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.