Thursday, August 19, 2010

Roleplaying and MMOs

Hopefully, roleplayers won't feel too insulted by this post.

Kill Ten Rats has an article up asking why there isn't more role-playing in Dungeons and Dragons Online? We can extend the question to ask why--since MMOs stem from pen-and-paper (PnP) roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons--relatively few people roleplay in MMOs?

I'm going to say that it is because roleplaying in an MMO is fundamentally different than roleplaying in a PnP game. And the difference is significant enough that the majority playerbase sees MMO roleplaying as mere affectation, irrelevant window dressing that kind of misses the point of the underlying game.

The thing is that the point of pen-and-paper roleplaying is "conflict resolution in character". You play a character, you are presented with conflicts, and you resolve them in character. It's sometimes hard to see this in D&D because so much of the rulesbase concerns itself with combat. But if you look at indie PnP games such as Dogs in the Vineyard, where conflict resolution is more abstract, it becomes really obvious.

But in an MMO, you can be in-character all you want, but you cannot resolve conflicts in character. You are limited to the options provided to you and the need to share the same world with other players. You can try and spin "extra" conflicts between other players, but those do not have same weight as the conflicts the game itself provides. It's not "roleplaying" per se, it's just amateur theatrics.

(As normal, we pause to insert the standard EvE Online disclaimer. This is mostly because EvE Online gives players the tools to resolve said conflicts: ship-to-ship missiles.)

So I think that role-playing is not really relevant to MMOs, and isn't really something that should be expected from the players, regardless of the lineage of the genre. If players want to indulge in RP, there's nothing wrong with that, but I don't think it is something that game developers need to spend time worrying about. And I don't think that the presence or absence of a roleplaying community has any bearing whatsoever on the quality of an MMO.


  1. See, I always thought the point of roleplaying was interactive storytelling via improvisational roleplay with a group. (Maybe storytelling can be reduced to a series of conflict resolutions but I don't think that really does it justice.)

    You still can't really do this in an MMO because there's no human GM who can change the world and NPCS around your characters so you're stuck with pretending to tell stories that have the limitation that nothing you do can ever change the world around you except in very very restricted and predetermined ways.

    Hence all RP in MMOs tends to be about love triangles or human stories where the only thing that NEEDS to change are the characters themselves. Or else among groups who agree to pretend that other things are changing in the world around them.

  2. I always thought the point of roleplaying was interactive storytelling via improvisational roleplay with a group.

    No. There are improv storytelling games, and there are roleplaying games. The difference between them is conflict resolution rules.

    Check out a game like Once Upon a Time. MMO roleplaying is closer to that style than PnP roleplaying.

    There's nothing wrong with either style, of course, but the original article expected PnP roleplaying solely because of the lineage of MMOs, and I think that is an unreasonable assumption that ignores the very nature of the game being played.

  3. Hardly anyone ever role-played in pen & paper RPGs either. D&D in particular was infamously described as "a wargame where you get to name the pieces of cardboard".

  4. With D&D it really depends on the group, but so much of the game is spent talking of the mechanics, and you would "interact" with NPCs (the GM) "in character".

    You would also make your decision in character.

    MMOs either end up as an "all chat" RP that could be done in a message board, or chat room, OR they are nothing more than puppetry (your theatrics comment).

    To resolve this, you could add a "conversation" skill tree, which you could use to interact with others and with NPCs to a greater degree than you could now. The idea resulting in something akin to Fable interactions, or Mass Effect conversations.

  5. The problem with mmo's is the pace of everything.

    You can't really do that fancy manouver and trip or toss a fear on someone chasing you. The mechanics of the game itself is limiting your own class capabilities, merely by the simple fact that you're roleplaying with those of your own faction.

    This puts a great deal of limits on what "evil" characters can do. They can't simply toss a deathcoil on a person pursuing you to get away, you have to type it. And that takes time. Time that the pace of the game won't allow you to have.

    And unless you duel people -outside- of city gates, you can't really do anything about anyones actions, except putting them on ignore, which won't stop them from jumping around naked in a wedding or funeral or whatever.

    So without a heavy moderation that a GM can offer in a p'n'p setting, roleplaying in MMO's are limited because there are no consequences in you ruining other people's roleplaying events.

    (Which many seems to do on purpose, for the fun of it.)

