by Max Barry

Latest Forum Topics




by The Finland SSR of Finland SSR. . 63 reads.

Why Do Free-Form Roleplays Work?

Why Do Free-Form Roleplays Work?

An introspective essay into roleplaying on Portal to the Multiverse

Written and edited by

Finland SSR
April 14th-22nd, 2019

I. Introduction

I would like to start this essay by coming out and stating that I am unfaithful. NationStates, or more specifically, Portal to the Multiverse, is not the only site on which I spend my time and waste away days, if not weeks, playing make-believe with others. Alongside P2TM, I am also a number of a few roleplaying sites, some of which I am more involved in than others - among them, however, one stands out, where I have been role-playing in some capacity for almost two years, have become a member of the forum's staff as well as one of its most important players. I will not give any names, especially since I am going to badmouth that site a little, but it's actually a really warm and tightly knit community which I would welcome anyone to.

The off-site roleplay forum in question differs drastically from almost any roleplay which is currently running on P2TM (barring a few exceptions, for example, the currently running God Wills It). Unlike the generally more freeform format of P2TM roleplays, it is structured more like one massive Dungeons and Dragons campaign, using roll checks, gameside stats determined by player activity and a level-up system to define how strong or capable each player character is to everyone else as well as resolve player vs. player combat, should it ever arise. I'd be willing to compare it to so-called "mechanics RPs" which show up on the subforum from time to time, although I'd say that it is even more rigid and, as a result, flows a lot smoother than its P2TM counterparts, which is perhaps the reason why it has persisted for years whereas many of its peers cannot. The reason why I bring this site up in the preface of an essay written for P2TM is because the idea for writing this essay struck me first in a discussion on this site's Discord.

The thing is, being used to the mechanical format of their roleplay, my peers in that site struggle to comprehend how a freeform RP could successfully work. To them, this concept first associates with rampant godmodding, metagaming, players unable to make out an universally accepted power scale and thus ending up in endless debates and conflicts on who should be the victor of PvP battles, etc... and thus an unsavory experience for everyone involved. As such, to them, freeform roleplaying simply cannot work, or, at least, nowhere near their roleplay, which has managed to last for years with a thriving community. I did not say anything in response, as, while I disagreed with the conclusion from personal experience, I simply did not have the words on exactly how to respond.

Because, while it's obvious to those playing in P2TM, including myself, that this isn't the case and it is perfectly possible for a freeform roleplay to not only thrive, but to do so with little internal conflict, like a well oiled machine, I had not stopped to consider exactly why that happens. If viewed from their perspective, their arguments seem perfectly logical - without the stops and mechanical shackles which a mechanical roleplay provides, the first instinct of all newly applying players would be wish fulfillment, be it establishing their characters far up in the power scale or as an important part of the lore, as much as it goes against the wishes of other players or previously established canon. This, in turn, would lead to a deeper and deeper pit of problems until the entire roleplay becomes a mess. So, why is that not the case?

The first instinct when answering this question, one which I believe my peers off-site would probably agree with, is simply force. The line of thinking would go that, the description listed above would normally apply to a freeform RP, were it not for the efforts of the roleplay's administration, which maintain order, a cohesive narrative, and resolve issues between players, primarily through the looming threat of reprimands and ejection from the RP if the player protests against their actions. And while I am certainly no anarchist or anything, and I believe that OP and co-OP management is necessary for a roleplay to thrive, my observations and collected data simply do not lend support to that theory.

In modern P2TM, cooperative and non-confrontational freeform roleplaying is an instinct, rather than a veil, it comes naturally from players rather than being something which they put on to not get rejected. And while I cannot exactly go into the players' heads and determine when they were playing naturally and when they were doing something just to get the OP off their coattails, there is one place where, if my understanding is correct, this, let's say, "roleplaying consciousness" can be visibly measured.

