Defining Roleplaying, from Tabletop through Solo ‘M’MOs.

I am, by nature, a roleplayer.

This perhaps isn’t a shock given the existence of this blog in the first place. I play roleplaying games. Occasionally, I write for roleplaying games. I’ve got two roleplaying games fleshed out and ready for a creation that may never happen. When given Doctors’ diagnoses, I mentally argue why I deserve a saving throw.

This, naturally, extends to the online arena. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time playing MMOs. While I’d tried Everquest back in the day, it wasn’t until City of Heroes — now so painfully gone — that the form sunk its hooks into me. Since then, CoH, along with Champions Online, Star Trek Online and Star Wars: The Old Republic have all grabbed my cerebral cortex and refused to let go. Among others, of course, but that’s not important right now. 

However, there has often been a question… are these really roleplaying games? Do they truly constitute the assumption of a role, the playing within the context of that role, and the resolution of that role’s activity. Given the lack of a proper gamemaster responding to your actions, is there really a role being played, or is there just a well constructed avatar? And doesn’t everyone more or less just admit this isn’t any kind of RPG? They used to be called MMORPGs — Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games. Now… they’re MMOs. It’s still ‘massively multiplayer,’ with thousands or tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or millions of players, but the ‘role playing game’ is left off.

It’s actually a more complicated question to answer than you might think.

Let’s acknowledge before we move on that there are generally vibrant communities of roleplayers in these games — communities who gather in common areas, who build their shared experience in character together. Unquestionably, these folks are roleplaying. Really, they’re falling back on an older roleplaying tradition than involves percentile dice. They’re playing “let’s pretend” in grand fashion. I do not pose these questions to insult them, and I do not I presume to speak to what they’re doing in asking them. Got it? Coolness.

When I create a character in Star Trek Online… am I truly creating a character? And if I’m soloing — which I do, almost inevitably — am I roleplaying then? Or am I just… well, playing a video game?

Well, let’s consider why we tabletop roleplay. Specifically, let’s consider a list of criteria that tabletop roleplay meets — call it the criteria for an activity where a character is created and portrayed. Note this list is neither all inclusive nor required — this is just an ad hoc overview:

  1. It’s fun: let’s pretend is a blast. It always has been. That’s why little kids play it.
  2. It’s escapist: when the world is too much with us, it’s nice to put on someone else’s skin, hide in their soul, and be them, for just a little while.
  3. It’s visceral: when you’re deep into roleplaying, what happens affects you on an emotional level, whether that comes from a touching interpersonal moment, or a natural twenty.
  4. It’s creative: building a character is an exercise in creation — in tabletop, turning a pile of random stats or unallocated points into something recognizable is like sculpting math and imagination.
  5. It’s challenging: a well crafted dungeon or other adventure takes more than swinging swords. It takes thought and skill to work your way through. It grants a sense of reward for work, in other words.
  6. It’s social: despite the stereotype of “shut-ins who live in their parents’ basement and never go outside,” tabletop is inherently social. You get together in a group and do something collaboratively.
  7. It’s affirming: being a roleplayer means being a part of a community — in fact, part of many communities. It means being a part of the group you play with. And a part of the group who plays that game. And the group that plays any RPGs. And the broader group ‘gamers.’ Within those sets and subsets there’s a lot of room for establishing a sense of personal identity, and indeed a sense of normalcy. You’re not alone.

Like I said above — not comprehensive, and not everyone goes with every listed point, but it’s a start.

Now, let’s consider a different form of roleplaying — Live Action Roleplaying. Does LARP meet the criteria?

