5 things I learned about Dragon Age

edited to add a link to the review: Read it here — it’s now up on the web.

PC Gamer this month features a glossy and rather glowing full review of Dragon Age — this one is notable partly because of the writing but also because the reviewer played the whole thing through to the end (he comments that it took him about 80 hours for his first epic playthrough). Even the editor notes:

The last two months have been excrutiating. We’ve had Dragon Age in the office for what feels like an epoch, and John’s been raving about how sensational it is almost daily.

There’s also a pre-review in Eurogamer. And as a sign of EA’s confidence in the game, they note:

It’s an important game, then; we got an indication how important (and how big) when publisher EA started distributing a complete PC review version to press months before its release. That never happens.

OK, enough of the behind the scenes stuff, what have we learned about the game itself.

  1. There will be two modes of play. Easy which is similar to MMO style play, and Normal where you can pause to set up actions for each party member repeatedly during the fight.
  2. In addition, you will be able to set up combat tactics for members of your party, similar to the way you could program behaviour into your party in FFXII. So you can set them to heal when they get low on health, switch from range to melee weapons, and so on. It sounds as though it can get quite complex if that’s what you want.
  3. Similarly, if you are interested in picking out a complex talent and skill spec for your character and party you can do it. If not, they can be set to skill up automatically along preset paths.
  4. Dwarvish culture — we’ve heard a bit about the elves, humans and mages. Dwarves have a complex caste system by which young dwarves take the same caste as their same-sex parent (ie. dwarf girls get their caste from their mother, dwarf boys from their father.) Then there are casteless dwarfs, unrecognised as members of society and with their ancestry removed from dwarven history (so presumably their children are fated to follow in their footsteps.)
  5. How your fellow party members feel about you will affect some romance options (apparently there are gay romance options too, my money is on the naughty tattooed witch for the female one because only ‘naughty’ girls are ever allowed to be bi in games, but I’d be happy to be proved wrong) but also give them gameplay buffs, unlock personal quests, and determine whether they leave or not.

If there was one comment in the PC Gamer review that really intrigued me, it was discussing  NPC vendors who follows you around:

Treat them as more than a shop, talk to them, and the details of their past emerge along with a surprising ethical quandary.

What I’d give for an NPC merchant in a MMO who rewarded you for treating them as more than a shop! In any case, the reviews sound as though the game is everything it has been described as and more. Reviewers praise the immersiveness of the setting and the sense of detail and having experienced a world, not just a game.  Phrases like ‘the RPG of the decade’ and ‘it feels like the consummate, traditional PC RPG’ are not bandied around lightly.

How will I survive the countdown to release date now, dammit?! I already decided that my first character will be the city elf fighter — the city elf beginning involves a wedding, an abduction, and possibly a rape, so I’ll try to model her on The Bride from Kill Bill. Anyone else got any ideas for characters?

[rhetorical question: I'll survive by playing Torchlight, clearly. And maybe playing Dragon Age Journeys, the free flash game that goes live tonight.]

Giant Skeletons as Art

bonesentinel

You might think to look at this screenshot that you were looking at a simple, everyday, giant skeleton of the sort you might find anywhere in a MMO.

Here it stands in its natural habitat, on eternal watch, waiting for an adventurer to come past and pull it to its inevitable death animation.

But there is something different about this particular type of mob in WoW. It’s a new breed.

Placed in Icecrown, one of the end zones in Wrath where it is assumed that the player will have a flying mount, this mob is designed to be flown over rather than killed.

It’s true. There is no quest in the game that requires anyone to kill one of these giant skeletons, yet they are common mobs in Icecrown. They patrol battlements. They stand on guard at strategic locations. They look tough and they are (relatively) tough, being elites. Not only is there no quest for them, but the drop tables don’t attract people, they aren’t part of anyone’s optimal xp gathering schemes, they don’t give rep. There isn’t even any xp for them (that’s quite damning in a MMO!)

The very first comment in the Bone Sentinel entry in wowhead says, forlornly:

I killed one and it didn’t drop anything and it also did not provide any experience.

Ladies and Gentlement, I present to you … the decorative mob. Be nice to it, it may be the herald of a new (aka old) immersive era of zone design, in which mobs are placed because they look right or they should logically be there, and not just to drive quests.

