Okay, that's the LAST of the theory, I promise. Everyone cheer, I am finally going to discuss things you should actually do while playing to observe proper etiquette. The good news: with all that boring theory out of the way, I'll be able to keep these explanations much shorter.
Don't narrate the success of actions directed against others, or belligerently demand a specific outcome, or otherwise "call hits." Duh. This falls squarely under "fair play." You don't like it when others narrate what happens to your character, so don't do the same to them. You can suggest certain outcomes, especially with weird actions, but keep in mind that no matter how forcefully you try to argue, it isn't up to you.
Don't narrate the failure of actions directed against you or spitefully understate the outcome to stonewall adversity or be a dick. Again, this falls under "fair play." Just as no one likes having their character narrated for them, they don't like "cheaters" who can never seem to be hit, are never injured and so forth. This mostly comes down to a personal judgement call in deciding whether to yield to your foe or not. Unfortunately, since no one can force you to yield, this can become an extremely contentious area of play and the lack of an easy, definitive and consistent way to determine who "wins" a comptetive situation is one of the biggest flaws in freestyle RP (stick around long enough and you are sure to be branded a godmodder at least once unless you consistently decide to lose). Using dice in a system like FORCE can remove much of the contentiousness, but many people have conflated freeform and freestyle RPing and refuse to accept you can have one without the other. As a result, you will inevitably encounter situations where you have to navigate the freestyle minefield. Again, this comes down mainly to personal judgement and keen sensitivity to issues of fair play in the end. It's fair to say this is the most most difficult aspect of online RP to master; be aware of the pitfalls (namely the potential for OOC arguments, RP stagnates if no one is willing to "lose", etc) and remember the ultimate goal is to have fun and create interesting storylines.
Just because your characters are competing, it doesn't mean that you as players should be competing. The over all tone and flow of an RP scene should be cooperative, even if the characters are being fiercely competitive. If you find yourself wanting to bicker, or "rules lawyer" over the minutia of a scene or otherwise try to "win" by being a smartass, step back and take a deep breath. You need to able to work with the people you're playing with to come to an agreeable (fun!) outcome. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt and act in good faith when resolving conflicts. Remember that most disagreements come from different interpretations of a scene or disagreements over the relative power levels of characters, not because the other person is an asshat godmodder scum who's just trying to ruin your day. Above all, don't push it. RP is simply not worth a major argument; if someone is being a prick, they'll be ostracized soon enough for their conduct. Just avoid playing with them if you feel cheated or let setting moderators take care of them.
Don't metagame or otherwise use cheap tricks to get ahead and "win." This is another biggie under fair play. One of the unspoken rules of RP is if your character can't plausibily have some bit of knowledge it can't be used IC. For instance, if you were lurking and witnessed some crucial bit of plotting, don't assume your character would possess that knowledge and use it to gain some advantage (such as lying in wait to ambush the plotters). Don't snidely slip in your character to try and get around this either. If you are participating in a particular scene this should be made clear up front and with the consent of the other players. To put it another way, if you're willing to rip apart the integrity of the RP world and to utterly defy plausibility and continuity for personal gain, you have no business RPing in an environment like Shards. The goal is not to "win" and certainly not to "win at any cost." Not only will you irritate all the other players by metagaming, you will effectively trash any good stories by shredding suspension of disbelief. Don't be a jackass and destroy other people's hard work.
Focus on creating interesting characters, not impressive stats sheets. As I have said many times, although RP can have gaming aspects to it, hardcore RP (and especially freeform RP) is far more than a game. While impressively maxed out stats sheets may impress your gamer buddies, they won't carry you very far in RP. Your primary goal is still to interact with other people. In order to do so, your characters need to be interesting and well thought out. This means they need a reasonable amount of background information, a developed personality and of course a good physical description. When developing all these aspects of your character, try not to lean on crutches like character class and other cliches. We aren't Barbarian/Ranger/Clerics in real life, so your characters shouldn't be either. While we have occupations, who we are as people isn't limited to our job. It can help to think in terms of the 5 Ws - Who, What, Where, When, Why - when drafting your character and background. Motivations play a very important role in guiding your RP, so you should pay attention to them in the character design phase. Finally, remember that you don't need to cram every last detail into your character's profile. Most of the background you create should be used as context to inform your RP, not explicated in a bio. It wont be easy, but hard work put into making a character in depth will make it easier to slide IC when you start playing.
