Role Playing and Learning to Write
I am pretty deep into the first big developmental and copy edit of Stillbright: Book II of the Paladin Trilogy and let me tell you, trying to get a nearly 600 page novel into shape is no easy task. This is hardly the first time I've been through it; naturally it's undergone several revisions from the first draft I wrote in the winter/spring of 2012 (I know I began it in February of 2012 but am not entirely sure when I finished it).
Revising is different from editing. Sure, I would try to clean it up and fix mistakes, but revision, as I mean it anyway, is mostly about consistency and story. Now that it's been through the hands of an editor, it's a whole different ballgame, and there's work to do on nearly every page.
But that's not what this post is about. No; what it's about is that I've realized how much of my writing style has been influenced by something I spent a lot of time doing back around the turn of the century: MUSHing.
No, it has nothing to do with sled dogs.
A MUSH or a MUX or a MUD (or MU* as I'm probably going to use it from here on out) is essentially a text-based online roleplaying game inhabited by multiple player simultaneously. Yes, I said text-based. Back in 1997, we didn't any of your fancy graphics to kill Orcs or pretend to be Jedi.
The games I mostly played on were Star Wars based; I'd played (and still do!) play the old West End Games (WEG) d6 Star Wars RPG, and finding out that I could, through the magic of the internet, open up a screen and essentially be playing that very game with dozens of other people at any hour of the day was pretty transformative. There is an enormous difference between MU*ing as I experienced it and playing a tabletop session, though; in a tabletop session you generally expect some action or plot to occur every time you pick up dice. On a MU, in large part, you were simply engaging in roleplay, developing a character in concert with other people. There were plots (or TinyPlots, for reasons I'm not entirely sure about) that would involve combat and conflict and possible PC death, but those were fairly few and far between, especially compared to tabletop roleplay.
I knew at the time that I wanted to be a writer, and so playing on MU*s felt like writing every day. I wouldn't consider them that now, but we're talking nearly twenty years ago now, so bear with me.
What I'm getting at is that as I'm revising Stillbright, it has occurred to me that a good deal of my writing style, things I do well and things I need to work on, was developed in those days, with the patience and collaboration of a whole host of other roleplayers.
For the most part I played on a game called Star Wars: The Minos Cluster. I played, briefly, on the game known as Star Wars I, a bit on Star Wars: Brak Sector, and a little more than briefly on Star Wars: Legacies. I played on a few fantasy games here and there, but never as long or as devotedly as I did on Minos Cluster (MC). There were a couple other SW MU's I'm failing to remember adequately; one that was post Return of the Jedi but ignored the continuity of the growing Star Wars Expanded Universe and posited the Empire splitting into factions, each controlled by different Dark Side disciples of either Palpatine or Vader. And another, the name of which I cannot recall at all, where I continued playing the character I played the most, from the Minos Cluster.
What I took away from the hours (you could honestly count it in days; when I fall for something I fall hard) is dedication to character building and the importance of dialogue. If you can't keep people interested you're not going to find much RP on any given day. When I'm working on a story and I don't know what to do next, I just have two characters talk until something happens. The reason for this, I think, is that's generally what you did in any given RP session on a MU. You logged in, went somewhere other people were hanging out, and figured out a way to interact with them.
Now, this has its downsides; because when you're posing your character on a MU, you want to give everyone interacting with you something to react to, you use a lot of character tags, a lot of movement, a lot of description. At least, I did. So this has filled the early drafts of my books with a lot of people moving their hands and their eyes and their brows and their mouths, and in a story that's just not interesting or necessary. In a collaborative setting where the story is being made moment to moment, you want to be clear about what you're doing, how, why, who you're looking at, how you sound, and so on. By the time I stopped playing on MU*'s, perhaps a decade ago, I wrote all my character's poses entirely in "emits," where I could churn out a paragraph (or more) of movement, reaction, dialogue, expression, and so on. I never tried to spam anyone by over-filling their screen and I hope I generally made RPing with me pleasant and entertaining.
I know for a fact I was terrible when I started, and it was only the patience and the continued good modeling of the people I played with that made me any good. I do think by the time I was done I was at least pretty good at it, given how often I could find folks to RP with. Who was I, and who were they? My most-played character was a Devaronian (the race in the cantina in ANH with horns; they look like devils) with one missing eye and one busted horn named Ereqai Du'Hrollac. Yeah, the apostrophes; in my defense, I was continuing a naming convention given to a Devaronian character in a really solid piece of Star Wars short fiction called "Empire Blues: The Devaronian's Tale" in Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. I enjoyed that story so much I even tied my character's backstory to it. He was a hard-nosed career military man (alien) with a drinking problem (because of course) and some war crimes in his past (read the above story, it's honestly quite good) who knew more than his share about blowing things up or stopping things from blowing up (I put a lot of points into Demolitions, is what I'm saying). Eventually he went from being "the EOD guy" to an MP and an officer leading a New Republic Spec-Ops team.
The point of this blog post, besides reminiscence, is really just to say thanks to all the people I played with back in those days. I used to talk to some of you on AIM or in email, and more than once wound up meeting them in person. A couple, I'm friends with on Facebook. One was already a lifelong friend and one became a lifelong friend (and another I married, but that's a long story I'm not telling). I'm going to attempt a partial list here of people I played with who really stuck with me (by character name, naturally). If I forget you, it's not, I swear, personal; it's just that this was a long time ago and I spent ten years in college (you do the math). So, thank you to; Kylariss, Boon, Bourne, Jervis Ishner, Bec, Hollifeld, Ril, Nahren, Val Zular, James Ravis, Terre, Fontane (played by the fellow who drew the amazing map for Paladin!) Nadirehs, Valdetta, K'rrayn, Harbinger, Pryden...I know I'm forgetting folks from Minos Cluster but that's all I can dredge up right now. Thanks, all of you!
On other games: Legacies, I mostly played Droshka, an Ubese conspiracy theorist and arsonist, who worked for the criminal cartel run by a Falleen (played by my IRL pal and roommate named above) along with the greatest Gamorrean character of all time, Arglebargle, and a half cyborg badass whose name I cannot, for the life of me, remember. I tried dredging old email accounts but they appear to be gone; I know there are logs on the hard drive of an old computer but I just don't have the time to drag them out just now. We even met up and hung out at the Maryland Renfaire one day long ago. Thank you.
On another game where I continued playing Ereqai, only now out of the military and working as a detective; Selynn, who once sent me a great piece of art of her character and the above named pal's character who ran a bounty hunter's guild she was a part of. There were definitely other people I played with there, and you were great, and I'm ashamed that I can't remember your character's names. Thank you.
Thanks, I mean it, to all the above named people AND all the folks I'm forgetting. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but all of you helped me become one, a pose at a time in a galaxy far far away.
If any of you read this, stumble across it, have thought about any of these old games or all the roleplay we did, please don't hesitate to say hi.