One of the beauties of free-form, chat-based role playing is that it is based on cooperative respect. In order to communicate the details of your character, you needed to establish communication with other players. Unlike a tabletop RPG, there is no game master to set scenes or provide background. The shared venue of the Red Dragon Inn formed the backdrop for exchanges, and a lively common room for meeting interesting characters. As you spent time in the chat room you discovered that the moderator served as “bartender”, usually role-playing right along with everyone else. And, at least in the time I was playing, there wasn’t much need to deal out disciplinary reprimands to unruly chatters. As AOL membership increased dramatically, this unfortunately became more of an issue.
The techniques for communicating aspects of appearance and character were imaginative and efficient. In order to keep the chat flowing smoothly, players were encouraged not to spam the room with macro-sourced text blocks. But most players had macros on hand for stock phrases, like their entrance into the room.
Some of these techniques would be useful in a tabletop environment. Identifying some stock descriptive components, turns-of-phrase, or habits of your character that can be employed in game (hopefully timed right, so as not to detract from the flow of play) to help paint a picture of your character for other players.
Another aspect of character development that the forums encouraged was cooperative storytelling. Each player would post a brief scene, and others would post in response, playing off one another and building a story. I wrote the following scene to explain my character’s arrival in Rhydin, the realm that housed the Red Dragon Inn. The scene is overwrought, and the theme of “anguished exile seeking solace and redemption in Rhydin” is hackneyed, but it was a theme that many of the characters in the forum had in common, and so we played well together.
The icy mist faded from around the Dark Elf and he was once more alone upon the desolate moor. The moon had sunk into the distant trees, it's silvery light winking through branches stirred by distant breezes.
Hurling the black-bladed tachi to the ground, Feadur wept openly. He knelt and cursed his foolish pride. Pride that had led him to the edge of the pit over which he now stood. In Naryathrond his whole being had been the honorable quest for power. The pride of the Ruling House. That would be his if the Feamegil could be returned to the Citadel. His brother had forsaken their House, calling House Feamegil 'too weak' to hold the Citadel. House Eldacar, he had said, combined sorcerous power with her military might. He would be their battle-champion, the SwordHand of House Eldacar. Feadur had cursed him that day and called him a traitor. Later, Kuluvinar had returned the 'favor'.
And now he stood trapped between two worlds. The glorious dark of Naryathrond and the warm light of Rhydin. Between the honor of rulership and the freedom of friendship. He felt the bindings as if they were the webs of the Demon Queen herself.
Nearby, the flickering radiance that ever danced along the edge of the black sword flared brightly. In his mind he heard the voice of the blade again, alien and metallic.
"Consider your choice, SwordBrother. We are one. We are joined that we may rule. Return to Naryathrond and reclaim the heritage of our beloved House. Return to her her lost glory."
Feadur gnashed his teeth and bit back the reply he longed to shout. Blinded by tears he stood and staggered away from the blade. It howled in anger. The Dark Elf collapsed not far from the raging blade and lay as if dead.
"You cannot simply walk away, SwordBrother! Were I to be lost, so would you be!" The voice of the sword laughed in his mind. He lay upon the cold moor and thought of his life. For two centuries had he dwelt in the Underworld of Naryathrond, while above him in the world of light all that he had now come to love was forming, evolving and growing. For two centuries he had had but one thought: Power. The power of rule. Of mastery over the lesser Houses. Why did it now feel so wrong? What had changed his heart?
"Answer me this, oh Spirit-Blade; What can you possibly hope to gain if House Feamegil again rules in Naryathrond?" Feadur cried.
"Know, SwordBrother, that our Mother-House was meant to rule!"
"And if I say I no longer care for my 'Mother-House'?"
"That is blasphemy, Brother," The sword hissed.
"I say it none the less! And aloud that all may hear! I renounce my House. I renounce my pact with Hel. I renounce our joining!" The Dark Elf gasped, his voice trembling with emotion.
"So you say, Feadur. So shall it be." The voice of the sword grated painfully in the Dark Elf's mind, the words twisting like knives. "I have existed for a millenium, as the Spirit of your House. You are the first to deny me Feadur. I curse you now, and I call upon that dark goddess of death, Hel, to wreak her vengeance upon you for betraying us!" The sword rose into the air and hung hovering before him. It screamed its call to the ether. "Hel! Know that this Elf has renounced us! Aid me now, that I may slay him and rid this earth of the stain of his disgrace!"I used this scene to introduce aspects of my character’s backstory. I hinted at some things, trying not to over-explain. The idea being that, over time, other players would participate and share their stories while I did the same.
One of the powerful aspects of the interwebs today is the readily available space for creating these kinds of dialogs. There are a lot of forums and wikis ranging from free of cost to minor fees that can host elements of your game. Obsidian Portal is one of my favorite wikis and I use it for my campaign. Providing space for campaign details means that you have a ready place for players to play in between sessions, or to expand on the details of their characters. Whether it is through art or writing, it’s a great opportunity.
The second aspect of the AOL forums that I enjoyed, the game Duel of Swords, lives on at a website called Rings of Honor. It consists of two duelists and a game master. The duelists choose from a menu of maneuvers and submit one to the game master. The game master compares the choices and announces the result from a pre-determined grid of resolutions. Think of it as an expanded form of rock-paper-scissors. Duel of Swords included an elaborate table of rankings and titles, as well as traditional methods for formalizing challenges. To fight for the position of Overlord, at the top of the table, was a great event. It prompted a lot of major gatherings and great role-playing in addition to the keen competition of the game itself.
Having a game subsystem within an RPG can be fun for players on occasion. Whether it is a card game in a tavern, a test of some skill, or a race mechanic, any of these options can create a lively session. In my Dominium campaign, I borrowed the idea of a race (and the source for the race mechanics) from a fellow game master, and created a festival in the hillside village of Old Sarum that featured a race involving wheels of cheese. Inspired by the Cooper’s Hill cheese-rolling race near Gloucester in the Cotswolds region of England, and the Formula D board game, I created a race through the serpentine cobbled streets. Players had to set their movement speeds, negotiate corners, and fend off other participants. Great fun was had by all.
Each player at the table has different strengths and levels of interest in role-playing. Finding ways to involve as many players as possible can mean thinking beyond your rulebooks and the roles they define, and looking for creative ways to inspire players to participate. Whether it’s cooperative storytelling, or sub-system games during your session, or some other avenue, there are many sources of inspiration to be mined.