This is the third post in a series about improving the RP experience in MMOs. Previous posts were:
- 5 Issues with Roleplaying in MMOs: Why you can’t just live the dream
- Improving Roleplay: Starting Zones
So you’ve created your character, you’ve run it through the starting zone and had some ideas for a backstory and personality traits, and now you’re ready to go and interact with other players. So where do you go next? How do you find these other players? How do you know they’ll be interested in roleplaying with you?
There are two main types of roleplay in a largescale setting.
- Scenes that are pre-arranged. This could include huge scheduled events, the weekly RP guild meeting, or just whispering around a group of friends to arrange be in the Stormwind pub at 8pm on Tuesday. If you need to roleplay with specific people, then the chances are some of the key scenes will be pre-arranged to make sure that everyone can be there.
- Scenes that are not pre-arranged. You run into people, start roleplaying, and see how it goes. They may be people you have never met before. Or it might be that your group likes to roleplay around the same hangout (or guildhall if you’re playing a game that has them) so you know to go there and see who is around. Some people like to go to the newbie zones on RP servers and start roleplaying with people there.
Immediately you can see the similarities with any kind of group activities. It’s like the difference between pre-arranged raid schedules and PUGs. We have several mechanisms in MMOs to find other players to game with, but they cover instancing (and maybe PvP), not roleplaying as an activity.
Finding other players who want to do the same thing that you do is key to any social interaction in an MMO. So getting this right is a big deal. I’m going to look at how roleplayers find other roleplayers in game, and where the systems could help out.
Who is out there? LFG
Even if you could use LFG to find other players who wanted to roleplay, that’s not enough information on its own. You need to know what type of roleplay they’re interested in and whether it matches with the kind of stories you want to tell. This isn’t just so that you can avoid the guys who want to cyber (ie. roleplay having sex), but if you’re looking for light hearted gnome roleplaying about clockwork chickens, it’s not going to mesh well with the night elf hunter who wants deep dark RP about being possessed by a demon, or the dwarf guy who wants to RP a grizzled veteran and talk about beer.
(Note: people really do tend to play to racial types, which is why race-based RP guilds work so well in WoW.)
And this is really the big problem with just searching for other roleplayers. It’s much easier if you can find them because they’re going somewhere your character might go or doing something your character might do too, rather than just because they tagged their character as wanting to roleplay in LFG.
It would be possible to add extra switches to LFG – maybe light hearted RP vs serious RP. Or you could just whisper to the person and ask them before you arrange to meet. But I’ve never really found these kinds of switches useful in text based games, except in being able to avoid the people who are all about sex.
At the most basic level, a roleplaying server is somewhere you would expect to find roleplayers. In practice, a lot of people pick RP servers because they like the more social atmosphere and less hardcore focus. Neither of these things are guaranteed. And in another tragedy of the commons, the more non-RPers who gather on a roleplaying server, the less easy it is for actual RPers to find someone to roleplay with. So if you do pick a RP server, it’s polite to at least respond IC if someone addresses you IC.
Roleplay servers could benefit a lot if new players understood what they were about and were forced to at least create characters with acceptable names. They’d benefit even more if experienced RPers were motivated to go chat to the newbies and find ways to include them, but that issue affects all types of MMO activity.
Still, if devs want to support roleplaying, it’s not really fair to treat RP servers exactly the same as all the others. A little more time spent on approving names would go a long way.
Guilds and Alliances
Another way to find roleplayers is to join a guild that is all about roleplaying. A guild can do a lot to support RP and some of them have organised events, heavily lore based structures, in character guild channels (so that you can RP with the guild while doing something else in game) and support strong storytelling among members. It’s just a case of finding one that suits you, hoping that it’s active and people haven’t got bored and gone off to raid, and that you don’t end up hating everyone else who is in it. So it’s like joining any social guild really.
A guild can provide you with a pool of other roleplayers. The guild will also probably have a strong theme (race based guilds are common, as are guilds based around in game organisations) so that you should be able to find players who want to roleplay the same types of stories.
This is all great as far as it goes, but it is difficult to roleplay and to do other things in game. You won’t want to roleplay running every instance and raid, for example. It takes time to type and time to think about the story and your character’s response. And also, just because another player wants to roleplay doesn’t mean that they’ll want to do the other things in game that you do. For example, you might be guilded with a strong RPer who has no interest in levelling their character past level 10. That’s not a problem, but if you want to raid with your guild then it may not be realistic to expect a RP guild to provide enough people who want to RP AND who want to raid.
This is one of the reasons that RPers get a reputation as poor players. There are plenty of RPers who are also hardcore and as elitist as anyone else. But there are also players who are mainly there to socialise and RP and don’t care about learning to play the game. All that they have in common is that they enjoy roleplaying. So a strong RP guild can actually restrict you from doing anything else apart from roleplaying.