How often have you or someone else awaited your application in a RP to be approved, not whether you will actually be accepted into the community or not, but merely as an arbitrary stop which you have to wait through until your app is unquestionably approved and you are allowed to post on the IC thread? I know I certainly have, and often even on roleplays which I am completely foreign to, even though, if one were to believe in the theory of force, this would be be the exact moment where many, many players should be weeded out or at least go through arduous modification ordered by the OP and the co-OP team. Because, while all of the players participating in a roleplay are whipped into the rhythm, this jurisdiction should not extend to new players, who are unfamiliar with the workings of the RP nor the preestablished story. New players should come to a roleplay expecting the chaotic, wish fulfillment fantasy which the initial presumption laid out, and thus be faced with reprimands and denied apps.

On the other hand, if an application is accepted on the first try, this implies the complete opposite. This implies that the player responsible for the app is conscious enough to adhere to the preestablished lore and expectations which the roleplay provides, and that the player is willing to abandon their unabated wish fulfillment in favor of bending to the roleplay, rather than expecting the roleplay to bend to him. If a majority of submitted applications are accepted on the first try, this shows a level of roleplaying consciousness which the theory of force cannot explain, and the statistics show exactly that:

Figure 1. Percentage of character applications accepted on the first attempt (green columns) and either denied or ordered to amend (red columns) in four most replied character RP OOC threads in P2TM at time of writing - 25 most recent applications in Dance of Chaos, New Civilizations and Young Bloods, and all 15 applications in Elementals 3: The White Rose.

All four of the roleplays put through statistical analysis show the same trend - a clear majority of submitted applications fit enough into the regulations, rules and lore of their respective roleplays to be approved without needing any amends to their bio, abilities or anything else. Of course, each roleplay has its own quirks. While Young Bloods and Elementals 3 both show an absolute dominance of first-time approvals, the other two analyzed subjects are outliers, both of them with reasons of their own. Dance of Chaos is a heavily lore heavy roleplay which requires all of its applicants to fit into the preestablished information and also comes with an OP highly willing to nitpick, whereas New Civilizations has very strict rules on the types of characters which may be created and its OP team often enforces these rules on new apps, many of which come from less experienced players.

Speaking of less experienced players, this is something which has to be taken into account. All of the roleplays listed here did not come from a vacuum, they have their own, pre-established communities, with their own veterans who know how the genre works and are less likely to make mistakes even when making an application for the first time. The assumption would then go that even if veteran players may be more aware of how to make an acceptable application, their newbie peers would fall to the same trap of denied applications detailed earlier, lending credit to the force theory. However, collected data does not support this hypothesis:

Figure 2. Percentage of character applications in all four previously listed RPs accepted on the first attempt (green columns) and either denied or ordered to amend (red columns), controlled for the post count of the application poster. Posters are divided to two categories: newbies (1000 posts or less) and veterans.

The difference in first time acceptance rates between newbie and veteran players is effectively nonexistent, hinting that veterancy does not have any effect on whether the player is able to make an app acceptable on the first review or not, indicating that other factors than just getting used to the OP administration are at play. I do believe that not everyone would agree with this classification, using the 1000 post range to determine whether the poster counts as a newbie or not. It is perfectly possible for a nation with 20000 posts to be new to role-playing, if they racked up their post count in NS General or Forum 7, or a nation with 500 posts to be a perfectly fine roleplayer, if they have an astute mind and understand how RPing works. However, I believe that this is an acceptable rule of thumb, especially since the other alternative is subjectively interpreting each RPer's experience, which comes with its own host of problems. And, in the end, while a nation above 1000 replies may be new or may be veteran, a nation under 1000 words is going to be new to the forum in some form regardless, which means that even if outliers exist among both categories, there should be an uptick in denials in the "newbie" one. Which there is not, meaning that the theory of freeform roleplays maintaining through force lacks merit.

