For many people like me, the foray into the world of role playing as a young adult began with text-based adventures on platforms like AOL, or MUDs or MUSHes–even BBS (bulletin boards). For young adults today, the story-based role play journey often starts on places like Twitter or Tumblr. Each of these text-based roleplaying forums has its own set of understood (if tacit) rules, and each community on those platforms typically has formalized rules.
I started RP (roleplay) largely in the text world, then moved to tabletop games (Dungeons & Dragons) and then live action. As I continued to write on platforms like Tumblr, I managed to recruit friends to larp, like my friend Ysabel. Given that, this journey isn’t the same for everyone. Some roleplayers larp first, then go to text-based roleplay later to complete between game actions (BGAs) for their larp, to participate in the larp community during financially difficult times (or during a pandemic), or to write in an altogether different story environment, such as something epic and historical.
Whether playing a high-drama immersive weekend-long freeform larp, a three-hour long parlor larp, a monthly boffer campaign, or even a week-long mega-battle larp, larpers know they have a limited amount of time to pack all the drama, politics, fighting, romance, antagonism, and action into the story they wish to collaboratively tell with the other participants. Text-based roleplaying, however, provides opportunity for plots to simmer.
As a larp designer running a largely text-based game (with occasional live action digital larp sessions), I’ve seen some larpers struggle with making the switch. Here are some tips to help larpers become exemplary text-based roleplayers.
Meta-Gaming Fills Different Roles in Larp vs. Text-Based Roleplaying
In most types of roleplaying, it’s considered bad form for your character to know something they couldn’t simply because you as a player are aware of the knowledge. For example, if the player Tammy tells the player Beth that her character is a vampire, but Beth’s character has no way of knowing, it’s not very fun or rewarding for Beth’s character to automatically know that. Especially in text-based games, it’s generally taboo for the character to have knowledge that only the player has. This is because it can lead to one player boxing another in based on use of all that knowledge, thus removing player agency.
That doesn’t mean meta-gaming is always bad. Let’s say Tammy’s character’s backstory says her character hates robots, and Beth reads the character backstory. Beth could message Tammy and say, “wow, my character is a robot rights activist–can we set up some antagonism?” From there, they can calibrate the interactions and steer the story.
Setting up scenes with out of character knowledge can be rewarding, but especially in text-based gaming, you’ll want to be very specific with what your character knows versus what you know. Meta-gaming can really take the fun out of letting a story play out, and it can ruin specific plot reveals as well. Through meta-gaming, you could villainize a character too easily or too soon using out of game knowledge about their motives. Not sure if you’re crossing that line? Communicate.
Additionally, when you’re reading a book and it describes a character’s thoughts and emotions, naturally you as the reader are aware of those thoughts. It’s an easy habit to pick up, and useful as we absorb stories. However, it’s important to remember that internal descriptions and internal monologue might be known to you–but not your character. Instead, look for words spoken aloud by other characters as well as physical cues from the character for yours to perhaps determine what’s going on internally.
Less Metaposing Can Limit Meta-Gaming
Metaposing occurs when one player writes what another is doing or intending. Beyond an overt meta-gaming action such as “and then they walked to the pond together” (when one player and character didn’t necessarily want to do that), metaposing assumes another character’s intentions.
Instead of stating another character did something for a specific reason, when that’s not a fact, stress that your character interpreted it in a specific way.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule for every player and game, but limiting metaposing can help you roleplay less reactively and consider others’ impact and intent, both in and out of game.
Use Different Player to Player Communication
In my early days of both text-based RP and larp, there wasn’t a lot of player-to-player communication. Lots of awful stuff happened in some of those games, including forced character deaths, rapes, and forcing characters to ‘be pregnant.’ As you can imagine, men forced a lot of of these actions on women players and characters. Not great.
