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.