I’ve never been much for roleplaying. Well, let me rephrase that: I’ve never been much for playing the roles assigned to me. When I was a kid playing cops and robbers, I was the dirty cop who’d shoot his backup and make off with the loot. School was worse; assignments became mere suggestions, springboards for better ideas to make projects entertaining, rather than informative. Trace my gaming career back far enough, and you’ll find I’ve always performed a bit outside any conventional game’s scope. If I wasn’t trying repeatedly to injure opponents in Madden, I was careening around a virtual racetrack in reverse, trying to knock my friends out of the race.
When games went massive, my world exploded. Suddenly, rather than having to completely abandon a game’s objective in order to have a good time, I could create my own fun however I liked. The “RP” in MMORPG (long-since abandoned by cynics and twice-bitten game designers) gave me carte blanche to blaze my own trail, tell a story of my own. If I tried hard enough, I could even leave a ripple in the world.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out. You see, I’ve always had trouble with in-game lore: It all reads like derivative fantasy schlock. There’s a chosen one or two, maybe some slaves, a virtuous hero with a tendency to speak in passive voice, and some evil force ultimately up to thousands of players to defeat, despite the fact everything re-spawns five minutes after you kill it. I wasn’t interested in being a part of that schlock. So any sort of conventional roleplaying just wouldn’t do.
My misadventures began in Ultima Online where I quickly became a career murderer. I wasn’t a griefer; I was just a victim of circumstance, time and time again. UO‘s combat system was a bit wonky: If you attacked and killed an “innocent,” you would be labeled a murderer, barring you from entering towns and leaving you freely attackable by other players. It makes sense in theory, but a lot of jerks hid behind that flag of innocence. Let’s just say, for instance, you had a bad habit of attacking and killing jerks before they attacked you. Then, let’s say you managed to do this around 500 times. Well, I went through enough jerks to ensure I’d never see the inside of a city again.
My house was located just north of Britain, one of the game’s larger cities, right near the Chaos shrine, one of the only static sites to allow murderers to resurrect. This was prime real estate for people in my situation, and other murderers gravitated to the area. However, with so many murderers in one area, bounty hunters were always circling the area like great white sharks around an Australian coral reef. These guys, “innocents” only because they were far more selective in how they killed other players, quickly became a problem for our small community of murderers, just trying to, well, exist in peace.
The way things were, it was unbearable. Troupes of bounty hunters would roll through the area, taking out solitary murderers just trying to mine or smith or hone their skills. I would have to sneak around my own house if I wanted to get anything done. I would watch as neighbors were senselessly cut down in a nearby alleyway. A community of hunters had become the hunted – and that just was not acceptable.
I rounded up a few of my immediate neighbors, and inside my small tower, we hammered out a loose pact to turn the area into a safe zone, a network of homes protected by the community, a neighborhood watch. The community would protect the people who lived in the valley near the Chaos shrine, innocent or murderer. The rules were simple: Anyone who attacked a neighbor was fair game, but looting anything other than weapons or spell casting materials was prohibited.
We were ruthless, but with flair, like Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday in the last 45 minutes of Tombstone. We’d roll through the area on horseback, mowing down unsuspecting groups of bounty hunters not used to a fair fight. But, in some creepy sort of medieval arms race, the bounty hunters didn’t run away; they came back with greater numbers. Some nights, we’d have 30 people camped outside a house, trying desperately to kill two of us.
Our little neighborhood quickly developed a reputation. We were “those PKs who killed my dragon,” “those assholes who looted my sword,” “a cool group of guys who hung out with me after we fought for an hour.” As my love/hate relationship with UO had me quitting and re-subscribing on a bi-monthly basis, I found, each time I came back, that my enemies had missed me as much as my friends.
With each patch to the game, UO‘s PvP-centric population gradually died out, and I eventually joined the exodus – permanently. But every once in a great while, I’ll get an IM from an old friend – or enemy – hit by a bout of nostalgia and wanting to take a stroll down memory lane, to remember the neighborhood watch and the effect it had on hundreds of players for a few short months.
I can’t help but wonder what role I was playing, there. I wasn’t a race’s last son. I wasn’t a vampire space elf. I was a community leader. I assumed a role unknown to me in real life. It might have broken the roleplaying mold, but only because it was bigger, better.
I didn’t stop at UO, though. That’s only when my missions stopped being serious. Say what you will about UO, but it forced people to interact, something modern MMOGs have gone to great lengths to avoid. That’s why they’re games rather than worlds, and that’s why Raoulduke and Doctorgonzo made an appearance in World of Warcraft.
A friend and I wanted to make undead Rogues, and we liked being zany almost as much as we liked plagiarism. And lo, Duke and Gonzo, tributes to characters from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, were born.
We raced to level 30 and prowled around contested areas, spamming film dialogue across multiple conversation channels, to the delight (and occasional dismay) of spectators across the territory. Our victims, since they couldn’t actually read the text we’d spew at them, never knew it, but the indecipherable gibberish coming out of out mouths as they lay dying at our feet was usually, “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?” or, “Never turn your back on a Rogue, especially when he’s waving a razor-sharp hunting knife in your eye.”