Over the years, larp seems to have moved beyond that, but the anonymity of text-based RPing, even if you’re gaming with friends you already know, seems to enable some text-based roleplayers to feel like they just need to go with the story (or direct the story) without checking in with the other player for safety, content, or general story direction. Not so! Anytime there’s romance, antagonism, or a big plot change, it’s smart to check in. It’s also wise to do so if you’ve just completed an emotional scene.
Pace Yourself in Text-Based Roleplay
Whether you’re a planner or a pantser (someone who does things by the seat of their pants rather than plan) when it comes to roleplaying, text-based games are usually more long-haul, at least in terms of participation. By trying to squeeze a full plot into a day or a weekend, you’re asking your writing partners to potentially sacrifice time in other areas of their lives. You’ve got to be aware of others’ schedules and needs, and co-plan accordingly. It’s not like a weekend-long larp in which everyone generally puts their lives on hold to prioritize the larp event (and even so, real life should always come first).
With continually running Discord servers and message boards, it takes self-discipline and some organizational management to help the community avoid burnout. What may feel like a balm of community during a COVID outbreak could be an inactive community a year from now, without proper pacing. Ignore the instinct to do all the things at once and have your character in every plot. Most text-based games are around for the long haul, and you’ll have time to do what you need.
Remember: Text-Based Roleplay Means Collaborative Storytelling
When it comes to larp, there are a variety of different storytelling methods. Some are entirely sandbox, meaning all the “plot” is there for you in character backstory; other larps are largely about reacting to events that “staff” or “plot” delivers. In most text-based games, staff members or STs (storytellers) may direct a small or large portion of the plot, but you’re more in the realm of writing a collaborative story together, even if your narrative control is only about character relationships.
The beauty of big picture RP in any type of roleplaying game is these stories we tell together along the way. Just make sure you’re participating in ways other than reacting. Cause a stir, allow others spotlight, and always communicate out of game.
Consider Additional Accessibility Issues
Have you ever experienced tons of notifications stressing you out? In real life, we often have work and personal text messages, emails, phone calls, and more–sometimes all happening simultaneously. Even for a neurotypical individual, it’s a common source of stress. For some gamers with accessibility needs, throwing too much plot or text information at once, especially a text format, can be altogether overwhelming.
Consider checking in when you start plotting with another player about not only the pace of play, but expectations regarding volume of planning and play. As a Discord administrator, you can also limit how many messages individuals can post in the span of one another to control game pace.
While some people like getting a long message with five plot ideas, others consider it overwhelming, generally or because of accessibility concerns.
Additionally, various physical and mental health issues can affect memory. Be a helpful community member by setting your server-based user name (and profile picture, if you’re able) to that of your characters. If there’s space, include character and player pronouns, too.
Tell When You Can’t Show!
In larp, it’s easy to go big with your reactions. If your character is angry, you can ball your fists, frown, and (with consent of other players in the scene) raise your voice or even attack! In a text-based game, the other players cannot see your facial expressions. Like many writers, I vacillate between retaining an intent look no matter what I’m writing, and becoming so immersed in my writing that I adapt the expressions of my character. No one else knows those expressions, though, unless I describe them.
Additionally, you don’t always have to spell it out. Let’s say someone has insulted my character Mercy from Intrigue & Independence. I could express this two ways:
Mercy was absolutely irate. Sitting at her desk, she took quill in hand and penned a strongly-worded letter to the governor.
Mercy contemplated how the information would change her life, and the lives of those she loved. While her overall demeanor remained stoic, she clenched her jaw and tensed the hand that rested on Mathias’ arm.
Both get the job done, and both have their place in text-based RP, but second one is closer to the “show, don’t tell” we often use as larpers and actors. The first option gives me an avenue to advance plot through a solo action that will reach someone else (writing a letter), but the second action gives a clue to the player of Mathias about how my character feels, perhaps inspiring him to speak with her or address others as influenced by her reaction.
It’s all about where you want the story to go–but either way, you can’t assume others can see or interpret your character’s feelings on any given matter.
