In the world of online, text-based roleplay, passive-aggressive RP does occur, especially in games that promote social conflict between player characters (PCs).
So, what is passive-aggressive roleplay exactly, and how can players avoid it?
That’s what I’ll be answering in this post.
Below, I lay out a definition of passive-aggressive RP, as well as:
- how to recognize the signs, including several examples
- ways to avoid engaging in passive-aggressive behavior
- ways to address passive-aggressive RP when it happens to you
Quick disclaimer before we begin: I’m not a certified therapist, and I’m not even all that fond of the term “passive-aggressive.” The views and advice provided here are simply meant to help players navigate the occasional interpersonal tension that can happen in online roleplaying games.
Unless otherwise noted, these views are my personal opinions informed by experience; as such, they’re not meant to be taken as professional advice.
Okay! With that out of the way, let’s get started.
What is passive-aggressive RP?
Passive-aggressive RP occurs when a player conveys negative thoughts or feelings, such as displeasure or disappointment, indirectly through the narrative of their roleplay.
Note that it’s usually the player who is the source of these negative emotions and who is expressing them, not necessarily their character.
Why does passive-aggressive RP occur?
Passive-aggressive RP is more common in games that strictly enforce roleplay, have non-consensual gameplay elements, and which discourage or limit players’ ability to communicate directly with one another out-of-character. It’s also more common in games that promote social tension, classism, or strife as part of their core themes.
In such situations, roleplay can end up becoming the default channel for venting or expressing negative feelings.
However, it’s my opinion that most of the time when players engage in passive-aggressive roleplay, they’re not doing it intentionally and may not even realize they’re doing it.
Often, the player is just having a bad day. They might be taking things personally that they normally wouldn’t, or they may be feeling more sensitive than usual about their character.
In real life, it’s the same way.
You may occasionally exhibit passive-aggressive behavior in order to avoid direct conflict, for example, but that doesn’t make you a passive-aggressive person.
That said, while everyone has a bad day now and then, if a player frequently engages in passive-aggressive roleplay, it can become a problem.
Why should passive-aggressive RP be addressed?
Passive-aggressive RP, if allowed to continue unaddressed, can lead to misunderstandings, confusion, anger, discontent, and a toxic roleplaying environment.
Being the target of passive-aggressive RP can feel frustrating, unnecessary, or unfair. It can drag everyone’s mood down and turn things sour.
In fact, when you’re the target of passive-aggressive RP, you probably sense it instantly, even if you don’t know that it’s passive aggression specifically.
It’s easy to feel frustrated by passive-aggressive RP, in part because it robs you of your ability to react in character. You may even be tempted to respond in kind, which could lead to more passive aggression, more negative feelings, and… you get my point.
The first step in addressing passive-aggressive roleplay is to recognize the signs, including what makes it passive-aggressive in the first place.
Recognizing the signs of passive-aggressive RP
Here are some signs that you may be witnessing passive-aggressive RP:
- The player uses narrative writing or exposition to complain, insult, or guilt-trip
- At the same time, the character may seem unaffected, neutral, or reserved
- The player ascribes negative actions or intent to other players’ characters
- Use of narrative writing to call out another player’s RP or label another character’s behavior
This list doesn’t cover everything, but it’s enough to be able to start recognizing passive-aggressive behavior and to understand why it’s unfun.
To demonstrate, let’s look at some examples. Afterward, I’ll suggest some ways to address passive-aggressive behavior.
Examples of passive-aggressive RP
For the purpose of these examples, “Avery” is played by the person who is writing the emotes. “Noah” and “Taylor” are played by other players also present for the scene.
Example 1: “Apparently” and “Whatever”
Apparently, Avery wasn’t popular enough to be invited to Noah’s party like everyone else. Whatever. Avery looks over at Noah, shrugs their shoulders, and leaves the room, since they aren’t welcome anyway.
Avery seems disappointed by the fact that they weren’t invited to Noah’s party. Note how Avery the character seems relatively unaffected: they simply shrug and leave.
In passive-aggressive RP, the character will often act neutral, unaffected, or reserved.
The negative thoughts and feelings are instead expressed with narrative or exposition (using terms like “whatever”), not through in-character dialogue, facial expressions, or body language.
Example 2: Name-calling and power-posing
Avery looks over at Noah, who has been acting like a child this whole time just to get what they want.
In this example, Avery’s player is using narrative to call Noah’s behavior childish. There’s no way Noah can react to this call-out in character, as Avery the character hasn’t done or said anything that Noah can really respond to.
