This article originally appeared in Pyramid #5
Or, "How to Roleplay On-Line and Live"
by Scott Haring
It had been a weird case, even for Delta Green. It started with your typical coke-and-hookers sex party, starring a U.S. Senator and an ex-Navy Major turned CIA operative turned arms dealer. Then there was the explosion, which hurled bodies all over the mansion, tossing them through walls that were somehow untouched by their passage, only to be caught in other parts of the house, becoming one with the walls (or floor, or furniture) without disturbing their structural integrity. (Though the effect was generally fatal for the people.) We still don't know how that happened. What we've got is a dead CIA black-bag man, a bunch of dead druggies and party girls, an injured and incoherent U.S. Senator, a massive explosion that left no chemical signature or physical damage, a bunch of New Age crystal healing mumbo jumbo and this crystal. The major was apparently medititating over it, while at the same time being, uh, ministered to by one of the party girls, when everything went kablooie. There's not much left of the major, but the crystal is unharmed. That's where we'll start, I guess.
This story is about my experience at computer roleplaying -- but not the kind that comes in a box, where you play all the characters and the floppy disks play the GM. No, this was real, live roleplaying, with real, live people -- though we were scattered all over the country. Brought together by the electronic highway, it was as intimate as a bunch of pals in my living room, but it still had a remote feel to it, like everything was happening far away. Which, of course, it was.
That remoteness had its advantages. For one, I didn't have to clean the place up for a game. I didn't need to get the chairs cleared off, old pizza boxes stowed or the mold scraped off the walls. I didn't even have to get dressed. And I could put on a ball game, or my favorite album at full blast, and it didn't affect the game in the least
On the other hand, I was alone. Many GMs like to use lighting or music or props to improve the game atmosphere -- that's not possible in this format. And one of the main reasons I play RPGs in the first place is the social contact, the camaraderie, the bad puns. While a few bad puns still creep in on line, it's not the same. Also, most people on line use a "handle." While they're all fun to play with, I don't really know who these people are. It all added up to a real sense of isolation, even in the middle of a game.
As a regular participant on America Online, I've had the opportunity to meet and talk with a lot of people in the game business. One of those fine folks is John Tynes, head of Pagan Publishing, the Missouri-based game company that's doing lots of licensed adventures and supplements for Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. Pagan's stuff is even stronger, on average, than Chaosium's, dealing regularly with what the movie reviewers would call "adult themes." They also don't have any qualms about the occasional sex scene, especially in their modern-day stuff (our opening scene, as we discovered it in the game, seemed like something straight out of Caligula Meets The Exorcist).
But I digress. It was April or May of '93 when John posted a notice that he needed a group of volunteers for a weekly on line playtest of a new roleplaying adventure for Cthulhu Now (the modern-day version of CoC), called "The New Age." He cautioned that it would probably take several months to complete, and he needed people who could be there every week. For me, this was a dream come true -- a chance to play in a Call of Cthulhu game run by one of the masters of the genre. I signed up in a heartbeat.
It took us about a month to get started, and in this case, on line roleplaying was no more efficient than the face-to-face kind. All the prospective players had to be polled to find a day of the week and time that we could all be available. Since our group spanned three times zones, weeknights were tough, since by the time the West Coast players had gotten home and were ready to play, the East Coast players had to start thinking about getting up in the morning. We wheedled. We compromised. We finally ending up playing when the referee wanted to (just like a face-to-face game, actually).
Then John sent us the background information we'd need to prepare our characters. We all had to be connected to the U.S. government in some way, either officially (FBI agents, military officers, scientists for a government agency, whatever), or at least a frequently-used consultant. We would all be members of "Delta Green," an extremely unofficial group of people who knew that there was something to the world of the supernatural, but also knew that nothing would ever be done on an official level about it (though not even Delta Green had the foggiest idea, really, just how bad the things out there were). Delta Green had no budget, no leaders, no organization. But nearly every part of the government had people at various levels of power who were part of it; so when something odd came up, the Delta Greens would give each other a call, and pull whatever strings were necessary to get the right people assigned to the case. That was us.
