Roleplay Builds

Dana Massey of wrote an inflammatory piece last week, essentially calling roleplayers on MMOs crybabies and drama queens. The following day, Sanya Weather, also of and eating bees, wrote a more nuanced piece laying out the problems that MMO operators face when setting up a roleplay server. Given the extra support costs associated with roleplay worlds, it is not a surprise that operators don’t put too much investment into roleplay servers. Also, on the so called roleplay servers, many (most?) players are there simply for the restricted general chat and character naming schemes and not in it for the RP at all. This is a problem for roleplayers. Deeply immersive roleplay is a bit like canoeing on some wilderness lake. You can enjoy the mist, the quiet, perhaps see a moose on the lakeshore and hear a loon. If someone comes along on a jetski, there quiet is shattered, the moose is scared off and the loon flies south for the winter a bit early. The canoeist, who’s trip has effectively been ruined sees only two options; to stew and be angry – becoming like “those who shush you on a campus library on a Friday night” to use Massey’s example – at the inconsiderate jetskier, or give up on enjoying nature and also jetski. Just as there are those who choose to be in the library on Friday night and there are those who choose to canoe on the deserted lake at dawn, there are those who simply want to roleplay in peace. They search about for guilds of likeminded individuals, search for the nooks and crannies where they can roleplay unmolested, away from those who don’t understand, or respect RP. Many simply give up roleplay in persistent worlds because of the lack of immersion. In the NWN persistent world community, those worlds with “lite roleplay” restrictions eventually (quickly actually) turn into “no roleplay” and the only ones where roleplay is really possible are the IC obligatory ones.

Even in what should presumably be the roleplayer heaven of community run, ic-obligatory, roleplay worlds, all is not well. The playerbase is torn between the gamist instinct and the simulationist and dramist instincts. The gamist players- being more focused on the game aspect – will invariably end up with top flight builds that might be a bit of a stretch in terms of character development logic. A certain subset of the playerbase will deliberately gimp their character builds because a blind knight with a severe limp is an interesting character to play. Another subset won’t deliberately sabotage their character’s build, but won’t stick to the excel sheet plan if the roleplay direction dictates something else. This is how you end up with wizard/rogue/shadowdancer/blackguard combinations. This leads to tension between the powergaming gamists and the other two factions and lovely message board threads about “rp builds” and lectures from the gamist faction about the Stormwind Fallacy.

In her article, Sanya Weathers lays out all of the requirements for implementing a roleplay server in a normal MMO environment. In addition, near the end she muses that the game needs to be designed from the ground up to accommodate RP- which – like hardcore PvP – is a nich player set with a unique set of requirements.

All these special needs for a population that won’t exceed 10% of the playerbase, and can’t agree on a single definition of roleplay? It’d almost be more cost effective to make an entire niche game for this playstyle, rather than trying to make a massively multiplayer game that equally appeals to the roleplayer and a mass market audience.

I’m not sure I completely agree that there should be no OOC communication channels. Like David Bowers, I feel that OOC communication actually helps strengthen roleplay. Even NWN fails at being a complete immersion environment, because at the end of the day, its diku-ness is hardcoded in. There will always be a powergaming versus RP tension, even in the best of communities. So what can be done? There are two things in addition to Weathers’ list that can go a long way to building a perfect RP storm.

Character Applications – If you want to play on a world, you first need to familiarize yourself with it enough to write an application proposing a character concept to the staff. If you want to create an additional character, you need to apply for it as well; along with each additional one. Some regard this as an annoyance. That is precisely the point. The theory is that roleplayers who want to be left alone in peace are more willing to jump through these hoops than the inconsiderate, immature, anti-roleplayers who want to grief them as well as the “roleplay lite” players who don’t actually do much roleplaying. Most of the latter two groups are of the opinion that “applications are stupid”. Text MUSHes and some older NWN RP worlds used this technique very successfully.

Rethinking rules – This one is trickier, but anyone designing a roleplay world needs to address the powerbuild/rp-build dichotomy. The best way to do this is to make the character and player domain knowledge one and the same. Make the best swordsman on the server the server be the one played by the player with the most dedication to roleplaying a swordsman; not the one who always skips interacting to hunt. This is not to drive the gamists off, but rather give them incentive to be more IC. By replacing spreadsheet analysis with IC discussions of strikes, counterstrikes, tactics, motion analysis and even allowing them to invent new moves and new styles (via player created content), you remove the powerbuild/rp-build build tension by conflating the two.


About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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3 Responses to Roleplay Builds

  1. Kari says:

    I disagree with the OOC channel issue as well. You often need to discuss issues of game mechanics at arm’s length, and I don’t think it breaks immersion very much. After all, you’re already staring at a screen and typing on a keyboard, so it’s not much of a stretch to have to parse occasional OOC text.

    I think your idea of rethinking rules may not be the best approach. IC discussions of strikes, etc. are only a small part of roleplay and certainly do not interest every character. That part is acceptable, but this really restricts players. If you don’t know much about swordfighting, then you can’t play a good swordfighter. It hampers the fantasy element. You also reward players for spending large amounts of time playing the game, which keeps casual players away.

    I also don’t think there is a dichotomy between powerbuilds and RP builds. There is a smooth gradient, ranging from the blind elder former soldier (effectively useless at combat/non-RP activity) to the outright powerbuild (total disregard for alignment requirements or even a logical set of classes in order to get that extra 0.0001 DPS). You obviously won’t be able to cover the whole spectrum and still have happy players, so it’s necessary to make some design decisions to keep certain undesirables away.

  2. Dave says:

    @Kari – You certainly point out potentials pitfalls. I do think that they can be worked around. You are right about the spectrum. I consider myself a hardcore roleplayer, I’ve been known to build a PC by spreadsheet (making sure that it makes sense) and on occasion, I’ve been blatant. I’ll use the NWN world Taliv as an example because you are familiar with it. My paladin took a sorcerer level. There was zero roleplay basis. I simply took it to be able to cast arcane scrolls, have access to some charisma boosting items and most importantly, have access to the pseudodragon familiar and its hardcoded true seeing. On a server where stealth was routinely wanked into a klingon cloaking device (including interacting with other characters in open, public places while stealthed), having on-demand true seeing was handy.

    I suspect that it is not the discrepancy in power or success that annoys the hardcore roleplay set, so much as the breaking the magic circle by doing things that don’t make sense. I’m trying to find a way to align the “powergamers” and roleplayers onto the same page, so that you never need to decide between doing what is best for your character sheet and doing what makes sense IC.

    As far as the power gamer/casual-player discrepancy. I’m not sure that is avoidable. If you have a grind for avatar capital, then clearly those who grind more (i.e. not the casual players) will be more powerful. This idea in big measure exchanges this avatar capital for player capital. It means that the casual swordsmmen will not be as good at their craft as those who practice relentlessly and discuss tactics with other characters/players; both in-game and on the forums. One advantage that I think this approach has is that the gamists would hopefully be pulled into the fold.

    Then again, I may be missing a piece of the puzzle and there may be a better way.

  3. I’ve always held that in freeform roleplaying (that is, no dice rolling), constraining even the most powerful build possibilities is a bad idea. There’s no reason the most powerful wizard in the world has to be roleplayed in a way that makes him too powerful. Similarly, even the most benign character like a baby with polio can be power-played somehow.

    Bad gaming is created and enabled by bad players. Most causation I’ve seen has to do with immaturity.

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