Because Avery’s player is ascribing actions and intent to another character (Noah), this emote could also be considered a mild example of power-posing. It’s not for Avery’s player to decide how Noah is behaving or why.
Example 3: Acting out while acting bored
Avery gazes through the window, a bored expression on their face. Seriously, Noah and Taylor should get a room already. The lovey-dovey back and forth is enough to make anyone here nauseated.
Avery seems annoyed by (and possibly jealous of) Noah and Taylor’s romantic behavior. Instead of expressing this annoyance in character, the player is using narrative writing to disparage the pair.
Again, this leaves Noah and Taylor in an awkward spot. Avery the character has done nothing but act bored and disinterested, yet Avery the player seems to be acting out.
Example 4: Complaining but “It’s fine”
Avery walks over to the counter to drop off the many supplies that were requested. Once again, Taylor failed to acknowledge and appreciate Avery’s efforts. It’s fine, since Avery didn’t do it for Taylor anyway.
Avery’s player seems to be complaining that their character is underappreciated and using narrative to be dismissive of Taylor. Although the player writes, “It’s fine,” it’s obviously not fine.
As a result, the emote comes across as bitter and a bit petty. It also leaves Taylor’s player with no easy way to address the negativity in character because all Avery the character did was place supplies on the counter.
Example 5: “It must be so great…”
Avery tosses a casual glance at Noah from across the room. It must be so great to be the center of attention all the time. Plucking an hors d’oeuvre from the plate, Avery eats it without comment.
In this example, Avery seems to be envious of the attention Noah is getting. By using narrative to make a snide/petty remark, it leaves the other players present with no way to respond in character.
Actually, depending on the game and RP culture, one could take the snide remark as Avery the character’s internal thought at the time. This brings up an important point about roleplaying culture, norms, and expectations across different games.
Roleplaying culture and writing styles
In these games, it’s generally understood that players are collaboratively writing a story together. Thus, it may be seen as a normal and accepted part of roleplay to include the character’s thoughts and reasoning in one’s emotes, just as they might when writing a protagonist in a piece of fiction.
However, in real-time RP games such as roleplaying MUDs, there may be expectations around – or even separate commands for – conveying internal information so as to make it clear that the thought/feeling belongs to the character and not the player.
In these games, players will be looking for information they can respond to in character, such as actions, body language, and dialogue. At the same time, they may not want to read about another character’s thoughts or other intangible background information, as they won’t be able to respond to these details in character.
The bottom line?
Roleplaying norms can differ from game to game, so it’s important to keep them in mind when presented with an emote that seems like passive aggression.
How to avoid coming across as passive-aggressive during RP
Now that we know some signs, here are some ways to keep your roleplaying from coming across as passive-aggressive:
- If you’re used to playing roleplaying games where narrative and exposition are more common, make sure you understand the RP culture and norms of the game you’re currently playing. This can help you avoid simple misunderstandings due to differences in writing style.
- Avoid using the word “Apparently” when writing about social situations or characters other than your own. This is one of those red flag words that can come across as a player’s indirect expression of irritation or disapproval. (Refer back to Example 1 in the previous section.)
- When writing out an emote, try to focus on the visible or tangible things your character is doing or saying. What’s their body language like, for example? This will give your roleplaying partners more material to respond to in character, which can lead to more interesting roleplay for everyone involved.
- Avoid using words or phrases such as, “Whatever” or “It’s fine” in response to other characters’ behavior. If you do use these words, make sure they’re wrapped in quotation marks and presented as in-character dialogue that other characters can respond to.
- If you, the player, feel disappointed or frustrated about something that happened in character, take a step back and try to suss out exactly why you’re upset. Roleplaying games are supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, it’s important to identify why so you can address the issue.
Try to keep in mind that acting out through narrative writing won’t make things better – it’ll only confuse, hurt, or frustrate your fellow players and thus make things worse.
Expressing your feelings directly
Above, I mentioned some things that can help you avoid expressing yourself indirectly through emotes.
But if you know what’s bothering you, how do you go about expressing yourself directly to your fellow players?
That’s a tougher problem to solve, especially for roleplay-enforced games that don’t provide good outlets for out-of-character (OOC) communication between players.
Sometimes even if these games do have tools for OOC communication, there may be rules or social stigma against using those tools to address in-character actions or events (such as in RPI MUDs).
There’s no perfect approach that will work for every game or situation, but here are some things you could try:
- If you’re comfortable doing so, use the OOC tools at your disposal (not emotes) to communicate your feelings directly with your fellow player(s). Clearing the air can help you overcome misunderstandings and lets others know where you stand, but it’s best done with a calm mind.
