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.

Improving Roleplaying: Sharing our Stories

This is the fifth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts in the series were:

All roleplaying involves telling stories about our characters with other people. They may not always be exciting stories, but they are ours. Through those stories, characters change and grow. Farmboys become heroes, students get bitten by radioactive spiders, political movements rise and fall, love triangles form and reform, characters meet new people, destroy threats, and write their own histories into the story books.

Our characters and their stories exist in the same virtual world, so to bring that world to life, we need to share those tales. People need to know what other characters have done in the past or are doing in the present – it might affect their own story. If you ask any roleplayer what they’d most like to see in a game, it is very likely that they’d want to see their stories affect the gameworld around them. Since other players form a large part of that setting, this means finding a way to share those stories or at least the parts that might affect other people. If you engineer a revolution in a city in the woods and no one knows about it, did it still happen?

Keeping everyone up to date on everything is an impossibly complex task in a large game. Even with as few as 20 players, it’s hard work to keep the updates rolling. Even if you just focus on the parts that affect people individually. But we can take a leaf out of the real world and how we keep up with the news in real life. We can focus on picking out the relevant information and figuring how to let people tap into it to improve the RP experience. We can ponder opting in to information streams, and locating people based on their current plots and goals.

In the end, there are two main tasks here.

  1. How do we share our stories? This involves sharing events that happened before the game started (ie. character backstories or histories), sharing the history of events which have already happened in the game so that new players can catch up, and sharing information or collaborating about plots on which we are working at the moment.
  2. How do we get other people to read our stories and act on them appropriately? Most people have limited interest in other people’s stories unless they are personally affected (this is true of the RL news too). So how can we pick out the information generated by other players/ characters and show people only the parts that might affect them?

Why bother with character backgrounds?

In some games, players can write a few paragraphs about their character’s background (ie. what they did before the game started) and store it somewhere in the UI where other players can read it. I asked last week how many players actually read other character backgrounds. Quite a few people said that they did.

The purpose of a character background is to answer the questions, “Who am I, and how did I get here?” where ‘here’ is the point at which the character ‘goes live’. From a roleplaying point of view, the background also gives you a jumping off point for RP. It explains who the character is, and perhaps why s/he became that way. A publically accessible background can let other people hook into that story too.

  • For example: If you came from one specific town, then other players whose characters are from the same area can RP that they knew you as a child. (note: it is polite to whisper someone first to ask permission and check that they’re OK with the connection before launching into RP about it.)
  • Another example: If your character is a notorious crook and someone else plays a policeman, this might suggest RPing that you have crossed paths in the past.

We call these types of starting points ‘plot hooks’. So part of the purpose of a RP character background is to provide plot hooks for both yourself (e.g.. “my character is searching for her lost brother”) and for other people (e.g.. “I am a notorious con artist, anyone in law enforcement probably recognises my name and curses it daily. I might even have ripped your character off in the past. Contact me to work out a story.”) So backgrounds are not just self indulgent fanfic, they can provide useful RP pointers both for the player herself and for other players too.

Here are some things that make people more likely to read backgrounds:

  • the game rewards you in some way for reading/ acting on other player’s backstories (this happened in MUSHes)
  • background is short and easily accessible from in game. No one is asking you to read and memorise a novella.
  • background is well written.
  • background belongs to a character you play with regularly so you either like the player or think you might want to use it in RP with them
  • you are given hints that the background might be interesting
  1. character looks interesting (has a good costume)
  2. character acts interesting (maybe you see them roleplaying)
  3. you find the lore interesting and know that the other player does too (maybe they posted on forums or said something in a channel that caught your eye)
  4. the game itself tends to inspire interesting backgrounds (superheroes in particular often have strong backstories, it’s just part of the genre. hobbits in LOTRO probably don’t.)
  • You are bored or have some downtime and it’s something to do
  • You were asked to read it, or they read yours first and you want to reciprocate
  • You regularly read character backgrounds whenever you get the chance .. and you get the chance

So the background story can be both interesting and useful to roleplayers. If given the opportunity, more people read them than we otherwise might assume. Actually discussing how to write a compelling, non-clichéd backstory with which others will want to interact is a whole different issue and not something I’m going to cover today.

But a block of text on the screen is not the only way to introduce a character’s history to other people.

