Interview with Sarah Kahn – Online freeform play

In what I am hoping will be something of a regular feature, I’ve managed to trick someone into letting me interview them. This time it’s Sarah Kahn (not Sarah Elkins as I may have claimed earlier).

I’ll be letting her tell you about herself, but I did want to provide a bit of an introduction. One of the things I’ve really been thinking about in terms of the culture in which I discuss roleplaying theory is the fact that I just don’t know enough about other related fields. For all I know, not many of us doing theory do either. So I’m going to be trying to interview people who are a bit more familiar with some of these related fields.

Sarah’s here to talk about online freeform gaming, with a (I think) focus on asynchronous play (forum and journal play).

Two final administrative things: First, I’m asking questions, and Sarah’s answering them. For simplicity’s sake, please don’t post a comment unless you’re me or Sarah. (That said, if you’ve got a question you want answered, feel free to email it to me, and I may very well ask it. My email’s over on the right.) Second, I want to interview more people in other fields, but I don’t really know who to ask. If you’ve got suggestions, do tell me (again, email on the right).

So, without further ado…

1. Tell me a bit about yourself, in general. Who are you, what do you do, that sort of thing.

In case you missed it, there’s a thread where you can harrass Sarah yourself over here.

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41 Responses to “Interview with Sarah Kahn – Online freeform play”

  1. Sarah says:

    My name’s actually Sarah Kahn. “Elkins” is the pseudonym under which I interact with fandom. Really, I’ll happily answer to either name (as well as to “hey, you!”), but I think that most people in role-playing circles are far more familiar with me under my real name.

    I’m 39 years old, married, with cats and housemates, no kids. I live in a communal household, sometimes known as “The Ennead,” in Portland, Oregon.

    I’m actually quite new to online freeform play. It interests me very much on the theoretical level, and I’ve done quite a bit of spectating, but I’m quite inexperienced when it comes to actual play. I hope that you can find someone with a lot more experience in the style to do this eventually: it’s a large and exciting phenomenon, and I’m hardly its ideal poster child!

  2. Thomas Robertson says:

    I promise I’m not incompetent! In order to distract you from further thoughts that I might be, here’s another question!

    2. Tell me a bit about your gaming. What have you played before, what have you played recently?

  3. Sarah says:

    Like many people my age, my first exposure to RPG was D&D. More specifically, it was basic D&D – the set with blue book and that peculiarly uninspired “In Search of the Unknown” module. That was in the late ’70s; I was twelve years old. I still have the dice that came with the set somewhere, I think. They were made of very soft cheap plastic, and their corners eroded quickly with use; eventually, everyone’s 20-sider inevitably became spherical. I suspect that I’m not alone among my generation of gamers to have a set of uselessly round polyhedrals stained with faded sharpie-ink stashed away in a junk drawer somewhere.

    I played a number of different commercial games in high school and college, including some that definitely fell under the “here’s some random thing I picked up at the game store – wanna try it?” rubric. (Anyone else remember Fringeworthy, for example? How about The Fantasy Trip?) When it came right down to it, though, the people I played with were all really freeformers at heart: we always seemed to wind up ignoring the formalized mechanics of whatever commercial system we were ostensibly using. We found that our games worked much better that way.

    I soon reached the conclusion that it was best not to introduce those formalized mechanics to the game in the first place, and by the time the ’90s rolled around, I had become rather obnoxious about trying to prostletyze d-b as the One! True! Way! Fortunately, I soon outgrew that silly phase, thanks in large part to the good smart folk of There’s really nothing quite so counter-productive to the goal of having useful conversations about role-playing technique and theory as One True Way zealotry. Sadly, there does seem to be an awful lot of it still floating around.

    For many years my primary gaming focus has been my household’s long-running ArM-derived fantasy game, which we’ve been playing on and off again for the past fifteen years. Over time, it has become more and more freeform. Although in the past we played a few GM-less sessions and always had a wide distribution of authority, it’s only fairly recently that we’ve given up altogether on the GM role.

    My household’s evolving play style seems to be rather idiosyncratic, and I’m unsure precisely how to describe it. My friend and ex-housemate Emily, who used to play with us when we all lived in Massachusetts together, has written a description of one of our game sessions, along with an overall analysis of our style of play, on her blog here.

    Also fairly recently I played in a several-years-long game about angelic powers and their relationship to urban planning (no, really!) and social change in a fictional near-future city. There was a formalized mechanical system in use for that game – a traditional task-resolution homebrew – but it was for the most part abandoned after chargen: the game was pretty much run in what I think of as a traditionalist freeform style (world authority centered in the hands of a GM; dice very rarely used, and when in use, often applied in an ad hoc manner rather than in conjunction with a formal mechanical resolution system; one-character-to-each-player; etc.).

    For the past couple of years, however, I’ve developed some personal problems with face-to-face play. I’ve therefore only been participating in my household’s current game through the setting and world-building interactions; I’ve not been involved with the role-playing part.

    In large part because of the problems I’ve encountered with face-to-face role-playing, I’ve over the past year or two developed a strong interest in prose-based on-line role-play. Although I’ve spent a lot of time spectating and talking to people about the style (as well as acting as confidante to a number of stressed-out mods), I’m still very much a neophyte when it comes to actually playing these games. I’ve taken part in one journal-based play-by-post game, am currently playing in another, and have only just the other week joined a brand new PBEM-with-journal-archiving game, which is still in its start-up phase. So I’m really a rank newbie at this style of play, and am still myself very much trying to get my mind around the particular theoretical issues most relevant to it – by no means all of which are quite the same as the issues which can seem most pressing in table-top.

  4. Thomas Robertson says:

    Now that we’ve got some idea of where you’re coming from generally…

    3. What game, group, or session of play taught you the most about roleplaying? If you learned different important lessons from different games/groups/sessions, feel free to expand and talk about each of them.

  5. Sarah says:

    Two groups of people come to mind.

    One is the group of people I gamed with at Oberlin College, in the mid-’80s. It was there and with those people that I first played games in which the group agreed to do without commercial formal resolution mechanics altogether – rather than ostensibly using them, only to effectively ignore them. It was also my first exposure to a far more collaborative approach to world-building, plot-structuring, and other aspects of play which in more traditional styles are usually considered the “GM’s responsibility.” Both of those things had a profound effect on the way that I conceptualized the fundamental dynamics of play itself.

    The other would have to be the participants in the rgfa Usenet group in the mid-’90s. They weren’t a gaming group; they were people I talked theory with. It wouldn’t feel right not to cite them here, though, because I think that I learned more just from talking with them than I have in any game, campaign, or session of play. They opened my eyes to the full range of play styles and preferences out there, to the pure and stunning diversity of approaches to RPG which intelligent, reasonable, sane, smart people can favor. They cured me of One True Wayism, and of knee-jerk derision of play styles not to my personal tastes. They taught me to listen–I mean really to listen–to people’s explanations of their gaming preferences, rather than just projecting my own assumptions onto others. And I think (hope?) that they helped me to become at least a little bit better at explaining my own preferences in ways that people with very different tastes and experiences might still be able to understand. Our discussions helped me to consolidate my previously disorganized thoughts about role-play into a theoretical framework. They gave me a language, a language with which to talk about role-playing, a language in which to think about role-playing. And that changed everything.

    Yeah, okay, I’m gushing, I know, but I just can’t overstate how important those conversations were to me, or what a strong influence they had on the entire way I look at RPGs. It was a transformative experience. Totally rocked my world.

  6. Thomas Robertson says:

    People are important, and they teach you so much!

    4. What is your most powerful positive roleplaying memory, what was so good about it, and what did you learn from it? And the follow-up: what is your most powerful negative roleplaying memory, what was so bad about it, and what did you learn from it?

  7. Sarah says:

    People are important! And they never stop teaching you things. Even the most annoying and unpleasant jerks can sometimes teach you quite a bit, which I guess is something to appreciate them for.

    I guess.

    4. What is your most powerful positive roleplaying memory, what was so good about it, and what did you learn from it? And the follow-up: what is your most powerful negative roleplaying memory, what was so bad about it, and what did you learn from it?

    The first half of this one was a surprisingly tricky question. It’s so easy to come up with a short-list of powerful positive roleplaying memories–the top five, say–and yet so hard to choose just one from among them, probably because each one was powerful for a slightly different reason, and therefore each one taught me a slightly different thing.

    So I guess I’ll just close my eyes and pick one.

    Okay. This was a scene from a GM’d freeform table-top game with some LARP-like elements (much of the play took place in real time, and we did lots of walking around and posing in-character, although there was no strict correlation between our kinetic positioning and the fictional reality, as there would have been in an actual LARP). The setting was a reasonably detailed fantasy world of the GM’s creation. The players had been appraised of some of the details of the setting before the game had begun through the distribution of “write-ups” containing the usual sort of fantasy setting information: major tenets of the religion, a few origin myths, what sorts of magic exist and how they work, nationalities, a quick precis of the political situation…. All that sort of thing.

    I was playing Corey, a semi-autistic child with godlike powers. There were many different political and religious factions, all of which had an interest in gaining control of him as a pawn, and many of which therefore had agents actively competing to manipulate him for their own ends. While Corey himself hadn’t quite consciously figured this out yet (he was not mentally well-equipped to distinguish between manipulative and honest social interactions), on some subconscious level, he was definitely beginning to feel, well…distinctly unsettled by all of these adults who were constantly trying to earn his affections, influence his opinions, or otherwise maneuver him.

    One of these adults was a PC, Silethius, a priest of this fantasy world’s major religion. At one point in the game Silethius, for reasons that I cannot now even really remember, but probably out of a generalized pedagogic instinct (it is, after all, the job of priests to instruct children in the scriptures of the faith), started to tell Corey one of the most basic origin myths of this world, a story which was well-known to all members of the in-game culture, and which had also been part of the pre-game “world write-up” material the GM had distributed for the game. In other words, this was a story that everyone involved in this scene already knew, both as players and as characters.

    But something happened in Silethius’ particular telling of this story to Corey. Corey understood the story as a parable not of the principles which it seemed intended to teach, but instead of his own particular situation. By engaging with the myth, he discovered the true ramifications of his own position. Furthermore, in the process of the usual verbal give-and-take associated with oral story-telling–and especially with stories told to children by adults (“Why did he do that?” etc.)–it soon emerged that Silethius was reading the myth in much the same light.

    All well and good. But what made this so particularly striking was that the particular interpretation of the myth that these two characters were developing-through-play was in fact actively subversive to the myth’s original intended meaning within the game world. The GM had originally envisioned one of the myth’s major characters as the Satanic, Morgoth-like figure of the world’s mythos – a very far cry indeed from the manipulated, used, and then discarded martyr figure who was starring in Corey and Silethius’ interpretation. It was, so to speak, a reading very much against authorial intent. Hell, it was outright heresy.

    What was also so striking about this scene was the fact that it took everyone involved so much by surprise. In retrospect, it seems that the parallels between the role of the Broken God Flamen of the in-game mythos and the particular situation of my poor little character Corey should have been obvious. But until that scene played out, not one of us had made any connection between those two things at all: not me, not Charles (who played Silethius), not any of the other players, not even Kip (the GM who had invented both the mythology and who bore most of the responsibility for working the plot). It took everyone very much by surprise. And yet it fit together so well, and meshed so perfectly with everything else that was going on in the game, that in that one moment, the entire thematic structure of the game seemed to click into place. That one scene – which was, after all, nothing but one character telling another a story which everyone involved already knew – ended up both defining and changing the entire direction of the game.

    So, what was so good about this gaming moment?

    A number of things.

    First, it was one of the strongest impressions of in-character revelation that I have ever experienced in a game. Revelation is, in my experience, often an unusually difficult thing to feel in-character, because it’s so difficult to firewall player knowledge from character knowledge sufficiently to really feel the sense of surprise or shock. In this case, though, it worked. Corey suddenly realized something that he had not known before (although I-the-player had known it, or at least some of it), and I had the sensation of realizing it for the very first time, right along with him. This was admittedly probably facilitated to some extent by the sense of revelation I was experiencing on an entirely different meta-level, as the player. Which brings us to–

    Second. It had that special acid-trippy feel of perfect syncronicities, of things all coming together and connecting in a sudden click. That’s one of my favorite things about role-playing: when all of the background stuff that perhaps you haven’t been paying too much attention to suddenly becomes profoundly relevant and important and interconnected in an unexpected manner, creating thematic resonance. It’s the “a-ha!” sensation, and at its most basic level, it’s something that happens whenever you suddenly see a connection between two things that you hadn’t really noticed before. It’s what makes poetry work, and metaphor, and mythic language; and it’s also what makes well-executed plot resolutions feel so satisfying. It’s often what makes jokes funny, too. It’s one of the more important things that I want out of RPG, and this moment had it, in spades.

    Third, it exemplified what can happen when a fictive world becomes sufficiently ‘real’ to the players that a re-interpretation of a well-known myth within that world actually can have profound meaning. The subversive thrill of realizing “OMG, Corey actually identifies with the Broken God Flamen in this story; he thinks that Flamen is the hero of the tale, and the other gods the obvious villains! And, whoah! The priest thinks so too!” was indicative of a world that had come so much to life for us that we actually could have a strong emotional and visceral reaction to a fictional theological heresy.

    And finally, in retrospect, it is a powerful memory for me because I think of it as the point that marked our gaming group’s shift from a traditional GM-authoritarian approach to a far more collaborative shared-authority approach. It may well have been the first game I played in which the players picked up the ball of the game’s thematic structure and just ran like hell with it — in the exact opposite direction from that which the GM had originally envisioned — and the GM responded by basically saying “yeah! cool! doing it this way works so much better!” and enthusiastically joined in the push for the game to shift into a more collaborative style. (By the end of that particular game, the players had started doing a good deal of the plotting.)

