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The Roleplayer's Redoubt

Is there a really place for roleplaying in MMOs? What do roleplayers bring to the table? How can developers foster stronger roleplaying communities? How do traditional concepts fit into the realities of contemporary online roleplaying?

Author: OddjobXL

The Human Canonball

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday March 31 2009 at 9:19AM
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As a roleplayer I spend a good deal of my time either studying or trying to replicate a setting.   I've been MIA for a few days catching up on Star Trek.  Lord, I thought Tolkein had alot of time on his hands to make crap up!  Still, it's an interesting setting and one I'd just not seriously looked at before.  Confession, I'm really more of a vicarious swashbuckler so my natural tastes tended to Star Wars, back in the day, or Firefly now.  My tastes are adjusting quickly to this new prospect.

For me, perhaps not for every roleplayer, a good deal of the fun is doing my homework.  I'm a loremaster.  I like knowing as much as I can about a place, real or fictional, before I jump into character creation mode.  The more I know the more I can be inspired by.  I can create original characters and interpretations once I understand how the creator, and the fan, visualizes the local reality.

Star Trek Online may suck (I find this highly doubtful based on what we know so far) but I've had fun already just exploring the world and seeing the sights of Star Trek: The Next Generation from the roleplayer's angle:  This isn't just information, not just stories being told to a passive reader or audience, but stuff I may actually use one day.

However, canon can be dangerous to a healthy roleplaying experience as well.  The more you know, inevitably, the less any game can measure up.  There are so many possibilities and variations that a designer has to settle down and focus on central themes and practical gameplay within the constraints of budget, technology and a release date.

When I started playing Star Wars Galaxies, for example, I knew very little other than the original triology so I saddled up and got to work.  Now I probably know more about Corellia's history, freetraders and smugglers than most.  

Heck, in SWG you didn't even have to be a loremaster to see all the missing elements in the original release.  No Jedi, No Space and No Empire or Rebellion (in any recognizeable form) is pretty obvious stuff.  But as a loremaster I came to recognise many additional imperfections and outright errors in design.  I learned about CorSec and Corellia's semi-neutral status from the EU.  Yet, Corellia was a world in the middle of the conflict in SWG and while Corsec, the law enforcement of the world, was present they just sorta sat around and didn't do anything.  Why even have them?  Was it just fan service?  And how are the fans served if something they presumably want to see in the game isn't really fulfilling any kind of role one would expect?

So, the more you know about setting the harder it is to embrace compromise with the often muted or warped representations in a game.   This is why fans of a setting, and roleplayers, will be very vocal about this in forums.  They're not crazy.  They know what they want.  Now, they may not be diplomatic, reasonable or realistic.  Still, a designer should shoot for accurate representations of what they do put in and leave things out entirely if they can't be done accurately, on time or on budget.   The priority should be those elements which reinforce central themes of the setting not the little stuff on the margins no matter how much some players might fetishize a certain narrow aspect.  And certainly not, as Koster did, gameplay elements shoehorned on for the sake of experiment or proving some design theory that don't serve the setting at all.

Alright, that aside, there's another downside to knowing too much canon.  Some players will use their knowledge of canon to intimidate other players.  They'll lecture, berate and mock people who don't know what they do or who "don't play right."  

There is nothing that's more a scourage to a healthy roleplaying community than these folks. 

The way canon works in actual roleplaying is that it gives knowledgable people more details to bring up in /emotes and broader ways, say forum roleplay as an adjunct, to recreate the setting in words.   If everyone knows "the language" of the world, its unique glossary of terms and related ideas and themes, they'll be able to imagine their characters and the world around them much more vividly.  That's how roleplayers achieve immersion.  They're recreating what they've learned, by directed study or by passing interest over the years, in their own way, their own words, to add to the experience for each other.

However, people without that kind of specialized knowledge can have fun too.  They're less picky about words being used the right way or all references to the setting being lined up correctly.  They've got a general idea and they can run with it just fine, thank you very much.  In fact even hardcore roleplayers have characters who probably spend more time as just being people, often with colorful personalities of course, than being people from particular settings dropping glossary terms and references right and left.   Still, the more you know the better you can sustain character and dialogue and stay consistant.

But that incessant lecturing of canonistas can drive people away.   I've seen roleplayers who are hostile to the idea of canon, understanding a setting, altogether because of how some people act.  And that's a damn shame.  Because some people use their knowledge of canon as weapons of intimidation to promote their own lofty status in some roleplayer social pecking order many people are turned off to roleplaying altogether.

Very often these purists aren't really all they claim anyhow, I've found.

My approach is to use canon and be as hardcore as I can in my own roleplay while also adjusting my approach to those I encounter.  If I run across a nonroleplayer I'll drop character entirely to be helpful to that person.  If I encounter someone with more limited knowledge I'll play to a more interpersonal kind of exchange than one that deals with major plot points or obscure references.  I may offer advice, or detail they might have missed from canon, in an OOC /tell but often I don't.  Why mess with someone else's good time even if I mean well?

Now there will be times someone's style just annoys me too much.  Or maybe I'm just not in the mood to be a helpful guy.  Hey, I'm not selfless I'm just a reasonable and sometimes selfish human being. 

Then I ignore what's bothering me and move on to something else.  What you don't do is ridicule them, talk about them behind their backs, or put mocking posts on a forum.  Live and let live.

One day that clueless character who can't even capitalize words or use punctuation and insists he's the king of the universe with x-ray vision whose family was, indeed, killed by The Empire but is secretly Darth Vader's son...maybe one day, he'll be a good roleplayer.  Just give it time.  Don't pound on him.  We all started off somewhere and we all had, and have, a great deal more to learn about how this roleplaying thing works.

Eve Is From Mars, STO Is From Venus

Posted by OddjobXL Thursday March 26 2009 at 8:40AM
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Put down the disruptors and the bat’leths my Klingon friends.  You know this to be true even in your warrior hearts. 

Eve Online is from Mars and STO is from Venus.

PvP is the bloody beating heart of Eve Online.  Eve is where the libertarians and survivalists and neoconservatives go.  Dog eat dog.  Capitalism is the only true system of economics and trade makes the universe go 'round.  The universe is a hostile place so one must be willing to preempt, to walk "the dark side", to be wary of intruders.  Shoot first.  Never apologise.  They'd do it to you if you didn't do it to them first.  If someone trusts you, you're doing them a favor by screwing them over as it teaches them a lesson they'll learn sooner or later anyhow.  Don't fly anything you can't afford to lose.  Pod pilots are the superior, immortal, race above humanity that will rule its destiny.  Theology is merely a tool for war.  Liberal cultures are corrupt and hypocritical and prone to disintigrate without an enemy to rally them.  Never trust CONCORD (Eve's equivalent of the United Nations).  They're up to something.

PvE will be at the core of STO.   STO will be where you'll find idealists, scientists, socialists and diplomats. The Federation welcomes new ideas.  It never shoots first.  We almost all will belong to it (Over 70%, in an informal poll, wish to be Federation and nearly 60% PvE Federation alone).  The most innovative systems in the game are procedurally generated missions and worlds for PvE, along with competative PvE in the Neutral Zone, and we're promised violence will not always be the answer to resolving situations.   The Federation thinks of capitalism as a quaint phase in human evolution and has solved the problems of inequality and hunger through replicator technology (if not, perhaps, on the colonial frontiers).   Crafting may well take the shape of tinkering on and improving one's own starship rather than grinding out mass quanities of goods for resale.   Every player will have NPC crewmen, the bridge crew/away team, to cultivate and nurture.   There may be multiplayer ships eventually, if not at launch, further stressing cooperation and mutual dependance.

Yes, Eve has some PvE content but it's as limited as I suspect STO's PvP (consentual PvP in the Neutral Zone and isolated FFE PvP areas in 'deep space') will be.  An option, a break, from the central flow of the game. 

STO also has avatars and ground combat where Eve's promise of Ambulation is likely as far off as STO's release if not further.

As a roleplayer I find both, to quote a pointy-eared fellow who's not an elf, "Fascinating." 

Eve's player driven dynamism is indisputable and the systems very much reward PvP play with depth of design, tactical options and strategic planning and considerations.  Roleplaying flows naturally from the gameplay whether or not players intend to be roleplaying.  The game is the setting, the setting is the game.  However, PvP is not always fun.  To play the 'real' game takes a huge amount of commitment and focus though casual gamers don't even have to log in to level what they play tends to be a small role on the fringes as hunter-gatherers or prey.

Star Trek Online's approach seems to be really about recreating the 'adventure and exploration' heart of Star Trek with a side helping of DS9 flavored strategic conflicts.  Big ships, big crews and going places no one has seen before (because they're being created on the fly).  The cooperative nature of The Federation and PvE style gameplay should create a much cozier, looser paced, atmosphere for roleplayers to do their thing especially as the avatars for characters and NPC crew alike will be highly customizable.  Invent your own race, if you like, and then play with variations on that template to create many individuals of that race if you like.  When ship interiors arrive, and at least the bridge and the captain's quarters have been all but confirmed, they too will be customizable (likely within limits) which gives us player housing of a sort. 

I think STO, delivering a strong sense of Star Trek (unlike SWG does with Star Wars) and strong PvE gameplay (unlike Eve Online) along with many roleplayer friendly tools like highly customizable housing and avatars (which SWG does and Eve may do) will steal away not only Trekkers but curious PvE gamers in general looking for non-scripted, less repetative, content that's not PvP only and plenty of roleplayers in general.

If it delivers, I'm ready for a little Venus myself.

Roleplayer As Puppeteer

Posted by OddjobXL Wednesday March 25 2009 at 8:33AM
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After visual design and modest biographical detailing, the techniques an MMO roleplayer can use to help express a character, widen the immediate effect of the character's persona in the moment, are dialogue and emotes.

Dialogue could be a blog post in itself.  There are entire books written by smarter people than myself about how to create dialogue for characters, and how that dialogue creates the characters themselves, in fiction.   My cheat sheet for dialogue is this:  Figure out how your character speaks and stick with it.  If your character is a formal fellow or well educated, avoid contractions (can't, I'd), if she's female avoid using "I" often and find other ways of framing a line,  if you're trying to use an accent trim it down to only some words otherwise you'll be incomprehensible.  That last is important and learned from experience.   What sounds good in your head sometimes sounds like white noise when a nonpsychic tries to translate it on the screen.  Sometimes just mixing up grammar rather than distorting words will do the job.  Or, to put it another way: "The job's done, betimes,  not wi' words themselfs but wi' where fall th' words do."  Yarr.