Towards more interactive backstories

The great advantage of freeform writing – the blank box of text – is that you can write anything. The problem with freeform writing is that people can write anything. It can be totally off-genre, it can be poorly written, it can miss the point completely (people who don’t understand that a backstory is history and use it instead to describe their characters’ clothes, for example), it can be wildly unbalanced or simply unbelievable, it may not fit with the game lore.

We could try to distill out the information that is useful to other players, while still giving people some room to just write about their characters. To do this, we’d need to think about what other people might want to know, and we’d need to encourage players to decide which of the information in their background might be publically known. (It’s silly to put information in your background that contains major spoilers or that you have to ask other people not to use.)

They might want to know where the character is from. You could imagine a game which put you through a series of questions while doing your starter zone. Maybe you are offered a map of the world and allowed to pick in precisely which region your character grew up. Then add in some kind of search function and it becomes easy to see who else is from the same region. Maybe even give them their own chat channel. Mark on the list which characters are new to the game so that more experienced characters can (if they want) make an effort to involve them.

They might want to know which in-game organisations you have been associated with. Is your character religious? Does it have links with the city guard? Was your character’s mother an army officer? Does it have criminal contacts? Again, being able to somehow associate yourself with those groups means other players wouldn’t have to pick through all the background information to find out who they might know. Instead they could just do a search, or even have the information delivered to them.

They might want to know what other plot hooks are associated with a character. In a MUSH it would not have been especially unusual for players to be asked to think up a couple of plot hooks for themselves to put into their background information.

Players also might want to be able to collaborate on backgrounds. If you have a great idea for a family of travelling players, you may want to find out if anything like that already exists in the game, or if anyone else is interested too. It isn’t as easy to find good collaborators as it might sound. Not only do you have to roughly share the same goals, you need to be on similar time zones, have similar play styles, and be able to get on OOC. You won’t know if all these things are true until you actually spend some time roleplaying with other people, so there’s a good chance that even if you could put up some kind of advert for people to join your band of travellng players and got some responses, most of them wouldn’t work out.

Having said that, sometimes it is possible to collaborate on backgrounds without committing yourself to a heavy RP schedule. You could agree to have been members of the same band of travelling players in the past, for example, and then collaborate to decide what happened to the group, why it split up, and whether there might be some good plot hooks there for people.

We can also make use of social media for our collaborations these days. It doesn’t all have to be mailing lists, bulletin boards, and IRC. I see this as a big trend in MMOs and it will be fantastic for roleplayers, who do need to coordinate with other players.

Bottom Line: If we abandon the totally freeform backstory, we can make it easier for players to hook up and interact in MMOs. I think this is true for a lot of MMO roleplaying – by narrowing the scope and limiting options, we can get a more productive and accessible RP environment.

There will always be room also for the totally freeform style of roleplaying. It may require small, disciplined groups, good GMs, and a lot of give and take, but it works just as well in MMOs as in chatrooms. However, it will never be accessible or massive. Complexity in sharing backstories and coordinating schedules is one of the things which simply does not scale well.

Recording our In-Game Stories

If history is made by the players in a roleplaying game, then where is the history recorded in a persistent RP MMO. Who knows about how the game has changed and what plots have been run? Even on a small scale, who can keep up with the social drift within a small RP circle? Who is sleeping with who? And why? What does a new player need to know to catch up?

Again, this is a huge and complex problem when large numbers of players are involved. Most people don’t want to be told to go read novel-length write ups of things that happened before they even joined the game.

So how can we get the news out and how can we record it? Wikis have been some use in this respect but have the problem of RL news outlets – who is going to keep updating them, who is going to keep them free from bias?

I don’t have a good answer to this one. In the past we have archived stories using player logs (in a text based game, it’s easy to store the log of a scene online), we have set up forums and encouraged people to keep their stories updated, we have allowed people to alter their character backgrounds to keep them current, we have seen people write in-game newspapers and news files or summaries.

So rather than run on, I’ll just say again that it is a huge problem. If lots of players are actively RPing then there are a lot of stories to keep track of, and no one can really hope to track them all. The best you can hope for is to channel players into a smaller number of larger plots and try to note any major worldchanging events that would affect large numbers of people.

