In my mind, lore has a strange relationship with roleplayers. On the one hand, it's rare that you'll start playing in the world if the lore doesn't interest you at least somewhat -- no one wants to play in a game that doesn't feel like a remotely plausible world. (Yes, we're using "plausible" in the sense that dragons, alien invasions, and human-like robots can all be accepted. Plausibility for unreal settings is an odd concept.) Yet at the same time, the lore is its own creature, not really actively supporting roleplayers and sometimes ruling out cool stuff. How do we deal with our simultaneous friend and enemy?
Let's get to the negatives first: namely, the fact that the lore is constantly changing and you have precisely zero input on it. Lore in most game worlds is full of nice hooks for you to hang character concepts upon, but any number of those hooks might graduate to being used by an expansion or large patch, and then off goes your character. You might have thought you were really clever a year or so ago when you made a City of Heroes character from Praetoria, whose powers were derived from the pure concentrated evil in the water or something... except that now we know what Praetoria is like, and the truth is your character isn't like that.
OK, so a lot of things in any game can steamroll your character into oblivion. But there's another problem -- the lore is pretty well-known. You can't pull any surprises out of it, save for content that players haven't yet experienced. For a game like Star Trek Online, the problem is compounded by years and years of backstory, lore that can almost feel thick enough to choke you. Players who don't like treading familiar ground aren't going to be big on the lore.
And of course, lore is long on dates and names, but very short on providing explanations for why your characters pop back to life after death. It leaves you to figure out how your character can reasonably live in a given area, but is sure to tell you about all the exciting things that lore characters get to do. The whole thing is more concerned with building the wide sweep of the world than it is with the day-to-day matters of character lives.
Of course, the positives start with... well, that "wide sweep of the world" generally includes the entirety of the world, good and bad, meaning that it's the setting that you got interested in to start with. Ignoring the lore is not an option, unless you want to go for an almost Dadaist approach to play. Explaining why having lore is good is like explaining why water is wet -- it's a fundamental part of the concept.
So on the one hand, lore is the unifying background of the world. On the other hand, each time you start filling in the gaps that the lore leaves behind, you run the risk of being contradicted in the near future -- and there are almost always gaps you intend to fill in. If your character is or was part of an NPC organization, well, that organization has a hierarchy that lore probably doesn't tell you about in too much depth. When the story advances, things change, and you might have a character who should have known ahead of time but didn't.
Then there's the simple issue that some people are going to be more comfortable ranging further afield with the lore than others. Creating organizations that have some pull over lore-based events, claiming that your character has been involved in larger events, dubbing one boss or another a rival of your character -- all of these things involve nudging the lore in one way or another, even if it's just slightly. For some players, this is both disrespectful and unsustainable, given the problems we've already mentioned with changing lore and evolving stories.
There isn't a golden solution, unfortunately. Lore is going to both help and hinder roleplaying, and the best you can do is be aware of both sides of the equation. The best solution that I have is to think of the lore like a spice. Use too much of it in your character, and it becomes overpowering... but use too little, and you're left with a flavorless slab of a character.
And also, a project
Oh, right, I kept mentioning a project. And it's a pretty nifty one, because I'm going to need your help to complete it.
See, there are a lot of games out there -- some of which I don't have the time to play, others which I don't even wish to play if I could. But there are still roleplayers on games that I don't play (really), and I want to help point people in the right direction. Only a handful of games seem to support active roleplaying servers, and that means most of the community management burden falls on us, the players.
That's where I turn to my readers. I'd like to start assembling a map for roleplayers. It'd be a guide to which servers are the unofficial RP servers, what locations tend to be RP hotspots, and what sites, if any, help cater to the roleplaying population for a game and keep everyone organized.
Some of these things I know. A lot of them I do not, and thus I look to the people who know games that I don't play. If you can help me paint a picture with any of the above information, please, write me and let me know. I can't promise fame and fortune, but I can promise credit in the column.
As always, that mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will of course peruse the comments. Mail is a better option for the project, but the comments would also be a great place to discuss your experiences with game lore in both the positive and negative direction. Next week, I'm going back to the ground we hit last week, and talking about what would qualify as meaningful roleplaying concessions.
Every Friday, Eliot Lefebvre fills a column up with excellent advice on investing money, writing award-winning novels, and being elected to public office. Then he removes all of that, and you're left with Storyboard, which focuses on roleplaying in MMOs. It won't help you get elected, but it will help you pretend you did.