Beginning in the late 90s—1994, 1995, somewhere thereabouts—I discovered an internet phenomenon that had been around for roughly a decade: text-based roleplaying games, also known as “online tabletop”, or “interactive fiction”.
From Wikipedia’s “online text-based roleplaying game” artlcle:
“A role-playing game played online using a solely text-based interface. [They] date to 1978, with the creation of MUD1, which began the MUD heritage that culminates in today's MMORPGs.
“Some online-text based role playing games are video games, but some are organized and played entirely by humans through text-based communication. Over the years, games have used Telnet, internet forums, IRC, email and social networking websites as their media. There are varied genres of online text-based roleplaying, including fantasy, drama, horror, anime, science fiction, and media-based fan role-play. Role-playing games based on popular media (for example, the Harry Potter series) are common, and the players involved tend to overlap with the relevant fandoms.”
The games I played were on Telnet, a text-based communication protocol. I started with a non-roleplaying MUD called “Ambush” that was purely hack-and-slash gameplay, and I quickly graduated to roleplay-centric games, in particular one based on the Final Fantasy videogames, called Final Fantasy MUX.
From Wikipedia’s “MUSH” article:
“Traditionally, roleplay consists of a series of "poses". Each character makes a "pose" – that is, writes a description of speech, actions, etc. which the character performs. […] This medium borrows traits from both improvisational stage acting and writing.”
This is a really good explanation of how it works, especially that last sentence. “Improvisational” is the operative word here. They don’t really get into the nitty-gritty of how the “pose” part works, though.
Each roleplay session is a “scene”. You and a handful of other players might agree to get together Friday night and do a “scene” in the game. Imagine a stage play that, instead of the entire story happening in one night, it’s stretched out over multiple nights, each session representing a scene in the play. If you’ve ever played “tabletop,” you probably know what I’m talking about.
So, that Friday night you all assemble in one of the game’s many areas—perhaps a tavern, or a cave, depending on the story—and one person begins the action with the first “pose” of the night, a slightly longer-than-usual entry that sets the scene for everybody else by describing the general activities and environment. If the scene takes place in a tavern, the first player to pose might describe the tavern itself and what the tavern patrons are doing in the background. They may or may not include what their own character is doing as well.
Then the next person poses their own character, describing what they’re doing or saying:
Kethis walks in and bellies up to the bar, ordering a whiskey. “Oy, mate,” he says to the bartender. “You heard anything about that fella I asked you about last night? The red-headed man?”
and so on. Each player in the list of players contributes a pose, round-robin style. It keeps going until the last player in the list has posed and starts over with the first player, ad infinitum, until the scene is finished. Poses can be just a few lines like the example up there, or they can be tremendous 20-line paragraphs. (Be aware, though, that many players dislike wordy players, as their poses take forever to write.)
The characters will get into conversations with each other, sometimes fighting, sometimes an epic plot arc that requires weeks or months of adventure scenes. Some games even allow sexual scenes. It’s great fun. It’s basically you and some friends co-writing a novel together on the spot.
This system works well as a sort of “boot camp” for writers, and I credit it for beating discipline and talent into me. Participating in a roleplaying game teaches you how to improvise and it hones your skill at believable dialogue. It teaches you how to push out the words instead of letting writer’s block sandbag you—everybody else attending the scene is waiting for you to post, and if you don’t post within a certain period of time (usually dictated simply by how long people are willing to wait) you’ll be skipped.
It also forces you to develop characters with legitimate flaws, too. In the world of MU* games there’s a type of character called a “twink”. You might know them as a “Mary Sue”—a character that can’t be beaten, a character adored by the opposite sex, a character that does no wrong. And nobody likes playing with people that have twink characters. Satisfying drama and compelling characterization comes from characters that can be defeated, characters that can feel pain, that can be ashamed of their mistakes and can be redeemed.
The technical aspect of playing Telnet games might make you ill at ease, but if you have the time, they’re worth climbing the learning curve. Some of them even have interfaces built right into their websites now, so that you don’t even have to download a separate program to access them…just go to their website, click through to the game, and it’s right there in your browser! They control a lot like those old Infocom games you played when you were a kid—remember The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? You are likely to be eaten by a grue. It’s a lot like that, only simpler.
If you want to give one of these games a try, the Mud Connector is full of them—games with original settings and characters, as well as games based on licensed properties such as The Wheel of Time, Harry Potter, and A Game of Thrones. Just give the Search link a try!