  1. Is it fun? Clearly yes. The people who enjoy LARP enjoy LARP.
  2. Is it escapist? Absolutely. In one sense, LARP takes tabletop roleplay and adds a new level of theater to it. You’re absolutely putting on someone else’s self.
  3. Is it visceral? If hammering at an enemy with a foam core sword while screaming a blood curdling war cry isn’t visceral, I’ve been using the term incorrectly all these years.
  4. Is it creative? Of course. You’re taking the character creation aspect of roleplay and adding actual costuming and physicality to it.
  5. Is it challenging? Again, it almost seems silly to ask. In addition to the mental aspects and the task resolution, you’re also running around in the woods for hours at a time.
  6. Is it social? Of course. A LARP group is, if anything, typically much larger than a tabletop group. Interaction with other people ranges from cavorting and conversation through to the tip of a foam core sword or the receiving end of a bag of seed being thrown.
  7. Is it affirming? In all the ways roleplaying forges a sense of self-identity, and allows a person to express themselves differently within that sense, LARP applies as well.

All right, so this was a foregone conclusion. Of course LARP counts as roleplaying. But, it serves as a test for the criteria involved. 

Let’s range out a bit — what about actual theater? Not a game at all, but the staging of a theatrical production. It certainly meets the “creating and portraying a character” test. (Note: one might think that because an actor is portraying a character in a script that it doesn’t constitute ‘creating’ a character. Trust me — the intense process of crafting a performance, be it the classical assumption of a role through artifice or the modern method form wherein characters are built from internal motivations and then externalized, an actor is definitely creating the character, just as much as a tabletop player takes a set of statistics and a class and turns it into something unique to them.)

Digressions aside — by our criteria, is theater roleplaying?

  1. Is it fun? Theater can sometimes be frustrating, or agonizing, or downright unpleasant, but when it clicks, it’s a blast. Seriously, there’s nothing quite like it. On the other hand, six weeks into a theatrical run, the play in question begins… well, to look suspiciously like work. In part because it is, in fact, your job. You may really love your job, but does that mean it’s always fun? Of course not.
  2. Is it escapist? Yes… and no. On the one hand, you are indeed submerging yourself into a role, into someone other than yourself. On the other hand, actors are intimately connected to their surroundings — from the stage to the audience. You may be ‘someone else’ for the proceedings, but are you really escaping them? That could be an essay in itself. Or a book of essays. Or six successive courses in Theater Arts. And trust me, any activity that ends with the cast being pulled into a separate room and given a pile of notes telling them everything they did wrong in that performance, repeated nightly, isn’t a full on ‘escape.’
  3. Is it visceral? It can be. Theater can be visceral and cathartic. The adrenalin that pumps through your veins and propels your performance can be astounding, and some of the most intense, emotional moments of my life have taken place on a stage. But again, extend that visceral reaction through to, say, week twelve of a run. A good actor makes it fresh and intense and engaging, but visceral? Maybe.
  4. Is it creative? Yes. Unquestionably. And yes, every successive performance is itself a new act of creation. Your fellow actors will have slightly different performances which need to be responded to, your audience will react differently… even mid-way through a long run, every night is a new night.
  5. Is it challenging? Initially, very much so. In the long run… to a degree. Oh, there’s skill, talent and effort that goes into every performance, but as you get used to a given production, it begins to feel like a comfortable pair of jeans. In fact, a huge part of the rehearsal process is taking the incredible challenge of staging a production and breaking it down and breaking it in so that as of opening night, the show flows naturally and smoothly. While every night is a new production, I wouldn’t say every night is a challenge in that same way.
  6. Is it social? God yes. Naturally, for anything other than a one-person show involves a very intimate interconnection with your fellow actors. Further, you engage at similar levels with the stage crew, the director and assistant directors, the production manager, the lighting people, the orchestra — everyone involved. There’s a reason so many torrid romances start (and break up hideously) during the run of theatrical productions — it’s intense activity you do very closely with people every day of your life. Social? Oh yeah.
  7. Is it affirming? I won’t belabor this. Yes. For many people, the act of stepping on stage is an act of affirmation, of self-identity, of connection to their deeper self and their broader tradition. Okay, I won’t belabor this further

Looking at our criteria above, the question of “is theater roleplaying” is at best complicated. Honestly, I have to say no. Theater is playing a role, obviously, but it’s not roleplaying. The process, the result, the long term evolution of the feeling… all of that separates the theatrical tradition from the core sense of “let’s pretend.” They’re related, but not the same thing.

