Hi! It’s me again, Dirk, which means that Amber was too busy to be able to write a blog post this week and I’m filling in for her again. She had two back to back Ren fairs, as well as having a huge essay due this week. Anyway, in case you missed it, I introduced myself in my previous post on here: The Benefits of Writing Buddies. You can go check that out if you want to know more about me, but I guess the short version is that I’m a good friend of Amber and a fellow writer.
So on to this week’s topic: roleplaying. Let’s get everyone on the same page first. When I say roleplaying, I am NOT referring to LARPing, non-PG games of pretend, or tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons. The sort of roleplaying I want to talk about today is the one where 2 or more writers work together to tell a story, each controlling at least one character and writing from their perspective(s). That doesn’t mean it has to be in first person though, it can be written in any format or genre as long as all writers involved agree on that.
There are several styles and kinds of roleplays, but for this post, I want to focus on the kind that I know best. This is the so-called “play by post” style of roleplaying (often shortened to PBP), which you can mostly find on forums. Amber and I have also been writing our own roleplays together in this style for the past few years using a channel in our personal Discord server. It works in any place where you can post sequential messages, some people even use a shared Google Doc file for it. In this format, the writers take turns writing a post detailing the actions of their character(s). This can be written just like any other story you would write, with the exception that it should be a lot shorter. While some sites or writers set a minimum or maximum word count (or both) for posts, I’m personally not a huge fan of this approach. This can force the writer to either increase the length of a short post with needless details or having to cram a lot of information into a short message. Both of these situations can lead to bad writing.
Now that you have a better idea of what roleplaying means, I want to go over why it might be beneficial to you as a writer. Let’s start with the obvious reason: it’s fun! This is, of course, subjective and might depend on the writers involved, but generally speaking, if you like writing there’s a good chance you might enjoy roleplaying too. On top of that, it’s a lot of writing practice you can sprinkle in here and there, even if you don’t have time for a full writing session. Because posts tend to be a few paragraphs long at most, they can easily fit into a busy schedule. I have personally used it to practice writing dialogue and body language, two very important aspects of roleplaying that needed some more work in my own writing. It can also be a good playground for testing out ideas, ranging anywhere from characters, trying out a new magic system you thought up, or experimenting with characters that have a different age, gender or sexual orientation than your usual protagonists. It’s also great to get a taste of new genres, settings or time periods that you might not have much experience with.
By now I hope you’re starting to see how useful this can be as a tool to improve your writing. Before you dive in though, let me share some tips that will make your first roleplay a lot more enjoyable, both for you and the other writers involved. The first one only applies if you have 3 or more writers: remember it’s a group project. Don’t hog all the attention or posts, this is considered rude. While usually there isn’t a pre-determined posting order, it is good practice to wait for everyone to have an opportunity to react before you go again. This might of course not always happen in a timely fashion if they have busy lives, but at least give them the opportunity. Everyone should get the chance to contribute equally to the story, even if their busy lives might not allow them as much time to write as you might have.
Besides claiming all the posts, you should also avoid being in the spotlight all the time. Your character isn’t the only protagonist, and if they are always the first one to interact with a new character or situation, to grab the item, or to engage the enemy first, that doesn’t leave much for the other characters to do. While it is fine to take the initiative every now and then (especially if that fits your character’s personality), take a step back from time to time and allow the other writers to make the first move for a change. All characters should get their moments to shine.
Tying nicely into the collaboration thing, you should actually try to interact with the other writers. Don’t just have your character go off on adventures on their own all the time or sit silently in a corner of the bar while the rest talks. If your character’s personality allows for it, approach the other characters, talk to them, or otherwise acknowledge their existence. Even the most reserved characters will at least have some thoughts or reactions in response to others, even if they might not show it physically. This also means you should try to start your post with some reactions to what happened before. If someone threw a chair across the room while you were talking to a different character, don’t just carry on with your conversation right away. At least acknowledge that it happened. Maybe your character ducked to the side and only narrowly managed to avoid getting hit. Maybe they didn’t see it coming and yelled out in surprise from the noise. The best roleplays are the ones where the writers are interacting with each other all the time, building off the things the others wrote.
There are also some don’ts that you should be aware of because these can be frowned upon by other writers. Firstly there is what they call “godmodding” (although it has many names). This either means you make your characters too powerful or invincible, or that you step in as a writer and do everything in your power to make a situation turn out in your character’s favor. Things like just happening to have the right item on hand, even though your character never carries something like that and had no idea it might come in handy. This also extends to combat. A character that avoids all blows or bullets and destroys half an army without getting a single scratch themselves is no fun at all. Sure, they can dodge or block sometimes, as long as it’s believable for your character. But remember: even the best fighters take some hits every now and then.
The second major thing that might not be obvious when you’re just starting out is that you shouldn’t force anything on other characters, or assume their reactions. This can be solved quite easily by changing the way you’re wording actions. Take a look at this sentence: “John punches Rudolf in the face, followed by a kick in the stomach.” While you might not realize there’s something wrong with it, here you’re assuming both attacks connect. You’re not giving the other writer any options. Now consider this sentence instead: “John goes for a right hook to Rudolf’s face, followed by a kick aimed at his stomach.” Here, you’re just saying that’s what your character is trying to do. You haven’t assumed the success of the actions, and the other writer is free to determine whether those actions were successful or not and can make their character react accordingly. This isn’t just fighting scenes though, it applies to all situations where you interact with a character. Think of taking or giving an item, trying to kiss them, or asking a question for example. Never assume the reaction, leave that to the writer controlling the character. Of course, if you happen to control both characters involved in the interaction you should just write the reaction, this is mostly about interacting with characters controlled by other writers.
It seems like I’m not very good at keeping my posts short… Oh well, I hope it was at least informative and explained why I think every writer should give roleplaying a try. You might just find a new hobby that’s also good for your writing. Should you want to try it yourself, I can recommend the site RPG Collective. It’s a very friendly community that welcomes writers of all skill levels and they’re always happy with new members.