    Since then, I’ve played in lots of collaborative games. It quickly became one of that group’s favored styles. But you know what they say about your first time, right? You never forget.

    What I learned from it? The two most important things were probably these:

    First, that games are more powerful for me when authority over thematic structure is more evenly distributed than it is in more traditional gaming styles. And furthermore, that distributing that authority does not–for me, at least–entail or necessitate any sacrifice of character immersion or belief in the fictive world as a “real” place. Far to the contrary, for me, it usually greatly enhances it.

    Second, that if you what you want out of a game is the kind of thematic resonance which comes from unanticipated connections between stuff, then you need to be willing to toss in a lot of stuff, without getting too hung up over whether the stuff in question has some explicit planned-in-advance relevance or focus or purpose. We’re human beings: it’s in our nature to draw connections between things in order to create meaning. Show us some random dots, and we’ll connect them into lines and call it a picture. But if all you’re willing to show is two dots, because you figure, hey, two dots is really all that anyone needs to make a line, right?, so anything else would just be a digression and a waste of time…well, yeah, you’re sure to get your line. But who will really care? You’ll get your line, but you won’t get any sense of meaning from that line, and the sense of meaning is the part that matters.

    Efficiency is the enemy of synchronicity.


    Most powerful negative role-playing memory?

    That one is both much easier to identify and much simpler to evaluate. It also has a very straight-forward lesson. It is, however, a good deal harder to talk about.

    Late ’90s, the long-running ArM-derived game my group had been playing for years and years. The group was composed of my housemates, people I’d lived with for a long, long time. And basically, we were having domestic problems. Group marriage, on the rocks. Eventually, it wound up ending in divorce. Or, uh, at least what would be called “divorce” if, you know, group marriages were actually recognized by the society in which we live.

    So, yeah. Ugly situation.

    And hey, whaddaya know? Every single game we tried to play just plain sucked. One was abandoned – not coincidentally, I don’t think, around the same time that our interpersonal problems were first beginning to get really bad. The one we tried after that, though, is the one that really sticks out in my mind as my most powerful negative role-playing memory, probably in part because I was the one in the GM seat at the time, but also because it really was just The End of The End.

    Imagine, if you will, role-playing sessions in which everyone pretty much just sits around the room, staring at each other in sullen silence.

    Okay, so it wasn’t always that bad. Occasionally, someone would say something. Occasionally, there was even a sequence of people saying things, and a hint of real interaction – kind of like a hollow zombified shell of actual RP. For the most part, though, it was just…dead. Because we didn’t trust each other, we’d reached a point where I don’t even think that we felt that we particularly liked each other all that much, and none of us really wanted to be there in the slightest. Oh, and one of us (me) was also having health issues involving chronic pain and nerve damage of neurologic origin.

    Yeah, sounds like a recipe for fun, doesn’t it?

    I trust that I don’t really have to explain precisely what was so bad about this.

    So, what did I learn from it?

    That when push comes to shove, everything comes down to the social level. It’s all social interaction. It’s all consensus. And what that means is that if a certain baseline of fundamental interpersonal trust is lacking within the group, then nothing else really matters in the slightest. System won’t help you, nor will technique, nor will any degree of investment in the shared fictional world. Nothing happens without trust. Trust is the engine. Without a baseline of interpersonal trust, you can’t get play.

  8. Thomas Robertson says:

    Thanks, Sarah. That’s some really powerful stuff. So, now that we’ve got some context about you and your play, let’s get down to the topic (supposedly) at hand:

    5. What drew you into online freeform play? Clearly your roleplaying background is in tabletop, so what was it that got you to shift to something that many of us see as radically different?

  9. Sarah says:

    It’s a bit of a long story, this. So bear with me.

    I’d been really attracted to the idea of online play ever since I first learned of the existence of MUSH, which I think was some time in the early-to-mid ’90s. A number of things appealed to me about the idea, but I think the most exciting for me was the prospect of finally being able to divorce the players’ vocal qualities and physical attributes from the dynamics of play. I’d always found those sorts of sensorydistractions to be a rather unfortunate aspect of face-to-face gaming. I consider them hurdles to the sort of engagment with the fictive reality that I most crave in RPG – not insurmountable hurdles, by any means, but hurdles nonetheless. The best and most satisfying role-play for me is the sort that some people call “immersive.” My own ability to maintain that particular head space, though, is rather easily disrupted by the type of sensory distractions which are pretty much unavoidable in face-to-face gaming. So when I first heard about MUSH, I was really excited. It sounded to me like the ideal gaming medium.

    When I actually joined a bunch of MUSHes, though, I found that the actual play experience did not live up to my hopes or expectations. At all. The other players I encountered there seemed for the most part to privilege gamist values above all other aspects of play, which is very much the opposite of my own preference. It was difficult to find other people on the systems who were interested in the same sort of play that I was, and whenever I did find someone, they would inevitably turn out to live somewhere in Europe, which meant that we could rarely be on-line at the same time – a pretty insurmountable obstacle in a synchronous gaming medium! I tried MUSH after MUSH after MUSH, and they all seemed to have the same qualities. I was extremely disappointed, and eventually gave up on them.

    Hmmm. Okay, now I’m a bit worried that I might be unjustly universalizing my experience with the MU*s here. Perhaps there are some out there that aren’t as I described above. I know that two of my friends have had good experiences with them (although I also think that both of them enjoy gamist play values far more than I do, which may in and of itself account for the difference). I don’t want to say that MUSH is in any way intrinsically incapable of providing the sort of game experience that I would enjoy, mind you – I can’t see any reason at all why that should be true. In practice, though, I just couldn’t seem to find any that conformed to my particular play aesthetic.

    So after that experience, I just sort of mentally wrote off on-line gaming as “not for me” and stopped thinking about it very much at all. It wasn’t as if I lacked for satisfying gaming. In fact, I was right in the middle of some of the best table-top experiences I’d ever had, so it wasn’t any great hardship for me not to be playing on-line as well.

    The next part of this is rather personal. Also, rather embarassing.

    Sometime in the late ’90s, I began to develop problems with anxiety. Eventually this would become quite serious, erupting in time into full-blown agoraphobia, but it initially came on gradually, as such problems often do.

    In the early stages, I could still manage to socialize with others, but I found that it interfered badly with my ability to enjoy role-play. I’ve always been a highly immersive player: that aspect of role-play (whatever one considers it to be – I know that this itself can be an annoyingly contentious issue) is really pretty fundamental to my enjoyment of a game. For me, that’s a huge part of where the Fun is, and I’m never very satisfied with games that don’t facilitate it for me. But until I started developing the anxiety problems, I don’t think that I’d ever fully realized just to what extent my ability to get that enjoyment was reliant upon a certain base level of social comfort. When the anxiety started up, my ability to experience immersion simply vanished. Poof. Gone. And without that aspect of play, I found that I wasn’t really enjoying the games all that much anymore.

    As you can probably imagine, I found this incredibly fucking depressing. I retired from on-line RPG theory discussion altogether, in fact, because I found the entire subject so inutterably depressing that I just…oh, you know. Didn’t wanna talk about it. I still feel quite guilty about vanishing from all of my on-line friends and acquaintances so abruptly and so completely. It is, I’ve found, one of the great drawbacks of on-line relationships: the internet makes avoidance far too easy an option. In real life, when friends notice you starting to withdraw, they can confront you about it; at the very least, they still see you around and so know that you’re still alive, even if it’s obvious that you’re going through a rough patch. On the internet, on the other hand, all you really need to do to avoid people is to stop going on-line. It’s unfortunate, particularly for those of us whose Personal Dysfunction Demon (and we all do have one, you know) happens to be Avoidance. The internet makes it far too tempting to just…softly and silently vanish away.

    So gaming was not being satisfying, and it totally sucked. In 2000, some friends and I picked up a collaborative round-robin that we’d begun all the way back in 1990, and started working on it again, just for fun. Now, to my mind, round-robins aren’t the same thing as role-playing, but they do share some of the same qualities. They are similar in that they’re both forms of collaborative story-telling in which your creative input interacts with the other participants’ creative input in ways that can surprise and challenge, that create unexpected synchronicities which both startle and delight, that bring about situations and themes and connections that you would never have come up with on your own. And, if you happen to be a highly immersive writer, as I am, they can also provide a bit of that same “assuming a role” thrill that role-playing is so good at – that feeling of reacting in-character to something which has the “push” sensation of external agency. The prose-writing part then becomes very much like “transcribing” something which you’ve just role-played out in your head.

    It gave me the old thrill back, is what I’m saying. I found that what I could no longer seem to get from RPGs, I was getting from the round-robin.

    Unfortunately, eventually that project collapsed under its own weight, in the way that such projects often do (and, interestingly enough, for precisely the same reason that freeform prose-based games most often seem to fail – namely, problems in managing and negotiating the pacing). I grew disheartened, and pursued other interests for a while. One of those other interests was fandom and its subculture – which is itself somewhat like RPG, actually, in that it is intimately concerned with the dynamics of collaborative group interaction with fictional worlds.

    Some of my fandom friends were into RPGs. At first, I just assumed that by this, they meant the sort of table-top gaming with which I was most familiar. Soon, though, I found that there was an entire gaming culture out there, one that was very different than the gaming culture I knew. Many of the members of this fandom-based gaming culture had never played a table-top game, although most of them had at least heard of “Dungeons and Dragons.” They didn’t share many of the underlying assumptions that seem to inform the thought processes, theory, and perspective of table-top gamers. For them, RPG was an off-shoot of collaborative writing, rather than an off-shoot of tactical gaming, and that made an enormous difference in how they conceptualized some of the most basic aspects of play. Even the assumed medium was different: for many of these gamers, “role-play” is something that takes place in written prose. The idea of it being instead enacted through a kind of improvisational acting is strange and off-putting to them. (“Oh, but that’s not really role-playing, is it? It’s something related to it, I guess, but it’s not really role-play” is a not uncommonly-heard response to the idea of table-top, something that always makes me laugh very hard, as it’s so precisely what table-top gamers often say about prose-based play.)

    From my perspective, I was all like: “Prose-based RP? Hell, yeah!” I already knew from the round-robin experience that I could sometimes get my immersion jollies through writing. And even leaving aside the particular pleasures of role-assumption, I enjoy collaborative story-telling in and of itself, so I figured that even if it didn’t serve the exact same functions for me as face-to-face play, I’d still probably have some fun with it.

    What I discovered was two things.

    First, that prose-based RPG is a lot more like face-to-face RP than I ever would have imagined it would be. I was expecting it to be pretty much like writing a round-robin. It’s really not so much, though. It’s a lot more like…well, like role-play.

    Second, that prose-based RPG is far more different from face-to-face RP than I ever imagined it would be. Unsurprising, really, given that the play is taking place in an entirely different medium. Written prose is a very different animal than oral prose. Once you shift to prose as your medium, it becomes relatively easy to do some very, very cool things, things which it is much harder to do in spoken language.

    So, while to some extent I had initially turned to prose-based RP as a kind of substitute for the face-to-face gaming that I was having problems enjoying, now that I’ve actually seen what it’s all about, I no longer see it as much of a substitute at all. It’s a different thing, very much its own animal. By the very nature of its medium, it is far better suited to doing some things than table-top is. Also by the very nature of its medium, it is far less well suited to doing some things than table-top is. The two gaming styles each have their particular strengths and their particular weaknesses. I like them both very much.

    I admit, however, to finding the possibilities inherent in the medium really exciting. Even back in the ’90s, before the anxiety problems started up, I often felt somewhat frustrated by the difficulties inherent in handling some of the things that really interested me most about RPG in an oral medium. I used to talk about some of those concerns on rgfa from time to time. I used to talk a lot about internal monologue, for example, and also about the portrayal of subjective perception, both of which are things that you can do in the oral medium of table-top, but for which I think written language is on the whole better suited. Consider how often radio plays use those fictive techniques, compared to how often novels use them. Different media have different strengths.

    Um. Okay, so that was a very long-winded answer to a seemingly simple question. But there you have it.

  10. Thomas Robertson says:

    Yeah, that was long, but chock full of goodness!

    6. What do you think are the major differences between online freeform play and traditional play? (Where “traditional” here means whatever you happen to think it means, don’t worry about nailing down a definition of that term here.)

  11. Sarah says:

    Hmmm. Well, “online freeform play” encompasses a wide range of different styles. I agree with you that we probably don’t want to get too bogged down with defining terms here (term definition is indeed a most perilous bog, one from which the unwary traveller may never return!), but for the purpose of answering this question, I’m just going to talk about the sort of online freeform games I have actual recent experience with: asynchronous, prose-based, usually fandom-oriented play-by-post and play-by-email games.

    Other styles of online freeform have some very different issues, a fact which came up the last time I wrote at any length about online freeform. So just a plea to keep that in mind: I’m only talking about a specific sub-set of online freeform here – and of course, only from my own very subjective point of view.

    So, that out of the way, the major differences I see are these.

    1. Medium: written vs. oral

    The medium of these games is written prose, sometimes supplemented by a form of “oral-like” written exhange (ie, instant messenger, rapid-fire e-mail back-and-forths).

    The medium of table-top play is oral exchange, supplemented by visual cues.

    That right there is an enormous difference, and it’s the one from which, in my opinion, many of the other differences between the two styles naturally derive.

    2. Synchronous vs. asynchronous

    Again, a huge difference with many ramifications. The pacing of asynchronous play is obviously going to be very different than the pacing of synchronous play, and it therefore requires very different sorts of (both spoken and unspoken) rules. Asynchronous play makes it very difficult to negotiate certain types of in-game situations which are simply par for the course in table-top. At the same time, it also resolves some of the issues which synchronous players often find highly problematic.