So, we have a continuum — the beginnings of a sense of what roleplaying is and is not. On to the meat of the subject.

Considering MMOs… let’s restrict ourselves to group play for a moment — people who are in a guild, who fall into group activities. And let’s separate out the ‘active’ roleplayers — the folks who go to different spaces and engage in full on character development. In one sense, those folks are moving the MMO into the tabletop space. (This is especially true of those games where players can make the challenges. City of Heroes made it simple to create arch-enemy groups for the heroes to battle, and Cryptic’s Neverwinter — meant as an MMO evolution of the explicitly tabletoppish Neverwinter Nights series — is practically throwing Dungeon Mastering into the mix.) What we’re looking at with these criteria are the huge number of people who log into the game, interact with their guild, and play through different challenges, quests and activities as provided by the game developers proper.

  1. Is it fun? Unquestionably. There wouldn’t be millions of players (not counting, say, gold farmers) devoting money and time to the games if they weren’t fun.
  2. Is it escapist? I have to go with ‘yes.’ You’re crafting a character out of base ingredients, just like we’re discussing. You’re crafting that character’s look. And when you’re playing that character, you can easily be placing yourself in the shoes of that character. It’s absolutely a way to escape the mundane and everyday. And absolutely you can (and many do) see yourself in the role being shown.
  3. Is it visceral? I’ve told a story before, about how in City of Heroes we were doing the Synapse task force — an extended series of missions done as a group — and we had been going through the night. Synapse was a task force that often took more than one day to complete. Exhausted, we left a mission and began to do the 30 second logout… and a giant monster (Babbage, for those playing along at home) literally jumped down from an overpass on top of us. Going from zero to full combat was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had in a game, and that victory was incredible, intense, emotional… and yeah, visceral. And these moments can happen all the time. And even without them, it’s easy to get lost in the experience — to feel directly engaged to every battle, every interaction. In short, yes. It’s visceral.
  4. Is it creative? Again, absolutely. Some games more than others let you tailor your look — both your appearance and your costuming. Even those with a tight control on those aspects tend to have specific looks and feels. Creativity is just part of the fun.
  5. Is it challenging? MMOs are designed to provide a challenge that scales with the group and their level. Not all of them succeed, but part of the idea is that when your character becomes more powerful, the things he faces become harder to beat as well, often needing brains as well as brawn.
  6. Is it social? Gaming with a guild is inherently social — both in terms of general communication (most games have a ‘Guild’ chat channel specifically for guild members to socialize) and in terms of activity (guilds tend to coordinate quest and task activity, all the way up to the monumental raids that tend to be in the endgame).
  7. Is it affirming? The same kind of multiple level affirmation of self-identity that exists in tabletop exists in group/guild MMO play. You are a WoW player. You are also Panda Attack. (Does Panda Attack even still exist? God, I hope so.) You are Horde. You are Troll, you are Shaman. And in that sense of self — created within this environment but still unique to yourself — you gain affirmation. You are not alone.

Right then — it seems clear that group/guild MMO play, even without the social environment roleplaying mentioned at the top, still constitutes roleplaying as we define it at tabletop. It’s clear that the virtual environment can be used to construct proper roleplay as we know it.

Which brings us back to the crux of all of this. Is solo MMO play — and, for that matter, standalone RPGs like Skyrim or Mass Effectroleplaying. If we take away the tabletop/LARP group — or the guild, in a virtual sense — is the player still roleplaying?

Let’s take a look at our criteria.