Joking aside, that’s quite an old school approach. Older MMOs often placed mobs without any intention that players would kill them. But it’s uncommon in WoW.

Design at Start vs Design in Play

Here’s a thought experiment. You have just bought a shiny new computer RPG (it can be either a MMO or single player, your choice). You load it up for the first time and are presented with character creation.

Which of these types of character creation would you prefer to see?

Pre-Made Characters

You get to pick one of a set of pre-made characters. The character may come with an extensive background and backstory, carefully designed to fit perfectly into the game. You may have some customisation options – maybe you can change the looks, name, and tweak the stats a bit, but your choices are limited.

Pre-mades have the huge advantage that it is very very easy to write an immersive story about a pre-made character. The writer can give the characters some good solid starting goals and story arcs. They can easily have pre-existing links to other NPCs, places, items, and background stories. They belong to the world, they have links with it, and they are connected to it.

Best of all, the player can take the pre-made character and trust that the storyline will fit. Good examples of this are Planescape: Torment or KOTOR – you get very few customisation choices at the beginning but the story is absolutely front and centre all about the viewpoint character. Using a pre-made character also doesn’t remove choices from the player later on, but at least it gives you a very well defined starting point.

Pre-mades in an MMO are more problematic, because players will interact. If characters ALL have the same background story then it’s difficult to really take things seriously (“What? You used to be a raider too? Uh … what a coincidence, so did my 37 friends over there …”)

Design At Start

Your character is a blank slate. Before you can start playing, you need to spend some time deciding what your character will be like, what powers it may have, and everything else about it. You may wish to write a long personalised background story too. Picking powers might be a complex process with many opportunities to optimise skills, but with some time and effort you should be able to create the exact character that you want. It will be perfect, it will be your ideal character.

This can be great for players who have a very strong concept of the sort of character they want to play. If you always play the same role, like to fiddle around doing research and number crunching, and enjoy min-maxing, this might be for you.

The downside is: You may not yet know the gameworld very well. You may not know which power combinations are the most potent. You may not yet have a strong concept of your ideal character. Your ideal character might not even make any sense in terms of the story. You can certainly write a novella of background information but there’s no guarantee that anyone except you will ever read it.

In a tabletop game, you can work with the GM and other players to tell great stories about your ideal character. In a computer game, there’s no guarantee that the game will actually support the way you wanted to play. So you get a taste of your ideal character, but you may not actually be able to play out the stories you wanted to tell about them. Even in a non-railroaded game, the options you want may not even exist (eg. if your character is a dispossessed aristocrat but the game doesn’t have any kind of NPCs or stories that will give you a chance to get your land back or have your relatives try to bump you off … or in other words, the game may just not interact well with the story you want to tell.)

Design in Play

Your character is a blank slate. But after picking a few minor options and customising the look, you’re straight into the game. You will pick up powers and abilities as you play, or at least gain the ability to customise whatever powers with which you start.

The idea is that as you learn more about the game, both storywise and about how it plays, you’ll learn more about what type of character you want, and will have opportunities to mould your character into that shape.

Although this can play like a pre-made character at the beginning, you will quickly have lots of options to tweak both the background and the skills as you play. A design at start character is a bit ‘fuzzy’ when the game begins, very little about it is set in stone.

It’s all down to personal preferences

There isn’t a right or wrong way to do character creation but some players  have strong preferences for different methods.

I’m a big proponent of design in play – in tabletop games, I’m discussing character concepts and how the world works with the GM all the way through the first session, so I can tweak my initial character sheet later if what I wrote isn’t reflecting the character I create through playing it. In MMOs, I love how the WoW dual specs means that I don’t have to commit to a role when I create my character. My warrior can tank or it can dps, depending on how I feel later. I love systems where you get better at skills by using them, so the game itself can try to figure out how you want your character to develop in play. (In practice that’s not really how it works but I like the idea.)

I really dislike games that ask me to make large numbers of character decisions or carry out number crunching up front, especially when I don’t feel that the game itself has given me enough information yet on which to choose.