In practice, a lot of people play in RP guilds and then leave reluctantly because they want to do something else in game and the guild can’t support it.
Letting players join multiple guilds would go a long way towards solving this problem. ie. one for roleplay/socialising, one to raid, one to PvP, one to chat with people who come from the same area iRL, etc. Until game designers realise that it’s unreasonable to expect a guild to focus on more than one game activity, we will never get away from people feeling stressed because they have to leave their friends to be able to do some organised game activity. This is something that roleplayers need. But it would benefit other players too.
In the meantime, guild alliances can bridge the gap, in games that support them. A few smaller guilds can band together and raise a critical mass of members who do want to raid or PvP, even though the majority may still not be interested. I also think it’s an absolute travesty that WoW has never implemented guild alliances. I don’t think they really see beyond their raid guild model.
Location based roleplaying, and name tags
One of the things I noticed in EQ2 is that the game supports roleplaying name tags. You can make your character’s name turn a different colour if you are interested in roleplaying, and then go about your daily business as normal. Just other players will be able to spot you and may choose to engage you in roleplay.
I like this a lot, because it supports location based RP. A player could go to a location that fits their character (maybe their racial capital city) and if you see other roleplayers – who you will recognise from the colour of the nametag – you can interact with them quite naturally. And it is easy to find a good starting gambit, you can assume that their character has a reason to be there and go from that. It is much easier to roleplay in a location than in a vacuum. The location itself gives all the players some props to work with.
If you’re in a pub, then people can roleplay about booze and getting drunk and socialising. If in a guild hall, they can roleplay about guild business. If in the cathedral, they can roleplay about in game religion or church politics. If in a shop or auction house, they can roleplay about commerce. They aren’t forced to do those things, but it’s a good way to start a conversation. Just being in that location gives other people an idea of what you might want to RP about.
And this points to a glaring gap in the systems. We have a /who command to see who is online. Why don’t we have a /where? At least tell us how many people are in the hangouts or the cities.
Developers are actually pretty good at providing roleplay-friendly locations. There are usually in game hangouts (such as pubs or nightclubs), churches, shops, houses, town halls, parks, and other empty spaces in which to roleplay. But to be RP-friendly, these spaces need to be empty and quiet. People don’t want to be constantly interrupted by spam from the NPCs. They also don’t want to be constantly breaking off the conversation to go fight some mobs.
I have noticed that WoW is noticeably worse at this in Wrath than in previous expansions. Perhaps the developers have decided that players are bored with empty buildings and every single space needs to be entertaining.
So if the game MUST be this spammy with NPC chatter, roleplayers need a way to find a quiet corner in which to chat IC. Maybe side rooms with doors that close to keep out the noise, or corner tables at which players can sit down and have a private table-only conversation. Perhaps even a short-range version of /say which only lets conversation travel to people in the immediate vicinity would help.
Finding people to fill specific roles
In pre-arranged storylines, sometimes there will be space for a character to play a specific role. For example, if someone has a character background in which they had an argument with a friend and ran away from home, they might want someone to RP being the ex-friend. Or in a more mundane storyline, maybe two siblings are quarrelling about their father’s will and want a lawyer to help sort it out and may want another player to be the lawyer. Or perhaps a wizard wants to teach a class via RP and is looking for potential apprentices.
There is no easy way to do this on an MMO. If you’re in a RP guild and would put up a note on your guild bboard to see if anyone was interested. In practice, you’ll first ask round your friends and other people who you currently RP with. Then you’ll check the RP guillds and put notes on their bboards asking people to contact you if they are interested and hopefully go from there.
A looking-for-roleplay board on official forums can be useful, but only if people read it. Plus they tend to get spammed by people writing huge fanfic stories. Note: fanfic is NOT roleplaying. At best it is writing up an account of RP which you have already done. Feel free to write stories about your character. But do not spam my RP forum with them!!
Ideally what roleplayers need is some kind of in game mailing list or bboard which they can more easily access. Some games give players the facility to organise this themselves. For example, in WoW it’s easy to set up a roleplaying chat channel and invite other RPers to join it.
These are all things which support emergent play
So I’ve discussed: better LFG functionality, multiple guilds, focussed servers, location based gaming, name tags, in game mailing lists and boards
One thing they all have in common is that they wouldn’t just benefit roleplayers. Anything which is good for roleplayers is likely to be good for other social gamers, anyone who enjoys immersion, and probably lots of other emergent behaviour which we haven’t seen yet because current game mechanics don’t encourage it. If I had to pick just one thing that I’d like to see, it would be more support for multiple guilds and alliances. The crapshoot of trying to find a guild that does all the things you want to do, with a schedule that suits you, and where you like the people, is something that would be greatly eased if you didn’t have to look to one guild to do all of those things.