural heritage?
- Does your character have any strong political views?
- Is your character religious at all?
Questions like these can lead to profound reflection and form the basis for deep roleplaying. If you are committed to the experience of pretending to be someone else, to look through their eyes, then you will need to think on what the world looks like through that gaze. While some enjoy roleplaying characters reminiscent of their real-life identity, some of my most rewarding experiences have come through roleplaying opposites. In either case, to see a character really take on a life of its own and the experience of seeing that life play out in a believable way is one of the great joys of roleplay. This, I think, is where it is at its most intellectually and emotionally fulfilling.
In worldview, also, we come across the issue of whether your character is good or evil. Much digital ink has been spilled over this question with insightful observers noting, that in real life, we often paint in shades of gray rather than black and white. Roleplaying has a kind of literary quality that makes me cautious about comparisons to “real life,” but I am well aware that much of the roleplay around issues of morality is superficial. Dungeons & Dragons famously uses the alignment system for its characters with options on a spectrum between good and evil, lawful and chaotic. For roleplaying purposes, such a system acts more like an initial character concept. To decide that your character is “lawful and evil” provides only a starting point from which to seek more meaningful reflections. With this question of roleplaying good and evil, the critically important takeaway is to avoid shallow representations of these concepts. Consider how your character thinks of their own morality, how do they attain their moral sense and where might it lead?
Stats and All That
GemStone provides some latitude for unusual choices when it comes to stats and skills. There is, therefore, room for you to apply some creativity and make the character build an aspect of your roleplay. As a mild example, your “wizard who grew up on the streets” concept might include 1x training in pickpocketing even though it's not a standard wizard skill. Perhaps your witch hunter rogue focuses an unusual amount of early attention on magic item use, arcane symbols, and anti-magic combat maneuvers as a sign of her profession. More drastically, perhaps your martial sorcerer is trained to use a polearm!
Features and Attire
Gemstone offers nearly unlimited opportunities for the customization of your character's features and attire. The Character Guide and the official alteration guidelines available through the ALTER verb provide an overview of what is mechanically possible and allowable in terms of policy. Official lore documents can provide some guidance on the races of Elanthia, their distinct forms of dress, and the symbolic meaning of gems used for adornment.
The potential for other players to look at your character and get a sense of who that person is before you have typed a word makes your features and attire one of the most powerful roleplaying tools in Gemstone. In connection with a strong sense of background and worldview, it is advisable to aim for some consistency in dress. It is instructive that GameMaster NPCs are often given one notable feature and just a few worn items in order to provide a strong and immediate sense of identity.
Given the creativity that goes into GemStone item design, it is possible to build up entire character concepts around the cleverness of a particular object. Perhaps a clockwork dagger concealer will inform the kind of rogue you are envisioning or a particularly evocative set of prayer beads will shape the way you think about your cleric. With the prevalence of scripted items in GemStone, the possibilities are expanded even beyond an item's passive appearance to include the descriptive impact of its actions. It is easy to imagine how an item may come to have a life of its own that becomes intertwined with the one you are creating for your character.
Now that you have a character concept and at least an early sense of background and ideology, how do you explore all of this in game? My advice is to start small and never be afraid to make a mistake. Getting a feel for GemStone's mountain of verbs and speech options takes some time, but sticking consistently to your vision for your character is more important than the occasional typo. I often see expert roleplayers and GameMasters alike flub a word here or there and move right through it.
Finding opportunities for roleplay is another challenge and naysayers occasionally claim the game population has become too small for RP outside of isolationist cliques. They're wrong. There are a number of possible roleplaying venues; just be aware of their individual strengths and weaknesses:
Popular resting places like the Hearthstone Manor porch near Wehnimer's Landing or the Hanging Gardens in Ta'Illistim can provide opportunities for impromptu roleplaying. It is here that you can experiment with IC interactions while forming connections between your character and others. On a more discouraging note, many players like to go AFK while letting their characters rest on nodes and you may find yourself with a particularly non-responsive environment. If your roleplay is met with a stony silence, do not take it personally. Try again another time.
Characters now enjoy access to both a local and global amunet. If you head to a node intent on roleplay and find it deserted, then you are one crystal amulet away from an IC method for communicating with a large portion of the population.
Cooperative Houses of Elanthia (CHE) and House Events
Described by GemStone documents as “private clubs,” the houses are also presented as a source for “roleplaying opportunities” or a means for achieving IC “political objectives.” As the primary social organizations for characters, choosing an active house well-suited to your roleplay interests can be one of the best ways to engage the community.