Emotes come in three flavors in MMOs.  Animated, basic and freehand.  If dialogue is what your character says the emote is what he does.  Animated emotes are gestures or movements or facial expressions that get picked up and displayed by the character model.   Basic emotes are simple words or phrases that are expressed as text on the screen.  Example, I'd type /bye and the game might say, "Mandash wishes you well and hopes to see you soon" or /smile and you'd get "Mandash smiles."  

Often simple emotes and animated emotes work together so that a /bye or a /smile in Star Wars Galaxies would animate the avatar even as it expressed the associated text.  Galaxies also, and some like this better than others, will pluck words from dialogue to animate a character.   If Grim says "pleasure", as in "the pleasure be mine" out loud he'll bow unless I've disabled that function.  In other cases it's more of a problem.  If he says, "Late I'll be ter th' rendezvous, I fear" the tough old captain will start shaking like a little child on a cold winter's day with his arms wrapped over his chest.  It's fear!  *goes to options and disables automatic animations*

Freehand emotes are the most important of all.  This is where, along with dialogue, you get to show your roleplaying chops.  You're simply writing out an emote.   Examples:  /em shakes his fist at the heavens.  "Damn ye, Star Wars Galaxies, I ain't a'feared o' yer cheesy animations!"   Or, in MUSH style, :shakes his fist at the heavens...etc.  True MUSH style also includes ";" for possessive poses as in ;'s wrathful voice echoes throughout the blog post.  This is painfully lacking in SWG and most other MMOs as well.

The secret to freehand emotes is context.  Know where you are, what's going on and try to imagine every little detail about your character and his environment. 

We all fall into habits and common expressions and that's actually a good thing to an extent.  Players really tend to be most focused on their own characters so repetition of certain key phrases or words that make your character stand out, over time, helps people remember who he is and what he's like.   For example Grim will almost always "amble" or "meander" when he's moving.  Sometimes he'll "stride" or "stalk" if he's in a black mood or feeling particularly energetic about something.  I don't even bother looking for other words.  This does the job for that. 

But don't, I plead with you, fall into the habit of creating macros for long poses.  There are players who delight in creating long "stock" emotes and unleashing them on the unsuspecting public over and over (the public doesn't stay unsuspecting for long).   This gets in the way.  It's lazy.  It's not responsive. And it's often spammy as hell since the player's not having to actually think or write but hit a single key on his keyboard to unleash a torrent of disconnected creative typing.   They pour over their favorites like Gollum with his ring.  They'll sometimes even warn you ahead of time in an OOC chat or /tell:  "Check this out.  I just made this one!"  This is solipsism not creative, immersive, interaction with other players.

Now when I say to imagine your character and your environment I'm suggesting you really think about him in that moment and what, or who, is around him.  The more stuff you can put into poses, over time, that make your character seem distinct while also showing you're aware of what's around the more immersion you're creating not only for yourself but others.   In general, don't show it all off in one pose.   Keep them short, usually, but with a telling detail here or there.   Idly scratch an itch, adjust a gunbelt while eyeing the Dosh by the bar counter.  Amble, and/or, meander to a corner table.  Grin wolfishly as you slump down onto a creaking chair.

Why keep poses short if more detail means more immersion?  There are four reasons.  Two are technical while the other two are psychological. 

One technical reason is that often you're around a bunch of other characters.  Big poses can fill up a bit chunk of the limited space in the dialogue box.  You might have just shoved dialogue, or poses, other people are still reading and trying to react to clear off the screen.  Yes, they scroll up but that's an immersion breaking pain.   This is more true in crowded situations than in smaller interactions but be mindful that you're not the star.  You, like everyone else, are a supporting actor.  The scene itself is the focus.  Don't overwhelm it.  Insinuate yourself into the fabric of it.

The other technical concern is the ability to interrupt.  If you have a penchant for extended poses or long speeches other players have to sit there passively.   They can't really interact or insert their own contrary ideas before your character's finished his monologue and set down Yorick.  This busts immersion.  Now if your character's an entertainer telling a story or a politician giving a speech, don't sweat it.   Otherwise remember your character needs to breath, to pause and ponder, and other characters need an opportunity to interject, to counter or to agree.  Besides, long poses take a long time to write.   Roleplaying isn't  a spectator sport.   Few are happy about waiting on someone else and most will simply keep on going unaware of the brilliant storm of rhetoric you're brewing up.  By the time you're done the moment may well have already passed.

One psychological reason to stick to shorter poses is that you safely avoid looking like a show-off.   A big, fancy, pose filled with allusions and flourishes and so on in the middle of a terse discussion can send the impression that you're trying way too hard and likely looking for attention. 

The other psychological reason is that you can overwhelm other players.  The goal of detail breeding immersion is to help other players get deeper into their own characters and the moment as much as you into yours.   While your pose is entirely an IC, or in-character, act there is an OOC reaction too.  You might inadvertantly dominate a dialogue by having your character forcefully, and at length, make a point.    Dialogue and posing in roleplaying isn't a game of ping-pong you're trying to win by slamming that ball so fast the other player can't hit it back.   You want to measure your responses and sometimes even bunt to give the initiative to your opposite numbers.   Quite often less is more.  The absolute least, the much maligned "..." is actually a very handy tool.  It lets other players know your character is paying attention but is either shocked or at a loss for words without putting too much english on a pose.  It gives other players permission to interpret the moment as they want to.

Edit:  Related to this last consideration is that posing a character's thoughts is generally seen as poor technique.  It's internal, meaning other characters can't react to it, so it's aimed at other players by default.  That's bringing OOC into IC for them.  If they can't do anything with a pose other than be amused or offended by this as players then you've moved from IC roleplaying to emotional manipulation of another player even if you don't realize it.  I know, it tickles some people to pose characters thoughts and witty thoughts can create warm chummies, but it's more effective to have your character accidentally think out loud even if quietly.  This gives other players the option to interact with the pose with their characters.

Hopefully this is the discussion Tychus was looking for.  If not I'm certain he'll let me know here or elsewhere.  But preferably here.  Sakky, Scotland Tom, Vox and Neopythia:  the courtesy of a response is requested.  Same with everyone else!

Fitting Character To Game

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday March 24 2009 at 8:29AM
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"Funny, I was just thinking last night that if you're in need of topics you might consider writing about how to flesh out characters. Perhaps expand on the tips and tricks of what works well (or doesn't) given the available interface (i.e. text only, graphical emotes, "stances", etc) vs. tabletop play.

Also, building characters appropriate to the game. We (roleplayers) have a tendency to come up with cool character ideas that don't always fit well with the rules of the game. For example, a pacifist preacher might be a very fun character to roleplay, but in a diku game where combat=advancement, you'll constantly find yourself in conflict with your own character."

-Tychus

Some of my friends are shy.  I get many comments in assorted forums where I pimp this blog, tastefully and subtly of course, but here not so much.  More like this please!   But, also, chime in with your own ideas in the comments section here.  The comments section for each post is a good place to get a conversation going with people who might be interested in what you have to say besides just me.  I know many smart folks from many different places, I haven't yet met still many more, and if they want to talk to each other in the comments section of this blog that's fantastic.  One day I may be hanging out in your comments section too.

I'll address Tychus' second suggestion first as that's the easy one.  Don't make characters you can't sustain in the context of the game.  A pacifist in any MMO to date, short of Sims Online or A Tale in The Desesrt, is just asking for trouble.  Everyone's toting weapons and lookin' to do some harm even if it's just to NPC rats on the outskirts of town.  Maybe, maybe, it could work as a Federation officer in the upcoming Star Trek Online, they're going to include non-violent resolutions and missions to resolve and systems like diplomacy (somehow) at least for Starfleet captains, but odds are even the sweetest tempered ambassador's going to need a hold-out phaser in her boot and a team of security standing by in the transporter room.

This goes back to my continual exhortations to know the setting first.  The collerary is that gameplay is as much setting as fluff text and flavorful graphics are.  To be successful with a long term character, rather than a one-off experiment or NPC in a story you're telling, you need to find a sweet spot where the melieu described in words and images matches the world described by what the game actually does.   MMOs are generally not brilliant at this. 

Very often you'll create a great character who should work well in a game but the gameplay itself doesn't translate what this person is supposed to be able to do.  The rest of your roleplaying life will be spent in OOC conversations explaining how your character works compared to how things really are in the game.   This is an immersion buster not only for you but for everyone who has to remember quirky things about your character.  "Right, you look like a Twi'lek but you're really a Bith.  Got it."  "You're a martial artist with psychic powers but neither are in the game?"

Try, please try, to work with what's there. You are imaginative or you wouldn't be a roleplayer.  Roleplayers do like to push boundaries, experiment, have favorite tropes they tend to pursue through different games and so forth.  But sometimes it can be most rewarding to color inside the lines but with new twists.  There's no need to claim to be a giant space-going dragon in Star Wars Galaxies.  People are just going to look at you funny, ignore you, or they'll just honestly forget thus prompting you to break character and remind them.   Again, your character is the mirror-mirror in which other players see themselves reflected.  Be something that doesn't work well for them and you're not going to be hanging on the wall for long.

But even on a more basic level, entertaining yourself and achieving immersion for yourself, you'll have much more success looking at what character classes are in the game already, what the fictional archetypes and stereotypes are as well, and then working out some variation on those functional mechanics to make an interesting character for yourself both on a roleplaying level and a daily grind level.

Tomorrow we'll explore being a puppeteer.

The Roleplayer's Shelf

Posted by OddjobXL Friday March 20 2009 at 8:26AM
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These are books that have come in handy on many occasions in many settings.  For tabletop, MUSH or MMORPG roleplaying you'll find yourself happy to have them around for inspiration or guidance.

The most important books on your shelf, for a specific game, will be any tabletop roleplaying rules that pertain to the setting.  While the rules themselves don't apply the fluff text and orientation to the geography, politics, metaphysics, theology and history of a setting will always be a touchstone.  It will also serve as information organized to expedite roleplaying that you can leap off from to research on the internet or in other books.

After this you may want to look for any "nonfiction" about a setting.  Visual guides, encyclopedias, companions, lexicons, technical manuals and so on are quite valuable.  While the MMORPGs themselves rarely seem to conform to the available information, which remains a sore point for roleplayers and genre fans, this is still fodder for you as a roleplayer.  You and others will be inventing situations on the fly and characters and won't be, in your imaginations at least, restricted by mundane game design.  The more a roleplayer knows about a setting, obviously, the more tools he has to improvise with. 

Dropping setting appropriate references and terms, in passing and in moderation, also really enhances immersion.  You can sound convincing as a crusty pirate or an ancient elf.  Neither of those is a mean feat.

