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Much Ado About Roleplay

Guest Writer Posted:
Developer Journals 0

The Lead Designer of Hero's Journey follows her muse in this new journal

I bet you thought I was going to show up here with an article about Wyr. But no. When I sat down at the keys this morning, it was not Wyr that my muse fed me, even though they are neater than Felix Ungar and provide 110% of the FDA's daily recommended allowance for Vitamin Awesome.

No. This week, we're talking about...roleplay.

Yeah, yeah. I know I keep bringing this stuff up, and I'm sorry if it's boring the snot out of some of you. What can I say? I like to see people writhe in agony.

Sadism confessionals aside, roleplaying is a loaded term. Previously on Steph's Soapbox o' Doom I've talked about roleplaying games, and what I think puts the RPG into MMORPG. In particular, I was talking about RPG as a classification of game. But I wasn't actually talking about roleplay. Until now.

My views on good roleplay are, admittedly, biased. I am an experienced tabletop and computer gamer. And though roleplay is not void in graphical MMOs (hell, it's not void in most games -- I found roleplayers in a web-based turn-based massively multiplayer zombie apocalypse game), it's not being facilitated, either.

Okay, but what is roleplay? (In games, I mean, as opposed to...nevermind, I'll tell you when you're older.) Well, on the whole I'd say it's being someone else. It could be a slight step sideways ("Hey, check out my Human Writer Shephanie Staver!") or it could be a 180 with a triple salchow ("Hey, check out my Cardboardboxian Guano Miner Zaxaron Schmidley III!"). Either way, a good roleplay experience should exercise your imagination. It's thinking made fun.

But we're not really thinking much in MMOs, are we? For instance: when was the last time you read the quest description -- I mean, really read it? You scan it for what you need to know -- where to go, what to kill -- but you don't really care that Captain Reynolds has a problem with the radion accelerator core of his 03-K64 light freighter. You just know that, for some reason, 10 Cosmic Rat Tails will fix the problem. (Giant rats -- what aren't they good for?)

And why should you care? The game's designers have given you no reason to. Either way, the quest is going to work out because all you really need to know is: go here, kill this, go back here.

(Not that the kill-collect cycle isn't fun. It's a way of unwinding and tuning out, and it's a hallmark of the whole MMORPG experience. But a good roleplay experience can also impart the same euphoric bliss of the temporary vacation some of us seek in games. Here endeth the unnecessary parentheses.)

Roleplay is also about interaction and, arguably, an audience. I say "arguably" because many of the greatest roleplayers I met still did so even when others weren't watching. As a DragonRealms GameMaster, I took secret delight in stalking certain solo players and seeing how they behaved out in the hunting areas on their own (and then rewarding them for roleplaying even though no one was technically "there").

But the most fun I've had with roleplay was when other people were involved. The initiating interaction doesn’t even need to be another player -- it could be a creature you're stalking, an NPC you're bartering with, or a lonely stump (in the case of one memorable GemStone III character, it was a certain tree). Whatever it is, though, there's a point where someone recognizes that, hey, Skeezle's talking to that orc. Suddenly, you have someone else talking to that orc. And then you have a roleplaying game.

Again, I'm not saying this never happens in graphical MMOs. I've been in one or two where I was chatting up an NPC and had someone come in and join, albeit these occurrences are brief and rare. I am saying, however, that most graphical MMOs have limited their roleplay experience to emotes and (maybe!) faction scores. They have not designed for roleplay. It's something they throw on when players come knocking at the door at 3 AM. And if it seems flimsy and cheap to me...well, that's why.

Does your character's background matter one shred in your favorite MMO? No. Does your templar knight's reaction to an NPC asking him to go on a quest really do anything? No. As a general rule of thumb, does he even have an option other than "Yes" or "Cancel"? No. Should he?

Hell yes.

And maybe, just maybe, if your templar knight should choose to strike down that NPC with great vengeance and furious anger, what then? What repercussions, aside from a faction hit? What if that action changes him fundamentally? What if, say, it turns him into an anti-paladin?

What if, hm?

Most of my May was spent recovering from E3 and organizing Quest and Area design meetings. That's me, Quest and Area design girl. So under the influence of the Grenmeer Lowlands and our latest ideas for a Quest design, you'll forgive me if roleplay-as-I-ken-it is on the brain. The things we've come up with I still can't talk about, which is the supreme irony of my writing muse. After months of wanting to write about the super coolness of Wyr, of biting back the urge to tell you all about stuff that would get me lynched by my boss, I come back from my break and...write about stuff I can't actually talk about in too much detail. Ha ha! Psych!

Anyway, what I can say is that roleplay is something we intend to facilitate in Hero's Journey...with a vengeance. You won't be forced into it, just like you won't be made to wear a pink dress if you're a Wizard-Healer (no matter how marvelous we may think it looks on you, baby), but those of you who love it (and we suspect there are more of you than the marketing guys know) will be very happy.

Next time, I'll whip up some Wyr for ya'all. Because sometimes, you just want a socket to hold on to.

-Stephanie Shaver, Lead Designer

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