The Problem With MMO Roleplay

Most MMORPGs will have a dedicated roleplay server. The idea of using an MMO as a backdrop for roleplaying appeals to me, but it has a serious problem that I don’t know how to easily solve: Who plays the NPCs? Like, obviously the computer runs the NPCs in the sense of having them attack players and stuff, but it’s pretty hard to have a roleplay conversation if you can’t talk to NPCs. It’s never long before you can feel the constraints of not being able to talk to plot-vital characters are felt.

I think probably the most fruitful direction for this kind of thing would be to ignore completely the role that the main plot casts you in. Most MMOs treat every player as though they are the chosen one. Obviously, you need to junk that in favor of the chosen four or eight or however many people are in your RP group, but I think that obvious step isn’t going far enough. If you’re going to not actually interact with any NPCs pretty much ever, then you need to be someone who wouldn’t be expected to. Let’s take Lord of the Rings Online as an example, although it makes you less chosen than most MMOs on account of Frodo and Aragorn are already a thing. In LotRO, your character is allegedly instrumental in fighting off all kinds of major servants of the Enemy all across Middle-Earth. You meet with Aragorn, Galadriel, Elrond, and a dozen other major names. Not only that, those people rely on you to accomplish vital tasks so they can do all their canon world saving shenanigans. But there’s nobody around to play the part of Aragorn or Elrond in RP conversations when you’re sitting around Rivendell.

Instead of being the tenth most important person in all of Middle-Earth right after the Fellowship, imagine you roleplay as just, like, regular hunters out of Bree or dwarven guards from the Blue Mountains or what-have-you. A fellowship of basically ordinary people who don’t interact directly with Aragorn or Elrond. You fight in the battles of the free people not because you are their savior but because you’re one of them. An army of dwarves showed up, and your dwarf buddy is one of them, and the non-dwarves are with him, and at no stage do any of the big names from the Hobbit personally thank you for your valor or anything. This reduces the party from protagonists to extras, but it also means that you can talk about the game as it really is: Pulling you along events that you cannot really control, rather than pretending that you’re on a first-name basis with Eomer and should be able to include him in the conversation whenever it would be prudent to do so. And with the group no longer at the heart of the plot, it liberates everyone to instead care mainly about the interpersonal relationships within the group, and how those relationships grow or wither over time as a result of the things that happen to the fellowship.

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