Character Names:  While there are fine lists and generation programs on the internet, I tend to like having this kind of resource close to hand.  Obviously, in any MMO, look to NPC names for ideas about how a culture names its people.  If you can recognize a source-culture (Stygia = Ancient Egypt, Caldari = Finnish-Japanese) from the real world many of these name lists will be more useful.  If not, play around with consonants or vowels on an existing example.  Write down a list of examples , split  them into prefix, middle (if any) and suffix syllables, and switch them around in different combinations.  Or do both.  Then say the name out loud and see if it sounds right to you.  Try not to use sounds you don't hear elsewhere for it to sound right.  Once you have a name that fits your character, that sounds both right and good, then you're ready.

The Everyone Everywhere List published by Magic & Tactics Unlimited  (Now in a 3rd Edition but all are good).  Cheap 8 1/2" by 11" pamphlet bound.  I've used my first edition for ages now and it covers most common bases, historical and contemporary.  Just a basic list of names broken down by culture.

Gary Gygax's Extraordinary Book of Names by Malcolm Bowers.  A truly extraordinary, lives up to the billing, book that not only list names but describes how they come about.  Broken down by cultural origin.  Includes place names and spends a great deal of time on medieval England's naming practices (most common in fantasy games).  Not only people but place names are covered.  There are also sections on fantasy names for orcs, elves, demons and the like.  Supercedes The Everyone Everywhere List by far in terms of scope but The List remains more handy for just snagging names on the fly because there's less there to dig through.

Character Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon.  A handy introduction on how to go about naming a character, from a writer's perspective, is followed by yet more name lists broken down by culture.  These include the meanings of the name.  This fat book mainly describes the names of modern cultures which makes it a third choice after the other two for me.  However one neat tool, which is seems to be unintended, is the index that just list names in alphabetical order.  Really want to see what's out there?  Run a finger through the index and you'll have tons of ideas, especially for generic fantasy characters, without having to sort through separate cultural listings.  You can always pick a name from the index then go look up the meaning if you want.

Character Brainstorming: Generally, when working on a concept, your best bet is really to understand the archetypes and stereotypes in the game already.  Know the culture, know the character.  It's up to you to decide how your character differs from the stereotype.  More on this in "Thoughts on Character Creation."  Really far out or bizarre or "powerful" (in RP you're really only as powerful as the game system or the other players let you be) or evil characters can be problematic.  Subtle differences from archetypes are generally better received than more outrageous ones.  Remember the character you create is the surface off of which other players see their character reflected.  Too much distortion and you could be messing up someone else's good time and find yourself sidelined.

Building Believable Characters by Marc McCutcheon.  If you want a quirk or a trait but are at a loss, pick through this one.  It's really aimed mainly at fictional characters in the modern world but it's got some stuff you can use or be inspired by.  Also useful are descriptive lists for character features.  If you're writing a description, and often roleplayers will do this in a pose/emote to flesh it out with detail or in a biography, this will give you words to stock up on,   Still, don't rely on this as much as the setting itself.  Much of it simply won't apply or be appropriate.

Foreign Dialects: A Manual for Actors, Writers and Directors by Lewis Herman and Marguerite Shalett Herman.  This one is real handy.  In most settings some characters can talk with strange accents but, if you pay attention, you'll notice they're actually borrowing from real world dialects.   Dwarves talk like Scots, right?  Imperial Officers in Star Wars are British, upper class.   With this book you can pick up some tricks of expression and learn what not to do.   It's not a heavy study, really, because you're just trying to carry the general sense of it not be a master thespian!   There's also a guide on American dialects but it's really too specialized for our purposes.

The Word Finder by J.J. Rodale.  Need a word or a phrase?  Give me a word.  Horse, you say?  I've got about 100 common words and phrases that could apply to a horse.  From "startled" to "whinnies."  Aha, now you have the power, padawan.   This can actually be used to brainstorm on the fly too.  It's not a thesaurus but a word finder.  I don't need to tell you to get Roget's Super Thesaurus do I?  I know you've already got that!

Storytelling:  I can't stress this enough, your best bet is the source material for the setting.  If you can get your hands on tabletop roleplaying books for the setting you should be set for story ideas.  Pulling it off can be something else though.  You might want to look at the previous entries "Spinning The Saga of Gresh'Maj" and "Lona's Event Guides for Dummies."

Gary Gygax's Insidiae Dan Cross.  A pretentious name for a pretentious book.  Still for all the lip-flapping and theorizing, Dan does offer a way to think about creating stories.  How, when, who, why?  What's the role of each NPC?  What motivations does he have, what methods does he use?  What's the context for a story in terms of politics or natural disaster or whatever else.  It discusses how to organize a plot in detail.  Maybe too much.  However, if you need an idea fast and don't have anything more setting specific to work with, Insidiae can help.

The Big List of RPG Plots by John Ross.  This actually does much the same thing as Insidiae but more efficiently and, better, it's free and downloadable.  Ross went through all his old tabletop modules and distilled down common themes and plots.  He also includes tools for mixing those plots up and making them work under "Handy Tip!" sidebars in the print-friendly version.  If you're already comfortable with storytelling you can probably just make best use of The Big List without bothering with Insidiae.  John spends much less time working through all the details of plot or possible permutations of NPC complications.  He just lays out plot ideas, raw and to the point.  Along with The Everyone Everywhere List, The Big List of RPG Plots is probably one of the most valuable things you can own, pound for pound and dollar for dollar.

http://www.io.com/~sjohn/plots.htm

Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering by Robin Laws.  Robin focuses more on the dynamics of how players think and how to sculpt an adventure or campaign to suit their tastes.  He also shares tips for improvising situations when players go off the map and explains why that's sometimes to be celebrated.  Much more useful a view of players, for our purposes, than Bartle's "Killer, Explorer, Achiever and Socializer" is Law's list of "The Power Gamer, The Butt-Kicker, The Tactician, The Specialist, The Method Actor, The Storyteller and The Casual Gamer."    Know thyself, know thy players, and one cannot fail to deliver a good time.  Apologies to Sun Tzu.

760 Patrons:  Contacts, Mentors, Benefactors and Financiers by Bryan Steele.  This book is written for the new Mongoose edition of the classic scifi tabletop RPG, Traveller. It's a list of NPCs.  All kinds of NPCs.  With simple modifications it works well in modern and most scifi settings.  Need ideas for NPCs, contacts, foes, patrons, complications?  Ding.  Here ya go.  Most, with some thought, could even inspire some stories just around them.  They're vague enough to be resusable stereotypes but detailed just enough to show what kinds of direction the narrative might take.  Combined with Insidiae's NPC personality/appearance tables you've got a fully fleshed individual.  Might even work in some fantasy settings but the utility isn't as strong.

Nightmares of Mine by Kenneth Hite.   The master of immersive storytelling, Kenneth Hite, wrote this book to help storytellers scare the bejesus out of their players in horror games like Call of Cthulhu or Kult.  However much of it can apply to many games.   Pacing, putting to together mysteries to be solved, setting and maintaining moods, screwing with player expectations (in a narrative sense) and other nice tricks are covered here.

Well, that's it for now.  Will be back soon with more after a little break

The Problem With Bartle, Part II

Posted by OddjobXL Wednesday March 18 2009 at 9:25AM
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And after our brief intermission I found what I was looking for:

"A newbie will look at a set of virtual worlds and say this one is medieval Fantasy, this one is Cyberpunk Science Fiction, that one is dark vampire Horror, this one is Greek Mythology, this one is asexual Japanese Anime, that one is stylized Gangsters, and so on."

"Again, though, from a design perspective most of the way a virtual world works is independent of genre."

After this he describes particular examples of why realistic, or melieu based, simulations would mess up a gaming experience.  I'm not the only one who cherrypicks it seems.  Then:

"The chief importance of genre lies in the ability to attract players.  From this perspective, the choice of genre becomes a marketing issue, rather than being a design issue (although designers should, perforce, understand their market)."

A description of the pros and cons of licenced IPs follows.  Then:

"Perversely, though, licencing can be liberating - at least insofar as virtual worlds are concerned.  A sure fire hit such as Star Wars Galaxies or The Sims Online can take risks that unlicensed games might avoid simply because if they do screw up, it's not going to kill the game."

"For a competant design team, a world with a big enough license behind it isn't going to fail unless they set out to make it fail (for the time being at least."

Now keep in mind this was published before SWG came out and The Sims Online was brand new.

Now look at what killed both of those games. 

The Sims Online failed to deliver the ant farm experience of independent little avatars living out a soap opera (an odd one that involves going to the bathroom and kitchen fires but it is what it is).  Instead, they put the player into the role of one Sim and gave them lots of unSimlike things to do.  So if hanging out in hottubs with virtual hookers and speaking non-Simlish is your idea of a good time you know where to go.

Star Wars Galaxies failed to deliver anything that resembled Star Wars at all.  It was entirely an experiment for Koster.  In his defense some of those ideas, that he pioneered, keep folks in SWG to this very day.  Player cities, crafting, space, detailed custom avatars, pets and so on.  Many were jettisoned with the NGE and are only slowly coming back.  But in every single poll people wanted more Star Warsiness, an overused term by now if there ever was one, and more PvE content. 

The topic of when and where PvP can work in an immersive setting or in the context of a design based around an IP (and boy howdy is Bartle right, for a change on this topic, when he talks about the marketing importance of a licensed property) is for another day.  It can but has to be handled very carefully.  In SWG it tore a real big hole in everything.

With Koster's PvP there had to be balanced sides so no Empire, really.  There would be fighting everywhere so in the middle of downtown Theed, in a cantina in Coronet, in every starport as load-gankers lined up.  The pressures of making PvP 'balanced', based on the complaints of the minority PvP population, sucked all the air and immersiveness out of the conversation.  Everyone ran around in the same composite armor, battleaxes and pikes were more common than rifles and rifles were more common than pistols.  Medics sprayed the battlefield with poison gas.  People had multiple giant pets like rancors or AT-STs following them around like ducklings. 

Meanwhile there was no space and no starships.  No recognisable Galactic Civil War (aside from the bloods vs. crips street PvP).  No urban spaces or spacestations.  You did have a cool crafting system, skill system and a well developed wilderness mechanic.   And...no quests, missions or other real content outside of the terminals.  There were no Jedi for a very long time (this is both a blessing and a curse as it turns out).

Where was the Star Wars?   Well, graphically speaking and in terms of sound design, if you really hunted around you could find it in between vast stretchs of wilderness and the multitude of secondary factions and NPCs that came out of the Expanded Universe and, generally, stood around like bumps on a log.  Nothing like seeing CorSec, the Corellian cops, wander blithely by as wanton murder was being committed right and left in the street.

