Improving Roleplay: Starting Zones

This is the first in a series of articles about making the roleplaying experience more accessible in MMORPGs. So you may be thinking, ‘I’m not a roleplayer, why should I care?’

You don’t have to care, precisely, but there are some bonuses even for the less hardcore roleplayers from encouraging more light RP on our servers.

  1. The type of content that improves roleplaying is  good for immersion. So if you enjoy immersing yourself into the gameworld, anything that makes the background easier to relate to or the game world itself feel more vibrant and alive will be just as fun for you too. Better starting zones, for example, are entertaining for everyone.
  2. Having pockets of active roleplayers around is good for immersion also, even if you just wander past them while they’re talking in the pub. Not only that but they tend to be social players and are often inclined to organise public RP events. You don’t need to be a hardcore fulltime roleplayer to enjoy the atmosphere or occasionally dip into events that sound interesting. More content and more options are good for everyone.
  3. RPers often like fluff such as interesting costumes, pets, housing, etc. If you’re a fan of fluff then you’ll enjoy those too, even if you never use them as roleplaying props.
  4. Roleplaying servers tend to be friendlier and have a good atmosphere, probably due to the more social bent of the players. I always got the impression that they’re appealing to the older crowd also. RPers can be good for the community. If that’s something you value, then encouraging them is a good thing.

I find it useful to imagine roleplaying as a form of improvisational theatre. To roleplay, a player takes on the role of a character and interacts with the (virtual) world around them in that role. People do RP in lots of different ways, and I don’t think it’s necessary to be all method actor about the whole thing. Even if you wanted to, it might make for a very tedious game.

So no, that’s not a requirement. In fact, you don’t need to really speak in character at all if you don’t want. But roleplaying at a basic level is about connecting with your character and seeing the gameworld and the other characters from its point of view. Maybe you’ll have goals based on what your character might want out of life, or maybe you’ll only occasionally think about your character’s viewpoint and spend most of the rest of the time just thinking like a player. It doesn’t matter — what matters is that if you are in a mood to get immersive, it’s easy for you to do it.

A a well designed MMO will help players to create characters who will have goals that can be fulfilled in the game. The lore and background and introduction will make it easy to create a character who wants to go fight the opposite faction/s, or to kill raid bosses, or to sit in the Shire and tend a vegetable plot. So that it’s easy for the player to roleplay whilst doing what they wanted to do anyway. Sure, you can be an oddity and play a pacifist in a game that’s all about PvP but it’s a bad idea. You’ll either have nothing to do, or will spend all your time trying to explain to people why your pacifist character has been storming keeps in Tier 4. It’s about a zillion times easier and more fun to go with the flow and focus instead on putting an interesting twist on an existing archetype.

Character Creation and Orientation

“The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?”

-The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Starting zones have a critical role in any MMO. They need to lure new players in, teach them the basics of the game, give them some orientation about the setting and character, and maybe even act as a prelude to the storyline in the main game. And most importantly, a player should come out of the starting zone with some goals to keep driving them forwards. Ideally these would include both short term (eg. get to my capital city) and mid term goals (eg. get to level 20 in EQ2 for a cool title).

For roleplayers, the starting zone also needs to give the player enough background to help them piece together a vague history and maybe even a personality for their own character. If you’re dubious about the personality, then think about how the different races come across in a game like WoW. Even if the starting zone just teaches the players that dwaves like beer and gnomes are nutty, it’s a base to start roleplaying with others with a shared understanding of what it means to be a dwarf in that game setting.

All players ask themselves, “What should I do next?” at regular intervals in MMOs. If a game is smoothly streamlined, it should provide a constant stream of options with which to answer this question so that the player doesn’t need to stop to scratch her head and wonder where to go next. If you pause, it should be to weigh up what you want to do next, not to feel lost and confused.

In answering that question, players will also be asking, “Why should I do this next?” So as well as an immediate goal, there’s a mid term goal involved. If you do the next quest, perhaps you’ll gain another level. Or access to the next zone. Or a prettier dress. Or just get to explore more of the game. Ideally, “Because it’s fun” should also be part of the equation on some level.

In addition to this, roleplayers might ask, “What would my character do next?” and “Why would my character do that?” The answer to the second question may well lie in the character’s background and not in the player’s goals. So for example, if Mrs Spinks wants to go to Northrend and be involved in fighting Arthas, she might have a personal grudge against the lich king. As the player, I am the only person who can answer why that might be. But knowing the background of her race gives me a few jumping off points. And more importantly, I really like that it feels consistent for both my character and for the game that I can easily think of coherent motivations. You can see how important this is to people with how many bloggers have complained that the Argent Tournament doesn’t make sense. I guarantee they aren’t all roleplayers. But even non-RPers enjoy immersive and consistent settings and NPCs.

I am assuming here that although RPers may start with a vague character concept in mind, they’ll tend to flesh it out in play as they learn more about the background and how to better fit in.

So how can a starting zone introduce this type of information?

