RP Descriptions 101

By | June 2, 2009

Let’s start out with a disclaimer: there aren’t any rules set in stone for using your RP description addons. Whether you’re a fan of Flag RSP2, Immersion RP, or My Roleplay, you are free to type whatever you’d like into the text box provided to describe your characters.

So, take what I say much in the way the pirates describe their code: they’re more… guidelines.

The description add-ons are helpful supplements to the character models. Sure, you can choose your characters’ faces and skin/hair colors, but every human female has the same body shape. The character’s eye color depends on (I believe) the shade you choose for his/her hair. Unless you’re playing a Night Elf, there are no tattoos available.

Beyond the basic model and your outfits, the RP mods help you make the character a little more real, and can be very useful for conversation starters.

Of course, even if you have a very clear idea of what your character looks like down to the stitching on her boots, staring at that big, blank box can be intimidating. How do you figure out what to put in there? How much information is too much? Let’s see what we can hash out.

The first thing to keep in mind is that these mods are for physical descriptions, NOT backstory. There are only two occasions where I’ll flat-out state something as a rule, not a guideline. This is the first.

Your character was a Sentinel once upon a time? Great! Tell me she walks like a soldier, or that the bow she carries is one carried by the other kaldorei women under Shandris Feathermoon’s command. What I DON’T want to read about is why she signed up to be one, or how she spent the years during The Long Vigil. It might be a great story, but it’s one that ought to come out during RP.

When I see backstory in a description, I filter it out. My characters can’t read minds. Therefore, they won’t act on that information.

Can there be exceptions to this rule? Sort of. A few words of recent backstory that augment a physical description are sometimes acceptable. Has something changed about the character that people who know him might notice? Then it’s okay to allude to it. “Since his run-in with the Defias, John has walked with a limp.” Though, I’d argue that something like, “John has recently acquired a limp,” is still the better option, leaving room for acquaintances to ask what happened to him.

So, what do you put into that description box? Pretend you’re trying to describe the character to someone who’s never met him or her. What would you say?

Start with the basics.
How tall is he? Average height? Exceptionally short? What color is his hair? How does he style it? Does she wear glasses?

If you were telling someone who to look for in a crowded room, what would distinguish that person from everyone else?
Is she always wearing a certain kind of hat? Is he a troll with a broken tusk? Does she have a streak of black running through otherwise white hair?

What would someone standing very close to the character notice?
This is where the smaller, not immediately noticeable details come into play. Think jewelry, small scars, a particular scent. If the character’s a baker, maybe there’s a dusting of flour on his clothes. If she’s a gardener, there might be dirt under her nails. Describe the character’s voice — does she have a raucous laugh? Is he very soft-spoken?

Keep the five senses in mind.
Touch, hearing, smell, sight, and… Well, okay, maybe four. Taste isn’t likely to come into play very often, unless Skyborne’s decided to give you bathies.

Brevity is the soul of wit.
There might be a LOT of things that make your character distinguishable, but if your description makes other players scroll and scroll and scroll, you’re going to lose their attention quickfast. Pick out a few things, and be succinct. What’s most important? Don’t overwhelm people with information.

Different looks for different situations? No problem.
Some characters’ looks will change when they’re wearing armor, or acting in an official capacity: “When she’s on the battlefield, Threnn wears armor that is old but well-cared for.” It’s fine to dedicate some description space to that, just remember to keep it brief!

Did you do something to your hair?
Just like we don’t look the same day in and day out IRL, our characters will sometimes change the way they look. These changes can be temporary or permanent, but they’re definitely noteworthy. If it’s something you want to call attention to, try starting off a paragraph with “Currently…” Some people break it out from the rest of their description with asteriks or dashes. (“Currently, Annalea looks like she hasn’t been sleeping well. There are dark circles under her eyes, and she tends to startle easily.”)

Sometimes, less is more.
I’ve seen some great descriptions that are only a sentence or two long. I can’t remember who it was, but someone on Feathermoon’s RSP simply stated “This man looks like he’s up to no good.” You didn’t need to know anything else about him.

DON’T dictate other peoples’ reactions to your character.
This is my second rule-not-guideline. I see it all the time in RSPs — usually with ones proclaiming their mage has curves in all the right places, or suggesting that this Death Knight is Arthas’ long-lost twin — but it’s obnoxious in any context. All too often, it’s something like, “Sapphyre’s sparkling blue orbs make you catch your breath at their beauty.” Or “You feel a sudden burst of fear when Demonknight turns his gaze upon you, and you quicky look away, unable to meet that stare.”

You know what? No. I don’t care how breathtakingly beautiful you’ve declared your character to be. It doesn’t mean my character is going to fall all over him or herself with lust just because Sapphyre’s hips are swaying by. Likewise, your half-demon isn’t going to make my paladin cringe away because he’s radiating malevolence. Want my character to fear yours? Build up a reputation IC with the terrible things you’ve done. (This doesn’t, by the way, mean threatening Elly Langston and loosing your demons on Reese. That just gets your ass thrown out of the Pig.)

One’s eyes can’t plumb the depths of other players’ souls and know their deepest fears without their permission. Nor do passersby need to perk up at the aura of happiness Sparrkles exudes just because her description says so, or feel their fears assuaged by the comforting presence of the elf standing beside them at the mailbox. It’s a form of godmoding, and it’s NOT OKAY.

But what if you have a character who does exhibit one of these traits?  Give your fellow players the option of reacting. Try rewording it with “might” or “if” — “People who are sensitive to magic might notice the sharp smell of the arcane surrounding Jaina.”  “If someone is sensitive to demonic taint, they might feel a sudden flare of it when Joe passes by.”  But anything beyond that — mind-reading, mood altering, etc — needs to be worked out OOCly with the people you’re RPing with first.  If they agree to grant your character any insights, excellent!  But if they don’t, it’s something you need to respect as well.

All right, cats and kittens, that’s what I’ve got for RP description guidelines. What else would you add to that list? Any favorite RSPs to share?


Sean on June 2, 2009 at 5:19 pm.

I just want to second your comment, “Brevity is… wit”. The line I always quote is, “Every second someone spends reading your description is a second they’re not role-playing with you.”

Say what you need to say and get out. Descriptions aren’t a place to tell a story, even if you obey every other guideline.

Illi on June 2, 2009 at 6:55 pm.

Always loved this Flag I saw while PvPing Hordeside way back in the day…