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Flagship article on UO roleplaying communities

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Angst

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First published in the gaming magazine Flagship Issue 116 November/December 2005 pp.40-41. This article was put on the old f4g Councillor's Guild Forum with the agreement of the editor. Since the old f4g site crashed it is re-posted here.

Online Roleplaying Communities: the collaborative element in MMORPGs

Jim Kemeny and Janet Savage

Globetrotter?s article in Issue 115 On Screen: the competitive element in MMORPGs is certainly correct to point out the one-sided emphasis on fighting skills in this genre and the intense competitiveness it involves. Most players play for the thrill of exploring dungeons, killing monsters and looting their possessions, or killing other players? characters in wars or gladiatorial contests. But there is much more to these games than that. In this article we want to take a closer look at what else can be done in MMORPGs, and particularly a very different - and in many ways more traditional - understanding of what is meant by ?role-playing? that places a lot of reliance on collaboration between players rather than competition.

There are obvious alternative roles to fighting, such as merchant, priest, and craft workers. Craft workers in particular provide important services to fighters by making armour and weapons. But there are also ordinary peaceful citizens, poor and leading rather humdrum lives, like farmers, fishers, beggars, cooks, entertainers, bards, detectives, cartographers, scribes, monks and gardeners. And there are also some independent traditional craftworkers (smiths, tailors and the like) that are the player?s main character and not just an ?alt? ? a secondary character to provide the fighter main character with wargear.

When the first author of this article wanted to join a MMORPG and was looking at the games on offer, Ultima Online http://www.uo.com appealed partly because it was based on a well-developed in-game history or story line originating in pre-computer times. This was adapted to online gaming involving a gem of immortality that shattered, creating shards (servers) and facets, dark (Felucca) and light (Trammel), named after the two moons of the world. The latter in particular was of interest because it was intended for pvm and consensual pvp, in contrast to free-for-all player-killing on Felucca.

But most important, Trammel was the home of a number of substantial groups of role-players. Several shards in the USA ? Pacific, Catskills, Great Lakes ? and most heavily used of all, Europa - have a large number of collaborative roleplayers who devise carefully-balanced rules of engagement, discussed and decided based on consensual combat and interaction.

Collaborative roleplayers often have their own umbrella organisation or at least their own forums. So, for example, western North America (Pacific shard) has the Pacific Rolepaying Community. Europe (Europa shard) has CoRE (Community of Role-players, Europa). Many of the players running these roleplaying groups are dedicated veterans, and it takes a lot of commitment in time and effort, as the second author of this article can testify.

The guilds cover almost every conceivable activity: knightly orders, armies and militia, city states, player-run towns and villages, trades associations and merchant guilds, undercover organisations for spies and assassins, nobles, crafters, serfs, mercenaries, rangers, bandits, thieves, pirates, elves, orcs, undead, and many, many more.

What distinguishes this kind of roleplaying from merely taking on the role of a fighter or mage? The fact is that a game that exclusively focuses on hack-and-slay quickly palls. There is a limit to how many balrogs and dragons you can slay before boredom sets in. The companies marketing these kind of games do ?up the ante? periodically, introducing new lands and dungeons and more dangerous monsters. But the problem of holding player interest in the long-run remains.

What roleplayers do is to add a further layer of complexity and ?reality? (if that?s the right word in this context) to hack-and-slay. They create a social, political and cultural world that the game otherwise lacks, based on the in-game cities and towns, which to most non-roleplayers are simply places to buy and sell. The main instrument for this is the guild system, which is extended from the original concept of a group of friends fighting together. Guilds are created to provide a player-designed political system, with a player-ruler and a hierarchy of political power, often including several classes - a military arm of course, but also clergy and a craftworker classes, and perhaps also a secret service. Players choose a path and work their way up the hierarchy.

In addition, there are numerous other routes into MMORPG roleplaying. The loner who does not want to join a guild or guild members who want to do their own thing have a wide variety of options. They may buy a plot of land and build a tavern to attract adventurers to slake their thirst after a hard fight, and even employ entertainers to draw more players to the tavern. They may build up a library of books or a museum of rare items and artifacts, or start a farm. The possibilities are only limited by player imagination. But the viability of this approach depends on the existence of a community of collaborating roleplayers: characters to discuss the latest war or political intrigue.