I was thinking of this when reading Regis’ dismissal of the Dragon Age Character Creator. I’m not claiming that it is the greatest piece of software since sliced_bread.exe but it isn’t fair to fault the game for offering a limited number of races and classes in the creator. They’re running with a mix of pre-made and design in play design. It’s going to make for much tighter storylines later on, and more choices to make later on in play also.

I don’t get on with design at start type games (it takes me some exposure to the game to get some good character ideas together) and I struggled with design at start players when GMing tabletop – it’s hard to tell a compelling story when someone has such a strict idea of what their character is like and won’t allow  it to change and adapt at all.

Options are great and all, but at the end of the day, my favourite CRPGs of all time (Planescape and FF10) left their choices until later in the game and they were all the better for it.

RT @all Apparently social networking is big with the kids these days

Tipa@West Karana and Pete@Dragonchasers have both written about the new Dragon Age: Origins character creator that was released yesterday. Dragon Age: Origins, for those who don’t follow upcoming games, is due to be released in November by Bioware and is a single player RPG, along a similar style to the Baldur’s Gate series. It’s going to be a large game and Bioware have been churning out loads and loads of trailers for it —  for example, each different character origin has its own video.

I love these kinds of games, even though I have a really poor track record for actually completing them. This one is going to involve lots of downloadable content (the first DLC module that you can pay for is going to be available on the same day that the game is released, which is possibly being just a little over-eager), and … err … vast amounts of blood spraying all over the place if the website is anything to go by.

What’s more interesting is that Bioware are launching a new social website based around Dragon Age. You can upload character portraits from the character creator already to your account and share them with friends, and will be able to upload achievements, information about where it is in the story, and talent/skill choices. Naturally you can also message other people through the site, use it to host dragon age blogs, and organise project teams to create new dragon age modules and addons with the toolset that’s coming with the game.

It’s a different take from Blizzard’s battle.net which seems to be more about being able to message people while they are in game and organise good matches for SC2 battles.

I do wonder how many social networking sites most players really want to keep up with — one for every different manufacturer is already starting to feel like a hassle. But I applaud Bioware for letting me create a pretty female dwarf (whilst cursing them for putting together a city elf background that actually tempts me to play an elf) and if anyone wants to friend me there, my username is Spinksville.

Would you rather be Frodo or Aragorn?

In the next Wrath patch, Blizzard announced that players will have the opportunity to face down The Lich King himself in a 5 man instance.

On cue, the outraged complaints began. How can the end boss of a whole expansion possibly be epic if you can fight him in a (casual friendly) 5 man instance? Surely he should be a raid boss? But I don’t see that myself.

Going back to Lord of the Rings, who has the more epic adventure? Frodo and Sam sneaking into Mordor on their own to destroy the ring, or the rest of the Fellowship who get to ride with the great armies, participate in world changing battles, and do valorous deeds? They are both epic and exciting adventures which turn the course of the story.

It’s been commented before that Icecrown bears a strong resemblance to illustrations of Mordor. Is it so hard to imagine that the parallel goes deeper? After all, why mess with a winning formula? (And not messing with winning formulas is one of the things that Blizzard does best.) And using important lore characters in group instances was one of the ways in which LOTRO really brought their epic storyline to life. I don’t remember players in that game complaining that it wasn’t ‘fair’ or ‘epic’ that they got to fight trolls alongside Legolas, or talk to Frodo in Rivendell before the fellowship departed.

I think Blizzard will take the easier route and although the 5 man encounter will be meaningful in terms of story, it won’t actually allow the 5 man group to defeat Arthas. But I can’t help wishing that they could. It wouldn’t stop the raid instance from being epic and exciting if we knew that some brave adventurers were also sneaking into Icecrown on a bold but uncertain mission to weaken our foe so that our strike would be successful.

Links, Reviews, Roundups

Last week was a first for me with the blog. First time I’ve written a whole week of blog posts in advance and pre-scheduled them, because I was off visiting Arb (not that I didn’t have net access, we are civilised folks after all).

I’m not sure how other bloggers organise their writing but I usually note down ideas when I have them and write one up either the evening before or early in the morning. So that was my brief flirtation with being organised, I promise it won’t happen again :) And if I was a bit slower with replies then that’s why.

