There have been questions raised now and then how it is that we can run a roleplaying game set in Westeros when we strongly condemn fanfiction set in Westeros. The latest iteration of this question coming up made me decide to write something more in-depth about the matter. It may have something to do with procrastination from other work, but hey, that’s always a good reason, right?
First of all, let us establish what we mean by roleplaying in this case. We are talking specifically about on-line, text-based roleplaying in real-time using a MUSH or MUX server and we are talking about the logs of such roleplay sessions. We are not talking about table-top roleplaying or forum roleplaying.
At one end, there’s a simple answer that really doesn’t say much about the objective view of the relationship between roleplaying and fanfiction. GRRM has approved our roleplaying game, but he does not approve of fanfiction. So, in our case, the person holding the copyright to the setting in question has made a distinction between the two. A distinction, I might add, that has nothing to do with us collaborating with GRRM; the very first contact we had with GRRM was us asking for permission to run the MUSH, so he didn’t know us from Adam at the time. I’ll also note that other writers who have noted their stance on the matter on their website will almost always speak of “roleplaying and fanfiction”. They do not just say fanfiction and assume that everyone “knows” that it includes roleplaying too. I think this argues for the common understanding being that they are two different activities.
One point that swayed GRRM into approving our game was that we specified that we would not let our players play canon characters. The game, of course, isn’t set at the time of the books, but we are using a known period of history and staying as true to that period as we can. So the known canon characters from this period are around, but they are background characters, very occasionally run by Staff as NPCs. No one gets to have a canon character as “their” character.
Compare this with fanfiction. The vast majority that I have come across uses 99% canon characters. The purpose and intentions behind roleplaying and fanfiction are often quite different. Roleplaying often comes out of a desire to inhabit a beloved setting whereas fanfiction stems from wanting more stories, or different stories, about specific characters. But, yes, there are roleplaying games who do make heavy use of canon characters, so this difference is not always as marked. But it is in our case and it certainly plays a big part in why we have no problem running our game and still being opposed to unauthorized fanfiction.
Still, so far the differences can mostly be put down to differences of opinion. Is that all, then? No, I don’t feel that it is. Fanfiction clearly follows a format that, depending on its length, will fit into one or another category of literature. You could publish it as a book. People have actually published it as books. Could you collect a bunch of roleplay logs and publish those as a book? Well, you could of course publish anything, but publishing a grocery list doesn’t make it literature (though it may make it poetry if the right person does it, sigh…). Just because you can physically (or electronically) turn something into a book does not mean it is literature. The form of a roleplay log is not the form of literature. You would have to rewrite the log to shape it into the form of literature. But we don’t do that. We don’t allow that, in fact, because that would be fanfiction.
So, yes, the same or similar fictional content could be literature in one form and not-literature in another form. Hardly surprising, really. No one disputes Wikipedia’s right to summarise the plot of a book; it is not the same form as the book itself. A log of a MUSH roleplay session is no more literature than a video of a tabletop roleplay session is theatre. Similar fictional content may appear, similar elements of presentation may occur, but the intentions as well as the end-result are quite different.
Despite all this, I am sure some people will still not see a distinction between MUSH roleplay and fanfiction. But then the fact remains that in our particular case, GRRM has approved the MUSH but he does not approve of fanfiction. That is his right as the copyright holder.