The reason for this statistical analysis is to prove the first assumption which this essay is going to make - that in P2TM, freeform roleplays successfully exist and are able to operate through the consciousness of their players, rather than the force of the roleplay's administration. This assumption is one from which the rest of the essay stems, which will hope to tackle the question 'why?'. Why are players able to willingly suppress their desire for wish fulfillment and cooperatively roleplay without needing either mechanics or direct OP involvement?

2. Body

At the risk of sounding like a pretentious philosopher, if we want to answer that question, the first thing we need to tackle is this: why do people join roleplays in the first place?

Play-by-post roleplaying is, in the end, a heavily niche Internet subculture which requires the player to dedicate a considerable portion of their time for something which will, at best, only be seen by a small community of fellow players. And as the player in question becomes more immersed in this subculture, the time which is spent on this hobby increases exponentially while the reward, already fairly meager, hardly scales at the same rate. Those thousand year old posts seen on the Exceptional P2TM RP Posts thread, for example, don't write themselves - but whether they receive significantly more attention than their peers is something I'd put for debate. For a third party, someone who has little knowledge about roleplaying, it might be difficult to comprehend why this particular group ended up choosing such an obscure and yet time consuming hobby over, for example, writing books, short stories or expressing their creativity in a myriad of different ways.

Obviously, it is impossible to fold the reasoning of every single nation attending P2TM under a single list. As individuals, all of us are unique and have different stories to tell - as a collective, however, these unique quirks cancel out into something more uniform, and if I had to give my opinion, in order for someone to join roleplays, they must, at the minimum, fulfill two requirements:

  • The subject in question carries a specific idea, such as a concept for a character, a story arc or a plotline, which they are only able to express in writing form.

  • The subject in question wishes to receive praise, attention or critique for the concept, especially immediately after each post rather than at the end of the entire work, such as a book.

While players can and probably do hold additional reasons for ending up involved in this community, which may be more or less personal, I believe that both of these reasons need to be fulfilled for them to end up in play-by-post roleplaying specifically, or, if not end up, then at least stay. And I'd be willing to expect the rest of you to agree with this assesment - with these initial foundations set, it is possible to extrapolate further to eventually reach the answer.

One thing which is easy to notice is that, despite all the talk of being a community and community building being necessary for a long lasting roleplay, neither of these requirements are inherently altruistic, or even require the player to be all that into playing in a community. They are, first and foremost, concerned with the player wishing to express an idea which they themselves created, not all that different from the wish fulfillment which one can accuse free-form roleplaying of. And it's certainly not an inaccurate way of looking into roleplaying - after all, no player ever has wished to sign up solely to further someone else's story and idea, or just to chat in a community without expressing an idea in writing which, in their opinion, is something other people should be interested in.

However, my hypothesis is that this, let's say, egoistic approach to roleplaying is exactly the reason why not only free-form roleplays are able to thrive, but also the reason why they form vibrant, sustainable communities. Or, in short, the freedom of wish fulfillment which these types of roleplays provide is, perhaps paradoxically so, is what keeps them orderly and thriving. This is the result of two things which stem from the two requirements listed above: the first thing is the wording of the second requirement - that is, receiving some sort of attention for their work in the roleplay - and the second thing is the fact that not only do players understand those two requirements as the reason for why they are involved in the community, but also recognize, either consciously or not, that all other players alongside them are here for the exact same thing.

The combination of these two revelations is huge, it serves as a subconscious limiter to one's wish fulfillment without the necessity of significant outside intervention. If you know that other players are necessary to you to grant the attention which the second requirement calls for, then you will naturally avoid aggrandizing them and instead seek to cooperate and respect the arcs and stories which they are making. "Cooperate" is the key word here - personally, I've witnessed that the absolute easiest way to get your fellow roleplayers invest themselves in your ideas and characters is simply through playing together and thus having your ideas interact and play off one another (not that it's much of a revelation, I imagine, to any of you reading here). It is a win-win condition for everyone - each of the players gets to develop the idea which they set out to create in the roleplay and receive attention from the other side, while the story which the roleplay is weaving becomes stronger, deeper, more interesting, so on and so forth, not as the cause or reason of the act of cooperation, but rather as a beneficial side-product from two selfish interests interacting with each other. Meanwhile, the recognition of each other's selfish interest for attention serves as the foundation for players to seek compromise, rather than foolishly fight over the most minute things, metagame and godmod, and come up with solutions and storylines which are acceptable to both sides.