But if you wanted to be a rebel hero fighting the evil empire, which is where the numbers were, good luck with that son.  You sure you don't want to pick up hairdressing or learn to trash talk in l33t instead?

This is the problem with Bartle.  Where does real immersion figure in?   Where imagination impacts code and the code reinforces that process without creating a tsunami of cognative dissonance?  Immersion isn't a thing it's a constant cycle of feedback between a player and his environment.  That environment is also impacted by the other players in it as much as the code.

These things must be designed for. 

GENRE ISN'T INDEPENDENT OF DESIGN.

The Problem with OddjobXL On Bartle

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday March 17 2009 at 8:59AM
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I have a confession to make.  I didn't read all Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds."  I'm cherry picking to make a point.  The more I skim through the more I see a context there which does make sense.  When he talks about the main sequence of player development where they start out as killers to test their environment, become explorers to learn more about it, achievers to succeed at what they've learned and finally to retire as socializers to hang out with their friends I recognise this. 

In fact, where we see roleplayer populations taking over is on Unofficial RP Servers in older, or struggling, games.  Everyone else is moving on but roleplayers keep on trucking.  Much of it is socialization but the unique power of roleplayers to create content and context for what they're doing, and their emotional connection to the game's setting, the shared narrative continuity of their characters and so on keeps them in the game longer. 

The guy still doesn't get roleplaying, he's almost too technically minded like an engineer.   I know engineers.  They can't just enjoy anything naively without breaking them down and analyzing them.  No wonder Bartle sees roleplaying as being almost impossible because self-editing, consciously, kills immersion.  He's probably analyzing each thing his character does with the idea he needs to control the experience and understand where it's coming from.

Roleplaying a character is much more like improvising in a jam session than deliberately creating a robot.   Kids roleplay, play pretend, all the time.  If I sat down with one and tried to explain in detail how what he was doing worked he'd just give me a blank look.  Which I'd justly deserve.  He's a Transformer and that's that.

As roleplayers get more sophisticated they start running into problems.  It's harder to maintain immersion and suspension of disbelief.  They need verisimilitude:  a context that's internally consistant that rewards a player's understanding of the character and the setting he belongs to.

Generally, in MMOs, roleplayers are forced to get that context from other players because the game designs simply don't cater to it.  They're focused on technical stuff, on bulletpoints, not on aesthetics beyond graphic design in most cases.  More aesthetics in the actual code and gameplay and setting design would be a welcome turn of events.

------

Right now, I'm flipping through pages trying to find Bartle's description of the role of melieu or setting or theme.  That's what I wanted to deliver today.   They're not in the index nor the table contents.  I know I read that passage a few months back and it set me off.  Getting set off, along with a cup of coffee, is a great way to write a blog.

Unfortunately for me, and my agenda, I'm instead stumbling over more stuff that makes sense.  That's bloody counterproductive.   He does get immersion and quite a few of the things I talk about he does too in his own way.  There's even a chapter called "It's Not A Game, It's A..." which talks about different perspectives on MMORPGs if in a much broader, and more scholarly and documented, sense than my article "It's Just A Game" did (mine focuses mainly on the difference between PvPers and RPers and speculates about what motivates RP-PvPers). 

Bartle's views of roleplaying may be tinged, and this seems to be a recurring theme, by his own ideas about self-exploration of personal identity in MMOs as much as his analytical nature.  He takes this very seriously.  I won't dwell but I would suggest folks interested pick the book up and not do what I'm doing.  Read the whole book through.  You'll learn a few things.

In fact, I have to call the win in this debate for Bartle.  And he's not even here.   It's clear to me he's got a keen interest in immersion and roleplaying, though I'm not sure he really understands the latter on a gut level, and frankly is more clinically studied in both than I am (and many other things besides).  Which probably is to be expected.  There's a reason Bartle's Bartle.

"It's not that players don't know about virtual world design, but their knowledge is too personal.  Players tend to view all worlds in the context of the one they "grew up" playing.  If a new idea is suggested, many players will immediately consider how it would fit into their preferred virtual world, whether or not the virtual world for which it is intended is remotely similar.  If the debate actually concerns "their" virtual world, they'll figure out the short term repercussions of their own playing style and use this as a basis of whether they are for or against.  They'll only refer to long-term effects or other playing styles when they're trying to win allies or convince the live team that they are responsible people whose opinions should carry weight."  Bartle, 122

I am so busted!

Still, even if I am of a "different religion" (Bartle, 122) than another player or a designer I'd be falling down on the job if I didn't try to proseltyze a little.

I'll close with this which tends to reinforce my sense of why Bartle doesn't quite grasp, perhaps can't grasp, what roleplayers are about on an intuitive level:

"When I enter a virtual world, all I see is the machinery, the forces at work, the interactions - it's intellectually interesting and can be artistically exciting but it isn't fun.  Other designers are the same:  The price you pay for being able to deconstruct a virtual world is that of being unable to not to deconstruct it.  Magic isn't magic when you know how the trick is done.

This is why most players aren't good at design.  They still sense the magic."  Bartle, 123

Roleplaying is the magic at its most pure when it's working right.  I envy Bartle's intellect and keen sense of observation but, man, I wish he could enjoy the magic himself one day.

The Problem With Bartle, Part I

Posted by OddjobXL Monday March 16 2009 at 9:41AM
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You can't really blame Richard Bartle for the Bartle test.  That was someone else adapting his ideas to another end. But here it is:  Explorer, Killer, Achiever and Socializer.  This is the checklist of motives that drives players in the minds of most game designers. 

Roleplayers are, evidently, socializers.  To an extent that's true.  You can't roleplay alone (that's just writing) and much of what happens in practice is socializing if in costumes and with adopted personae. 

But roleplayers are also killers, achievers and explorers.  You'll find them as the most colorful pirates in Eve Online.  They  lead guilds and look for recognition in SWG.  They explore not just world topography but the meaning of a setting and their character's place in it in every MMO I've found roleplayers in.

Roleplayers are, as a group, immersionists.  They want to lose themselves for a time and become someone else somewhere else.  I talk about the key elements of this in "On Immersion" and "The Power of Selective Perception."

This something that doesn't make the checklist.  We don't hear many folk talking about this in cogent ways.  It's fine when talking about any other form of media to discuss how effective a book is at drawing one in to its reality or laugh when a mic drops into a shot because we all know that ruins suspension of disbelief.  But when it comes to MMOs this line of analysis seems to be utterly missing.  Even singleplayer computer or console games about some known setting are compared to it, how it works, as a matter of course.

When skimming through Bartle's "Designing Virtual Worlds" the other day it seems the man has some odd ideas about roleplaying.  He even offers a checklist on how to pretend to be someone else that includes cooking up a different RL identity for yourself in an, evidently related, section called Masquerading.  But let's get to the nubbins of it.

"Players can adapt their characters.  Role-players determine not to.  Role-playing is therefor a sub-class of playing.  Both are paths to fulfillment, and both offer the same overall goal:  Being someone else in order to become a better you." - Bartle, 190

I roleplay because it's fun to be someone else for a while and it can be a challenge to play someone different from myself or to research a new wrinkle to exploit in a setting.   I'm pretty sure nonroleplayers aren't grinding mobs and levelling characters in order to achieve enlightenment either.  I may misunderstand Bartle's point here but it seems an odd perspective.

"Role-players map themselves onto a character.  They don't map the character onto themselves.  In so doing, they can come to an understanding of what makes their character tick.  The key is they change but their character doesn't."

"This then is the roleplaying paradox:  As a roleplayer, you try to become your character however if you succeed then you're no longer roleplaying. 

So roleplaying sets up the necessary conditions for immersion, but the harder you role-play the less immersed you get:  Thinking about your character as a seperate entity breaks immersion.  The more you think about a line to decide whether it's right for your character, the greater a distance you put between yourself and that character.  The conscious post-editing of your characters words means the subconscious seperation of you and your character."  Bartle, 191

Now this doesn't match my experience at all.  Yes, we do map ourselves onto characters but the characters often push back over time.  They take on lives of their own.  Writers often talk about characters that come alive and surprise them as they're setting down a story.  This happens constantly with roleplayers as a byproduct of immersion.  Some part of our brain is making notes about our planned and improvised choices as we play and, over time, hits autopilot. 

The more you roleplay a character the less hard you have to think about what he or she will say or do.  Yes, we do edit as we go but I'd describe it less as a "conscious post-editing" as a "post-conscious editing."  It comes instinctually.  Selective perception, as described in my other post, also works wonders for a player's internal editor.  We compartmentalize without realizing it and immersion is sustained.

A character grows and develops all kinds of nuances and quirks the longer you play him.  There's often something unplanned that pops out of his mouth a player may find himself wondering about that adds depth if it's explored.  Always notice what you notice, right?.  I suspect once a character becomes that established in the imagination that auto-pilot tends to reel in related stuff on a subconscious level.   More than one time a character's tossed out a word I had to look up afterwords only to find I'd used it right.  Evidently resonant associations on a subconscious level are part of the process.

Part II will explore how Bartle sees setting and its role in MMORPGs.

The Power Of Selective Perception

Posted by OddjobXL Friday March 13 2009 at 8:45AM
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There are two powerful, opposing, forces at work in any unified roleplaying community.  They both have merit.

One force is the eternal drive for immersion wherein roleplayers all intuitively grasp the nature and nuance of the melieu and the moment, embrace the same roleplaying techniques and cognative dissonance shrinks itself down to a mote, and this union of imaginations creates suspension of disbelief.   The illusion becomes real for a time and we are our characters living out exciting lives in exotic places all from the comfort of our own living rooms and dens.

Well, that's the aspiration at least.  It's not terribly common anywhere even in tabletop games and MUSHes.  But when it works, it's magic.  People will tell stories about the time when it happened, without mentioning immersion itself, for years to come as the best roleplaying they've experienced.  And they'll keep on looking for it.

Actors, musicians and I believe roleplayers get it.  Keroac perhaps best frames the experience when describing jazz in "On The Road."  Like jazz, roleplaying is an improvised activity that takes a group to pull off.  What'd old Jack have to say?

"Here's a guy and everybody's there, right? Up to him to put down what's on everybody's mind .... All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it-everybody looks up and knows .... Time stops. He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives .... He has to blow across bridges and come back to it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT."

Pretty high falutin' stuff, ain't it?  Still, when you're on a roll I can't think of a better word picture for it.  Of course, generally, we tend to sum up one of those moments with a, "Wow, that was cool!  Thanks for the RP!"  Sometimes we even manage to get to sleep afterwards.

The opposing force is, for lack of a better word, integrity.

