Typing in Character: All About Play-by-post

Freestyle play-by-play forum role-plays, also know as play-by-post, is a type of role playing that is essentially a GMless story game done through posts rather than talking. However, some people would cry out in anger and confusion that this is not a game, this is not role playing. It’s also dominated by women. Let’s take a closer look at these issues. Well, oddly enough, forum role-plays are dominated majorly by women. How is that? Why is that?


What is play-by-post forum role-play?

It’s group writing essentially. Some stories are originals, some are canon to existing fiction such as TV shows, while others follow a world created beforehand, or take influence from others, etc. You play someone else and you concentrate on one character or a small group of characters. The fun, the interaction of it all, is writing your characters’ action and anticipating what the other player will write. The problem is the way we project failure is purely per player and not by dice, which depending on person can be irritating. Some people don’t know how to make a character that can bruise or die during a fight. God-modding players are everywhere, even in small unknown forums.

These freestyle or GMless and diceless role-plays are done on forum, chat or tumblr. Yes, tumblr. Now we will not be discussing tumblr RPGs because I don’t write in them. I don’t know anyone who does, which leads me to be an old, old person, shaking her fist in the air telling the youths to get off her interweb, but this is just me.

How did you get into play-by-post role-play?

A friend of a friend online invited me to a site called Chathouse. To those of you old enough to have experienced the internet during the dial-up age might think this was an ‘a/s/l?’ (age/sex/location) type of place but hold on, let me explain.

Chathouse was divided between the ‘normal’ chatters, those that entered a chat room with ‘a/s/l?’ and there was the roleplay section. There was ‘The Castle’ for medieval role-play with knights, maidens-in-waiting and secret royals. The ‘Vampire Court’ where the Vampire the Masquerade role players were writing about bloodsuckers, wolves and witches. The elite role-players started each post with their stats and the rolls. I went into those locations but never played there. Instead I role-played in the ‘real life’ high school games. There were no GMs, no numbers, and no dice.

It was epically interesting to me. Writing soap opera like scenarios with people, these dramatic situations, the way people pose things. It was astonishing, and soon enough I could not get enough of it. Over time, chat roleplay is a difficult thing to keep up. If you go missing from a role-play for over a week or two your character’s significant other might be in love with someone else or have died in a tragic car crash. I stopped roleplaying when my brother got a car, I joined a shitty band, and I was going through the hangups of growing up. Through those games though, I met a handful of sketchy people. There were older men than I who asked creepy questions but it was also my first taste of women protecting women.

I met Ms. A and I met Ms. D. The two of them have first names, but in order to respect their privacy, I will call them only by initials. Ms. A would check on me to see how I was doing. Ms. D was a well known social butterfly in the role-play scene of the Chathouse, known by everyone and notorious for calling anyone on their macho shit. I, being significantly younger, was protected under their shields. Ms. D made sure anyone who made shitty remarks were called on such and that while it was okay for young women to be curious, the  men in the games were not allowed to take advantage of that curiosity. Ms. D had a thing of detecting the so-called alpha males and putting them in their place. If you do the math, I’ve been in contact or role-playing with these two ladies for nearly 15 years. They have watched me grow up and I have not yet gotten bored with them… they also know too much about me, forcing me into being loyal no matter what.

Due to the fact that chat role-playing eats up a lot of time, we transitioned into forum role-plays after some trial and error. We learned the importance of time-stamps, promotion, getting new players, setting up a plot and continuing these things.

How does this work?

Even if it’s basically GMless, diceless, and freestyle there is still plot.



Genre: Supernatural

Setting: Modern

Plot: You live in a word shielded from the human eyes, unseen to what lies underneath. Vampires, werewolves, witches and more happen to be real. Not only are you fighting forces of nature against you but also making sure that you stay clear from human eyes.

There is a plot, a thinly laid out plot. People will make a false city or base it on a real one, and offer maps, locations, and NPCs to interact with. Your job as a player is to place your character within that story. There are a lot of original forums there but there are a lot of canon games as well.