In fact, I would be willing to equate these two tenets, or revelations, or extrapolations, or whatever you want to call them, with the "roleplaying consciousness" I briefly mentioned earlier in this essay. While I wouldn't be willing to consider this to be a universal solution (because P2TM, much like the world at large, is far too varied and plural to be able to explain absolutely everything with just two tenets), I'd say that at least a majority of problems which one can find with roleplays on this subforum can be chalked up to players failing to grasp them. If one does not recognize that other players are necessary to seek attention from, they'd be more likely to act hostile and aggrandize others, even if not necessary for roleplay-related slights, leading to infighting, drama, kicks and bans. If one does not recognize that other players seek exactly the same type of wish fulfillment as they do, they'd be more likely to believe their own wishes to be above those of others, which can lead to all sorts of nasty things, such as infighting over the direction of the roleplay, godmodding, metagaming, disregard for the lore and power level of the setting. Ultimately, what the lack of this roleplaying consciousness leads to is the type of chaos which I had described at the very beginning of the essay, an experience which is not satisfying to anyone involved.

Where does this consciousness come from and how does one acquire it? I'd say that it is a combination of past experience in the roleplaying community and generally respectful behavior in general, with emphasis placed on the latter. It does not take a veteran to recognize that there's people behind all the other nations you're playing alongside with and that all of you are here for more or less the same reason, even if your primary interest is to express an interesting idea or just fulfill a some sort of wish. Of course, veterancy does help, mostly because if you have been a player before, you failed to grasp these two tenets and thus ended up flipped off, you're likely to either change for the better or leave outright. And the latter group is not relevant to us.

So then. A roleplay is a collection of individuals with individual desires who need the community they are in to express those desires most efficiently, which leave the community stronger and its story developed in cooperation despite, ultimately, each of the player's goals essentially being wish fulfillment. What does that tell us?

3. Conclusions

How do you create a successful roleplay? It's a question which has seen a million possible answers raised and, ultimately, might never receive a definite answer. And, as much as I have written, researched and analyzed for the essay above, I definitely cannot claim to be a professional who could sweep into a buckling roleplay and grant it a panacea. Hell, all the roleplays which I have started during the career ended up dying in ten OOC pages or less, rarely passing two.

However, knowing what exactly is a roleplay and why exactly does free-form roleplaying work can give a clue towards possible answers. It seems pretty logical, right, that a successful roleplay is one which is able to fulfill the definition raised above, isn't it?

A successful roleplay is a roleplay which is able to most effectively allow its players to express their ideas and provides a framework for interacting with other players.

Ultimately, whether a roleplay is fulfilling to its players and whether it fosters a good community is the primary defining factor towards having it last for long. It certainly is not, say, the uniqueness of its setting, or how well-crafted the design of the OP is. One of the most successful roleplays of all time in P2TM, which sparked at least a dozen successors and whose legacy continues to live on in this subforum to this day, Infinite Justice, had an OP which was essentially a single paragraph and a setting which was essentially "Marvel, DC and DBZ exist in a single universe, somehow". What it did have, however, was an open and welcoming community, inherited from the OP's previous roleplay, and the freeform nature of the RP allowed for a lot of constructive player interaction - and the results, I presume, are obvious, since they were stated already.

