Sometimes you can’t get through the week unless you can pretend you’re a wizard.
Talk about role-playing games now, and the first image that leaps to mind is likely a Bioware video game, the kind where uncanny valley characters talk to each other and navigate their way through moral choices like “yes, I will help you” and “yes, I will help you… FOR A PRICE.” Then the characters find a garage full of waist-high walls and shoot at each other. This is very popular for some reason.
Or maybe it’s the kind of palatable Dungeons and Dragons as espoused by Wil Wheaton, where well-adjusted guys who look like Michael Cera get together and push miniatures around a grid, roll dice and say the word “epic” without a drop of irony.
I got my first taste of role-playing with Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, in fourth or fifth grade. This lasted all of two years until my mother and grade school teachers generally agreed that a series of rulebooks that taught me words like “brazier” and “portcullis” would lead me straight into Satan’s arms. They banned me from playing the game, so I had to find other things to do.
As luck would have it, I stumbled into bulletin board services and the Internet at large a year or two later. I found a crowd of people who wanted to spend time outside their own skulls as brooding rangers, priestesses or elf vampires. Or whatever. The best part: players didn’t need rulebooks, just their imaaaaaaaginations. I jumped right into the hidden and ridiculous world of freeform online roleplaying.
It wasn’t technically Dungeons and Dragons, so it was all right. In fact, I really doubt my folks were aware of the online RP stuff I did. For that matter, many of my friends probably didn’t either. There are layers to Nerd Hell, and each one figures their particular diversion is more acceptable than the one “below” it. I wasn’t always in a big hurry to tell people about what I did on these sites.
Well, what did I do? I played pretend in pretend bars.
First, a definition: “freeform” means there’s no formal means of task resolution. Most of the heft of a role-playing game’s rulebook comes from rules to figure out whether or not an action succeeds. Do you hit or miss? Do you notice something, or not? Does your spell work or does it not? Freeform roleplaying communities forego these rules. Everyone makes stuff up.
As for the bars? Almost every freeform RP community forms around a nucleus of a tavern, an inn, a bar, or what have you. These bars are full of people roleplaying their characters in a slice-of-life milieu. A freeform RP tavern is “Seinfeld” or “Cheers” with wizards. Some of the appeal comes from imagining the down time of adventurers and fantastical figures. One of my first big haunts, Crossroads Tavern on AOL, was a favored watering haunt of a dictator named Rhalien, a dark elven matron mother named Kikuriel, and a cat-womany-thing named Kqwidiloo (pronounced like “squidiglue.”) And me.
These characters didn’t come to Crossroads Tavern to have adventures. They came to hint at adventures that happened off-screen. The cast of this freeform RP tavern got to know each other as regulars. They shared curios in a communal drop box. They wrote nasty things to each other on a bulletin board. They had affairs and got into fights.
Crossroads Tavern had a cast of malcontents called The Pack, who were a complete copy-paste of the NWO Wolfpac popular around the late nineties in pro wrestling. They were hilarious. If you gave one of them lip, the players would let their friends know in IMs. Within a few minutes, the entire group would be logged on, barging through the tavern entrance, swinging fists and slamming bodies.
You’ve read or seen Fellowship of the Ring, right? Imagine Frodo and the hobbits at the inn at Bree. They’re waiting to meet Aragorn. Suddenly, a man named Scorpion kicks open the door and power-bombs Aragorn through a table. This is what Crossroads Tavern was like. It was glorious.
You didn’t even have to be particularly good at writing to be part of the crowd. I remember one character in particular. His name was VANDOROUS, always in screaming capslock, and I can’t remember if he was supposed to be an evil wizard or some sort of dark lord, or demon, or generally loud and unpleasant person. Every time he entered the tavern he spammed a sound macro that would play, if memory serves, a heavy metal cover of the Imperial March on our speakers. He swaggered and smirked and bloviated. He was absolutely harmless.
VANDOROUS was so caught up in being a magnificent, scenery-chewing bad guy that he never did anything bad. Van grew on us, like a mascot. Maybe an elven healer and a peasant were having a conversation and somewhere in the background Van burps out peals of wicked laughter, exulting in how great he is. No one batted an eye.
The best part of running into VANDOROUS was his player’s command of English. He would write things that, while technically correct, no one would ever actually say. Here’s one line that stuck with me over the years. It wasn’t even spoken, it was an action – in a pair of colons, as was the style back then.
::laughs like a fat man eating a banana::
Look at that. Have you ever seen anything so perfect?
I can’t remember now if it was “laughs like” or “happier than.” But he was an irascible bar regular for a population of people who probably never set foot inside an actual bar.
