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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.