Forms of Fandom: Part Two – All the Web’s a Stage

This ongoing series looks at the various ways people get involved in fandom. This issue, we’re looking at roleplaying.

Last issue, we had a think about fanfiction and the way it allows fans to explore the worlds and characters they love. Obviously, in fanfiction, it’s easy to control the narrative and produce the desired outcome at the end. Romeo and Juliet ride off into the sunset, the Evil Queen’s plan is foiled at the last instant, Space!Hitler accidentally explodes himself. Or turns into cheese. Or a fairy. I don’t know, it’s your fanfiction (why are you writing fanfiction about Hitler anyway? Maybe ‘fan’ is not the right word there… not the point). And that’s the thing – it’s your fanfiction. You get to mould and shape it into whatever you want it to be.

When you write a fanfiction, you usually have at least a rough idea of how it’s going to end, and you can take it there by whichever route you like. And that’s great, in its own way. For some fans, though, writing fanfiction lacks spontaneity. Once they’ve planned their story they lose interest in it – they know what’s going to happen, so why invest hours of typing in sharing it with the world? They long for adventure, excitement, for the great unknown of narrative. They are… roleplayers.

Roleplaying is another way for fans to explore their favourite fictional worlds and characters – this time, from the inside. Moreover, it’s a social experience, because you can’t roleplay every character. Well, I suppose theoretically you could, but then I have to wonder why you’re not writing a fanfic instead. No, usually fandom roleplaying occurs on a forum of some sort, with multiple participants taking on the various roles. What does this mean? Well, for one thing, no matter how many ooc chats you have beforehand, once you get into a scene, or thread, there’s no way of knowing exactly how things are going to pan out. You can still discuss it out of character in the middle of a scene, of course, but the minute details of it all are going to be largely in the hands of the other players.

Most roleplaying forums have some common rules – whether explicitly stated by a moderator or tacitly accepted between the players themselves. Among the most important of these is that ‘god-modding’ is not allowed. That is to say that one can only move one’s own piece(s), as it were – you control your own character(s), and sometimes exert reasonable control over the environment, and that is it. This may seem obvious, but it’s surprisingly easy to slip up. Throwing a punch, for example, may seem like a reasonable action – after all, it’s within your character’s power to do so. However, it’s also in another character’s power to dodge. It’s therefore bad form to imply an effect on the other character; without prior permission, it’s better to say you’ve thrown the punch and wait for them to react, rather than charging on with the effects of the blow.

For example:
Ron snarls. “That’s my little sister you’re talking about!” His fist swings towards Malfoy.
Compare that to:
Ron snarls. “That’s my little sister you’re talking about!” His fist catches Malfoy squarely on the jaw, snapping his head sideways with the force of the impact.

It’s easy to see that the player (sometimes referred to as ‘mun’) portraying Malfoy has far more control in the first example, where a chance is given for the character to react – to dodge, or throw up a shield charm, for example. By contrast, in the second example all the power belongs to Ron’s mun – Malfoy can only accept the punch, unless his player points out the god-modding or appeals to a forum moderator where applicable. If you do accidentally god-mod, it’s polite to edit or redraft the problematic comment, in order to give the other player a chance to react.

Of course, in the example above, Malfoy’s actions must still be justified. It’s highly unlikely, for example, that a punch would just miss – unless circumstances such as delirium or intoxication mean it’s probable – so the reply cannot simply be:
The blow misses; Draco sneers. “Is that the best you can do, Weasley?”
It’s better to at least suggest that your character did something to avoid the attack; for example:
Draco steps backwards and the punch misses; he sneers. “Is that the best you can do, Weasley?”
It might also better suit the aims of the player to allow the character to be hit:
The punch catches him squarely on the jaw. Draco stumbles backwards, rubbing his face. “Your Mudblood girlfriend hits harder than that,” he splutters defiantly.

Given that each player must justify their character’s actions and abilities to a reasonable and believable standard, it can be difficult for one player to steer the thread in a particular direction or predict the next move. Malfoy’s mun, for example, may have been expecting a simple verbal disagreement, or even a friendly chat, but the events of the thread have brought the two characters to blows. Therein lies the beauty, and the frustration, of the online roleplay. It’s also the reason almost all roleplayers also communicate with the other characters ooc (out of character) – so there are no surprises too nasty, and decisions can be challenged.

Roleplaying opportunities come in a wide range of forms. You can set up a clearly-marked RP account on Twitter, for example – always being sure, of course, to disclaim yourself as a roleplayer and not affiliated with the show/book/play in question. Of course, on Twitter, RPs tend to present as the characters themselves actually logging onto said website – the character limit doesn’t lend itself to long descriptions of scenes and actions. I’ve known roleplayers take more than 140 characters just to describe a slight raise of the eyebrow.

That kind of roleplay, of course, the detailed, almost literary kind, can be found on dedicated forums on hosting sites like ProBoards, or communities on LiveJournal. There, players might type hundreds of words per post – being careful to remain within their own time scope, of course. After all, it would be highly impolite to suggest that your character was silent for several hours, thus forcing other characters to stand similarly idle.

These are by no means the only ways you can roleplay online – I know of fans who will drop into roleplaying mid-conversation on an Instant Messaging service, often allowing their characters to interact with their players as well as each other – but they represent two common methods at either end of the character-limit spectrum.

So why is roleplaying so popular? Well, for one thing, it’s like improvised acting on the internet. Your appearance, gender, height… all those things are irrelevant in a way they aren’t in actual theatre, and all that matters is your grip on the character. You’re writing, yes, but you’re also using your descriptions of gestures and facial expressions to convey meaning – and that sounds like acting to me.

It’s also a great test-run for fanfiction; getting characters into a situation you’ve been struggling to write, for example, allows you to get a feel for their reactions to it without having to pull all the strings and over-think it. With other people playing some of the roles, for example, a more natural inter-personal relationship can be observed, and that can then be channelled into your writing. Of course, it’s polite to let the other players know if that’s what you intend to do.

More than anything, however, roleplaying allows you, from the safety of your own home and your own computer, to become someone else. How many other opportunities will you get to do that? Unless you’re an actor by trade, probably very few. So make the most of it, and get playing with those characters you love. You, too, can be part of their stories.

Eleanor Musgrove

Are you involved in online roleplaying? Let us know in the comments. We’ll be looking at another form of fandom in the next issue, so don’t forget to check back for that.

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