Assuming a roleplayer's been around a while he's going to have a personal understanding of the craft.  The more experienced and knowledgable a player is the more structured his practices will be.  Likely, the player also has expectations for how people behave in a setting and how the setting itself works based on research or common knowledge.   He's got canon slung low on one hip and a two-handed claymore of high standards sheathed over his shoulder.

In general these practices are built from his past experiences with immersion.  He knows what's worked in his past to make it happen.   He may look for proper spelling and diction, characters that are believeable to him, context aside from just socializing in costumes and certainly players who grasp the depth of the setting, as he sees it.  It's not just enough to make believe in the moment, for a jaded fellow like this, but to make believe in such a way as to deepen the scope of roleplay and immersion.

The problem with integrity is that almost every experienced roleplayer will have different interpretations of how things should work.  They'll often spend more time arguing OOCly about roleplaying techniques or elements of the setting than actually roleplaying.   You know the cat who spends more time fluffing his prospective bed than actually settling into it?  That's the roleplayer with integrity.  Everything has to be just right before he can get comfortable.

MMOs, sadly, don't often provide strong settings or gameplay that's plausible.  The roleplayers themselves end up cooking up house rules for resolving disputes or creating story arc developments or fleshing out the gaps in canon.   So, you get a table full of these guys and when they agree, wow, watch out.  Something really special is about to happen.  However, of course, often all you get is arguing.

Integrity opposes immersion, while at the same time pursuing it, because it tends to trample less knowledgable or experienced roleplayers, who can have a pretty good time without all the fancy things the purist roleplayer looks for.  In fact, the less you know the easier it is to achieve basic immersion.  What wrecks it, for the intuitive roleplayer, is the guy OOCly criticising how you go about it.

At the same time, the reason the purist roleplayer acts like this is because he too was once an intuitive roleplayer.  He was a newbie.  Over time he ran into problems that he knows how to avoid now by planning ahead.  For example, knowing how a setting works before he runs into a situation where he's roleplaying the wrong thing and it matters.  He knows that OOC discussion, while weakening immersion, is also the grease that keeps misunderstandings between characters from becoming misunderstandings between players.  He grasps that agreements which set the understandings for roleplaying can cut down on random arguments that crop up in live RP and break immersion.

So how can the purist and the intuitive roleplayer coexist in the same game without annoying each other to death?

That's the power of selective perception.  It's really basic but it's so ingrained that we don't think about it much.  It means "ignore it."  Blow it off.  Move along. 

Seriously.

If someone's doing something you don't like in a game ignore it.  It's not there.  It never happened.  Keep on moving until you find something more to your tastes.  Don't berate them, don't run to the RP forums and mock or complain about them, and if they're really annoying (purist or intuitive RPer alike) literally /ignore them. 

You are the boss of you.  You're not the boss of anyone else and nobody else is the boss of you.

There is always the pull of immersion, of community, of peer pressure to go along with other roleplayers you know.   Nobody can roleplay alone.  The bigger the group of people roleplaying together the more ideas will crop up and keep things interesting. 

But when you get involved in a community, you're still the boss of you.  You've just given them permission to entertain you for a while and, hopefully, you're entertaining them too. If you stop having fun maybe it's time to find a new community, take a break or even find a new game.   It's not time to escalate the arguments, to start trouble, to gossip and spread rumors.  It's time to find something better to do.

See what you want to see in a game.  Find roleplayers that see the way you do.  And don't notice things that look bad, or wrong or out of place.  Only you can give them permission to exist in your imagination.

 

Update:  Seems like yesterday's blog post was noticed:

http://fidgit.com/archives/2009/03/when-cultists-took-over-everquest-online-role-playing-ten-years-ago.php

Roleplay In Action: Spinning The Saga of Gresh'Maj

Posted by OddjobXL Thursday March 12 2009 at 7:59AM
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We've seen how Lona and HGS approach events and event planning in my last post.  This Randy Varnell's postmortem on a very successful, multi-guild, serverwide story event in Everquest.  Randy, aka  Jythri (EQ) and Davyn (AO and SWG), was also the main organizer of the biggest, all roleplayer, city ever seen in any MMO:  Starsider's Vagabond's Rest.   He considers The Saga of the Gresh'Maj his most successful effort to date.

This isn't the only way to go about planning big campaigns in MMOs and as I come across more examples I'll post them as well.  I'd also ask the reader to point out useful models too.

First Saga of the Gresh’Maj
A player-led saga in Everquest, Fennin Ro Server, Fall 1999

Why it started
For a few months, I had led a group of bards who performed concerts in-game on a regular basis, on the Fennin Ro server, which had been chosen as the unofficial RP server by the roleplaying community. Doing so allowed me to get to know many of the guild leaders, and all of them appreciated the RP flavor we added to their gaming experience.

After several months, a few of us decided that we wanted a broader experience with which to engage our friends, and immersive RP story that would be compelling and truly explore the possibilities of a 3D MMO as a campaign medium.

How we made it work
There were several key phases to getting things rolling:


1) Develop the Story
We wanted a story that compelled players to become involved, both through personal interest and also by attaching them to the lore of the gameworld. So, we played upon sketchy information we knew about the first EverQuest expansion, Kunark, which was due out in only a couple of months from the time we began our saga.

I wrote an epic ballad, ‘The Ballad of Gath Rakkor” (http://www.soerbaird.net/Oldbards/library/gathrakkor.doc) which detailed the beginnings of a group of iksar (the new player-race coming with the Kunark expansion) called the Gresh’Maj. As my bard Jythri, I began seeding this into concerts, sharing the lore with anyone who would listen.

I then proceeded to develop a rough plotline for where our saga would run, tying into the ballad. Our ‘modern’ Gresh’Maj would be non-iksar cultists who sought to restore the old ways. They had a fanatical leader, Chakrar, who had found an obscure volume of prophecy, and was acting on his translation/interpretation of those scriptures. He believed he had to release the ‘blood of the nobles’ in order to restore his people, and return their dragon-goddess, Veen’Eshteni to the world.

To add color to this, I created the basics of a language, Ancient Iksar, to add color and authenticity to our characters. I began with a few phrases we used in our liturgy, and with the help of a UCLA-professor friend, we developed it into a fairly functional language, with a small but workable vocabulary.

Our basic story in-game, then, would be abducting guild leaders from as many RP guilds as we could manage, and then seeding rumors that we were going to sacrifice them in some sort of ritual event.

2) Gather the players.
We wanted this event to be huge. I also wanted to involve as many of the guilds and guild leaders as possible. I also wanted to maintain as much of the ‘surprise’ as possible, so that meant I had to work to keep our overall plan secret.

Through email, I contacted about 30 of my closest friends and guild leaders, asking them to commit to a 2-month saga, without giving them any details of the events. They simply had to trust me from what they knew of my previous work, and assume we could pull of a big event.

Almost everyone I asked accepted, and soon I had a group of 25 folks working to involve a much broader pool of players, eventually close to 800 players altogether (about half the live server population at its peak).

3) Communicate the plan.
In order to communicate privately all the details needed for keeping the event coherent, I created a rough website and forums so that our team could communicate encounters. The website contained our background material, snippets from the language, guides for creating and playing Gresh’Maj cult members, and a calendar of the sub-events we had planned. Also, as we drew to the conclusion of our saga, I posted a detailed plan for our final encounter and got firm commitments for the participants.

The remnants of the web site we used to coordinate this can be found here:
http://www.soerbaird.net/Oldbards/library/veen/

4) Ensure the involvement.
There were two things we did to ensure that the community got involved in the saga.

First, as we began events in-game, we tipped of members of my bards guild (who were unaware of my involvement in the plot) that encounters would happen and that they needed to record and then spread news of the happenings. We knew, then, from the beginning, that we would have quality ‘coverage’ for what we did, and even the small opening events would become public knowledge, released across a number of fan sites.

Secondly, the most useful arrangement we had devised was to have the abducted guild leaders actually play cultists as alternate characters, with the responsibility for involving their guild in the overall plot. As a person was abducted, they ceased playing their guild leader character at all (a big commitment) and played the cultist for the duration of the saga. In that role, they were asked to create whatever sub-plots necessary to allow their guild to discover the nature of the guild leader’s abduction, and to slowly allow them to learn about the cult in general.

It worked beautifully. In the space of a week (the first three abductions), our cult members were constantly followed around by crowds of people, angry mobs who wanted their friends and companions back.

5) Play out the event.
Once all that was achieved, we had to actually play out the event. We had nearly 20 abductions to stage, as well as the slow dissemination of information about our cult and our purposes.

At the core, I became the quality control manager, and chief owner of the story. And offshoots of story were approved through me, and I continually answered questions and helped develop new ideas about our cult to keep things lively.

None of our events, save for the very final night, were scripted. We went in with some rough goals, and some guidelines for how to play our characters. For the most part, once we were in an event, we were so well immersed that OOC sidelines communication was unnecessary.

For the better part of a month and a half, we were active every evening in-game as our cultists. There were small encounters, where groups of scouts would track one or more of our number down. There was even a time we allowed one of our cultists to be abducted and tortured. There were also several big gatherings, where large crowds of players would gather and demand answers. We made ourselves available for all these, and when they didn’t occur naturally, we fueled them by gathering our presence at the major cities in the game.

Other events spawned from our efforts as well, led by groups of players who were enthralled by the saga, but not one of our ‘quest team’. There was a meeting of notable people (other guild leaders or officers) to determine a course of response to the common threat. On another evening, a large group (150+ players) assembled to hold a candlelight vigil for the missing leaders.

Overall, our strategy was to keep things moving between abductions, and to do any and everything we could within the scope of our fiction to keep players interested. A few weeks into activities, this became quite challenging as we ran low on new content, and as those involved longed to return to play their main characters.

6) End the Event
We knew we needed a spectacular ending. At one point, we actually tried to solicit GM (developer) assistance to get some special features for our end event. The GMs were unable to help us, so we worked with what we had.

The full plan for the event can be found here:
http://www.soerbaird.net/Oldbards/library/veen/final.htm

Basically, things went exactly as planned. The cult was destroyed (with an insidious plot-twist revealed) and the guild leaders were returned to their groups in an emotional evening of reunions.

7) The Follow-up
For all the things we did well, this is one area where we could have done a lot better. We were all a bit tired after two months of planning and execution, and very, very intense nights of roleplaying. However, if we would have done a better job of presenting the whole story as a follow-up, we could have made the event even more memorable for the folks involved.

Post Mortem
I have yet to see or be involved in any other RP event in a MMO, either developer or player led, that was as successful as this first saga of the Gresh’Maj. To this day, I still receive compliments from folks who were involved claiming that this remains the most immersive roleplaying experience of their life. This saga proved, even with the feeble tools provide to us as players, that MMOs could indeed provide depth and scope for campaign-type sagas in-game.

