Of Fanfics and Roleplaying Games as two sides of the Geekdom coin

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Title: Of Fanfics and Roleplaying Games as two sides of the Geekdom coin
Creator: etrangere
Date(s): 07 August 2005
External Links: Of Fanfics and Roleplaying Games as two sides of the Geekdom coin - Clair de Lune, Archived version
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Of Fanfics and Roleplaying Games as two sides of the Geekdom coin is a 2005 essay by etrangere.

Some Topics Discussed

Excerpts from the Essay

When I was about 15 years old and I was just getting seriously into Science Fiction and Fantasy and into the internet active fandom side of them, I read Roger Zelazny's Amber cycle serie and loved it. When I was finished however I felt frustrated. The ending left too many issues hanging, too many threads untied. And they would never be completed because Zelazny had died. I wanted more; I wanted to keep exploring this universe, to keep shedding more light onto the other characters' side of things and all the countless possibilities glimpsed from the text, so I went ahunting on the internet, and...

From where I started with this you would think I would find fanfics, wouldn't you?

Well, actually what I found was Roleplaying Games, specifically Eric Wujcik's Amber Diceless Roleplaying Game. Imagine, make up your own Amberite Prince character, and start exploring this world all by yourself, interacting with the other characters etc. I was thrilled ! As things went, it took me two years to actually get into the RPG crowd and start playing regularly. But my point here is : the reason I got into RPGs were exactly the same I find Fanfics so interesting.

Given how obvious the similarities of the pull for both seem to me, you can imagine I was surprised to see how little the actors of either cross over to the other. At first glimpse at my flist, I can find only about 5 or 6 people I know who are interested and active in both Fanfics and RPGs (over a flist of 110 with lots of people into fanfics). Why were the two so uninvolved with each others ? Is it a case of 'parallel evolution' ? Are there more truly different than they look to me ? Is it merely a question of male fen vs female fen ?)

Main similarities and differences outline

Both fanfics and RPGs focus on a certain culture that I like to call Geekdom. It's genre. It's Science Fiction and Fantasy, with a dash of Noir and thriller. It's superheroes, wizards and cyberpunked ninjas. Fanficcers and gamers both worship Neil Gaiman, laugh at Ann Rice, and cry for Orson Scott Card's biggotry. They both spend way too much time on the internet and they're both involved in extremely time consuming hobbies that their neighbourgs, parents, or coworkers might not understand. They both like reading a lot, and spend too much money on collecting the objects of their passions. They both love Princess Bride and can quote Monty Python lines by heart.

They both spend a lot of time analysing with minutiae their favourite fictions, bitching about how badly said fiction was adapted to movie and insulting their favourite author when they feel they have 'betrayed' them and sold out. They both are so involved in their favourite fictionnal world that they want to be active in it. To subvert the popular culture by making it truly theirs and are not content to be a passive consumer. They both can be pretty snobbish about that fact.

Fanfics is usually a female dominated acitivity. Oh, you can find a token male writing or reading fanfics here and then, but the gross majority of fanficcers are women.

Fanfics are, obviously, literary works, and artistic ambition is one of its point. In fanfic dominated fandom, whether you're a ficcer or not, you tend to be big and recognized if you're able at writing, graphics, or essay & analysis.

Fanfics explore a specific published fictionnal work (whether book, movie, TV serie, comic book, manga or anime, video games etc.) by writing about the characters. There's not a dearth of plot focused fanfics, but it's more frequent than not that they focus on the characterization and the relationship of characters rather than on plotpoints or the metaphysics of the world. Most often Fanfics focus on relationship - romantic ships. Gen is a genre muss [sic] less popular than either Het or Slash.

Roleplaying Games is usually a male dominated area. You will find many women gaming as well, and their number has been growing steadily in the last ten years, but they're still a minority within the group, and on RPG forums gamers are routinely whining about why there's not more women among them (Usually a cue for flame & wank).

As an activity, RPG requires both "soft" and "hard" skills. The game itself is based on numbers, statistics and rules meant to simulate the world and the characters behaviour in either a realistic way, or a way fitting the genre conventions. However, roleplay skills, acting, the quality of a universe or a character background writeup are also soft skills which can be valued a lot. People who like the first or the second approach can often oppose in dicussions and caricature each others, but in general most people agree that a compromise of both is necessary for the best games.