    For example, one of the most common design dilemmas that I’ve seen online gamers chew over is “how can we best deal with scenes which involve more than two characters at once?” Compare that with the old school traditional gamer’s preference for not splitting up the ‘party,’ because “what do you do with the players who aren’t in the spotlight?” (a question which would simply baffle many on-line gamers), and you begin to see how vast a difference there can be in terms of which sorts of in-game situations are considered problematic–and hence in need of some form of game design–and which are such non-issues that they’re never really given very much thought at all.

    3. Authority: concentrated vs. diffuse

    I think of “traditional” games as ones that usually have a fairly strong distinction between the “GM role” and the “player role.” Usually the GM bears primary responsibility for plot, setting and task resolution, while the players bear primary responsibility only for their own PCs. There are some variations, of course, but I think of that break-down of roles as the traditional one.

    Most online freeform distributes authority and responsibility very differently. Plot, setting, and task resolution are generally perceived of as player responsibilities. Creatively contributing to the maintenance of the fiction through those avenues is an important part of what people mean when they talk about “playing the game.” Part of the character generation/application process is nearly always to explain what sorts of storylines or conflicts you are interested in seeing for your character in the game, and suggesting such things for other people’s characters is also strongly encouraged.

    There’s rarely an equivalent to the “GM.” Instead, there are usually a number of “mods” or “admins,” whose primary responsibility is to keep whatever software hosts the game running smoothly and to maintain administrative control over it. Their secondary responsibility is to act as the final arbiter or mediator in the case of disputes. One of the reasons there is often more than one mod, even in smallish games, is that the mods are also players: it allows a mod to recuse herself from the mediation role if she’s one of the people involved in the dispute. The mods also usually act as the gate-keepers of the game, although sometimes this is done by the entire group.

    In some larger games, the mods are expected to take a more active hand in plotting than the players, and sometimes they will retain final veto power over player-introduced plotlines – usually as a means of ensuring that people’s plans don’t interfere with each other. In those sorts of games, their role is a bit closer to the traditional role of the “GM.” In smaller games, however, keeping the plotlines coherent is usually perceived as the entire group’s job: ideas get floated to the entire group, and it’s the group’s shared responsibility to decide what happens.

    It’s a very different distribution of authority than the traditional one, and it carries with it very different expectations and demands. A player in an online freeform game whose only creative contribution to the game was to have her character react to things, for example, would probably be a rather severe annoyance to the rest of the group. She might even eventually be asked if she were somehow, y’know, unhappy with the game?

    In these respects, at least, online freeform seems to me to bear more similarity to some of the more experimental Indie table-top games than to the more traditional ones.

    4. Anonymity

    This is hugely important.

    In online gaming, your ability to know certain things about the people you are playing with is extremely limited. You can’t see what they look like. You can’t hear what they sound like. You can’t tell how old they are. You can’t know what sex they are. What they do for a living, their ethnicity, their marital or relationship status, their educational history, where they grew up…you can certainly make assumptions about all of those things, but for the most part, what you know about the “real” lives of the people you are playing with is dependent upon what they choose to reveal to you.

    And even then, you have to accept that they could be lying.

    Furthermore, this is not only socially accepted, but even in some respects, socially encouraged.

    Well, not outright lying, no. Lying is almost always considered inappropriate behavior. Playing under pseudonym, on the other hand, is not only expected but often actively encouraged; some games even have rules against playing under ones “real name.”

    This strikes me as an enormous deviation from traditional table-top practice. I can’t quite imagine introducing myself to a new table-top gaming group with: “Oh, you lot can just call me Sylvia: that’s the name I use for RP.” That just wouldn’t fly, would it. It would come across as…well, probably as downright dodgy, actually, and at the very best, as unspeakably bizarre. And of course, things like age, sex, physical appearance and voice aren’t things that one can easily hide from a face-to-face group even if one has reason to want to.

    Both the inherent anonymity of online play and the prevalent subcultural attitudes towards anonymity and personae/masks/pseuds/identity makes for some very striking (and, to my mind, very interesting) differences between the two

    5. Origin: fiction writing vs. tactical wargaming

    Where you come from has a tremendous effect on where you end up going.

    Fandom-based online freeform has its roots in fanfic, while table-top has its roots in tactical gaming. Both groups of role-players are now doing something quite different than what their hobby started out as, but in some ways, both groups’ paradigms reveal their roots. Aspects of play which table-top gamers often cite as “intuitive” or “natural” often seem anything but to the fandom crowd. And vice versa.

    For example, what does it mean to “play” a character?

    To table-top gamers, it seems perfectly intuitive that “playing” a character means that you’re the one who gets to decide what the character does. This is perfectly consistent with the paradigm of the tactical games from which table-top evolved: the character is your “piece,” and so obviously you’re the only one who gets to move him around! I mean, how else would the game work? Duh!

    To someone whose play evolved from prose-writing, however, this concept is so far from intuitive as to be actually somewhat difficult to grasp. It is, in fact, often the case that the rule against “Godmoding” – ‘moving’ another person’s character, describing another person’s character’s actions – is the only rule which fandom-based online games bother to define or to spell out in any detail at all. The reason that this rule must be so carefully and explicitly defined is precisely that it isn’t intuitive or natural. Not in the least. Much to the contrary: it’s actually quite counter-intuitive, and therefore really hard for a lot of players to get a handle on. This is consistent with the paradigm of fiction-writing, from which online narrative RP evolved: “What, you mean I’m only allowed to be one of these characters? I don’t get to experience being all of them?”

    Similar reflections of this difference show up all over the place: in relation to world/setting/plot responsibility and authority distribution (an arena in which the roles are somewhat reversed, in that traditional table-top gamers often find it really unnatural and difficult to immerse in the role of a character while also bearing some responsibility for the setting, while this seems totally natural and intuitive to someone accustomed to writing fiction), in relation to task and conflict resolution (game mechanics seem rather strange and alienating if you’re not coming to RP from the paradigm of “game” at all, while the lack thereof seems downright unworkable to people whose conception of RP evolved within a competitive context), and so forth.

    6. Subculture

    Fandom-based on-line games are strongly rooted in the subculture of media fandom itself, which has its own peculiar assumptions and expectations, its own history, and a large existing body of shared slang, jargon, meme and trope. Most important for this discussion, though, I think, is the fact that fandom’s shared “language” is a language specifically designed to address issues related to the interaction between individual creative input and the shared world of the original source material – the ‘canon.’

    Since so much of what determines play style in RPG centers around this very same body of issues, the existence of a larger fandom subculture in which so many of these online games are taking place does change the dynamic quite a bit, I think.

    7. Demographic: male vs. female

    It’s always a bit nerve-wracking bringing this one up, because it touches on issues which often prove contentious, but if we’re going to talk about differences between the two play styles, it’s hard for me to see a way around it.

    The vast, vast majority of people currently playing in this particular style of online game are women.

    It does make a difference, as I suspect that any man who has ever joined an on-line game, only to be met with startled cries of “You’re a MAN? An actual guy? Who role-plays? Wow, that’s so cool! Did your girlfriend get you into it or something?” can attest.

    (And, as a woman who played table-top back in the late ’70s, may I just say to that man that my sympathies are entirely with him? God, it sucks to be in that position.)

    Some of the ramifications of this gender disparity are really just more of that sort of thing: straight-forward reversals of some of the more cringe-inducing artifacts of the gender disparity of table-top gaming (objectification of the opposite sex, for example). The gender disparity also gets reflected in some more subtle ways, though. There’s on the whole a good deal more representation of those fictional genres which women have traditionally favored, such as romance and historical fiction, in online gaming (although there are still plenty of games focused on more traditionally “male” genres, like superheros, as well). The games are also far more likely to deal with sex, romance, and relationships than most table-top games are, while there’s often less reliance on action-adventure tropes.

    8. Ephemeral vs. non-ephemeral

    I talked about the effects of this difference quite a bit in the comments of a thread on the 20′ by 20′ Room, over here a while back. The addition of non-player spectators to the dynamics of play is not at all trivial, and the opportunity for revision introduces quite a lot of issues as well. Play-by-post games often have elaborate rules governing when the players are and are not permitted to edit material once it has been published. Table-top gamers also sometimes deal with the issue of ret-cons and “do-overs,” but I think that the ephemeral nature of the play makes it seem a far less pressing issue.

    The lasting nature of the end-product of play also introduces some tricky questions of ownership into the game. The table-top gamer who looks back on his early hack’n'slash days with a sense of discomfited embarrassment does not usually have to worry about these examples of his early roleplay becoming a matter of public record. The online gamer in a similar position does. Is it okay to delete your role-play if you decide, say, several years down the line, that you now feel ashamed of it? What if the other people who were involved in that game are really proud of their work and don’t want to see it destroyed? How does the question of who has moderation powers over the site figure into this? Who really “owns” the game, anyway?

    9. Vulnerability to disruptive influences: hackers, trolls, “gate-crashers,” very young children, and the Hopelessly Stupid

    It may seem a bit odd to include this in a list of “major” differences, but it has a really important influence on the way games are run.

    Under very, very few circumstances do table-top gamers ever have to agonize over how to keep malicious trouble-makers from descending en masse to ruin their games. Or, for that matter, how to make it clear that they really don’t want to play this particular game with people under the age of ten. Sure, the “problem player” is a perennial source of anguish, but usually table-top gamers are only dealing with one of those at a time. Just the fact that the participants in the game need to meet face to face in order to play is usually sufficient to weed out the most egregiously undesirable participants (provided, of course, that said undesirables aren’t blood relations, significant others, established members of a group of friends, or otherwise people whose social claim on the game can’t comfortably be denied).

    Online gamers have a lot more to worry about in this department. Anyone can use the internet, and some of those ‘someones’ are provocateurs bent on mischief: there are malicious hackers, there are plain old-fashioned trolls. It doesn’t take all that much time for a sufficiently determined disruptive influence to render a game unplayable for everyone else. Online gamers don’t even get the benefit of meeting prospective players face-to-face as a means of evaluating whether these are people they really want to play with. Instead, they must find other ways to try to evaluate a player’s suitability, sincerity and character.

    And that means gate-keeping.

    Applications, interviews, auditions, references, “link to your previous RP experience, please,” “by invitation only” private games and gaming groups…

    Do you hate the sound of those things? Yeah, so do I. So, I think, does everyone. It sounds really awful and cliquish; it gives off vibes of just the sort of social dynamics that we all hated so much in junior high school. It’s hard to feel too good about exclusion, or about techniques designed to facilitate exclusion.

    But what else are online gamers to do? There’s really just no way to get around the need for some form of gate-keeping, if you want to retain any sort of control at all over who you role-play with. (There was a somewhat interesting discussion about this phenomenon on the Forge last year, over here.
    Yeah, I’m in there. Being very repetitive.)

    There’s no question, though, that the need for gate-keeping does introduce a dynamic into online play that doesn’t exist in quite the same manner in table-top.

    Hmmm. I feel I’m surely forgetting something really important, but right now, those are the major differences that are striking me.

  12. Thomas Robertson says:

    Man this is great stuff. I wanted to ask you to expand a bit on your point 4 above on anonymity.

    7. You mention anonymity. Could you expand a bit on this? I realize that it might be guess-work on your part, but what do you think it is that drives the preference for pseudonyms? Do people tend to retain their pseudonyms across games so that you can “recognize” people who you see often? What do you think it is that the pseudonyms are designed to protect?

    *Edited to add: Part of what makes this so fascinating is the cultural insistence, both around the Forge and in my own online play, to use real names.  Something about “really getting to know the other players as people”, perhaps.  It’s interesting to see the opposite policy popping up elsewhere.

  13. Sarah says:

    You mention anonymity. Could you expand a bit on this?

    “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde

    Sure. I’ll even do my best to make it as truthful as I can, even if I do feel a little bit naked here without my mask…

    It’s very dangerous, though, you know, asking me to “expand” on something. This got so long that I’ve divided it up into separate posts. It’s also a bit digressive. Sorry about that, but I don’t really know how I can talk about this aspect of fandom-based on-line RPG without talking at least a bit about the cultural values of on-line media fandom itself.


    Part of what makes this so fascinating is the cultural insistence, both around the Forge and in my own online play, to use real names. Something about “really getting to know the other players as people”, perhaps. It’s interesting to see the opposite policy popping up elsewhere.

    It’s funny you should mention that, because one of the things that really struck me when I first started reading some of the theory discussions on the Forge was precisely that cultural insistence on real names. It really jumped off the screen at me, I think in part because it seems to stand in such stark contrast to what I think of as the norm (or perhaps I should say, the norm for circles in which I most often travel?) for on-line interaction. A number of my housemates also found it sufficiently striking and notable to comment independently on it to me.

    Certainly my observation of that cultural preference is one of the main reasons that I’m engaging in these discussions under my real name. (The other reason is that it is the name under which I used to write about RPG theory back in the early ’90s, when the culture of CMC was still in its infancy and far more people were using their real names.) But I have to admit that it does feel very strange to me now, vaguely uncomfortable even, to be using my real name online, even though ten years ago, I don’t remember it feeling uncomfortable at all. I suppose this just goes to show the extent to which I’ve become culturally assimilated to a new set of mores.


    I realize that it might be guess-work on your part, but what do you think it is that drives the preference for pseudonyms?

    Oh, wow, that’s a huge question.

    There are a number of things going on here, I think, and I suspect that they all intersect to create a kind of synergy.

    First, there’s the nature of computer-mediated communications themselves. I don’t know to what extent it’s useful – or even possible – to consider on-line gaming outside of the larger context of CMC as an overall phenomenon.

