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On Creating a Roleplay

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On Creating a Roleplay Empty On Creating a Roleplay

Post by Athena Lionheart on Wed May 15, 2019 3:11 pm

I get asked now and then about how to create a good roleplay, or for my opinion on certain elements that a creator is toying with for a new roleplay. Often, I'm not satisfied with my answers; it takes a lot of time and thought to give a good reply and I don't always have an abundance of either. I do, however, have a fairly developed philosophy on roleplays and their creation that I've gained over the past few years and shared in bursts here and there. It occurred to me that it would be far more beneficial for all parties involved if I put it all in one place.

While, comparatively, I haven't been role-playing too long, I ran Anaphora, which hit its third anniversary in September 2017, have been a member of and examined roleplays of many different genres and success levels, read up a fair bit on game design, and have helped numerous other creators develop their own RPGs. Hopefully, what I've learned can help you.

Just so we're clear, this isn't exactly a how-to guide. I’m having a hard time explaining the exact angle I’m coming at this from, but it’s not so much about the tools you’ll need so much as which ones to pick and why. This delves into RPGs and what makes them tick and design philosophy, not how to worldbuild or such, simply because I believe that once you know how roleplays work, the cosmetic elements are fairly easy to figure out and are more a matter of preference by that point.

It can never be stressed enough that making a roleplay is not an exact science. Sometimes you won't find your audience, people won't have the time to commit to it, or other factors lead to a roleplay dying or not even getting off of the ground in the first place. I do believe, however, that a great roleplay can flourish far more often than not when nurtured correctly.

And so I present to you my thoughts and advice on creating a successful roleplay.

Table of Contents

  • Why Roleplay?
  • Core Concepts & Mechanics
  • Your Philosophy
  • Character Driven vs. Player Driven vs. Creator Driven
  • World-building vs. World Identity
  • Fostering a Healthy Cast
  • Presentation
  • Being a Gamemaster
  • Sticking the Landing
  • Closing Thoughts & More Concise Advice



Why Roleplay?
No, really. Before we get any farther, examine the medium you're utilizing. When creating a piece of visual art, you have to think about what you're going to use to achieve your vision. Would it be better suited to oils or ink? Heck, maybe it should be on a screen; but, then, should it be animated or live action?

You probably have some concept for your roleplay. What about your idea lends itself to an interactive medium? Would it be better suited to a book or a short story? Can you see others enjoying what you’re making together as a group?

Role-playing has obvious appeal. Writing is usually a fairly solitary pursuit where one must be self-motivated and disciplined to get very far. With role-playing, you get to enjoy that pursuit with others; you can be accountable to them and use what they've contributed to fuel your next response.

However, choosing to make a project a roleplay should be done with the knowledge that you forfeit a significant amount of creative control. No matter how controlled the characters, environment, and plot is, you are introducing other humans into the equation. Each have their own writing style and approach to role-playing, a different schedule and different priorities.

If you have a story you’re very attached to, with characters you greatly love and whose role in the story you couldn’t see changing, you might not have a good foundation for your roleplay; you may be setting yourself up to create an experience in which others are just tagging along for what is ultimately a predetermined story. Gamemastering a roleplay fundamentally requires you to factor in the chance for others to impact the world and story. That’s not to say that a story-driven roleplay is in any way a bad idea; it’s simply to point out that you need to approach it as an interaction, not a lecture. Avoid depriving the cast of their agency as much as possible, especially at pivotal plot moments. Sometimes, it will, in fact, be the correct course of action to take charge and dominate a scene; you should be aware, though, that you could be toeing the line between awe and frustration for other players.

I encourage everyone to really contemplate the reasons why role-playing attracts people and who it appeals to. If you know your audience, you can better serve them and create a better experience for all involved.

Core Engagement & Mechanics
Philosophy and core engagements can be figured out in either order. There's no right way to do it; you can create the basic mechanics and engagement and see what philosophy they lead you to, or you could find a philosophy and then start the others from scratch. It’s kind of like the personality and biography of a character; you can have them in either order, but it's best to have a good grasp on both before you go into the rest of the creation process. It's fine to have a few cosmetic aspects figured out before you've got everything nailed down, but you never want to center your roleplay around those cosmetic elements and end up compromising the integrity of your roleplay’s identity because that flaming chainsaw was just so cool.

Mechanics in a roleplay are anything your players and characters use to interact with the world and each other. In a text-based experience, mechanics are fairly limited but are often, nonetheless, a big part in creating your core engagement.

We often forget that role-playing games are, in fact, a type of game. You don't have to be a whiz with JavaScript or good with numbers to make one, but there are still some similar principles. The biggest example is with magic and other combat systems.

Combat has wide, obvious appeal and appears in more roleplays than not. It makes conflict more visceral, adds another layer to character dynamics. Sometimes, it's just a hell of a lot of fun to duke it out. A good combat system can carry a roleplay, but a bad one can drag down an otherwise great work. If you are going to introduce these elements, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Abilities must be balanced. This isn't to say that some characters can't be more powerful than others, in the same way that a level 30 and a level 50 in a video game can have vastly different strength while coexisting in a fairly balanced environment. The caveat is that they must, in fact, both be playing the same game. Power ceilings can be high, but they must be there and they must be as clearly communicated as possible. It should never be a struggle to figure out which characters and powers outclass which. Sometimes, this takes trial and error; as a GM, you have to be willing to put your foot down and make sure everything stays balanced.

On a similar note, powers should be fairly simple to understand. The best abilities can be fully explained, making clear what the power involves, its limitations, and its drawbacks, in a couple of sentences. It’s far more common to see people underexplaining than overexplaining here. Often, it gets left at simply what the power entails, without a good sense for how it would realistically play out or what’s over the line.

Finally, the best combat systems will have immediately apparent connections to your themes and elements applicable to scenarios outside of combat. You want any sort of combat system to be woven into your world and have applications that blend into other areas. Otherwise, it’ll come out somewhat bland and feel tacked on.