So Champions Online and Aion have been out for about a month now. How are people finding them?

Melf has a great Aion review up at Word of Shadow. I prefer reviews where people list both good and bad things about the game, especially when the reviewer basically liked the game, because that means they probably ‘got’ whatever it is supposed to be about and can hopefully explain it to readers. Evizaer also had a look at Aion and gave it a straight no.

Girl Unplugged posts a Champions Online review, again this is a review from someone who likes the game and can explain why.  And Syp has a solid point by point comparison between CO and City of Heroes. I do find it interesting that people who have bought a lifetime subscription are much more likely to take a longterm view of a game – ie. Oh it’s a bit rough now but it’ll be great in a year’s time. If I’d paid $200 up front, I don’t think I’d be too thrilled about having to wait a year for greatness.

And still on the superhero theme, I have a basic disagreement with Muckbeast in the comments on his post about attracting women gamers, about whether the superhero genre is more popular with women than fantasy or sci-fi. (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight … I’m just sayin’.)

Other Stuff to Read: Twelve of the Best

  1. Make Your Own Zombie Game – the zombie game experience gives you a chance to throw in $10 and participate in some game design. I’ll be curious to see what they come up with.
  2. Wolfshead explains why scaling content should be our future! Why do we have to stick to group and raid sizes that are predetermined? Couldn’t the content just scale, like it does in CoH or Diablo?
  3. tor.com is a blog that deserves a spot on any geek’s newsreader. This month is Steampunk month and they post a Steampunk 101 guide with an incredible shot at the bottom of a steampunked up laptop that has instantly become my object of desire.
  4. Jaye at Journeys with Jaye explains why his exercise bike is an MMO and the scary thing is … he isn’t entirely kidding. Edited to add: Mea Culpa and sorry Jaye for getting the gender wrong, that should read SHE.
  5. Jormundgard tries to psychoanalyse Garrosh Hellscream and explains why he’s disappointed with how that character has been developed.
  6. Andrew Doull finds Puzzlequest quite traumatic and a lot of his reactions could apply equally to any quest based game. What does it mean if we’ll go commit (virtual) genocide just because an NPC in a position of authority told us to do it?
  7. And although this may possibly be the least subtle link between links ever, I thought it was absolutely fascinating that The Anne Frank House were able to post up an actual video of Anne Frank on youtube this week. This is (obviously) from before the family went into hiding.
  8. Keen writes a sharp, well observed post asking whether MMOs are being designed for too many players these days. And what do you lose when you decide to go for the mainstream?
  9. And two thematically related posts: Tobold wonders how people like their games to be paced – if it’s all excitement all of the time then there’s never any downtime in which to socialise after all. And Andrew@Of Tooth and Claw asks how people feel about difficulty in games, and particularly about ‘cheating’ to sidestep the difficulty if it is getting in the way.
  10. Hudson splits the CO community into two parts, conceptualists who try to stay true to a character concept and minmaxers who design their character concept around whichever powers work best at the time. Which are you?
  11. Larisa wonders if it’s OK to apply to another guild while you are still guilded. After all, it’s OK to apply for new jobs while you’re still employed (at least until your employer finds out).
  12. And another tor.com link, this time to a fantastic report on a reading and Q&A session with Michael Chabon (another of my favourite ever living authors) who is a dyed in the wool geek and proud of it. I’ll end with a quote from him:

… he goes on to describe the way fandom binds people together:

“For in playing, or writing, or drawing, or simply talking oneself deep into the world of a popular artwork that invites the regard of the amateur, the fan, one is seeking above all to connect, not only with the world of the show, comic book, or film, but with the encircling, embracing metaworld of all those who love it as much as you do.”

Preparing for a patch

I wrote earlier this week about one of the Icecrown quests in WoW. I decided to complete more of those quests on an alt to remind myself of the storylines that had gripped me when I first ran them on my main, many months ago.

After all, patch 3.3 may well pick up those loose ends; loose ends that haven’t really been touched since Wrath went live, which is not one of Blizzard’s best storytelling decisions. As Rohan noted, usual screenwriting rules would require that the bad guy be in the ascendent when the last act of a three-act play begins. Instead we’ve beaten the Lich King on every encounter and taken time out to destroy an Old God and do some jousting en route.

