(Note: This post got lonnnng! So I’m breaking it up into 2 or maybe 3 parts. Godspeed!)
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: I do not worship Satan. I do not play Dungeons & Dragons with the kids from Stranger Things on Friday nights (I would actually LOVE to but I could never figure out the rules on my own back in high school, and none of my friends were quite at my level of nerdiness…that I am aware of anyway). I don’t get so obsessed with plotlines and characters from fantasy movies that I feel the need to sacrifice unsuspecting strangers in ritualistic bloodbaths (see the part above about not worshipping Satan). In short, I’m not what most people imagine when they hear the phrase “role play gamer”.
But what I am – and what I have always been – is a writer. Ever since I was old enough to daydream, I much preferred the worlds I imagined to the one I was actually living in (which, incidentally, wasn’t bad – just ordinary). And when I figured out that I could write about these other realities in, say, every spare moment of my waking life not spent at school or watching TV, I did it, often with the enthusiasm I probably should have been applying to my schoolwork.
This love of imagined realities led to a tendency to really throw myself into whatever movie/tv show/book I was obsessing on, from childhood onwards. When I found a movie or show I liked, I would dedicate my heart and soul to finding out more about (a) the film and how it was made, (b) all the backstories I could get my pre-internet hands on, and (c) making up possible backstories in my head and occasionally, putting pen to paper in what can only be described as very early fanfic. And even though I loved doing it, some part of me was very aware that I SHOULD NEVER SHOW IT TO ANYONE or risk being forever labelled Dorkus Giganticus.
As time went on, I began to shift away from established characters, and began to write my own plots featuring characters I created, although many of them were certainly inspired by characters (and the actors who portrayed them) I’d seen in films or television shows. Hey, we all have our influences, right? None of what I’d written back then was remotely publishable – hey, I was a kid! – but it was practice and kept me entertained.
It was the Fall of 2000 when I first found out about online RPGs (which in this instance refers to Role Playing Games, not Rocket Propelled Grenades). Let me set the stage for you: I was in the process of breaking up with a live-in boyfriend who was just not a great match. I could not WAIT for him to move out, and I’m sure the feeling was mutual. I worked the 3-10pm shift at a law office in downtown San Francisco as a word processor (remember those?) and this meant that I had a lot of mental downtime on my hands, and not too much money. So I spent a LOT of time watching reruns of a long-running medical drama which may or may not rhyme with “Me Far”. (What the hell – I’ll admit it. It was ER.) By 2000 standards, ER was action-packed and filled with diverse characters, medspeak, hospital politics and the occasional knife-wielding lunatic. In short, it was an excellent distraction from real life. So to keep myself from thinking too hard about anything, I watched this show, first-run and repeats, fairly obsessively for much of 2000. It kind of became part of my daily routine: get up, brew coffee, watch two or three episodes on TNT, go online, go to work. And when watching the first run episodes, I would immediately call my friend Sara (a fellow fan) to speculate wildly/commiserate about it. I’m still getting over Lucy Knight’s untimely demise.
And when I say “go online”, I’m talking about the Days of Dial-Up, when modems were external and you had to plug them into your home phone’s landline (remember landlines?) and be okay with no one being able to reach you by phone while you were logged into your shitty AOL account or whatever you were using. Netscape? Earthlink? Hotmail? Yeah. All of those.
I had already discovered fandoms on the internet, and one of the ER fanlists (remember fanlists?) posted about several online ER-based play-by-email roleplay game. Wait…what’s this, now? I could barely contain myself. You mean, I could take on the persona of one of my favorite characters and write their innermost thoughts, words and actions in a game? With other players playing their favorite characters? And we all take part in playing out plots that we made up? OH, SHIT YEAH.
I immediately subscribed to it via eGroups (later becoming Yahoo Groups) and began a journey which still continues to this day. The games have changed over the years, but the three that I’m still with have all been in play for over ten years. And they’re not all fan-based; some are worlds and plots that we’ve entirely created based on an agreed-upon premise (i.e., the apocalypse has happened – now what?). You create characters, choose avatars (basically, who would you choose to play this part in a movie), and begin interacting with other characters.
I should take a moment to clarify that there are many kinds of online RPGs. World of Warcraft is probably the one most people have heard of, but paid RPGs are different from play-by-email (PBEM) RPGs in the sense that PBEM RPGs are entirely based on text written by players, while visual RPGs tend to have animation and basic action directions. I’ve honestly never tried playing WoW, mainly because I am way more into words than playing out a visual battle. That’s just me, though – personal preference.
So, while it may make me a Dorkus Giganticus, I love my RPGs. I often skirt around the nerd angle by just calling them “writing games”, because that’s what they are, right? We either create an original character (OC) or take a “canon” character (a pre-existing character from whatever world you’re writing about), and try to write for that character, in-character (IC). And that’s the challenge: You don’t get to take a canon character and have them do what you would do, or even what you wish they would do. You have to stay IC. You must stay true to who they are in your writing, not just make them do what you’d like.
Trust me, it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and makes for excellent writing exercise. I could tell you many a story about people who made strong, stoic canon characters into hysterical, injury-prone basket cases simply because they wanted to make the character be like THEM. Their characters would plow right into and through every other player’s plotlines. Incidentally, those sorts of players are called Mary Sues. I found a whole Wikipedia page on Mary Sues, which is aptly described as: “A Mary Sue is an idealized and seemingly perfect fictional character. Often, this character is recognized as an author insert or wish fulfillment.” IS IT EVER! And let me tell you, these players are DEATH to any RPG, just as any real-life drama queen will suck the life out of everyone around them. I once wrote up a Mary Sue Test for my games, with questions like “Does your character have a wild animal as a pet?” and “Are your character’s eyes an unusual color, such as violet or multi-colored.” There’s a limit to how “special” a character can be, is what I’m saying. I wanted to make sure that potential Mary Sues are stopped at the border, before they can start crying from their cat-like violet eyes all over their pet wolf.
To Be Continued in Part 2….