RPGs explore fictionnal worlds by making up rules to make sense of the metaphysics, by expending on the background (writing up whole cultures, developing the history, detailing technologies and magics etc.) and by giving means for people to create their own character. They don't usually take up on existing characters, they create a whole new character to interact in the world. The rules generally focus on the means and abilities those characters have, and the actions they can make. The games generally center around a scenario where there's a situation to fix, some antagonist that the Player Characters will have to face one way or another. They usually involve very little romantic or sexual action, and when they do, it's often handled either with a great deal of discretion and fade to black, or extremely clumsily (think : "roll endurance+ athletics to see how many times you made her come"). Exceptions exist, but from my experience they don't happen very often.

The World Weird Web

As activities go, both Fanfics and RPGS are social activities. They both are area which allow actors to interract with like-minded people, to meet them, to have fun with them and to interract around a very specific and somewhat esoteric subjects.

Fanfic itself, though it doesn't date from the Internet, has greatly increased in popularity and accessibility with it. Most of activities around fanfics involve the web, through publication, reading, reviewing, reccomanding, betareading, archiving etc. From there people often friend and meet in real life, but the bulk of the activity around fanfic is Internet based.

RPGs were big before the arrival of Internet, however it certainly did take to it eagerly. Pages recounting game chronicles, providing scenarios, game ressouces, original write up of groups, house rules etc. etc. were certainly already popular by the time I started roaming the Net in the mid 90's.

Forums for theorizing and exchanging ressources but also play by e-mail games or chat games (on mIRC at the time) were also very popular.

However, as an activity, RPG is meant to be done in small group of friends who know each others, and is not a Net based activity in the same way Fanficcing is.

Though ficcing is a more obviously solitary activity, it's more often than not an excellent pretext for socialization.

Though gaming is a primely social activity, I certainly know people who love reading and creating games in a way that is extremely solitary.

In many ways, people who like a specific game and love to tailor rules and create ressources for it and the people who love a specific fictionnal world and like to analyse and write fanfics for it function in a very similar way on the Internet; To the point that I keep wanting to call a RPG milieu a 'Fandom', but I'm not sure if I'm the only one who'd understand why or not.

I think one of the most amusing similarity between Fanfics and RPGs is that both tend to create their own little cultural world which includes very specific and esoteric terminologies, acronyms and expressions (you almost need a list of common used words just to understand either a Fanfiction or a RPG discussion coming from the outside - let alone speak local).

This linguistic overabundance is often redundant, needlessly complicated and riddled with private jokes. People love to create those new expressions and tracing back their origin can be a very strange and funny journey.

It's not impossible that this trait is common in general in the Internet of course, but I do think it's even more popular in both RPGs and Fanfic-dom.

Both are very escapist hobbies. You get lost in your own world where you can forget about the stress of everyday life. There's a definitive appeal of exotism, strange adventure. The frequent debate between the proponants of a most realistic approach against those who'd rather have it all be imaginary because they don't want it to be realistic is common to both activities.

Mary Sue met Powergamer in a bar, the ensuing fight destroyed the universe

Of all the differences between both domains, I believe the main difference between Fanfics and RPGs, I believe the most pertinent is the difference focus as regarding characters, world metaphysics and plot.

Fanficcers' main focus is the character of the canon world they're writing about. They might be interested in the universe and use it in interesting way to propel their story, but their work tend to be character driven.

And the big no-no, the WORST possible thing that a fanficcer can do, the thing they'll be mocked and reviled for, is creating a glorified self-insert that'll become the hero of the story and steal the spotlight away from the canon characters. Aka, a Mary Sue.

Which incidently, is exactly what a Player Character made for a RPG is supposed to be.

All right, maybe not to the caricature and ridicule point that a Mary Sue is. But a Player Character is, essentialy, a self insert of the player** (check one), that is powerful and able in ways that the Player isn't (check two), who, along with the other Player Characters, is supposed to be the hero of the story told in the game (check three, player is out).

In a roleplaying game, having the Non Player Characters (who in the case of a RPG adapting an existing fictionnal work may very well be the same canon characters explored in a fanfic) be the all powerful star of the story solving the problems is a practice that show of bad Game Mastering.