Again, making good use of social media is where today’s MMOs can really start to shine. We’re on the cusp of this really taking off – we’ve seen integration with MMOs and websites, twitter, chat channels, achievement lists, and other information that can be accessed outside the game. You could imagine a newsfeed that is accessible within and outside the game and is updated based on in game world events and character plots.

Achievements in particular show the progress of a character’s story. As they are currently, they don’t do this in a very exciting or compelling way, but they do record the story of “I did this, then I did that, then I did that,” in a way to which other players can relate.

Fanfic

I will be honest, I am not a fan of fanfic. But writing stories about events that happened to your character in game is a time honored way of recording a personal history. Whether it’s a fully blown novella, a set of comedy sketches, or a blog/in-character diary, it is another way for players to find out what has been going on in game.

Allowing players to link somehow to external sites on which they can store fanfic, visualisations, family trees, descriptions of their character’s homes, or anything else that helps to flesh out the character and share its story would reward people for the extra work. It would also let them explore each other’s writing and character stories. It is something that devs could easily encourage, just by making it accessible from inside the game.

More mechanical methods to share stories and collaborate

Achievements, gear lists, calendars, automated scene logs, progression histories and guild histories can all be part of a character’s ongoing story. And these have the advantage of not requiring players to pour their souls into fanfic or spend hours working on a character website. Calendars and sign up lists in particular represent a form of online collaboration that is still in its infancy. We could have in game whiteboards, methods for people to collaborate on storytelling or working out backgrounds or organising RP events, and I expect to see more of these things as time goes on.

In particular there is a lot of work going on at the moment in tools for joint storytelling. It isn’t happening in the MMO field, but if it exists then players will use it. And if it is brought into the MMOs, people will use them in MMOs.

We could imagine scene schedulers, plot arc schedulers, co-operative NPC design (usually in MMOs someone will play the NPC as a low level alt) and so on.

But with all these complex character stories going on, who can stand back and see the long view of how they all intersect? This has always been an issue with scaling up roleplaying. So many stories going on in parallel and it’s difficult to see how things play out on the grander scale. The complexity involved is terrifying. You can’t code your way out of complexity, but you can look for ways to make it easier to manage.

Improving Roleplaying: Props, emotes, Titles, Class Design, and Dressing the Set

This is the fourth post in a series about improving roleplaying in MMOs. Previous posts are:

We’re really getting somewhere with roleplay now. You’ve created a character, worked out some kind of backstory, found other roleplayers and maybe tried a scene or two in a pub or shop. But you’re still limited to just typing out what your character says. How can you bring your character to life other than just by reams of typing?

If you walk into a room with roleplayers, how can you indicate that something about your character has changed? How can you ACT the part instead of just typing text? Fluff is what makes roleplaying in an MMO different from roleplaying in a chatroom.

If roleplay is like improvisational theatre, then fluff in MMOs is all of the props. It’s the costumes, the pets, the emotes, the titles, the mounts, the house decorations – anything you can use to express who your character is and show what it does. An MMO is a visual environment, that’s one of the big draws. So our roleplaying should be able to involve visual elements.

A lot of these things are also fun for collectors. People love collecting pets, mounts, and titles, for example. But a roleplayer will be looking for items that they can use to act their character’s role. Sometimes the fluff will even inspire a character. If a roleplayer likes a cute pet or a silly hat, then RP can spring up around it and the story of how the character acquired it.

Some groups of roleplayers are more focussed than others on the dressing up side of the game. Many will happily let you emote what your character is wearing, rather than forcing all pirate characters to go farm for pirate hats (for example). So there is some confusion in the player base as to what fluff is really for and when or where to use it. You could imagine a strict RP game where people were always assumed to be whatever their costume would imply.

This is a good example of how rewarding achievers with fluff also nudges the RPers to chase the achievements whether they want to or not. From a roleplaying point of view, the ideal would be to have an in game wardrobe mistress who just handed out props and costumes as needed, the way actors would do it in a theatre. Devs think that fluff is pure entertainment, and that it doesn’t affect gameplay. But for roleplayers, a chef’s costume could be more important than a vorpal sword of dragonslaying – without it, no one can convincingly RP being a chef.