Here are some other more specific conclusions I reached about the event and how we carried it out:
• Even with the work we did, we would have done better with more content. We had problems keeping participants in sub-plots over the course of a month. A few more mini-events (10 or 15) would have been nice.
• Involving the guild leaders as we did worked very well in quickly involving hundreds of players.
• Asking someone not to play their primary character for a month is difficult. We had to relent on a few folks and return their abductees to them ahead of schedule.
• Flexibility in the minor details is KEY. The players need to feel like they can affect and interact personally with the characters.
• For big events, a large cast of insider players is necessary to facilitate the volume of one-to-one interaction that needs to happen.
• Staying in-character as a key player is must. Even small lapses into out-of-character speech or action breaks the fragile bubble of immersion.
• We needed a better public running timeline of events. Several folks on guild-specific forums tried to do this, but it would have been nice if we had one or two people dedicated to in-character event summaries for those people who came to the saga later in its execution.
 

Additional perspective Randy sent  in an email note:

With some additional reflection, I might also point out the following:


* This all worked because EQ was much slower-paced than modern MMOs.
There was a lot of downtime, and a lot more players willing to engage in
true RP.


* The saga worked mainly because of the credibility we gained as the
Soerbaird before we began. Without that, I would not have been able to make
crazy requests of guild leaders that made the saga interesting.


* There was a LOT of coordination involved. I no longer have a
low-end job that afforded me a lot of time to chat on IMs, make web
pages, post on forums, and send emails. Someone has to spend that time
to make these work.
 

How To Roleplay: Lona's Events For Dummies

Posted by OddjobXL Wednesday March 11 2009 at 8:34AM
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Full disclosure:  Lona's my player association leader in Star Wars Galaxies.  She runs Holowood Galactic Studios.  ICly, it's a collection of entertainers from The Core and a oddball crew of support staff including studio pilot Captain Mandash Grim.  That's me!   OOCly, HGS runs and promotes events for player associations all over the Starsider server.  Sometimes they coincide with real world events or holidays.  Sometimes they commemorate an important day for a group.  Once in a while they're just an excuse for a good time.

HGS makes use of SWG's Storyteller tool which allows them to place objects and NPCs out in the open game world and they can creatively decorate the interiors of player stuctures as well.   The Entertainer class, obviously, plays a big part in making events work and often we see highly orchestrated musical acts with dancers and special effects.   Some of us, I'm looking at you Sakky, sadistically make their erstwhile friends craft and pack cases full of fireworks for hours so we can put on a good aerial show as well.

Events can include PvP contests, beast fighting arenas, gambling with dice (or with dice rolls representing cards), drawings, races and can happen planetside or in space.  We even see the odd event featuring SWG's collectable card game as well especially when some new element is introduced.

All of this takes planning, coordination and logistics.  Even if you're not a SWG roleplayer you'd do well to peruse Lona's Dummies series to pick up ideas for how to handle these undertakings in any game.

http://forums.station.sony.com/swg/posts/list.m?start=0&topic_id=416158#4620702

This includes a basic overview of how to plan and execute an event and links to many more specific guides to different styles of event from camping trips to cantina crawls to holiday festivities to PvP scenarios and information from Lona as well as other successful SWG event planners.

 

Strange New World: A SWG Vet Contemplates STO

Posted by OddjobXL Monday March 9 2009 at 8:50AM
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My SWG experience was probably an atypical one.  I started off in beta with a slew of not only players but player associations hell bent on starting a player city.  Those were happy times.   Two things SWG got right at the time were wilderness and crafting.  Roleplaying a colonist-refugee, as were most of us, was an astoundingly good fit at first.  Dangerous creatures with believable AI, scattered resources of with a slew of assorted traits and all of us helping each other out in a world where there was nothing useful on the bazaar for quite a while.   We bootstrapped.  We barnraised.  We ultimately did it.  They still talk about Vagabond's Rest on Starsider.

Eventually, though, what other folks were noticing eventually effected us as well.  There was no Star Wars to be found.  Where was The Empire?  Where were the Jedi (or, alternately, why should Jedi be in the game in the Rebellion Era)?  Where were the space ships?  Where's the adventure?  Why is everyone using pikes and battleaxes and wearing the same armor which we never saw in the movies? 

We really started losing players due to lack of Star Warsiness as many of us were roleplayers, or Star Wars fans, looking for that experience.

In time there were Jedi.  Be careful what you wish for.  Because it was such an arduous grind only powergamers looking for PvP advantage, for the most part, managed to pull it off.   If you see Ben Kenobi on the road kill him.  Or he'll kill you.  And then tea-bag you while pointing out, constructively, your newbness.  No, somehow this doesn't seem like the Jedi I remember from the films.

Space, and starships, strode in proudly with Jump to Lightspeed.  I have to admit I was blown away.  SWG could have done much worse than following a space sim model.  Multiplayer ships in particular had folks cheering.  It was really a dream come true.  Sadly, one does tend to wake up.  There was no real content in space after grinding through the initial set of missions.   PvP-RPers and space simmers on Starsider, using typical roleplayer ingenuity, designed and ran PvP scenarios which were popular and the idea migrated to other servers as well.   But PvE was lacking.   Multiplayer ships were pointless.  They were a weak link in PvP as well.  Worse, there was no cargo, no passngers, no trade lanes and certainly no contraband or Imperial blockades to run.  In space, nobody can hear you yawn.

At that point, though, the damage had been done.  Casual gamers thought SWG was freakish and certainly not about Star Wars.  The Star Wars fan community was in open revolt.  PvPers were running amok and completely dominating the forums with their usual set of complaints ("Make everyone PvP - it's called Star WARS!") and internectine battles about who and what should be nerfed.  Roleplayers, the ones who'd already formed strong communities, weathered this as best they could and created their own alternate realities and improvised systems.   Kosterites, those who did find aspects of the original game design fascinating despite its delinkage from Star Wars, also hung in.   There was, in fact, more than a little overlap with the last two categories.  Crafters, entertainers, politicians, pilots and beastmasters tended to be well represented in the roleplaying community.

But SWG was in trouble because of its failure to convey the setting even before NGE hit.  The NGE hit the Kosterites and the few post-WoW PvPers pretty hard.  We won't dwell on this.  Everyone knows the story.  SWG is slowly recovering, a little at least, but it's not Star Wars.  It's su generis now.  A weird thing with some great features, alot of bad ideas, and an eclectic but loyal player base.

So what to expect from Star Trek Online?

What drew me into to STO was a comment about multiplayer ships in an unrelated thread.  I remembered, I thought, that STO would have them.  As it turns out, well, not so much.   This is a problem but I think Cryptic knows that.  To most Star Trek fans the dream really is crewing a ship, and going on adventures, with their friends just like their vicarious heroes in the series do.  Even people with a casual, passing, familiarity will likely assume this is what to expect.

It's to Star Trek what the Empire and The Jedi should have been to SWG.

Yet, I'm still very excited about STO as a roleplayer and a gamer.  

One of my constant refrains in the SWG forums was that terminal missions needed to be both randomized and more in depth in structure and content.  My examples at the time were a solitaire card game (now a PC game) called Hornet Leader and the classic X-Com.   If these relatively simple variations in structure can hold players interest why can't MMOs use the same techniques to generate nonrepetative adventures?   Well, maybe, we're going to see that for perhaps the first time in STO.

There's also talk about noncombat elements in mission resolution.  Science and diplomacy will have roles to play.  How will this work?  I don't know.  But I really, really, want to see what they come up with.  Let's face it, MMOs are mainly structured on never ending, pointless, violence because that's relatively easy to do.  I think it's time for us, as players, to move out of the cromagnon stage of thumping each other, and every baby seal in sight, with clubs.  Well, y'know, at least a little bit.  No violence at all and we end up with Sims Online and nobody wants that.  Literally.

I think it's possible to both want player crews and be excited about NPC crews too.  Why?  Because I am.  I'm a pet guy.  I loved my CoV Mastermind on Virtue.  My crusty old freighter captain in SWG is a hardcore beastmaster (as my friends know too well "Grim's obsessing on the petgrind again?!").   Having a crew of NPCs, assuming they're created as in depth and persistent entities with customization in both appearance and skill sets, will be just too much fun.   I don't even have a rational explanation for it.  I just like it.

Lastly, while I'm no Trekkie or Trekker, I do loves me a good setting.  Remember the deeper the setting the deeper the roleplay.  I think the community here, as long as the purists remember newbies are people too, will be fantastic for roleplayers.  Being a Federation officer means something that no other game really conveys.  There's a sense of unity, family, decency, curiousity, open-mindedness and justice that's kinda lacking elsewhere.  To the extent that ethos can carry over to the players as well we might have something unique on our hands as roleplayers and as MMO players.

Or, there will be an XBOX invasion and we roleplayers will be begging for multiplayer ships just so we can have an island of sanity in the madness.

Ah, but, no.  Must be openminded and decent and remember console gamers are people too.  It's the Star Fleet way!

How To Roleplay: Finding The Roleplayers

Posted by OddjobXL Saturday March 7 2009 at 9:20AM
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Whether new to roleplaying or experienced the first step in having a good experience is scoping out the roleplaying community on a new MMO.

Visit a game's official forums.  You'll want to see if there are any special forums for roleplaying, player fiction or discussions about the setting.   Check the stickies to see if there are any special listings for roleplayers or roleplaying guilds.  Read through a few threads, lurk a bit, and get a feel for who is who.  Many folks will include links to their own guilds in signatures and if you see something interesting go have a look.

If you're very lucky there will be a very strong roleplaying community on a particular server and, very often, these communities will run their own forums off-site in order to better police content and create a comfortable, productive, environment. 

Keep in mind that many roleplayers can be outspoken or opinionated to the point of being obnoxious.  Don't really let that put you out.  Just keep browsing until you see posts you find interesting or enjoyable and make note of who is behind them.   Many discussions will be OOC and will pertain to how gameplay relates to the setting or what approaches roleplayers can take to simulate some iconic situations. 

Others will be very silly.  Silliness, OOC, is a popular tool among roleplayers, even otherwise gruff ones, because it can defuse quite a bit of the occasional, above mentioned, obnoxiousness.  Hey, we take things very seriously sometimes.  That's good to a point, it means you care about what you're saying, but sometimes it descends to typical forum epeen waving.  That's when it's time to break out the lolcats, baby!

Okay, so there isn't any clearly great RP server and the forums aren't all that helpful.  How do you find the roleplayers once you're in the game itself?

