Getting Started, Part 1

As joanne1398 has pointed out in her response to my opening post, a lot of the problem with getting into roleplaying is knowing where to get started and whom to get started with. This series will be on the basic decisions that go into game setup.

The first thing you want to consider is the medium in which to play. There’s three basic options: The traditional live game, the game-by-IM/chat, or the play-by-post.

The live game is what you probably think about when you hear about the average game system: a crowd of like-minded people gathered around a table and talking through the game. The first advantage of this is that you’re getting the social experience as well as the practice; everybody’s there, you can chat before and after session (or during, for that matter), and everyone can crack up over the in-jokes and toss each other dice (if applicable) as needed. Another advantage, if you’re playing in one of the systems in which positioning really matters (almost any edition of D&D, for example), you can see and even interact with the board easily. Moreover, there’s a strong element of body language, of face to face activity like jumping up on the chairs and making a speech (yes, I’ve done that), of doing funny accents without it looking silly, and of… well, being there. It’s also the fastest format to play in, due to its lack of typing lag.

There are a few catches, though. One is an issue of logistics—can you find a sufficient number of players looking for the same thing you are in a game? If so, can you get their schedules to line up, even taking into account transportation? Who’s going to host? Another, this one more important for those of us who are writers first, is that unlike chat or play-by-post, there is no way to keep a log. As a result, we can’t look back over what we did quite as effectively as we can in the other two formats. Moreover, for those of us who are more articulate through the printed word than spoken, or even just quieter than the rest of the people we choose to work with, being face to face can serve as a bit of a handicap.

Second is the play by chat. I’ll admit now, I’m biased towards this one; it wasn’t the first I played in, but it was the first I played a character I would consider successful in with people other than my immediate family in, and it’s the only format in which I will willingly run a game solo. Its first advantage is that it’s a balance between the other two; it can almost match the speed of a face to face game, but has a good measure of the locale flexibility of the play by post—I’ve seen chat games run with people spanning three states worth of West Coast, and was even in one in which the players were in locations spanning most of the Western Hemisphere and the game-master was in England. The second is the ability to keep a log, so you can look over your sessions afterwards, review what happened, overanalyze the players’ actions, make sure you can keep your non-player characters straight, and coordinate your plot points. The third is the potential for richness of description: you can type a certain amount ahead of time and then copy-paste it in, rather than reading it off of a script, and if you’re ad-libbing you can make absolutely sure you didn’t tell them the light was blue six times. (Theoretically.)

There are plenty of difficulties to this format, though. One is that, while it eliminates a few of the logistical issues of the face to face, it does still require lined-up time slots. Another is that it’s more impersonal, and tone of voice isn’t as cleanly conveyed over the Internet. Yet another is the lack of visuals, though there exists software that can work around that. Another is the type-lag; it takes longer to type words than say them. This can range from irritating (“What’s taking him so long?”) to downright hazardous (one person responding to the first half of a sentence, but the response landing after the second half, which says something completely different).

Last, we have the play by post, conducted by individual posts in message boards. This one’s advantages are numerous. First off, it is the closest of the three formats to transcending location and business schedule: you get onto the board, type a post, and let it sit for a while so that others can respond. Second, it both allows for and encourages vivid description—the character limits range from high enough that they rarely interfere to nonexistent, and there’s plenty of time to formulate one’s posts. Third, it’s the easiest to recruit for; most message boards on which games can be run have plenty of people who would be more than willing to play. Some will even have tools, like built-in dice rollers and map functions.

The catches? First is its speed. It can move decently quickly when everyone is online and posting, but even then it can’t match either of the others, and more often there will be days in which only one person posts. Second is that different people have different schedules; it’s quite possible for there to be a day in which, while one player is off at class, two others manage to get from one end of an argument to another. (During fights, particularly under a set initiative order, these problems both magnify each other—particularly since under most message boards, it can take three or four posts to resolve a roll.) Third is their longevity; just as play by posts are easy to find people for, they’re easy to lose people from, often without warning.

Tomorrow: System (or lack thereof) and how it fits with format.


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