6 August, 2018
Role-playing in MMOs is an interesting thing. Despite the “RP” in MMORPG standing or role-playing, the origin of this comes from computer RPGs where the focus was more on mechanics than collaborative storytelling. MMOs adopted this, taking the mechanics and world building but not leaving much room for structure storytelling between players.
But this has been tried before. UO was notorious for expecting players to clean up and bring justice to those who broke social norms. Eventually the developers realized this wasn’t going to work, because the cost to create mischief was much lower than the cost to enforce social norms. And some players exploited the system to take advantage of mechanics to let them create mischief while remaining untouchable by the enforcers.
So, let’s take a look at RP options in MMOs, with an eye to how a designer could improve the experience.
Role-playing from a different source
As I said, MMO role-playing (RP) comes from the RP in computer RPGs. This is more a focus on character advancement, which is quite a bit different than the storytelling focus of many tabletop RPGs. I wrote a post a while ago looking at the meaning of RP.
In MMOs, RP is basically shared storytelling, like in tabletop games. Usually the RP happens outside of the game mechanics: your bonus to healing spells doesn’t mean much if your friend is dying from a stab wound taken during a fight. In order to tell a good story you want the healing to have some cost, not recite your bonus to healing from the raid gear you collected. In a way, MMO RP is often a lot like diceless RP, where there are rules that are agreed upon by the community.
Living in the world
Usually RP needs some sort of structure to work. In an MMO, that structure comes from two sources: the characters and the world. The characters you can create often influences what feels possible. Although people will still create things that don’t fit in the canon of the world: You may not include elves, but as I point out in that post linked above, people may put elves into your world anyway by just role-playing them anyway.
Then there’s the world. This goes back to what I talked about with doing stories better. By building out the world you can add elements that people will RP with. Adding interesting characters that show the day in the life of a villager or a wizard provides a framework for how a player could do the same. Players will take cues from the world and use that to create their own stories.
Randomness in RP
Even though I talk about diceless systems above, sometimes players like a bit of randomness. In FFXIV, this comes from the simple /random command, which gives a number 0-999. Some people use this as a simple system for opposed rolls: If I grab at you, we can roll to see who is higher; if I roll higher I grab you, if you do then you avoid the grab. Even simple combat systems can be simulated with attack rolls an defense rolls: if the attacker rolls higher then they score a hit, with the first to suffer three or five hits getting knocked out of the fight.
But there are problems with this system: first, it needs to be explained, although that’s easy. Second, it doesn’t account for skill: A skilled fighter against a moderate fighter shouldn’t be a completely randomized contest. But how do you agree who should get a “bonus” to their roll? Third, sometimes people don’t play nicely with the system, the obvious case being where a hit is “just a graze” for some players who want to godmod. Finally, sometimes people just don’t like random rolls, often because of the second reason. Some people prefer to do freeform contests and fights, letting each other write out a flowing scene together without interrupting for dice rolls.
Comfort in RP
The last big thing is comfort levels. RP sometimes makes us feel vulnerable because it can expose emotions we often keep to ourselves. Even if it’s all pretend, falling in love on one character with another can stir up certain feelings, make ourselves vulnerable. But this isn’t an impossible thing to deal with. If we want players to become friends we have to do a lot of the same work. Adding on a bit so that people have the safety and comfort to RP is something we can do to add to the game.
So, what do you think? Do you think RP in MMOs is interesting? Is it something you’d like to do, but that feels a bit too unusual to get into? I’d love to hear your thoughts.