Instead, current MMOs require that every players has to also be their own stage manager and source their own props. I’m not knocking this entirely because working out what props you need and figuring out how to get them can be fun. But still, if MMOs were designed for roleplayers then they wouldn’t send us halfway around the world to get outfits that should be purchasable in any major city.

Variety is the spice of life

So what sorts of props do people want? The key is in the variety. Lots of different gear pieces means lots of ways to mix and match. Once you imagine gear as the wardrobe department in a theatre, or the old dressing up chest you might have had as a child rather than a bunch of stats, things come into better perspective.

But at a basic level, costumes should be available for lots of ‘normal’ professions, uniforms for in game organisations that might be accessible to players (town guard, for example), formal wear for formal events, and peasant/ normal townsfolk costumes for dressing down.

I’m a big fan of cosmetic costume slots too. In games like EQ2 and LOTRO, you can display a set of gear that’s just for show, as well as whatever your character is actually wearing for stats. So if you wanted to dress up as a pirate but actually be in your full raid gear, you can do it.

Emotes and non-verbal communication

The beauty of roleplaying via text is that you can type anything. Anything that you can imagine. You’re in the game world but not limited by it. But as soon as you want to perform any non-verbal gestures or movements, then you are limited by whatever emotes have been provided to you.

It’s a challenge, rather than just a limitation. I’ve played games where some players worked the emotes amazingly well to tell their stories and portray their character’s feelings. But it could go further.

I mentioned the chef’s outfit earlier. Imagine if there were a set of good chef-type emotes that players could use. /stir, /boil. /chop, /knead, /burncake … all would be props that chef players could happily use in among the text to portray their characters more vividly to others.

We could go further than this. What if your character had been injured and had an arm in plaster, or a limp, or an eyepatch? How about extra costume pieces or emotes to cover those? It would be easy to imagine a jacket that made your character’s arm look as though it was in a sling, for example. Wouldn’t that be a great way to show your RP partners that you’d been in an accident?

There is one other type of non-verbal communication about which MMOs have been wisely silent. And that is to do with interacting with other characters. You don’t generally emote actually giving something to someone. Or hugging. Or shaking hands. Unless you’re playing Second Life, you don’t emote cybering either. This is probably smart because it raises all kinds of permission issues. I remember in Castle Marrach (a text based game) they had a careful system of permissions which came into effect if someone approached you and wanted to stand next to you – which was a prerequisite for being able to touch another person in game.

But not being able to shake hands on a deal, or knight someone by touching their shoulder with a sword, or stroke a cat, or hand someone the salt across a table … these do hamper our ability to use emotes to communicate in game the way we would in real life. Maybe the system of permissions (so when you try to shake hands with someone, they get a box up on their screen asking if they agree) would be better than not having it at all.

Class design and roleplaying

One good thing about the holy triad (tanks, healers, dps) is that these roles are very effective for immersion. When you are tanking, you will feel like a big damn hero who is standing between the monster and the rest of the group. When you are healing, you will feel that your role is to support. When you are dps, you will feel a visceral thrill at the big numbers, and you will feel that you are a bit fragile and have to rely on the other classes to help you do your job. Playing your class actually helps you to get into the mindset of that role.

And from the point of view of roleplaying, that’s a mark of good class design. As soon as people are unsure of their roles, it becomes harder to roleplay being a member of that class. Again, this is a place where the demands of roleplaying may not gel with the demands of PvP balance or other game design goals.

Instead, we can make up the difference with fluff. (My examples here are for fantasy games, but there’s no real limit.) Support classes can buff people, and that’s something that can be used in RP, especially if the buffing spells have colourful emotes attached to them. Heavy armour wearers can clank as they move, and slam mailed fists down onto wooden tables, or tote around heavy shields that no one else can pick up. Casters may have access to cantrips (little cosmetic spells, the equivalent of fireworks or small illusions) and familiars. Healers can actually apply bandages to people or hold up a glowing holy symbol.

I would love to see more class specific emotes in games. It is a lot of work producing animations for such a small audience, which is why we probably won’t get them, but I think they’d be well liked by non-roleplayers as well as the RP crowd.

Set Dressing

One of the great things about in game housing is that a character can decorate her house however she wishes. The house itself could play the role of a theatre, dungeon, brewery, or zoo assuming that the fluff to decorate it appropriately is available.

