Unlikely Writing Resources – Online Roleplaying

A Game That Honed the Skills of Writers

I’ve played roleplaying games in one form or another for close to three decades. When the online services started opening, I inevitably found message forums dedicated to roleplaying and ended up getting sucked into storylines. The first one I remember was a forum on CompuServe back in early 1991. I let my CompuServe subscription lapse as my Navy duty stations changed, but in 1994, at the dawn of the modern internet, I found a text-based online RP game and got back into it again.

Online text-based RP games are a completely different animal from paper-and-pencils or forum-based RP. When you’re sitting around a table with friends and dice, RP is more of an acting exercise. You’re playing the part of your character, deciding what they do in various situations and talking as them when there’s dialogue. When you shift to written RP, it becomes more of a writing exercise. You still have to communicate actions and dialogue, but instead of just speaking it now you’re writing a little tiny piece of a story. On message forums you have the luxury of taking your time and thinking about your post, but when it’s online and in real-time you’re under the gun. You’ve got to get your “pose” out in just a few minutes because other people are waiting for you to take your turn so they can take theirs. People are going to be reading what you have to say as soon as you hit the Enter key. There’s no backsies. You have to be interesting and engaging, spell everything right, and have decent grammar and sentence structure all while roleplaying your wizard/pirate/hero.

And, just as people say you have to write terribly before you can write well, so it goes with online RP. I have logs from the mid-90s that are just painful to read because I was so, so bad. Telling rather than showing, cliché characterization, all the things they tell you to not do, I did. But I kept at it, saw what others were doing and aspired to reach their level, and got better. It’s a tough row to hoe, but the immediate feedback you get makes it a great crucible to practice your craft. You get to see a broad range of writing styles, things that work and things to avoid. It can even help with character development. One of the things I like to do to figure out how my characters work is drop them into various situations and see what they do. Online RP gives you that opportunity without you having to play the rest of the cast too. When you can concentrate on just one character, it’s easier to get into their head and learn who they are.

It’s not for everyone, and it tends to gobble up a lot of time, but if you get involved in online roleplaying it can be a big help in your craft.