  1. Is it fun? Let’s just assume ‘yes,’ shall we? If you’re playing a game solo, and you’re not having any fun? For God’s sake stop playing the game.
  2. Is it escapist? Honestly, I believe standalone RPG/solo MMO is more of an escape than group play, more often than not. Much like reading a good book, a solid game draws you into its world, building a narrative. Solo MMOs have the same level of customization as playing the MMO with a guild would have, and the top tier solo RPGs have if anything a much greater level of customization going for them.
  3. Is it visceral? Even the best MMOs, when played in a group, have a certain amount of the world intruding. That’s the nature of playing something with other people — sometimes, they’re going to insist on talking about their day, complaining about their kids, or begging their friends on voice chat to call 911 because they’re having a massive heart attack. It can easily take you out of the moment. Standalone and Solo MMOs don’t have that problem — if they’re well made, they’re immersive. They pull you in and there’s absolutely no distractions from what you’re doing. That makes it easier to build the kind of connection that leads to full, visceral response to your gameplay.
  4. Is it creative? Really… it can be, depending on the game, but it often is it. This one goes back to game design. A well made RPG lets you build your character and then interact with your environment in a way that reflects your character. Shepherd, in Mass Effect 1-3, has some capacity to make choices, to build the foundation of the game experience so that even if there isn’t quite as much flexibility to the game’s resolution as they claim on the box you still feel like you’ve created something unique. On the other hand, even an utter classic RPG like Final Fantasy VII or the freaking Legend of Zelda is much more linear. You feel what’s going on, but you’re pretty much following the story beat by beat. Creativity isn’t really the key, there. MMOs at least expand on that capability — you can choose what quests you do, and tailor your character accordingly. However, this is so variable a question that we should address it further below — along with ways different games compensate for this.
  5. Is it challenging? As with group MMOs, these games are almost always designed to build the challenge alongside the character’s evolution and growth, always keeping the threats just that hint more dangerous than the characters feel they can comfortably handle. Not all succeed, of course, but in general I have to say yes.
  6. Is it social? Well… it can be. For a purely standalone game, there is often a community or a variety of communities that form. Wikis with many editors. Fora with all kinds of helpful and excited people being hammered at by trolls. Take Skyrim or Mass Effect — my happy go-to examples. If you do even the most cursory of searches, you can find massive communities surrounding the games.

    But… is that really the game being social? I think not. Multiplayer stuff aside, standalone games are designed for a single person, playing alone. And though you may be so far into character you can’t see beyond your screen, it’s still an entirely solo endeavor.

    But what about Soloing in an MMO? Is that different?

    Well, again. It can be. The character can interact with the world chat channels, even if they’re not playing with a group. Likewise, there are systems that can go into place that creates a social element even if it’s disassociated. And more to the point… if you’re in a public area… other players can interact with you directly or indirectly. If you’re in a hard fight, a passerby might heal you, or buff you, or take a shot at your enemy. And even the act of moving through a public area gives you a chance to see what other people have wrought and display your own character. With games that allow for description text, that can be all the more so.

    So, even though the instanced content is entirely solo… there is still a social component. 
  7. Is it affirming? This is more nuanced for the solo/standalone player. There isn’t the same level of automatic inclusion — you’re not directly playing with friends or otherwise being drawn into a broader sense of community, with the corresponding sense of affirmation. On the other hand, these games do develop communities, and players can and do engage in them. In the end, how a game like this affects self-identity and the affirmation one can draw from it are things a player can choose for themselves, though it’s not automatic.

So. There we are. Seven points of criteria. And neither Standalone nor Solo MMO play hit them all. But at the same time, they don’t really miss them either. (Save perhaps the social point with standalone RPGs.) I think it’s fair to say that Solo MMO play can be roleplaying and most often is, while Standalone games — while immersive, rich and full of the potential to actually play a role — aren’t roleplaying as we know it without outreach by the player to the broader community.

But, as I alluded to above, there are things both types of game can do to strengthen the concept of roleplaying within them.