The players, as much as the characters, kept us coming back to these silly, soap-bubble shared hallucinations. I joked once with my friend Anthony that these kinds of chats were for “sad people,” because if you are completely satisfied with the waking world, would you take time out of your day to pretend to be a werewolf? I’m being unfair, but these communities draw in people who have trouble fitting in anywhere else: Good nerds, bad nerds, people from small towns and other countries looking for groups of fantasy or sci-fi enthusiasts they can’t find anywhere else, bored moms, the unemployed, the unemployable.
The people behind the curtains in these chats formed a meta-layer to the community. You would have in-character drama, but also out-of-character clashes of personalities. What if you liked someone’s character, but couldn’t stand their character? Or the other way around? Imagine being on the set with Jim Carrey playing parts in a movie, while he pulls out his phone and texts you about his opinions on child vaccination.
That starts to approach how weird these places can be.
We all got to know each other in this online space. Not a few relationships started and ended in the space between pretending to brood in the corner of an imaginary tavern sipping an imaginary brew. These places also turned out to be safe havens for gay and trans players, who found a safe outlet to explore outside of their assigned gender. Cliques formed not on appearance or social class, but how well and quickly you could write and whether your sense of humor aligned with someone else’s.
The actual description of a freeform RP character evolved into its own dialect. We all insisted we were beautiful and mysterious and worthy of rapt attention, and we tried so hard to show it in the words we chose to describe ourselves. We didn’t talk about eyes and lips, we spoke of “limpid pools” and “carmine tiers.” The phrase “limpid pools” has been so thoroughly branded into my mind that if I ever saw a limpid pool, I would point at it and scream, “Look! A giant eyeball!”
And the drama, lordy, was so dramatic. Crossroads Tavern wasn’t even the worst of it – that honor belonged to Red Dragon Inn, eventually shortened to “Rhydin.” Better minds than mine have chronicled the absurdity of Rhydin’s fan base. To give an example: it had “satellite” rooms for people to play in settings other than the tavern. One of the most popular was a cliff where characters could go to commit suicide in a spectacular fashion, or to be tearfully talked out of it at the last minute.
This milieu was my jam through a big part of high school and into college. No matter how rough my day got, I knew I could go home, send my dial-up modem screeching to life, and check up on the latest news and gossip from the Crossroads band of misfits and their players.
Crossroads eventually disappeared. It was the “official” chat for Dungeons & Dragons, then owned by TSR. When they pulled up stakes from AOL, Crossroads poofed. We found other freeform roleplaying outlets, not always fantasy taverns: there was Domiten Castle in Midra, that would magically shift from broken ruins to opulence every month; there was Red Star Station, which was basically the same thing as tavern chat only in a pan-generic sci-fi setting. Before Crossroads I played in “The Castle,” a dial-up, play-by-post BBS out of Morgantown, WV.
In college I drifted to New Bremen, a White Wolf, vampires-and-ghosts-and-wizards modern chat setting. It wasn’t quite the same – it had many focal points, not just a tavern. There were rules, enforced by strict and sometimes mentally unhinged taskmasters. But many of the people I met on New Bremen talked with horror about “the unmods,” meaning the unmoderated White Wolf chats, where drama and limpid pools flowed unfettered.
In my experience, communities like these have dwindled over the years. The White Wolf chats have vanished because the company making the game books cratered after they couldn’t figure out how to sell vampires to people in a post-True Blood, post-Twilight market. But in general, it’s not a popular kind of roleplaying any more. Kids these days either roleplay as characters from their favorite shows or webcomics, or make their own original characters – called “OCs” – who seem to live in an eternal present on Tumblr, answering questions in-character and basking in their own existence. They appear in vignettes or “alternate universes” (AUs) and don’t seem to do much.
Maybe it’s a generational thing, or just how expression flows in the limitations of sites like Tumblr and DeviantArt. I’m genuinely sad that the freeform RP watering hole dried up. Every so often I’ll try to find some of the people I encountered in those days. Some of them are authors now. Some I still talk to on Twitter or Facebook. I’ve met one or two in person.
I follow Rhalien’s player online. I think these days I would get along with Kikuriel, but I hated her a little bit back in the day.
I don’t know about the others. Where did VANDOROUS go? What did he ever get out of the Crossroads Tavern?
I got a community of friends, frenemies and people whose names I curse to this day. I got to vent and express myself in ways that weren’t always possible offline, even with my school friends or family. In some ways, it’s a niche Tumblr now fills: teens and twenty-somethings and their endless, frothing, crashing drama, trying to figure themselves out. Freeform RP helped me figure things out. It helped keep me sharp.
Rhydin Realities: A 10-year-old, loving deep dive into one of the most infamous freeform RP communities of its time.
Elf Only Inn: A little webcomic that captures the feel of freeform RP fantasy taverns. Fittingly, it hasn’t updated in years.