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Fandom RPGs online are a combination of collaborative fan fiction and traditional role-playing games, in which players write posts, messages, or comments as (or about) characters from established fictional worlds. In some RPGs, players create RP journals on LiveJournal or other journal sites as their characters, and write as if their characters were actually users of a journaling service. In others, journals, message boards, or chat rooms are simply used to post third-person descriptions of what characters do. Fans will typically refer to this form of roleplay simply as roleplay, often shortened to RP.
Freeform RP is another term for this, although the term Freeform also applies to various kinds of niche tabletop RPGs perceived as being substantially lighter than the typical system.
Fandom RPGs may include both canon characters and original characters. They may stick closely to the canon setting or be wild AUs; even games that begin as canon-based often quickly become AU as players develop different relationships between characters and events proceed based on players' decisions. Some focus heavily on action-oriented plots that may require complex coordination between players, while others focus more on romantic or sexual relationships. Like most freeform text-based RPGs, the results of characters' actions are usually decided by consensus among the affected players, and "godmoding" or attempting to control another character's actions without the player's consent is frowned on.
How closely to stick to canon (and varying interpretations of canon) is often debated in fandom RPGs. In games with many players who are slash fans, the number of characters played as gay or bisexual may be high, leading to debates over whether this is unrealistic, whether restrictions on characters' sexual orientation are fair or useful, and whether female characters get less attention from other players than male (slashable) ones.
While Fandom RPGs mainly function through internet communication, LARPing is a form of roleplay in the real world and may or may not be based on canonical media. Fans who dress up as characters and roleplay them are called cosplayers. Additionally, before online roleplay was feasible or common, some fandom RPG occurred by postal mail.
History of Fandom Roleplay
In the 1980s and 90s, fans role-played online as character in multi-user systems such as MUDs and MOOs , on message boards and by email. Fans also roleplayed by postal mail, as indicated by the quote below.
From a fan in 1994:
B7 fandom isn't the only group to have its controversies. The play by mail community had a fairly heated debate recently as to whether people should be allowed to play homosexual characters in postal games. That was about the time my first slash story was accepted. I thought: if they can get this heated over people playing gay characters (even without explicit sex), what in heaven's name would they say about slash? (I'd originally submitted it under my own name.) Now, I wonder if I did the right thing. 
In the 2010s, many tabletop RPGs and versions of older RPGs labeled as "generic" RPGs came out and allowed fans to play many settings of their liking, making them become somewhat popular to play inside popular fictional worlds, although generally not as popular as freeform RP.
General Culture and Terminology
In journal or forum-based roleplaying, especially for book series fandoms where not all characters have canon artwork or TV/movie appearances or in games with a focus on OCs, players choose photos of actors (or other celebrities who have many pictures available online) to use in icons representing their characters. The real person whose pictures are used is commonly referred to as the character's "played by", or PB for short. They may be used for a single icon in the character’s profile, or for multiple icons or gifs used to express the character’s emotions and reactions. Even in some fandoms with movies, such as Harry Potter, using different actors from the ones who played the characters in the movies is fairly commonplace. However, there is a complex etiquette surrounding the usage of PBs, the specific rules of which can differ from fandom to fandom and even between particular games. Generally, using PB images of anyone already chosen by another player in the same game is taboo; many players also frown on using PBs that are too famous or iconic -- for example, using images of Jack Sparrow for one's original character would invite derision in some RP circles.
In some communities, PBs will sometimes be drawn or animated characters, such as those from anime, manga or western animation and comics, instead of live action actors. Here, the etiquette in multi-canon settings is typically to use art from an obscure enough canon that you’re unlikely to interact with someone playing a character from said canon. Alternatively, a player may draw, commission someone else to draw, or use existing fanart of their character. Players may choose to use a drawn or animated character rather than a live action actor for several reasons; they may prefer illustration stylistically, they may uncomfortable using a real person’s face without their permission (either generally, or in specific situations such as roleplaying smut), they may be seeking to fill out reaction icons for a character from a drawn or illustrated canon with limited images (such as visual novel canons), or they may have a vision for a science fiction or fantasy OC too specific to find a live action actor with the right makeup, costume or special effects. Drawn or animated PBs are most common in multifandom communities that also host canon characters from drawn or animated canons, such as Dreamwidth RP, or in some communities with a focus on OCs.
On tumblr the term for these is "faceclaim" or FC, although this is more commonly used to mean the celebrity chosen to represent an OC, rather than a canon character.
After a lot of the online fandom migrated to Livejournal, fans who were involved in the roleplaying culture tranferred their RPing experience to the new platform as well. It flourished especially after Livejournal no longer required lj-codes for account creation and fans were able to create new accounts for every characters they wanted to roleplay. Insane Journal and the now-defunct Greatest Journal, which had more icons available for free accounts were also popular with roleplayers at the time. According to Fail_Fandomanon, LJRP later migrated to Dreamwidth.
