Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Ourselves The Elves

Psychochild has a post up about the perennial topic (I won't say "problem") of Roleplaying in MMORPGs. Over the years, RP has become a niche within a niche but if you drift back far enough in time it was once baseline behavior for the genre.

In 1999-2003, when I was playing EverQuest (on and off) pick-up groups were the norm. I met countless players, some of whom became online friends, some of whom I never saw again. In virtually every group someone, often several people would roleplay. Or rather, they would do something that we all thought of as "roleplaying" back then but which these days comes much closer to what I referred to in my recent "Conversation Starters" post as "character play".

Not if Scarlet sees you first, you won't.
The difference between what I'm calling character play (I'm not sure if its a term anyone else uses) and the practice generally known as roleplay nowadays is mostly - but not entirely - one of degree. Modern-day roleplay tends to be very serious business indeed. As Brian says in his piece, the current understanding is that "RP is basically shared storytelling". People get as deeply involved as actors do in their craft and we all know just how seriously actors take acting.

In-game racial abuse - weirdly okay.
Then there's the emotional commitment. "RP sometimes makes us feel vulnerable because it can expose emotions we often keep to ourselves." says Brian. There's a reason why many non-roleplayers go beyond finding roleplaying not to their taste to feeling actively threatened by it. The reason is fear of intimacy.

This is not the case with character play and it was rarely the case with what many players called "roleplay" in the early days of MMOs. While there absolutely were cadres of serious roleplayers back then, including whole RP guilds and cross-guild RP organizations who treated the virtual worlds of EQ or UO as backdrops for their collectively-constructed dramas, they were not the mainstream. Not even close.

Mainstream roleplaying in the dawn of MMORPGs was tawkin liek dis if you woz a troll or usin' a vera bad Scotch accent fer yer dwarrven clerrric. It was standing aloof and making sarcastic comments if you were playing a dark elf or handing out muffins to everyone in the party if you were a hobbit halfling.

In the lengthy downtime between pulls and set-ups, conversation ranged from what gear you were wearing to the latest sports news. There was no hard boundary between ooc and in-character chat. People dipped in and out of both all the time.

What's more, many people would stay in character while discussing out of character subjects. In EverQuest at that time people playing Trolls and Ogres would often not break character at all. You could be recovering from a bad pull at Back Door in the Sarnak Fort in Lake of Ill Omen and the Troll SK might say "gunna be afk a minnit. Dam cat skratchin at de door agen".

There were players I knew quite well at that time who I literally never heard speaking normal English. I was never that consistent myself when I played EQ but when I moved to Vanguard my Raki Disciple developed a particular speech pattern almost immediately and never deviated from it until the game closed down.

Names changed to protect the infantile.
Vanguard was, I think, the first MMO that Mrs Bhagpuss and I played mainly as a duo. We'd duoed
many times in other games but we'd also soloed a lot, been in the same and in separate guilds, had shared and separate circles of friends - the whole range. In Vanguard we started together and never really got to know many other people.

That was probably how we came to develop the kind of character play between ourselves that we've carried on in some form ever since. It consists largely of playing our characters as though they were various stripes of siblings or childhood friends (or more often frenemies).

It's actually worse when you can see what they're talking about.

There's a lot of jibing and taunting, frequently based around shared experiences and knowledge of each others (imagined, in game) habits and personality quirks. We tend to play small races as though they are the age their height makes them appear, while taller characters tend to be po-faced, long-suffering adults.

Size matters.
Over time a huge range of in-jokes accrue, some of which get carried over from one character to another or even one game to another. Not infrequently we stay in these character roles even when we are talking in game about something outside the gameworld.

I don't much like formal roleplay. I've tried it and I've watched a good deal. Mostly it seems to be artificial, forced and awkward. I find the conventions of using emotes spelled out in text with some signifier in front excruciatingly arch. The predeliction many roleplayers have for talking about their characters in the third person or the passive voice is about as unimmersive as it's possible to get.

I've also had a number of unfortunate experiences with aggressive RPers demanding compliance with their self-imposed standards in open-world areas and in non-roleplaying groups. I was once pursued for much of a Sunday morning by a Hobbit in LotRO who insisted it was my obligation to help him level for RP reasons which he articulated with increasing vigor and anger when I told him I had other plans.

Part of his argument was that, since I had rolled a character on a designated RP server, my characters were required to behave at all times in a certain manner, one which, in this instance, seemed to have far less to do with RP and a lot more to do with him not being able to find a group. My response was to quit LotRO altogether and go back to EQ2, where people generally let you use the bank without badgering you to take them adventuring.

Even the adults in the room...

All of this puts me in a somewhat ambiguous position. I have major reservations about roleplay in MMORPGs and my experiences with the more serious end of the hobby over the years have mostly tended to reinforce rather than remove those reservations. On the other hand I absolutely love character play and really regret the extent to which it has slipped into obscurity.

I'd love to hear Asuran player-characters talking like brash, self-agrandizing little "geniuses" or Charr gruffly cursing and calling each other out over their supposed legionary affiliations. My game experience would be considerably enhanced if players remembered which of their characters were Priory or Order of Whispers and dropped a few comments accordingly now and again.

It's all about getting the voice right...

It's not that it never happens any more. I see it occasionally. It stands out as the exception, though, where once it was so familiar I wouldn't have noticed.

You don't know what you've got til it's gone as Joni Mitchell used to say. Then again, she was obviously a High Elf, so no-one would have paid her the slightest attention anyway...


  1. I played a MUD way back in '97 or '98 where both types of roleplaying were in existence. From simple character play of typing a short sentence or two in-character, to elaborate multi-line paragraphs tagged onto one simple /emote command that was more like cooperative story-writing.

    There were even these things called MUSHes that veered further into the latter extreme, where multi-paragraph exchanges could take minutes to compose. Didn't participate much in those, the elaborate rulesets were not really my thing, but others did.

    Oddly enough, there tended to be this trend of increasing snootiness the longer and more elaborate the preferred sentence structure of that particular multi-user RP subculture. Folks used to herald certain 'correct' ways of roleplaying, though on observation, those customs are usually prescriptively individual to that particular circle. Which only goes to show that raiders are not the only player spectrum to harbor elitist jerks.

    I eventually decided that MMO-like games were just not the best medium for in-character roleplaying, too many people = too many cliques each with their own subculture, accepted traditions and readiness to be offended by anything that didn't meet their expectations.

    1. I missed the MUD/MUSH era, not getting an internet connection until sometime around 1997. I don't think I'd have taken to it all that well. When I first came across very detailed, formal rp with rules of behavior, in UO, EQ and later LotRO I found it fascinating but very strange. I quite enjoyed watching it and being a silent walk-on or extra in the drama but it seemed almost exactly as appealing as joining an amateur dramatics company in real life - i.e. not at all.

  2. I've never quite gotten into serious role-play myself, but I find playing on RP servers a much richer experience than playing on "normal" servers. I like walking down the streets of Silvermoon and seeing people chatting in-character. It makes the world feel so much more alive.

    As for your concept of "character play," oddly enough the one modern game where it seems to be alive and well is, for some reason, ESO. I've noticed a great many Khajiit players who adopt the Khajiiti speech pattern, even when discussing real world topics.


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