No, not that sort of roleplaying. Picture by tf2tightrope.
No, not that sort of roleplaying. Picture by tf2tightrope.

Medic recently published an article discussing the pastime of play-by-post roleplaying games. I’ve also been participating in RPs for the better part of my online career (so much that I’m one of those users in the example screenshot on the Wikipedia page I just linked), and I highly recommend that any budding writers give it a try. It’s a very risk-free opportunity to develop some good habits for becoming a better writer, especially if you suffer from either writer’s block or beginner’s fear, and it strips writing down to just the fun parts. You can craft a single character, the exact person you want to RP as, and then find an accepting group to let you into their fold.

My first RP was called Darwin’s Soldiers where I played a scientist named Dr. Shelton, and it lasted from 2008-2013 and had two sequels (and a TV Tropes page and a wiki). It was the first time that I’d ever been forced to write the same character for such a long time, and to further flesh Shelton out I began writing short stories that explored other events in his timeline. These were some of my first completed fictions and also led to me developing the writing habits that make me who I am today. I grew out of the roleplaying phase as I became more prolific with my own fiction and the limitations of the genre became more smothering, but let’s focus on the good part first.

No, not that sort of roleplaying either. Well, depending on the writing group... Picture by Medic.
No, not that sort of roleplaying either. Well, depending on the writing group… Picture by Medic.

There are several reasons I consider RPing a great exercise for budding writers. You’ll have a tiny but dedicated audience (the other players) which will teach you how to craft your writing to appeal to readers, and you’ll have a responsibility to post at least once every few days in order to keep the RP moving, which helps you develop a lifestyle of constantly producing new content. You’ll also be exposed to all sorts of other writing styles and character concepts, which is an important habit for a writer who wants to avoid trapping themselves in a bubble. When other authors abandon an RP, I often volunteer to take over their orphaned characters, just to practice writing outside my comfort zone. It’s also a safe place to explore character concepts or plot devices that you can later expand into novels or short stories for publication.

However, be extremely careful with this last point, because lots of RPers fall into a trap where they think ” the plot of this RP has been amazing! I should turn it into a novel!” The first problem you’ll hit is that some of the characters were created by other people, which can be a cause for legal trouble down the line if you actually publish something successful. Even more importantly, good RPs are not built on the same writing skills as good solo fiction. RPs care completely about forward movement and have almost no editing process; once you’ve submitted your post and everyone read it, it’s canon and never looked at again. Plot directions and characters can disappear during an RP without consequence, and plot holes can be ignored in favor of getting on with the story, but that’s not quite as acceptable in a novel.

Writers traditionally include a character sheet to show other writers who they're playing.
RPs traditionally require character sheets to help other writers understand who you’re playing. While perfect for RPs, this habit can cause problems when writing traditional fiction because it lets you bypass the difficult process of incorporating characterization and backstory into the prose. 

In addition, RPs almost inevitably will contain bad writers. That’s not in itself a bad thing (their trains of thought can lead the plot down hilarious and very entertaining routes) and some of my favorite RPers are complete nutters, but if you tried to turn the RP into a novel you’d suddenly realize that their silly antics need to either be removed (not always possible without massive plot adjustments) or accepted as your own. Unless you’re okay with your readers thinking it was your idea to add ninja paratroopers into the climactic final battle, its just another reason that RPs (in my experience) should be considered self-contained writing exercises and not springboards for other projects.

But as a writing exercise, it’s one of the best ways to form a habit for storytelling. Medic gave a lot of advice for being a good roleplayer, and I might write a sequel where I talk about my own discoveries in that field, but for now I just want to encourage writers to give it a try. Don’t feel embarrassed or afraid of what the other writers will think, just jump in and see if you like it.