    The hyper-performative nature of on-line identity, and the role that pseudonyms, personae, avatars and masks play in that dynamic, has received a lot of academic attention over the past decade or so, and I’m not really sure that I’m personally well-equipped to summarize the theory in a manner that would be both reasonably concise and in the least bit coherent.

    Basically, though, there seems to be a fairly strong consensus that on-line interaction is a form of communication which, for a variety of sociolinguistic reasons, is particularly and intrinsically bound up with the conscious creation, maintenance, and manipulation of personae.

    “The grammar of CMC media involves a syntax of identity play: new identities, false identities, multiple identities, exploratory identities, are available in different manifestations of the medium.” – Howard Rheingold

    So to some extent, on-line interaction can be perceived as itself a type of role-playing game. It’s therefore probably not surprising that the overall tendency towards pseudonymity encouraged by CMC should be strongly reflected in those RPGs which are themselves a form of CMC.

    There’s also been quite a bit of research which suggests that the fluidity of identity and opportunity for self-definition that virtual environments provide can be particularly appealing to members of disempowered groups, like women and minorities, who have historically found it difficult to avoid having their identities defined by others. Both pseudonymity and anonymity are helpful here. Anonymity allows people who might otherwise be obscured by that thick ‘Othering’ lens of gender, ethnicity or class to shed the signifiers of their ‘Other’ status and therefore to make their voices heard. Pseudonymity empowers those who have traditionally been defined by others to at last define themselves.

    Given the fact that most of the people playing online fandom RPG are women, I think that those factors probably play into the cultural preference for pseudonymity as well: even though women are the dominant group within this particular gaming culture, they may bring an already-learned preference for self-definition with them to the table.


    The other factor to consider when it comes to fandom-based role-play is that it takes place within the context of media fandom, which is itself strongly focused on multiplicitous approaches to identity, persona play, and pseudonymity – a tendency which positively exploded once the fandom adopted the internet as a communicative tool.

    Even before media fandom moved to the internet, its participants were already exhibiting a strong cultural preference for pseudonymity and anonymity, particularly within slash circles. There are a number of reasons those who engage in fanac might feel a strong need for anonymity.

    Fandom and fan fiction are held in extremely low regard by mainstream culture, so there’s often a strong embarrassment factor (just as there sometimes is with other ‘geeky’ low-status hobbies, like comics collecting or table-top RPG). Even within the geek hierarchy, though, fanfic is pretty low down on the totem pole. Also, even within the geek hierarchy, it’s often not very well understood. Outsiders usually consider it childish or strange at best; at worst, they find it utterly contemptible. Some people even seem to take active offense at the very idea of derivative work. So that’s certainly strong incentive in and of itself for many people to want to keep their fandom activities hidden from those they do not think will sympathize or understand.

    There are also legal concerns. Under US copyright law, fanfic exists in a grey area somewhere between “fair use” and “copyright infringement.” Even if one assumes that the courts would rule in favor of fan use of a franchise, who can afford to fight a corporate entity like Lucasfilms or Paramount Pictures in a court of law? What this means is that the producers really have all the power: all it takes to shut down a ‘zine (or these days, a website) for good is a single letter of injunction from a corporate lawyer. This fact encouraged fans in the pre-internet days to adopt pseudonymous identities and fluid centers of operation for the distribution of their fanworks. In the UK, stringent anti-obscenity laws encouraged similar strategies among writers of slash and erotica.

    Many members of fandom fear that if their involvement were discovered, it might harm them professionally. In many cases, this is probably a bit paranoid, but there are situations in which such concern is justified. There’s a fairly large cross-over between academics and fen, for example, and there have been cases of fen in academe being informed by their superiors that their activities had seriously damaged their chances of getting tenure. People who work with children are also vulnerable, particularly if they live in socially conservative communities: a lot of fan-fiction deals rather “transgressively” with issues of sexuality and gender; some of it is sexually explicit; some of it is homoerotic; much of it is oriented towards questioning traditional cultural boundaries. Published authors or those who hope someday to be published are often concerned about running afoul of people in the publishing industry — not everyone in the publishing industry has a problem with fanfic, but there is a vocal contigent which considers fanfiction to be outright theft, and views it as a direct assault on their profession. And of course, there are any number of public reputations which could be damaged by being ‘outed’ as a writer of sexually explicit material.

    Finally, I think that a large part of the reason that media fandom has always leaned towards pseudonymity derives from its self-perception as an inherently oppositional and subversive “underground” subculture. Henry Jenkins is the go-to guy for this take on fandom, and although other fandom academics, like Matt Hills, have contested his analysis, I think that many of the fans themselves tend to perceive themselves in a manner in keeping with Jenkins’ take on fandom.

    This is Jenkins, writing about the slash community and its penchant for pseudonymity in Textual Poachers, all the way back in 1992:

    “Many slash writers see this practice as necessary for their own protection. . . .Yet for many, hiding their true identities is part of the game, with the reading and writing of slash often charged with a pleasure in breaking with traditional feminine roles. Fans romanticize the ‘shocking’ and ‘scandalous’ quality of their underground activities. . . .This pleasure in scandal may also be tied to the use of the word, ‘slash,’ which bears violent or obscene connotations. The sound of the word evokes an aggressive pleasure in ripping or tearing traditional boundaries. . . . Joan Martin captures these women’s scandalous pleasure: ‘Slash is a wonderfully subversive voice whispering or shouting around the edges and into the cracks of mainstream culture. It abounds in unconventional thinking. It’s fraught with danger for the status quo, filled with temptingly perilous notions of self-determination and successful defiance of social norms.’” (pp 101-102)

    In my experience, even outside of slash circles, many fans do view their participation in just that sort of politicized light. And if that’s your perception of what you’re doing–opposing the status quo, resisting the juggernaut of consumerism, stickin’ it to the Man, transgressing–then pseudonymity just…well, it just seems to fit somehow.



    So this is what I think happened.

    You had a media fandom which was already prone to favor anonymity and pseudonymity over here, and then you had a developing culture of CMC which similarly privileged conscious persona play and self-presentation over there…

    And then media fandom moved onto the internet.

    The result was online media fandom, which takes performative approaches to identity to really extreme levels. Online fandom is all about personae. It’s a culture of masks within masks within masks. Not only do its participants nearly always operate under pseudonym, but most people seem to have at least one other persona that they use for something-or-another. It’s not at all uncommon for people to have a veritable stable of personae under which they post and write: some of them public knowledge, others less so. People often write fanfic under a different name than they use to discuss canon; they write different genres of fanfic under different personae; if they role-play, they often do that under yet another set of names; if they take part in more than one fandom, then they might well have an entire set of personae for each one. Some personae are public knowledge (ie, everyone knows that X is Y’s nom de plume), while others are less public (only some people know), and still others kept far more private (only close friends know, or perhaps no one at all knows save the fan herself). One of the most significant markers of intimacy in online fandom is being entrusted with the knowledge of someone else’s more “private” alternate identities.

    It’s quite a fascinating phenomenon, actually, and it’s only recently beginning to get the academic scrutiny that (IMO) it so richly deserves.

    There’s a book coming out this fall from McFarland Press, Fan Fiction And Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet, which dedicates an entire chapter to the performative aspects of on-line fandom. I’m really looking forward to reading it. Here’s an excerpt from the published abstract (the bolded emphasis is mine):

    “LJ users relate to each other through adopted personas and avatars, tending to view one another as extrapolations of these highly performative roles. In so doing, our fannish daily interaction on LJ and off may not be that dissimilar from the RPS that LJ users read and write. Discourses about fans—where real-life identity is partially hidden and where online identities are partially performed—allow fans to engage with one another’s personas, which are understood to not fully coincide with the actual person. In both RPS and LJ discourses, there is a certain awareness of its simultaneous reality and performativity. Rather than dismissing LJ and other fannish roles as false, we must acknowledge the similarities of online social networks to face-to-face ones. These roles may tell us more about our actual identities than any attempt to separate real from false, real from virtual, or real from fictional ever could.

    The reason I emphasized the bolded clause is that I think that it’s really vital to understanding how personae work within the context of this subculture. People not familiar with this mode of interaction often assume that all of those personae and pseudonyms and secondary names are about hiding, or about false presentation, or even about deception. Certainly many adoptions of persona do have a protective function–I talked about that up above–but it doesn’t seem to me that that’s really what they’re primarily all about. Rather, these accumulation of personae reflect a specific approach to the presention of identity–as an accretion of multiple facets of self, each one of which is itself understood as a kind of performative act, rather than as a holistic unit meant to be taken in all at one glance.

    To some extent, I think that this approach to the presentation of identity might reflect a recognition that the “virtual space” of the internet serves a dual function both as semi-private and as public space. In real life, it’s possible to draw much firmer distinctions between the face that you show to, say, random people on the street and the face that you show to the members of your weekly Book Club meeting and the face that you show to people at church. On the internet, though, all three of those “faces” would probably be equally “public,” in that both your on-line book club and your on-line church discussion group are likely to be publicly accessible (and ‘Googlable’), and therefore potentially visible to anyone. There’s not as much nuance in that grey area between public and private on the internet as there is in real life. Having different names/personae for different functions can help to mitigate that problem.

    Of course, you’ve probably already noticed something else about the passage I quoted above.

    Just as with CMC, on-line fandom is in some ways itself nothing but one great big giant role-playing game.

    So that’s the cultural context in which these games are happenin’. Stuff more about the actual games themselves coming next.

  14. Sarah says:


    Do people tend to retain their pseudonyms across games so that you can “recognize” people who you see often?

    Oh, yes. After all, you tend to develop friendships with the people you play with, and it would be really awkward if everyone were switching around identities so often that you never knew who you were talking to. That could get quite disorienting. Although I have seen situations where someone was using a different name and so had to tell a former acquaintance from a different game: “Oh, by the way, I’m so-and-so.” For the most part, though, people aren’t so Mercurial about their alts that it becomes a big problem. I’d guess that most people stick with one persona for all of their RP activities.

    Sometimes, though, people do decide to switch names. There are a number of reasons why someone might decide to do that. Someone might want to use different pseuds for different styles of games, for example, or for different fandoms. Sometimes people decide that it’s time to retire an identity because they want to distance themselves from their earlier role-play, usually because they no longer feel that the material archived under that old name is truly reflective of their abilities or indicative of the sort of play that they now enjoy. (After all, would you want to be forever associated with some of the role-play you were doing when you were fourteen years old? I sure know I wouldn’t.)

    Of course, another reason someone might choose to retire a pseud and make another is that they’ve earned such a poor reputation among other members of the gaming community that they’ve been effectively black-listed and want a fresh start. That does happen from time to time, and it’s been known to cause heated debates between those who think that everyone deserves a chance to demonstrate that they’ve truly changed their ways, and those who aren’t willing to risk allowing someone with a reputation for causing problems into their games. This can be one of the uglier sides of that “gate-keeping” aspect of on-line RPG that I talked about earlier.

    There are also some people who use pseudonyms specifically tailored to their role as the player of a particular character, rather than maintaining a more generalized player persona. While I think it’s very much a minority taste, you do occasionally see groups who prefer not to use player names at all, preferring instead to only utilize the -mun suffix as a means of addressing one another (ie, if you wanted to talk to the player of the character named “Bob,” you would address her as “Bob-mun.”)

    This gets into some interesting territory that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, in which the RPG can be read as a kind of ritual, with the actual players-as-people viewed as far less important to the process than the players in their roles as fulfillers of specific ritual functions. As I see this, there’s kind of an intermediate role here, halfway between player and character: neither the person nor the mask, but instead the role of the designated wearer of a particular mask.

    I’m right in the middle of trying to write a Great Big Fat Monster Essay about this dynamic, actually. But it’s not quite there yet.

    What do you think it is that the pseudonyms are designed to protect?

    Well, as I said above, I don’t think that they’re always protective in function. Sometimes the desire to compartmentalize has more to do with the recognition that different people may be interested in very different aspects of your life than it does with the desire to protect anything in particular.

    Sometimes I think they also may be adopted as a way of removing possibly damaging power dynamics from the game. A “BNF” (highly influential, well-known, and therefore socially powerful member of the fandom), for example, might well choose to play under a different identity so as not to skew the power dynamics of the game in a way that could prove counter-productive. In that case, I suppose, what is being “protected” is the the perception of an even playing field.

    Usually, though, I’d say that when the intent of a pseudonym is to protect something, that ‘something’ is nearly always reputation.

    Professional reputation is one sort of reputation that people might want to protect. Potential employers these days sometimes Google the names of their prospective employees. It could be both embarrassing and potentially professionally damaging for such a search to turn up a role-playing session. (This is the concern that the mods of games which prohibit the use of real names most often cite as their reasoning.)

    The other sort of reputation one might want to protect is ones fandom or on-line reputation – the reputation of ones primary persona. If ones on-line persona is itself a kind of character, a very specific presentation of self, then there’s often a disinclination to have anything “out-of-character” for that presentation associated with the name. It’s the same reason that people so often write fan-fiction under a different name than the one they use when they want instead to engage in an academic analysis of the source text. Those are both activities that one does with other fans, but they’re activities which are conducted in two very different “voices.”

    Finally, I think that often the desire to maintain a separate identity which one uses only for role-playing is a desire to protect all of your other personae – including the persona of ones “real life” identity – from the degree of personal exposure that RP so often entails. Maybe this is really less a matter of preserving reputation than it is a matter of preserving ones privacy.