(** : I'm aware this statement could be discussed by many, as not every characters creared will bear any kind of similarity to the player who did so. However I'd argue that any character that a player will act as for the purpose of interacting within a setting is, by its very nature, a self-insert as it allows to insert ourselves within the world. Whether or not it bears any similarities to ourself, it becomes one of our aspect)

Which doesn't mean that if someone took out Mary Sue from their story and tried to bring them to a game it would work so easily. For one, RPGs tend to give a limited amount of points to buy the character's various abilities and powers, and Mary Sue tend to have them in so great amount that they'll have troubles getting them all. Which bring us to what is a RPG's real equivalent to a Mary Sue (and might help us differentiate a Mary Sue in all its reviled ways from a legitimate OC) : the powergamer, aka twink or minimaxer.

Basically a player who creates their character with an eye for the systemic advantages that'll give their character the maximum amount of various advantages and powers for the least amount of point. To no one's surprise, twinks often tend to be described by their creater as dark, tough, cold in demeanour, silently stoic, handsome/beautiful despite the mysterious scar on their face and have strange names with two many "y" in them. You get the picture.

This, of course, isn't the reason they're hated by gamers. The reason is that they don't play nice with the other children, that they expect everyone to stand in awe of their character nonetheless, and that they want to deal with all the story all by themselves with their mighty powers of doom.

In other words, where the Mary Sue is reviled because she steals the spotlight from the canon characters (her equals as main characters in the fanfic), the powergamer is reviled because he tries to steal the spotlight away from the other Player Characters (his equals as the main characters of the game).

Excerpts from the Comments

cathexys: Interesting essay, though I'm not sure whether it might not be helpful to distinguish between traditional RPGs (incl. LARP) and online LJ RPGs which are much closer to fanfic in many ways...or maybe the similarities are there from the get-go. I remember when I met my first RL slashers, we talked about gaming (b/c most of them were gamers) and one came up with a neat world building theory...so, really, just totally agreeing with you ...
daegaer:... if I'm right in reading you as associating "winning" with RPGs - then, in twenty+ years, this is an attitude I've never seen. People want their characters to succeed, of course, in whatever activity they have planned, but I've never seen anyone who wanted that at the expense of the story - in fact I've seen more complaints at what seemed to be an unearned and easy victory handed to the characters than at hard fought but ultimately lost battles and schemes...

Just a little more on the "winning" issue! In competitions, there is of course an attempt to win - but as both a player and a judge in RPG competitions, how one wins is a subjective thing. Usually the competition game is written with various objectives in mind: the characters must get Item X, save Child Y, defeat Monster Z and so on - but then it's down to the judges to argue amongst themselves over how well each player in their particular group played their character (for competitions, players are given characters that are created specially for that game and that game alone). "Winning" for a group may equal "did all the parts of the game faster than any other group", but for individuals (and usually players enter as individuals and haven't previously played with the group they are assigned to) "winning" is down to "good acting/being clever with what they've been given/making the GM (Games Master - the person actually running the game) laugh" and so on. There's no set way to win a competition, and perhaps the real "win" is having a good time in the company of others.

so, if both are world building and story creating...do you see any differnces between the two?

RPGs are far more collaborative - the GM may be using an officially published adventure for the game, or may be using one they have written themself, but that's only half of it - the actual running of the game is when the adventure is "written", with the players reacting and interacting (and often ignoring the carefully prepared material to hare off after red herrings that they have invented out of their own fevered imaginations!). There is give and take between the person who runs the game and the players, and the GM must be prepared to more or less throw their carefully prepared stuff to one side and let the players do what they want - this often means the GM has to provide entertainment on the fly, complete improvisation. It's scary but a lot of fun. And of course, most GMs, when they hear the players come up with better interpretations of the material given to them will smile mysteriously and adopt that better interpretation as the "real" one! GMs are, on the whole, sneaky thieving bastards. *smiles mysteriously*
mad maudlin: ::here via daily_snitch:: I agree to a point about the gendering of outcomes. I was In a FRP (to continue the terminology of the original post) on the Prodigy BBS and later on Delphi, and there was definite conflict between one group of our regular player-writers, the ones with RPG experience, and another, who were mostly come at it from a fanfic perspect. I wouldn't call it a winning versus world difference, though--more like plot focus versus character focus. I know of a D&D group that imploded because of conflict over characters (which sucked, because it was the closest I came to getting to play myself) and even FRP needs some kind of driving plot line to structure the character interactions, even if it's quite general and vauge. It's a matter of where the creators focus the bulk of their attention--few games would give over an entire session to character developement, and I don't think it's possible to write decent fiction that's 100% pure plot (though I've seen published authors who were apparently trying...).
kyuuketsukirui :

Here via metafandom

This is really interesting.