Other mechanics in a roleplay can be things such as factions, storylines, character creation, and other in-game systems for things such as crafting or currency. These can all be utilized well or poorly; I’ll try to highlight common pitfalls in implementation here.

The most common mistake I've seen is the assumption that ‘Open-World’ equates to a mechanic or, rather, that it can be an engaging mechanic when stood alone. For an open world experience to work, you need one of two things: extremely dedicated and enthusiastic players who can entertain themselves or an incredibly deep and detailed world worth interacting with on its own merit.

An emphasis on Open-World seems to stem from an idea that more freedom is necessarily better. It's not. A total sandbox often sounds appealing, but it only works with people who are willing and able to create something from nothing. The result in most of these kinds of roleplay that have any kind of success is a kind of bizarre chimera of all the involved parties’ visions, where it's not clear what powers outclass which, how all the history fits together, or sometimes even what the geography is.

This doesn't only happen for those who haphazardly use the open world label. Many creators are very nervous to do anything at all to restrict player's freedom; they will worldbuild, sometimes extensively, but fail to lay out powers, sides, and conflict in a clear and engaging way.

The root of the problem here is the fact that by inviting people to create a character, you're asking them to build something. Now, imagine being asked to build a house. You have a fairly limited time to do this and you’re going to end up living in this house, at least for a while. This house should look good in the neighborhood, as well. Would you prefer to be given a plot of land and told to do whatever your heart contented or would you prefer a blueprint and materials that you could then modify as you pleased?

Some creators relish in creating something from nothing and will leap at the chance; however, this is only a fraction of your average audience, and only a smaller fraction thereof will have the skill to take advantage of that freedom and still create something coherent with the world you've set up.

The mindset of more freedom equals better results on its own makes less sense the more you consider it. Throughout history, lots of amazing art has been made when a creator relegated themselves to a strict set of rules. Just look at your old high school friend, Shakespeare. Poetry in particular thrives within tight boundaries and set limitations. By imposing sharp, clean lines within to draw, you are not automatically impeding creators; you are giving them a template in which their contributions will mesh together with others’. While you can absolutely overcorrect, I see one extreme far more often than the other for understandable reasons. But, the truth is, I've seen roleplays with fairly simplistic plot and world get a lot of attention because character creation was defined, easy, and fun.

A world with a solid identity is like a foundation; a roleplay with clear limits is like a blueprint.

So, now that we’ve covered basic mechanical advice, let’s move on to the big leagues.

The name of the game is your core engagement; find out what the most interesting thing you have to offer is and play it up. Build your game to serve that engagement. If you have an incredibly complex magic system to play with, showcase it and have your story do the same. If you have a kickbutt story, draw people in with it and have the world you’ve made grow around and out from it.

Core engagement is an incredibly important part of your roleplay. Ever heard the saying, “If you try to be everything, you'll end up sucking at all of them?” Same here. That doesn't mean that a mechanics-centered roleplay is doomed to lack in the character department; if you keep your priorities in line, your characters will naturally thrive around those mechanics. However, if you try too hard to push a plot in a roleplay which has character, for example, as its core engagement, to the point where that plot overshadows the characters, you're likely to see the latter suffer and thus drag down the former as well.

That's not to say you shouldn't have plots in your character roleplays or lack griping mechanics in your plot roleplays, but that one should be the focus and then be reinforced by the others: an order of operations, if you will.

In a text-based experience, you generally have three common routes for core engagements: mechanic (generally a combat or magic system), character, and plot. A less common one is world; generally, in my opinion, this is one of the more difficult ones to pull off, especially in a text-based experience, but if you have enough dedication and good ideas, it’s not unthinkable.

A mechanic-centred roleplay is dependant on a really fresh, fun idea to play with. For example, unconventional and understandable magic.

A mechanical roleplay fails when players aren't given the chance to experience the mechanics promised. If combat is a major element of your roleplay, don't waste their time with drawn-out introduction sections that offer no opportunity to try their hand at those mechanics. You want them in the fray as soon as possible. When you start up a video game for the first time, hyped specifically for the combat, you feel cheated when the game plot dumps you for the first thirty minutes, right? Keep that in mind here as well.

For character-centered, you're really going to want to have stellar character creation. Offer some interesting take on conventions with the format itself, give people something that offers possibilities right off the bat, or encourage player collaboration.

Character roleplays fail when players fail to get attached to the characters within the roleplay and characters don't develop meaningful relationships. Sometimes, this can just be an unfortunate reality; sometimes characters just don't end up connecting. However, the GM does sometimes share in the blame for this. Characters may not have been given the proper time or space to develop those relationships with each other or the players. In other cases, player attention is spread too thin because character limits were miscalculated.

Then there’s plot. Of these main three, this one potentially requires the most forethought and careful planning. If you want storytelling to be the main engagement, you're going to need a good story to tell; furthermore, you need a good story that has room for other people to make an impact.

Plot roleplays tend to fail when a creator does not account for their cast and doesn't adequately engage them. Even a fairly simplistic plot can be a blast if everyone feels like they have a place and can contribute; however, this can be an incredibly fragile balance.

World-based roleplays need an abundance of content to keep people engaged. Lacking this, they fail.

Core engagements are not necessarily limited to these, but these are by far the most widely used and I can't help recommending them. They're tried and true. If you do have a new concept, though, novelty does certainly draw people in and that paired with solid execution is a recipe for an experience people will remember.

If you pick a core concept and philosophy and use them as the cornerstone for your project, crafting your setting and other mechanics to enhance them, you’ll have a brilliant roleplay right there.

Your Philosophy
The philosophy of your roleplay is what adds depth to the experience. It gives people a reason to interact with the mechanics and follow the story. A plotline that isn’t exploring any ideas is often toothless and a world composed of places instead of people and worldviews is no fun.

If you’ve already created your mechanics, your next step should be to ask what those mechanics say. Often, a philosophy is where you take your engagement and give it a purpose, a direction. For example, a roleplay’s main mechanic and engagement may be exploration. If you’ve committed to this, you could be focusing on the limitations of man or on the nature of curiosity; those two will result in pretty different experiences.