    Role-playing is a really self-revelatory activity, and often the better the game, the more self-revelatory the play can become. It’s one of the reasons that I think that trust is so vital to play, and also one of the reasons that social anxiety or unease can make it so difficult to relax sufficiently to enjoy a game. Good RP is always going to reveal a lot about you, and sometimes the stuff that it reveals can be really primal, heavy, emotional stuff. Sometimes it’s even downright ugly stuff.

    I think it’s quite natural not to want to have that kind of thing out there where any moron with access to a computer can find it on Google and associate it with you. Creating a specialized gaming persona is a way to prevent people you do not know, and therefore cannot trust, from gaining knowledge of whatever weird little issues and big emotional hot buttons which might emerge in the course of play and somehow using it against you. They’ll still see those things, sure, but the only person they’ll be able to associate any of it with is your gaming persona. And since you don’t use the gaming persona for any other purpose anyway, that’s okay, really.

  15. Thomas Robertson says:

    Shew. You weren’t kidding about expansion. Still, good stuff, and lots of food for thought. Let’s head toward some potential application (actually, I came this close to heading off to talk about identity construction, but that’s not really what this interview is “supposed” to be about).

    8. What can (and should) tabletop play be learning from online freeform play?

  16. Sarah says:

    It’s hard not to get distracted by shiny things like identity construction, isn’t it? But yes, back on topic.

    8. What can (and should) tabletop play be learning from online freeform play?

    I’m not sure how comfortable I feel with ‘should.’ I do think that there are things table-top gamers could learn from on-line freeform play, but I also don’t think that those things are necessarily relevant to what all table-top gamers may be looking for in their play.

    It’s been my experience that many table-top gamers seem to have a good deal of trouble with collaboration. I don’t know if this is because table-top play grew out of a competitive gaming paradigm, or whether it’s because the sort of mechanical systems upon which table-top games usually rely are actually training those who use them to think about the play dynamics in certain ways, but for whatever reason, I’ve seen a lot of resistance to the idea that it’s possible for groups to work collaboratively without everything degenerating into either endless argument or manipulative passive-aggressive mind games.

    It’s something that I find very frustrating, this, for two reasons. First, because it runs counter to what I have observed to be true, and it’s always rather infuriating to be told that something “isn’t possible” when in fact you see it happening all the time. I also find it frustrating because I think that to some extent, it’s a self-perpetuating problem. The perception means that game designers keep creating mechanics predicated on the assumption that people really aren’t capable of collaborative effort, which in turn encourages those who use those mechanics to (a) internalize the notion that role-playing must intrinsically be all about player-player conflict, and (b) fail to develop any collaborative skills. The result is often a self-fulfilling prophecy: indeed, it really is difficult to collaborate efficiently with people who insist on treating the entire process as a competitive endeavor and who have no earthly idea how one goes about reaching consensus with others. But it does sort of beg the question, to my mind, of how on earth they got that way. I mean, I don’t think that most people encounter similar problems with consensus and collaboration once they step away from the gaming table. So where are they learning that behavior? It strikes me as very much a problem of the paradigmatic lens through which people are being trained to view RP itself, rather than as a reflection of “innate human nature” or other such nonsense.

    I think that table-top gamers who want to learn how to play in a more collaborative style might well benefit from joining an online freeform or two, just to see how people do manage to collaborate. One of the really unfortunate things about these games, from a theory perspective, is that so much of what’s going on takes place out of sight that you can’t really get all that much of a handle on how they work just by reading the public archives. You’ve really got to join one to see how they function. But I think it could be an instructive thing to do, for table-top gamers who would really like to be playing in a more collaborative style, but who just can’t seem to imagine how you can do that without a lot of rules, which – honestly, in my opinion – really tends to exacerbate the original problem.

    Of course, I think this same effect could probably be achieved by joining a highly collaborative freeform table-top game as well!

    Another thing which table-top gamers might be able to– well, maybe not learn, precisely, from on-line freeform, but perhaps to be inspired by– is narrative technique. On-line games often do all sorts of things with narrative technique that you don’t see very often in table-top: parallel timelines, nested flashbacks, exploration of divergent plot possibilities (ie, “What If” subgames) or of divergent genre interpretations,
    internal monologue.

    Admittedly, I don’t really know how many of the specific techniques that online gamers use to deal with these things would be applicable to table-top. There are differences in medium here which are pretty vital: I don’t think that the oral medium of table-top is all that well-equipped to handle some of this stuff at all, frankly, and techniques developed for written prose might just not be transferable to oral exchange. It does seem to me, though, that table-top could be doing a lot more with narrative technique than it currently does, and I also think that there are a number of table-top gamers — particularly those who prefer a strongly narrative approach — who seem to be really interested in trying to incorporate more of this sort of thing into their games. It might be worthwhile for those who do want to play around more with narration to take a look at how people who came to gaming through fiction-writing go about incorporating some of the tricks and techniques of prose narration into their games.

    And finally, if we’re talking about “learning…” well, I guess that I just always think it instructive to talk to people about play styles really different from your own, even if it doesn’t lead to any change at all in how you run your own games, or in what sort of styles you find that you can personally enjoy. For one thing, it leads to increased comprehension of other viewpoints, which I think is always a Good Thing. For another, I think that it’s really hard for anyone to predict just what might lead to a train of thought which will eventually yield something that you actually can use to make your gaming more fun. I know that it’s really hard sometimes for me to avoid knee-jerk reactions against discussion of gaming styles that just sound, oh, ungodly Unfun and beastly to me. On the (more rare than I’d like) occasion that I can overcome that instinct, though, I do often find that I can extract something useful from the conversation, even if I still end up feeling that I’d rather rip my fingernails out one by one than ever to actually play the sort of game under discussion.

  17. Thomas Robertson says:

    Interesting. Well, the inevitable follow-up to question 8 is obviously:

    9. What lessons learned in tabletop play can (and should) be applied to online freeform play?

  18. Sarah says:

    Online freeform play is very much younger than table-top gaming-it’s really still in its infancy as a form of RP-and I think there are a lot of things that its practitioners could be learning from table-top gamers.

    First and foremost among these would have to be theory. And by that, I absolutely don’t mean any of the specific bodies of gaming theory already out there, like the Robin Laws stuff or rgfa theory or Forge theory or game theory or any of that. That stuff is designed for a very different style of play, and I think that it would in fact be quite disastrous for online freeformers to try to assume those theoretical paradigms. It just wouldn’t work, and would cause more problems than it would solve.

    No. Rather, what I mean is that I think that online freeform gamers need to develop their own theory, theory relevant to their particular style of play. They need a better shared language with which to communicate gaming concepts to each other. Right now, they don’t have that, which means that whenever people do try to explain things about their games or favored styles of play, they don’t have a language to do it in. They’re stuck trying to use conceptual terminology which was developed for very different purposes and which therefore doesn’t suffice to describe the things they’re trying to describe. Either they’re trying to use the language of table-top gaming, or they’re trying to use the language of fanfic – and neither one of those languages is really at all well-suited to describe the dynamics of an online prose-based RPG.

    I sometimes don’t think that table-top gamers truly appreciate just how much jargon they’ve assimilated, nor how important that jargon is as a communicative tool. I’m not even talking about obscure theoretical jargon like the Forge stuff, which most gamers have never heard of. I’m talking about language that nearly everyone who plays table-top knows.

    For example, if I told you that I was running a game that was going to be “an old schoolish dungeon crawl sort of thing,” chances are you’d at least have some idea what I meant by that.

    If I further added: “We’re going to be using GURPS, though, not D&D, so no character classes or anything like that. No races, either – everyone’s human. I’m not going to be fudging dice or giving any script immunity, but since I don’t want things to get too lethal, we’ll be using a Fortune Point sort of mechanic. I want a strong party dynamic, so if y’all could confer with each other during chargen, that would be great. I’d like for us to at least try not to split up the party too much in play. Oh, and try to keep the improv down in this game – like I said, it’s going to be pretty old school, and improv can mess with the puzzle-solving aspect. Oh, and I’m going to be awarding experience for role-play, as well as for the usual stuff, so keep that in mind…”

    Well, okay. Actually you probably still wouldn’t have a very good idea of what this game was going to be like (other than ‘fairly incoherent and probably not much fun’) given that description, which is the reason that table-top gamers need better theoretical language than most of them have access to as well. But you’d certainly have a better idea than you would if I just told you: “Yeah, I’m running a face-to-face table-top game in the fantasy genre, wanna play?”

    Freeform online RPers don’t have that kind of shared language. They’ve developed a tiny bit of it, but not nearly enough, and not nearly the sort that IMO they really, really need to develop in order to avoid misunderstandings about game style.

    So that’s one huge way in which I think that online freeform RPers could learn from table-top gamers. They need to start thinking about how to categorize and describe their play styles and techniques. Right now, they’re not doing that, and I think that lack of shared vocabulary often hurts their games.

    Another thing that I think that freeform onliners could stand to learn from table-top–and this is going to sound strange, because I’m talking about really traditional table-top game stuff here–is the entire concept of the ‘party.’

    Because table-top play is synchronous, table-top gamers are accustomed to thinking in terms of creating characters who will have some reason to interact with each other. Yes, there’s some experimental stuff out there that moves away from that paradigm, but for the most part, that’s the norm for table-top.

    In part because online freeform is both asynchronous and prose-based, there’s never developed a very strong concept of ‘party.’ On the one hand, this can be cool, because it means that you get games that play heavily with parallel thematic structures and parallel narrative threads, and all of that – which is pretty nifty. On the other hand, though, I think that what most (if not all) players really want out of their games is the sort of play in which characters have a lot of direct interaction with each other. Unfortunately, they often don’t seem to have a very clear idea of how to set things up so as to make that happen. I’ve seen a lot of freeform online games fail because the participants got frustrated with that sense of ‘parallel play’ – they weren’t getting as much direct interaction as they needed to make the games fun for them. And the reason they weren’t getting that is because of the way that the games were set up in the first place: it just doesn’t seem to occur to many online freeformers that there are certain things you need to do at the very start of the game if you want to ensure that the characters are going to have reasons to interact with each other.

    So that’s a more specific thing that I think online freeform could and–yeah, maybe I’ll even use the dread word ‘should’ here–should learn from table-top. The entire concept of ‘party.’ Building a reason for the PCs to interact right into the starting premise of the game.

    It’s a concept that I see as strongly related to the concept of designing games for a small play group. That’s something else that online freeformers really could stand to learn from table-top. Not every online freeform game is going to be huge, and yet far too many RPers design their games for large numbers of players. (It’s what leads directly to the lack of interaction problem – often, the games are designed under the operating assumption that the setting will be far more heavily populated than it ever actually becomes.) I’d like to see online freeformers learn more about how to design for smaller groups. I think that it would significantly improve their games, and I think that it’s something that despite the differences in style, they could quite easily learn from table-top gaming.

  19. Thomas Robertson says:

    Another request for expansion! Hurray!

    10. You mention that online freeform doesn’t tend to have a lot of character interaction, but that a lot of people seem to want it. I’ve got to ask: how in the world do you do character interaction in an asynchronous environment?

  20. Sarah says:

    Sorry, just to clarify for a moment: it’s not that online freeform RPers don’t usually view character interaction as the proper focus of play. In most games, character interaction is precisely what people are there to play. The problem is that because the games are so often designed for a much larger number of players/characters than they’ve actually got, it becomes hard for the players to come up with any plausible reason their characters would be interacting with each other. The end result is that people feel they have a choice between no play or forced play. It’s one of the things that most often kills games.

    Moral: don’t use giant MU*s or convention LARPs – or, for that matter, a famously successful PBP game that had over a hundred played characters – as the model for how to build conflicts into the starting premise of your game if you’ve only got seven or eight people who want to play. That’s obviously not going to work, and yet it’s precisely the mistake that I see people making, over and over and over again.

    On to your question…

    How in the world do you do character interaction in an asynchronous environment?

    The same way you do it in a synchronous environment, really. Just way more slowly.

    Heh. Okay, I’m guessing that’s not a helpful answer. The three main media used for asynchronous play in this particular gaming style are e-mail, forum software (Yahoogroups, PhPBB, Infovision, EZBoard, etc.), and blog/journal software (mainly livejournal clones). They all work pretty much the same way. I write what my character’s doing, then you write how your character responds, then I write how my character responds to that, and so on, until we’re done with the scene. If there are more than two characters involved in a scene, then it gets much trickier: some people use a turn-order system, others just try to wing it. One of the games I’m playing in right now uses a “tagging” system for handling large group interactions.

    Asynchronous play is slow, which is the reason that so many RPers who use asynchronous media as their primary gaming format still choose to supplement it with instant messaging. You can go a whole lot faster in chat than you can with e-mail or play-by-post. Chatrooms are also useful for negotiating those tricky scenes with more than two or three characters in them.

    There’s also an entire body of play-by-post games which use the journal system as a direct representation of what’s happening in the fictional world of the game. In other words, part of the premise of the game is that the characters are themselves using a journalling system, or some local game-world equivalent thereof. In the Harry Potter fandom, this style of game is sometimes referred to as “Nocturne Alley Style,” after the game which popularized the system; other fandoms have other names for it. Usually people just call it “first person journal style.” Games run under this system are composed of the characters’ first-person journal entries and the written conversations which they then have with each other in the comments. Often, they also include other written artifacts: letters, newspaper articles, advertisements, etc. In this style of RPG, the actual physical events of the in-game reality are never shown “on-stage.” They’re established through reference (ie, if a character writes about something happening in his journal, then it’s understood to have happened), through off-screen OOC discussion, and through off-screen IC role-play conducted via whatever medium the players choose (IRC, IM, e-mail, over the phone, in person…whatever people want to do, really).

    First person journal-style games are often highly satisfying for non-playing spectators, as they introduce a strong puzzle-solving element to the audience’s enjoyment.

