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.

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