Rowyn (rowyn) wrote,


I've been playing RPGs for almost thirty years now, and doing text-based RP for sixteen or so. Seven years ago I started playing on Sinai, where the roleplay took place in a structured, plot-driven environement with a GM. In January, I began playing, for the very first time, a play-by-email RPG -- bard_bloom's excellent Terrible Butterflies.

I've been reading longer than I've been roleplaying, and writing fiction for not quite as long. and for the sake of completeness, I've also been involved in some cooperative writing forums, which have fallen somewhere between roleplay and round-robin story telling. Remember The Outpost, hotspurre? Or the Haunted House?

This is my life-long love affair with fiction, with fantasy and sf, manifested in myriad forms but all tracing back to that one root desire: to immerse myself in the story. To make it real.

In many ways, this internal life of fiction, of settings and characters and stories, is more real to me than my external one. I think I am beyond considering this a Good Thing or a Bad Thing: it's just a Thing. Sometimes it absorbs all of my mental energy, for days or weeks or even months. Sometimes I turn my back on it and do without, for days or weeks or months, and immerse myself in that strange place we call the Real World instead.

In my own experience, there's a huge difference between three broad categories:

* Reading: stories created by others that I experience as a member of the audience (this applies to movies, TV shows, webcomics, etc.)
* Writing: stories that I create on my own
* Roleplay: stories that I create in cooperation with others

All of my cooperative efforts, from the round-robin stories to tabletop RP to MUCKing to the PBEM, have been more akin to each othe than they have been to writing solo.

There's something about roleplay that, for me, has always made it feel like a game -- even when it's just as hard to produce as writing a story by myself would be. Even when it's harder. Even when the resulting story strikes me as being as good or better than anything I would write on my own. There are several reasons for this; perhaps the most important is that RP is never accessible to a broad audience the way a novel could be. Yes, the logs or emails or segments of a text game can be posted to the web and people can read them, but few who aren't participants will ever choose to. They are plagued by what koogrr describes fairly as a lack of editing. There's a lot of repetition and fluff that may be interesting at the time, but which doesn't contribute to the overall story. Those who are part of the game, who are creating it and watching it unfold, will enjoy (or at least overlook) the extraneous information. But for someone who is only in the audience, the overload of stuff is too burdensome. They're looking for a traditional narrative, where all the parts contribute to the whole. Where the characters don't spend half the book chasing down deadends, or arguing over red herrings, or rechecking all their facts to make sure they've got them right. Oh, the characters might do these things, but they won't take up much of the reader's time. The author will usually cover false leads in a few paragraphs, not twenty chapters. The amorphous, meandering nature of roleplay makes it harder for those not directly involved to become engaged by it. It's not what they're expecting. It can become totally unpredictable, because players do things gamemasters don't expect -- and vice versa.

It is, in large part, this very unpredictability that makes roleplay so engaging for those involved. No one knows what's going to happen next, and no one is completely in control. When all the participants are skillful, the results are amazing.

One of the things that fascinates me, though, is the way that participants in a text RPG will attempt to follow the tropes of conventional story-telling. In logs on Sinai, players and GMs alike will often labor over the word choices in each pose and sentence. They evoke mood, character, setting in much the way a novelist tries to. Sometimes this has odd results, with characters taking a paragraph to say "I agree" because it seems too uncreative to say it quickly.

But some phenomenons are more subtle. One of these is "Just Do It". There are many reasons why player characters are more prone to action than discussion: arguing is dull, it take a long time to agree, planning is hard work and not fun, and so forth.

But one overlooked reason is a trope of all fiction, which is this:

Any Detailed Plan Discussed In Advance Will Fail.

You name it, in books, films, TV shows, whatever, nearly any scene which describes a plan beforehand will be followed by scenes of said plan going horribly awry. If the Plan were going to work, the author would write something like: " Jackson said, 'Now, here's the plan'" followed by an immediate cut to the action, wherein the plan unfolds before the reader's eye. Why would the author bore you by describing the same plan twice -- once when it's discussed and again when it's executed? And why bore you with the dry details of planning when he can cover that in one line and skip to the exciting part of showcasing a brilliant plan?

No, the only reason to tell the audience about a plan is if the plan is doomed, and the audience needs to know how it was supposed to go in order to understand why it's gone so wrong.

The result carries over to roleplay. Even when players have a plan ahead of time, they're reluctant to share it with the GM or show it 'on camera' because everyone knows that means it's not going to work. Sometimes this fear is rational -- a startled GM is less likely to invent an immediate counter to a plan. But I think more often, it's that ingrained, subconscious fear that good roleplay is like good fiction, and that means any plan visible to the 'audience' isn't going to work. Successful plans are those deployed for proper dramatic effect, and revealed only at the moment of utilization.

This can be pretty frustrating for GMs, who as a whole prefer to be prepared for what might happen in their games, and can't prepare when the PCs are keeping them deliberately in the dark.

I know a lot of you play RPGs, too -- what tropes have you noticed that have odd consequences when translated from the medium of books to that of games?
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