    Many journal-based play-by-post games combine these two styles. Third person or emote role-play takes place on the main community journal, while first person and journal-style role-play takes place in the individual character journals.

  21. Thomas Robertson says:

    We could probably spend a good long time hashing out some of this stuff since I’m somewhat obsessed with turn-taking in CMC, but we should probably move on…

    11. With some of the differences between tabletop and online play being intrinsic (rather than just traditional), what sort of assumptions about “how roleplaying works” will trip people up when moving from one to the other?

  22. Sarah says:

    Darn! There was this fascinating livejournal thread that I thought would be so appropriate to link to here, but now I can’t seem to hunt it down again. An online RPer who had never played in a table-top game before had just accepted an invite to play in a game and was feeling a bit nervous about it. So she asked members of an online RP community if those with experience with table-top had any advice for her as to what she should expect, how she should behave – basically, if there was anything special she should be aware of going into the game.

    Some of the responses she got were really illuminating. And some of them were…well, still illuminating, in their own way, but also really cringe-inducing (I got the distinct impression that the last table-top game some of her respondants had played was That One Awful D&D Dungeon Crawl Back In Junior High School – after which they had never felt the slightest desire to play another one).

    Since I can’t seem to hunt down that post, though, let’s see if I can give this a try on my own. I think that I have a much better sense of what throws online gamers trying out table-top than I do of what throws table-top gamers trying out online rp, primarily because I’ve heard a lot more people talking about it. I don’t know very many table-top gamers who have tried online RP, while I’ve read many discussions between online rpers about what threw them when they first tried table-top. So if my response here seems extremely skewed – there’s a lot more “this is what’s hard about table-top” than there is of “this is what’s hard about online rp”-that’s the reason.


    Things that might throw table-top gamers moving to asynchronous Online RP:

    Asynchronous RP can be slow. Really, really, really slow. I think that’s probably the hardest thing for table-top gamers to get used to with online RP. Not everyone lives in the same time zone, or is regularly on-line at the same times that you are. Sometimes you may need to wait a while to get a response that you need in order to proceed with play. It can be hard not to get impatient sometimes, especially when you’re accustomed to synchronous play.

    People accustomed to table-top may find the stop-motion effect of asynchronous play damaging to their sense of immersion. RPG always requires the ability to shift back and forth between the IC mindset and the meta-game stances, but different play styles place different requirements on precisely how and in what patterns the players need to do this. The particular pattern of IC/metagame stance-shifting that asynchronous online RPG requires can take a while to get used to if you’re not accustomed to it. In order to find this a satisfyingly immersive style of play, it’s necessary to have a really strong “internal character,” so that it doesn’t take too long to get into character after a period of being out. For some table-top gamers, this may take a period of adjustment; those who cannot adjust to the new pattern may find that the play-style will never feel very immersive to them.

    Online freeform requires a great deal of creativity and initiative, as well as a certain degree of social confidence. If you don’t initiate, you won’t have fun. There’s no GM whose job it is to make sure that you or your character is getting involved in the game, and nobody is going to actively involve you in a plot unless you first make it clear that you want to be involved in a plot. Similarly, if you want the other players to be pushing your characters buttons, engaging his conflicts, or otherwise smacking around his thematic issues, then you’ll want to make it clear that that’s what you want them to be doing. In other words, if you want stuff to happen, then you have to be willing to approach other players and talk with them about making it happen. This can be very intimidating at first, especially if you don’t know any of the other players, or you are shy. It’s really necessary, though. In table-top games, you can often get away with adopting a fairly passive play style at first, as a way of getting your bearings until you feel comfortable enough with the group to really step up. That tactic doesn’t work too well in this sort of online play: if you try to play passively, you’re almost guaranteed to be bored out of your skull.

    Some people are just not very comfortable with writing, or with CMC in general. Writing is to online RPG as speaking is to table-top. Table-top gamers who don’t find written language a comfortable, intuitive, fluid or natural way of communicating may have a lot of trouble with online RPG.

    Things that might throw asynchronous online RPG players when moving to table-top:

    Table-top gaming is really, really inconsistent in its handling of how players are expected to convey what their characters are doing to the rest of the group, and this can be incredibly confusing to those not accustomed to the conventions. You *act* out dialogue. You *narrate* motions and actions. Unless they’re very small-scale motions, that is, like hand gestures and facial expressions, in which case you’re supposed to act them out, rather than narrating them. Oh, and sometimes you narrate dialogue as well, rather than acting it out. But only sometimes.

    Oh, yeah, and you usually don’t talk about what your character is thinking at all. Except as OOC “table-talk.” Except that sometimes you do, but only if it’s to explain an IC motivation and you keep it really short: ie, “I think there might be something useful in the files, so I’m going to try to break the lock on the filing cabinet.” Usually, though, you don’t explain motivations either.

    It’s a bit hard to grasp those rules, if you’re not used to them. How on earth are you supposed to know when you’re supposed to be acting, and when you’re supposed to be narrating, and when you’re supposed to be keeping stuff to yourself?

    One of the most common things that people accustomed to online play complain about when they try table-top is the sensory distraction. Online rpers often find the contradictory sensory stimuli of table-top exceptionally damaging to immersion. Table-top gaming requires players to be able to filter out huge amounts of sensory data, data which in on-line gaming, the computer does the job of filtering out for you. You have to be able to ignore the sound of the other players’ voices, you have to be able to ignore what the other players look like, you have to be able to ignore the fact that although people are saying things like “I open the door,” in fact they are visibly doing no such thing. This is further complicated by the fact that you can’t just filter the data out completely, because you do need to be paying some attention to the other players’ facial expressions and body language: these are used to represent the characters’ facial expressions and body language. So you have to both note what they look like and ignore what they look like – you are supposed to allow the narrative description to override some of what you are seeing…but not all of it. Many online gamers find this exceptionally damaging to their sense of immersion. Hearing your character’s dialogue come out in your own voice is particularly often cited by online RPers as an Immersion Killer. Online RPers who cannot adjust to table-top play’s requirement of strong and complicated sensory filtration may never be able to find the play style at all satisfying: complaints about the lack of immersion and SOD in table-top (“Nothing in the game seems real,” “It makes it hard to really *be* your character,” “It’s more like telling a story than it is like role-playing,” etc.) are very common among online rpers.

    Table-top gaming requires a great deal of verbal and social assertion, especially if you’re playing with an aggressive, talkative group of people. You don’t get a “turn,” and other people may speak right over you, especially if they’re really caught up in excitement over something going on in the game. You can be interrupted, and if you can’t manage to assert yourself conversationally, your contributions will never even be heard. To some extent, you’re reliant on the other players – and especially the GM – to grant you your fair turn to speak. This can be really intimidating and frustrating for people accustomed to being granted a turn as a fundamental part of the game system.

    You don’t have the same authority as a player in a table-top game that you do in most online RP. In many styles of table-top play, you’re not allowed to narrate the setting or to create plot: only one player, the GM, is supposed to be doing that. If you try to do it, you may be viewed as stepping outside of bounds, usurping the role of the GM, or just as being a rude and pushy player. It’s often really hard for people accustomed to online RP to get to used to their limited narrative power in traditional table-top, and it’s also hard to internalize the rules regarding when it’s okay to narrate the setting and when it is not. In some ways, table-top requires a more passive and reactive approach to play, which is something that online RPers often find very difficult to get used to.

    The sort of mechanics that many table-top games use often throws online RPers badly. Dice, cards, “points,” bartering systems, and the like seem very strange to online rpers: it’s sometimes hard for them to understand the relationship that these “subgames” are supposed to have to what’s going on in the fictive world. Many online rpers say that table-top reminds them of a board game or a parlour game, or complain about the way that the role-play is constantly interrupted to deal with what seem to them like irrelevancies. This is one of the most common complaints about table-top I’ve heard from online RPers. Table-top mechanics are really a huge, huge hurdle for a lot of people.

    The degree of description considered acceptable in the narration of most table-top play could also trip up an on-line gamer. It might take some time for a third-person para player to get used to the idea that not only is “I open the door” perfectly sufficient, but that giving too much more description than that is often not even considered socially acceptable. The fact that it’s okay to switch back and forth randomly between first and third person narration could also prove a bit confusing to a prose-based rper, especially since that is considered a flogging offense in many styles of prose-based play.

    Finally, some people are just not very comfortable with talking. Some people are also not very comfortable with “gaze.” Speaking is to table-top as writing is to online RPG. Online rpers who aren’t very comfortable speaking in front of others, or who feel self-conscious when other people are looking at them, may have a lot of trouble with table-top.

  23. Thomas Robertson says:

    Interesting. More expansion is demanded!

    12. You talk about “guaranteed” turns in online play. How does that work? You can only post after each other person in the game has posted, or what?

  24. Sarah says:

    Mwah-hah-hah! I tempted you by bringing up that turn-taking issue again, didn’t I?

    Whether or not – and to what extent – turns are really “guaranteed” in an online RPG depends on what system is in use. Generally speaking, though, in the most usual style of thread-based rp, if you are playing through a scene, then yes, those players who are directly involved in the scene (which is very rarely if ever the same thing as every player in the game) take turns.

    The most common exception is large group scenes, which as I mentioned before, tend to be rather problematic in this style of play. The understood default rule for scenes involving two characters is strict turn-taking. Once scenes start to involve more than two people, however, then groups start to vary a lot more widely in how they prefer to handle play. Some groups adhere to strict turn-taking even in large group scenes; others leave it more up to the players’ discretion to figure out how to ensure that everyone is getting sufficient opportunity to describe what their character is doing without doing too much damage to the continuity. For very large group scenes, sometimes special rules are applied: arranging a chat session, for example, or temporarily empowering one player (usually either a mod or the player who originally staged the scene) to control the flow by “tagging” people to indicate that it is now their turn to post.

    Another exception would be the introduction of a newly-arrived character to a scene already in progress. Someone just joining an “open thread” can cut in at any time, although the player is expected to use her discretion in picking a plausible and dramatically reasonable moment to have her character enter the action.

    So no, one is not always guaranteed to get a fair turn, even in thread-based play. It’s certainly possible, especially in large group scenes in games which have not adopted formal rules for turns, for players to wind up feeling that their fair turn was inappropriately usurped or skipped over by the other players. This is in fact precisely the problem which the institution of more formal turn-taking rules – which seems to me to be becoming more and more popular in journal-based play-by-post, although I have no hard data on that – is intended to solve.

    The idea of turn-taking, however, seems to me to be fairly central to this style of play, in a way which it is really not in table-top. “But I didn’t know when it was my turn to speak!” is a complaint I’ve often heard from online gamers after their first exposure to table-top play.

  25. Thomas Robertson says:

    Very interesting. Especially the idea that there may be a trend toward stronger turn-taking rules, something that isn’t often a big deal in face-to-face play because we have all those non-verbal signals like looking at people expectantly. Anyway, I’m going to pull myself out of the turn-taking quagmire and move on…

    13. You mention the size of online play. I’m not all that familiar with it myself (hence the interview), but the examples I know most well are sprawling, massive games, not tight games of a half dozen players. So, how common are big games, how common are small games, and what’s the most common size for a game? Also, do specific media tend to change for different types of games? That is, are larger games generally played in an audience-friendly medium like forums while smaller games tend to be played in more private mediums like email?

  26. Sarah says:

    Honestly, I’m not quite sure how to answer your first question. I have no idea what the average size game is, or what the real numbers are. It is certainly my impression that there are far fewer massive play-by-post games out there than there are small ones. It also seems to me to be the case, however, that the massive games tend to have large public profiles, while small games are often known only to their players and perhaps to some of their players’ friends. And of course, PBEMs, which tend to be played by smaller groups, usually don’t have any public profile at all.

    This is unsurprising to me, really. A game doesn’t become “massive” in the first place unless lots of people have heard about it and decided that they want to join. And successful small games don’t have any particular incentive to draw public attention to themselves.

    In some ways, though, the games that have the largest public profiles are – embarassingly enough – also the very least successful ones: The Small Games That Want To Be Big But Aren’t. Part of the reason that they’ve got such a large profile is that they advertise for players. Constantly. Repeatedly. With increasing desperation. For months or even years on end. They can’t retain players because their games are no good, and their games are no good because they’re designed for a much larger group than they’ve actually got playing, and they can’t ever get that large play-group that their game concepts require because they can’t retain players, and they can’t retain players because their games are no good….

    Wash, rinse, repeat.

    This brings us back to the problem I was talking about yesterday: the failure of many online RPs to design properly for small groups. Far too many online games seem to be predicated on the sorts of premises that can really only work if you have a lot of players. When they then fail to attract that many players (as they nearly always do), their games simply don’t work. I don’t know what the failure rate of journal-based online RPGs actually is, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was well over 50%, and I’m convinced that the reason for that is this particular flaw in their game design.

    I’m not quite sure why this is so common – whether it’s a matter of people being over-ambitious, or whether it’s in fact a direct result of the aforementioned higher public visibility of the Really Big Games. It seems likely to me that it’s the latter: because the Really Big Games are the ones that get the most public attention, people try to emulate their premises when they set out to create a games of their own. What they fail to realize, though, I think, is that many of the more successful (and therefore more often badly emulated) larger-sized games didn’t start out that way – they actually started out with plots and conflicts relevant to a small player group, and only expanded the scope of their games later, gradually, as it became necessary to accomodate a growing player base.

    In case you can’t tell, by the way, I really find this frustrating. It’s just painful to me to watch people making the exact same mistake over and over again, when it seems so obvious to me that it’s a perfect recipe for game failure.

    Also, do specific media tend to change for different types of games? That is, are larger games generally played in an audience-friendly medium like forums while smaller games tend to be played in more private mediums like email?