  1. Lots of NPCs to show by example what particular races or classes tend to be like. It’s even better if they are arguing with each other — this gives the players more variation of examples and makes them all look less like cardboard copies of each other.
  2. Lore related quests.
  3. Quests that are strongly themed to both the game setting and the race/class of the starting area. For example, Warhammer is a very PvP oriented game and the starting zones throw you up against NPCs of the opposite faction right from the very beginning. You really don’t  have an option to create a character that doesn’t want to fight, you won’t even get past your first quest. WoW also introduces new characters very early on to foes that they will continue to meet throughout the game.
  4. Good use of graphics and music to back up the themes. These are great through the whole game also, but in the starting zone, you really have to set the tone for whatever is to come.
  5. Offering the player gameplay choices based on what their character might want to do. So if you’re playing a dwarf, you might get some quest choices about whether your character values gold above beer. Ideally you’ll run into NPCs from both the gold and the beer faction so that you know that both are valid for dwarves. There is no right answer (maybe both?) but trying to answer the question will get the player to attribute some preference to the new character.

In pen and paper games, players sometimes start with a set of questions that they answer to help them work out a personality for a new character. Writers and actors can use similar techniques. Here’s an example writing exercise based around character creation. (Note: I remember fondly the time I asked my tabletop players to describe where their characters lived while we were waiting for someone who was late, to fill in the time and encourage them to think about their characters. I’d never have known otherwise that one character ironed everything in his house, including the daily paper and his underpants. I threw in a lot more chances for everyone to laugh with him about it after that.)

I don’t think MMOs should ever force players to answer all those questions. It’s a crazy amount of extra work for someone who just wants to go kill orcs. But a good starting zone should at least give the player the opportunity to answer some of them. The rest can be filled in later.

Race and Class Specific Starting Zones

I am an absolute sucker for starting zones that feel as if they’re aimed at my character in particular. This may involve race specific starting zones, such as the regular starting zones in WoW, LOTRO, and WAR. It may include class specific starting zones, such as the death knight starting area. It may involve odd combinations of these, such as the race/class starting zones in DaoC.

Either way, focussing the starting zone like this makes it feel more of a character-specific prelude. Outsiders may never understand what makes your race tick because they didn’t get the same orientation tour. But that’s OK, other members of the same race will ‘get it.’ I love the idea of characters having a prelude. Again, it’s a technique that was used to good effect in some tabletop games — I remember Vampire in particular encouraged the GM to spend some one-on-one time with each player separately, RPing through a couple of scenes from the character’s past.

I found it a fantastically good tool for helping players to work out what made their characters tick.

In MMOs, the LOTRO starting zones do a great job of telling an initial story via solo instances before throwing you out into the great wide world… or is it? Nope, it’s a clever shell game. After the initial solo instance, your starting zone is also transient  — just this time it’s shared with the other low level characters of your race. LOTRO ruins this effect slightly by having too many subraces. You can choose whether your human character comes from Bree, Gondor, Rohan, or Dale.  But the only human starting zone is based around Bree. So if you roll a Breelander, roleplaying is very easy — you just play through the history the game has given you. Everyone else has to think up their own reason for being so far from home, and the game gives no help with that. This is a shame because, ‘How did I get here?’ is a pretty basic question for a starting character.

I think this is why I can’t muster the same level of excitement about the EQ2 starting zones. They’re not awful but Faydwer doesn’t give much information for non-fae, and Darklight Woods is mostly about dark elves even though other races can start there too. I had noticed that Qeynos has separate racial themed areas which give you a chance to interact with a variety of NPCs of those races — but unfortunately it’s not a very interesting starting zone in general. So you have to choose whether you want your race lore and background (ie. Qeynos) or if you want the more fun starting areas. That’s not a good choice to have to make.

I don’t think it’s always necessary for starting zones to be race specific. It just needs to be some subculture that can be a defining experience for your character. Class specific starting zones sound like good fun. Even profession specific starting zones might work in a gameworld in which that was culturally important. Geographic zones such as the EQ2 Faydwer example do work, but in that particular case it’s just not a strong enough identity on its own. (It feels race specific even though it actually isn’t, so sidelines the non-fae.)

You can see from this where the SW:TOR notion of every race/class combo having it’s own storyline feels so appealing. Maybe a dwarf priest just isn’t the same as a dwarf rogue or a human priest. What if there was an even wider variety of starting zones and race/class specific content? As it is, players are left to work through a lot of these differences in game and that means they may have to reach their own consensus based on game lore and NPCs seen in game.

Now, asking for more starting zones is impractical. It’s a huge amount of work to handcraft these sorts of in game experiences. But its fair to ask for lots of example NPCs in the starting zones representing the different races and classes that might start there. All players need are some pointers to show them how things fit together, they can do the rest themselves.

Strong Starting Storylines

A strong starting storyline is not always a good thing from a roleplayer’s point of view. Especially if it forces all characters down one specific background story.

Aion is a good example of this. The starting zones are beautiful and feature smart storytelling, but every single Asmodian is an ex-raider who ascended. And what’s worse, the storyline tells you that this is unusual. It sure as heck is not unusual, every single player in the game in that faction has the exact same starting story! You can handwave having done the same quests, but roleplayers need some freedom — some wiggle room if you like — to put a background together.

The Death Knight starting zone on the other hand, presents a strong story but says very little about where characters came from prior to becoming Death Knights. And that’s pretty much perfect. It gives players a fun story and some direction, but lets those who want more background fill in the blanks themselves.