Philosophies, or, at least, the major question they pose, can generally be put into one sentence. If your main philosophical reckoning is striking and easily readable, this not only generates more interest by having a potential player toying with your ideas before they even sit down to make a form, but can also be used to generate a more uniform experience. Many roleplays without a clear focus or conflict suffer from a disunity in the themes between characters and sometimes lack thematic exploration altogether.

Just as you can, and usually must, have many mechanics within your roleplay, you can certainly have many themes for your roleplay to explore; it is best, though, to know your core question for the same reason you should know your core engagement. Others will follow naturally if given a standard to follow.

There is a fine balance to be struck between sharing your own opinion on the subject matter your roleplay deals with and keeping your roleplay from becoming a pulpit. This is one of the inherent strengths of a roleplay: the coming together of multiple worldviews. If you squash this by creating a world of presupposed conclusions, you’re really only hurting yourself and your own creation. To foster an open field for ideas, it’s best to have the issue be presented, especially initially, with questions.

However, this isn’t to say your own opinion should be kept entirely locked away from your roleplay. You simply need to be aware of it. The way you see the world can add a lot of color to the one you're creating and players, as well as their individual characters, can wrestle through what you're presenting and come to their own conclusion. You must be careful, though, to let them do so.

Character Driven vs. Player Driven vs. Creator Driven
When starting a roleplay, it’s important to understand where the control lies. What or who is primarily propelling the experience?

The difference between character driven and player driven can be initially hard to see, but the major difference between the two is that player driven roleplays will have players creating and implementing their own plotlines rather than strictly the creator. Character driven is where there is essentially no set plot by anyone and character interactions carry the weight of the story.

Creator Driven is generally interchangeable with plot-driven. The original poster will have control of the plot’s direction, often through their ownership of the main villain PC and a collection of other NPCs.

None of these are inherently superior to any other. All of them can be executed well or poorly. Additionally, very few roleplays will sort neatly into one category; circumstance will often cause things to blur. It is good to know, though, who should generally be driving things along and to make sure participants know their obligations and restrictions as well. This matters because if nobody understands who has what responsibilities, a roleplay will either stall or run into conflict. Communication is the basis of coordination, after all.

World-building vs. World Identity
The difference between building a world and creating its identity is the difference between creating a character's most crucial belief and figuring out what they ate for breakfast the morning they came to it. You can add as many frills and details to a world as you can muster and still have a final product that lacks impact.

World-building is incredibly important, but it must be in service to an identity, just as graphics must serve an aesthetic. Would you put gritty, hyperrealistic textures into a heavily stylized Zelda game? No, because it would compromise the feel you’re going for, even if those textures are extremely high quality. Same concept here; have an overarching vision and you’ll have a much easier time discovering what works and what doesn’t. Your world's identity is where your philosophy meets its tone.

Taking your cornerstone of core engagement and philosophy, you’ll want to construct a world where both feel natural and are woven into both the history and the present. What is the world about? How does it take to your mechanics? How does it respond to your major question? From those answers, you can begin to get a good feeling for your tone and setting.

Fostering a Healthy Cast
We’ve all seen a roleplay where nearly half the cast was composed of healers, or pretty much all the protagonists were extraverted hotheads. So how do you keep yourself from being surrounded by moody, introverted women? The answer is that you sometimes can’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some safety rails.

First, let’s establish that your cast and its diversity matters. Now, I’m not saying you’ve got to have an array of all races, gender identities, sexualities, etc.; that’s for your players to decide what they feel up to. What is important is that your characters don’t all undermine each other’s importance. Why is the aforementioned abundance of healers framed as negative? While in some universes, this would make plenty of sense, in many other cases this would drastically reduce the impact the characters could individually offer. What's the fun in playing a role that several others are already filling, be that mechanically, relationally, or plot-wise?

Furthermore, you have to account for the ideal size for your cast. Some roleplays thrive on the chaos of dozens of characters, but a likely majority would benefit from a much more condensed cast, especially ones that need player attachment to characters.

There are a few ways you could go in encouraging the ideal cast for your setting. The first is to have set roles. The second is through encouraging group play. The third is to limit character spots.

Having set roles is, by far, the most underused method in roleplaying context, but I do believe it deserves mention because it has the potential to be quite serviceable, especially in a plot or character heavy roleplay. Whether it be by job title or by temperament, you can offer people spots in a premade ‘group’ to ensure you get the right dynamic; alternatively, you can have people submit ideas according to guidelines and from there pick out what functions best.

When a larger cast is called for, sometimes it’s best to have players form their own teams. When players are placed in a situation where they have to collaborate in the character creation phase, they tend to take into account the personality dynamics and roles on their own. This also helps to keep people accountable to and motivated by others besides the roleplay creator alone.

Limiting character spots is usually a good, standard way to keep certain classes of characters exclusive while allowing people plenty of options. Keep certain abilities or roles only open to a few people; this can be decided on a first come, first serve basis, or by an application process. The exclusivity of spots generally forces people to think harder about what ideas they like the most out of what they have to offer and overall helps promote higher quality as people aren’t allowed to spread themselves too thin, especially when a roleplay is just getting off of the ground.

Presentation
No matter how good your idea is, how thoroughly you've thought it through, it has a much higher chance of failing if it isn't presented to people in an appealing manner. Additionally, many less developed roleplays get attention simply because they present their material so appealingly. There's a reason marketing is such a massive industry in our world; it actually works.

Presentation has three main categories: visual, content, and timing.

Visual applies to all those little details you put into your post. A well formatted post looks more appealing and is easier to read. Even further, it can make people think you quite competent and that you care, thus giving the impression your roleplay is a worthy investment of time. Good proofreading only enhances this. Pretty pictures? Practically sorcery.

For content, you need to understand what you’re selling and how to make it sound as unbelievably cool as possible. This is best accomplished with simplicity and intentionality; present the idea as clearly as possible and leave just enough to the imagination. Save your complex worldbuilding and hold back on the excessive details until after you’ve made the sales pitch.