But it’s a shame that more of the social areas don’t allow for players to change their ‘sets’. Why not let players rearrange the pub seating from time to time, or set out the town hall for a player meeting with rows of chairs? Maybe even give the more noted RPers special privileges to flick the in game switch that allowed for a set change in a building?

In conclusion, the big leap forwards that MMOs made over text based roleplaying was to let people experience the game world on a very visceral level. But to tell our stories, that means we need better visual tools. And we need to learn how to use them.

5 issues with roleplaying in MMOs: why you can’t just live the dream

Tesh wrote an insightful post discussing why daydreaming about what a game might turn out to be like can be the best part of gaming. We all have our ideal types of games, our ideal IPs or genres, our ideals of what a game could be like to capture our hearts. And sometimes we love our favourite games because they’re a shadow of the game in our minds.

I see this a lot with early adopters of MUDs/virtual worlds/MMOs. These things started before the internet was really mature. Wandering around in a game and encountering an actual real person (well, behind the text) was exciting just because this kind of virtual life was such a new experience. And your imagination filled in all the rest. Even without formal roleplaying, the fact that all you knew about the other person was what you could tell about their character was very very immersive.

I’ve also seen a few posts recently about the notion of a RP-centric MMO. Wolfshead in particular posts about his ideal of a RP game. The concept of this terrifies me on several different levels, and I’m a dyed-in-the-wool roleplayer. I have played RP-centric online games, and they were fantastic. Also dreadful. But that’s what happens when you are so dependent on other players for the experience, you get a mixed bag :)

But if you see his post as describing the dream, unsullied by practical considerations (such as players acting like players), then it reads in a different light. After all, without a vision, we’ll never get anything better than the games we currently have.

There are some specific issues with making roleplaying work as the entire basis for a game.

1. Who watches the watchmen

The big difference between a tabletop game and an online game is the lack of a GM. In tabletop, one player assumes the GM role and ‘runs’ the game for the other 2-5 players. In virtual roleplaying, the players run things themselves. So there is no one to arbitrate when they come into conflict.

The GM actually has three roles in a tabletop game. One is to describe the world to the players (ie. we open the door, what do we see?). Another is to resolve conflicts in game (ie. I try to hide behind the door, can I get there before he sees me?). And the third is to weave a story around the player group and whatever they are doing.

In a computer game, no one needs to describe anything (this is the HUGE advantage of the virtual world), and players can tell their own stories, even if they aren’t particularly good ones.

But who resolves conflicts between players? Who decides if player cop #1 can track down player thief #2?

Any game like this needs to give players the tools to resolve their own conflicts. Random rolling isn’t good enough – it removes too much of the game if you just randomly decide whether the cop catches the robber.

2. So what is my motivation?

You don’t need to be an award winning actor to roleplay but players need to share some kind of common understanding about the game world. When you walk into a room, you need to be able to answer the question, “what does my character do next?” If someone addresses you in character, you need to be confident enough to answer them.

I’ll give an example of this: In EQ2 I had created a dark elf alt and done a couple of quests. It was on a roleplaying server so it wasn’t really surprising when another higher level player came up to me and addressed me in character. Except he mentioned names of (presumably) NPCs I’d never heard of, and threw in a few phrases in some random fantasy language I didn’t know.

I had no idea what to say to the guy. Clearly he thought my character should know these things. But I was a noob OOC (out of character) and just didn’t. All I knew about dark elves is that they were an evil race, and the questgivers had been vaguely sarcastic.

So in order to RP with any kind of depth, the game needs to present its lore to the characters well. And players in general need to understand that not everyone knows the background in depth and off by heart.

Wolfshead compares RP with a film:

This is exactly the scenario that the characters of Micheal Crichton’s amazing Timeline novel found themselves in. In his story, a bunch of modern day scientists and anthropologists travel back in time to the 13th century France and are forced to deal with the people and politics of the time in order to survive. One small mistake in dialect or custom and they would be imprisoned and even worse burned at the stake.  The result was that they HAD to role-play — it was a matter of survival.

Yes, but they were modern day scientists and anthropologists. They had the information they needed. A new player in a strange world won’t know all those things. You can’t expect them to RP as if their life depended on it – they simply don’t know the things their characters should know. (Unless you start them all off as amnesiacs, which would be a workable background, especially in a scifi type of game).