The structure of LJ RPG relayed heavily on the comments system and the fact that they were threaded, making it easier to keep tract of the interactions. When LJ was still allowing comments to have titles, they were used of Out Of Character (OOC) communication between players (called muns). OOC communication was also placed in brackets within the comment (as long as it was proceeded by "OOC:" notation).
There are several ways fans roleplay on LJ:
- Dialogue-style - where characters interact with themselves in a direct dialogue, with little to no additional descriptions. Action queues were often put in asterisks or square brackets. Usually short in length, allowing for fast pace in interactions.
Character A: I can't believe you just did that!
Character B: *wipes blood of the blade* What else was I supposed to do?
- 3rd Person Narration - very similar to fanfic, where players go into the internal monologue of what the character is going through, what they are thinking, what they are doing, what their location looks like. Those interactions often carry several conversation threads at the same time.
- Hybrid - a mix between dialogue-only and fanfic-like narration
Icons in LJ-based RP
RP accounts would often use icons that featured their character or Played-By with various facial expressions. For instance, an icon with a character face-palming might be used on an in-character comment where something annoying has happened. As such, the icon choice was believed part of the character interaction as much as the comment itself.
Some sites and communities like HollowArt catered exclusively to roleplaying needs, such as including an extensive tagging and searching system that allowed users to find exactly the right Played-By iconset for their character, or to those those that couldn't or didn't want to make their own icons to find a large repository of icon-sized images of a single character.
Due to fans being able to have up to (if not more) 100 icons available for use with their LJ RP accounts, a practice developed of using multiple empty comments with different PB icons to portray silent facial reactions of characters. It would usually be accompanied by a comment title stating how many empty comments the other player could expect before they would be expected to reply.
Examples of LJ-based RP communities
- Nocturne Alley
- Sages of Chaos
- Livejournal RP Wiki
- fandomcrack - a Livejournal community which provided regular summaries of RP activity for a number of archives (2004-2006).
After the Livejournal exodus, many former Livejournal users, including roleplayers, moved to Dreamwidth due to its similar site structure and functionality as a Livejournal code fork. As such, the site’s similar structure and userbase has lead to roleplay culture on Dreamwidth being similar to that on Livejournal, although it has in time developed its own customs and terminology.
Like Livejournal, Dreamwidth roleplays are based on the site’s threaded comment system and feature reaction icons as an important component of character interactions. ‘Dialogue-style’ roleplaying is typically referred to as ‘action’, ‘3rd person narration’ is typically referred to as ‘prose’, and roleplayers will sometimes use a third style in which they mimic a character texting or posting to a blog or message board.
There are three main modes of roleplay on Dreamwidth. The first is games, in which a characters interact in a single setting within a community, or comm, created for that game. These games will often have mod run events and an application process, and will often take place in a jamjar setting in which characters from different canons have, by some contrivance, been taken from their canon worlds into an original setting where they can interact with other as they adapt to their new world or try to find a way back home. Games will often have seperate comms for log posts, in which characters will physically interact with one another, and networks posts, in which characters communicate through the setting’s equivalent of texting, forums, videos or similar.
The second is memes, in which a community (often called a meme comm) will host prompts for situations that roleplayers can play out, and the third is PSLs or private story lines, in which two or a small number of players decide on a plot to play out with their characters, often via a Musebox. Both can take place in either a canon setting or an AU, and while they often involve characters who share a canon, they can just as easily involve cross-canon interactions or OCs. Memes are often considered a low-pressure way to test out or ‘playtest’ a player’s understanding of a character, test how well a player meshes with another player before starting a PSL, or just to have fun putting a character in a new situation. PSLs are often more high-investment, and some plotlines can last months or even years if the players are invested in the storyline and characters.
Examples of Dreamwidth-Based RP Communities
- Baker Street, a meme comm.
- Fort Anon, a meme comm.
- Enable Me Plz, an OOC comm used to find games or players for a meme or PSLs.
- Nexus Crossings
- DWRP Master List, a frequently updated directory of active Dreamwidth-based roleplays.
Many RP fan communities exist on free forum sites, such as Proboards, Forumotion, JCink, and Forum Community. These forums were popular in the late 2000 through early 2010's because they were free to create, easy to maintain, and could be customized. Many notable fandoms had large RP forums. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Naruto, and Avatar: The Last Airbender all had dozens of forums dedicated to the fandom universes.
This format was in direct competition with Livejournal RPGs, but allowed for more customization and dedicated world-building within the site. It allowed moderators to create forum-wide plots, assign a one-character-per-account rule, and identify the characters written by using categories which could include Harry Potter house colors, races, village, or bender status. Many roleplay forums operate in an open policy, where anyone can join, usually only asking for a simple application where the player provides basic information about the character(s) they are going to use. Some others are more selective, demanding an example of writing and reserving their right to reject an applicant if decided.