If you can, you want to distill your core engagement and philosophy into one very short paragraph or sentence and set up your entire OP up to that point to hammer it home. Set the tone to the best of your abilities, then raise your questions and conflict.

After that, present as much information as needed to get a basic grip on the things people will need to know to create a functional character and not a paragraph more; I would highly recommend creating a wikia for your roleplay to contain everything else, all those details and side notes that aren’t strictly important to the introduction process. Don’t make the OP too overwhelming or you risk alienating your potential audience and giving them the impression that this is going to be far too large an undertaking, when the reality could be something far different.

These first two presentation concepts carry a huge amount of weight. Having these elements communicates quality and generates far more interest. It might not make sense to some, but trust me. It's important enough that I would heavily recommend, if you're not stylistically or editorially inclined yourself, to find someone who is to help you out. Heck, even if you are so inclined, get some test subjects to give their feedback.

As for timing, there's very little consistently applicable advice I can give. There's no formula, only a guideline: compete as little as possible.

Try to know as much as you can about what's coming up and public interest in it. You never want to release at the same time as an anticipated, bigger, or similar title; even smaller roleplays are better avoided. Your ideal scenario--which may well vary depending on where you’re posting--is at least a week of spotlight purely on your roleplay.

This is part of what makes releasing a roleplay over holidays, especially at their start, such a risky gamble. If you're the first on the scene and generate a dominant presence, you can reap the benefits of getting off to a strong start with members on break. However, this risk lets down far more roleplays than it helps. The roleplay market gets saturated quickly over holidays as everyone sees the obvious benefits, but fails to account for the amount of people vying for what is ultimately a limited audience. Furthermore, people tend to overestimate the amount of time that is actually available over holidays and, in some cases, end up being even busier then than during their regular schedule.

You should also be wary of thematic competition. Try to analyze, at least at a basic level, what the core engagement and philosophy of all the current roleplays are; if both overlap, you might want to very carefully consider whether it’s wise to proceed. Even with just one, you’ll want to reexamine your roleplay and make sure your roleplay is differentiated enough.

Part of competing as little as possible also involves avoiding competing with people's real life obligations. Get a sense of how busy people are around the time you're thinking about launching. No time will ever be perfect, but try to recognize no-go signs when you see them.

While you do want to compete as little as possible, know that not competing whatsoever isn’t usually going to be an option. Prudence in choosing those battles is your best option.

All three of the elements of presentation can be utilized in both the OP and the hype-building around your roleplay. Hype-building is an extremely difficult balance of timing, restraint, and teasing. It begins as soon as you bring up the concept to others; it can involve releasing details, showing off graphics or interesting writings, and simply just making people curious. Hype-building can be as brief as a day or stretch for months; it’s simply the act of trying to be on people’s interest radar.

In short, presentation is all about letting people know exactly what they can expect from you and why it’ll be awesome.

Being a Gamemaster
Being a Gamemaster is never going to look the same twice, because no two roleplays are going to be the same. The guiding principles of good Gamemasters, however, are fairly uniform.

If you want an active game, you have to set that pace yourself. Inactive GMs are a big part of why roleplays fail. Granted, this can be on players just as often, but you are not the player and you can’t control the player, no matter what. You can only set standards and expectations; that’s where you’ll find the people who rise to that.

Know what place you occupy. Sometimes, your place as a GM is to meticulously regulate all player creations and make sure everything stays consistent. In some roleplays, this is unnecessary and intrusive. Regardless, you want to know your rules by heart, both within the gameworld and out, and do your best to communicate these with grace.

You want to say “Yes, but…” as much as possible, but not be afraid of “No.” Flexibility is a welcome trait in a GM, but you never want to be so flexible you undermine the experience you’re gunning for. The more you know what you’re doing with your roleplay, the more defined this line will become. It comes with knowing why you’re calling the shots you are.

Now, obviously, you’re never going to get this perfect. That’s fine. The one thing you do have to get right is recognizing when and where you have gone wrong, being willing to admit it, and being willing to work towards fixing your errors. Seriously, one apology or genuine admission of a weakness goes a long way. Always build trust, friendships, with your roleplayers and they’re far more likely to go all the way with you in these journeys. The easiest way to kill that trust, and thus your roleplay, is to never recognize your own shortcomings and to fail to address the concerns of your community.

Sticking the Landing
Ending a roleplay is a tricky topic, just because there are so few examples of roleplays that make it all the way to the end and even fewer that give players a satisfying conclusion.

From the get-go, you should be keeping the idea of ending the roleplay in the back of your mind. At the very start, this’ll usually feel silly in a non-plot roleplay, but, as things progress and you start to see how everyone’s ideas are unfolding and interacting, you’ll start to form some idea of where things are heading and what potential storybeats are coming.

Try to understand what role your philosophy is playing in any ending and what conclusions your players have reached. Generally, it will be your job to wrap up the ending with a final post and, ideally, you’re going to be tying those threads together in the end in one way or another. Don’t be afraid to delegate this if you see it fit to do so, as well.

Finally, you’re going to need to let it truly end. Don’t cheapify your ending by adding anything further to the story that doesn’t need to be there and, if you want to add more, keep those plans fairly under wraps, at least until that ending has come and gone. Knowing there’s more to come might tempt you and other writers to rush the ending to get to new content instead of savoring a finale. Endings are bittersweet by nature and it’s rarely easy to say goodbye, but it’s far more satisfying to look back on a passionate ending than an apathetic petering out.

Closing Thoughts & More Concise Advice
After all of that, making a roleplay might seem like a daunting task. In a way, it is. Launching a roleplay can feel like exposing a piece of your soul, leaving it at the mercy of other writers.

It is so, so worth it.

I bring these things up because I believe in the potential of role-playing as a way of expression. There's potential here to help both creators and participants learn and grow, not just in their writing abilities, but as people: as leaders, collaborators, friends, thinkers, feelers.

Harry Potter, a story that touched millions of lives, was not ultimately a story about wizards and broomsticks. It was, at its core, a tale about learning to accept death. That is what sets great art apart: not the paint used or the flashy accents, but the meaning.