Some games include a 'Roleplayer' flag.  Make sure to turn yours on.  Even if you're not roleplaying at the time it's at least a basic advertisement to other roleplayers.  It can, however, attract anti-RP griefers.  These are usually best handled by using the ignore command (/addignore, /ignore).  If they persist, actually hamper you in some way, just take some screenshots and file a report with the GMs.  As a rule don't respond to them.  It's what they want.  Also keep in mind that, in some PvP oriented games, there's a fine line, or no line, between griefing and acceptable gameplay.  On the other hand, some games do have official RP Servers and rules for them.  Know those rules but only file complaints when you really have to.

Now your tag is up, you're prepared to deal with the rare griefer, and looking to meet folks.  The obvious bet is the local watering hole.  Taverns, cantinas, bars and clubs are where you'll find RPers hanging out.   In some games roleplayers primarily roleplay only in group or guild channels and you might see people standing around and not saying anything.  In others, everyone roleplays in 'say' (or spatial) and you can even find yourself getting spammed out and unable to keep up.

The best advertisement for your own roleplaying is to actually be roleplaying even if it's by yourself.  Describe how you enter the room.  Don't pose massive text blocks though.  People in crowded roleplay situations tend to see that as spam or attention-whoring.  Make it short but vivid, make it say something about your character.  One sentence or two shorter ones should be all you need.

Wait a while.  Try and get a handle on what's going on, if anything, and look for other people with RP tags.

Some games also include text-biographies for characters.  You can right-click on the character in question and see who they are.  Now, this is usually only information for you, the player, not your character.   There's no way your character knows that other character's life story or, even, their name for that matter.  Keep in mind that what you know and what your character knows are two different things.  Roleplayers call this IC (In Character) and OOC (Out of Character) knowledge.  

Exceptions to the OOC Only rule for biographies can come in a few forms.  Physical descriptions are IC knowledge as the player is trying to flesh out how a character looks, sounds or moves beyond what the graphics of the game can express.  In high tech settings there's sometimes assumed to be a central database or internet of some kind and players might post what your character could find, ICly, if they looked them up.   You'll be able to tell as these entries are usually laid out as official forms. 

At this point you have a few options. 

Send a /page or /tell to one of the RPers and introduce yourself OOCly.  OOC communications are usually framed with a double paren like this:  ((This is an OOC communication.)).   Why double parentheses?  I have no idea but that's the usual convention.  You'll also see brackets and single parens.  Many players, also, assume all /tells are out of character but it's best not to assume that.   And to give you even further pause, there are roleplayers who don't like OOC communication at all.  It disturbs their sense of immersion.  But, if you're new in town, reaching a hand out in an OOC tell is never a bad idea.  Most roleplayers do want to see more new roleplayers and, if you're reasonably well-spoken, they'll point you in the right direction.

You can pose again.  After coming in you'll need to find a spot or do something like getting a drink.  What kind of seat a character choses, and how he or she sits, can say alot about them.  What kind of drink does your character like?  How does your character drink?  Delicate sips, big slurps...with a curly straw?  Maybe she doesn't drink at all.  Maybe she smokes (what do they smoke here?  Pipeweed, hashish, cigarettes in a holder or maybe a fat stogie?).  Or maybe he's there for something else - looking for someone, to exchange information with the bartender?  But as before, don't overdo it.  Your job as a player at this point is just to establish that you can write fairly well and aren't an attention hog.

You might want to get involved in someone else's conversation.  If you're feeling lucky just sidle up and add a bit of commentary.  Otherwise, you might ask in an OOC /tell if you can join them.

Now one caveat is that bars, taverns and cantinas don't always have the most scintillating roleplay.  Very often people are doing in bars what most people do in bars.  Make small talk and flirt.  Still, if you haven't found what you're looking for in terms of thematic roleplaying groups in the forums this is the alternate route.  Often good roleplayers also come to these places to unwind from adventuring, to goof off, or even to talent scout.

Still nothing?

Don't give up hope.  Occasionally RP randomly when in public places.  Interact with NPCs.  Write a brief pose about saddling a horse.  You never know who might be passing by.

Mixing Console And PC Gamers in MMOs

Posted by OddjobXL Friday March 6 2009 at 11:16AM
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Theoretically we're all just folks.  We all have the same essential needs, wants and desires.  Nobody likes idiots or elitists. 

But, man, I've seen Playstation Home.  I don't think there's likely any neighborhood on any planet, virtual or otherwise, that's so likely to have property values go through the floor.  When I say it's full of drooling morons I'm doing a disservice to both morons, as they can't help it, and drool, which can serve a useful function.   I hear the same thing from X-Box 360 players on Live!  They don't want anything to do with 99% of the mouthbreathers out there and just stick to friends lists for multiplayer games.

I'm not saying the majority of PC MMO players are prizes either but we do seem to get a core group on some servers of mature, helpful, people.  PCs have keyboards so people can, even if most don't chose to, communicate at length and in intelligible ways.   PC MMOs attract articulate roleplayers, more affluent people (that can afford good PCs) and mature gamers who keep PCs around for things besides gaming.  While folks can get a keyboard for a console the fact it doesn't come with one, and one won't be required to play console-friendly MMOs, doesn't exactly fill me with confidence about what to expect.

Case in point, a listing on Cryptic's website for a PS3 programmer.  I should be thrilled.  I have a PS3!  I can RP on the couch like a happy little potato and, I won't lie, I love console gaming.  It's low maintenaince, the games almost always work without a hitch, and there's a big comfy couch and a big old TV involved.  What's not to like?  

Well, like I said, I've seen Playstation Home.  It's a lollerstorm of moronic behavior and broken English (and I'm mocking English as a First Language speakers here who can't be bothered to think about what they're typing).  God help you if you've got a female avatar as well.

Am I really ready to see that gang in Star Fleet uniforms?   Do I have to interact with them?  Can they at least have their own seperate forums to go off on the kinds of things these guys like to go off on?  The nerf wars and PvP obsessions and insistance that "MILF HUNTER" is a perfectly acceptable name for a Federation cruiser?  DOWN WITH CENSORSHIP!1!!11  Petitions and rants and memememememe!

What do you think?  Can roleplayers and the console l33t get along? 

Noticed: Alan Moore's Salon Interview

Posted by OddjobXL Thursday March 5 2009 at 10:30AM
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One key to coming up with good ideas as a roleplayer is to borrow ideas from other places.   Pick up on things you can use.  Jot 'em down if you have to or just let them sink into your subconcious.  Sooner or later it may come in handy.  My tagline here at MMORPG.COM is "Always Notice What You Notice."  Sounds pretty obvious, right?  Well, I actually heard it in response to a question asked of the poet Allen Ginsberg at a reading he did in D.C. many, many, years ago (back when I wore my then-existent hair long and was even more long-winded and pompous than I am now, believe it or not). 

"How do you get ideas for your poems?"

"Well, do you ever notice something out of the corner of your eye and for some reason, a reason you can't quite put your finger on, it stays on your mind?  I suppose I try to notice what I notice.  I'll make a point of figuring out why that image, or that phrase, or that person stuck out for me.   If you want to be a poet, always notice what you notice."

So, when you see a blog post of mine with "Noticed" stuck on the front of it that's what's just happened.  I've noticed something.  It may not have to do with roleplaying or MMORPGs on the face of it but it could be something handy to keep around.

Today Alan Moore has an interview at Salon.com and he says some things worth noticing.

http://www.salon.com/books/int/2009/03/05/alan_moore_q_a/index.html

Excerpts:

"It's our fictions that drive us forward most of the time. They may even be our mad nightmare fantasies, but they do seem to play their part in propelling us forward as a species."

"If you look at that incredible burst of fantastic characters that emerged in the late 19th century/early 20th century, you can see so many of the fears and hopes of those times embedded in those characters. Even in throwaway bits of contemporary culture you can often find some penetrating insights into the real world around us."

"But I think that when you are talking realism in comics you have to realize it's an ongoing process, especially emotional realism. That when the comic book industry started you had characters who were, let us say, one-dimensional in that they only had one quality. They were good or that they were bad. By the 1960s Stan Lee with Marvel Comics had the brilliant idea of two-dimensional characterization where they are still good or bad but now they have some kind of, perhaps a medical complaint or some sort of emotional suffering. What we were trying to do with "Watchmen" was to make it at least three-dimensional. So that the characters that we were talking about were complex human beings that weren't defined by one simple set of behavior patterns."

"All too often education actually acts as a form of aversion therapy, that what we're really teaching our children is to associate learning with work and to associate work with drudgery so that the remainder of their lives they will possibly never go near a book because they associate books with learning, learning with work and work with drudgery."

"It seems to me to be a responsibility of culture to become as informative as possible and give people a source of information in a form they will be drawn to."

 "I'm sure there are lots of people out there who although they couldn't actually give you a clear idea of their country's history over the past couple of hundred years, but they probably could give you a detailed description of the continuities of whatever comic book or television show they are most obsessed with."

"Well, no, it was because I decided to deal acid that I was expelled from school. Sadly, I found that as an acid dealer I was complete rubbish."

Thoughts On Persona Creation

Posted by OddjobXL Thursday March 5 2009 at 6:59AM
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Enough with theory for now.  Let's get back to basics.  Much of what I write is with more of an eye to developers and publishers but here's something for the roleplayers and would-be roleplayers out there.

Use setting as a guideline for creating an original persona.  Understand how the world works, what the stereotypes and archetypes are, and then figure out an angle that confronts a contradition in the setting or asks an interesting question about it. 

For example, as I learned more about the Star Wars setting, I found myself wondering how early Seperatists, pre Doku, might feel about the Rebellion.  They don't love Palpatine but they've just as little love for The Republic or Jedi.  Suddenly I had a new kind of character on my hands.  "I wuz reb before you wuz reb..."  /grump

In Eve Online you've got an almost incidental theme of immortality as a byproduct of cloning.  Several players have latched onto that to ask interesting questions about what it means to be human and where pod pilots really fit in.  Others ask questions about their home cultures and brew up characters to explore or resolve the gaps and inconsistencies.   The Khanid Kingdom, for example, is a bit of a cypher that's alternately described as an ultra-xenophobic theocracy of fanatics and a cosmopolitan melting pot of traders that's a melange of different cultures.  Digging down into the fragmentary backstory one can invent many different ways these could both be true, to an extent, and the result makes for a good tale.