Many such forums host a single, forum-wide game. New threads will typically be created for each interaction between characters, and boards may be created for different locations the characters are interacting in. Several players may take turns roleplaying on a single cohesive threads, or private roleplay (sometimes called 1x1) is a frequent option as well.
Alternatively, some fandom-based forums have boards dedicated to roleplay. Often each thread in these boards will be its own game with its own plot, characters and rules. These roleplays are often based on the same fandom that the forum is dedicated to, but some forums will have boards for off-topic roleplay, which may be based in original settings or may even be based in other fandoms. Roleplayers may also participate in one-on-one roleplay, which may be done in a thread or in the forum’s PM system. These forums to not typically assign a one-character-per-account rule.
One remarkable thing about many of these forum sites is that some forums' archives have lasted even past the life of active users on the site. For many forums, roleplaying threads and characters threads are still accessible with a login to these sites.
Examples of Forum-based RP Communities
- Ninpocho Chronicles a Naruto RPG forum.
- The Ministry RPG a Harry Potter RPG forum.
- Finite Incantatem a Harry Potter RPG forum. Now inactive.
- Feng Shui an Avatar the Last Airbender Roleplay forum, hosted on Proboards. Now inactive.
- The Official Erin Hunter Message Boards(archived link), an official forum for the Warrior Cats book series and other works by Erin Hunter. It had boards for Warriors, Seekers and Survivors roleplay, as well as an off-topic roleplay board. Now deleted.
- Warrior Cats RP Forums, the fanmade continuation of the Official Erin Hunter Message Boards.
- Subreality Cafe Round Robins, a metafandom RPG community active in the 1990s-2000s
Many fans who use Tumblr for fandom activities have also taken to roleplaying on the platform. Players might participate in games, which are typically run through a game account written by the mods, with mod-run events, game information and a mod-reviewed application process. Alternatively, players may simply create an account for a character and interact with other lone characters, or answer anon questions in character, called an ask blog.
Examples of Tumblr-based RP Communities
One site that's becoming popular for RP is Discord (available on iOS and Android as well as on desktop and on the web). Discord allows users to create a "server," which is a collection of channels that RPers / muns can roleplay in. Servers are usually centered around a fandom and a theme; for instance, "Haikyuu!! College AU," and are often "semi-literate to literate" (in this context meaning 2+ paragraphs per mun written at a time, similar to the 3rd Person Narration style mentioned above).
Often, the server will contain an OOC (out-of-character) section for general discussion, art posting, etc., and an IC (in-character) section for RPs. If a mun wants IC action to take place in a certain location - say, for example, Asahi and Nishinoya meeting in the college library - the two RPers would post back and forth in a designated channel to prevent crossing streams with different RPs happening in another channel.
Discord servers are often age-restricted (either 18+ or 13-26 years seems to be common), some allow OCs, and some might require "activity checks" if the posting starts to die off. They also often require applications or screening processes, usually via Tumblr, which typically consist of an in-character RP sample and a description of the character's hobbies and interests as would be played by the mun.
If a mun wants to play two (or more) characters but does not want to create multiple Discord accounts, some have found a way to leverage the Discord bot Tupperbox, which allows them to post text formatted with a configurable pattern (something like "!~") which the bot will then detect and replace with the name and avatar of their chosen character.
To increase interaction and to mirror the reality of users having access to Discord on their phones and PCs, most Discord RPs will have a "group chat" channel, which is where all characters can interact as if they were in one big group chat. (This is a fun function to work around if in a medieval or fantasy AU RP server.)
Servers to promote RP servers are also increasing in popularity. Each channel functions similar to a promotional feed where server owners can post their taken character list, whether they're searching for certain characters, etc.
A popular conspiracy theory is that the prevalence of Discord RPs have contributed to the rise of "group chat" transformative works in several fandoms, since there are some fics (see "Literally Just JoJo But They're Using Discord" on AO3) that mention Discord directly; however, this connection has neither been discretely proven nor academically discussed. It is possible that the rise of group chat transformative works is instead owed to the rise of Discord group chats generally, rather than specifically to Discord RP.
Examples of Discord-based RP Communities
The precursor to Discord, IRC was also used for roleplay in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Examples of Twitter-based RP Communities
Fandoms with Prominent RP Communities
Some fandoms with prominent roleplay communities:
- Harry Potter
- Gravity Falls
- Total Drama
- South Park
- The Hunger Games
- Five Nights at Freddy's
- Hetalia: Axis Powers
- Avatar: The Last Airbender
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians
- My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
- Star Wars
- Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba
- DC Comics
- Marvel Comics
- Touhou Project