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.


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.