From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Forum Games and Game Masters: An Interview

From the stronghold of geeks and alternative culture, gaming is beginning to come into its own even in the mainstreams of society. Over 11.5 million people subscribe to World of Warcraft, and an estimated 20 million people have played Dungeons and Dragons. While these games take the lion’s share of press, fame (or infamy, depending on circumstances), hundreds of other games bring in a wide array of players.

With the advent of games like WiiFit, Madden, and an expanding collection of family-friendly lines, it seems like just about everyone plays one game or another on a system, or online. If someone doesn’t play it, they still know about it and have friends or family who play.

Not everyone knows about the little cousin of the big games. Forum gaming is as old as the Internet, but much lower-key and less exposed to the public. But, since it was easier and anyone could do it, a bit of infamy became attached to it as poorly-designed and poorly-run rip-offs became the norm, rather than the exception.

Forum-based gaming is more than a fan-boy’s playground, though. It doesn’t have fancy graphics, miniatures, or high-quality sound-cards. There are no expensive monthly subscriptions or booster packs. Instead, it takes a player back to a time when there was just a pen and a piece of paper and their own imagination. Forum-gaming is also its own culture. There are rules to follow, challenges to face, and many, many funny moments.

And who better to tell us about those than the Game-Masters themselves?

Two forums, Speculative Vision and its smaller sister, Fifthwind Forums, have begun to gain some recognition for their involved, original stories and the dedication of their players. Speculative Vision earned an ARWZ award for best fan-forum in 2008, and one of Fifthwind Forum’s members has been featured as the contest-winner in Fantasy Magazine’s Flash-Fiction Contest.

The three Game-Masters we’re talking to today are from Fifthwind Forums. I tracked them down to talk a little about the unique niche that forum-gaming fills, and their roles in the Fifthwind Forums gaming tradition.
Havoc, the American, is where it all began for Fifthwind Forums. Creator and Game-Master of the sprawling epics of Wastelands, Havoc took a handful of loose ideas and turned them into the forum’s official RPG.

Loxley came to Fifthwind Forums from the larger, award-winning Speculative Vision forums. Game-Master of multiple stand-alone games, Loxley has brought a great variety and energy to the forum games, and is attempting to persuade everyone that Sweden still rules half the known world.

Mr. D is the Fifthwind Forum’s latest acquisition, and brings Wastelands’ fantasy-oriented cousin along for the ride. Altaea draws from history and mythology to lend a more tradition setting an unusual richness and history. Being British, he draws much of Loxley’s political baiting, with dubious results.

All three of them are passionate about forum-gaming, and the unique skill-set it requires.

Hi guys, thanks for coming on board for this. First off, how did you get into forum-based gaming?

Loxley: Well, it started with when I decided to try to get some outside opinions on a short story I was writing, and decided to look for a forum on the Net where I could throw it up. Eventually (well, pretty darn fast, actually) I found my way to Speculative Vision. I didn’t really throw up any more than that one story, but I came back a few months later when I had renewed interest, and somehow I got started with RPing in Lycoria. Eventually, I found my way to Fifthwind, and this is where I started GMing RP’s for the first time.

Mr. D: Well, I’ve always enjoyed writing and had recently joined a small writers’ forum, Speculative Vision. A member there had begun what he called a ‘collaborative story’: an ongoing story set in an original world where anyone could join and contribute. Something about it piqued my interest and I was inspired to develop a few characters and an overarching plot for them all. I joined and became one of the more active members. Eventually I started up my own stories in the world and was later inspired to try my hand at creating my own attempt.

Havoc: Well, I guess it all started when I got into collaborative writing. I was on DA for a while before I was introduced to the first incarnation of the Fifthwind Forum. I’d read some collaborative stuff that a friend did with someone and we started bouncing ideas for a potential story and so we wrote it.
As time passed, and I skimmed the RP section, it seemed really cool, so I jumped in one or two. When I felt comfortable with the group on the forum, I had the idea of just making my post-apocalyptic fantasy setting something everyone could enjoy and started the very first Wastelands thread. The original idea was to have this huge new setting I’d just come up with at the time and have the friends and community help flesh it out and make it something amazing. And I think it really has become something amazing, and it’s still growing, all thanks to the community involved in it.

What advantages do you consider forum-based gaming to have over, say, table-top or MMORPG?

Loxley: Forum-based RP’s allow you to be more creative, I think, and really take the time to imagine the locations in your head. I think all of us here like video game RPG’s, but in those, you don’t have any control over the story or character interaction, whilst in these RP’s, it’s you who decide everything around the adventure.

So you get more involved with the game, and the story?

Loxley: Yeah. And pen ‘n paper doesn’t really give the same focus on the surrounding environment that forum-based RP’s do.

