You may recall back in January, I shared a bunch of artwork from Hellgate Hotel, a forum based RPG that I had played. This format of online roleplay has gained quite a bit of popularity and momentum in the online community where it began (comprised mostly of theater LARPers from the northeast). I believe it was in part inspired by a someone taking a large, complex one shot theater LARP (Infinite Magic Glories) and adapting it to run on Discord. I have so far PCed or NPCed four such games, with a fifth planned for this summer.
There has been a bit of debate among the writers/GMs, and players over whether or not these games are LARPs. Personally, I don’t consider them LARPs, because players are primarily describing what their characters do, rather than acting out what their characters do, but others feel differently. And to be fair, in many ways, these games resemble theater LARPs more than they resemble the most common formats of tabletop RPGs. All of the writers, and most of the players, have a pretty strong background in theater LARPing, and it shows.) If it isn’t LARPing, it’s certainly LARP-adjacent, and it scratches the RPG itch while being social distancing friendly.
There has also been a bit of debate over what to call these games. Some people have been calling them Discord LARPs, for lack of a better term. I realize “forum based RPGs” is broad and sounds like it might encompass a number of very different text-based roleplaying structures, but that’s the term I’ll use for simplicity’s sake until we settle on something better.
I’m not sure how likely any of the ones runs so far are to rerun, but just in case, I’m adding a cut, below which are mild spoilers.
The four games I’ve PCed or NPCed so far are:
Hellgate Hotel — the first one, a 15 day, 16 player fantasy game with some JRPG-like flavor. The premise involves a giant rift that has been opened up to demonic realms, and the players dealing with the demons as the magic seals over the rift begin to fail. I played an ascetic character whose culture was inspired by the air nomads of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Dinosaur Vacation — a weekend long sci-fi game in which the PCs are passengers aboard a ship that flies through a solar flare and finds the Earth has reverted to the age of dinosaurs, but there is a single signal still emanating from the planet, where New Mexico will one day be. I NPCed a very strange character that shows up on Saturday evening.
Titanic — a weekend long game which plays out the sinking of the RMS Titanic, and the rescue of the survivors. Players were welcome to play actual historical personages on board the Titanic, or to create their own characters, and insert whatever extra plot or storylines they come up with. I played Renee Harris, a historical passenger on the Titanic. (Another player played her husband, Henry B. Harris.)
To Boldly Go — another weekend long game, heavily inspired by Star Trek, where PCs played the crew and passengers of the SC Arcadia, investigating a strange signal in unchartered space, without contact from any allies.
General Structure So far, all of the games have run on dedicated Discord servers. Each game’s server has a large number of channels, divided into categories such as: OOC (announcements, rules, questions for GMs, general chatter, etc.), IC public channels (representing different locations PCs can hang out and roleplay), IC private channels (things like restricted locations, or for private conversations between PCs).
Players engaged in unstructured roleplay in the IC character channels. In three of the games, (Hellgate Hotel, Dinosaur Vacation, and To Boldy Go) events would occur from time to time, and a small group of players would go off on “missions” in temporarily available private channels to deal with the events. Often this involved combat, but sometimes it involved things like solving puzzles or roleplaying with NPCs, and they often rewarded players with new abilities, items, and/or information.
This structure probably sounds pretty familiar to the boffer LARPers of the local Accelerant community (and other live combat LARPers) — it reminded me a lot of the way many boffer campaign events involve PCs hanging out in the tavern while waiting for NPC hooks to introduce them to modules.
Titanic differs in that there are no missions or modules. There are timed events where the GMs/NPCs post descriptions of what is happening in the various IC location channels.
Character Creation This has varied from game to game. In Hellgate Hotel, players created their characters wholesale, with guidance from a series of questions from the GMs. For Dinosaur Vacation and To Boldly Go, players filled out questionnaires and then GMs wrote characters based on the responses. For Titanic, many players picked real historical people, others created characters from scratch, or altered details of historical people. I asked the GM for a suggestion, (and they suggested Renee Harris.) There has been discussion of other forms of character creation for future games, such as GMs creating outlines of characters, and players being welcome to fill in the details.
Roleplay In all games, players narrated via text what their characters were doing and saying to one another. Lines of dialog were preceded by custom character emojis to indicate who was speaking. (Some players controlled additional minor characters besides their primary character. For example, my character in Hellgate Hotel had a dog, and the dog had its own custom emoji. In Dinosaur Vacation, as players tamed dinosaurs, they gained new dinosaur emojis so that the dinosaurs could be involved in roleplay.)
