Roleplay forums

Arantor

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I meant to talk about this before, but it's been a particular study for me for a long time now. Backstory: my wife was one of the earliest users of SMF, and used it to run a roleplay forum set in the Harry Potter universe. Discussing changes to SMF was how we met back in the day!

Anyway, that's not what I'm here to talk about. What I'm here to talk about is the phenomenon of roleplay forums in general and how they differ to regular forums.

So what is a roleplay forum? I usually describe it as collaborative writing but in truth it's a little more complicated than that. What usually happens is that you get a forum, you set up subaccounts somehow so that you can post as different characters and then you get together with other people to jointly write stories with these personas.

For example, in a Harry Potter themed site, someone will likely play Dumbledore, the head of the magical school Hogwarts, will open the annual feast at start of the school year as a new thread, then the new students will post as they're getting sorted into the school houses etc.

As far as genres go, fandoms are very popular - Harry Potter/magical universe continues to be popular (in spite of JK Rowling's ongoing commentary), the MCU/X-Men is very popular at the moment both for playing the existing superheroes and for creating new ones in the same style/vein. Most big ongoing franchises that are popular enough will tend to have roleplay kicking around to tell stories in the same universe. Some people play canon characters, some people make new characters. Some people mix and match.

There's of course the original settings, e.g. borrowing from a time and place in history and adding a twist, or even a fully original venue and setting, but those are harder to get going because it's easier to attract people who are familiar with a fandom and its existing works as a point of reference. I don't know, for example, how hard it'd be to join a 'original Victorian era setting' even though I have some base knowledge of the time period in England.

It's also interesting to note how many of these places skew towards 'powered characters' in one form or another - whether that's superheroes in the comic book sense, or magic users, or supernatural creatures (werewolves and vampires very very common, especially in the aftermath of Twilight).

What is also noticeable is that there are splits in the communities in terms of style and choice; the more technical people self-host, and you'll see mostly SMF or MyBB installs with a smaller (though not insignificant) XF or IPB following, usually with a reasonably custom theme but it'll skew towards utilitarian rather than artsy and usually will have customisations to suit their needs pretty well. The less technical people will run on the hosted forums (ProBoards, Jcink, etc.) but will likely be much more artistically inclined with much heavier use of graphics and design, but making do with whatever functionality the forum comes with and whatever they can jury-rig in JavaScript. It is also with interest I note that there is a very pronounced gender bias that aligns along these two sides. (This is not a value judgement, merely an observation.)

It also makes it hard to deal with if you're somewhere in the middle of these two groups; the technical crowd doesn't tend to inhabit the slightly more... flouncy nature of something like the Harry Potter fandom. So my project is somewhere in the middle; it appeals to the general genre and tone of the one group but doesn't fit because we don't use their platform of choice (and if you thought the XF/IPS people were tribal, the Jcink crowd are vastly more so). Meanwhile we're also not nearly as artsy as the the artsy kind because we want to do things like work well on mobile and this comes with a higher skill barrier than the majority of the artsy crowd usually implements, so we deliberately don't be as artsy as we can.

But last week I started an experiment, I'm still ongoing with data gathering. You see, the Jcink subcommunity isn't *really* technical, and also capable of some... self delusion - these people talk about how 'they prefer Jcink because it's familiar' but the average level of theming is such that no two sites look or behave the same so any familiarity is really actually somewhat limited. With this in mind, so what I did was take my existing site, make a new hosted account on Jcink, themed it up to look the same as my site, then wired up some JavaScript to populate the Jcink front page with live data. All the links point to the real site, but superficially you'd not notice this unless you went digging. But it now has the correct domain name to not put people off. We shall see how this plays out.

As for the other similarities or differences... the RP world operates like it's 2006 still. You want to show off your friends? You're all going to collect each others' 88x31 affiliate images and display them at the foot of your front page. You're going to make boards solely for guests to post ads in - and you'll go to their site and post an ad of your own once they've been to yours, in a form of site-to-site marketing (that isn't really effective but everyone does it anyway). You'll also post ads on various Tumblr boards regularly to get people in the door, and likely join several Discord servers to do something similar.