Remember, the goal is to RP. When designing characters and in all other aspects of RP, some concessions to practical necessity must be made. While cold loners who always hang out in the shadows may seem like a good idea, years of experience have taught me they aren't. Right from the beginning, your characters need to have personalities (and other characteristics) that will facilitate them getting involved in the RP without requiring you to immediately break character. Other examples of concession to reality include "improbable coincidences" like characters always being in close proximity in a large city or minor physics violations like characters being able to reach geographically disparate locations in less than real time. Inflexible adherance to absolute realism at the expense of facilitating involvement is a fast way to kill an otherwise good RP, so don't do it.
Don't min/max or otherwise use powergaming tricks. Power, generally speaking, is undesirable in good RP. More specifically, power or other forms of mechanical/system based advantage should not be considered a primary goal in good RP. A lot of people have come up with rationalizations to justify excessive power in their characters. Examples include creating token disadvantages to somehow counterbalance advantages, claiming a character's longevity somehow entitles them to more power and so forth. Don't fall into this trap.
Power as an end goal is never a good idea in RP. Rather than trying to be the most powerful, you should aim for a character that is roughly average power for the setting. There is no one size fits all answer - a Dragon Ball setting chock full o' Saiyans is going to have different power expectations than an ultra-realistic medieval setting, for instance. Use some common sense - if your character can easily outmatch another character in the setting without any particular amount of cleverness, it is probably too powerful.
Once you've established the initial power level for your character, resist the urge to "level up." A lot of people claim "old" characters are entitled to more power; this is transparent cronyism at its worst. Power is not a function of the character, it is a function of the setting. Pushing the limits of acceptable power in a setting will distort the setting and pave the way to power level creep. To reiterate, you shouldn't be focusing on power. Create an interesting character first, then worry about its power insofar as making sure it fits in the setting. By restraining yourself you will force yourself to use creativity and cooperation in your RP, and will ultimately have a more enjoyable experience and be more fun to play with. Finally, even if you're using a system such as White Wolf, resist the urge to manipulate the mechanics - try to make the most what you're given instead of trying to roll up a "perfect" character.
Play for the right reasons. People RP for many reasons. Some of them are good and help the community. Others are, erm, dodgy. RP is not a way to work out your neurosis. RP is not a way to cruise around for csex. RP is not a way to become fantastically popular. If you are expecting any of these things out of your RP, please understand that your play is going to suffer greatly for it. Serious RPers are in it because RPing itself is fun. Playing characters is fun. Being part of an ongoing, improvised story is fun. This is more of a meta-RP skill, but it's just plain good etiquette as well. Most people will expect you to be playing to contribute to the play itself, not because you're expecting anything in particular out of it. If you could care less about story, don't give a rat's ass about continuity or don't care if your play excludes others because you're constantly popping off to a private room for a piece of cyber ass, do us all a favor and go elsewhere.
Don't try to play too many characters simultaneously. Shards provides you with 8 character slots. This should be more than enough for every decent player. At any one time, you really shouldn't have more than about 2 or 3 major characters going, and maybe a few smaller "bit" characters to fill in the times when you either don't feel like playing seriously, or cant easily get your main character in play without disrupting continuity. I've found that generally, unless you have absolutely no life, live in your parents basement and can spend 8 hours a day RPing, you just aren't going to have the time or energy for more. At least, not if you want your play to have any depth.
Don't spend all your time in Shards RPing. Yes, we're a community of RPers and we love what we do. But I tend to think balance is important. And in order to keep things in perspective and maintain a sense of community, you need to know the people you're playing with. You should spend at least a little time hanging out in the Void or other OOC areas, just getting to know the people you play with.
Politics and RP don't mix. This should go without saying, given the IC-OOC separation doctrine, but OOC events should have no bearing on the RP. Don't play politics with your RP. Don't use advancement in an RP, or participation in an RP or any other such things as a bargaining chip to curry favors with people. Conversely, don't demand people play a certain way or they'll never be your friend again or otherwise try to manipulate OOC relationships to get your way in an RP. Really, we should all be in this trying to have fun. Political BS is not fun (well, maybe it is if you're an MBA, but it isn't for me) - RP is, to a certain extent an escape from this kind of petty high school crap. The RP world really should be free of this kind of OOC taint. Any politics that occur in the RP should be strictly IC.