  6. The biggest obstacle to roleplay in MMOs in the immutable world.

    Even D&D allows for more roleplay because you can affect the world in huge, permanent ways. If you've ever run a Gygax box-module (box-modules arguably being basic dungeon crawls with set monsters) there's a ridiculous amount of character development tucked around the edges of the fantasy and the characters actions have sometimes really cruddy consequences. You CAN just dungeon crawl and min/max your heart out in DnD (which is one type of fun) but you can also play whole sessions without rolling the dice and still be within the same system. It's flexible. Character actions /matter/.

    Every other roleplay game I've played has the same thing. Character actions == character consequences. When that is removed, you remove the essential part of roleplay that allows it to perpetuate and become epic for individuals.

    Also, @Rohan, 'improv storytelling games' are still roleplay games. You take on a role, and then play it. Ask anyone who has ever played on a long-format roleplay board where you bounce a scene back and forth between two character perspectives. Or someone who has played Ars Magica as an ensemble, where each story is headed by one of the players without necessarily taking on the role of GM.

    A GM isn't necessary. Consequences ARE. That's why Sandbox-Game EvE is closer to what an RP MMO could be, simply because corps can take over entire systems and defend them with firepower. Everything is persistent AND has consequences. Death, attacking the wrong person, and everything in between. Eve's website is full of individual stories written by people who are inhabiting their roles in this alternative universe. There's no reward for playing a role, however, which is why it still isn't a roleplay MMO.

    SW:TOR sounds like it will have rewards for moderate amounts of RP, but we're still stuck in first-gen or maybe first-gen-and-a-half MMOs. Most of us don't play for the roles. We play for the smackings.

    MMOs are... just the wrong format. The reason GM'ed MMOS (Mu*, in this case) with storylines and player participation works with roleplay is that the format bends to the players.

  7. New definition for MMORPG:

    Massively Multiplayer Occasionally Role Playing Game?

  8. Denethal said: "So without a heavy moderation that a GM can offer in a p'n'p setting, roleplaying in MMO's are limited because there are no consequences in you ruining other people's roleplaying events."

    In other words...

    See: Serenity Now

  9. Pretty much, yeah.

    It doesn't help that WoW neglects it's RP community and is widely successful. And then others follow the leader. And yet it's VERY odd how we can criticize gaming companies all we want for the neglect, but it won't make it any less true.

    I think I'll be parroting this on my Blog. Thanks for the good read Rohan.

  10. However, I have to ask. Short of giving players basically GM powers of control over the game world, what more would you want? There's already a fair amount of tools available for RP, however the biggest problem is, as Rohan pointed out, that the game world is fairly rigid.

    I remember seeing a blue post a long time ago responding to someone making the same accusation. It's not that they're neglecting the RP community, it's that the community either is unable to state what they want, or what they want is not capable within the game they're playing.

    So, I ask you this myself: Since it's infeasible to be giving players GM control over the game world for RP events, what would you want?

  11. There are many things that could be implemented, that never will be implemented, mainly because of the abuse of power this would instigate.

    But no matter what power you give the players, there will always be someone complaining about "the rest". Those who doesn't roleplay the same way you do or do what you command them to do, even if you don't have any power over anyone.

  12. I've never been a "real roleplayer" in MMRPG's per se, (I've played Ragnarok, Lineage II, and WoW) but in a sense I find that a sort of "Roleplaying" has really enhanced my enjoyment of the game.

    Although I don't play interactions between me and people I play with strictly IC, I've crafted elaborate backstories for my characters and guilds that I find make it more immersive and more fun to play. For example, the first guild I ever co-founded, The Steel Cross Brotherhood in Lineage II, had an awesomely epic back story that included a star-crossed love story between the "ancestors" of my character (a human knight and a dark elf rogue, which tied into my character's appearance and abilities as a knight/paladin) and included my friend (co-founder's) character as his character was an immortal elf. Then when our guild decided to move en-masse to a new MMRPG and chose WoW in beta days, I created a whole nother back story that tied my new character to the old ones, and tied this story to the stories of my guildmates. My old Lineage II paladin became the adoptive father of my WoW paladin who teaches him the ways of the righteous defender.

    Also, I try to play my character's actions so that they are congruent with his personality. I've actually refused quests ingame because they were unfitting for a righteous paladin to complete.

    All this may seem silly, but I find that investing my characters with a history and personality makes them that much more fun to play. It makes it feel more like guiding your character in his or her path to becoming a hero than merely getting uber-pixel gearz to play tougher dungeons. In a sense it makes me care about my character and what happens to him, and makes his adventures that much more interesting to me.