I'm Feeling Lucky: The Forum

Sam Brooks on the SimRTK forums

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Like most teenagers, I had a rebellious phase. I found drinks, drugs and dicks. And like most people who label themselves as ‘playwright/journalist/lip-sync artist’, I also got into some pretty obscure stuff. If you have a spare afternoon, please ask me about HBO TV series In Treatment and the Israeli series it's based on, or the music of Miranda Sex Garden, or the films of Anna Magnani.

I also found SimRTK, a forum-based roleplaying game set in 3rd Century China, after the fall of the Han Dynasty but before the rise of the Jin Dynasty. It was based largely on the popular (in the current context, I use that loosely) 14th century novel by Luo Guanzhong called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms; a historical novel with very little romance and a surprising amount of people eating each other.

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is 120 chapters long and covers a time period of around a hundred years.  There are over a thousand named characters, most of whom get mentioned only a few times, and exist only to get killed by the more famous (again, term used at maximum looseness) characters. It is tremendously popular in China, to the point that the era it covers has been labelled The Three Kingdoms Era.

To drastically simplify the novel, the Han Dynasty was corrupt and crumbling by about 169 CE, and there was a massive country-wide rebellion against it, called The Yellow Turban Rebellion. A period of turmoil followed for about thirty to forty years afterwards, in which the country was divided into roughly Three Kingdoms: Wei, Wu and Shu.

Because of the colourful characters, this era (and by era, I mean novel) has become the subject of countless video games, TV series and films. If you’ve played the Dynasty Warriors series on your PlayStation, you’ll have experienced it. If you’ve seen John Woo’s two-part epic Red Cliff, you’ll have witnessed a fraction of it. And if, like me, you played SimRTK, you will be more familiar with this era than you are with who your local MP is.

At this stage, I haven’t quite described to you what SimRTK is, and it makes me painfully aware that I’ve never really described it to anybody. None of my friends at the time knew I played this game, and so it was decidedly separate from my family life and my school life. Despite the time I wasted on it relative to the latter, it didn’t even form part of my rebellious life, such as it was.

None of my friends at the time knew I played this game, and so it was decidedly separate from my family life and my school life. Despite the time I wasted on it relative to the latter, it didn’t even form part of my rebellious life

In as simple a nutshell I can conceive: SimRTK was an online forum roleplaying game that took place in an alternative universe of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The games would usually start around 190AD, a little bit after the Yellow Turban Rebellion. The Han Dynasty had been well and truly overthrown and various warlords fought for control - in SimRTK-world, the players would take the roles of the warlords and play as ‘kingdoms’.

A limited amount of players would be assigned as rulers and get a city picked at random (you were in luck if you got Ye, but if you got somewhere like Shang Yong you were basically screwed, because this is where the game actually decided to follow history, and a place like Ye had considerably more resources and better strategic positioning than a place like Shang Yong, as everybody knows). Then, the rest of the players could join whatever kingdom they wanted to, if they wanted to.          

If that’s hard to picture, imagine a game like Civilization or Age of Empires (unhelpfully, my default reference point for SimRTK is another strategy computer game series called The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, currently in its thirteenth iteration, and probably not a useful analogy in this instance) but entirely text-based and where you actually had to figure out the maths formulas for raising your stats, using your skills or building up your city and exactly how to exploit them. Eventually, your good work would be undone when one kingdom got too much power, and the game would be rebooted (much like Age of Empires, once you have control of over half the map it becomes less a game and more a steamrolling). You would start again. “That sounds like fun!”, I hear nobody cry.

The first thing you do is you sign up as a user on the forum, like you would on any forum, if you’re the kind of person who signs up on forums (full disclosure: I paid for a membership on the Something Awful forums in my last year of high school, so I am definitely that kind of person). I would give you my username, but I feel like revealing what usernames you had as a teenager is one of the most naked and vulnerable things a millennial can do, and I’m not quite ready for that (second full disclosure: I had a LiveJournal under the name EtherealApathy. I am not, and have never been, a cool person).

Then you would sign up as a character and have a set of stats and skills generated for you at random, Dungeons and Dragons-style. My character name, which I used through each version of the game, was Su Li-Zhen. If your interests align with mine, you will recognise that name from the Wong Kar-Wai films In The Mood For Love and 2046, from two different characters played by Maggie Cheung and Gong Li respectively. If you want to know exactly why the female character I roleplayed in a game set in 200CE China was based on two characters from Wong Kar-Wai films, ask the therapist I have never gone to.

There were two halves to the game. One half was the min-maxing, twinking (abusing the formulas, not a skinny white gay guy) part of the game. You would engage in this if you wanted to run a kingdom, max out your stats or in-game money. The people who enjoyed this side of the game are the same people who enjoy grinding raids on World of Warcraft, or playing a NSGNSNCNONENNENBB game of Final Fantasy X, or playing League of Legends at all. It’s less an exercise in fun and more an exercise in being the best at a thing nobody else wants to be the best at.