Ask yourself what game systems or character classes interest you most and work from that angle.   What powers do they have, how do they work, where do they fit in?  Now read between the lines - what inspired these classes?  Are there other sources that the creator of the setting borrowed them from that you can further steal from to come up with a new kind of character that  fits into the gameworld?   Let's take Star Wars again.  Instead of getting bogged down in Star Wars fanon you can go back to the original Star Wars and ask yourself what inspired Lucas.  Where did he get the idea for Jedi, gunslinging smugglers or bounty hunters, or the Empire.  Tap the original source.  Samurai/Arthurian knights, the wild west and Rome/Nazi Germany.   Now you've got a huge quiver to borrow ideas from and ones that both fit the setting and have never been seen in it before, perhaps.  Just make sure your new concept fits by checking sources.

Another avenue is to hold off on a character's identity until you see who else is out there.   Go in as a secretive blank slate and see what kind of characters you run into.   Develop a backstory, slowly revealing it over time, that fits well into the group you end up associating with and that they'll find interesting or useful.   It's still  handy to employ strong mannerisms, most observers don't look past the surface of a character, but underneath that, the 'why' of why a character acts as he does, doesn't have to be fleshed out immediately.  

If you're a brand new roleplayer this is often your default setting if you pick up roleplaying after the fact.  You've already got your character and these new roleplaying friends of yours are going to shape his identity just so you can fit in.  Still, I'd recommend new roleplayers, given the option, work on biography first before making a character.  Biography is like a rudder - when in doubt about what your character might do, as opposed to you the player, consult biography.   New roleplayers benefit from having a rudder so they can put out a strong and consistant personality.   Advanced roleplayers have been through the drill a few times and already have a pretty good internal sense of what kind of behavior is believeable, or interesting, without necessarily knowing everything about their character.   The "chia pet" approach is probably best considered an advanced technique.

Keep it simple.  The more detail you add into your biography the more you'll feel constrained in improvising detail, detail that might be dramatic or flavorful, in live RP.  Some roleplayers favor very detailed biographies to help them visualize a character but that's a technique that tends to lead more to forum fanfic and away from live, dynamic, interaction.

Keep it comfy.  Play a kind of character you'll enjoy playing for a long term and that suits your personality.  MMOs aren't like any other kind of roleplaying game.  There's no DM/Storyteller out there creating situations to suit your character.  You'll be playing this character for a long time, maybe years.   Some roleplayers can do a great job with odd, eccentric or downright malicious characters and tend to see themselves more as experimental writers, "I wonder how this kind of character will work",  than typical roleplayers and generally are skilled as such.   It's hard when playing malicious characters and villains, in particular, to seperate yourself in the minds of other players as a good guy OOC who is just pretending to be an IC bad guy from the hordes of a-holes out there who are a-holes IRL and use roleplaying as an excuse to act that way.   That's probably worthy of another blog entry by itself.

Know the setting.  Make sure your concept fits into the world.  Immersion is a cooperative process and if there's only one thing players should be able to agree about it's how the world works.  This can be easy in games like WoW where the setting is wafer thin and doesn't even take itself very serously.  In games like Star Wars Galaxies, Lord of The Rings Online or Star Trek Online you might have a bit of work to do.  The playoff is deep roleplaying which can touch on themes and subjects far beyond what can be manifested in terms of raw gameplay.   In SWG and LoTRO it's also quite possible to play a character who doesn't know his world very well.   Frodo led a very protected life before Gandalf dragged him off as did Luke Skywalker before Obi-Wan got to him.   Never trust old dudes with British accents.  *nods*

Well, there are some pre-coffee ideas and it's hardly comprehensive but hopefully it's food for thought.

It's Just A Game

Posted by OddjobXL Wednesday March 4 2009 at 7:43AM
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This is a 'reprint' of a post I made to the Pirates of the Burning Sea board about a year ago. 

"It's just a game. Get over it, dude."

I've been thinking alot about this lately. Or at least a little bit. In the shower and on the drive to work today.

How many times have I heard that and it's pissed me off, as a roleplayer and someone who's into immersion, from somebody else that just didn't care? It seems on some level disrespectful to the artistry that's gone into the aesthetic realization of the world and the game's mechanical design. It's disrespectful to me as a player that wants to get lost in all this like a reader in a good book. I don't want to hear neighbors arguing in the halls of the apartment building, bad music blasting from downstairs, or discover crayon scribbling in the pages.

It all pulls me out of the experience I'm looking for when people have stupid names, taunt and mock each other like high-school bullies and seem to want to find the easiest way to "beat" the game rather than playing it as it seems to be intended. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way I want to believe it's intended. The last is almost certainly a holdover attitude from tabletop gaming where the most disdained players were rules lawyers and power-gamers that were far more focused on having min-maxed (minimum cost for maximum benefit = what today we'd call uber) characters rather than interesting ones. You'd get kicked right out of some games for flipping through the gamemaster's information or peering over his screen but in the MMO world you almost have to read up on everything to stay competative with the Joneses. There can be no surprises. Especially in the viciously unforgiving context of PvP gameplay but PvE raiding groups in WoW can be just as bad.

"It's just a game. Get over it, dude."

And how many times have I said this, to furious response, to a hardcore PvPer stridently forum-warrioring about some lack, real or imagined, in the gameplay - or just as frequently - in the community, when it fails to live up to his expectations. Or, perhaps more accurately, what he believes the game and the other players should be, and should do, or wants to believe they should be. It's certainly easier than actually dealing with his bill of complaints, it makes me sound mature and above-it-all, and serves the purpose of trivializing, even infantilizing, his position. It's almost never fair or a well considered response.

In some ways, neither the roleplayer or the hardcore PvPer really believes a game is just a game. They both have deep-seated, and passionately held, wants and desires from an experience. The roleplayer wants a game world "reality" he can grow close to and lose himself in. He's an escapist from mundanity. The hardcore PvPer wants a game that challenges him, personally, and validates his real-life skills but needs to emotionally distance himself from the "reality" of the fictional setting so losses and setbacks can be taken in stride without too much sting. Almost everything has to be treated as a joke. He's an escapist from the fantasy.

You have two escapees scrambling over the same prison wall but in opposite directions. No wonder there are such conflicts between them!

So who are the PvP-RPers? There are more here on Bonny than I've ever seen in one place in any game before. Maybe these are the guys who know it's not "just a game" in any sense and have moved well beyond the typical roleplayer aversion to reality intruding in their fantasy and instead spin a game's actual events into storylines that reinforce their fantasy. Maybe these are guys who don't mind taking one on the chin and dwelling on a loss or a shortcoming and turn it from an excuse for complaining into the kernal of a short story on a forum. It's not the end of the world or a joke. It's all content and it's all fodder for the story and part of the grand illusion.

Or maybe they're just nuts. There is that too. It's just a game after all.
 

The Paradigm

Posted by OddjobXL Tuesday March 3 2009 at 8:44AM
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In previous blog posts I've defined roleplaying and discussed techniques developers can employ to achieve immersion from a roleplayer's point of view.

Roleplaying:   "Roleplaying is getting into the head of a fictional character, from an often fictional setting, with a fictional biography and goals and a personality based on both his own past and the world he lives in and then expressing that persona to other players in the context of a game."
 

The key elements: Setting (where the bed is and what kind of bed it is), biography (the bed the character's made for himself), goals (what gets him out of bed in the morning), personality (the tactics one uses to achieve his goals and assorted other quirks that make a character unique) and free expression to convey the gestalt of setting, biography, goals and personality to other players.

Immersion:  "Immersive elements include setting, control, dynamism and simulation."

This is explained in greater detail in the post "On Immersion." 

There is some overlap here of course.  Setting is crucial to both characterization and immersion - setting is everything worthwhile about the MMO from a roleplayer's point of view.  Setting is conveyed in the images from a screenshot.  It's defined both by setting flavor text and game mechanics .  These all inspire possibility in the mind of the roleplayer.  "I can be that?  I can go there?  I can do this?"  Setting is the game, the game is the setting in an ideal configuration.   Simplifications and creative abstractions in gameplay are crucial but they should never go against the fundmental concepts of the setting and gameplay should tend towards, simplified, simulation rather than pure abstraction for the sake of experimentation or cool bulletpoints or pleasing some lobbying fraction of the player base.

Control when considered as free expression is vital for both roleplaying and general immersion.  Being able to visualize an original character and then express it on the grid is crucial.  Now, setting trumps control and almost everything else.   Players should be able to freely imagine and embody a wide variety of characters, and their associated traits and quicks via emote, only to the extent it will not undermine setting.   This really can't be stressed enough.   When SWG had an "Ewok Valentine's Day" event recently one of the permanent rewards was a pair of angel wings players can wear.  Now?  Everywhere you go in SWG people are wearing wings.  SWG's always been weak on setting but this is a brand new low.

So in future posts I'm going to look at MMOs from the vantage point of the roleplayer's paradigm.   What setting, background, goals and ability to express one's self does the game offer a roleplayer?  To what degree, and in what ways, does the game embrace dynamism and immersive approaches?

Many, if not all, MMOs aren't designed with roleplayers in mind.  We're seen as a small group.  The previous blog posts "Roleplayers: The Last, Best, Hope" and "Official vs Unofficial RP Servers" point out where that it's not how big the player base is but how much it helps a game that matters.   Roleplayers exist in numbers that are consequential.  Roleplayers are only growing in number over time as they encounter the craft as practiced in the wild.

What contemporary tabletop roleplayers consider 'good practice' didn't evolve overnight.  It started out with some static and scenario based miniatures rules, that became D&D, on one hand and a minor cult game with a very detailed setting perhaps even richer than Middle Earth, Empire of The Petal Throne, on the other, which was published less than a year after D&D first hit the shelves.  A third party provider of add-ons, Judge's Guild, introduced looser settings and dynamism in the form of randomized tables to create neverending adventures so long as the DM (Dungeon Master) could improvise how all those table results fit together. This led to more dynamic games like Chivalry and Sorcery, flush with verisimilitude including realistic magic, economics and warfare and games of raw, randomized, adventure like Traveller which was 'Firefly' a quarter century before there was a Firefly.

Much later on internal conflicts were modelled in Vampire: The Masquerade and, even before that, Pendragon.  Personalities were expressed in hard, practical, code/rules that rewarded players mechanically for interacting appropriately, given who their character was, with the setting!

MMO's are still very much in the D&D phase of evolution.   Loots and dungeons.  Eve Online's heritage is TradeWars, an old BBS game, which in turn owes much conceptually to roleplaying games like Traveller and dynamic strategic simulation RPGs  like Chivalry and Sorcery.

Where D&D and WoW are mostly running around in a circle now sniffing each other's butts like overly familiar puppies there are many, many, untapped branches of the roleplaying tree for MMO designers to look at.  Even more, there's much to be learned from singleplayer computer games as well except, perhaps ironically, most CRPGs.  Strategy games, simulation games and others point the way forward.  CRPGs are, for the most part, quite backward looking themselves.