I think there is one thing that I didn't see you touch on which I think might be a factor as well, it certainly was for me. Fanfic is something you can do regardless of whether you know any other fans in person, but tabletop RPGs need a group of people to function. No matter how much you might be interested, if you don't have friends who RP then you're stuck. I think it's possible that more people are interested in RPGs but just have no way to participate.

I don't really know how much that might be true, but it is true for me personally. In high school and early college, I would have loved nothing more than to get into RPing. I read fantasy almost exclusively, including a boatload of Dragonlance novels. But I didn't know anyone who played, and while I occasionally saw ads at the fantasy bookshop for people looking for new players, the idea of calling someone out of the blue and getting together with them is enough, even now, to send me into a panic attack.

Fanfic is a social activity, too. I'm not the sort of person who would write if I didn't have an audience. I need outside motivation or it would just never get done. If I'm the only one I'm entertaining, then I can do so just as easily with the story still in my head. But since my social awkwardness is almost entirely related to my physical self, the internet allows me to "talk" to people and get involved even if I don't know them.

Anyway, as to the questions...

I both read and write fanfic, writing more than reading. I have never RPed, though as I mentioned, there was a time when I would have loved nothing more (I was not involved in fanfic at the time either - no internet).

I don't feel that, for me anyway, they come from a similar motivation. The desire to RP is not at all connected with wanting to explore canon further, it just the desire to adventure in a fantasy world. Yes, the one I was most interested in was Dragonlance, and I also ate the books up with a spoon, but I would have taken any RPG. Fanfic, though, I write out of a desire to explore the characters and situations found in whatever canon currently has my interest. I've never had a desire to write an OC in a canon world just to explore that world; it's that sort of fic that I think is most closely related to RP, but even though RP really interests me, that sort of fic doesn't interest me at all.

So in the end, I can see a similarity for some people, but to me they are completely different activities with completely different motivations.

daegaer: on RPG forums gamers are routinely whining about why there's not more women among them

This has been going on for at least twenty years. In my experience, the small minority of women gamers has remained at more or less the same level during that time, with usually no more than one or two women in each group of six to eight male gamers. I was in one group for eleven years - during that time there were (at differing times) three other female gamers in the group - two adults and one child. I was the only one that lasted more than a few weeks, and possibly not coincidentally, I was the only one who'd been there from the very start. I've been in my current group for four years, have always been the only woman, and am currently running one of our games. This group is far more a group of friends than the previous, which really only met to play. The current group goes out to eat together, plays cards together, goes mountain biking together (well, not me, I have the sense of balance of a squid on stilts) - we are very much friends as well as fellow geeks.

I'd have to disagree with your view of PCs as Mary Sues - in the various groups I've been in, the creation of self-insert charactes has been frowned on, and players who routinely do that are mocked and seen as not having the talent to play other types of characters. I don't think that the first person narrative associated with traditional RPGs is in fact necessarily conducive to Mary Sueing. In fact, Mary Sueing is taken as the mark of a bad roleplayer.
etrangere: I don't think that the first person narrative associated with traditional RPGs is in fact necessarily conducive to Mary Sueing. In fact, Mary Sueing is taken as the mark of a bad roleplayer.

Interesting. I've never seen self-insert characters criticized in play. Ridiculously glorified and "pretty" characters yes, but self-insert as such no. People around me seem to accept that some people keep making the same kind of characters pretty easily.

I tried to nuance my statement about Mary Sue and self-inserts a bit, but I can see where you disagree. I said so in parts because I can't look at any of the characters I've created and think "There's no part of me in there. They don't express a side of my own personnality" and I do think I play diverse kinds of characters.