If I were to condense my philosophy of roleplay creation into a single sentence, it would be this:

Ask yourself why you're doing this.

The answer doesn't have to deep. Not all of your design decisions have to have complex philosophical reasons behind them. Some roleplays are simply for fun, but if you know that going in, you can be purposeful in creating the most fun experience possible. And when you have a purpose, that's when people start caring.

I hope you found this somewhat insightful. I do recognize, firstly, that this may be incomplete or even inaccurate and am open to critique and, secondly, that this is a very broad, behind-the-scenes type of guide that doesn't necessarily do anything to help with specific questions. If you ever have a question about making a roleplay that you can't find an answer to here, feel free to ask me directly, either on Discord, through PMs, or even here on this thread. I'd love to throw my thoughts your way Smile

_________________
and then you put your hand in mine and pulled me back from things divine


stop looking up for heaven
waiting to be buried

Athena Lionheart
Athena Lionheart
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Post by Michael DeathFlame on Mon Jun 03, 2019 12:30 pm

@Athena Lionheart wrote:
If you have a story you’re very attached to, with characters you greatly love and whose role in the story you couldn’t see changing, you might not have a good foundation for your roleplay; you may be setting yourself up to create an experience in which others are just tagging along for what is ultimately a predetermined story. Gamemastering a roleplay fundamentally requires you to factor in the chance for others to impact the world and story. That’s not to say that a story-driven roleplay is in any way a bad idea; it’s simply to point out that you need to approach it as an interaction, not a lecture. Avoid depriving the cast of their agency as much as possible, especially at pivotal plot moments. Sometimes, it will, in fact, be the correct course of action to take charge and dominate a scene; you should be aware, though, that you could be toeing the line between awe and frustration for other players.

This entire guide was amazing, but in my experience both on here and Central, I think this paragraph is the one we should pay the most attention to. Failing to provide characters agency is my single greatest pet peeve in RPGs, and I think this is even more prevalent in text-based RPGs in particular. When DMing non-text based RPGs like DnD, I pay careful attention not to "rail-road" my players. I don't force them down a predetermined path. They have the power to forge their own path, which makes their choices matter. Believing that you have the ability to impact the story in a real way is one of the biggest draws to an RPG; without that, you're just following along in someone else's story.

I think it's easier not to fall into this pitfall in DnD because the DM isn't a member of the party. Yes, they control the world, but its the characters who exist in that world, and the characters who shape the world through their actions. Text-based RPG GMs, on the other hand, often have their own characters who not only are members of the group, but also lead the group. Like any other player, the GM has a character arc in mind for their own characters, and works to bring that arc to life. This can be dangerous once the GM transforms their own character's arc into the primary plot arc of the story. I've seen this done a few ways; the villain is only interested in the main character despite the presence of other competent, influential characters; the main character and villain have some personal connection that no other character shares; the main character possesses some power/lineage/trait that is the key to the entire story; the main character is the only person capable of taking down the big bad evil guy; etc. Notice that I said "main character," because that's essential what the GM's character is if they fall into these pitfalls. A singular main character belongs in books, not RPGs.

I think a good way to test whether you're falling in this trap is to ask yourself two questions: is my character absolutely vital to the plot of the story? And if so, are they the only character that this applies to? If you answer "Yes" to both of these questions, there's an issue. Alternatively, if you find yourself stopping someone from making an impactful, legal decision/action (ie an action that doesn't break game rules or mechanics) not because it would break the game but because it would break your plot, you also have an issue. Whether you do it by expressly telling them "No, you can't do that," or you make their action inconsequential by making the character miss/screw up/be wrong, you're still in the wrong.

As a GM, you need to be open to other people leaving an impact on the story. To do this, your characters cannot have exponentially more influence over the plot when compared to the rest of the cast. Allow other peoples' protagonists the ability to exert some influence on the plot, and be sure the story revolves around the group, not just Main Character and Co.

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Post by Adrian on Wed Jun 19, 2019 3:03 pm

@Athena Lionheart wrote:Character Driven vs. Player Driven vs. Creator Driven
When starting a roleplay, it’s important to understand where the control lies. What or who is primarily propelling the experience?

The difference between character driven and player driven can be initially hard to see, but the major difference between the two is that player driven roleplays will have players creating and implementing their own plotlines rather than strictly the creator. Character driven is where there is essentially no set plot by anyone and character interactions carry the weight of the story.

Creator Driven is generally interchangeable with plot-driven. The original poster will have control of the plot’s direction, often through their ownership of the main villain PC and a collection of other NPCs.

None of these are inherently superior to any other. All of them can be executed well or poorly. Additionally, very few roleplays will sort neatly into one category; circumstance will often cause things to blur. It is good to know, though, who should generally be driving things along and to make sure participants know their obligations and restrictions as well. This matters because if nobody understands who has what responsibilities, a roleplay will either stall or run into conflict. Communication is the basis of coordination, after all.

Fostering a Healthy Cast
We’ve all seen a roleplay where nearly half the cast was composed of healers, or pretty much all the protagonists were extraverted hotheads. So how do you keep yourself from being surrounded by moody, introverted women? The answer is that you sometimes can’t, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have some safety rails.

First, let’s establish that your cast and its diversity matters. Now, I’m not saying you’ve got to have an array of all races, gender identities, sexualities, etc.; that’s for your players to decide what they feel up to. What is important is that your characters don’t all undermine each other’s importance. Why is the aforementioned abundance of healers framed as negative? While in some universes, this would make plenty of sense, in many other cases this would drastically reduce the impact the characters could individually offer. What's the fun in playing a role that several others are already filling, be that mechanically, relationally, or plot-wise?

Furthermore, you have to account for the ideal size for your cast. Some roleplays thrive on the chaos of dozens of characters, but a likely majority would benefit from a much more condensed cast, especially ones that need player attachment to characters.

There are a few ways you could go in encouraging the ideal cast for your setting. The first is to have set roles. The second is through encouraging group play. The third is to limit character spots.