On slow nights, we’d travel around at high speeds, shouting soliloquy across the world in loud parody of Thompson’s writing style, telling a fractured story as we killed monsters for experience or snuck around looking for our next human quarry. Even death didn’t stop us. If anything, the surrealistic notion of resurrection fit into our schtick.
We never broke out of character, at least in public, and people began to take notice. Nightly, I’d fend off tells from people quoting the movie, or Thompson’s other works. I’d usually cryptically respond with a one-liner bitching about Nixon or Reagan. One guy we killed actually created a Horde character on another account, just to tell me what a joy it was to be killed by Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo.
As my attention span would have it, Duke quickly began to out-level me, and like a fat Samoan attorney at the end of a drug bender, it was time for me to move on. I broke the news to Duke gently, who went on to level 60 while I took an extended break, not planning to return to our previous romping grounds (and I never did, at least on that character.)
For a brief time, we had been larger than life, borrowing the legacy of a dead mad scientist to connect to others in a familiar, albeit immersion- breaking way. But still, this wasn’t roleplaying. If anything, it was low- level griefing; we were intentionally casting aside WoW‘s back-story, disregarding how others felt about our actions, in the pursuit of a good time. Shouldn’t roleplaying be dark and mysterious? Shouldn’t we have fought against the Alliance, rather than making them part of our joke?
A few months ago, Blizzard announced they had created a new roleplaying server with a PvP ruleset. I was intrigued; the roleplaying aspect would scare off most of the morons who are drawn to PvP for all the wrong reasons, but it was still possible for conflict to manifest physically. I still wasn’t much of a roleplayer, but I could suffer a few “thees” and “thous” if it meant I didn’t have to deal with guys typing in shorthand and making dick jokes. I still wasn’t sure I’d make it back into the game, though. My love affair with WoW had ended as soon as I hit level 30, when it started to take hours, rather than minutes, to accomplish much of anything.
But then, the goons came swooping in and stole my heart.
Some of the Something Awful goons who played WoW were interested in checking out one of the PvP-RP servers, but they really weren’t interested in the game’s lore. Instead, they suggested we form two crime families, Famiglias Mariano and Luigiano, one on the Horde side and one on the Alliance. The plan was simple: The two families would collude in order to gain control over both factions’ auction house. For instance, stuff deep in Alliance territory would be hard for a normal Horde character to get, but a member of the Mariano crime family could ask for assistance from a group of Luigianos to escort him to wherever he needed to be safely. From there, the Mariano could return home and sell the normally hard to get item for a high price.
In addition to running a racket on the auction house, other groups within the families would be available as hit men. If you had a problem with a player, be they on your side of the in-game lore war or not, all you had to do was put in a call to The Right People, and within a day, your vengeance would be enacted – for a price. There was also talk of a protection racket forming, and I had dreams of rolling up a gnome Warlock named Consigliere and running around alliance territory with a hulking minion in tow, warning low level players about how much it would suck if someone would continually train them over and over, then telling them how lucky they are a guy like me was there to stop that from happening – and all I charged was one gold per hour.
So, when the time came to create new characters, I jumped right in. I decided I’d put Consigliere on the backburner in favor of movie homage, so I created Roman Moronie, a night elf Hunter, inspired by the antagonist in the movie Johnny Dangerously. I ran around with a pet, firing bowshots at random monsters while calling them “miserable cork-suckers” and “fargin iceholes.” When I got tired of speaking in broken English, I created Danny Vermin, a human Hunter inspired again from the movie, and called the gun I picked up an .88 magnum, telling anyone who listened, “This thing shoots through schools.” I told people I was looking for Johnny, who worked with another gang on the Horde side of the world.
Most people didn’t get it. Granted, Johnny Dangerously isn’t the most popular movie in the world, but anyone who grew up watching Comedy Central has seen it roughly 600 times. Especially after dropping helpful quotes from the movie, the ponderous emotes directed my way could only have been willful ignorance. Other people were so wrapped up in their own version of roleplaying, they didn’t have room for mine, so they just pretended they didn’t understand.
But who really does? Most according-to-Hoyle roleplayers I’ve met don’t really seem to get along well with anyone outside their incredibly exclusive circles, incapable of bending their structured mythos. Every individual’s story and premise is just too different to really jive with anyone else. Sure, your night elf Druid is actually a demon from the planet Zardo, but good luck getting along with the guy whose human Paladin is an avatar of light sent by a Judeo-Christian God to convert heathens like you. That’s when the old adage, “Ignore them and they’ll go away,” comes into play, and the wagons circle closer around you.
That’s what I don’t get. It may be easier to pretend your personal story exists in a bubble, but is that really the point of online roleplaying? Is a story within the game’s lore the only legitimate form of roleplaying? It just seems like bad acting if you can’t find a way to merge your character with your fellow man, even if he’s typing with a fake Brooklyn accent. Intermingling with other people, forcing yourself to become a part of the world, is what makes MMOGs more than the sum of some 5 million parts. What’s the point of videogame communities if there isn’t any communication between them?
In the end, isn’t community what it’s all about? You can’t tell your story, no matter what it is, without others to listen. What’s wrong with having a slightly off-kilt story to share? But what do I know? I’ve never been much of a roleplayer.
Joe Blancato is a Contributing Editor for The Escapist Magazine, in addition to being the Founder of waterthread.org.