Years ago I started an online text-based roleplay series; basically a collaborative story. It wasn't supposed to be a series. I had barely started roleplaying and it was more like a test to see what running one of those would feel like. So I didn't think too much on the fact that I was using a couple of characters from my novel (a mere project at the time) to build the story. The RP generated interest and spun two sequels, one of which is still running. The world and story of the RP are unique and completely unrelated with my novel yet I've been told that, because I used my novel characters (name and physical description, not their story) in the game, if I were to pursue traditional publishing I would have to either change the characters in the book or take down the RP since it's published online. Is this a fact?
Assuming the RP itself is not an issue. Say I sign with an agent, the book gets picked up by a publisher and all those wonderful things I tell myself to think of as 'near impossible best case scenarios' actually come true. If down the road from that me and my RP buddies would like to take the story we wrote together and make something with it along the lines of a comic or web series (we've discussed doing it for funsies, not profits), would those names and similarities pose an issue even if both works are basically authored by me?
RED LIGHT FLASHING!!!!!
(can you guess why?)
The authors I've seen write spin-offs or prequel shorts, or whatever else using their characters online, however successful, were self published. Fellow writers tell me that with traditional publishing that isn't quite possible.
Bottom line: once a work is published the traditional way how much freedom, if any, does an author have to play with his own creations in his own time without it bitting him/her in the tender meat of their sitting down area?
You're asking the wrong question.
Here's the question you SHOULD ask: "the story that my RP buddies and I wrote together" --who owns the copyright to that?
Once you have more than one person involved in the creation of a work it's no longer just yours. It does not matter if you originated the project. It does not matter that you think of it as yours. If someone else contributed in a meaningful way to plot, character development, setting, they have rights in the work. You can fix this by having everyone sign what's essentially a quit claim to the work, but the smarter thing to do was make sure everyone understood they were NOT co-owners at the start.
Publishers won't care if your RP game is online. In fact, they'll probably love it. More people to buy the book.
But I absolutely guarantee you that if your book is successful in any meaningful way (ie money) you're going to have people coming out of the woodwork claiming a piece of it.
You might think an easy solution is to change the names and character descriptions but if you make enough money, that won't matter. You WILL be targeted by people wanting a piece of the action.
You need an intellectual property lawyer. AND you need to sort this out before you do anything bold like sign a publishing contract. The boilerplate on every publishing contract in this universe and the next one over requires you to warrant that you are the creator of the work, and are not infringing on anyone else's copyright. Their insurance and yours will NOT cover you if you are found to be in violation of the warranty you gave.
Aren't you glad you asked?