Mr. D: I suppose it allows a lot more freedom in regards to what the people taking part can do. It also means the focus is more on the plot and characters than on game mechanics and other matters. You don’t need to be good at playing the game or lucky with dice rolls, you just need to have some degree of writing ability and some creativity.

Havoc: Well, there are a few things. One of the biggest is the personal touch. You actually have to think about how your character would react and actually become the character. You can do that to an extent in pen and paper games and video games, but there is the element of something in the way. With the pen and paper it’s usually the dice and hard fast rules in the form of those freakin’ huge sourcebooks that make crack or marijuana seem a lot cheaper! With the computer it’s that you’re just controlling something.

Don’t get me wrong, a good computer game will make you believe you are the character and can really immerse you in the setting (two that I think do a good job at this are Bioware’s Mass Effect and the original Fallout), but at the end of the day, you’re lacking the freedom and creativity that you can do with the writing aspect.

(I joke about the drugs. But I have heard many a DnD addict suggest that ‘crack is cheaper.’)

Mr D: What I wouldn’t do for some crack right now. (I’m joking. Or am I?)

Try reading Twilight. I’ve heard it helps.

Loxley: What’s Twilight? It sounds contagious. Like smallpox.

It appears to be as contagious…

What are the disadvantages and challenges, coming from you three as game-masters, of running forum-based adventures? (Besides the intense rivalries of British and Swedish game-masters, of course.)

Loxley: A lot of the time, they tend to lose their momentum, and die horrible, not-so-outdrawn deaths.

Mr. D: Yes. That.

Loxley: And sometimes it’s difficult to keep variation to keep entertaining the players.

Mr. D: Lack of members and interest can be a problem. As can lackluster writing.

Havoc: Two words: real life.

(Loxley): Also people who lack any common RP-sense and still join RP’s. Those are a real pain in the nugget. You don’t have that problem with either video games or pen and paper.

One of the problems I’ve had is that you can’t just pause a game and pick it up when you are ready. The turn-based nature of the game means teamwork and time-management.

Loxley: I’d say on the contrary, Jaym, you can take your time when playing it, because at the very least you have a day or two to make a good post.

Mr. D: I’m not the best writer in the world. I consider myself mediocre, but the amount of terrible writers I’ve seen ruin a good story through clichéd characters or plots is more than I can count.

But, you also have the problem that if you wait too long, you risk stalling the plot and causing the momentum to die.

Mr. D: That, and sometimes people can be reluctant to work together for the good of the story. No one wants their character to lose a fight, everyone wants to be the main character. Unless you can get a good group or decide on those sorts of matters, there can be conflict that can derail an otherwise serviceable RP.

Havoc: Events outside the forum can influence how a person responds, or if they do at all. In some cases, the players drop out because of that or people aren’t moving quickly. And Mr. D. You bring up the point of terrible writers. There is a certain level of skill that is required for it just like planning the right moves in a video game or pen and paper game.

Loxley: But on the other hand, RP’s can also take not-so-good players and make them better. I’m sure you all, except for D who wasn’t here then, remember a certain player who joined La Canela when it first started. Compare him from then and now, and you can see incredible improvement.

One of the things I’ve heard mentioned is how valuable a forum-based game is to the aspiring writer, so far as practice goes. Is this true? Why?

Mr. D: Hmm. They can be a double edged sword, I think.

Havoc: I gotta agree with Mr. D. They can be a double-edged sword. In one aspect, you can get feedback from other players about your writing style and how you go about it, but on the other hand, it can just be quick posts to try to keep it moving. It’s a balance that we need to address.

Loxley: Yeah. I’d say that role-playing really helped push me over the edge and start writing my WIP. In fact, if I hadn’t been drawn to the RP’s at Fifthwind, I would never have gotten that far.

Mr. D: On the one hand, they provide good constant practice, but they can also stress speed of replies rather than quality writing. In the end, it depends on the writer themselves and how much they want to use the chance to improve.

Loxley: I think they’re awesome for learning. Not only are they fun, and help you become better, but they can also help you flesh out your characters, and also, since you’re playing with others, force you to make “not perfect” characters. Although some people still do.

Havoc: Which is where the game-master steps in.

Mr. D: With an iron goddamn fist.

Loxley: Yup. Abusive power at its best. One should add that those kinds of players usually don’t stick around for long anyway.

Many comments have been made that forum-based RP’s tend to be “fan-boy fantasies” or lackluster meanderings around ripped-off worlds. Where do you think this perception is coming from?

Mr. D: I can certainly see where that opinion comes from. I hold it myself, in fact.

Havoc: Likewise.

Loxley: I disagree strongly. I think it’s more of a way for writers to play with others in worlds they themselves have created. There are, however, RP’s based around fiction—and we all love good fan-fiction.