Despite that, I’m excited to see what lies in store in patch 3.3. I’m looking forwards to venturing into the new 5 man instances with my friends and fighting a variety of scourge baddies alongside my NPC faction leader. I’m looking forwards to the new raid and to finding out how the Lich King storylines draw to a close, or at least to a new start.

So my current goal is to redo all of the Icecrown quests on an alt before the patch hits so as to refresh my memory.

Is there anything you particularly like to do to prepare for a patch, either in WoW or in another MMO? (It is after all that that patching time of year.)

Religion and quests that make you go hmmh

naaruangels

Icecrown features some of the smartest and most advanced storytelling in WoW, or any MMO I’ve seen. The storylines are personal, they’re epic, and they interact with both the greats and the big bads in Warcraft. There is phasing, flashback sequences, insights and revelations – yes it’s all wrapped up in kill 10 rats but it represents an extraordinary effort to stretch that quest paradigm as far as it will go.

But there’s one quest in particular that draws out a response from me.

The storyline begins when the head of the Argent Crusade (an organisation influenced heavily by paladins) sends you to find out what happened to one of his men. And when you do find him, the man is grieviously wounded and sick with the scourge plague – which will turn him into a scourge zombie after he dies.

When you report this, the Argent Crusade take a ‘no man left behind’ approach. The guy is a noble fighter who risked his own life to save others, surely some power in Azeroth can save him! And so you head off on a quest to speak with the most powerful good-aligned beings in the game world to see if any of them can help. And in between you take their messages and aid back to the fallen hero, and every time he thanks you and asks you to leave him where he fell so he at least can’t infect anyone else.

Finally  you speak to the Naaru who are the personifications of light in the game. And you are told that they can’t cure the plague but they will guide his soul after death so that he won’t be remade as a zombie. So the hero dies and the Naaru appear, as in this screenshot. His spirit drifts upwards towards them in a pillar of light.

I was impressed, but coldly furious. Why do they only do this for the best of the paladins and after a personal intervention and plea? The whole of Icecrown is full of brave soldiers who died for the light and got reborn as zombies, maybe the Naaru could pull their collective fingers out just a little bit more and do something for them also. I was moved by it also, but still … the sense of outrage at the unfairness lingers. Especially since my character is a forsaken warrior and no naaru ever came to save her from undeath! (Admittedly there would not be much of a game if they had.) In a sense  this questline is probably the most noble thing Spinks has ever done in her entire unlife — running all round the world to try to save a complete stranger from the fate that she befell herself.

If nothing else, it makes you think. And I believe it was key to the design here that when you act for the Argent Crusade, your character shows some nobility of spirit (until you get to the tournament at least.) It’s intended to shine a light in the moral greyness of Northrend.

I’m inclined to  immerse myself in the gameworld anyway, given half a chance, but I was surprised  by how strong a reaction I had to that storyline. It is perhaps the most overtly religiously influenced experience in the game, but it doesn’t really reflect  my religion. I suspect  that I balked at some of the assumptions without really noticing what was going on. The Light is a sort of Christianity with the numbers filed off (standard paladin fare, really) and I wonder whether people would react differently to that questline depending on RL beliefs and culture.

The future of storytelling?

There’s a great interview with Jeff Gomez at The Narrative Design Exploratorium where he discusses both the past and the future of interactive storytelling. He’s an artist and visionary which means he lapses frequently into outrageous and overblown metaphors. I’m not  sure we’ve quite reached the point of:

We will weave dense, elaborate tapestries of narrative with our mobile devices, for example, to which a few or many thousands of audience members can contribute creatively.

Well, not unless the ‘dense and elaborate tapestries of narrative’ are Kanye West jokes, anyway.

But aside from all that, he makes some very good points. Social networking is making it easier and easier for fans to find each other and share their enthusiasms, to collaborate and cooperate and to communicate. Fans write fiction, they run games, they set up mailing lists, they build a whole network of creative and cooperative fandom and it encompasses a lot of different media.