For example, there are a lot of Hunger Games, X-Men, Dresden Files, and the most famous of all, Harry Potter. A lot of forum role-players I have met started via Harry Potter role-plays which are looked as an alternative universe in which their characters can interact and have different scenarios to play out.

Is it fandom?

I guess you can say that it is. It also allows for people to express their ideas and emotions.

Some genres have more men in the game. From my experience forums that did X-Men or comic book related themes had more men players than women. It was not to say that the men weren’t drawn to forums like Harry Potter,but there was a stronger female presence in those forums.

Why is are play-by-post so popular with women?

Part of it is being protected by a screen. No one knows your face or your actual name if you decide not to offer it and there is no judgement on how the game is played typically. It is not to say there is a lack of structure because there is structure. There are whole site events, you have to sometimes keep a word count or a certain level of activity. You are to be polite, acknowledge other people’s time and emotions but no one is in your personal space unless you offer it.

It’s also safe. You can leave a forum, get another email, block someone if you feel uncomfortable. Most of the time, admins take harassment seriously: age limits are put up and you are asked to tag threads for mature content. It’s harder to walk away from a tabletop game, even online You can block them but that person may have your contact information or be ‘friends of a friend’ so you truly cannot express your discomfort without it turning into a full on war of who and what was done. You can disconnect from the role-play forum with much more ease.

Since there is no dice or stats, no one can tell you that you’re doing it wrong. Rarely will someone become a rules lawyer or ‘mansplain’ something to you. Tabletop games, as a lot of geek culture, has the misfortune of having gatekeepers who decide what goes and what doesn’t. In forum role-play it may exist but those people play in their corner, rarely venturing out of it, leaving most people safe to be where they like. There are no faces or names attached to certain games. I really doubt if you offered my name more than a handful of people would know who you’re talking about.

Can we get these women into tabletop gaming?

Maybe. Some do forum role-plays because you can post once a day without much effort. There’s no dice included, you can work your character from the ground up without presenting too much history or mull over the details in your head while doing something else. There are a lot female role-players that play on forums who are interested in games like Monsterhearts, which is open to sex, power and convoluted emotions. In fact, female role-players are more comfortable in making attempts to play men characters than men playing women. Since most of the forums are dominated by women, it’s not as intimidating. Also when you’re doing forums, you can think over your response, think over what your character will say while in tabletop gaming your reaction is instant.

Chathouse had women who ever familiar with Vampire the Masquerade and ran Changeling. In fact in the forum I play in, I use tabletop games as inspiration for resources, and link to those games so that those who play can see them. Some have expressed a desire to play them but don’t have time or are extremely intimidated by other players.

What are the negatives?

Forum role-play tends to lack diversity in play bys (face representations of who plays your character) and sadly sometimes the player who does decide to play these cultures and races can be ignorant on how to play them. So, it is a lot of white faces which can impact how young women see what beauty really is. There is also few played gay or trans characters which, while this is changing, that change takes time. Again, you may live in a safe bubble but it’s a bubble and sometimes that bubble needs to burst.

There is also the problem of those who take it in a sexual realm with minors. There are forums that have an age limit. The honor system is used and some go as far as ruling no sex and use the ‘implication’ and ‘fade to black’ rule. Some boards don’t and the thing is, there are young women who are curious about the ways of sex and use fiction as way to experiment. Of course it’s safer than perhaps acting on it but we have to keep in mind that they still need to be protected and taught when to stop, say no and also not to be used by another person.

As expressed, because of the protection I felt under Ms. A and Ms. D I felt it was my job to do the same when a role-player friend had expressed that someone had been following him from board to board. I banned that person and made it clear they were not to follow them after they expressed their discomfort to them.

As adult, we have to let our players advocate for themselves and then stopping those who abuse others. We have to reassure their voices are heard. We also need to ask and demand for diversity in games and not make it into a niche or a token.

Why does it matter?

A lot of these women love games. Either it be tabletop, video games, LARP, they love these games. They love to write and it’s a form of expression. Play-by-post games were my introduction into tabletop games, into meeting other women who felt the same way and told me it was okay.

In games we can be anything we want to be and with that, it can bleed into our real lives giving us the confidence to better ourselves and become stronger as individuals and as a group.