Taking the tenets from the Body part of this essay into account, here is the advice I am able to give for any aspiring players wishing to OP the roleplay of their dreams:

  • Do not hesitate to create expansive lore, but make sure to not overburden your players with it during character creation. Expansive lore is a double-edged sword which can either strengthen the first tenet of roleplaying (wish fulfillment) or violate it, and it depends on the approach which you take towards it. The most effective approach, in my opinion, is what I call "theater drapes" lore. It explains the world which the roleplay inhabits, its unique quirks and concepts, but just hangs in the background and does not force players to create specific character archetypes or otherwise hamper their creativity. If this hamperment is necessary, make sure to keep it limited - limiting all player characters to humans or to soldiers is fair enough, that's a large enough category that it isn't going to heavily violate the first tenet, but if all of your applicants have to go through pages and pages of lore just to make sure that the idea they're creating will even be accepted, then you've got a problem. (This is the part where nation RPs struggle, most notably. I'd be willing to name it as one of the reasons why there haven't been any successful nation roleplays in a long time, but that's a story for another time)

  • Create your roleplay a plot, but keep it loose and non-mandatory. The purpose of a plot in a roleplay should be to best serve the players' need for interaction with others to fulfill the second tenet of roleplaying (receiving attention). It is, after all, the framework with which player characters are able to interact with each other and place their characters through struggles which they might not be able to go through normally. Forcing mandatory participation in the plot, however, risks to violate the first tenet, especially if the plot in question is something players are simply not interested in, while roleplays are never predictable enough for one to be able to plan out a story to the most minute detail. Leaving enough leeway in between each plot beat allows each character to go through their drama, character development, and struggles according to the wishes of their respective players, a more satisfying experience for everyone involved.

  • Never forcefully kill other players' characters without their consent. It is their character, their story and their wish which they arrived to a roleplay to fulfill, inflicting one of the worst things to ever happen to a character's story - getting it cut off prematurely with no chance of return - is something which should only be up to their jurisdiction. Players with high roleplaying consciousness will be able to tell when their character is supposed to struggle and when death would make the story they are weaving improve, and if that doesn't the case, consider reprimands, but never forcefully inflict death for stupid actions.

  • Do not dismiss the power of Discord. At the stage where your roleplay has gone through most of its initial applications, has an IC thread started and a plot going, your momentum is no longer going to be fueled by new applicants, but rather already applied players interacting in the IC thread (refer to my other essay, How Roleplays Die, on an explanation about the stages of life of a standard roleplay). Your plan from this point onward is to start a community around which interactions and attention sharing, fulfilling the second tenet of roleplaying, can take place - and for this goal, Discord, or an equivalent off-site live chat service, is a lot more powerful than the OOC thread. I know that many still hold OOC threads with a feeling of nostalgia and advocate for keeping them around to gather attention on the first page, but, simply put, the significantly greater utility of Discord, the much more intuitive private messaging, the power of custom-made emojis to get players attached to their characters, all serve this purpose a lot better. That's not to say that you cannot pull off a successful roleplay while remaining holed up in the OOC thread, and I can respect that, but my personal advice is to not dismiss Discord's abilities. It may leave your thread forever buried in the third or fourth page of listings, but it will leave those who did join in a much tighter and more welcoming community.

  • Moderate as little as possible. Moderating the flow and content of a roleplay and enforcing the OP's will on players should be a reserve option for when things really turn sour, rather than something which happens on the daily. This especially extends to the OP team requiring players to make specific actions, or to remove specific actions, unless they are egregious to a point where they violate other players' stories - not only is it a violation of tenet #1, but it also can very easily breed resentment, especially if the OP in question is very liberal in their use of these powers. The OP should be an arbiter and keep track of the plot of the story, the last thing which should ever happen is the OP trying to enforce players into a specific story which they, and not those players, want to tell.

All in all, everything listed above really boils down to one thing.

Ultimately, the point of a roleplay is to serve players, rather than the other way around. It should provide a platform for interaction and the rules of play, but it should never enforce anything upon the creativity and the ideas which the players bring to the roleplay and wish to express.

As such, first and foremost, the framework and management of a roleplay must serve the players' wishes, so they may be able to limit wishes of their own to create a functioning community which weaves a story together.

I hope this essay has been helpful and interesting to you all.

The Finland SSR of Finland SSR