The word 'roleplaying' evokes images of sweaty kids sitting around a table, or of impossibly stylish Japanese boys on a quest to save the world. But the simple act of roleplaying - of people telling a story together - doesn't require colourful manuals or high-resolution graphics. It doesn't even require rules, nor the ceremonial presence of a Dungeon Master guiding the narration: it only takes two people willing to play pretend.
The advent of the internet brought new possibilities to roleplay aficionados. People now roleplay on forums, mails, Tumblr, Facebook pages, Whatsapp, IRC chats, Skype and Discord, building small communities ripe with drama and wonders. Their stories are rarely chronicled: the world they inhabit is a strange limbo between tabletop gaming, collaborative writing and video games, often forced to share space with the encumbering presence of fandom culture.
Online roleplaying games all share a few common rules. First you create your own character, usually compiling a character sheet to define their story and skills. You are then free to wander the world, playing with other people or joining a quest where a Dungeon Master puts the players against enemies and enigmas. Some games are entirely guided by one or more DMs; others put more emphasis on players interaction. Their differences are often defined by the software the game is being played on: the peculiarities of the medium of choice become a part of the game's design, twisting traditional roleplaying in new and exciting forms.
I am mostly a forum player, and I always liked the way a board can become a physical representation of a setting. Each sub-forum usually represents a different location of the game's world, and every topic is a scene that happens in that location. You can get an impression of how a location is populated just by opening a sub-forum, and story events can shape the world, giving life to new sub-forums.
Emulating dice rolls on a forum can be tedious, so numbers and stats are usually put aside in favour of narration. A good post is also one that is nice to read: one that can put you inside the character's head and also display their actions with clarity.
Forums allow for non-asynchronous play, ideal for people who live in small communities or are too busy for regular meetings with friends. The same is true for play-by-mail games, which use a system of mailing lists to keep everyone up-to-date with the story. It's the kind of game that can be experienced while catching up with work mails, a glint of solace in a boring day at the office. Games played on chats, on the other hand, allow players to set bots and other automated systems to track experience points and dice rolls. The rules are allowed to be more complex, while the writing is snappier and straight to the point. Scenes on a chat take less time to finish, but also require a major time investment from players, who need to stay connected for hours.
A perfect example of how the medium can impact gameplay is an RPG where I spent most of my teenage years: Trabia, a Final Fantasy 8-inspired experience that is played half on a forum and half on IRC.
Like in Final Fantasy 8, player characters are SeeDs - teenage soldiers training at an academy to tackle an evil witch and her allies. The forum is used to keep track of the bureaucracy, and to play the day-to-day lives of the characters. You can hang at a café, train with other players at the gym and study in the library. A simple conversation can last months, but this isn't seen as a problem: those simple happenings rarely impact a character's life. And if a scene is too slow and a person has too much free time, they can always open another one, meeting different characters and trying to not think too hard about which scene happens first.
Chat, on the other hands, is used for the quests: the big boss fights, the rescue missions, the epic battles typical of every Final Fantasy game. Events that can have lasting repercussions are binged in a few play sessions, engaging multiple players in an epic adventure. The aftermaths can then be played on a forum with the usual calm.
Tying your game to a popular franchise like Final Fantasy can help new people find your game. But it also comes at a cost.
"Final Fantasy 8 is our starting point", explains Agata Maini, one of Trabia's admins. "We got a Witch, we have SeeDs, we have cities and NPCs that will be familiar to those who played the game. The rest all came thanks to our imagination. Alas, the video game's setting neglected to flesh out the daily lives of its protagonists, so we had to fill the gaps.
"An example: how much does an ice-cream on Balamb's beach costs? And renting a house? The video game doesn't tell you those things, but our players might feel the need to know."
Nevertheless, many games use existing IPs as an inspiration to attract new players. Discoverability is always an issue for those niche realities. Directories like RPG-Directory exist, allowing players to find games that might cater to their interests, but the numbers of people willing to play is dwindling.
Some kinds of games are disappearing simply because the platform they're using is going out of fashion. Play-by-mail are a near-extinct race, but forums are suffering as well, overshadowed by social media.
Socials allowed thousands of people to start roleplaying, but the people who usually make games and play there come from a background that's different to that of forum and mail players. Social RPGs are often more casual, and heavily intertwined with fandom culture: players just want to don the garbs of their favourite anime characters, and care little about rules and organization.
The link between fandom and roleplaying made Tumblr one of the most popular roleplaying platform, even though the platform itself isn't really suited for this activity.
"There are no external sites that work as aggregation points, though as of late people have been trying to build Discord servers for specific fandoms where one channel serves as a presentation channel where to link your roleplay blog," explains Gaia, a long-time forum player who moved to Tumblr to find more players. "People browse the tags, such as, for example, 'indie rp', used by blogs that roleplay characters not affiliated to any group (and pretty widespread since affiliated groups aren't too common), indie being the abbreviation of independent, or 'original character rp'.
"Most people now post what we call self promos, where they usually post a graphic with basic info about their blog and character (name, fandom, selectivity) in the caption, and link to their rules and tag it with the aforementioned tags.
"So you can browse the tags to find promos, and your followers and friends can reblog your promo, which means that their followers and friends will see it and check out your blog. Once you're in the swing of things it's pretty easy to find other blogs simply by checking the dash or another blog, much like you'd see random people interacting with your friends on your Facebook homepage or on their profile."
Tumblr offers a greater degree of freedom, but also makes it difficult to organize a story between many different players who share a common ruleset. It's a different form of roleplaying, more focused on one-to-one interactions than on the sprawling epics of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns.
"I feel we're a bit like dinosaurs," comments Agata. "I don't think forums really have a future; that's why we're trying to play more and more on our chat.
"Perhaps one day players will ask us to play by using the voice channel. Wouldn't it be nice? And perhaps one day players will be able to use to specialized software, like FaceRig, to make a virtual version of their character and make them talk in their stead."
The way we connect with people is changing, and role-playing games will need to change and adapt. But I don't think this niche is ever going to disappear, because it's such a peculiar form of collaboration.
When we hear the word 'roleplaying' we may think about wizards, battles and video games. But in its purest form, roleplaying is when a person says, "Let me tell you a story", and the other person says, "Me too".