Storyboard: Stop whining and accept your MMO plotline

    
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Just play along.

I’m going to let you in on a very big and also very obnoxious secret. All right? No one is going to like hearing it, no one even likes saying it. We’ve all collectively agreed that instead of talking about it, we’ll just have some of us know this fact and some people think the inverse is true, and the former group will be happier than the latter when it comes to roleplaying. But it’s all based on fake ideas. Ready for it?

Character motivation is malarkey.

Oh, sure, it’s important. It informs a bunch of what you’re doing with a character when you roleplay, yeah. Saying otherwise would just be lying. But every time I see people citing character motivation as a reason for not engaging in a plot I mentally (and often audibly) sigh. The same goes for no-selling a conflict with character powers, using character history to horribly derail plots, and otherwise using cheap ways of getting out of stories instead of, you know, engaging with them.

See, here’s a thing to internalize about characters in any story, roleplayed or otherwise: They exist to make stories interesting. A character should either cause stories to occur, cause stories to be more interesting, or have interesting reactions to them. A really good character does all three, but one is enough.

All of that runs counter to most of the writing advice that I’ve been given through most of my career and schooling. It’s all good advice in the abstract, as within that framework you do want characters to have rich inner lives and abilities and skills and different reactions and so forth. But it’s those three things that actually make a character worth bothering with, and characters who fail to fulfill those goals are superfluous.

Of course, the bright side is that with a character you roleplay, you are in control. And yes, all that talk about your characters taking over is malarkey, too. You still get veto power. Your character is not leaning out of your computer screen and typing for you.

Light it up.

Let’s say that you’re roleplaying in Star Wars: The Old Republic. (Let’s also pretend it still has a roleplaying server. I am exceedingly bitter.) You’re playing a bounty hunter who in-character has a long history of hunting and taking down Jedi, and the person you’re talking to is a Jedi padawan who’s giving you lip while a smuggler offers encouragement. I’ve seen far too many people march into “well, my bounty hunter would now introduce this Jedi to the world of recreational vivisection; that’s just the sort of character she is.”

And sure, all right, I get that. She’s not going to laugh. But there are lots of other ways to make this scene into something interesting. Maybe she does want to bisect this padawan… but she also knows that he’s got to have a master somewhere nearby, so she’s staying alert and trying to figure out where. Or she could say that killing him isn’t worth the charge in her blaster. Or she could be impressed at the stones on this kid, or even take pity on him for someone who would shoot first.

None of them requires you to change the character of her motivation. But all of them make for a more interesting interaction than just turning the whole thing into an awkwardly defined combat encounter, much less one that will no doubt go into arguments about who should be winning.

The trick to character motivation is that most of the time, the characters don’t want to get embroiled in stories. They want to be comfortable and not have their lives disrupted. But the players feel the exact opposite way, and the more you shut down things by being unmotivated or unruffled or whatever, the less fun your character is in narrative situations.

That’s what I mean when I talk about the idea that motivation is a big bowl of malarkey. It’s not that your character doesn’t have motivation, but justifying instructing everyone to stop the plot because My Character Wouldn’t Do This is a load of fertilizer. You’re using that as a crutch to justify what you wanted to do in the first place.

Sure, that might be justified, but that is a justification. Just like you could just as easily go along with things.

Oh this will not turn out well.

I think some of this stems from a difference between tabletop roleplaying and online roleplaying, and it’s not one that’s strictly related to power levels in the abstract. Tabletop roleplaying, as a game, encourages you to make characters that are effective and varied problem-solvers. The nature of the rules means that there are usually a lot of limitations on the power you can bring to bear at any given moment, but the point is still that your average group of characters is meant to have people able to solve the problems of your average adventure.

In a story, meanwhile, the writers at least theoretically know that the powers of characters don’t actually matter. The writer is in control and can still put these characters through trials and tribulations no matter what stated abilities the characters have. When you’re watching the Avengers, there’s no need to talk about how Hawkeye can contribute compared to Iron Man; the story makes it clear what they both contribute and why.

So there’s a temptation with roleplaying characters in MMOs to also make problem-solvers, but there are no system-based limits on your ability to solve problems… and the external forces creating those problems is not the adjudicator of how your abilities work. You make characters designed to solve problems and then can declare that the problem is solved, resulting in experiences wherein no one is ever in any danger.

And it’s more fun to play along.

That’s not to say that the characters can’t express a lack of motivation or boredom or ability to solve the problem in seconds. Heck, maybe it’d even make more sense if they did. Maybe your character is a superspy in a room full of average mercenaries and could legitimately kill everyone in the room without breathing hard. But isn’t it more fun to let her play her cards close to her chest, pretend at legitimate danger, and let everyone think she’s less capable than she actually is?