Having set roles is, by far, the most underused method in roleplaying context, but I do believe it deserves mention because it has the potential to be quite serviceable, especially in a plot or character heavy roleplay. Whether it be by job title or by temperament, you can offer people spots in a premade ‘group’ to ensure you get the right dynamic; alternatively, you can have people submit ideas according to guidelines and from there pick out what functions best.

When a larger cast is called for, sometimes it’s best to have players form their own teams. When players are placed in a situation where they have to collaborate in the character creation phase, they tend to take into account the personality dynamics and roles on their own. This also helps to keep people accountable to and motivated by others besides the roleplay creator alone.

Limiting character spots is usually a good, standard way to keep certain classes of characters exclusive while allowing people plenty of options. Keep certain abilities or roles only open to a few people; this can be decided on a first come, first serve basis, or by an application process. The exclusivity of spots generally forces people to think harder about what ideas they like the most out of what they have to offer and overall helps promote higher quality as people aren’t allowed to spread themselves too thin, especially when a roleplay is just getting off of the ground.

So I've been looking at this thread on and off for the past few days, taking in everything you said here in your OP. I'm by no means the oldest role-player on the forum - many people here have a few extra years on me and I certainly don't consider myself a veteran - but overall, your guide is pretty spot on and hits several extremely good points about what makes an RPG work, but more importantly why some seem to go by the wayside.

Ultimately, I think I want to comment on the last paragraph in the above quote because the concept of limited character spots has been something of a secret bete noire for me, at least in the past few years.

It's something I hate to admit because so many people enjoy them, and for good reasons like you listed. They keep an RPG from being too saturated and, quite frankly, crowded, and that's why Jack created the SGRPG sub-forum (barely used as it is). Thinking just in terms of D&D, allowing endless characters would be difficult to keep track of for everyone and just make things a mess in the end.

One issue I've noticed over the years (and something I've had conversations about with several people) is when the "Limited Spot Group" becomes the Main Cast. The Lead Heroes. They gain a certain status that elevates the characters (and by extension, the players) above the rest of the cast, leading to a kind of snowball effect for many people not in the LSG (myself included):

-The player recognizes the difference in character status.
-The player recognizes the lessened relevance of their character in the RPG.
-The player has less of an interest in participating in the RPG.
-The player invariably quits participating altogether.

I've been on both sides of this scenario - being a part of the LSG and being outside of it - which is why I'm always reluctant to use LSGs unless it's necessary for the mechanics of the RPG, and why I'm not as keen on joining RPGs with LSGs unless I make a character not in an LSG (which I almost always do, or at least I try). I feel that ultimately, LSGs work really well unless or until the plot becomes specific only to those in the LSG - which happens quite often, I have found. It honestly goes back to what Michael said:

@Michael DeathFlame wrote:As a GM, you need to be open to other people leaving an impact on the story. To do this, your characters cannot have exponentially more influence over the plot when compared to the rest of the cast. Allow other peoples' protagonists the ability to exert some influence on the plot, and be sure the story revolves around the group, not just Main Character and Co.

When it comes to influencing the plot, everyone should hold that responsibility. It's up to the players to have an influence on the story, and it's on the DM to allow the players the agency to do so in the first place. Obviously, other factors come into play, such as the amount of engagement one has in the RPG. But in making an RPG it's important to keep the plot open to flexibility. You don't even need to change the ending - in fact, the ending isn't necessarily the most important part, but rather the nice savory texture in the middle (that is, how you all get to the ending in the first place). And the middle part can only be enjoyable if other parties make an impact.

At the moment, I fear that I'm in the process (if I'm not already there, which I probably am) of falling prey to this dilemma in Harwell's Institute. If you don't know much about what's going on in Harwell's (btw join if you haven't it's amazing), all you need to know is that there are more than one main plots occurring at the moment, with several distinct antagonists having parts to play in the overall story. Without revealing too much, I'm in the process of transitioning my own sub-plot into a more inclusive and indiscriminate story that has much more potential to impact everyone in the game.

Part of this process is wrapping up one of the plots I have running already, which I am overall... not pleased with in terms of "inter-character inclusiveness" (that's a word. I made it up, but it's a word now). A lot of people aren't even sure what the heck is going on with my sub-plot, which became a red flag for me and a sign that I need to change where I'm taking this plot. This is why when I say my Harwell's subplot is irrelevant, that's because, in my eyes, it kind of is. In my opinion, I'm not leaving it open to enough engagement, it involves my characters way too much, to the point where my characters seem just about distinct from the rest of the plots that other people have going. It's a great story, I love it, but at this point it feels like I'm just writing self-containing chapters on an RPG thread, which quite honestly I don't want to do because it makes me feel self-conscious and awkward, and I have enough of those insecurities in real life when I shop for Hot Pockets at my grocery store at 1AM on Tuesdays.

Terrible dietary habits aside, the main point I'm trying to get at is that, from my understanding, you need to be careful with LSGs, because they can really unbalance the player/plot relationship in ways that will turn people off. Not only do you need to be concerned with player inactivity within the LSG, but also outside of it. Those who join your RPG later after those spots are filled should be no less valuable to the story than those inside the group.

Another concern I've had, which ties into my concerns with LSGs, involves introducing new players with the much older cast - i.e., the established characters and story lines with fresh blood. I've seen this happen in a lot of places, where new players joining in on the story quickly back out because of how intimidating it is - a struggle to connect with the characters and the plot, this fear (whether it's based on fact or just anxiety) that because the older characters have highly established relationships with each other they won't want to create new ones with the newer characters.

I've found myself backing out of RPGs that I've been wanting to get back into because of this. There was such this deep disconnect I've felt, that I was concerned wouldn't be bridged like I was intruding on a story already in progress and it was best to just establish my own plot or leave it altogether. And in retrospect, a lot of those instances would have been easily remedied by me just sucking it up and interjecting myself into those social situations more - but then the fear of intruding upon someone else's established narrative gets in the way and I get cold feet again. So I dunno. My social anxiety knows no bounds, apparently.