Then again, the same thing can be said of writing. Can we ever write a chatacter without feeling that they represent a part of yourself ? Without being able to relate in some way to them ? As a fanficcer (though I'll never claimed to be a very good or experienced one) I'm not able write characters I can't relate with - but I don't think that make them 'Sue either. :)
evilbo: Here from metafandom

I started out doing FRP in the X-Men fandom, then I got into RPG gaming, and then I got into FRP again, mostly RPS.

I just read fanfiction, I don't write it (except for one single attempt), and I've only ever done RPGs online in chatrooms. I've tried to create RPG resources for myself, but none of them were very decent. ^^;

I feel that the major difference between the two is how the writing and/or experience is done. In fanfiction, you decide on the particulars of the story and what everyone does. If you're playing in an RPG, you have a setting that may be influenced by your character and the other characters in your party, but otherwise isn't under your control at all. If you're a DM, you still don't have complete control, due to the fact that the actions of the party can make or break a game if they act in ways the DM didn't expect.

FRP is similar to this - there are some where the moderators do exactly like an RPG, except without dice, and there are others where the mods set up an established setting and don't change it in any way. In this latter case, character impact on the setting is extremely limited.

The 'parallel' evolution and the presence of mostly male gamers in RPGs can probably be blamed on how the first RPGs started out as wargames. Dungeons and Dragons was one of, if not the, first 'real' RPG that had an extensively established setting and focused on what the characters did, not if a certain group of units could kill another group of units.

etangere: You bring in some very interesting points ^^

I think the problematic of control is a very interesting point, both in how players relate between each others and with the GM, and with how they relate with the canon material, especially if we define both the urge to Fic and to RP as taking a pro-active stance with the fictionnal genres that we love.

Taking back control.

Though with Fanfic we claim to take this control back from a dominant culture, by interpretating the text to see things that allow us to better identify with the characters, by extrapolating the subext for sexual content etc. we remain in an attitude that is similar to the same culture : There's a writer who has all power over the course of the story, and there's their readership. Readers can propose ideas, plot bunnies even and by their feedback it's not impossible that they influence the narrative... but none of those are all that frequent or all that valued. The relationship is still one where all the power rest in the writers, and all the votes of popularity rests in the readers; just as is their relationship is with the canonical text.

Then there's the risk of being jossed. Of seeing the control that they have over their own story be put in danger by new canon. Then the alternatives are going A/U (with the loss of legitimacy that it often implies), rectifying, or starting new stories. Fanficcers are in a constant power struggles against the canon, they constantly need to extrapolate, guess, and find new ways of interpretation so as to keep their reading/writing canonical.

RPG has got what is in the end a more genuinely original approach. Control is shared between players and Game Master more evenly. And the canonical text do not impose as much canon over their games. There's a Golden Rule : if you don't like it, change it; and there's not as much question of legitimacy of your story/game because it doesn't stick to the canonical text. There's still rule lawyering and people who want to drop their games because a new book is out and it's been jossed, but all things considered, it doesn't happen with as much gravity as it does in Fandom.

There's of course, GMs who are more or less good at sharing their power, and players who are not as responsible with it either. In practice, GM can be very directive and PCs be too lazy to properly participate to the building of the story. But at some good table and in theory there's a lot of possibilities. And the whole existence of rules in RPG are so as to distribute this power in a "fair" way.

Wow, I find this a very interesting thread to investigate about the similarities of both and what's behind about geekdom. Thanks for your comment.

Now I wonder how much more interractive Fanfics could be, and possibilities of format with other means of sharing the control over the story.
mad maudlin: Here from daily_snitch.

I'm a writer, not a gamer, though not for lack of trying--I've done lots of FRP on BBSs and tried to get into two different D&D groups. (One was in mid-campaign, the other self-descructed over an incident involving a PC sodomizing a vampire.) I like to think I know about as much about RPGs as a non-gamer can, though.

You comments about Mary Sues and Minimaxers make me think. I tend to think "self insert" is a bit too broad a definition of Mary Sue; I define her as a character breaks the canon--she may steal the spotlight from canon characters, but it's usually because she has qualities that violate the constraints of the universe she's being written into. A concrete example: Harry Potter canon doesn't allow for spells that raise the dead, but an HP MS might manage to come back from the dead (or bringing someone else back through her tragic self-sacrifice). Fictional canon has interlocking considerations of universe, plot and character, so a Mary Sue in that canon tends to distort all three.

