Get your RP on III — Begone, quests!

If you have any interest in role-playing, you should read Spinks’ series of articles on the subject. I don’t agree with all of her points and views, but if we all agreed there’d be no fun and a damn sight less blogging, so that’s okay. I’ve considered the subject myself once or twice, though not on the technical, nuts & bolts level Spinks covers.

I do agree that it seems we old pen & paper roleplayers have never quite given up on the ideal of roleplaying in MMOs. They are, after all, called MMORPGs — though for my money that might as well stand for “rounds per gallon.” As I’ve said before, I have a hard time roleplaying in MMOs and I have a hard time seeing what gets done in MMOs as roleplaying, at least on a wider level.

After reading Spinks’ posts I realised that the disconnects present (for me) in MMOs are generally too strong to overcome the incentives, and quest-driven playing is one of the biggest disconnects of all. Coming up with a great backstory — no problem. Playing in-character — no problem! Being in character and explaining that I, once again, have to go out and kill ten rats — that crashing sound you hear is my suspension of disbelief unsuspending. Small-scale player to player interactions aren’t much of an issue, but almost invariably the roleplaying has to stop, or bend into entirely improbable shapes, in order to fit itself into the non-RP conducive MMO mould.

Whether you’re playing a hero, an antihero, or a normal person somehow sucked into doing extraordinary things (rather like most of Philip K Dick’s protagonists), how do you reconcile the repetitive, on-rails nature of current quest-driven MMOs with the requirements of good — and consistent — storytelling?

Priscilla is a gentle soul, but she’s seen enough violence to know the rest of the world isn’t gentle at all. People she knows have been hurt, maybe even killed. Her childhood friend, Fred, left half a year ago to join the provincial militia and she hasn’t heard from him since; there have been a few engagements with encroaching bands of {insert generic MMOnster} and for all she knows he’s already dead. Eventually, Priscilla convinces herself that if she cares about the world and what is happening to it, and more specifically to Fred, she needs to get involved — so she leaves her sleepy little market town and makes her way out into the world.

First thing Priscilla has to do … kill ten rats.

I can see this working in certain situations. Priscilla comes to an inn where they have a giant rat problem, and Pris isn’t scared of rodents. She’s a helpful sort, so she lends an exterminating hand in exchange for a bit of coin or a bed for the night. The next morning, she sets out again to find Fred. Three miles down the road {or just outside the door, in quest-hub models}, someone asks her to go kill five wolves. So, off she goes.

But why?

Priscilla’s backstory is that she wants to find Fred and she wants to get involved in the wider events of the world. Killing rats and culling wolves isn’t a wider event. It’s a low-level quest designed to provide you with low-level gear… so that you can move on to the next quest hub and do it all again.

Why on earth would Pris spend 3 years killing a not very imaginative assortment of monsters on her way to finding Fred? Why wouldn’t she just say “Sod this for a game of darts, I’m off to the capital. Someone there has to know where Fred’s military unit is stationed!”

The next problem, of course, is that Fred probably doesn’t exist. Or, if it’s pre-planned and Fred is another player, Pris and Fred can reunite and then… they can kill ten rats.

That’s not roleplaying. That’s questing as it is now defined in most MMOs. Find NPC, click through dialogue, do what it tells you to do. Even when those quests are well-written and entertaining, they are sill just variations on a single theme. Kill, loot, level. Rinse repeat till level cap.

The MMO I started with, Asheron’s Call, had almost no real “quests” as they are defined today. NPCs didn’t have any kind of icon over their heads. There was no such thing as a quest journal. If they had a quest, it was usually more a case of telling you about an interesting location and what you might find there; if you had a quest, you needed to keep track of it on paper somewhere, or in your head. There were no “quest hubs” — there were living, breathing villages that characters lived in, and people had strong feelings about which towns they preferred. Mine was Lytelthorpe: it didn’t have a whole lot to recommend it, the vendors didn’t give the best prices, it wasn’t on the major travel routes… but it was where my very first character started and after that, no matter where else I went or what I did, it was home.

And you know what? It was a damn sight easier to roleplay in AC than it is in any of these AAA titles we have today. I just cannot get past having a great interperson RP session… and then moving on to the guy with the blob over his head and randomly slaying 10 spiders.

It’s not impossible to work that into one’s roleplaying, but I’ll admit I find it bloody difficult. Especially since the characters I make aren’t all just out to become GenericOtherHero 12309. Most of my characters aren’t out to become heroes at all, not intentionally and certainly not as a primary goal — they want to find something or someone, they’re fleeing something or someone, they’re out for revenge / filthy lucre / knowledge / power. What they’re not out for is killing ten rats for 8 random NPCs in QuestHub 001, and then doing it again in Hubs 002, 003, and so on to 025.

Roleplaying in the market square, or inn rooms, that’s not a problem (well, no more than I usually have RPing in MMOs). But if we’re talking obstacles, then the non-persistence of our actions is one block for me and the questing-on-rails model most games have adopted now is another.

“Oh, hello there Bob! What are you up to this morning?”

“Greetings, Priscilla. I’m off to slay those pesky rodents menacing the butcher’s shop!”

“Ah, right. I did that yesterday.”

… Yeah. Or rather, no.

Come to think of it, that’s probably why most conducive games for RP, for me, were the ones that didn’t include quest-driven advancement. Star Wars Galaxies was a great environment for it, for various reasons. Asheron’s Call, as I mentioned previously. Fallen Earth would probably be pretty good for it too, though it’s been a while since I played it and I probably won’t pick it up on release — though that has more to do with my desire not to fragment into several games right now than with any flaws it may or may not have. I have high hopes of CCP’s someday-maybe World of Darkness MMO, but the recent non-announcement at PAX is disheartening (unless I missed some recent info, which is entirely possible). I have even higher hopes of the Secret World.

Though height, with respect to hopes, is a relative thing. I can quite easily see how TSW could, within seconds of launch, devolve into simple trash-talk between the three factions.

“Dragons suck!”

“Illuminati suck more!”

“Lightbulbs and lizards ALL suck and only Templars are cool. I will so totally pwn your pathetic asses!”

Fortunately, RP doesn’t need the entire community to be role-playing. It helps not to have some snot-nosed whelp trying to grief your roleplaying, but other than that, if you have a good group going, it really doesn’t matter what the wider world is doing. For me, however, it turns out that it does matter what the mechanics are doing. If WoD-MMO and TSW are going to end up being modern-day setting, quest-hub driven games where NPCs have blobs over their heads and I’m on an automated fairground ride, then you won’t be seeing me roleplaying. I can’t maintain my composure in the face of the 18 millionth rat-killing request, let alone stay in character.

That clattering sound you hear is me getting my old PnP dice out. Much easier all round. Aside from, you know, having to find live bodies to play with.