When I first started play-by-post roleplaying, people just made things up as they went along. The websites where these threads took place had a roleplaying subsection with little else—there weren’t any pinned topics about races, countries, or social hierarchies. Looking back, a lot of those threads probably didn’t make much sense as far as continuity and logic went, but I still appreciated the freedom.
Now when I look at forums, they tend to be completely fleshed out, with in-depth histories, race lists, social structures, etc., all of which are often set in stone, unless the administration decides to do some tweaking. Players must play within certain parameters and may not have the opportunity to leave their mark on the world. Instead of feeling like you’re genuinely a part of it, sometimes you feel as if you’re just there to supplement the forum with your activity.
In place of of this rigidness, I’d like to propose something called “open-concept worldbuilding.” Rather than having an entire world set in stone, or simply having none, the idea is to have a structure that can be filled in and fleshed out by the people participating in the game.
Roleplaying is collaborative in nature, so why can’t worldbuilding be, too? Don’t start with nothing, of course, but offer people the freedom to change your world’s history or future. It gives your forum the space to grow and makes people feel included.
This doesn’t have to be limited to staff. I’ve watched members make forum-wide plots and incorporate the history in exciting ways, all because they were given the freedom to do what they liked. If you’re willing to let your history be altered—to let members add new events to your timelines at will or let them make connections with important figures in your history—you’re giving people a chance to feel like they’re making an impact. People get excited when they have a chance to integrate themselves, and whether or not they stick around for the long haul, they’ve added a piece of themselves, and each piece together makes a cohesive whole.
You may have to finesse your information every once in a while and smooth out the wrinkles, or there may be incongruencies that can’t quite be sorted out, but it won’t ruin your game. Play-by-post roleplaying is not about writing a novel to be published—it’s about individual creativity, and sometimes compromises have to be made.
Imposing restrictions, telling a member they can’t do something because it conflicts with your vision, and not allowing them to do something because you’re afraid it might change your world too drastically are all ways to stifle creativity. Stifled creativity makes people restless, and it makes them want to leave. I’ve left forums before because there simply was no room for me to do anything. I felt like a pawn in another person’s story, decorative but otherwise unnecessary to the board as a whole. It’s hard to let the reins go because we all want our ideas to be expressed absolutely. But such control must be saved for the stories we write by ourselves. In the world of roleplaying, you can let others supplement your thoughts with their own. Good roleplaying communities won’t stick to the original plan/vision, but create a newer, better one.
If not your members, use your staff
If you’re uncomfortable with giving your members some of the creative reins, you should consider your staff instead, and give them the opportunity to build off your foundations. Different people bring different ideas and experiences to the table, and they can see problems that you can’t. They can help flesh out a vague history that, when originally written, seemed adequate. They can also point out what is and isn’t working and help you fix it.
I’ve been fortunate enough to work with staff members who are creative and excited to improve upon the work that I and others (including members) have created before them.
When we go through this process, we end up having long conversations about what makes sense and what doesn’t, we toss ideas around until we settle on the ones we like the best, and we ask questions. The process is a group effort that allows everybody to feel like they’ve contributed to the forum in a way that goes beyond post count.
It’s hard to relax the reins, but it’s well worth it. I’ve always viewed forums as being places of collaboration, and I’d rather share the worldbuilding with others because it takes the pressure off of me to come up with every single detail. I’m too busy—as most people are—to do all of the worldbuilding, past and future, by myself. So I let members create what they want within reason, and I work with my staff to improve upon what’s already there, from plots to histories to locales and beyond. All of these pieces, big and small, are added together in our articles, timelines, and general world lore and remain there, even years after someone has left.
Through doing this, I’ve found that the game I run is as exciting to me as it is to new members. You just never know what people will come up with, and I’ve watched a lot of great ideas flourish because people were given the chance to express them.