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.


12 thoughts on “Get your RP on III — Begone, quests!

  1. Give Dungeons & Dragons Online a try, now that it’s free.

    It also rewards you for killing X, but that happens automatically. There’s a counter running of how many monsters you’ve killed when you’re in an outdoor zone, and every so-and-so increment you get experience for it.

    But the more interesting parts are the quests. They feel like PROPER quests! It’s never “kill ten rats” but “XY has disappeared from town, and we fear she’s been kidnapped”, then the hints lead you to the right dungeon, completing the dungeon involves freeing the damsel and her fellow kidnapped townspeople etc.

    Even getting off the newbie island is done nicely with quests in that way. It’s encased in ice at first. You have to find out what the heck causes this ice buildup and then remove the source of the ice before ships can dock again and carry you off the island.

    It’s surely not perfect and it doesn’t solve all the problems you’ve mentioned, but it’s hard to write predefined quests that would agree with each and every player’s potential background and motivation for their character. DDO isn’t doing such a bad job in this area.

  2. “it’s hard to write predefined quests that would agree with each and every player’s potential background and motivation for their character.”

    I think the term you want is “almost impossible.” 😀

    I’m not asking that MMOs provide this, because I really don’t think they can. You can’t (yet, if ever) tailor-make a game for each and every one of several thousand concurrent players. It’s not so much that I’m asking MMOs to change — I’m just noting why, for me, role-playing in them is very difficult. Give me a table and some graph paper every time. 😉

  3. Sitting. Sitting could be RP, to a certain degree, but not too many of WoW’s chairs allow you to sit on them (some Inns only have a couple of usable chairs) so you’re forced to stand on the chair then hit X to sit.

    Walking can also be construed RP but as those goblins have been known to say on more than one occasion, “time is money, friend,” so you run everywhere, even though all the NPCs are walking. (note – do NOT play a GTA game then play WoW immediately after, especially if you play a great, lumbering oaf of a Tauren. “This is running? Tommy Vercetti’s grandmother can walk faster than this!”)

    The boats that sail from Menethil Harbor used to have a little bucket on deck (or maybe they still do) that was just the right size for a gnome or dwarf to sit on and…role play 😉

    /s I know I’m on deck, but is it too much to ask for a little privacy?
    /s Er…that wasn’t me.
    /me looks around bewildered, then appears dismayed.
    /s Can I get some paper over here?

    I also used to like finding people fishing, trot up beside them, sit down, give them about 10 seconds then start up a conversation, even if it was one-sided (due to them using Glider, etc).

    /s Nice day for it.
    /s Catching much?
    /s My cousin was here last week. Said he caught a halibut thiiiiiis big.
    /me looks in your bucket.
    /s Little small, ain’t they? You sure they’re legal size.
    /s Is that…the Fishing Inspector?! And here you are with a bucket of under-sized fish! That’s it for me, I’m off. Later!

    There used to be an Ally Engineer on my server (Kilrogg) who sold Mechanical Squirrels and other items. He always had a great spiel when advertising in Trade so I was more than happy to buy from him. You’ve got to acknowledge the folks that go the extra mile…well, maybe you don’t, but I do 🙂

    1. I think you misunderstand my intent, but that’s ok. I should know by now that any musing on RP and why I may find it difficult is invariably going to be read as me saying “I can’t RP. I don’t know why anyone bothers. I don’t understand it.”

      For the record, I’ve been roleplaying for over 20 years now. It’s not that I don’t know what it is or can’t do it. What I’m trying to discuss is why I find MMOs don’t encourage it.

      Emoting is a role-playing mechanic. It’s not what I would call RP itself.

      1. My apologies if I appeared to imply that you couldn’t RP yourself, that certainly wasn’t my intention. I think the problem with trying to RP in most MMOs is the back story you develop for your character, as you’ve already pointed out, is irrelevant with respect to the world in which the character lives. Almost all MMOs worlds are static, remorseless and unchanging, and most people like that just fine because when they roll an Alt they know exactly who they will need to talk to, what quests they’ll get, what they’ll need to kill or find, and where they’ll need to go next. People don’t like RPers because it makes their piece of the world different (even briefly) while they’d prefer things the same, because familiarity is safe and comfortable.

        Case in point, Goon Squad and their kidnapping of the Ally Flight Masters:

        Re: emoting, I also agree, which is why you’ll notice my examples don’t simply rely on emoting but included comments from my characters to flesh out their actions. Two characters just sitting down in a tavern is not RPing, but two characters sitting down in a tavern reminiscing on old times is (IMO).

      2. Ahhh yes okay, I see what you’re saying — I misinterpreted. I agree completely.

        Most people I know who RP in MMOs end up RPing “around” the NPCs and the quests and whatnot, if that makes any sense. That stuff never changes, and some of the things they ask you to do makes very little sense in terms of the character you’re playing (RP-wise), but MMOs are also about progression. It’s an uneasy relationship at best, at least for me.