The other half, which I vastly preferred, was the roleplaying. The game was entirely text-based. For example, you would go to the Xu Chang Roleplay Thread and write a poorly-written 3000-word post about your character walking into a bar and sitting down. I remember sitting down for at least an hour to craft one post, then refreshing constantly to see who would reply to me. These threads would continue on for days, and had little to no impact on the game as a whole. The actual income – win or lose – was in the hands of the math nerds. But these little narratives left fourteen, fifteen, sixteen and then seventeen-year-old me raptured, night after night.

It’s hard to convey what the appeal of a role-playing game is to someone who has never played one. From the first time I saw the Final Fantasy logo pop up on my 13” screen I was hooked. It’s transporting yourself into another world, one of somebody else’s creation, and losing yourself in it for fifty or so hours.

It’s not that large of a jump from that kind of game to the text-based phpBB board of a forum roleplaying game. What you lose in graphics and construction, you gain in immersion. With only a few keystrokes, you can literally write yourself into a world. It’s not a step that every RPG fan takes, but they’re much closer than you might think.

The world of SimRTK extended past the fictional world to the real: The community. The SimRTK community was a bizarre and engaging cross-section of people. There were young nerds like me, who had gotten into the whole Romance of the Three Kingdoms things from video games and then became really interested in them. Effectively, these were people with no commitments outside the game, wasting the seemingly inexhaustible amount of time teenagers have. Then were nerds like me who had now reached their late teens, but who had probably gotten into it in the same way. Then there were the older people who seemed so exotic and cool to me, people in their late twenties and thirties who played it in between things like ‘jobs’ and ‘college’. There were occasionally those that, even as a fifteen-year-old, I could tell were sad; a postal worker who worked for free as an administrator who was incredibly attached to the game, and so angry when anything or anybody did something wrong with it.

I was never immensely involved in the community, but it made sense to me as a teenager. It made sense that there were hundreds of pages of words expended on debating the stats of apocryphal historical characters in a fictional forum game (but for the record Zhuge Liang should always have 100 INT, and ZZTJ is just as valid a source as SGZ and LGZ should only be used if there’s no other sources). In a time in my life where nothing seemed like it belonged to me, let alone my choices, SimRTK was the one thing that did.

In a time in my life where nothing seemed like it belonged to me, let alone my choices, SimRTK was the one thing that did

I knew the world of SimRTK - not so much the individual canons of each reboot, but I knew, still know, the world of Romance of the Three Kingdoms like I know the streets of Auckland. It sits at the back of my head, like muscle memory. I remember my real-life milestones much better, they’re more vivid; I can associate sights, sounds and smells with those memories. I can’t quite do the same with SimRTK. A forum-based game doesn’t have a sound, it doesn’t have a smell, and the only sights are the ones you make up in your head, or substitute from reality.

So this is what I remember: I discovered Family Bar at the same time I discovered how many children Cao Cao had, I discovered the gross pleasures of vodka and orange juice at the same time I married Su Li-Zhen off to a character whose name I don’t remember, and I learned that Evanescence were a terrible band at the same time that I realised that I was maybe a bit too old to be playing this game.

I stopped playing the game in my first year of university, largely because of time and a lack of interest. I couldn’t skate by in university like I did in high school, and SimRTK ended up being more work than it was fun. I cut it loose and never looked back.

It would be an elegant overstatement to say that SimRTK changed my life, but it probably did. It got me writing for hours upon hours at a time, usually every day, for several years of my life, which is surely skill-building in the Gladwellian 10,000 hours sense of the word. It was a way for me to write when I didn’t have that outlet. As someone who writes everyday now, about things that are as far removed from The Romance of the Three Kingdoms as possible, I’m sure that my days writing Su Li-Zhen walking glamorously in and out of bars plays some part in why I care about writing today, and why I can do it in such quantities.

I went back to the forums to write this article, and it was like when I went back to high school after I left. The buildings look the same, the school motto’s the same, but the art has changed and the people are gone. It’s moved on without you. The game stopped running in 2013 as far as I can see, though the Tavern (the out-of-character forum, where people talk about real life, and in one weird thread, share pictures of themselves) is still active. There’s a few stray roleplay threads here and there, and a hopeful few posts from new users asking when the next game is starting.

It made me sad. Not because I can place any specific memories to the forum or SimRTK, like I can for those same messy teenage years, but because it was a safe haven for me. The years I spent there were an emotionally turbulent time. Everyone else seemed to go by like a particularly cruel flash of light, but SimRTK was a constant. I could post a roleplay and somebody would respond, whether it was somebody who didn’t know what a comma was or somebody who only knew what commas were.

I vividly remember a woman in her thirties with two kids who was an administrator of the game, and a lively online presence at that. One of those people who is as popular as she is unpopular; she was headstrong and would post emotive, childish messages in the OOC threads and then long, florid posts in the roleplay posts. As a fifteen-year-old, nothing was more bizarre to me. She was like a unicorn. As a twenty-four-year-old, I see an endearing longing behind her participation, and running of the game.

It was an incredible time commitment for no money and no reward other than the joy of participating, but it’s one that I understand very keenly now that I work in the performing arts. Every day, I see people put huge amounts of time and energy into something they love, with no readily discernible reward. But sometimes, the reward is just belonging to a group of people with at least one thing in common - that thing you love that nobody else around you cares about.

Feature photo credit: Evgeni Zotov

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