  1. Out-of-combat systems with meaning: Most MMOs and a lot of standalone RPGs have crafting systems — systems that encourage you to go out and about, find the nodes full of the crafting goodness, and create things — things that improve your gear, or your stats, or just your appearance. Done properly, a crafting system is more than a time sink — it’s a way of feeling connected to your character outside of what they can kill. Back in my brief World of Warcraft days, I used to love moving around the wilderness, mining nodes or skinning beasts, and “making pants,” as one of my friends likes to derisively say. Honestly, the crafting was what I liked most about World of Warcraft — the rest of the stuff never engaged me enough, which is why it’s at best an occasional pleasure for me. (One I need to renew — a friend bought me Mists of Pandaria during one of its sales as an early Christmas present. So sometime very soon I’ll be putting a month into a peace loving pants making bear.) This is one area both City of Heroes and Champions Online really failed in. Oh, there were reasons to make the stuff you could make in CoH, and I’ll admit I spent some time doing it, but it was purely make-work. I had no real visceral connection to the “crafting of enhancements.” Champs has recently done a wholescale overhaul to their crafting, and I’ll admit it’s much better in terms of creating game-affecting and customized pieces. Unfortunately, it’s even less visceral — it literally feels like you’re crafting glowing balls with +2 SUPPORT MOD floating inside them, to make your kickass fighter jet better at… um… support. Yaaaaay.

    As a side note, I’ve developed the concept of a superhero crafting system that would actually work within the context of superhero themes, feeling more like an actual part of the superhero environment and giving actual, tangible benefits that superheroes could enjoy. Seriously, it would be very cool. But that’s another essay.

    Star Trek Online’s crafting is no more exciting, though at least STO actually lets you craft useful items — it’s way better, to my mind, to craft a superior quantum torpedo launcher for your ship or a giant badass phaser rifle for your ground crew than it is to craft ‘enhancements.’ Still, it doesn’t quite feel… I don’t know, right. I have ideas on how to make it better, but that’s beyond the scope of this essay. Besides, STO figured out a whole different system that goes way past crafting and into full on ‘minigame’ territory, in a good way. Their “duty officer” system lets you collect duty officers (essentially like a combination of buying card booster packs for Magic the Gathering and going out to snag rare Pokemon. I choose YOU, badass Gorn chef!) and assign them to missions. Missions return dilithium (in-game currency), energy credits (less important in-game currency), experience for both you and your bridge officers, various perks (including parts for crafting and occasional better things), and ‘commendation’ experience, letting you improve your standing as a Diplomat, or Scientist, or Soldier, or what have you.

    It is surprisingly immersive, and really lets you tailor your activities to your desires. I have a science based Captain I defined as a doctor from creation. Her science vessel ship is, in my brain, a hospital ship. To that end, my collected duty officers on that ship are biased towards medical, medical missions take priority over other missions, and the medical commendation track is the one I watch most closely. (She is very, very close to maxing it out.) What does all that mean? It means that purely in going through the virtual equivalent of bureaucracy, I’ve actually increased my sense of character for this captain. And, with a promise that their new ‘gateway’ system into the game from the web will give Duty Officer management possibilities via iPad, Android tablet or the web… well, my connection to the game will only grow.
  2. Reasons to connect to the outside community: I realize we’re discussing solo play, but the thing about MMOs — and to a lesser degree even standalone games — is there really is a community out there. If you can give a solo player ways of touching that community without necessitating participations that the soloist may not want, then you’re in a good space. One of the very best systems for this is a robust Auction House or other such service.

    Seriously. The Auction House is one of the keys to solo MMO roleplaying.