OOC secrets are good. You shouldn't feel the need to discuss all aspects of an RP, nor should you feel entitled to know all aspects of a play. If you're playing healthily, you'll cooperate and roll with any unexpected twists someone pulls on you. Spending time discussing the play when you could be RPing is a huge waste of time, and ultimately defeats the play and contributes to apathy. Don't discuss. Play. That said, you shouldn't be a dick about your secrets. Don't pull some plot defeating deus ex machina out of your ass - any secrets should be plausible and things that will create fun for all players.
Be original. This doesn't really fall under any of the general principles, but it's just plain good etiquette. It's more work, but you should play your own characters in original settings. Don't just rip something off from a book or movie and try to make it your own. At best this is cheap and disrespectful of the hard work other people are doing to create a fun and detailed world that feels "alive." At the worst, this can be seen as copyright infringement and illegal. While I'm on the topic, don't plagiarize. This goes beyond rude and genuinely is illegal, not to mention unethical. Don't do it. If you have to borrow a setting, at least create an original derivation from it instead of copying it wholesale (e.g. while a Star Wars spinoff play is still lame, it's less lame than trying to play Darth Vadar).
Don't be a dick to other players. There is no excuse, really. No matter how much you think you deserve to get your way, or how crappy you think other players are, or whatever, there is no excuse for being a dick. As I've tried to stress many times, the spirit of RP should ultimately be cooperation. We're working together to try to make interesting and fun stuff happen. If you disrespect, abuse or otherwise step all over other people, you will be contributing directly to the destruction of the community. While this may be fun for you, it has no place in a community like Shards and is guaranteed to get you kicked out of many settings.
Do be patient. Good roleplay is as much a matter of luck as it is hard work. Don't expect to be teh w0rlds gr34t3st roleplayer immediately. You will have many flops in your RP career, many false starts and many frustrating attempts where you seem to be ignored. Don't give up and don't stomp off in a huff. Just keep trying. Eventually through a combination of luck and a lot of work you will find something that just "clicks" and will find yourself having a blast and feeling amazingly privileged to be part of something excellent. Like any other human activity, RP has its ups and downs. You can have a lot of fun if you stick with it, but great RP is not something that will be handed to you on a silver platter.
Don't be afraid to walk away and don't overdo it. Don't feel compelled to "soldier on" for the benefit of others if you aren't having fun. The ultimate goal of RP is enjoyment. If you find yourself getting stressed, feeling angry/depressed or otherwise find RP is starting to dominate your life in negative ways, it is better to step back for a few days than to burn out. Other players will understand; we all have lives outside of Shards and no one player is so indispensible that things will fall apart in their absence. So relax, enjoy yourself, and remember that if things get too intense there's no harm in dropping out for a while. Additionally, if you just don't enjoy a particular RP or storyline at all, don't feel hesistant to drop out of it permanently. Finding plausible ways to write your character out is not difficult, and it's better to try and find something you do enjoy than to get bitter and apathetic about RP.
Consider posting your hours of availability somewhere convenient, along with the kinds of play you enjoy. This falls more under general advice than any must follow etiquette. Finding times when we can all get together and play is one of the more challenging aspects of online RP. We're spread across multiple time zones and different continents, and coordinating with other people can be a nightmare at times. You can improve your odds of finding players who share your interests if you let them know when you'll be available. Also, avoid lurking in your master account whenever possible and don't hide in private, invisible or invitation only rooms unless you have a pre-arranged RP date. Making yourself accessible for RP is just an important common courtesy if you're going to be spending time in Shards and hence consuming system resources. Finally, if no one is in your preferred area of play, don't hesistate to take a proactive approach in seeking others to play with. It's far better to take a risk on someone you don't know than to constantly wait around for your friends. You never know - that newbie may end up being an all star RPer!
Article text ©2004 Chris Wyman. Redistribution is permitted provided this notice is retained. All other rights are reserved.