3. Hell is other people

One of the characteristics of a strongly social game is that they get very political. People can and do try to manipulate each other by faking friendliness, cybering, and ganging up against each other in their various cliques. Or in other words, metagaming.

In a RP type game, who you know and what you know can be as important as stats in a typical MMO today. And if you can schmooze people OOC and persuade them to tell you interesting things about their character or other people’s characters then you may be able to use the information to boost your self in game. Being a particularly entertaining RPer (or just being good at cybering) can make a player very popular – even if it’s not appropriate for their character.

As long as this is an advantageous strategy (and it is) then you cannot stop players from doing it. They’re never ‘just playing their characters’. They are playing the other players too.

In many ways, our stat and gear and skill based games are much more even-handed and accessible. If you do the grind, you get the gear. You don’t have to actually make friends (or fake friends) to get anywhere in game. This is not to say that social networking isn’t a useful skill, but in social games it can get quite toxic.

4. He said. She said.

In an RP centric game, the influence of NPCs is kept to a minimum. That means that all the most important resources in game are ‘owned’ by players or player-factions. A resource might be anything from an important NPC (their influence may be monitored but that doesn’t mean that there might not be NPC faction leaders – often we do this to keep some continuity in the storylines, even though players may come and go), to a city, or a crafting guild, or any story entity. And that sometimes means that players need to somehow ask permission from other players before they can work story elements into their story.

I’ll give a WoW example for this. Assume a night elf player thinks up an awesome back story for himself – in the past he got captured by blood elves while spying near Silvermoon, then he was tortured, but he managed to bravely escape and make it back to his own people. This is fine as far as it goes, but what happens if the blood elf players say ‘Wait, why would we have let an enemy spy escape? Surely we’d have just executed them. We don’t agree with that history, it didn’t happen. He is ICly making it up.’

Now imagine this kind of scenario every time a player wants to write a backstory that possibly involves other player factions. Bear in mind that some players will never ever agree that their faction might have made a mistake which could weaken them in future, even though it might make for a better story. So given one faction which occasionally agrees to being flawed for the sake of making a better story and another who never ever agree to making mistakes, the latter has an in game advantage.

So basically, it’s very very hard to get gamers to put story above personal gain. There’s no real way to reward it. That’s where the GM comes in – s/he takes that option out of the players’ hands. Left to their own devices, players will tend to play safe.

In MUSHes, we got around this by having an active set of staff. We reviewed all backgrounds before characters went live and agreed any background details with appropriate people. We also made notes of who had which links so that we could set up various stories between different players. (For example, if one player had been a cop and another was an ex-con, we might OOCly point out to them that they might have known each other – then it’s down to the players if they want to run with it or not.)

This is important because although it’s all very well to write your own story in a vacuum, it won’t work in a MMO unless everyone else buys in.

5. Tracking the history

A characteristic of this kind of game is that political allegiances and storylines can change rapidly. Even vast world-spanning conspiracies may be over in a couple of months. What players do can and will affect the world –- or at the very least it affects other players. But how to keep track of the in game history? How are new players to know the recent history of some faction or other? And bear in mind that from point #2, they may need to know these things in order to roleplay with other players who remember it.

This is a very real and very difficult problem. It is best solved by bboards and wikis and other means for players to record their own histories for other people to read. And these suffer exactly the same issues as real life histories –- they are subject to bias, and to the author only having one side of the story. They’re subject to not being kept up to date, by the maintainer getting bored, by small grounds of players deciding to keep their own faction history somewhere else and forgetting to tell people, etc.

Hopefully some players will take on the role of chroniclers or journalists, so that the stories will not be forgotten. The reason this is important is because things that have happened in the past affect the present. If a leader of one faction was snubbed by the leader of another, then she may hold a grudge for years. Pity the poor player who doesn’t know what anyone in game at the time would have known (ie. not to mention the offending faction in the presence of the other faction leader) and gets into serious IC trouble for their pains.

Towards a better roleplaying experience online

I’m going to write a series of posts about improving RP in MMOs – probably one a week. I don’t think they ever can or should be the sort of game that Wolfshead describes. Aside from being full of RP Nazis (you know the sort of person who barrages you with whispers every time you open your mouth, telling you that your  character wouldn’t do or say that and that you’re doing it wrong?), it simply doesn’t play to the strengths of computer generated worlds.