Havoc: And to an extent, you could easily argue it’s true. But there are two sides to every coin, and it’s important to try to come up with something unique and interesting, and that people will want to get involved in.

Mr. D: For the most part, people tend to use forum RPs to fulfill personal fantasies, etc. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, though. Not everything needs to be original or high art to be worth doing. Sometimes it can just be about having fun. On the other hand, the stories on Fifthwind and Speculative Vision generally tend to be more story-oriented. Less about ‘fan-boy fantasies’ and more about writing interesting stories in an original setting with friendly people. Everyone strives for a higher quality of writing here, I believe.

Do you believe that with a few solid worlds not based on other people’s works, the perception of forum games can be turned around? Where are some other sites you would point at for good games?

Havoc: Of course it can be turned around! The big problem I think is that there are so few ideas that you could say are original.

Mr. D: I doubt it. There’s a heavy stigma placed on them. But at the end of the day I don’t care. I’ll continue doing what I’m doing and other people can think what they like about it. (The anonymity of the internet is a great thing sometimes.)

Loxley: The opinion could definitely be turned around with the worlds we’ve developed here. We have some great worlds that would make Tolkien green with envy. And I’d point at Roleplay Gateway for other RP sites than Fifthwind and Speculative Vision. There is definitely something for everyone, and they are very active players.

Mr. D: As for other sites, I can’t think of any other than Speculative Vision and Fifthwind. Most tend towards the aforementioned fanboy fantasies here while the original works tend to die in obscurity or have very little activity.

What are your goals and plans for your particular games?

Loxely: I’d like to have more players, of course, but the only thing that is important to me is that those who participate have fun and enjoy the setting and story. And I’m sure I’ll be making up more strange RP’s in the future. I’m not big on planning ahead, though, so we’ll see what happens.

Mr. D: I’ve got a number of big stories planned for, and it’s my hope that other people will start their own. Hopefully, when we get more players, it will continue to grow and develop as a setting, with more people adding their personal touches to it. I’ve also begun collecting my notes together for another setting which should be comparable to Altaea in size and detail. Hopefully I can get that one launched as well.

Havoc: Well, I do have more planned, including a major thread that will directly influence events in the setting called “The Siege of London” which is many small RPs linked together, each thread with a specific objective for the players to fulfill before moving on. The Wastelands world is already huge and so there’s a LOT that I’m curious about what’s gonna happen. Much of it is still in the hands of the players.
There’s also that thing you mentioned, Jaym, about trying to take Wastelands from the forum to an actual game, which I have not forgotten! I am plotting about what happens there and what else to do with it, and finding a way that makes new players feel welcome and not scared by the sheer depth of the setting.

And, since no GM interview would be complete without it, what’s the worst scenario you’ve ever seen your players attempt?

Loxley: I remember in Lycoria over at Speculative Vision, a guy who just had his character drop in out of nowhere. I think he used a portal and appeared from nowhere, slaughtered all the enemies attacking the playing party, cut their heads off as “trophies”, and then left again never to appear in the game again.

That was pretty horrific. And it didn’t help that he couldn’t spell or use punctuation properly, either.

Havoc: I haven’t seen any cases of it, and I have my own system for dealing with god-modders in Wastelands. 😀 They get one warning from me in a PM and one in the forum, so it fits with the story from one of a pair of incredibly important and mythical characters in the setting. They do it again, BAM! Their character gets turned to a pile of ash, never to rise again.

Mr. D: In one of my RPs in the past I had a player attempt to stroll into a dictator’s castle and free his captive friends. Dealing with the best soldiers the country had to offer singlehandedly. Naturally I put my foot down and told him that at best he was going to be captured and at worst he was going to be killed on the spot.

And I personally remember a player who had a character that would make Chuck Norris faint. Needless to say, that wasn’t great for the game, and with a little work, he became a valuable player. But the first few days were cringe-worthy!

In short, forum-based gaming is the small, red-headed stepchild of online gaming. But hey, look at it this way: There are hundreds of undiscovered worlds and many bright minds out there to collaborate with. Instead of playing in someone else’s world and following their rules, you get to add your own ideas and explore at your own pace.

Still unsure about the merits of forum-based gaming? Head over to Speculative Vision and give Lycoria a look-see, or Fifthwind Forums to any of the role-playing arenas there, or to Role-Playing Gateway and see what catches your eyes. There’s a lot of underestimated treasure out there for anyone who both writes and games.

Jaym Gates is a password-challenged intern with Fantasy Magazine. She writes about the anti-hero, the villain and the sociopath, and the Apocalypse. She blames this on growing up in a Native American burial ground and listening to ghosts too long. She is currently trying to bully a novel into submission, and she blogs about it at To Breathe Underwater.

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