My first introduction to video games was when a friend got the new Pong TV game. We were fascinated with the little white ball that bounced across the screen, back and forth. But after a while, it got boring. Of course, video and online games have advanced light years since the early days. They’re available in a variety of types, from Star Trek, to Gears of War, to the Legend of Zelda. But there is a common element that underlies these particular games: storytelling.
Everyone loves a good story, and writers love telling one. And the more writers write, the better they get at it. But often, writers experience challenges in finding time to write. One way of “forcing” oneself to write is to join an online text-based role-playing game (RPG). In a text-based game, people assume a character within the framework of a particular universe and write stories with other characters in different settings according to various plots.
People play RPGs in a variety of genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, anime…the list goes on. Some of the more popular ones include those that take place within the Star Trek, Harry Potter, World of Darkness, or Star Wars universe.
I recently caught up with the founders of Star Trek Megiddo (http://www.startrekmegiddo.com/) to ask them about establishing and running an RPG. As writers mostly stay in character on an RPG, I’ll use their online personas, Kelly and Ethan Corrigan.
Kelly: I always enjoyed writing. I was an only child and spent a lot of time alone, entertaining myself. One way I explored my imagination was to write. When I was younger, I wrote little books that featured twin cats who solved mysteries. I would even staple the little booklet together so that my mom could read it like a book. Anyway, when I got older, I was slowly introduced to the television. Back in the late 70s, wee early 80s, the television was really only something to occupy your time on Saturday until something better came along. As well, it was part of our ‘family time’ and one thing we watched was Star Trek. It was in syndication by the time but we watched it every single day. Eventually, my enjoyment of writing mixed in with my enjoyment of Star Trek and the sci-fi genre and the things I wrote moved from mystery solving cats to humans on space ships visiting alien planets trying to make a difference. Eventually, I sought out online venues to write and discovered there were writing role play games dedicated to Star Trek. I found one I enjoyed and I have been with it ever since. That has been well over a decade.
What are some of the joys and challenges of running an RPG board?
I get joy out of knowing I’m providing a safe and happy environment for people. Seeing people share personal things about themselves they wouldn’t necessarily share with strangers on the street is what makes this type of platform so unique. Even though people write on the message board, the vast majority of them only know the character(s) another is writing without knowing anything about the person sitting at the keyboard. Yet, because of the writing relationship, people open up and share beauty and sadness, triumphs and failures because they trust the environment I helped to provide.
Since our recent change of how the role play groups are organized and run, I haven’t really encountered any challenges. Now, each group has a General Manager who organizes and sets up everything. Before, we did it. We had an Admissions process that involved a month-long training mission scenario to get the newcomers used to writing with the group. We handled assignments, roster changes, and transfers to the point where it was overwhelming and I wasn’t able to write. My recreation was turning into hard work. However, the changes implemented removed those burdens from both of us and I dare say now, most of the challenging things happen to the other Admin, who does the coding and work on the site. And to be honest, he probably enjoys that challenge because it tests his knowledge and problem-solving skills.
ASM: How did you get into RPGing?
Ethan: As a child of the 80s, my first exposure to RPGs was through Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). I was a late bloomer and played my first campaign in 1985 when a friend approached me about it. I loved board games and thought this was just a simple board game. After about an hour, I lost interest and wanted to go outside and play. That’s what kids did in the 80s, before there were computers in every home.
It wasn’t until 1990 that I really got into it. I was in the Marine Corps at the time and was serving in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm. There was a lot of time to spare and being in the middle of a desert, my options were limited. One guy in my unit brought all of his D&D stuff, so a group of us started playing. I started off with a fighter and by time we left, my lowly fighter who started with a sharp stick had become a level 15 Paladin. After I got back to the States and was discharged from the Corps, I kept the character and continued to play for a few years.
In 1995, I bought my first computer and I wanted to learn how to build web pages. After about two months, I had created a Star Trek trivia site and a few of us decided to start a Play by eMail (PBeM) role playing game. This ignited the fun I had playing D&D and launched me into a new realm of RPGs. I have been role playing online ever since and now run a collaborative Star Trek RPG that takes place on a forum.
ASM: What are some of the joys and challenges of running an RPG board?
Probably one of the greatest joys I get from running an RPG is the relationships I’ve built with some of the members over the years. I have had the pleasure of meeting several people from the site and remain friends with many of them to this day.
I enjoy reading the stories that the site members come up with. There are many talented writers on the site and there are times when I am blown away with the imaginative story lines. I consider myself very fortunate to be associated with this group.
As far as challenges go, I primarily handle the coding and functionality of the site. There has been some coding that I have struggled with, but many of these struggles have evolved into triumphs when I’m finally able to get something to work. This is especially the case when it’s something that a site member has requested.
Another challenge I face is keeping the site fresh and engaging. I try my best to entertain ideas from site members, but it’s difficult to get anyone to take ownership of certain projects. I’ve tried to do as much as I can, but there just isn’t enough time. In the past, I have found myself involved in nearly every project on the site, either because no one else had the technical knowledge to take it over, or no one was willing to step up as the leader. The site has suffered in the past when I found myself spread too thin. Now, I do my best to pick my battles and prioritize my projects.
Another popular genre is post-apocalyptic, similar to The Walking Dead. The world has undergone a nuclear holocaust, plague outbreak, or zombie infestation. Either way, characters have to survive on their wits and whatever they can scavenge. One of these players is L. Gene Brown, who writes for Omega Project (http://dragons-keep.org/omega/).
Gene: Because, other than the guidelines set by the RPG or its owners, there are no set rules. You, the writer, create the story landscape, the events, etc. It’s much freer than, say, Star Trek where canon is already established.
ASM: Has writing for an RPG helped your writing?
Gene: Definitely. It’s helped with, if little else, character building.
Another popular universe is White Wolf: World of Darkness. This universe is a modern gothic world, somewhat similar to the TV show, Dark Shadows, where players take on the personas of vampires, werewolves, wraiths, mages, and other creatures. I ran across Mark Allen Berryhill, who used to play in that universe.
ASM: What character did you play in World of Darkness?
Mark: I was the Storyteller for White Wolf’s World of Darkness online chats. They paid me quarterly in books. I handled “Hunter: The Reckoning” and “Changeling: The Dreaming,” but I sanctioned characters for Vampire [Vampire: The Masquerade] and Mage [Mage: The Ascension]. It was all text based, with hundreds of active players. I was a fan of the games, but I didn’t have a group to play with. That’s how I started, as a player.
ASM: What did you learn from your role?
Mark: The games focused on good storytelling, and I picked up a lot of things that helped in my own writing. A lot of people walking into the chats would create characters that they thought were badass, but were in actuality just one-dimensional stereotypes and clichés. The setting was a mix of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, but the storytellers strove towards a lit-fic take on the world. It really helped me to appreciate and value real people facing extraordinary situations. I focus on Bizarro now, but that experience helped to shape how I create my characters and understand how they react to the mundane and the absurd. But the stories you told together were the important thing. You were there to tell good stories.
So there you have it. RPGers play in a wide array of universes, but they all learn about the art of storytelling. If you have trouble finding time to write, get an RPG support group. But be warned: writing can be addictive.