Meeting Hall Organizations (MHO) and Events
MHOs are player-run groups organized around a goal that somehow impacts the larger community. In GameMaster Kenstrom's words, “Almost any sort of goal will work, as long as it will somehow involve or affect non-members.” Unlike houses, a character may be a member of more than one MHO at a time and enjoy a variety of opportunities for organized roleplay.
The system of profession guilds remains unfinished with no current plans for additional development. Consequently, the roleplay opportunities provided by the guilds are extremely uneven. Some professions (e.g. monks) have no accessible guild structures at all while others (e.g. sorcerers) have access to guild structures, trainable guild abilities, and guild titles. For sorcerers, warriors, and rogues, the process of training guild skills requires interaction between members and presents numerous roleplaying opportunities.
GameMasters can take on the guise of non-player characters (NPCs) and initiate any number of roleplaying events, e.g. festivals, merchants, quests, wars, world-changing sagas. In recent years there has been a resurgence of “storylines” with a series of connected events forming narratives of epic complexity. Attentiveness to the official forums and amunet will help you identify when and where such events may be held.
First-time attendance can be overwhelming since dozens of characters may turn out to see the latest oddity. Communicating your character's personality in such a setting is desirable but it's important to get a feel for the rhythm of the scene and avoid adding to screen scroll by saying or doing too much. Many characters will engage in IC whispers during the most hectic of events so they can roleplay more intimately while being part of the larger scene.
At times you may find your character called upon to take center stage during an event, most commonly during an event sponsored by a CHE or MHO. Pretend, for instance, that you have become known for playing a paladin with a special devotion to Charl, god of the seas and all the popcorn shrimp therein. A MHO dedicated to religion in Elanthia might then ask you to speak about Charl at an event one evening and now you find yourself with a roleplaying opportunity rather different from your prior experience. Here you will need to combine the thoughtfulness and preparation characteristic of the IC forum post with the spontaneous energy of everyday roleplay in GemStone. My practice in such cases is to write out as much as I can of what my character will say and do in a text document; I am then able to copy and paste from this document as needed during the event. There may be other ways to handle this process but two things are absolutely essential: thorough preparation and at least one rehearsal.
Out of Game Resources
It is helpful to keep an eye on the Google Calendar linked on the GemStone website for upcoming RP events. In this way you can keep track of activities hosted by CHEs and MHOs you are not a member of along with those hosted by any other IC organizations, e.g. the Mentors.
It has long been an accepted practice to compose IC posts on the official forums in a variety of genres. I have posted IC letters to other characters and essays on a range of topics connected in some way to game lore. Characters involved in ongoing GameMaster storylines often find the official forums a useful tool for posting IC reflections on the latest events. As a medium, the IC post allows you to engage in thoughtful roleplay without the pressure of needing to respond immediately as you would to in-game conversation.
The LNet chat function provided through Lich is OOC. I have occasionally received private IC messages using its ";chat to" function but this practice is not common or widely accepted. The unofficial GemStone forums are also OOC and not likely to be a friendly place for attempts at IC posting. On rare occasions GameMasters will create a room or series of rooms for an OOC event in-game; allowing players into GM areas of the game for an OOC event has become something of a New Year's tradition.
Thinking through character concept, background, and worldview is essential for strong roleplay. I hope this process will help you create characters of such depth and believability that you'll look upon them as an authentic kind of personal expression, a kind of art.
Appendix I: Some Background Questions
- Where was your character born and raised?
- What is your character's relationship to her family or whoever raised her?
- Was your character privileged by either money or rank?
- What is the best memory from your character's childhood?
- What is the worst memory from your character's childhood?
- What type of education did your character receive?
- Has your character had any romantic relationships?
- If playing an older character, what did they do before entering their profession?
- How did your character end up in their profession?
- How did your character become an adventurer?
Appendix II: Some Worldview Questions
- What is your character's relationship to their cultural heritage?
- Does your character have strong views on the best way to structure a society?
- Does your character have any opinions on Elanthian history?
- What does your character think of other races?
- What does your character think about other professions?
- Is your character religious at all?
- What are some of your character's primary goals and why?
- How would you describe your character's sense of morality?
- Does your character find it easy to trust others?
- Does your character have any doubts or fears?
This is the first version of The Art of Roleplaying in GemStone IV.
I intend to update this document in the future and welcome any feedback or suggestions.