Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 08, 2015
The roleplaying in massively multiplayer online roleplaying games

There is an interesting discussion started by Syp and taken up by Rowan Blaze on what your characters in an MMORPG are: Are they puppets, whose personality is the personality of the player, but the abilities are determined by game rules? Or is their personality determined by their role in the game?

I think this is a question that is better understood when looking at other forms of roleplaying games, like pen & paper tabletop games. In 35 years of experience with Dungeons & Dragons and similar games I am sure that the personality of the player always shines through, but you do get occasions where a well-played character makes decisions that are more based on his place in a fictional world than on the player controlling him. Many players are trying to roleplay their characters, but can't completely switch off modern ways of thinking. It just is very hard for somebody from the 21st century to think like a medieval person, for example regarding beliefs, or what is right and wrong.

Computer games have the additional complication that in most cases you are not free to make any decisions you like. Especially MMORPGs frequently only offer you the options to accept or decline the quest as prepared by the developers. With the rewards tied to the accept button there isn't really a decision to take, thus players end up performing a torture quest without even thinking about the issue. The "decision" is more like "I'm going to do all quests in this zone for leveling", and the result is a story which is completely controlled by the developers, and the player is reduced to watching the story and pressing buttons only for game mechanics reasons.

On the other hand this pre-written story of following the quest-lines is mostly for players who either want to experience those zone stories, or who consider doing quest-lines to be the most pleasant form of leveling. The game doesn't actually force you to follow the quests. I am currently playing a level 30 dwarf hunter in World of Warcraft who is more interested in visiting all the different zones of Azeroth and collecting all battle pets in these zones than doing quests. The "story" of his voyages might not have the drama of a quest line, but it is certainly a story based on my decisions, not on something pre-fabricated by the developers. But even here the decisions aren't based on the personality of my avatar, but rather on "what do I need to do to achieve a certain personal goal".

The D&D campaign I am currently preparing is exceptionally rich in options for taking decisions based on personal philosophy and beliefs, to the point where the fate of the game world rests on the beliefs of the players and their decisions made according to those beliefs. We spent more time than usual on character creation and I provided more tools and options. I don't know if ultimately the beliefs of the players or the beliefs of the characters they play will become more important, but I think the two are sufficiently aligned to work either way. This is promising to be interesting. A MMORPG will never offer us as much opportunity for real decisions or to really change the world. Despite of looking humanoid and being able to express emotions on command, our MMORPG characters don't really have much personality than PacMan or the paddle in Pong.

The one place where personalities are most visible in a MMORPG are in chat, whether that is voice chat or typed. And it turns out that "in character" chat is extremely rare in MMORPGs, usually just some of the time on a few selected roleplaying servers. The vast majority of the chat going on is completely based on the personalities of the players, and not their characters at all. And because of the disinhibition many people display in a pseudo-anonymous environment, that ends up with interaction which is frequently not very pleasant. So that a growing trend in multi-player online games is to limit opportunities for any sort of free chat, as well as disallowing various player interactions that can be considered to be griefing. Instead of asking the question who exactly controls the personality of our avatars, we might end up in a situation where avatars don't have any personality at all.

On the other hand, players who are interested in communicating will find a way. Even when the vocabulary is limited, like with WoW's faction language filter or the canned responses in Dark Souls and MOBAs.

Or put it in an another way. A sufficiently pervy mind can turn anything into an euphemism.
Do players not role play because mmorpgs are not designed for it or are mmorpgs not designed for role play because players don't want it?
Heh. Poor Hans'gar and Franzok, just two working stiffs trying to run the stamping machine... they shouldn't have brought those nice shoes to work with them.

Even pet collecting is no moral high ground. You're capturing wild animals, putting them in cages that are doubtlessly stored in deplorable conditions, then forcing them to fight to the death for your amusement. Then you resurrect them and put them back in the cage. Even Micheal Vick would be "Dude! That's harsh."

And then there's my character. I flew to Azeroth in an advanced starcraft that crashlanded because the interior is laid out in such a confusing manner that no one could find the flight controls to steer away from the planet. Then, after crashing and finding ourselves surrounded by hostils creatures, I decided to roll a Shaman and pick up a club instead of going to the weapons locker to get a Space Blaster to dispense Space Justice with.

Role playing is just too hard. I can't do it.
I'm a puppeteer, I think. Actually, I treat my characters a bit like pets, but with an importance level well below that of my cats.

As for role-playing.... well.... from the "Statistics" tab:

- Total kills: 704,881
- Creature type killed the most: Humanoid (201,759)

Unless you like roleplaying an extremely determined serial killer, I don't see how RPGing is even possible in a game like WoW.....

So, I went back and read the two linked articles.

The questions I come up with are:

1) What is role playing?

2) What has that to do with a combat oriented strategy game?

The first one is easy, it's a training exercise for psychology and acting. The second one... not a darn thing, really.

Now, if you're already predicated to using role play as a professional tool, you're going to throw it into the game as well, hell... you probably do everything that way. Likewise, if you're an engineer, you will probably look at a "combat oriented strategy game" as a technical puzzle to solve using the most effecting tool, which in this case would be combat applied strategically.