In short, you buy what you love, and you want to share what you love. The Internet and especially social networking makes it easier than ever to tell people about what you love. It’s become a specified form of self-expression.

In any case, it’s a great interview. Gomez describes how he’d been a fan of cross-over stories even while reading comics as a kid, he played D&D, he’s worked in the comic industry and on Magic: The Gathering so he’s coming at this from a very different perspective than a computer game designer.

And if it highlights one thing to me, it is that there is an important halfway house between players and game designers/ TV writers. It is a place for player generated designs, player generated stories, and player generated mentors and fansites. This isn’t just the difference between casual and hardcore players, it’s to do with people who want to get personally involved and contribute something creative.

D&D gave us the notion of players as storytellers, and inspired a whole generation of game designers who grew up as kids running games for other kids. MUDs and MUSHes did the same thing for players like myself who ended up helping to staff them. But what about MMOs? Can they ever open up those sorts of opportunities for players too? CoH is the only game brave enough to have really tried it so far …

Improving Roleplaying: Measuring and Rewarding Roleplay

This is the sixth (and last) in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs.

But in this last installment, I’m going to cut to the quick and ask how we can legitimise RP as a playing style. In order to do that, we need to find ways to measure and reward it in games.

Previous posts were:

People have been roleplaying for fun or for ritual since forever. Depending on how you define the term, roleplay can include anything from putting on funny voices to tell a childrens’ story, improvisational theatre, playing out sex fantasies, or acting out elaborate ancient rituals in full costume (some people would put modern religious rites into this category too).

But as an actual gaming system, roleplaying is bounded by rules and rewards. The standard tabletop session ends with the GM assigning points to people based on various criteria including their roleplaying and how well they completed their character goals for the session. (In D&D this was traditionally done by giving xp for monsters killed and treasure looted, since that was pretty much always the characters’ goal.) The players could then spend their points on improving their character.

MUDs and MMOs simply mechanised the process. You still get xp for killing mobs and completing quests. But somehow, the optional extra xp for good roleplaying disappeared.

This isn’t because good RP is subjective any more than good writing or good acting is. Sure, there’s a subjective side to personal preferences but you could imagine some rough rules. Give people a few ways to define their character. See how well the role was played, given the circumstances of the scene. Judge the use of language. How well did the person play with others and accept their RP. There are ways in which you could make a start on the problem.

But computers are not (currently) good at evaluating style. G Christopher Williams writes in Pop Matters about why you can’t have a Project Runway type of computer game. He’s also musing about whether style has its own internal rules, which could be coded into a game.

And the biggest problem of all – before we measure anything, we need to define what it is.

Automatic Measures – Activity, Language

In the text-based days, we knew what we meant by roleplaying. It was all to do with playing out scenes with other people by typing in sentences of text. You wrote your character’s action, then waited for other people to respond. The action might include something they said, or something they did, but you’d input one pose at a time.

We experimented with automated measures. Activity was the most obvious one – measure how many hours a week a character has spent in a scene with other people where all of them were active. Of course it could be subverted by macros, so you weight that metric down accordingly. You could also add a factor if they have interacted IC with a lot of different people, as opposed to always the same one or two. Giving a bonus for attending large scenes adds an incentive to do it.

You can also reward people for writing backgrounds, writing chronicles of their play, or some other form of non-direct RP.

Measuring language is a more difficult prospect. This would involve weighting scores towards longer and more involved sentences. So the people who wrote more would basically get some recognition. There’s no guarantee that this meant better roleplaying, but the person who never posed more than “X nods and smiles,” would be encouraged to write a little more.

You could imagine a smart parser that was able to do a more thorough review. But it’s a lot of work and a lot of computing power, and even if it was possible, you end up having to argue with a player as to whether or not their character would really have said or done something or not. The point at which you say, “Sorry, we don’t think your character would have done that,” is the point at which you’ve failed, even if you were right. Because it has to be their decision on how to play their role.

MMOs add more possibilities for people to act out roles, and they won’t be purely text based. People use emotes, whispers, and all sorts of props and external details to get into role and interact with other players.

