Dungeons & Dragons passed its 40th Anniversary just last year. Although I’m willing to bet that human beings have been “roleplaying” as a form of entertainment in one way or another since the dawn of time, D&D certainly brought it to the mainstream consciousness in a way that it hadn’t ever been before.
If anyone is at all familiar with the fantasy genre, I’m sure you’re well and truly familiar with the surge in books that were quite blatantly the writer’s D&D campaign that they thought was too cool not to share. But I’m not going to talk about that here.
No, in those four decades, a lot has changed in the world of roleplay—and one of the biggest catalysts to those changes has been none other than the internet.
Almost as soon as D&D hit the shelves, so did computer programs that would soon grow into Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs). There’s a certain stigma to D&D, that it’s all about math and dice and points, and these early programs largely suffered from a similar problem and stigma.
However, not every player was into that sort of thing. Some wanted to tell a story, or have focus be on characters and their interaction. TinyMUD was one such example, appearing on the scene in 1989. From there grew a multitude of different programs, from MUSHs to any variety of others that play on M-words.
But it didn’t stop there.
With the advent of easily accessible message boards, instant messaging platforms, online forums, and (of course) email, more people were able to connect with others and write together. And in that miasma of communication, a very particular breed of collaborative storytelling took root: “freeform roleplaying.”
Although I’ve since become more familiar with the culture of roleplaying as a whole, it’s here in the IM- and forum-based world of freeform that I am most at home, and have the most experience.
It’s also where I truly first cut my teeth as a writer.
You see, by the age of 9 I had already pronounced that I wanted to be an author when I grew up (and got a small cameo on a local news broadcast saying so), but that seemed like a very long way away. Sure, I wrote the first few pages of countless “novels” that I desperately wanted to create, but not much more than that. Still pretty ambitious for a nine-year-old, but I’m not sure how much I would have ever improved with just that.
At about 12, however, a friend of mine introduced me to the idea of “RP”: we’d both make up characters, she’d write a paragraph in a notebook about what her character was doing, and then she’d pass it to me. I’d write what my character did in response, rinse, and repeat.
This structure immediately clicked with me. In my limited experience, I had found it difficult to stay focused, or know where I wanted to go. With someone to bounce off of, however, I was able to keep writing. My friend and I would talk, and we’d throw around ideas, things we wanted to do. It kept the creative juices flowing, and now, someone was actively waiting for what I had to say. Nothing had been so good for my motivation as that.
Shortly thereafter, I discovered the internet—and that other people did this too. There were whole groups devoted to it, and I quickly fell into a few of them. I’m not sorry to say that most of my social interaction revolved almost exclusively around these groups of players and the stories we made during my teenage years.
Yeah, basically everything I did during that time was bad. I was still young and still learning. Most of the ideas that my friends and I wanted to pursue were directly ripped from our favorite shows or video games. We’d see something cool and we wanted to try it ourselves.
But here’s the thing: it got me to keep writing. And not just writing, but writing all the time and a lot. Sure, most of my early stuff was bad. Yeah, most of the characters or plots or ideas were wholesale ganked from other things. But it kept me creating. (Plus, I still say there is nothing truly original. It’s just what you bring to the idea.)
If I am completely honest: probably a good 98% of all my writing practice has come directly from freeform roleplaying.
Roleplaying in general gets a lot of flack. I’ve particularly heard countless arguments of how this sort of freeform collaborative storytelling is an active detriment to a writer’s skill and abilities. Obviously, I don’t think so, or else I’d have the good sense not to so freely admit my background.
I think there is definitely a lot of good to be found in the dynamic world of roleplaying, but I do admit, there is a lot of bad as well. I don’t think that we should be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
The problem becomes, however: where does the baby end and the bathwater begin?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I can certainly speak about my own experiences. The good, the bad, and the ugly, and how it all relates back to the craft.
Want more about Writers & Roleplayers? Check out my other articles:
- The Benefits of Collaborative Storytelling: All the reasons why I can’t recommend roleplaying highly enough.
- Pitfalls, Hindrances, & Bad Habits: The dark side of roleplaying and its impact on writing.
- Coming next week! The Dread Label “Mary Sue”: What it means, where it comes from, and if it has a place either in roleplaying or solo writing.