Importantly, then, roleplayers have their characters talk to each other. An important principle in all roleplay is to talk ?in character? and not use shorthand, like tbh (to be honest) or alpha-numeric expressions like n00b. Roleplaying communities also avoid alpha-numeric character names or the names of the best known fiction heroes like Gandalf, going instead for names reflecting the world the characters inhabit or their profession.

For creating a character is not just a matter of selecting skills. Rather it is a way of bringing that character to life in a convincing and aesthetically-satisfying manner. Players usually think out a background for their character, often just a paragraph or so, but sometimes much more, perhaps including a simple geneology and even a written background family history. And in everything they do or say they try to put themseves in their character?s situation and act out their role.

Members of the roleplaying community put on frequent ?events?, often in the evenings or weekends when more players are online. These can take many different forms, apart of course from the ubiquitous guild ?hunts?. They may be a training session for the soldiers of a guild, a regular tavern night put on by the tavern-owner, fairs/markets where crafters sell their wares (including black markets!), a religious service, a wedding, a birthday party, story-reading discussion-circle in a library, a play, a sports competition, a competition with judges for the best bardic tale with a large prize for the winner, or gladiatorial contests. There are also scenarios devised around a storyline and played out over several sessions, with an open-ended outcome to be decided by warfare or other conflict. With a lot of dedication and enthusiasm roleplayers use the basic on-line game, buiding on it to create a living world of characters and institutions.

These roleplaying communities within MMORPGs can include hundreds of players, and many get to know each other through on-line messaging, chat-rooms and out-of-game meets. Its probably fair to say that traditional monster-fighting still comprises a part of the interest of these roleplayers - for many perhaps even a significant part. But they have the commitment to widen their gaming interests in collaborative projects and colonise what are relatively small corners of games that otherwise cater for much larger numbers of competitive and purely hack-and-slay players. The existence of a facet in Ultima Online designed to minimise player-killers helps a lot. That many choose a long-established game with depth and a wide variety of items, even though the graphics may be inferior to the latest MMORPGs, says much for player ingenuity and inventiveness.

There are things which make Ultima Online particularly suited for roleplaying. The first, and perhaps most important, is that it's not a levelling game. A completely new character can go anywhere (although the depths of dungeons are perhaps not advisable!) and roleplay anything they like. Of course having some skill makes it easier - you can call yourself a wise old mage full of ancient wisdom, but then being unable even to cast a fifth circle spell reliably is a bit of a let down. But that's where acting comes into play, and UO allows all characters to interact, however skilled or experienced in game, which makes the roleplaying very quick and easy to get into. It also means that veteran players are not forced to do boring repetitive low level events just to interact with new players and get them up to higher levels. It therefore encourages communities for all players at whatever level of skill, with very in-depth immersive roleplaying, and allows for a great deal of character continuity and development.

The second is the player housing. There have been times when houses were very expensive and difficult to come by on some servers. But times are changing a little, and the sheer fun of designing and decorating your own dwelling (a country house, or fairytale castle, or evil cultists' temple, or museum, or tavern, or old witch's hut, or library, or guardhouse, or orc fort, or tree house, or .... the only limit is imagination) is a big plus point for many people. Furniture can be crafted and many decoration items are readily available, flowers and trees can be grown and placed to make gardens, and having in-game storage other than just a bank box is very useful!

The third is being able to put things down. This might sound silly, but we don't know of another online game where you can actually put out a table and chairs with food, drink and candlesticks for a romantic picnic in a forest clearing; or set up a marketplace with stalls selling all manner of goods, all of which can be displayed; or build a barricade with boxes; or make pictures with pieces of coloured cloth; or play a game like bagball ... it's a great part of UO and makes the environment far more flexible. Being able to have an element of influence over surroundings like that is a huge bonus for roleplaying.

In short, role-playing that goes beyond designing a character with a particular set of skills by creating key elements of everyday life. Politics and power are dimensions of MMORPGs that are easy to overlook but add great depth as well as human and management skills to an otherwise often soul-less game. The fact that the graphics are average means that they don?t distract from roleplaying, and ? importantly for many on low budgets - the game does not demand the latest in computer technology.





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