But if you had, for example, some roleplaying instances, you could measure activity within them. Even if it was just time logged in. What might a RP instance involve? It might be no more than an environment which could be manhandled by players. Imagine a town hall where you could rearrange the chairs, a theatre with optional backdrops and sets, anything that is designed purely for roleplaying purposes.

And even that would still exclude RP that happens in other places. The act of introducing measurements already limits how people will choose to play.

Human Measures – Voting, Parsing the Logs

The other way to measure any social gaming metric is to use social measures. Let people vote on each other’s RP. Give everyone a handful of votes which they can cast every week. Make it easy for them to nominate anyone with whom they have interacted. Then every week, tot up the scores and assign some kind of weighted average points. Maybe even reward people for using their votes to vote for someone they hadn’t nominated in the last month to encourage them to mix.

This is subject to all the usual voting issues. People can form into cliques. People can organise tit-for-tat voting. But ultimately, as long as they are voting for people with whom they enjoyed RP then the system has some value.

The other big issue with this type of system is that it rewards certain types of character more than others. The socialite who flits from bar to bar has a great excuse to get into lots of scenes. The reclusive, hunchbacked, xenophobic wizard (whilst probably being a really cool character) probably doesn’t.

Another method is for expert judges to scour the logs and watch the scenes and give out bonuses when they observe good RP. Again in text games, we occasionally used to do this. It was considered rude for staff to sit invisibly in a scene without telling anyone, but we encouraged players to send us the logs of any scenes they’d really enjoyed. Partly so that we could put them up on the website to encourage new players and demonstrate how the game could work, but also so that we could reward people.

However, what is practical in a small private game isn’t always smart in a massive MMO. It’s a huge amount of time and effort to judge scenes. Even beyond that, judges can be biased.

So using voting is viable, if you limit the effect of cliques and cartels. Using activity monitors is viable, as long as you are careful not to reward time spent in game too massively. Using GMs to judge selected scenes is viable, if you can find a way to be fair to all the playerbase while doing it.

What sorts of rewards do roleplayers want?

Although xp was the traditional award for roleplaying, it was never the only reward given out in tabletop games. GMs used player RP as a stepping stone to introducing new storylines, new NPCs, and maybe even giving out loot.

Roleplaying in games became synonymous with planning your character’s next moves. I always felt that this was a trap. The strategy of ‘what is our optimal best move to do next’ wasn’t always the same as ‘what would my character do next’. So we have to be careful of rewarding strategy when we actually wanted to reward RP.

But opening up new storylines for the character is one of the ways I used to try to reward good roleplaying. If someone wrote me a great background about their long lost friend who had become a vampire hunter and I was impressed with their RP, there was a good chance that the long lost friend would show up in the game.

Really, the best rewards for RP are props, plot hooks, and new storylines that open up avenues for further roleplaying and empower the player to go ahead and drive it. If you let a character find an ancient book which is being hunted by powerful secret societies, she has a strong hook by which to involve other characters in her story.

Proactive RPers will happily suggest plot hooks which involve their character playing a key or starring role in some storyline. If they are also good RPers and good social players, then one option is to let them have their plot hooks. They can take the responsibility to go run with the plot.

RP as a pure style is probably best removed from xp altogether. Because it was never about making your character more powerful by sitting in bars and talking about the weather. Or rather, those things may make your character more influential, which is a form of social power rather than a shiny new skill or weapon. But players love xp and use it as the only form of measurable advancement in game. So it is a dilemma.

If you give out the rewards that they want and will use, then those rewards won’t be valued as highly as the unimmersive xp point. I suspect that until we have good social systems that measure influence and gossip as well as how many monsters you have killed, we’ll never get to the bottom of this problem. It is an issue that remains to be solved, not only for RP, but for any social activity in game.

Perhaps having a good social network has to be its own reward. There certainly are side-benefits for whatever type of game you are playing.

Should we even try to measure and reward some styles of play?

This is the big question. As soon as you introduce game metrics, people will jump in and figure out how to game the system.

But it would be cool to find ways to reward people for interacting in character, for taking decisions because it’s what their character would have done and not just because it leads to the optimum quest reward, for writing clever backgrounds, for involving others in their RP, for entertaining each other and telling smart stories. Because as long as we don’t reward it, it can never be a mainstream playing style.