        All the reminiscing has made me download the Asheron’s Call trial and have a stroll down memory lane. What I hadn’t remembered, of course, is that I’d have to relearn the game. Stuff has come a long way since 2000, that’s for sure. (Also… downside of memory lane in a game like AC is that there’s nobody left to visit with. Game is pretty empty these days…)

  4. Coming from PnP to MMOs I can see how there is just no way an MMO is ever going to be able to compete in terms of RPing, which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t try. The kill 10 rats quests irk me to no end.

    I think we share MMOs with a gamer population who’s sole purpose in playing is to be presented with content to beat. They are very goal oriented in that matter. Rather than say the more journey oriented playing that RPers represent. As the goal oriented gamers are the majority that’s what developers focus on.

  5. I would like to add that, in regards to a game creating content for each and every character, while very difficult to do I think allowing for a more general “path” for characters to chose would be a doable start.

    Something in character creation to focus the type of play you like which may be independent of your “class”:

    finder of lost places – where you could gain xp/renown/whatever for world exploration. Possibly even unlocking content for your guild by doing so.

    Protector of the weak – where you are sent out on specific missions to protect villages from attack (combat)or provide them aid in terms of provisions (crafting) or cure a sickness infecting them (healer).

    Treasure Hunter, master artisan, Battler of Evil, etc etc.

    It doesn’t seem like it would be too hard to impliment, and would go a long way to promoting more RP.

    Most MMOs only value a “kill the monster” type of path these days.

  6. “but other than that, if you have a good group going, it really doesn’t matter what the wider world is doing.”

    …then why play an MMO in the first place? It’s all about the massive numbers of players grinding on parallel loot treadmills like some insane AntiHealth Club, Ysh! Get with the program!


    Though, really, it does make me, once again, question why we’re paying for these great, immersive world designs when the gameplay itself breaks that immersion and devolves into rat killing. These MMO things just aren’t the best venue for either Role Playing or player actions with meaning. There are too many people around.

    (I’m too tired to take a swipe at the subscription model today. You could probably fill in the blanks on that anyway. :P)

  7. Rithwic was the place to be! Fie on your Lytelthorpe with it’s castle/fort dominance!

  8. Yay, let’s talk about roleplaying 🙂

    I think we should be way more outspoken about the way we like to play. Roleplayers tend to hide away for fear of being mocked but really, it’s the immersive aspects of MMOs that are the one huge thing that they bring to the table (that and being able to interact with large numbers of other players in the virtual world).

    I do think though that we need to be clear that just like other types of gaming, there is a notion of the casual vs the hardcore roleplayer. Hardcore roleplay, which is more like the heavy text based gaming, is never going to be a majority pursuit. It needs a lot of time, commitment, and coordination. It’s awesome, but it isn’t for the majority. I’d still like to see more tools in MMOs to make it easier to arrange — and that’s kind of where I’m going with the fairly technical articles. (ie. what are the barriers to roleplaying? in a dreamworld, what could devs add to make it easier for us?)

    But what about casual roleplay? That could be accessible. People who drop into pubs for a bit of pub RP after an evening slaughtering monsters, people who come to the big RP events (balls, markets, races, etc) to hang out and enjoy the atmosphere but without taking a major part. People who yell ‘For the Horde!’ when they get into a battleground and grumble /in character/ about their faction leaders being dorks.

    MMOs offer this amazingly immersive environment, a million miles ahead of sitting around a table or chatting via text. The price of that is that it has limitations. Sometimes by accepting that, we can make things easier for ourselves — if a game is based around taking quests then don’t design an anarchist character who hates being ordered around, because you’ll have to choose between playing the game or playing your character. It’s much eaiser if you can find a way to not be forced to make that choice.
    The challenge for longterm RPers is how to accept casuals into our communities, how to design events so that both hardcore and casual RPers can take part, and how to live with the limitations of the MMO medium.

  9. @Ysharros

    “For the record, I’ve been roleplaying for over 20 years now. It’s not that I don’t know what it is or can’t do it. What I’m trying to discuss is why I find MMOs don’t encourage it.

    Emoting is a role-playing mechanic. It’s not what I would call RP itself.”

    I read somewhere 🙁 I can never remember where! That when it comes down to it for RP, MMOs vs MUDs (MUSHES, MOOs, what have you), right now, technologically, text-based worlds encourage RP more, because in a graphics based world, you can tell if someone is close enough to shoot. In a text-based world, you can tell if they need a hug.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love the visual arts. Considering I’m in the field myself lol. But… as a long-time RPer in MUDs, who doesn’t RP at all in graphics based MMO stuff… I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement. After I stop being so mad about Guild Wars, I think I’ll go back to looking around MUDs. Beastly fidos, here I come!

    I picked up many of my close friends from MUDs. Not a single one from WoW. One potential-to-be-great-friends friend from GW. I miss the emotional connection a text-only environment can give. But I don’t miss the cloying Days of Our Lives drama that such small communities can have. It’s a tradeoff I guess. =)

    Wish me luck finding a MUD to be a ‘real’ virtual home again!

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