This whole reply got a lot longer than I anticipated. For the record I don't want to seem like a negative person here, though I may inevitably come off as that anyways. I just feel that it's important to have an ongoing dialogue about creating and participating in RPGs, because I know we all have concerns about the way they work, and the way they don't seem to work for individual people. Throughout the past several years, I've watched how people join RPGs, how they participate in them, and, for those that do, how they drop out of them. I've tried to look at the way people engage in these stories, what seems to work for them, what doesn't. I've even aired some of my concerns and fears with some people on this site about whether or not I'm playing an RPG the "right" way because of unexpected experiences with a story or group of characters.

Overall, Athena, this guide was really well done and thought-provoking. I've been a bit anxious to hear other people's thoughts on how an RPG should be made, and I was really glad to read up on your take. I'm also interested in reading other people's thoughts, because after all, collaborative story-telling is a group effort, and so should be the conversation surrounding it.

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Post by Captain Whitehawk on Mon Jun 24, 2019 12:51 pm

I got to see this RPG guide when Athena was first drafting it, so I'm sure she knows how I feel about it but--excellent job!  I'm amazed at how efficiently and accurately you can break down just about anything, no matter how complex, into fully-functioning parts.  The manner in which you do this goes completely over my head, but I love reading what you've come up with and using it to tweak my stuff.

As a player. I've always found it really easy to spot little microcosms in an RP's makeup (a certain culture that could theoretically create a very interesting kind of person, a sort of power set-up that has space for this seemingly insignificant person who, if you really think about it, probably has much more power than one might think, or just, hell, banging together a lot of very strong personality traits than in turn creates a strong character) that I can then use to create the characters I want, well-established or not.  Anaphora was a real hurdle for me in the beginning, given that I came to it three years late, but aside from a little frustration for characters I'd made in the county of Aspernor (which had some deeply-rooted plots already), I walked away really satisfied with my cast and I had a great time.  Harwell's has sorta been the same experience for me, although navigating it and what's been happening has been a little trickier--but still, the group is great, people answer my questions, I've come up with a cast I like and I've been telling stories I enjoy, interacting with a lot of cool characters and slowly catching up on what those people have been up to.

I ... am very much on the opposite end of whatever spectrum Adrian is occupying (I barrel through everything), and I know I take this into wherever I RP, as player or creator, and hearing other people talk, it's made me afraid of how I make RPs?  Obviously I've just the one, but it's been redone and I'm still not certain I've beaten out all the kinks.  And if this means trashing Asphodel and making another RP, or deeply altering the way Asphodel works, I don't know!  But I'd love suggestions/comments/ideas.  Asphodel's very important to me, but in some ways I don't think I could love it as much as I'd like to if the players in it weren't having a good time.  That, I think, is probably the only solid RP making advice I could give, that you should be making it for the benefit of others and not, idk, your ego.  

I think right now for me, my biggest struggle as a newbie RP creator is figuring out a sweet balance for establishing a world and a few central conflicts that players can have fun with ... without making people feel like there's nothing to explore or no excitement to be had.  And with that also is trying to make sure players feel connected to each other, that the stories they tell matter, that anyone could do anything--Mike put the notion more thoughtfully, but you get the point.  

It doesn't help, also, that because I'm so new I feel much more like a collaborator than, I don't know, an authority figure.  Should a good RP have a central authority figure?  If I'm just here to answer questions and establish world-building rules, does that count?  'Tis very complicated.  Thoughts, anyone?

EDIT: I totally rambled my way through this and I dunno how coherent it is, will edit and make better points when I next have time which ... may take till tomorrow.

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Post by Comrade Squid on Mon Jun 24, 2019 7:34 pm

@Captain Whitehawk wrote:That, I think, is probably the only solid RP making advice I could give, that you should be making it for the benefit of others and not, idk, your ego.
Y'know, you could have just said "Hello there, Squid!" /s

Now, I held off replying to this for a long time because there was nothing I had to say other than "I agree" to pretty much the whole thing. And I still agree! But now I've got some things I can comment on.

Seconding both the OP and Michael's reply... yeah, turning RPGs into my own personal story is something I was and am guilty of. Of course, it's been a while since I've run an RPG, but I'm still not sure my insufferably perfectionist attitude would be able to avoid turning the RPG into a Comrade Squid fanfic featuring minor input from other people. So, while it is the responsibility of the RPG maker to create the central plot and guide it along those lines, I think one should always be open to the input of others, and be prepared to make major altercations to the plan to suit the actions of the players. Remember, the narrative isn't just active, it's reactive- it should react to the actions of the characters in the story, regardless of who they belong to.

I'll always recommend staying in close contact to the DM of an RPG. That way, if you have any big plans, you can check it out with them and work out all the fine details.

@Captain Whitehawk wrote:It doesn't help, also, that because I'm so new I feel much more like a collaborator than, I don't know, an authority figure.  Should a good RP have a central authority figure?  If I'm just here to answer questions and establish world-building rules, does that count?  'Tis very complicated.  Thoughts, anyone?
In my opinion? Yes, although like I said, there's limits.

For one thing, at the end of the day, the universe belongs to the DM, its creator. While I recommend that they keep an open mind to the contributions adde to the world and plot by the players, they ultimately have the final say, and should probably shut down any suggestions that would dramatically clash with the theme of the RPG. After all, you don't want a player to add, say... flying pink unicorns to your gritty sci-fi RPG, do you? (Or green globs that eat memories to your serious fantasy RPG)

Also, I feel it can help to have one or two characters to build a central narrative around. Someone who the action will always be around. While you don't want these "main characters" to siphon attention away from the wider group, it can be helpful to have some important people to ground the happenings around.

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Post by Athena Lionheart on Wed Jul 03, 2019 11:34 pm

For some reason, I didn't actually expect people to read this and reply? Thank you guys for your feedback and additions! Means a lot  Smile

@Adrian wrote:So I've been looking at this thread on and off for the past few days, taking in everything you said here in your OP. I'm by no means the oldest role-player on the forum - many people here have a few extra years on me and I certainly don't consider myself a veteran - but overall, your guide is pretty spot on and hits several extremely good points about what makes an RPG work, but more importantly why some seem to go by the wayside.