Type What They See, Not What You Think
The On A Roll Podcast suggests typing what others can see, use, and discern (kind of like the above visceral reactions) rather than what your character thinks. Why is this important? It gives other writers something to respond to. If Mercy’s just standing there thinking about being angry and not actually doing anything to indicate she is, the only way others can really know her emotions is by meta-gaming (in the context we discouraged earlier).
Help your fellow players out by providing something external, even if it’s just having your angry character storm out of the room.
But Also: Interior Monologues Are Useful
In larp, it’s rare that we get to use interior monologues. Sometimes there are spaces and mechanics that specifically allow for a character’s interior expression of emotion, such as black boxes. In most larps in the US, however, you’re generally not monologuing inward emotions.
In text-based play, we have the advantage of getting to express that. Each player has their own preferences about how to use this feature; I like to write it like a third-person novel, which can reveal some internal character thoughts, but doesn’t drown the other participants in it. I also find these more appropriate for scenes specifically focused on character growth or the development of any type of relationship between two characters. For example, the more my character Mercy interacts with family friend Jonathan, the more I feel like they have a very familial relationship, almost brother and sister. This emerged through play, but it’s something the other player and I also discussed out of game following the play. As noted, this is never limited to the development of romantic relationships, but it can also be a useful tool there.
Internal monologuing, when used appropriately, can allow other players to generate new ideas to approach you about out of game; when you’re roleplaying with someone you trust, it can provide a jumping off point for steering the play. Steering involves calibration to increase safety and enjoyment in roleplay.
Add Setting Details
In many larps, you’re in a castle, the middle of the woods, or in a parlor. Even if the consensual reality is simply, “our kitchen represents a spaceship,” larps often do not involve lengthy narrations about “what you see.” It’s more about what you’re doing and how you react.
In a text based game, it’s a little different. Players can’t actually see the physical space around you, or how your character looks and is dressed. You’ve got to make sure to describe this to them. There’s also no shame in setting a scene by using visual aids, especially in an out of game introduction to an event. This way, everyone knows what kind of space they’re working with, what types of objects (or food) are present, and whether there are other people (NPCs) around, such as festival-goers, servants, or children.
You Can Still Bleed
Because text-based roleplaying is sometimes seen as “less immersive” than larp, there’s the notion that bleed, or the transference of emotion from character to player and vice versa, isn’t as much of a thing. That simply isn’t true, especially for those like me who can get into a flow state with their writing. As in larp, you have to have awareness that you are, in fact, roleplaying, and are separate from your character.
Like in larp, it’s also useful to communicate out of game and debrief with your scene partner(s), especially after emotional and intense scenes. You can also use bleed as an empowering, exploratory tool, but make sure you communicate it with others. For example, I’m exploring how to fight sexism with my character Mercy, and when I’m in a scene that really plays on that aspect of the game setting, I try to calibrate with others to let them know how much I am comfortable with them pushing against my character by saying things like, “you can’t do that because you’re a woman!” This can change from day to day based on my needs as a person and experiences as a woman who does experience sexism in the real world.
Out of Game Drama May Be More Subversive in Text-Based Roleplaying Games
When larp drama happens, it seems to spread across all horizons, shouted on every hilltop. Unless it’s about a missing stair, of course–but then it does make its way around the whisper networks. Since text-based RP happens mainly with out of game communication occurring on text, there’s even more chance of misinterpretation, subtext, and hidden drama than there is an in an activity where you speak to people face to face on a regular basis, like larp.
Sometimes you have to root out the drama, encourage others to confront and name their feelings, and more–just like in any community. However, just as some conversations should be an in-person meeting or a phone call instead of a text, the meaning of what you’re trying to say can be lost or misinterpreted when done in out of game chatrooms, too. Take extra care to check in.
Above all, most of these differences between larp and text-based roleplaying come down to checking in with other participants and ensuring player agency. One of the most common ways to offend another writer is to make them feel like you’ve taken control of their character way from them–and overall, it’s bad form.
Do you have additional comments or observations to help larpers transition to text-based roleplay? Please add them below.
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