    An Auction House (call it what you will) allows for players to take the cool stuff they found or — even better — made and put it up so someone out in the broad world can acquire it. Further, it gives a player who’s accumulated a lot of currency a means of getting some of the gear and cool things that otherwise they would miss out on because they don’t game in groups. Jumping back to STO for a second — if I have a decent energy credit balance, whenever I level up into a new class of starship on a character, my first stop after grabbing the ship is the Exchange — I look to see what the best stuff for that ship is available and within my budget. To fund that, I’ll generally find the really cool stuff that I accumulated during my time at the lower rank (and didn’t use), and put it up for auction at the same time. Bang, boom — I’ve connected to the community and found a really cool dual Polaron array for the newly commissioned U.S.S. Aroostook! Let’s celebrate by blowing up Klingons!

    In a brilliant if somewhat creepy move, bridge officers and duty officers are also on the exchange. So, if I have a really nice mission that requires an advisor, two entertainers and a bartender — and it happens — then I can hit the exchange and buy myself an advisor, two entertainers and a bartender. I pretend for the sake of my sanity that the energy credits go to actually getting them there and they’re joining up of their own free will. Well, when I’m playing Federation. When I’m playing Klingon fashion I figure they’re just freakin’ kuve anyway. 

    This is the hardest point for standalone games. There are some, of course. Spore was a standalone game, but the creatures you would encounter as you evolved would often come from other players, enriching your world. I’d like to see more standalone RPGs try to incorporate systems like this. Honestly, I’d be delighted if a heavy standalone RPG managed to incorporate an online Auction House. There’s no reason Skyrim can’t have a place where crafted items can be bought and sold, even if the players involved are effectively playing in their own instance of the universe. Hell, Diablo III — while a hybrid game offering single player and multiplayer, admittedly — has three auction houses: one for in-currency gold, one for people willing to pay real world money for virtual items, and one for “hardcore” players (players who accept the risk of permadeath for their characters). Even players who exclusively go single-player have the sense of a broader universe and players beyond themselves, just by going and buying some crap.

    As a side note, I bloody love the idea of the Real World Money auction house for games. Right now, players can buy new starship classes in the C-Store over at Star Trek Online. Other players, in fleets, can build Fleet Specific versions of the ships, which in ways are better. I’d love it if a section of the C-Store let an individual player auction off his crafted ship for someone out in the community to buy, with Cryptic/Perfect World getting a bit of the profit. Have minimums for various items — so players can’t full on undercut the C-Store — and let the players’ inner Ferengi take flight. But I digress.
  3. Extend the in-game experience to the outside world: One of the cooler things some games offer is an out-of-game glimpse at what people have done with their characters. The World of Warcraft Armory — in all its incarnations — has been a great tool, letting players easily exchange build information and work together in self-improvement, along with all kinds of other options. I’ve maintained for literally years that Star Trek Online should have a full portal into the extended character profile for each character — a stock shot of the Captain and bridge officers, exterior shots of the ship as they’ve designed it, a CMS that lets them blog compose Captain’s Logs about their missions, their duty officers, or what have you… even a dedication plaque. I mean, why not? I would love to introduce you to the soap opera that is at least one of my ships. In head canon, at least.

There are other things that can be done, of course. None of these lists are comprehensive. But it’s clear that yes, a solo MMO player really can be roleplaying — living his virtual life, overcoming obstacles, and being a hero. Or something like that, anyway.

The Paper Admiral series I’m teasing is an experiment in this, actually. I’m setting up ground rules — I want to see if I can not just level a character from Lieutenant 7 (when the Duty System is unlocked) to Vice Admiral 50 purely via the duty system, purely in ‘bureaucratic’ settings — on Starbases, at Starfleet Academy, occasionally in orbit over core worlds like Vulcan — and still make the character viable and engaging for me as a roleplayer. Will it work? I don’t know.

But one thing I’m sure of, based on all the above? It can work, and that’s enough as a beginning.

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    My first really long essay in a while, on my Grognard Pedant blog. It’s mostly about RPG theory fu, to warn.
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    My first really long essay in a while, on my Grognard Pedant blog. It’s mostly about RPG theory fu, to warn.
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