Storyboard: Can you diverge from lore in MMORPG roleplaying?


All right, this is new for me because most of my titles do not contain dirty lies right in the question used to kick off the column. But that question is inherentlyfilthy, filthy lie because the answer is obvious. Of course you can diverge from lore. You can do anything you want. If you want to say your World of Warcraft character is the man-love baby of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the Eleventh Doctor who was raised simultaneously by Pinkie Pie and Iron Man, you can do it.

A much better question is whether or not you should. But asking that as the title would have meant not getting to make you all picture that WoW character in the first paragraph, so swings and roundabouts.

Horrible mental images aside, diverging from the written lore in an MMO is one of those things that you’re almost inevitably going to wind up doing over enough time spent roleplaying, but it can also be one of the biggest ways to alienate yourself from other players. So there are a few questions to ask before you decide to pull a Nick Fury-style “I have elected to ignore it” response on lore-as-written.

I own two books about this game's lore, for reference.

Does this violate the letter of the lore or the spirit?

One of my favorite stories about a Q&A panel is one I heard about J. Michael Straczynski getting asked about the speed of the starfighters used in Babylon 5 because whilst I’ve not watched the series, it was one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. “They move at the speed of plot,” he explained. “If they need to get there in the nick of time, they do. If they need to be just a little too slow? They are.”

I’m not sure how spurious that particular story is, but it’s a sentiment that I’ve internalized, and it most certainly applies to lore. The reality is that the letter of lore only counts so long as it enables stories, not when it restricts them. And the same is true when choosing to violate the lore.

According to the job quests in Final Fantasy XIV, for example, you could easily state that by the letter of the lore your character cannot be a White Mage; there’s exactly one White Mage around who isn’t a Padjal. That is, strictly speaking, the letter of the law. But why is that limitation in place? It’s no harder for a player to become a White Mage than it is to become a Paladin, and it’s actually easier to become one than it is to become a Machinist, using mass-produced job stones.

The spirit of this rule is to make it clear that White Mages are not common. They are the exception, not the rule. And consequently, that’s a guidepost to use for the lore here. Having your character be a White Mage by dint of a great deal of training makes perfect sense, violating the strict letter of the lore (there’s only one) but not the spirit (these are rare individuals). Meanwhile, if you stated that your character is part of a large guild of Conjurers who work just like White Mages, that adheres to the letter of the law, but it violates the spirit of the rarity.


Is this a big change or a little one?

One of the accepted facts of the Chiss in Star Wars: The Old Republic is that they don’t produce a lot of Force-sensitive individuals. Obviously, the game does allow you to make a Chiss in a Force-using class, so you could argue that’s the game violating its own lore. But an individual and unusual Chiss having the Force is a pretty minor change. It’s not the norm, but it’s well within the boundaries of the lore.

On the other hand, having your character be from a secret cadre of Light-aligned Chiss who all learn to hone their Force techniques and rebel against the evil Sith… yeah, that’s going to be kind of a big deal. Yes, you can certainly justify it through roleplaying, and there would be some fun in having a secret society of Force-users who manage to completely fail at ever making changes to the world around them, but it would require a lot of changes to the world as it stands.

That’s not to say that you can’t have something meant as a small change that ripples out into larger impacts when you think the worldbuilding implications through. Heck, that happens with the lore as written by the developers all the time. Something is changed, and later it becomes clear that there should be bigger impacts in the world. But the point is asking how much this is at least initially meant to change the world around you.

It probably goes without saying that the goal should be to minimize impacts, obviously. Breaking up the lore is like any other form of adding things; the new addition is going to have seams, and you want to make them as invisible as possible.

It's important to note that this is a game where you literally have dinosaur ship captains.

Does this open new opportunities or make you more special?

No one really wants to talk about this, but it’s one of the biggest reasons to think about violating the lore because it gets right into the core ethos behind doing it.

If you’re choosing to have your Klingon in Star Trek Online be part of a sect dedicated to providing permanent opposition to the Empire, that gives you opportunities for storytelling. That means that you not only have a reason to be in Starfleet, you also have a unique perspective from within Starfleet. You’re loyal as an opponent to the Empire, but you’re also hoping to avoid peace, which is against the stated goals of the Federation. There’s a lot of chance for interesting conflicts there.

On the other hand, if you’re part of a sect with special psychic powers that is surgically altered to look like Romulans and you get to grow wings, that’s a little bit different. Both of them are violating the lore in (roughly) the same scope, but the latter really doesn’t enhance the world aside from justifying your character being the most special and unique thing ever. And it doesn’t even make your character more interesting because it’s replacing actual character traits like personality and worldview with adjectives.

I think this is what most people think of when they talk about violating the lore; the idea that you have a character who is so uniquely amazing and special and different that it no longer really resembles the setting that you’re taking part in. And some of it is as simple as asking why you want the lore to be nudged for your character concept.

If it’s a small alteration that keeps in the spirit and offers some more storytelling chances, that’s fine. Heck, if it’s in the spirit and small, it’s probably fine if it’s mostly for your own special character traits. But if it’s a large alteration that exists just to make you feel as special as possible, you may want to reconsider.

And yes, importing entire characters from other franchises wholesale is probably a bad idea at face value.

If you’re an old hand at roleplaying in MMOs, you can look to Eliot Lefebvre’s Storyboard as an irregular column addressing the common peaks and pitfalls possible in this specialized art of interaction. If you’ve never tried it before, you can look at it as a peek into how the other half lives. That’s something everyone can enjoy, just like roleplaying itself.
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