Or, if not, she might not be able to protect the people in the room who she does value, even if she claims otherwise?

Or perhaps she’s been injured, or she gets unlucky, or she has some other external reason to let the peril be entirely real instead of contrived?

We all get the right to have veto power over stuff in roleplaying, that’s an accepted fact. But the point of that power isn’t to derail things but to ensure that you’re not stuck in a scenario wherein you’re just not having any fun. Let your characters be in danger. Let them go along with things instead of just walking off or derailing the story because “my character wouldn’t do that.” You have control of what you’re choosing to do based on existing motivation.

Otherwise, it’s not that your character won’t do something. It’s that you don’t want to and you don’t want to own it.

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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Jon 1812

Au contraire Eliot, I believe the problem lies squarely in the developers’ hands with this one.

Ever since the inception of MMOs, people have asked for more interactive experiences. What that really means is that we as players, want to craft our own story that has meaning.

We grew tired of the invisible boundaries that made you walk the same path, shoot the same bad guys, and be the same cookie cutter hero as everyone else. Because if everyone is a hero, then nobody is.

What we wanted was for our actions to have meaning in the world. Our successes and failures to affect the game world around us. Instead, developers took the easier route and wrote nicer stories. But a gilded cage is still a cage.

Humans crave meaning. The single greatest motivator in a job is whether the employees consider it meaningful. Pay only affects motivation to a certain point. Meaning is always a driver.

Cookie cutter MMOs are cheaper, less time intensive to create, and ultimately, are a more sure bet than trying something new.

But we want the something new. I want a world where my character can die, lose their stuff, be bad at their job, get beat up by bandits, and be responsibke for the downfall of my region, because that means that there is he potential for me to be successful, survive, defend the weak, and drive the success of my people.

It’s not about roleplay so much as it is about having a say in the world in which I play. We want to leave our mark.

So far, very few projects have aimed at this goal. I’ve backed a couple, but a lot of dynamic projects leave it to the players to create their own story elements within a game not really designed for that.

Game projects like Revival and Chronicles of Elyria are the closest we’ve gotten to that dynamic world with player driven story and weight to every action. Where you can truly be a hero if you have the stones for it! That’s what we’re looking for and that’s why we’ll always critique the story.

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Bannex

If there is one genre that simply does not need a story, it’s mmos.

Furthermore, the debate over mmo stories is about as stupid as people attacking snapple for the stupid shit they put under the caps.

I’ll say it a different way, if you’re genuinely upset over the quality of story in your mmo, you need to reevaluate your life.

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John Mynard

This just isn’t true on the face of it. We frequently lump multiplayer games with large, sometimes interconnected playfields as “MMO”s and we forget the that the genre was originally MMORPG. You can have large scale multiplayer games that have large playfields but aren’t, by game systems or intent, RPGs.

Sure, you don’t need a story to jump in a ship and do stuff in EVE online, but it could be argued that EVE is one of the most RP heavy games in existence because you have normal people with normal lives and a moral compass that leans a particular way, but then they log on to EVE and Bob the plumber who volunteers at his church and gives money to the Salvation Army becomes Regnaz88, a malicious, merciless space pirate that has destroyed thousands of ships, killing millions of passengers and crew, just because he could.

The point is that games need a framework for people to do things in, sometimes the fantasy is that you are a football coach at an American university, other times they are fragment of a celestial being that is made of cubes and they go around building things or collecting stuff to build things.

Everything has to have a story.

kjempff
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kjempff

Character stories (storyline, prewriiten adventure/experience) is not the same as framework (lore, backstory, world/setting setup&reasoning).
I think what he mean is a mmo should not have story driven content, but it needs story. An rpg is made as a pre written player experience (and story), while a mmo-rpg should be the world/environment where the player choose and make their own experiences.

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Bannex

Im referring to the grand overarching game narrative where “everybody is a hero” or whatever. MMOs just don’t need that and typically the over attention the story gets is such a wasted effort.

Sure characters should have stories but without the great impending cataclysm, the half assed game of thrones or the weird soul crystal stuff that only makes sense to Koreans, the player is able to make the world what they want and interact with it as they see fit.

I’ve always thought that instead of writing stories and recording a billion voice overs for mmos, they should work on giving the players the tools to make their own.

I’ve always thought systems that came with the thieves guild and dark brotherhood dlcs for ESO were such a great step in the right direction but they are just half finished. Instead of write and direct this massive story, make the bounty system full of features. Make pick pocketing and general thievery interesting and deep. The assassin contracts could’ve had amazing pvp implications.

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Sarah Cushaway

Eh, people get passionate about all sorts of things and you don’t get to dictate why or what or how. I mean, people get passionate about raiding, too– I personally think THAT is stupid to get upset over. Or PVP. But there it is: people play games for different reasons. Some people play MMOs because they like the story/lore and the RP. Those people have every bit as legit a reason to get upset as the raiders, PVPers, PVE’ers, whatever do–if they think the ball has been dropped big time.

