Storyboard: Never forget that all MMO lore is made up

Level out.

Let’s take a trip back to the dewy slopes of June 2006, when Chris Metzen addressed the question of how the lore of the Draenei deviated from the lore that had already been laid out. See, in Warcraft III, the history of the Burning Legion had been established to include Sargeras being corrupted by the already demonic Eredar, whereas the lore laid down for the Draenei involved Sargeras showing up and corrupting the Eredar. A lot of people were very upset that this changed the existing lore back at the time.

Except it really didn’t matter much at all because it had no bearing on World of Warcraft up to that point whatsoever. Learning that things had happened in a slightly different order didn’t change anyone’s motivation. No one had actually been around for those events. It was all just moving imaginary pieces around the chessboard.

The discontent was based almost entirely on the fact that yes, the lore had been changed. But it was a change that didn’t really matter, because the spirit of things remained identical. This prompts a reminder that lore is, well… made up. It’s fake. All of it.

I don’t mean that to specifically denigrate the process of making things up. It’s a good thing and it doesn’t mean that none of it matters or should matter or anything. The point of specifying that it’s made up is to stress the fact that, well… it’s made up. It’s pretend. If you don’t like it, you can make up something new.

This is a good thing that leads to, well, better overall stories. If you think of something one day and think of something better later, you don’t have to deal with the fact that what you previously thought of is a natural law that must be observed at all costs. You can just… change what you do and move forward from there. The lore doesn’t care.

I’ve talked before about when you can deviate from the lore in roleplaying, but just as important is understanding what the lore is actually there to do. Both for storytelling for players and the designers, the lore is there as a guideline. It can all be changed whenever anyone wants.

Going under.

To use an example, I own both of the gigantic lore encyclopedias for Final Fantasy XIV. Aside from looking very nice on a bookshelf, I just love reading about the game’s lore. I love learning more about how the game’s underpinnings work, how the physics of the game have been devised by the design team. What I do not do is look in the books to prove that something is impossible to do in roleplaying.

Will I check them to see if something might be unlikely? Sure. But that just means that if an idea is good enough, it’s worth digging into that unlikelihood and massage the concept until it fits decently. If the lore tells me something is impossible, then that’s best appended with “so long as everyone knows.”

See, lore is not physics. Lore does not describe absolute history or naturally observable phenomena. It describes the setting information that the developers were working from when considering what sort of story to tell. If lore creates an untenable situation, you ignore it and come up with other justifications for what’s going on around you.

When you start playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, your story is laid out for you. As a Trooper, you’re a member of Havoc Squad right off the bat, and then you’re tasked with rebuilding the squad after various story events cause issues pretty early on. Obviously, this doesn’t track with the fact that there are a lot of players who are playing Troopers, which is why most people roleplaying as a Trooper just go ahead and ignore what the class story is technically saying happens.

Is this violating the lore? In the broadest sense, yes, but it’s doing so for the purpose of allowing more people to play around in the world. And it’s not really much of a stretch: Everyone knows that there are lots of different troopers in the game world; you just happen to be playing one following what amounts to an example story arc. There are no doubt countless other squads with other stories, and there are no doubt even more ways to justify your character’s status as something as ultimately common as a soldier.

Because, well, the alternative is limiting and boring. Heck, it implies that only one person gets to occupy this particular role… and that’s not what the designers intended but rather a limitation of not being able to produce endless bespoke stories for every single player individually.

We all know this on some level. Yes, there are frequently situations wherein the story refers to just one person getting or doing a thing, but often that doesn’t even track with the logical implications. (There’s a quest in FFXIV that lampshades the fact that you’re about to fight a boss with a full party despite the fact that according to the story, you don’t have one with you.) It’s just one of those acceptable breaks from reality in the way that games work, and we recognize that this is just the way things are.

As roleplayers, we accept this and work around it. Someone did the things in the story, but not our specific characters. We’re attached to things in a peripheral sense, but we exist in a vague state wherein we’re neither the primary movers and shakers of the world but still important. And while that nebulous state can make some things hard to nail down, it also has its benefits.

Worrying too much about what the lore says is a path to frustration. Yes, the lore might say that only members of such-and-such a group gets to travel to this zone, but that means locking yourself out of a space for roleplaying. You can justify it if you try while still acknowledging that it’s rare and unusual. There are always lore reasons for what you’re doing, even if sometimes you have to dig a little harder for them and exist in the realm of pseudocanon.

But then, by the time you’re roleplaying you’re already doing that. The story of the game doesn’t dictate your character’s appearance or cosmetic gear or whatever. You decide on that yourself, even if sometimes it might be jarring compared to the tone of a given scene when you walk in wearing silly cosmetic gear while things are supposedly Very Serious. You are more than likely not roleplaying all the time, even though you know that this might technically lead to some weirdness here and there.

In short, the lore is there to help you tell stories. If the lore is preventing you from doing that, it’s in need of amendment, expansion, or just outright ignoring it. Breaking the lore in order to enjoy the game and tell more stories is, at its heart, a good thing to do. Lore is made up, and if it’s not making the game as much fun, it doesn’t need to be there.

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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