In a MMO, no one ever has to ask the GM ‘what can I see?’ or ‘what can I do next?’. Every time you see an awesome vista in game, fly across a crazy zone full of giant mushrooms, or cast a fireball, you’re experiencing something very different and very special compared to your tabletop compatriots. It’s like being there.

Tabletop players have all the freedom in the world. But computer gamers don’t have all their experiences filtered through a GM. Vive la difference! And that’s the charm.

Links, and what I’ve been reading

What I’ve actually been reading lately are C J Sansom’s Shardlake Mysteries (which are great and very well researched if you like historical murder-mysteries).

Also from the web:

  1. evizaer wonders how we can keep track of the ‘real’ histories of MMOs. All the guild drama, and the various interesting things that actual players have done.
  2. Tamarind suffers a brief bout of level-80-phobia. Anyone else find themselves curiously reluctant to actually get to max level once it’s practically within reach? I know I often coast the last level or so, maybe a last ditch attempt to string the levelling game out for as long as possible.
  3. The Escapist reports that a guy in the UK (oh why am I not surprised?) has written a boot fetish version of Pong, the venerable old console game. The boot is actually the controller, you have to grope and fondle it to play the game …
  4. On a not very similar theme, Adele Caelia talks at BrightHub about embarrassing mistells and other ways in which sex can be entertaining in gaming. Well, she says embarrassing but I say there are few more hilarious things in MMOs than a totally inappropriate mistell. (Random factoid: mistells used to be known as ‘mavs’ in MUSH, named after a particularly notorious player called Mav.)
  5. Ysharros saves my EQ2 sanity with a noob-friendly guide to EQ2 addons.
  6. Naamah@Aionic Thoughts (a blog you really should be following if you’re into Aion) asks when Mass-PvP becomes a zergfest, and whether one is more fun than the other.
  7. Andrew Douell, a roguelike developer, posts a very smart article about narrative in games and how some narrative tricks from other media just don’t work. I’m particularly taken by his observation that you can’t tell a story well with repeated play (eg. I killed an orc, then I killed an orc, then I killed an orc isn’t a very interesting story.)
  8. Kirstimah at Rustled Leaves explains why DPSing reduced her IQ, a phenomenon many tanks and healers have also observed!
  9. Syp writes about all the MMOs he could have tried but didn’t, and explains why not. I never played EQ because the only person I knew who played was a really annoying dork and he was really scarily obsessively into it. I knew if I tried it I’d be stuck talking to him any time we were in the same room.
  10. What does it mean to roleplay in a game? Psychochild takes a look.
  11. You’ve heard about the upcoming WoW film? Jess at Pretty in Plate starts wondering about who she’d cast to play her characters. Who would you cast for yours? (I dunno about that but Brian Blessed for Hemet Nesingwary with the help of some CGI is my pick.)
  12. Dusty makes the case for a finite MMO, like a TV series with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

My New Hobby

My new pastime when bored (and online) is typing names of random fictional characters into Twitter.

No really, there’s a surprising amount of roleplaying going on there. People create accounts under the names of their favourite characters and … go ahead and act in character. I remember seeing this on Facebook and MySpace too. And you’d have to be blind not to see the similarities with logging into an MMO, or any virtual world, under a new character name.

It probably was rife in IRC, webmail and just about any online forum that lets you pick your own name and id when you create an account also. I remember there was once a guy on rpg.net who used to RP being Her Majesty the Queen. I don’t know why exactly but it was very entertaining.

I wonder if wanting to roleplay when given the opportunity to pretend to be someone else is a basic (and emergent) part of human nature — it just never surfaced before because we didn’t have the means to easily take on different identities.

Can regular achievers and ‘emergent’ players be friends?

Goodbye to Blogatelle (I wish I’d discovered it earlier now) – which is/ was a blog about roleplaying in WoW with advice and commentary.

And in the spirit of the out of the box thinking that I was talking about previously, here’s what Sean has to say about unintended play and why some players feel threatened by it. Roleplaying in MMOs lives in a kind of halfway house. It isn’t specifically intended by devs but I do think they design worlds with roleplaying opportunities in mind.