I decided to become FBI trainee Clarence Starbird, just months away from graduation at Quantico, but with prior law enforcement experience, a solid academic record and some weird experiences with the supernatural in his background. At first, Clarence was just going to be a parody of the Jodie Foster character from Silence of the Lambs, Clarice Starling. But the more I thought about Clarence, the more serious a character he became. He had some of the same problems as Clarice (overcompensating for a bad childhood by overachieving, but very insecure inside), and of course the same job, but he very quickly became more than an inside joke. I began to like Clarence very much, and took very seriously any threats to his life or sanity.
It was only sundown, and it had already been a long day. I got woken up in Quantico at 12:30 a.m., briefed at 1:45, and the plane had touched down in St. Louis by 5:30. By sunrise, we were at the house. Gaston was our contact; he was Secret Service. They were here because the mess involved a Senator. Anyway, it was me, Robbins (a 20-year FBI vet who certainly didn't look like the Delta Green type) and Nedler, a New Age crystal-and-tofu bookstore owner from L.A. We got the crystal from the lab boys -- nothing special, they said, just quartz -- and took it back to the hotel suite Gaston had booked for us. Nothing but the finest accomodations St. Louis had to offer, if you're into early Howard Johnson. Nedler spread out a funky little rug, lit some incense, and went into some kind of trance with the crystal. I was unimpressed -- I've seen a lot of weird stuff (that's why I'm Delta Green), but the crystal business smells like snake oil to me. Still, it was our only lead. Robbins was beat, asleep and snoring in the chair. I was starting to feel drowsy myself, and went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face.
Robbins stopped snoring. Otherwise, I never would've noticed him. I looked over when I came back into the bedroom -- his hair had turned completely white. This was not good. Upon closer inspection, I discovered he was not breathing. This was also not good. I dragged him out of the room -- maybe the crystal had something to do with it -- splashed some water in his face, and got him to breathe, a little. He was definitely in trouble.
It occurred to me to check on Nedler. He was still in his meditation pose on the rug, and his hair had not changed color, but he wasn't breathing, either. This was getting worse all the time. After moving him next to Robbins, I grabbed the phone, and the front desk picked up. "Dial 911!" I barked. I was dialing Gaston on the cellular to bring him up to date when there was a knock on the door. I pulled my 9mm and checked the keyhole; standing in the hall was an upset-looking bellhop with a first-aid kit. He sure got here fast, and I needed all the help I could get.
When playing on line, we were gathered in a public room in AOL's Online Gaming Forum. Anybody could join us, watch the game go by, and even comment. This was great from Tynes' point of view, because it meant not only was he getting playtest work done on this new scenario, but that he was doing publicity work for it at the same time. It was less fun for the players, since unwanted comments from these same spectators would occasionally spoil the mood, but the inconvenience was not a major problem. In addition to the live spectators, each session was logged, and the logs were placed in an archive for anyone to download.
Actually playing the game on line was quite different from doing it face-to-face, obviously. Everything was done with the keyboard -- you described your character's actions in type, just as you would verbally if you were face-to-face. But isn't typing on a keyboard kind of, well, impersonal? And it's all just words -- how do you express subtle nuances? Facial expressions? Asides? Sarcasm? Well, it's not as easy as it is in person, admittedly. But there are ways. Things your character actually says go in quotes; asides or explanations go in brackets. A typical message might look like this:
I lean down and whisper in the senator's ear:
"Who do you think you're protecting? Don't you know how miserable we can make your life if you don't tell us what you know?"
[I'm using my Psychology skill of 55 to try to tell if he's lying to us or not.]
And there's lots of little shorthands that you pick up. A sideways smile, made with a colon and a closed parenthesis, like this :) indicates a humorous comment, not to be taken seriously. Use a semicolon instead, like this ;) and it becomes a wink. You can give added emphasis to a word by putting *asterisks* or -hyphens- on either side of it. And you can SHOUT by putting a word in all capitals. BUT DON'T USE ALL CAPS TOO MUCH, OR PEOPLE WILL GET ANNOYED!!! This is just a convention of the format -- all caps isn't really that much more annoying from a purely typographical standpoint, but because it has become the computer message equivalent of shouting, people treat you like you were actually shouting. The result, usually, is that you get told -- firmly, politely and almost immediately -- to cut it out.