I think that's all I have in me for tonight - I'll take a deeper look at the features people really use in a further post tomorrow.
 

Arantor

Well-known member
Staff member
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So, features that roleplay forums care about that aren’t part of the mainstream forum posting experience.

One thing to remember about all this: the majority of folks in the roleplay space are not technical enough to get there on their own, and so are reliant on others who are slightly more technical than they are. The net result is that the community at large, the “RPC” (the roleplay community, the overall collective mindset if you will) are very tolerant and adept at making do. They are very compliant with “can’t be done” and will be far more willing to tolerate sub-par implementation over none at all.

1. Sub accounts.

The exact flavour doesn’t really matter so much (it should, but that’s another story). The key deal is that you can create multiple accounts and switch between them so that you can post as different names with different avatars. Bonus points if there is a nice drop down or similar to switch rather than log out/log in, but for a long time this was considered normal.

Most implementations of this butcher real accounts and glue them together for ease of implementation so you end up with rafts of nonsense around bans and logging where implementations don’t stitch all this together properly.

2. Themeability.

The RPC is full of people who value aesthetics in ways the wider forum population might not. You can run through any of the premium themes for XF and IPS and find any number of light touch themes that are really recolourings of the stock themes. The RPC on the other hand… just for the sake of argument, let’s pick the main RPG Directory site and the Harry Potter fandom category, the subniche I know about. This is the current listing: http://rpg-directory.com/?showforum=310 - clicking through the entries, you’ll find all manner of designs and styles. Many of these sites are powered by Jcink, a forum hosting service that lets you change the style templates, but none of the underlying code for it.

3. Trackers.

Trackers are a feature very few platforms actually do well, and so people make do in various ways, whether that’s in a spreadsheet or some kind of app (there are a couple of sites that people use for this). You see, when you’re writing collaboratively with people in different schedules, you need a way to see what is effectively your todo list.

What most people do then, is whenever they start a new topic, or join a new topic, they’ll add it to their list. This list will usually cover which site they’re on (it is common for people to be on multiple sites), which character, which topic, who the other person/people are in thread, and whose turn it is to post.

This is all stuff that computers can absolutely track for you, but so few sites have done the engineering for it. I know for Jcink someone wrote some JavaScript to scrape the list of topics a person had posted in but it wasn’t perfect, and it was clunky. But as I said, people make do in this world.

4. Post styling.

This is something that amuses and amazes. Most places have their site theme all fancy and whatnot. Some also pimp out their profile area and encourage members to make the pages about their characters as fancy as they like. (It helps to be reasonable at coding, or friendly with someone who is.) But some places go all out and encourage (or require) posts themselves to be wrapped in some kind of styled up template, especially if the topic in question is a “comms topic” where the characters are interacting as if over some kind of social network messenger. Arbitrary example I found: https://worthsaving.jcink.net/index.php?showtopic=48&st=0&#entry72

Of course the code is pre-written and copy-pasted. Some sites write these into custom bbcodes for people. Other sites leave it solely to the individual if they want to do this style of styling per post. I don’t have a good example to hand though.

5. Pages.

These sites, even more than regular forums need pages of content that sit outside the forum, things if put in threads will get lost, and things you probably want to style differently to threads anyway. This is where guides, lore, supplementary reference information all lives - and for some styles of site you’ll need more than others. The more original the setting, the more “out there” and unique, the more guidance new users need. Non-forum content management is a must.

6. Shippers.

This is a feature that is usually cobbled together out of a board where a character will post to list out the threads they’re in, and often a potted history of a given character with another. It’s not uncommon for these topics to list threads by character (e.g. character A has threads with B, C and D, character A’s shipper will have 3 lists of topics). Such topics are encouraged to be fancy.


Of course it’s possible to implement all of these and supporting tools for them, but this so rarely happens. It is pretty magical though when people used to what is on offer suddenly get shown a brand new world where the software supports them and does things for them. But it’s such a hard sell because people are *so* used to things being how they have always been and making do.
 
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