ESO is an MMO that does well with story. Some argue GW2 and FFXIV also “need” story. WoW has one–some people like it, many don’t– but Warcraft always HAD a story (every play the RTS games? yeah, there was story there–people really got into those).

So, y’know, what motivates you isn’t what motivates everyone.

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Bannex

Oh look somebody pointing out that my opinion is just an opinion!

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Ben Stone

Yeah its hard to tell what’s worse, games that don’t even try to have a cohesive backstory, or those that try too hard to shove the narrative down your throat. I don’t think any MMO to date has found the right spot.

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styopa

Except…your title talks about mmo plotline, and your article is about rp’ing, two almost diametrically opposite things.

Mmo “storylines” – barring some early mmos where it did happen – are railroads dragging you through the developers narrative. Some “advanced” ones might offer you Potemkin choices which ultimately mean nothing, change nothing, and neither open you to, nor preclude you from content because the idea that any player might not have access to every iota of game is anathema.

Furthermore, even mmo “bad guys” are almost invariably just misunderstood, and never actually kick the dog.

Mmo “drama” (story-wise) doesn’t exist, because it requires informed and interesting change.

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Utakata

“You still get veto power. Your character is not leaning out of your computer screen and typing for you.”

…I just let the pigtails do the typing instead…sometimes. And hope they don’t post something that would get me banhammered! >.<

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j ho

Youre always talking about pig tails. No one is fooled.

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Utakata

<3

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Bruno Brito

Her pigtails are one of the reasons we all get out of bed.

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Bannex

Speak for yourself…

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Utakata

…or fly off the handle. >.>

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Bannex

:3 every site needs a heel

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Sarah Cushaway

Yes, all of what you said BUT (and this is the BUT that makes your point moot): You cannot dictate what drives a player to want to play a game or not. You do not get to dictate what you deem appropriate motivation for RP or not–excepting for yourself.

If the story isn’t doing it for them (a player)– you can’t tell them that their excuse is wrong any more than you can tell a raider their excuse is rubbish for not enjoying how raiding progression has changed/is lacking/is absent.

So… this was an interesting read…but also a rather pointless one. You’re basically whining about people whining about why they don’t feel compelled to RP or play the game.

I USED to RP in WoW, (and EQ2 back in its earlier days), and play-by-post forums. Before that, I RPed in those old Yahoo Groups and AOL chat rooms. I no longer bother to RP for a few reasons, but the main one happens to be I hate the current narrative and no, my character -would not- give a shit and is -sick- of faction vs. faction stuff. It’s boring, it’s been done to death, and it’s NOT motivating to me, the player, to bother slogging through yet another boring rehash that my characters have seen already. So I don’t RP any more because I don’t feel compelled to deal with the shitty writing.

Don’t like my reasoning? Tough cookies, buttercup.

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Phubarrh

Is WOW still bringing in new players from all demographics as it did at the outset? Every time I check on the game, twice a year or so, it seems like more of the charm and sense of discovery has been drained from it, in favor of an endless torrent of WAR WAR WAR every dozen steps. Latest visit was to Northshire Abbey, and the wandering animals and skulking brigands have been replaced by an Orc army setting the landscape ablaze. This is getting very one dimensional of you, developers.

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Sarah Cushaway

That’s exactly my point– that’s all it is now, and it’s boring and I don’t feel excited to try to RP my way around that same rehash over and over and over again. I had a blast RPing in Vanilla-WOTLK, when the faction war was THERE, but sorta…I dunno, a cold war in the background, not the big thing ALL THE FRICKEN TIME. Cata change that and it just hasn’t stopped since except briefly in Legion (and despite that expacs flaws, I at least was happy to see the end of the stupid constant Horde v. Alliance for no good reason–and then BFA came out and now I don’t even bother to play AT ALL–and I’m not alone, obviously; subs have tanked for many reasons. That includes RPers who have quit–because a lot of us have).

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Anton Mochalin

Never seen a roleplaying player in an MMO but if I did I guess that would break the immersion for me. It’s like sitting in a movie theater and someone sitting next to you begins to talk to the movie’s characters.

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Hikari Kenzaki

As opposed to 20 people combatting the rabid fox epidemic or all fishing in the same spot?