Yet we don't call these games "Engineering games", even though that would be a more descriptive label. We call them "Role playing games" for no other reason than the characters could have come from a story.

Any game is going to have a goal. And unless that goal is coincidentally synchronized with a specific role playing flavor, that role playing flavor will not be an asset for concluding the game's goal. And of course, the player needs to know the goal in advance or they will be ineffective at the game.
Helistar, those stats are a little skewed. I discovered that if you heal someone, and that someone proceeds to kill someone, it counts at you killing that person too. I disagree with that method of counting.
Two comments....

First, there is a strong, active RP community online, especially in WoW. However it most certainly is dwarfed by the "normal players." My wife has been doing this for years and its really interesting to experience if you can get in to it, but maybe a bit too much for what I need. The game they are playing is only peripherally related to what everyone else experiences in WoW....they are using WoW as a medium for RP/storytelling sessions, 99% of it via private chat, and you can only really tell when its happening because you'll be on a server like Wyrmrest Accord and suddenly walk into a room with thirty people all emoting and having private conversations, clearly up to something not at all related to playing the actual game. I consider this a "value added" element of WoW......not something the game supports in an intentional way, but which organically arose out of the interest of those who really did want a more D&D-like experience in WoW. Some even use paper and pencil mechanics to resolve internal RP conflict.

There's Option #2 which I consider my Old School Immersive Role Play process: you play the game earnestly, making decisions based on the character you've concocted. You're still a pilot/puppeteer, but you don't make decisions that wouldn't fit the character as you've conceived him or her, and you experience the quests/content of the game as if you were that character and not on a meta level. This has a couple interesting consequences: first if shows off which games are better at supporting immersive role play like this through a better range of choices (hint: MMOs are not great at this), and second it hammers home which mechanics in the game are "player oriented" and which are "character oriented." For example, collecting tokens, bits, non-existent currency in-game that lets you buy out-of-game gear and pretty much the entirety of being able to give a pet or mount once unlocked to all characters are "player oriented." They do nothing to support the quest of one character, which means a game like WoW is terrible for this sort of immersion game play. "Character oriented" means having some decision trees or options that allow you some sort of in-game choice, the ability to go in more than one direction or path, and the need to collect gear that is based on what your character needs in his or her "world context" and not on any meta context (i.e. pvp gear). Very few MMOs handle this well anymore. The only one that comes close which I like right now is Elder Scrolls Online and even it is only fractionally as good at this as a good old single-player RPG experience.

Some random unconnected thoughts.

I've run into more than just a few people who were ardently roleplaying vicious and evil people. Who would attack random lowbies and then claim that their in universe characters wouldn't care about level differences and whether killing an enemy would be considered appropriate or honorable, so why should they? So I don't think roleplaying inherently leads to better behavior.

For myself, I don't like to assign my characters a role/personality that I then need to adhere to. Quite the other way around, I find that spending time on a different char will genuinely impact how I react to situations differently. I can get my head into it and be 'me playing char1' in comparison to 'me playing char2'. And these different ways of thinking just sort of happen. Often it's influenced by the game abilities, or by the setting/faction/etc. It's sometimes shocking to me just how much it changes my play.

An example from WoW, I play my death knight crazy-aggressively, gleefully grabbing mob after mob without any recovery or plan, in greater and greater numbers until I get too careless and die. But I can laugh off the deaths and get right back to it. Compare that to my rogue, where I move with precision and care, deftly taking out mob after mob with strategy and planning. But then when I die it feels like a failure and upsets me.

Is that what roleplaying means? I dunno.
What about EVE Online?
You here can really roleplay (and act accordingly) a hero protecting the shipping lanes from evil pirates. Or be the pirate. Or join Providence that live by the "not hostile, don't attack him" ethos, despite they are in nullsec. You can make totally out-of-the box stories and if they are good/hilariously bad, they become known. Practically everyone in EVE knows my crusade against Goons. Whatever you think about it, it's a unique story taking place in EVE.
Macroscopically certainly, and that is the unique selling point of EVE. But I always question in how far that really translates into the daily play experience of every average EVE player. Isn't it just a few people some of the time who create all of those stories?
Sure it's a few "DMs" creating the stories. But players who just wish to play has real choices joining them. For example the highsec gankers and the highsec anti-gankers both recruit literally everybody. One can easily join any nullsec empire (Karmafleet, Pandemic Horde, TEST, BRAVE recruit everyone). One can even choose to just mine/mission and support my crusade.

It's like having multiple questgivers and players picking between them, and doing so changes the big picture (imagine that if everyone quests for Cenarion expedition, Nestingvary gets arrested).
I don't know if you have any interest in anime, but one of the better ones, Log Horizon, deals a lot with what you're talking about. Much of the societal structure has formed around the fact that the player "adventurers" will respawn, so are effectively immortal (something that is true but never talked about in basically every MMORPG). This explains why the mortal NPCs will pay the players to fight the monsters and do all the dangerous tasks. This also means that kidnapping and theft are actually far worse crimes than murder (at least for the players).

Even if you don't like anime, it might be worthwhile to track down a plot summary. It deals with a lot of interesting issues like that.
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