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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

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.

ScotlandTom writes:

Something that I've always done during character creation stages in any game (even beyond the MMO realm) is figure out what type of gameplay experience I'm personally looking for.

For instance, perhaps this time around I'm looking for a more combat heavy experience rather than a social one.  Right there I've already got indications of the direction my character development might take.  From there I might decide he's a mysterious anti-social character who'd be more likely to kill you as look at you.  Or I might decide he's the strong, quiet type who may not talk much but will fiercely defend his closest buddies in battle.

It's important to remember that, while role playing, you're still playing a game.  The game will be ever so much more enjoyable when you've built your character to mesh and mold with your desired game experience.

Tue Mar 24 2009 11:19AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

I can agree with that.  I'm also seeing comments in some forums (they read this so they know it's okay to comment here too!) that they developed a personality over time rather than planning it out all before hand.

That can work too!  I discuss this approach in the blog post "Thoughts On Character Creation."  Very often this will land you a character right in the middle of the "sweet spot" because you're enjoying the gameplay first and developing a character secondly. 

This means you're going to mostly likely be describing what the character actually does in the game in roleplaying terms rather than going off on wild imaginative tangents that don't necessarily fit the reality of the game.

Tue Mar 24 2009 2:03PM Report
ScotlandTom writes:

Developing over time is another great way to build a character.  Roleplay is often as much about improvisation as it is other aspects like acting or writing.  One of the keys to improv is to go in with a few good basic ideas to provide a foundation, but without detailing everything so much as to become boxed in.  If too much development is done beforehand it tends to stilfe spontenaity and add a lot of cumbersome complexities that are difficult to get used to playing right off the bat.

It's always nice to get a handle on some of the background information about a character and general personality traits; these things help with development and provide a foundation for roleplay.  But at first I do find it important to keep details to a minimum and, again, conceptualize around my desired type of gameplay.

Tue Mar 24 2009 3:48PM Report
neopythia writes:

I find character design to be very dependent on setting.  For settings I'm most comfortable with, I will easily push the envelop.  As I once learned in film class long ago, you have to learn the rules before you can break them.  As so eloquently put in the post, knowing the setting is far and away the most important thing.  

Typically, I start with a map.  It doesn't matter if it is the galactic map or a map of Ohio, knowing where your character is from starts the ball rolling.  Once I am captivated by a birthplace, I begin to read all I can about that area.  (This is true for both fantasy and reality based games.) Slowly, I begin to understand what sort of early life my character had.  It also can lead to her motivation for setting out into the greater world.    

I tend not to say, "I'm going to make a master swordsman, or this character will be a gunslinger."  That has to evolve out of the history.  Once I understand the character's internal composition, the external things like dress, weapon choice, secondary skills, etc. write themselves.  That isn't to say I won't design a character because I want to play a certain class, but I find those characters to be less interesting as I'm trying to retro-actively create something that should emerge organically.

Occasionally, I will have the inspiration of a particular image, and that will become the foundation of the character.  However, the image always leads back to the psychological profile of the character.  Any good character has to be built from the inside out.  Otherwise you just end up with a hollow avatar by which you move through the world.  

Tue Mar 24 2009 6:47PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

That's a good approach for more freeform roleplay, Neopythia, but if it works for you in MMOs that probably means, on some level, you're probably pushing the ouija planchette just a teensie bit towards an end that already fits a character class and the gameplay you're looking for.

My experience tends to support Scotland Tom's observation.  You've seen Grim in action.  You know he's quite a character.  Well, he always was on the outside.  The inside evolved over time.  Very often I'll set off with a general idea and the goal of expressing that surface persona as well as I can.  Why the character behaves as he does often gets improvised as I interact with others.

I think the best analogy for this approach, that I can think up on short notice, is the idea of the contact pressure of tires to the road  Where roleplaying really happens is where the rubber hits the road: actual contact between player characters.  The more surface pressure there is to apply the more traction you have in a situation.  People will be impressed by what they see and know of an avatar that's standing right in front of them embodying that persona.

The more they believe your character is "real" the more they reach into themselves and believe in their own character in that moment, in that contact patch, to create suspension of disbelief and perhaps even real immersion on a good day.

How and why you get good contact like that, how you can express a believeable persona with conviction, can have to do with biography and background and thinking through beforehand who that character is and what the world's like around you.  That's your suspension. 

Here's the secret though:  That can be faked.  You just need to sound like a character with depth you don't need to be one.

If you go too far down the path of deep internal biography instead of a rudder, which is the role it plays as it ensures internal consistancy for a character's behavior over time, you end up with an anchor.  "My character wouldn't do this, can't do that, never would have anything to do with this other."  You may up having more internal dialogues with yourself than with the characters right in front of you.   This way leads to the dreaded forum fiction!  Well, my character's not finding opportunity to express himself well in the game I'll just write some stories about him instead!

I'm not saying my experiences with you were anything like this, because they weren't, but often you'll see roleplayers who write lovely biographies and wonderful fiction but their characters in live interaction are all but generic and indistinguishable from any other character.  They've already done their creative thing in the forums.  They're just socializing now.

Ultimately what works for you is something to stick with. I haven't seen any of your characters as anything but colorful and interesting in live RP and the player's skills as both roleplayer and improvisational storyteller are unsurpassed by most.    But, as I noted before, I doubt it would work as well as it does if at some level you weren't envisioning the end product, and how she'll actually function as both a gameplay and  roleplay avatar, as you guide the biographical story along.

Tue Mar 24 2009 7:17PM Report
ScotlandTom writes:

What Neopythia describes is an excellent way to write a character.  If it works, excellent!  Everyone is likely to have an approach that suits them better than it does others.

Personally, doing that kind of character development (picking a location, developing a persona) I would reserve for pure writing, not portraying a character within a game world.  What works for you, Neopythia, I would guess works for players who are first interested in roleplay and second interested in playing the game.  I may be wrong in that guess, but even so there are different players with different levels of interest on the slider between roleplay and gameplay.

Of course, I don't think I've ever RP'd with you, Neopythia, and it's been years since I was in SWG with Oddjob here so I have practically no frame of reference as to what might work and what might not.  I guess my point here is that, no matter how disparate the methods may be it's ultimately up to the individual to decide what works best.  Results speak, and I think anyone can tell where some have succeeded in creating rich, believable characters and where others have failed.

Tue Mar 24 2009 10:39PM Report

MMORPG.com writes:
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