- State clearly how you feel but avoid saying things that will make your fellow players feel like they have to defend their roleplay or explain their in-character choices. Avoid putting people on the spot, naming names, or attributing blame.
- If you already did something passive-aggressive and are aware of that fact, consider offering an apology to clear the air. It could be as simple as, “Hey, sorry about the other day. I was having a rough time and let it affect my roleplay.”
In my experience, players tend to be understanding and forgiving when treated like human beings and with respect. However, they tend to be less kind if they feel they’re being treated like someone’s punching bag.
Lastly, if you’re uncomfortable expressing your feelings directly and find that you’re frustrated by RP more often than not, you may well be in an environment that’s not a great fit for you.
For example, nonconsensual games that are driven by antagonism, social strife, and power dynamics can become competitive and quite toxic for many players.
Dealing with passive-aggressive RP
Now let’s say you’re on the receiving end of another player’s passive-aggressive roleplay.
What do you do?
Again, there’s no perfect solution, but here are some thoughts on how you might proceed:
- First, make sure it’s not a simple difference in writing and roleplaying styles. If the player seems to be using a narrative style with a lot of exposition, it might be a good first step to refer them to your game’s helpfiles on roleplaying and writing norms. Also, make sure the player knows if your game has a separate command specifically for writing out in-character thoughts.
- If it’s not a style issue but is a once-in-a-blue-moon thing and rare for that player, try not to take the passive aggression personally. It could very well be that they’re just having a bad day or dealing with some rough stuff in real life.
- If you’re up for it, you might use the OOC tools at your disposal to ask them how they’re doing or if something’s bothering them. A friendly check-in may be enough to help them realize that they’re letting their negative feelings impact their roleplay.
- If the behavior continues, use the OOC tools at your disposal to let the other player know that you feel like their emotes are directed at you, the player, and are putting you in a tough spot.
- If you don’t feel comfortable confronting the player, or if direct communication didn’t work, you might send a log to staff and ask for their help in dealing with the situation. In my experience, staff typically don’t want to get involved in player disputes, but continued passive-aggressive RP can come across as harassment, which generally is against the rules.
Whatever you do, try to avoid calling the player a passive-aggressive person. If anything, the behavior is passive-aggressive, but it’s better to focus on the actual behavior itself and why it’s a problem, rather than get derailed by labels.
Often, it all comes down to treating the person on the other end of the screen like a human being.
If you treat them calmly and with respect, it may be possible to clear the air and move on without too many hard feelings.
For more tips on recognizing the signs of passive aggression and dealing with it effectively, check out the book “Overcoming Passive-Aggression,” available on Amazon.
Three things I like about this particular resource:
- It’s based on real research and written by professionals.
- It contains practical, real-world advice.
- It focuses on passive aggression as a form of hidden anger.
Addressing passive-aggressive RP as a game admin
If you’re a staffer, you may be looking for ideas on how to handle complaints about passive-aggressive roleplay in your own game.
I reached out to Ash from TFZ for her perspective, and here’s how she described her approach:
Usually, the first thing I try to do is see it for myself – ask ’em if I can see examples. People are right easily 9 times out of 10 about it happening, but that remaining 1 is when it’s more of a writing style/communication issue than somebody legitimately trying to be passive aggressive.
When it’s a matter of writing style, it’s super simple to just explain we don’t do that for consistency’s sake and stylistic preference, and it turns out pretty well.
For the other 9, my go-to is to tell them I’ll talk to the person and explain why that style of RP tends to be hard to respond to, as it shifts the content out of the IC realm where it can be bounced off of into the OOC realm where it can’t be.
The [player showing passive aggressive behavior] likely already knows that, but it makes it clear the behavior is noticed, found objectionable, and will need to end, without cornering them.
– Ash, Owner, The Free Zone MU*
I like how she starts by asking for examples. This allows her to do two things:
- quickly diagnose the issue, and
- focus on the behavior rather than on the player.
Again, it’s better to avoid using labels, as they can be a distraction that undermines your efforts and derails the conversation.
Instead, focus on the behavior itself and how it makes roleplaying difficult for other players.
If this is something that comes up more than once, it may even make sense to create a helpfile for it with some examples. This will allow you to get players up to speed more quickly and without having to repeat yourself.
That’s it for this week! My thanks to Ash for providing her perspective as a staffer on a roleplaying MUD.
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