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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

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!

Sakky writes:

I only respond when I have something meaningful to add, not just the main "I agree"

Which I do. And I do.

Thus, while macro'd emotes do have their place, such as custom emotes to replace stock ones. Giving more specific racial detail.

Length of the emote kept in mind, of course. "Sakkra smiles, baring her razor-sharp teeth."  Is better, than "Sakkra smiles." but is more indicative of what she is. Yet is not spam.

The longest macro emote I have made was to show people how badly Sakkra was hurt after a battle (had literally lost an arm and a leg) It was longer than I'd prefer, but the description was needed (as obviously, it cannot be denoted in graphics)

Using such however sparingly is key, not dominating RP is important, as, if others do not have fun with you being there, you will not have fun either. RP is co-operative, and takes more than one person.

Thoughts also are, as was said, to be limited. There are times where it can be validly used, as OOC insight into the character, if it is needed.

The key of course, is to use sparingly, to add flavor in your RP. A bit of salt can make something delicious. But, too much, and it's all you can taste. Ick.

Wed Mar 25 2009 12:36PM Report
Loxius writes:

Well, despite the fact that on the VR site the other day you attributed my comment here about Asheron's Call  to Scotland Tom, and today you call me VOX, here I am again!  Glutton for punishment!

I too, grow tired of agreeing with you all the time, Mandash!  Can't you say something I dispute, already?  Like games are insipid and a waste of time?  Or you hate puppies?

In all seriousness, I am quick to lament many things in SWG, but I actually did not have many problems with the emote system.  I enjoyed freehand emotes as you describe them, and I have to say I feel like we all used them to great success.

I remember all of the folks in our guild (PA) and immediate RP circle used things like *shakes fist to the sky* and such and I honestly do not feel like it hurt my immersion.  Course, that's what it's all about, as you have so aptly mentioned in the past on this fine blog, sir.  Immersion.  Does it make me step back and say, "whoa wait, too much cheese?"

The good RPers (I know some, but was not one) always made me believe, and did not need power stances or emotes to sell me.  I remember a speech that Davyn made in VR prior to some pirate attacks that was particularly powerful, and he did it will all text and typed-out emotes.  I also recall the first time I met Mandash out in the wilds, running to VR, and I totally "got" the character and the flavor, powerfully delivered without an abundance of poses, but descriptions.

I love video games and graphics, honestly.  And I think my purist friends who are disdainful of PC Rp games and eschew them in favor of only tabletop or typed online RP are missing out.  I think graphics (note just items, but characters and emotes) can be like using props in a movie, neither inherently bad or good--just useful.

Have you seen Tarantino's film Reservoir Dogs?  Not a lot of sets or locales in it.  Low on props and backdrops.  I have seen local theater and college theaters put this on, and it is essentially a bare stage.  Dialogue is where the focus is.  That's very cool to me.  That said, its nice to have some gunplay and action now and then, and there just simply are some times where props (whether a dramatic emote or pose, a guild hall, a blaster, or a starship) can help give a whiff of authenticity and enhance my immersion incredibly.

I like Sakky's response better than mine, but Oddjob bid me post, so what could I do?!

Request:  Oddjob, can you talk next (or at some point) about what you touched on earlier in this blog post?  That is, the old school table top and the STORYTELLER!  Some of my best experiences were face to face with folks, and I definitely have some fond memories of those days!  Thankya!

Wed Mar 25 2009 7:55PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

Sorry Lox.  I'm in absent-minded professor mode these days.  All that Star Trek cramming, roleplay thinking and on top of that real life is just compacting my pea brain down even smaller.

I know purist RPers too, mostly MUSHers as PnPers tend to be more powergamey,, and the response I get from them when I say I play MMORPGs is "I'm sorry."   And I can see their point.  Graphics and constant, forcefed, entertainment makes for players who don't get to create their own, unfettered, imagery though expression and are easily, easily, distracted by some game oriented task.  I'm actually less a roleplayer these days and more of a grinder going after collections or improving my pets in SWG.  That's despite belonging to a very creative PA of folks.

But MUSHes have their limitations too.  It's a very insular experience and as they're small operations run by very human people and that exerts a powerful warping effect on the RP as OOC ties and relationships can play a significant part in how situations play out.   MMOs are, aside from distant and detached developers, self perpetuating.  There's an impartial world out there to drop your character into the middle of.   It's a real adventure, or can be, rather than a cozy tale telling between friends (or the flip side of this, a rancorous relationship between bitter enemies).

RP in MMOs does tend to scale down to MUSH size proportions as communities form or even smaller tabletop size groups but there's always a much vaster umbrella of possibility surrounding the experience.  There are options.  There are always new people and new situations to discover.

I'll hold off on talking about tabletop for a bit aside from these comments for now.  I don't want to sound like the crusty old timer I am too much!  I did have a chat in another forum about this though and if I get permission I'll post that comment and my response.