    Yep. PBEM isn’t well-suited to large groups. Maybe there’s someone running an enormous PBEM out there somewhere, but I’ve never heard about it: all of the e-mail games I’ve personally heard about always seem to be quite small. BBS software, on the other hand, seems particularly suited to really big games. It allows for the allocation of different fora to different in-world “locations,” which can really help to keep things managable in a heavily-populated game, and it also has the advantage that it bumps recently-updated threads up to the top, which makes things so much easier to follow in a really big game. Journal-based play falls somewhere in between: it’s a good medium for small games, but it’s used for some big ones as well. Larger journal-based games often consist of a huge number of actual journals: the built-in aggregation feature of the LJ code helps to keep them all associated with each other so that people can follow the play. Larger journal-based games also seem to me to be particularly prone to delve into multi-media, supplementing journal play with chat rooms or IRC channels.

    Of course, though, to some extent, this gets back into the public profile issue. For all I know there are a gazillion tiny little BBS-based RPGs out there, and I’ve just never heard of them because they’re not particularly well-known and they do not advertise. It does seem to me, though, that BBS is generally considered the best of the three formats for giant games.

  27. Thomas Robertson says:

    14. You talk a lot about immersion in online play. Is immersion one of the primary goals for online play? That seems somewhat counter-intuitive since it appears that prose-based play would be somewhat anti-immersive, but clearly you don’t seem to think so. However, I find it interesting because I never really thought of online play as being immersion focused.

  28. Sarah says:

    You talk a lot about immersion in online play.

    Well, immersion is an important part of RP to me, so it’s probably only natural that I tend to focus on it when I talk about RPGs. I also think that it is important to enormous numbers of role-players, which I believe is the reason that Forge theorists sometimes feel compelled to speak so strongly against it – they’re reacting against a widespread cultural norm. Yet even they often agree that it’s one of the main things they value in games: my old friend and ex-housemate Vincent, for example, considers immersion to be a terribly important part of role-playing; he just has very strong opinions over what can and cannot facilitate it, and considers many of the more prevalent beliefs on that subject to be groundless superstition.

    I don’t find it surprising that role-players tend to be interested in immersion. Immersion is related to role-assumption, and role-assumption is the primary distinction between RPG and those things that RPG originally evolved from: tactical wargames in the case of table-top, collaborative fanfiction in the case of fandom RP. If people didn’t find there to be something terribly appealing about role-assumption, then RPG never would have evolved in the first place.

    Is immersion one of the primary goals for online play?

    That’s always going to depend on the individual player, I think. I mean, it’s a bit like asking “is immersion one of the primary goals for face-to-face play?” The only possible answer is: “Well, I guess that all depends on who you’re talking to, and what sort of games they favor.”

    It certainly seems to me, though, that it is one of the primary goals for the majority of role-players. It’s something people talk about a lot. When they cite their reasons for enjoying role-play, it often tops the list. And when they complain about gaming styles that they don’t like, their complaints do seem often to be focused on immersion issues.

    So, yes, I’d say that immersion is definitely one of the primary goals for most on-line gamers.

    That seems somewhat counter-intuitive since it appears that prose-based play would be somewhat anti-immersive, but clearly you don’t seem to think so.

    On-line RPers often express great surprise when they find out that table-top RPers also care about immersion! To them, that style of play seems inherently anti-immersive (I listed a couple of the more common reasons people cite for feeling that way in my answer to #11). They therefore just naturally assume that the people who favor it must value different things than they do. This is one of those things that just always totally cracks me up about listening to people talk about role-playing.

    If there’s one thing I’ve learned about RP, it’s that different people have very different things that they find “anti-immersive,” and that they nearly always assume that their own Immersion Killers must therefore be Immersion Killers for everyone else as well. You hear it all the time. “Those people can’t really value immersion the way I do, because they [use dice/use
    mechanics/play multiple characters at once/play GMless/ plot/retcon/break play to discuss metagame issues so often/narrate in the third person/gloss over in-game events/don't play in real time/play face to face/fill-in-the-blank].”

    It usually goes right along with the “if I wanted to do that, then I’d just [fill in activity]” statements. You know the ones, surely? If I wanted to do that, then I’d be writing collaborative fiction! If I wanted to do that, then I’d be playing a board game! If I wanted to do that, then I’d be acting in a play! Elliot Wisen once cleverly referred to these statements as “I might as well…” statements. “I might as well be playing a video game!” Very often, those sorts of statements are at heart complaints about Immersion Killers.

    All that said, I think that one can often generalize about the types of things that most often prove problematic on the immersion front. People vary so much, though, in which of those things will actually impede them and which they can ignore without difficulty. Different people are thrown by different things. I also think that this is often a matter of familiarity and of learned behavior: people often learn to ignore the more anti-immersive aspects of whatever system they’re most accustomed to using, and then they feel totally mystified when those same things prove so terribly problematic for others.

    However, I find it interesting because I never really thought of online play as being immersion focused.

    I’ve heard a lot of people say that they prefer online play to face-to-face specifically because they find it more immersive. Others feel differently. It just depends, really.

    For me, it’s a bit of a trade-off. I personally find the “sensory deprivation” aspect of online play to be incredibly conducive to immersion. At the same time, though, I also find the stop-motion effects of asynchronous play rather damaging to it. So from my perspective, there are both positives and negatives on the immersion front. The oral vs. written thing isn’t a big deal to me one way or the other – many people, however, seem to find one or the other of them to be far more conducive to immersive play.

    Anyway, just as with table-top, some styles of on-line play are far more narrowly designed to facilitate immersion than others are. Just as “table-top” encompasses a huge number of different game systems and styles, all of which vary a great deal in precisely what balance of game values they’re seeking to facilitate, so it is with written on-line games. It’s really hard to generalize about things like “are they immersive?,” because just as in table-top, while immersion is often a primary goal of role-play, it’s very rarely (if ever) the only goal.

    Just as table-top gamers do, online gamers choose for their games those systems and techniques which they find best facilitate the particular mix of values that their members prefer – and just as in table-top, this involves weighing their priorities and then making trade-offs until just the right balance is achieved.

  29. Thomas Robertson says:

    Good stuff, Sarah. It is interesting how we so often fail to realize just how similar we all are in this hobby, and that it really is all one hobby (well, sort of).

    15. What’s going on in the online prose-based “freeform” world in terms of design? You’ve mentioned rules a couple of times throughout. What (if any) kinds of interesting things are people doing in terms of manipulating the rules to better facilitate certain types of play? Or is it still mostly a matter of tradition and intuition?

  30. Sarah says:

    What’s going on in the online prose-based “freeform” world in terms of design?

    It seems to me that people are only now really starting to put a lot of conscious thought into their design, and it’s still…well, I see it as still very much in its infancy. It gets back to what I was saying before about prose-based online freeform PBP being sort of where table-top was back in the ’70s.

    My feeling about a lot of the people playing these games is that they really want to make them better – to make the successes more reproducable, and the failures less common – but that they’re somewhat hampered in discussing with each other how to go about doing that by a lack of a shared theoretical vocabulary on which they can build. I keep hearing murmers and grumblings that indicate to my mind that there’s growing dissatisfaction with this state of affairs: I know someone who has been talking about wanting to write a book about forum-based PBP; I hear people on rant communities like bad_rpers_suck complaining that there isn’t really any place they can go to talk about the theory of their play style, that the existing places they have at their disposal are either irrelevant or unsuitable for those sorts of discussions. I think there’s a bit of a sea change in the works within the community: people are beginning to want to look at what they are doing more analytically, and to be able to more consciously and deliberately design for the effects that they want.

    I find this really exciting. It’s one of the primary reasons that I’ve recently become interested in following RPG theory discussion again.

    What (if any) kinds of interesting things are people doing in terms of manipulating the rules to better facilitate certain types of play?

    Well, as has come up before, there seems to me to be a recent upsurge in the number of people who are trying to play around with the rules governing turn-taking in order to achieve a variety of effects. I’m also seeing a lot of rules experimentation in regard to pacing, character ownership, narrative voice (not an issue of nearly as much concern to table-top play, but a very hot one in prose-based online), plotting, and conflict introduction.

    And then of course, there are those already-established divisions in play style which so often cause arguments. Is “emote style” intrinsically more immersive than third person narration? Many people feel it is, and others strongly disagree, and then they get into fights about it. What about first person journal style? What are that style’s advantages and disadvantages? Does the strictly defined 2-paragraph format favored by some RPers provide an elegant framework which facilitates better and more satisfying play, or is it an artificial imposition which stifles expression and ruins role-play? Do games in which the mods take a stronger authorial role than the rest of the players in planning plot arcs create more satisfying stories, or less satisfying ones? Are fandom games that focus on the canon characters doing something fundamentally different than games which focus on OCs in the canon setting?

    There’s no consensus on these issues, any more than there’s consensus on the equivalent table-top issues, and since people tend to have very strong preferences in regard to these stylistic divides, there are often arguments about them. “Style X results in better stories!” “Does not!” “Style Y is anti-immersive!” “Is not!”

    You know how it goes.

    Or is it still mostly a matter of tradition and intuition?

    A bit of both, really. People do select from among the available systems and techniques in order to facilitate the type of gaming they want, but there’s also a lot that just comes down to tradition.

    Sometimes, also, there are design decisions that are being made deliberately, but that aren’t terribly analytical. I see an awful lot of emulative game design out there, for example. “Game X was awesome, so let’s use the same system that X did, and then our game will be awesome too!”

    The problem with that, of course, is that those who try to emulate a successful game usually fail to correctly identify many of the factors that made that game work so well. They are then disappointed when their own game, in spite of using roughly the same system, runs into problems that the game they’re emulating never seemed to encounter.

    The emulative instinct also leads to a certain degree of conservatism, which in turn can lead to stagnation. I guess this would count as “tradition.” People often copy each other’s rules sets word for word, because they figure that those are just the rules that everyone’s using, so of course they must be the best ones. I also think that there’s a certain amount of design conservatism which derives from player resistance to change. On-line games need to be able to attract players, and players are often resistant to trying new things: they don’t want to have to learn how to negotiate a new system once they’ve mastered the one they’re most used to – they just wanna play already! Games which take unusual or experimental approaches can therefore sometimes find it difficult to attract players.

    That said, though, there is a lot of experimentation going on out there, and a good deal of variation in the systems people use. And while I think that there are many people who choose their systems based on vague and perhaps not very well-considered emulative desires (ie, “I want my game to feel like Nocturne Alley, so I should run it Nocturne Alley style”), there are also lots of people who are more deliberate and thoughtful about how they pick and choose from among the many systems and techniques available to them, in order to encourage a stronger focus on the things that they most want out of their games.

  31. Thomas Robertson says:

    16. I don’t think you’ve really talked about this much, but it is something that I have heard (somewhere). My understanding is that many fandom-based online games strongly favor extant characters, and strongly disfavor original ones. What’s up with that? Why the strong preference to play in someone else’s back yard, especially when coupled with a strong preference against getting your own back yard? Is it an accessibility issue?

  32. Sarah says:

    I knew there was a major difference I was forgetting in my answer to question #6!

    Yes, it’s true. Original characters are held in great suspicion by a large number of fandom gamers. This is one of the major divisions in stylistic preference among fandom gamers, actually: do you prefer games which focus on OCs (or on those “canon characters” who are little more than names in the original source text, and who are therefore, for all intents and purposes, the same as OCs), or do you want to play with the ‘major canons?’

    Disclosure here: I personally far prefer games which focus on OCs or on very minor canons to those which focus on the major canons. This makes me feel a bit hesitant about attempting to explain the prevalence of the other preference. I’m always a bit leery of trying to “explain” preferences which I don’t feel I fully comprehend, because it’s been my experience that when people try to do that, they often get it wrong – and sometimes wrong in ways that those who actually do hold the preference in question find actively offensive. Nonetheless, I’ll do my best.

    One of the reasons for the bias against original characters in fandom-based role-play is simply a reflection of the bias against original characters in fan-fiction. The bias against original characters in fanfic usually derives from the suspicion that such characters are bound to be Mary Sues.

    “Fear of Mary Sue” is itself such a huge, divisive, and contentious issue within online media fandom that I’m not even going to begin to get into it here. There seems to be a growing concern, though, that both anti-Sueism and bias against original characters have gone too far and become counter-productive – that it’s become a dysfunctional cultural bias and needs to be changed. (For a very recent example of an expression of this concern, see dragonscholar’s report from this year’s Anime North convention).

    So…yeah. Huge issue, this, and not one that I feel prepared to tackle in too much depth here. Suffice it to say that many people view original characters in fanfic as inherently suspicious and problematic, and that since fandom-based RPG both evolved from fanfic and takes place within the same subculture, you see many of the same issues “bleeding over” into approaches to RPG.

    Another reason that I think the bias against OCs exists derives from the combination of anonymity/open admissions and freeform play. Since most of these games are d-b (they don’t use quantified or discrete values to define character), there are no formalized mechanics which can help to regulate a character’s powers, abilities, flaws, or limitations. There’s no “character sheet.”

    This aspect of freeform play is not all that problematic when you’re playing with people you already know and trust. In an “open admissions” game, however, I think there’s often greater concern that without some formalized bound on character, the game will be vulnerable to inundation by twinks/munchkins/powergamers. Insisting that people play only canon characters serves to mitigate this concern. The idea here is that the canon itself serves as something akin to a “character sheet” – it helps to define at start what a character is and is not, and on what he can and cannot do.

    Another reason games might wish to restrict the PCs to the canon characters is the same reason that convention games, for example, often only offer pre-generated characters to their players: it’s a way to build specific themes and conflicts into the game from the very start, and thus to maintain tighter control over what the game ends up being “about.”