Sometimes, dice have to be rolled. Most "chat modes" of online services have a dice-rolling feature, and AOL is no exception. When the GM asked for a roll, I would just type in the proper command, specifying number and type of dice, and the computer would roll them for me, posting the results for all to see: "Scott rolled 1 100-sided die -- 23." Good rolls always drew congratulations from the other players, and bad rolls drew either laughter (if they weren't serious) or sympathy.
I'm bent over Robbins, trying a little mouth-to-mouth to get his breathing regular. Suddenly, I hear what sounds like a dog growling. A big dog. A big, nasty, dog. I look up and nothing's there. I say to the bellhop, "You hear that?" "Hear what?" he says. Great. Just great. Now I'm hearing things... Fortunately for my two friends, Gaston is good at his job. EMTs, a dozen Secret Service agents, and what looks like the entire St. Louis SWAT team is in the hall. Robbins and Nedler are bundled up in a flash. I look around to thank the bellhop, but he's not anywhere to be found. I'm running with the EMTs through the lobby when all hell breaks loose upstairs. Gunfire, and lots of it, and the walkie-talkies are going crazy. Something about a wolf, or a bear, or something. It gutted three agents in the room, charged past the guard at the end of the hall (leaving him 120 stitches as a going-away present), and disappeared down the stairs. The lab boys count 23 spent shell casings in the room, but only dig three slugs out of the wall. I ask at the front desk -- this hotel doesn't have a bellhop...
There were a few downsides to roleplaying in this fashion. Most systems have a limit to the size of any one message (on AOL it's 15 to 20 words), so it's hard to get worked up and deliver a really rousing speech. Instead, you have to break it up in parts, and any messages anyone else sends can appear between the parts, completely breaking up the continuity of what you're trying to say. And when things get really hectic, everyone can try to type something at once, which has the same general effect as when everyone tries to talk at once in a face-to-face game. The messages are all displayed on the screen separately, but the order of them often makes no sense. And just as the loudest and fastest talkers can dominate a face-to-face game, the fastest typists get to do a whole lot more than their hunt-and-peck comrades. (I can type 70 words per minute -- nobody can shut me up online... )
And then there's the bane of all on line gaming -- disconnects. Things will be going fast and furious, a dramatic climax is about to be reached, when :poof!: somebody disconnects. Sometimes the computer system hiccups, sometimes the phone lines burp, sometimes one of the players' kids picks up the extension and starts dialing. It happened to us about once a session. I guess the face-to-face gaming equivalent would be having a players' spouse or parent call the house at just the wrong moment. There's nothing to do but to sit back and wait for the missing player to reappear, then try to regain the lost momentum.
But remember that sense of isolation I talked about earlier? As I got more used to online gaming's own flow and rhythm, it definitely eased. And I did get to know the other players, at least a little.
I promised John Tynes that I wouldn't give away too many of the secrets of "The New Age" in this article. So I won't tell you about the return of our helpful bellhop friend (this time dressed up as a hospital orderly), or the large wolf-like creature that seemed to appear everywhere he did; or the St. Louis drug kingpin with government connections; or the strange crystal cult (led by a man who called himself "The Living Power") with headquarters in, of all places, Tulsa, OK; our encounter with horrible creatures with strange technology; or our visit to the newly-discoverd Tenth Planet, where we found... well, that would be telling.
Suffice it to say that we discovered most of the secrets behind the weird happenings, and though we failed to foil their evil plan, we found out enough about it so that our Delta Green superiors could probably get it taken care of in time to save the planet. And a couple of us even survived to tell the story -- including Clarence Starbird.
Article publication date: February 1, 1994
Copyright © 1994 by Steve Jackson Games. All rights reserved. Pyramid subscribers are permitted to read this article online, or download it and print out a single hardcopy for personal use. Copying this text to any other online system or BBS, or making more than one hardcopy, is strictly prohibited. So please don't. And if you encounter copies of this article elsewhere on the web, please report it to firstname.lastname@example.org.