I Gotta be Me: Roleplaying and the MMO

I grew up on a staple of Avalon Hill and PC gaming and it wasn’t until college that I really encountered the RPG. I’d played my share of Kings Quest, Space Quest, and Darklands but never the pen-and-paper variety which is truly the core of the genre. I was immediately transfixed. The RPG is a completely different type of game. It isn’t a head-on-head contest with the person across the table like in Squad Leader or Panzer Blitz. It’s cooperative. A group of gamers tackle adventures under the careful adjudicative hands of a Game Master. Even more than that, it is cooperative storytelling. Begin history-minded, I immediately began developing strong character stories and grappled with personality, emotions, and motivations. I found myself appreciating companies which facilitated this process, such as R. Talsorian’s background tables and GURPS advantages and disadvantages. I think I was blessed by a handful of GMs (and fellow players) who knew how to delve into character stories and eek out the optimum amount of angst and social dilemma. Not only did we have the challenge of epic adventure, but the “fun” of grappling with character baggage.

After graduation my group scattered to the four corners of the world and my RPG days faded to fond memory. So, in 2000 when one of my old friends invited me into MMOs I was thrilled to think that RPing was back. I was wrong.

It quickly became clear to me that the MMO is not an ideal engine for roleplaying. It possesses many of the other strengths of an RPG: the appeal of playing a single character who adventures and advances in a dynamic world full of history, politics, and culture. But the core of what makes an RPG an RPG is absent.

For starters, in an MMO you can’t be the hero. One of the foundational ideas of an RPG is that events swirl around you. Sure, you may start as a group of peons and you may never rise much above that, but there almost always is the sense that you can be so much more. There is the idea that if the game goes on long enough (and provided your character survives), you may just make a name for yourself. You and your fellow gamers ARE the story. MMOs, on the other hand, are played by thousands of people and you can have thousands of heroes. Sure RPGs have their stock adventure sets which thousands of people play, but they all occur in separate worlds distinctive to each group of players.

Similarly, MMOs lack the guiding hand of a GM. The Game Master administers NPCs of all types so that each interaction can be specific, relevant, and real. An MMO cannot achieve this degree of customization or personalization. In both RPGs and MMOs, encounters with enemies consist of probability rolls coupled with a variety of special attacks. The difference is that this is all an MMO can do. In an RPG, since the moderator is a human rather than a computer, there is a much deeper level of control opening avenues for creative problem solving. Furthermore, in an RPG a group of L20-somethings won’t stumble across a horde of L50s (assuming a competent GM) whereas in MMOs this is quite possible.

This leads to character death. Based upon the raw probability of numbers, MMOs must account for repetitive resurrection of characters. I think my death tally on AC, for example, was pushing a grand. In RPGs death isn’t so cheap. When a character dies, they’re usually permanently dead. You file the character sheet away or shred it, then break out the dice and roll up a new one (I know some GMs and games can be more… merciful, but to me that cheapens the game). Admittedly, character death can be worked around in MMOs. In AC, for example, your soul is protected by Asheron and sent back to a lifestone for regeneration. LOTRO chose to treat it not as “death” per se, but rather a retreat. This is a bit dubious if you think to hard on it, but is as close as most games can get in the justification when everyone in the back story seems to have normal mortality. That isn’t to say that death is the key to a good RPG, but value of life gives value to characters which certainly helps.

I think one of the most important things that make the pen-and-paper method work so much easier is the attainment of trust. When you roleplay, after all, you are playing make believe. Any time you enter the realm of pretending, you make yourself inherently vulnerable. In an RPG group among trusted friends, it is an easy transition. Shifting in and out of character occurs naturally and ideally everyone takes the roleplaying seriously. In an MMO, the RPers exist in a world where not everyone is doing it. In a conversation of gamers revolving around the latest sporting competition, it takes an RPer with a certain amount of fortitude to walk up and ask for assistance slaying some fell denizen while remaining in character.

So what games are doing to appeal to their RP audience? The answer is not much. Most go as far as to setup unmoderated RP servers and call it good. I’ve heard that names aren’t even moderated on these servers so you can still get the same goofy and slightly misspelled lewdness as elsewhere. For an RP server to truly survive it must have at least that level of moderation. It also should have moderated chat channels where repeat offenders can be jettisoned to other servers. Of course, that would cost money and resources to staff which is probably we haven’t seen much of it.
About the only game I’ve seen lately to take any further steps is LOTRO. They’ve put a system in place that lets players flag themselves as Roleplayers so that those who partake can easily identify each other. One of their global channels is also called “OOC” (Out-of-Character) which at least implies that the other channels are spoken in-character (though they generally aren’t). The addition that I thought was the coolest is the “bio” page on the character sheet. This allows creative players to write their background history for others to read. With my own natural inclination for character history, I had fun writing up fairly extensive bio’s for all my characters that merged with Tolkien’s world in an unobtrusive manner. I was also curious about what RPers were doing with the page so I regularly inspected those who were so flagged. I was highly disappointed. At least half left the page blank and most of those who did write something showed little imagination. The worst was “He is tall.” Profound. Actually the one which amused and impressed me the most read something like this, “If you want to find out about me you won’t do so by reading. Buy me an ale, strike up a conversation, and maybe you’ll learn something.”

My disappointment with the use of the bio page brings up a counter point. While there is a lot more that games could do to assist the RP gamer, there also is a lot more that RP gamers can do. When I started playing LOTRO and was inspired by the bio page, I played on what I was told was the non-official RP server. I wasn’t immediately ready to take that leap so I observed the RPers I did see. I can’t say I was impressed. Roleplaying seemed to have degenerated largely to hanging around the Prancing Pony, speaking through emotes, and flirting. Far too many people seem to equate taking on a role with dubious attempts at speaking in King’s English with a lot of “thee’s” and “thou’s.” Unfortunately, that form of language is so far removed from the present day that it clashes in my mind. I find it completely unimmersive rather than the opposite.
I’d argue Shakespeare shouldn’t be a primary language reference, but rather the dialogue in popular fantasy literature. You won’t find many “doth’s” or “forsooth’s” in those. Any voice should come off natural so if a person isn’t able to pull it off realistically, its best not to mangle it. Perhaps I’m not being entirely fair. After all, I’d take “Forsooth, wilt thou please helpest me slay yonder dragon” over “ne1 buf me pls” any day of the week. I’m sure I’m not speaking of all roleplayers and possibly this is only the fringe element I’m seeing, I don’t know. There quite probably is good RPing done within group and guild chats that an outside observer can’t see or hear. Unfortunately, what I do see is what most non-RPers probably see and it’s a turn-off.

Yet personalities and game shortcomings aside, there is one insurmountable hill that will always make MMO roleplaying inferior to pen-and-paper. I’ve talked around the edges of this already. When it comes down to it, roleplaying isn’t just hanging around and gabbing to each other in character. That’s a part of it, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg. True and fulfilling roleplaying (at least for me), is roleplaying in action. It is how your character behaves to the hardships and challenges of the road. Not just fighting monsters, but encountering the pitfalls of politics and ambition in the world that is represented by actions of other NPCs and players. It is events from the character’s past rising up to challenge the present. Just as true difficulties bring out the mettle of a person in real life, so in gaming they offer opportunities to delve into the personality you are playing. MMOs with their nonpersonalized, cookie cutter quests and leveling are incapable of achieving this necessary depth.

Because of this, I doubt I’ll choose to do much roleplaying online. If games step up their efforts to enable it, I may give it a go, but the dream that it can ever substitute for pen-and-paper is one I no longer hold.

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