Thu Mar 26 2009 7:56AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

Sakky, you make a good point.  As character specific substitutes for existing emotes macros can serve a valuable purpose.  I was just thinking of a couple guys I've run into that would write entire paragraphs about things and use the macro over and over.  This one guy had about a dozen variations on rolling a coin through his fingers.  Never hardly said a word but I knew far more about coins and his fingers than I'd ever have though possible or certainly desireable.

Thu Mar 26 2009 7:59AM Report
OddjobXL writes:

I'm going to insert a dialogue I've been having with a friend who goes by many different names but we'll call him (or her) Alda for now.  I'll insert his posts and my responses in order and with permission.  This is good stuff.

Thu Mar 26 2009 9:09AM Report
OddjobXL writes:


I disagree with your point that MMOs can be more immersive than old-school face to face gaming.

Dogs barking, ringing phones, cheetos...those all happen just as much in front of the computer as they did back in face to face gaming.

Roleplaying in an MMO is much like trying to play Twister in a straightjacket. Or trying to play the violin while wearing wooly mittens.

In an MMO (or any computer construct), your experience is completely limited by the implementation of the game world. You're limited by the availability of actions/emotes (Can't sit? Haha! Better hope they implemented custom emotes! They didn't? Ok then you have to use emotes in your spoken voice).

You're limited by the game world itself. You're not a unique character, you're one of 11 million other players who saved the kingdom and killed the dragon. In fact, you kill the dragon over and over every week with your scheduled raid. You can't have a unique experience or a unique adventure.

Even if there's conflict, there's no death. Oops I'm dead, no I'm got better. Can't have a nemesis, because everyone is immortal.
And there are asshats running around saying omgwtflol and griefing roleplayers.

What you *can* do is stand around in taverns and chat. And that style of chatroom RP has been around for a long time. Any RP is completely interpersonal and 100% player driven.

In face to face gaming, you have the DM...the Master Puppeteer as you called it.

This allows you to have a completely unique gaming experience for each character. Everyone doesn't do the same "quest". Each character can have its own unique background, own unique storyline and story arc that is discovered and developed over time. And every story is completely different.

You're not limited at all by structure of a programmed interface. Your only limitation is your own creativity and that of the DM.

Face to face gaming allows for the richest and most rewarding roleplay. You can actually develop a character over time and experience new things, have conflicts arise that need to be overcome, and have an unlimited world of experience available.

At the end of my POTBS days, all I did with Alda was sit around in one of two taverns, waiting to interact with people. The only reason any roleplay happened was that a few other players were similarly minded and collectively we were creative enough to develop our own plotlines and events.

But Alda could never have a unique adventure. Now of course I did my best to create the illusion of unique adventures (The Admiral's Storm plotline, where we disappeared characters in-game then did messageboard RP to explain what was happening to the "lost" characters). But as a player, I couldn't have that adventure.

I had to be the DM and coordinate with Bella on what the plot was and how we'd implement it. Bella and I couldn't have been on that unknown adventure because of the lack of a Master Puppeteer. If POTBS had been a paper and pencil game, then those characters could actually have *experienced* the storm, the shipwreck, the pirate chases, et al. It could have been real, it could have been exciting, it could have been engaging and immersive. Instead it was Bella and I collaborating on the plot and then implementing it on the boards in a staged manner.

The absolute essence of face to face roleplaying is total freedom and the ability to have complete control over the character you are playing. If you have a DM that will focus a game on character development, plot, and story arc, then this is absolutely the best RP experience possible.

Thu Mar 26 2009 9:11AM Report
OddjobXL writes:


I phrased my description of classic tabletop roleplaying more with an eye to be amusing and illustrative than to really argue the merits. So when I say, "Those were dark, dark, times" I'm just being adorably cute. In my mind, at least. My mind tends to be an echo chamber so maybe it didn't actually sound the way I intended.

I do mention the customized experience when I talk about how the Storyteller works and even point out the superiority of the arrangement without stressing it when comparing his techniques, personalized experience, to Fog of War and Emergent Behavior in game design terms. I hoping that came off as saying, "Well, MMOs can't do all that as well but they can do this..."

However, while MMOs really have issues for roleplayers (the theme of my entire blog aside from practical RP advice), I can't agree that tabletop is inherently the best form and practice for roleplaying. That goes to MUSH RP in my mind. You get the best of the 'masking' effects from MMOs in that players aren't there, just characters are, but package is much more flexible being that it's text based. You can write up anything and, voila, it's there. Whether emotes or creating descriptions for rooms and characters or entire vistas.

I've been part of wars, hunts, chases, balls, intrigues, starship crews, noble houses, and so much more in worlds that would defy any MMO to describe in graphics. There's every bit as much freedom as one gets in tabletop but without all the distractions of dealing with the silliness and rules lawyering that tends to happen around the table. The rules are the code and they ain't bending. Focus on the RP, the moment, the imagery flowing from the other characters. There's no experience handed out for combat. You're rewarded by votes from the community on the quality of your roleplaying on a monthly basis. They're called Multi User Shared Hallucinations for a reason.