    Sometimes I also think it’s a matter of challenge, a way of privileging gamism. Online role-players often find it enjoyably challenging to try to play a character within the limitations and boundaries set by a pre-existing body of work. Working within constraints is a test of skill, and it can also sometimes serve to introduce an element of player-player competition into the game – or even across games set in the same canon setting. For people whose enjoyment of RPG includes viewing it as, in part, a type of competition, playing a major canon character offers them a way to do that.

    Finally, I think that in many cases, a preference for games which focus on the canon characters is just a reflection of the group’s fictive preference. We’ve talked a lot about immersion as one of the primary goals of online role-play, but we’ve not spent much time talking about one of the other primary goals: story-telling. I think that a lot of people view role-playing games as “storytelling plus role-assumption.” But “storytelling” can encompass a lot of different types of fiction, right?

    If the sort of stories that you’re interested in are ones that deal with high adventure, then you’ll probably gravitate toward playing RPGs that tell stories of high adventure. If the sort of fiction that you’re most interested in is meta-fiction, on the other hand, then you’ll likely be drawn to games which tell meta-fictional stories – in other words, fanfic. And you might be particularly interested in fanfic that directly challenges and confronts the original source material by taking on the canon characters themselves .

    This, of course, gets into the entire question of what people see in fanfic in the first place, which – again – is far too huge a topic for me to want to get into here. Fanfic comes in a number of different genres, and they all serve slightly different functions. A good deal of what a lot of fanfic is all about, though, is confronting the original source material, and one of the ways that it most frequently does this is through the reinterpretion and recontextualization of the canon characters themselves. So if you what you want to do is to role-play fanfiction, then it makes a certain amount of sense that you’d want a game in which the PCs are the major canons.

    So those are some reasons for the prevalence of the preference for games which focus on the major canons. I’m sure there others which I’m just plain missing.

    As for the popularity of playing in canon settings, though, which I think is what you’re asking here?

    Why the strong preference to play in someone else’s back yard, especially when coupled with a strong preference against getting your own back yard? Is it an accessibility issue?

    Yeah, I think it is often an accessibility issue. Published settings which were originally created for use in table-top play (World of Darkness, Greyhawk, etc.) are also quite popular among online RPers – and they serve pretty much the same function as they serve for table-top gamers, I’d say. They give the players some common ground to start out from, which in turn can help to combat certain types of assumption clash.

    I think that accessibility is a huge factor in the popularity of canon settings for online games. If I wanted to run a game set in, say, my table-top group’s long-running fantasy world, any prospective players would first have to familiarize themselves with that world, which would be a hell of a lot of work. The worlds of popular fictive texts, on the other hand, have – by very definition of ‘popular’ – already been learned and assimilated by large groups of people. This makes it much easier just to find people to play with. The existence of a shared text also makes it a lot easier for people who find each other on-line to get down to playing relatively quickly. And, it provides an official textual authority – “the canon” – which makes it easier for groups of people to work together collaboratively and to play in an authority-diffuse style.

    Playing in canon settings which have a large and active extant online fandom can also help to reduce squabbles over interpretation of the game’s genre and setting, paradoxically enough, because fandom itself is so completely obsessed with squabbles over conflicting interpretations of canon. Fandom RP’s existence within a wider subculture which itself can sometimes seem positively defined by heated partisan divisions between those who favor specific interpretive approaches to the source text gives fandom rpers a convenient vocabulary and context with which to evaluate whether a given gaming group’s favored interpretative approach will coincide or clash with their own.

    It doesn’t always work, of course, which is one of the reasons that I think online gamers need to develop a much better theoretical vocabulary. But at least it’s something.

  33. Thomas Robertson says:

    Man, that’s interesting. I’ve got this huge stack of questions this raises, but they’re all about online fandom more than freeform roleplaying, so I’ll take them to email. Anyway, the final question (I think).

    17. Where should people who are interested in getting involved in the online prose-based play scene go? Are there good introductory communities, or especially educational well-known games it would help to be familiar with? Also, where should we go if we’re curious about online fandom in general?

  34. Sarah says:

    Where should people who are interested in getting involved in the online prose-based play scene go?

    Oh, alas! If only anyone knew!

    Seriously, this is one of the questions that plagues on-line gamers: how in God’s name do you find the decent games?

    Sturgeon’s Law is very much in effect when it comes to on-line games. In fact, I’d say that on-line RPG probably even exceeds Sturgeon: more than 90% of them are crap. Imagine if it were possible to find an on-line link to every table-top game being played in the country. Now imagine trying to find one that you’d personally consider worthwhile. Now imagine trying to find one that you’d not only consider “quality,” but that would also match your particular genre and stylistic tastes enough so that you’d actually want to play in it. It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.

    This question comes up rather often on rant communities like bad_rpers_suck, and the responses can sometimes be a bit telling. On this thread, for example, some people chimed in to express some degree of sympathy with the original poster’s lament

    “I guess most of the ‘good’ games keep their heads down and let word-of-mouth do the work for them. Shame there’s not a ‘vetted’ list somewhere, but then, who’d be in charge of vetting?”

    while others simply gave (rather unhelpful) explanations of how they find good games:

    “I always just seem to follow the good role players and they lead me to the games. But I suppose that only works if one knows some good role players”

    “Most of the ones Ive found I’ve found through friends who are a part of the group already.”

    But it’s rather interesting to note that very, very few people actually volunteered the names of their own games, and that of the people who did agree to do so, most offered to contact the OP through private e-mail or AIM. This a community with over four thousand members. And yet, only a handful of them were willing to volunteer links to games in the public space of the thread, and those who did so were often playing games with rather specialized and possibly limited appeal (jrock celebrity, experimental murder mystery, smut).

    And this brings us back right back to the gate-keeping issue.

    There’s a terrible conflict in the minds of on-line gamers between the desire to be inclusive and welcoming to newcomers, and the desire to play only with people one already trusts. One of the results of this conflict has been the development of a kind of hierarchy of games: “cattle-call” games, which keep a large public profile and accept applications from new players; and “private” games, which are by invitation only and usually try very hard to fly under the radar, sometimes even to the extent of barring public access to their game (friends-locked livejournals, restricted access BBS, etc.) or by formally requesting that their players not talk about the game in public at all (often jokingly referred to as “The Fight Club Rule”).

    What this means is that if you are new to the community, often the only way to get an invitation to play in one of the better, more private games is to do your time in one the ‘cattle-call’ games until you make friends, or until someone notices you and invites you to a more selective one.

    Sadly, this does lead to a rather ugly “elite vs plebe” dynamic within the gaming culture. Cliquishness is a serious problem in on-line gaming, and one that people often complain about.

    It’s easy enough to find cattle-call games. They advertise for players on “pimp communities” like unique roleplay on Greatestjournal, or RPG List on livejournal. There are also more specific advertisement communities for PBEM and forum-based games out there. It’s usually the case, though, that games which advertise themselves in pimp communities are pretty dire.

    A somewhat sneaky way to find low-profile fandom-based journal-based RPGs is to go to Greatestjournal (a livejournal clone popular among RPers) and then to do an “interest search” on the name of a character from the particular canon world one is interested in. Such searches quite often turn up RP journals, and you can then follow the links to the main role-playing community and see if the game is any good.

    Are there good introductory communities, or especially educational well-known games it would help to be familiar with?

    Milliways Bar is a large and sprawling multi-fandom journal-based game which has spawned a rash of imitators. It’s a good place to check out if you want to get an idea of what thread-based RP can look like, although be warned: Milliways has over time developed a somewhat idiosyncratic “house style.” Its players favor third person present tense, which is less usual than third person past, and the convention is to write the “thread openers” in a quirky, strongly authorial and self-conscious “semi-OOC” narrative style, which only shifts to a more typical IC stance once IC interaction has actually begun. Because it is so large, it also has a more authoritarian structure than smaller games usually do.

    Nonetheless, I think this is a good game to observe for a number of reasons. For one thing, its primary OOC journal is (rather unusually) not completely friends-locked, so you can get a much better feel for how the game actually works than you can with most on-line games. For another, it’s possible to see how certain rules and conventions – and the jargon which they engender – have developed over the course of the game in response to some common gaming dilemmas: pacing (“slowtiming,” “Millitime”), player-player disputes, and conflicts between IC behavior and meta-game concerns. (The thread in which a new rule on “canon puncturing” was imposed by the mods is an interesting example of an attempt to negotiate one particular IC vs. meta conflict.)

    Milliway’s is one of those “trend-setter” games that many people seem to be currently trying to emulate – with varying degrees of success. It’s a good example of a Really Big journal-based game that has been quite successful – although there’s recently been concern that the game has been faltering, and the mods are taking action to try to halt its decline.

    Nocturne Alley, a Harry Potter slash soap opera, ended several years ago. It was largely responsible for popularizing the quasi-epistletory “first person journal style,” as well as a genre which might be best described as “gay-friendly soap opera at Hogwarts.” (Some people really do not thank the game for that last part!) It was quite the phenom in its day; when the game ended in 2004, there were outpourings of mourning from its many spectators and fans. It has often been emulated, only sometimes with any degree of success.

    There’s an interesting series of threads on its fan community, NrAged, in which after the game had finished, its players and one of its mods answered fans’ questions about the game. (Q&A with a mod can be found here, Q&As with some of the players took place over the months of August and September of 2004.)

    Nocturne Alley is a good example of a number of the things we’ve talked about in regard to fandom games in particular: recontextualization of major canon characters, cultural preference for player pseudonymity, and use of the game to explore meta-fictional concepts. (In Nocturne Alley’s case, I’d also say that part of what the game was exploring was the very nature of CMC itself.) It also seems to me that in many ways the game may have been unusually deeply rooted in the particular aesthetics of media fandom, which could also be educational, but which might also make it seem a bit mystifying in places.

    Both of these are examples of successful large games. Successful small games often have far more locked material, and are therefore harder to use as educational examples.

    Also, where should we go if we’re curious about online fandom in general?

    Metabib is a terrific resource. It’s a bibliography of material on the subject divided into categories, the most useful of which are probably the first (academic books and articles, some of them available for reading online), and the last (a linklist of livejournal discussions written by Just Plain Fans, and therefore varying widely in quality, topic and formality of approach). Highly recommended.

    Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers (1992), dated and tinged with apologia though it may be, is still probably the best available introduction to the culture of media fandom. It’s also to some extent required reading for everything that follows, as nearly everything that has been written about fandom culture refers back to Jenkins in one way or another, even if only to disagree with him. (It may be of some interest that Jenkins has also been known to write about the relationship between games and narrative.)

    Matt Hills’ Fan Cultures (2002) is simply superb, and it makes an excellent follow-up to Jenkins. Hills takes issue with Jenkins, whose explanation of fandom culture he seems to see as rather one-sided and defensive. Great book.

    Camille Bacon-Smith’s Enterprising Women: Television Fandom and the Creation of Popular Myth (1992) is also seminal, if somewhat specific in focus.

    Theorizing Fandom: Fans, Subculture and Identity, edited by Harris and Alexander (1998), is a strong compilation of essays on the subject.

    Material specific to online media fandom is relatively thin on the ground so far, mainly because it’s such a new phenomenon. (You gotta give people a little bit of time to study the stuff before they start publishing, right?)

    That said, I’m now right in the middle of reading Rhiannon Bury’s Cyberspaces Of Their Own: Female Fandoms Online (2005). So far, it seems good.

    I am very excited about the forthcoming Fan Fiction and Fan Communities in the Age of the Internet: New Essays, which is coming out this fall. Although the book hasn’t even been released yet, it’s already getting quite a lot of good buzz, and the abstract, which you can read on-line here, looks really promising.

    “Refractory” is an on-line journal which often has good articles related to fandom. Pugh’s The Democratic Genre: Fan Fiction in a Literary Context could be of interest, as could Shave’s Slash Fandom on the Internet Or Is the Carnival Over?

    “Intensities” was also a good on-line journal for this material, but sadly, they seem to have disappeared from the web. I hope they return someday: they published a fantastic Jenkins/Hills interview that I don’t think is available anywhere else.

    Less formally, if you wanted to see what sort of issues online fans discuss among themselves, you could always lurk the livejournal communities fanthropology and metafandom. Fanthropology is a community dedicated to discussing and analyzing fandom culture, news, and events. Metafandom is what’s often called a “newsletter:” it links to whatever livejournal discussions on fandom issues are brought to the attention of its maintainers and considered “interesting.” (Whether or not they really are interesting is rather a matter of personal taste, but it is a good way of keeping up with What People In Online Fandom Are Buzzing About from day to day.)

  35. [...] I’ve had a lot of fun grilling Sarah Kahn over in the interview.  Now it’s your turn! [...]

  36. [...] I’ll end up doing the same thing here that I did in my interview with Sarah Kahn: this thread’s for me and Mo. If you’ve got questions I’m not asking please email me. I don’t think I’m the only one worthy to ask the questions, it just keeps things less cluttered. Then, when we’re done here, I’ll start up a new thread where everyone can talk about it. [...]

  37. [...] Some of you may remember the interviews I did way back when (the ones with Sarah Kahn and Moyra Turkington). Well, that second one, the one with Mo, never got finished. What with her going of to India and all (and, I hope, having a wonderful time). Hopefully we’ll pick it up after she gets back and settles in, but we don’t know yet. [...]

  38. Is the Sarah Kahn here the Sarah Kahn who wrote an online serial named ‘Pulp’ at Oberlin College starting in 1986? If so, would it be possible for you to put me in contact with her? I have an old copy of that saved, and was wondering if she might be interested in having a copy herself.

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