One of my all-time favorite single-player game experiences was Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption 2. The underserved Western genre is beautifully realized in this open-world classic. Unfortunately for MMO fans, the online version of Red Dead was severely lacking. After pushing through a few weeks with Red Dead Online, I put the franchise away for a couple of years. I did not have much hope that RDO would ever reach the expectations set by RDR2, and it turned out I was right: In 2022 Rockstar officially put RDO into maintenance mode after unsuccessfully translating the GTA Online gameplay style into the old west.
In my previous RDO article, many insightful MOP commenters pointed out where Rockstar had gone wrong with the title. Red Dead players didn’t want a world with a constant flow of bank heists and shootouts. We wanted something simpler, something that included hunting, fishing, riding the open plain, trading horses, and visiting saloons – with the occasional bank heist or shootout. Essentially, Rockstar misjudged its potential playerbase and created the game with entirely the wrong tone.
Fortunately, Rockstar did do one thing right: It made the game highly moddable. When RDO failed, modders and scripters attempted to fill in the gap by creating their own custom roleplay servers based in the Red Dead world.
The concepts and mechanics deployed on these servers are sound. They’ve been in use by MMOs for decades: jobs, exploration, housing, player-driven economy, survival, and crafting. They’re more sandbox than themepark, as players dedicate time to “live” in the world and interact with others in-character to create drama and adventures that few studios bother to storyboard. Players get to know other characters on the server as their paths intersect for business, social events, or just a stroll through town.
I’ll be honest, roleplaying is not something that I’ve tried previously, nor is it something that ever pictured myself doing. Certainly, it’s not as easy as it may seem. Believe it or not, there are rules that are expected to be adhered to for roleplay purposes, and some servers are more forgiving than others.
The first server I tried to join was a “whitelist” server, which meant filling out an application that included a quiz over the posted rules, situations to respond to, and a request for previous roleplay footage. I was not approved. This turned out to be a positive thing because this particular server was not a good fit for someone just starting out in RP. Once rejected, I discovered that “open” RP servers do exist. These open servers are not very high-quality from an experienced RPers perspective but are a more forgiving environment for newer players – and a good opportunity to learn.
And learn I have, through some silly and embarrassing trial-and-error. Most of my issues have been a result of unfamiliarity with script and gameplay mechanics instead of roleplay faux pas.
On a whim, I applied for a position as a horse trainer in the Red Dead town of Blackwood. On most RDO servers, a horse trainer is paid to ride horses around and enhance its stats. On my very first client, I mistakenly thought it was necessary to enter the horse’s stall and ride it out of the stable. It was not. Once I was inside the stall with the horse I was supposed to train, it kicked me in the head repeatedly until my character died.
What’s worse, one of the menus from the stable script popped up on my UI, covering up my ability to respawn on my own. I had to open a ticket to the server admin, explain my stupidity, and beg to be respawned somewhere outside of the stall. Some horse whisperer I turned out to be!
Luckily, the server admins are typically understanding. They’re generally Red Dead superfans who want to give players the Online game experience they deserve. They either provide the server and support at their own expense or rely on community donations to soften the blow.
Therein lies one danger of the RP server model: If an admin gets bored and walks away or the burden on time or finances becomes too great, the entire world could simply dissolve. It’s a risk, for sure. All MMOs eventually shut down, but most are not dependent on only a handful of dedicated volunteers to keep the hamsters running.
Another thing to be aware of with RP servers is that glitches and inconsistencies are common. The server builds are updated frequently and only barely tested before being rolled out, especially for smaller, newer servers. Thus, much of the testing is done by the RP players themselves, and bug reporting is common.
Scripts for various game mechanics were likely not written by the same coders, so even simple UI commands can differ. In one case, it may be required to double-click on an item in inventory to initiate an action. In other cases, all a player needs to do is look at an object and press “E.” In yet another case, right-clicking may be the trigger for interaction. In short, players who desire to live and play in the RP world of Red Dead require some patience and understanding.
Something I didn’t know about RP servers is they’ve developed their own way of communicating modern or technical terms in a way that is more acceptable in roleplay. Most of these terms are universally accepted but require the player to learn a new “language” to stay in-character and within the rules of RP.
For example, telling someone to “flex your E muscle” simply means pressing the E key. I’ve heard “double tap” for double-click and “sleeping” or “taking a nap” for being logged out of the server. Red Dead RP even has additional terms that are common for the early 1900s. The community discord server is referred to as the “newsletter” or “newspaper.”
Despite the nuances, glitches, risks, and learning curve, I am more than happy to continue plodding through the dustbowl to refill my canteen on the way back to Blackwater. As someone who has become somewhat disillusioned with the repetitive, unimaginative content in most MMOs, I’m finding this online experience to be a refreshing take on multiplayer gaming. Let’s just hope my server admin doesn’t decide to ride off into the sunset!