The character emojis lent a feeling of cohesion to the games, and had the effect of making in-game dialog feel like video game RPG dialog. Hellgate Hotel had all players create a character portrait with Heroforge (a website for creating custom minis for tabletop RPGs), which proved popular, and the others followed suit, though To Boldly Go had some players using images from other sources.
Character actions were denoted with italics. (E.g. “Hello.” John extends his hand for a handshake. “It’s nice to meet you.”) Out-of-character text was indicated with double parenthesis, and players were encouraged to keep it to a minimum in the IC channels. Having OOC channels helped a lot with this, and they often served the purpose of running commentary on in-game occurrences.
Roleplaying this way is really interesting. It often feels like collaborative fiction writing, with players exerting a higher degree of control over the direction of roleplay than exists in other formats, because they can describe precisely what other characters observe about their own. For example, a player might write, “‘I’m not embarrassed at all.’ John is speaking loudly and firmly, despite the obvious blush creeping over his face.“
Mechanics Titanic was the lightest in terms of mechanics — there weren’t any stats or abilities. Hellgate Hotel had a CCG-like combat system where players had hit points and six abilities, each with a combat score, a damage output, and possible special effects. Dinosaur Vacation had a system where characters have ranks in three primary stats (strength, research, and psychic) which could be modified by items or special circumstances. And characters in To Boldly Go had lists of skills, with possible specialties. Skills were used to bypass challenges in missions.
Advantages/Highlights As mentioned above, these forum based games are socially distancing friendly, and enable players from far flung locations to play together, while still enabling real-time (ish… obviously typing is slower than speech) interaction. It’s also quite flexible scheduling wise — players drop in and out of the games, and run through missions, as their schedules allow. And because it’s all preserved in written format, players can catch up on roleplay that went on while they were offline, if they like. And GMs and players alike can keep tabs on multiple scenes going on at the same time.
The forum structure allows for easy organization and access of written materials at all times, and enables GMs to include evocative elements like images and sound effects. (In Hellgate Hotel, location descriptions for mission channels included links to youtube videos that feature background soundtracks.
Being able to have IC and OOC channels available simultaneously felt like having one’s roleplay cake and eating it too — it felt like one could make observations and comments, often humorous, about roleplay scenes without interrupting them.
Challenges This structure has no natural boundaries, time-wise, and with so many active players, it can create pressure to spend more time than one should on a game. There are nearly always other players to roleplay with, and there’s always tons of reading to catch up on. If you’re the kind of player who wants to be as informed as possible, and stay on top of everything, this style of game can eat up enormous amounts of time. (Doubly true for GMs, who have even more reason to stay on top of everything.)
A game could theoretically place boundaries on playtime (e.g. “the forms are only open for roleplay three hours in the evening”), but that would significantly undermine one of the main advantages of the structure — its scheduling flexibility. I’m of the opinion that it is on players to set and stick to their own boundaries on playtime according to their own needs, and GMs should ideally only step in if their inability to do so is negatively affecting other players in a way that they can’t handle without GM assistance.
Also related to scheduling flexibility — it’s very difficult to predict how much content needs to go into a game for a given length of time and/or a given number of players. Players themselves may not be able to predict how much time they will end up spending on the game — an hour a day? A half an hour or so three or four times a day? From the time they’re up to the time they sleep?
Scheduling of missions can present a difficult logistical challenge, to ensure they run when the relevant group of players and GM(s) can all be present, and ensure that players all get to participate in a roughly equal number of them, and feel like their preferences for which ones they attend and with whom are taken into consideration, especially if GMs want them to be unspoiled surprises.
Additionally, like many other forms of RPGs that don’t primarily consist of a single central ongoing scene/conversation, this format seems to have an issue with players feeling as though inter-character relationships and roleplay are developing unevenly. That is, it can seem as though some players are connecting strongly with multiple other players, or having lots of great conversations, while others are struggling to connect to anyone or get involved in conversations. It’s possible this issue is highlighted by the transparency of nearly all scenes that happen in-game. If I can read all of the long, deep conversations going on between other players, I might wonder why no one is responding to me when I indicate my character is hanging around the public areas and available to chat.
There are lots of design strategies and mechanics that exist from other RPG formats to borrow to address these issues, particularly ones related to character creation, and I’m sure as more games run, this is an issue we’ll see some experimentation with. I’m really looking forward to the next forum based RPG and seeing where this innovative style goes!