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Anton Mochalin

A game is a game, we always keep that in mind, it’s a part of the immersion. One of the fundamental differentiations we perceive in MMO is the difference between player characters and NPCs. We know that players are players and aren’t quite part of the game. But that’s a part of a game, it’s a meaning of the word “game”! And roleplayers actually play their own game, pretending to be NPCs. But they aren’t and we clearly see they aren’t. We run aroung them discussing crit percentage and fishing in the same spot with 19 other players and they pretend they don’t see and hear us. So yes fishing in the same spot doesn’t break immersion because we understand how this is caused by the game mechanics, we understand the rationality of such behaviour in this situation. And roleplaying does. And BTW most of the “story” content usually breaks immersion. Because it basically says “you just fished with 19 other players in the same spot and now staying in the same world please pretend you’re one and only saviour of this world”.

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Hikari Kenzaki

Quite literally the opposite of any use of the word immersion I’ve ever seen used.
Immersion breaking is typically anything that takes you out of the story, especially game mechanics that make it feel like a game.
I’m also boggled that you play MMOs but have somehow never seen an RPer. That is an amazing feat of statistical improbability.

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Sarah Cushaway

Yeah, I see RPers ALL THE TIME in most MMOs with a few PVP-FULL-LOOT MMO exceptions. I even saw a handful in BDO now and then. ESO has many, WoW still has a few active RP servers, LOTRO is known for its RP community, SWTOR is FULL of RPers on fleet…

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Nordavind

I have no idea what I just read.

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Utakata

Tl,dr: No, they’re not tentacles! >.<

kjempff
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kjempff

Haha, I had the exact same thought. If there was a point, I missed it.

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Hikari Kenzaki

I think the point some are missing is that RP should be fun. If you’re letting your character get in the way of having fun (or using your character to diminish other players’ fun), then maybe you can re-evaluate that on a case by case basis.

We would see this a lot in TSW RP circles where someone (lots of someones) would make a shy loner/introvert/broody character who would sit around in the park or bar and never speak to anyone. The player(s) would then complain in forums/chat/twitter that there was no RP anywhere. When experienced RPers who had seen this problem in countless iterations would offer advice, they would counter with “But that’s not what my character would do.” These players almost always rage quit and go off about how there is no RP despite 100s of us openly RPing in-game every day.

Sure, someone could have slipped away from their group to engage the person, but in a crowd of 20-40 people, it’s already hard to differentiate your friends from the people who ARE talking, so the ones that stay silent can sometimes be a blessing. It’s a rare and wonderful person who will randomly say hello to a total stranger and change the next 5 years of your gaming life. (Latch on to them when you find them. :) )

When it comes to in-game story, I tend to use the main plotline to inform my character’s decision, not dictate them. I think I may have been spoiled/conditioned by City of Heroes in this respect. Let’s be perfectly honest, CoH was a great game, but it had MAYBE 50 unique missions. Most of them were just repeating the same maps with one of a dozen enemy groups with all the same mechanics. Playing them as an RPer, however, made them interesting because our characters always had a new and unique reason for being there, even if the setting had provided us none.

Remember SWTOR Knights, not everyone killed the Emperor (and in fact, no one did.)

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Yoshi Senpai

Making the shy introvert is the absolute worst mistake a new RPer can make and it so common.

I get it. It seems like it would be easier to learn the ropes by taking a more passive role, but you run into the issue where there is no reason for a stranger to walk up to you when you are playing the shy person who looks like they want to be left alone.

If there is any new RPers out there reading this; do not make your first character a some dark broody guy who sits in a corner reading a book. You will hate RP.

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Briar Grey

Interesting article, and it is something that is so difficult to do in MMORPGs versus the text-based MUDs or tabletop that give you a lot more leeway in specifically how you react. Great roleplayers learned how to stay true to their characters without negatively impacting the roleplay and enjoyment of other players.

For example, I came out of the GemStone III (now IV) world, and the dhe’nari (dark elf sorts) had several excellent roleplayers amongst their ranks. They would be nasty and snarky and superior, but the players knew when to draw the line and throw it back to the other players to help decide how to engage…the bad roleplayers would be all “well MY character would just kill yours, so I’m going to” — the good ones looked to find nuance and the roleplaying was significantly entertaining for most involved that way (you’ll never please everyone).

In games like Guild Wars 2, you have words put in your character’s mouth, you have to be essentially chaotic goodish, and the options for how you react to things is severely limited — unless you are not interacting with the game’s story and are instead roleplaying elsewhere with other likeminded individuals.

I find staying IC (in character) exhausting any more – I used up all my creativity over 20 years of playing and GMin in GS ;) So now, I just don’t go out of character and do my own thing in WoW or LOTRO versus seeking out roleplaying communities. My big frustration is when something majorly ridiculous (like Sylvanas) happens and my ways to interact with the story and decide how my character would take it are limited…so if I were super into roleplaying, I would be having a hard time. Instead, I just shrug and go fight my pet battles. But if I were RPing actively, your advice is the way to go with it!

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Paragon Lost

Good article Eliot, also great comparison with the tabletop rpg gaming and role-playing. :)