Storyboard: Family legacy

The guy looking through the binoculars is my self-insertion character.
The problem with providing systems for roleplayers is that pretty much every system developers try hits snags. Case in point: Star Wars: The Old Republic's Legacy system.

For those of you who haven't yet heard about the system, please let us know how you're getting the site in 1980s Siberia. But I'll gloss over anyway: The core element of the system is that when you hit a certain point with a character, you pick a surname to unlock as your "Legacy" for all characters on that server. As you advance with more characters, you gain more benefits from the Legacy and so on and so forth. What we're really concerned with is the surname part because that's the part that matters to roleplayers.

Being able to make a character's overall tree a tangible thing is a powerful element. It allows you to actually play a family, or at the very least, a linked coalition of characters. Unfortunately, while the idea works well, the problem is that surnames are so important that I almost wish that the system had a different way of tying the elements together.

My brother from another mother.  And species.  And star system.But before we talk about that, let's talk about families.

Having an in-game family always presents certain issues however you run it. If you play the entire family yourself, then there's the disconnect that none of the family members is ever in the same room at the same time as the others, which means you lose out on a big part of the resonance of a family unit. If you keep the rest of the family permanently off-screen, it's essentially not all that different from saying your character previously worked around horses. And if you split duties with another player (or several other players), you're both setting yourself up for problems when not everyone wants to play the same characters and when you have to cross-check notes on various family sayings and traditions.

The upside to all of this is obvious, though: flavor. Most of us have siblings; we've got cousins and aunts and uncles and so forth. Making these people real instead of theoretical helps ground your character simply because so much happens in the real world based on families.

On the other hand, it also creates a backstory leap for people to get over at times. It's one thing to know that Johann and Mark are cousins; it's another entirely to understand a bunch of in-jokes that Johann and Mark know without anyone else knowing. Go to another family's holiday celebration for a few years straight and you'll get the idea -- when you first show up you're very much an outsider.

The Legacy system, to the best of my knowledge, is something that's pretty well new. Sure, you could always make several related characters -- I've mentioned before that I was playing a good chunk of the Gavinrad family in Guild Wars, for instance -- but you haven't been able to make the family an actual distinct thing. This is very clearly aimed at giving that sense of verisimilitude, at giving a sense that this family is a real grouping of individuals. I don't think anyone is opposed to the idea there.

The problem is that pesky issue of the surname. While it's neat to be able to choose to create a family, nobody wants the choice made without any discussion.

Surnames matter, in no small part because they change so frequently. My first name is what people call me by, but my surname is... well, theoretically it would distinguish me from other people named Eliot, so let's just pretend that there are other people with that name. It says something about where I'm from, my family, my culture, and so forth. If I were a woman, when I got married I might very well change my surname, indicating that I had become part of a new family.

Names matter as a whole, when you get right down to it. My character might have just been named Micharan because that was what the game could display, but her name was Micharan Nior Khelina Dawnsworn. And that's without getting into the variety of titles she would append based on whom she wanted to impress at any given moment. (I'd go on, but I'm already opening up for jokes about the Oliver Cromwell song.) The fact that one character on your account gets to really have the full impact of a name kind of rankles most roleplayers, especially since the system is clearly designed to understand the concept of surnames.

No relation.  Unless you count doppelgangers as siblings.Of course, from the development point of view, there has to be some reason to group these people together other than simply the name of the account. A family name is really not a bad place to start, and considering the number of stories in the universe focused on a single family, I think it does kind of make sense. From a design standpoint, it makes sense too, and the idea of having a specific legacy tied to a family is certainly a potent one.

But it carries with it all the downsides of having an entire family played by one person, with sadly none of the benefits. You can't even pick and choose which individuals are a part of which family -- it's the one group or nothing, which means that it's a system that both celebrates the idea of getting a single group of people and puts a pretty stark set of limitations on what that group entails.

Unfortunate? Definitely. But there is no way to really manage all of the possible permutations of a family without designing an entire in-depth modeling system for a family that would allow for the usual slew of marriages, children, and so forth. It would have to spread over multiple accounts, it would have to be overreaching, it would have to allow for things like family friends or devoted servants and the like... and it would wind up being a bloated mass of a system that would both take up a lot of resources and still fall short in some area.

Points for trying, though.

Feedback is welcome below in the comments or via mail to eliot@massively.com, as with other weeks. You've noticed a theme, I'm sure. Next week, I'm going to take a look at one of the most interesting, cliché, diverse, and irritating character types possible -- the setting breaker.

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.

This article was originally published on Massively.