Ultimately, I think I want to comment on the last paragraph in the above quote because the concept of limited character spots has been something of a secret bete noire for me, at least in the past few years.

It's something I hate to admit because so many people enjoy them, and for good reasons like you listed. They keep an RPG from being too saturated and, quite frankly, crowded, and that's why Jack created the SGRPG sub-forum (barely used as it is). Thinking just in terms of D&D, allowing endless characters would be difficult to keep track of for everyone and just make things a mess in the end.

One issue I've noticed over the years (and something I've had conversations about with several people) is when the "Limited Spot Group" becomes the Main Cast. The Lead Heroes. They gain a certain status that elevates the characters (and by extension, the players) above the rest of the cast, leading to a kind of snowball effect for many people not in the LSG (myself included):

-The player recognizes the difference in character status.
-The player recognizes the lessened relevance of their character in the RPG.
-The player has less of an interest in participating in the RPG.
-The player invariably quits participating altogether.

I've been on both sides of this scenario - being a part of the LSG and being outside of it - which is why I'm always reluctant to use LSGs unless it's necessary for the mechanics of the RPG, and why I'm not as keen on joining RPGs with LSGs unless I make a character not in an LSG (which I almost always do, or at least I try). I feel that ultimately, LSGs work really well unless or until the plot becomes specific only to those in the LSG - which happens quite often, I have found...Overall, Athena, this guide was really well done and thought-provoking. I've been a bit anxious to hear other people's thoughts on how an RPG should be made, and I was really glad to read up on your take. I'm also interested in reading other people's thoughts, because after all, collaborative story-telling is a group effort, and so should be the conversation surrounding it.

Ah, yea, rereading through that part you quoted I realized I left a lot of my thought process under the surface. I might go rewrite some of that. For this in particular
Athena wrote:Limiting character spots is usually a good, standard way to keep certain classes of characters exclusive while allowing people plenty of options. Keep certain abilities or roles only open to a few people; this can be decided on a first come, first serve basis, or by an application process. The exclusivity of spots generally forces people to think harder about what ideas they like the most out of what they have to offer and overall helps promote higher quality as people aren’t allowed to spread themselves too thin, especially when a roleplay is just getting off of the ground.
the spots I was referring to were partially player by player, but I muddied this up a lot by also bringing in the concept of limiting character roles. I'll probably go split that into two distinct parts. Conciseness killed the Athena, yet again. Anyways, ideally, I find it best in roleplay to adopt a kind of dynamic approach to character limits; ultimately, I think of any limitations thereof to be a kind of flood control, preventing the 'eyes too big for the stomach' problem. For example, with Anaphora, I started off by allowing only three characters per player, and only 12 initial 'main groupers', capping each Trait at two. I left a back door, however, for other people to develop Trait Bearers as things went on, and, as Entropy approached and people had hit their strides, I broadened the limits to 5 characters. Because you're right, hard and fast 'Main Casts' where other people are still given the promise of engagement inevitably creates something of a class system between roleplayers, and I've seen firsthand the fallout that kind of situation can create.

Creating and communicating dynamic limitations, however, had been difficult in my experience. When throwing around concepts for an Aion RPG (which, for the record, would have been pretty badass) we got around to character limitations, because we had a certain number of classes that would all need to be populated. The best model I had at the time was something like a logic puzzle (let x be the class with the least number of characters; for every class, let the cap be x + 2...). Even then, though, would that cause issues of people making placeholders just to up the number in another class? Maybe the answer is to go on a case-by-case basis, but then do you call into question your objectivity? I think the experience as a GM is always going to call for tweaking and oversight throughout the process, again, striking an impossible balance.

And then there's always the question of whether the people who would be best suited to the roles end up getting them, or whether they can even get in the running for them. But to address that is to address problems of favoritism and convention that I simply don't fancy running through at this hour. Needless to say, I think there are better ways to have these things done--when isn't there?--and that having conversations like this bring us closer to finding them.

@Captain Whitehawk wrote:I got to see this RPG guide when Athena was first drafting it, so I'm sure she knows how I feel about it but--excellent job!  I'm amazed at how efficiently and accurately you can break down just about anything, no matter how complex, into fully-functioning parts.  The manner in which you do this goes completely over my head, but I love reading what you've come up with and using it to tweak my stuff...I think right now for me, my biggest struggle as a newbie RP creator is figuring out a sweet balance for establishing a world and a few central conflicts that players can have fun with ... without making people feel like there's nothing to explore or no excitement to be had.  And with that also is trying to make sure players feel connected to each other, that the stories they tell matter, that anyone could do anything--Mike put the notion more thoughtfully, but you get the point.  

It doesn't help, also, that because I'm so new I feel much more like a collaborator than, I don't know, an authority figure.  Should a good RP have a central authority figure?  If I'm just here to answer questions and establish world-building rules, does that count?  'Tis very complicated.  Thoughts, anyone?

EDIT: I totally rambled my way through this and I dunno how coherent it is, will edit and make better points when I next have time which ... may take till tomorrow.

First of all, omgthankyouisthisvalidationohmyohmy!

The question of collaborative vs authoritative GMing is as old as the position itself, and I think the closest thing to an answer is to realize that both aspects are inherent to the role and that fear of either one is going to hurt you as a creator and leader. Does a roleplay need an authority figure? I'd say yes. The world roleplayers are traversing through is only as solid as the will of the one who founded it; that doesn't mean that the creator needs to be the only one hashing out ideas, but if you want other players to buy into a shared vision, a vision that brings disjointed authors into a coherent unit, you need to be willing to enforce it. Whether this is primarily done on a technical level of adjusting power levels or within vetting worldbuilding elements for thematic coherence, having a unifying force in the GM, a final say, ultimately stabilizes the process. And where there's stability, people are more likely to build something lasting.

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