When it gets rolling even tabletop has a hard time keeping up. You're really there in your mind just as you'd be in your favorite book when it "comes alive" in your imagination. But more so because you are, in almost every sense, there.

However all MMOs aren't Warcraft, EQ or WoW.

Eve Online has a very dynamic thing going on with politics, diplomacy and intrigue in 0.0. You better make sure that dragon's dead, boyo, because if he ain't he'll be coming after you! The roleplaying tends to be focused in forums but it's there and very smart usually whether political in nature or dealing with sci-fi themes.

SWG is full of players doing their own adventures much like we do in tabletop and they've got Storyteller tools to help them set up (and store, copy and sell on blueprints) scenarios and scenes complete with NPC baddies and special effects and soundtracks. Ryzom and now City of Heroes have instanced scenaro builders players can employ.

So there's more out there than you'd think. MMO's are lurching drunkly towards something halfway useful to roleplayers.

Now see? If you'd posted this in my comments section I'd have this there too!

Thu Mar 26 2009 9:12AM Report
OddjobXL writes:


And as for the beardy guys arguing about rules and interpretation...that can happen just as much in an MMO(or MUSH) Case in point for one recent MMO I was in. "I'm invisible and you can't see me because I have ultimate power of invisible and can spy on you guys and you can't see me. haha!"

In any event, I never have problems with rules and storyteller interpretation in paper and pencil games. Perhaps it's because I'm a superawesomepower DM. Perhaps it's because I've been gaming with the same guys for decades. Perhaps it's because the quality of my players is so high, they want to focus on roleplay and plot instead of pips on a dice. Perhaps it's a little of all that and more.

I think that your definition of what makes good roleplay and mine differ. It seems that you focus on immersion. Seeing another person, hearing them, having a dice roll on the table...all those things can detract from your experience of RP.

My definition of good roleplay is freedom for both players and the storyteller. This requires a Master Puppeteer. If you have any collaborative RP experience without a gamemaster/DM, then you're going to be restricted in some way. Either by the world mechanics itself because of lack of flexibility and adventuring tools, or by other players. (And there's nothing more horrifying than being on a MUSH where multiple godmodding players are fighting superheroes vs uberninjas vs vampires vs Dragonball Z megafights)

I guess my ultimate point is not the paper and pencil vs computer being best for roleplay. It's that you can't really tell a story without a storyteller. Paper and pencil gaming is built around a storyteller(DM), so there you go. In a MUSH or an MMO with no storyteller, your roleplay experience is lessened because of the structure of the types of stories that can be told.

With no Storyteller in POTBS, Alda could hate Diego and throw candles at him. She could have conflict with her national fleet captains, and run off to explore her pirate fantasies in Tortage. But that's all. She couldn't explore an unknown ruin. Her friends couldn't be kidnapped requiring her to investigate, find, and rescue them. She couldn't have a life or death struggle with an enemy captain. She couldn't have anything unexpected happen to her ever. With a Storyteller, the amount of stories and adventures Alda could have would be limitless...bounded only by the imagination of the player and of the storyteller.

And by my definition, that's what makes roleplay most rewarding.

Thu Mar 26 2009 9:13AM Report
OddjobXL writes:


I think our definitions of Storyteller may be different.

I see the Storyteller in a MUSH as a combination of things. You've got the admins who design the code and moderate disputes. But you've also got Sphere admins in some MUSHs who act as storytellers for a given faction or group very often (and Sphere admins will sometimes cooperate on further reaching storylines so you've got several Storytellers right there). You've also got individual players who give 'consent' to each other to create adventures and share elements of Storytelling privileges with each other. Sometimes an player will approach an admin with a "tinyPlot" (the name's taken from TinyMUSH, the original MUSH, but it tends to mean a grassroots generated story rather than a big admin driven storyarc too) and a small exchange can evolve into a MUSH wide event.

There are Storytellers everywhere, even the players themselves, on a good MUSH. Luckily I've spent my time on the good ones evidently.

But even in tabletop there's not always just one big old Storyteller laying down the law and the plot. Storytellers often crib ideas from players and elaborate on them. Pick up biographical hooks to create adventures around. Improvise when players go off the beaten track or find themselves self-motivated to pursue some plot thread the Storyteller didn't see coming.

Who is the Storyteller when the player is making the narrator scramble? In my experience, dog doesn't just bite man he often takes man for walks rather than the other way around.

What about troupe-style tabletop? Ars Magica and many other games suggest players take turns telling stories for each other in the same setting. Who is the Storyteller this week?

And let's not disregard simulation or strategy gamers. They don't have any human storyteller at all but they'll dive into a dynamic campaign in a flight sim or a strategy/war game and, afterwords, write up entire short stories or after action reports or even continuing diaries about their adventures.

Stories can come from many different places. So sometimes the Storyteller isn't a who it's a them or a what.

Thu Mar 26 2009 9:14AM Report writes:
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