RPGs, however, replace the concern about canonical characterization with the concern about interaction between PCs and between gamers--instead of, "I think you've made Harry a bit OOC" it's "If you start talking about your mighty staff one more time I'm going to shove my Diet Coke up your ass." They also have built-in constraints on how far universe elements can be stretched: in Harry Potter, d20 edition, no acanonical resurrections are going to happen bcause the system won't allow for it. But even if there weren't those sorts of constraints, I think the majority of games wouldn't create Mary Sue PCs just because they wouldn't be much fun to play in an actual game. "Let's see...I rolled a negative number...and that's still a critical hit. Yay." This is the same reason most writers don't write MSs--because ultimately realistic character are more fun to write about.

So it's definately the minimaxers who most closely model the spirit of Mary Suism compared to regular gamers--it's all about the coolness of the character and the focus on him rather than considerations about the plot or universe or your fellow players. Also, your description of the stereotypical minimazer PC reminded me a lot of an old fanthropology discussion about Gary Stus. And also a guy I met one summer in high school who just couldn't wait to tell everyone who knew the slightest bit about D&D all about his favorite PC--a half-orc, half-dwarf ranger. To which we said, "That makes no damn sense!" To which he replied, "So what? It's not against the rules!"

Are you involved in Fanfictions, either as a reader or as a writer?

I've been a fanficcer - both a reader and a writer - for several years. I fit your description of a fanficcer extremely - and rather embarassingly - well, from the minute analysing the various canons to within an inch of their lives, to the quoting of Monty Python. I really like the way you express the reasoning behind it - To subvert the popular culture by making it truly theirs and are not content to be a passive consumer. I've never thought about it that way, but that's surprisingly accurate. As someone who writes both plot as well as character based fics - and I personally don't think that they are as self-exclusive as you seem to - I know what you mean about the ratio. And certainly about the gender ratios. I remember having a male Beta at one stage - and being hugely proud of it. I also think that depends on the fandom, however. Within the HP fandom, I am friends with say, half a dozen guys. Within the SW fandom, that number greatly increases. So on to Stargate, Startrek, and other more Sci-Fi fandoms. Certainly I'd agree on how fandom-ignorant the wider community is. I'm so used to explaining fandom/fic to everyone that when someone I knew in RL turned out to be actually -involved- in it, wow. That was a surprise.

Do you play RPGs ? Have you ever created resources for an RPG?

I do play and have played RPGs for about the same ammount of time I was reading fanfic (it took me a bit longer to get into writing fanfic), but at that stage they were completely separate in my mind. I played both the DnD style, mainly with my older brother and his friends (clear example of what you're talking about with RPG gender bias!), dice-based, LARP, and then later, live-time online RPGs, both MUDs (similar to DnD) and MUSHes (much more.. er.. freeform, did you say?). More recently, I've become involved with playing - and sometimes running - LJ or GJ based games. The MUSHing and Journal-games (and the LARPs) are far more story and interaction based, and I describe it to friends as similar to an interactive fanfiction. These last types of RPG I find are much more female-popular. Particularly in the HP fandom, many of these games have few or no males. I'm involved in a SW MUSH which has about an equal gender-base. But when you get to the MUDs, DnD, tabletop, that sort of stuff - yeah, it's a great way to meet guys.

Do you feel that they're similar or not?

Very much so, depending on your type/fandom/community. As I said, I describe some RPGs as interactive fanfics. When a game advertises calling players 'writers', you know that it is that sort. Personally, they're my preference as to types of RPGs. However, when you get to DnD, MUDs, dice-base - no, they're a different kettle of fish. LARPs even more so, although I have written fanfics based on plots developed in a LARP. I think that my ideal, the compromise in between the two types of RPG - point-based, but narrative and plot focused - are quite similar.

Do you feel interested by the other activity ? If not, what doesn't attract you?

I'm very much interested in both, though I must say that I've not done nearly as much non-Web RPG since I've been into fanfic. I've tried to use the web to -organise- things like LARPs, but not to much success. If you want to talk about groups that don't really overlap, think about your online vs. offline RPers.