Play-By-Post Games and Formative Play

Play-by-Post games are available on a variety of internet forums.

As my post history should make fairly apparent, I love role-playing games. And the more role-playing-y, the better – I adore the hands-off, player-driven parties of the Pokémon games, I’ll spend upwards of half an hour in any game’s character creator if it has one, and I’m a big fan of Obsidian’s “sandbox” approach to Fallout: New Vegas (my fingers are crossed for The Outer Worlds).

Naturally, this extends well past just video games – you can bet your bottom dollar that often enough, our playground time at recess would probably qualify as LARPing a full decade before the term “LARPing” was even in my vocabulary. I’m one of hundreds of thousands of people caught up in the modern resurgence of Dungeons & Dragons campaigns (wherein I play an Orcish Bard, because synergy is for suckers). But probably my longest and deepest exposure to general role-playing is in the form of play-by-post forum RPGs.

This was something I picked up around the end of middle school, I think – back when the closest thing to consolidated social media was MySpace or LiveJournal, and before the combination of Steam’s conveniences and a personal income made it easy snatch up more video games than any reasonable person will ever get around to playing. You can get a general sense of what play-by-post games are about by perusing forums like Gamers Plane, but the “collaborative storytelling” style of tabletop role-playing games plays out asynchronously through an internet form, often with a more even split of the story direction between players and moderators or Game Masters.

And I think that, in a lot of ways, those play-by-post forums have informed how I approach role-playing games even better than actual role-playing video games ever did.

For me personally, it’s important that it focused in on creative writing and that I came across the concept when I did – luck-of-the-draw landed me with two English teachers in two consecutive years with whom I did got along exceptionally poorly, so I naturally ended up pouring that energy into the first outlet I came across (well, that and fan-fiction – but we won’t talk about that here, and I’ve nuked the evidence regardless). Feeding that desire to write was obviously important to me, as evidenced by the fact that all this time later I’ve voluntarily locked myself into churning out essays on a bi-weekly basis at minimum.

And the relative lack of a barrier to entry (only early-level writing skills and an internet connection) was equally huge – even as game runners got bored of their own concepts and moved on, it was super easy to just hop between as many games as I could consistently type out prose for, or to continue writing little one-off stories and making notebook doodles of the many characters abandoned when a game went stale. There was a constant stable of other writers to play off and with, too – having a consistent, active form of feedback from other people playing in the same space was hugely encouraging (and regularly more engaging than just writing in isolation).

But that feedback provided something even better: a testing ground.

Especially when you’re writing for your own personal projects, it’s exceptionally easy to get caught up in your own head and work a concept to death until it approaches some idea of what it “should” be – it’s a phenomenon somewhere between “brain crack” and the fact that most of us are honestly just really bad at being our own editor. For me, it was either getting totally hooked on whipping up a dozen characters with no more than two defining traits to rub together, rotating through stock archetypes, or else writing them in ways that ended up as basically just extensions of myself (regardless of what I intended at the start). And the worst part is that it’s very hard to get negative feedback on that – if your writing is boring, readers just won’t finish reading, let alone bother to leave an apathetic comment.

For better or for worse, play-by-post games come with a captive audience.

If I wasn’t interacting well with the other people in that space, or if I’d drummed up a thread that was ultimately incongruous or uninteresting, I would hear about it. And since that audience was always there and implicitly calling for more, it became increasingly clear the more time I spent playing as a character whether or not there was space to grow with them beyond the elevator-pitch concept. The turnaround on these games was often pretty quick – a few months before interest would wane – but just long enough to put an idea through its paces and really see if it could stick, especially when put into somebody else’s context.

Role-playing video games will often end up doing that, too; you can sit back and build a character up in your head, decide on a playstyle and approach, even plan out your stats and abilities in advance much the time. But then the game will tend to throw all sorts of situations at you that you don’t have an immediate answer to (both in its scripted story and often though pseudo-random elements), and you’ll have to adapt and re-examine your persona on the fly: “What decision would I make here? But more importantly, what would Broadvic Stonebreaker, Dwarven Monk do?”

And I find that to be what makes role-playing games so gratifying. Sure, I could play a stealthy archer for the eleventy-seventh time, or just play the meta-game of “what gives the best quest rewards”? But that seems to be a bit of a stale approach to a genre designed to give you as much room as possible to stretch your legs with different possibilities. And a static, programmed game won’t complain at you if you’re playing like a bore.

That’s where the human touch can guide you into a richer, more dynamic, and – to use a buzzword – more fun approach to play.

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