Storyboard: Why roleplaying is worth the trouble

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Why bother roleplaying?

I've covered a lot of topics in this column that circle around that topic. I've talked about why roleplaying is important and how you can roleplay without tears, but I've never touched the central question, something that was brought to mind recently by a fellow Massively writer. Why even bother with roleplaying?

The usual answer is a shrug and a self-evident "because it's fun," but that's more a dismissal of the question than a functional response. That's not a good thing because there's a case to be made against roleplaying. Your character doesn't have an impact on the game world. Your roleplaying is, in the context of the game itself, irrelevant. The game doesn't care why your character wears weaker gear than normal; it just downgrades your stats and makes your life harder. You derive no benefit and wind up losing a lot of time for social interactions that are prone to drama and arguments. So why bother?

For whatever reason, this happens a lot in the wake of leaving your first major game in which you roleplay, an online variant of the "second friend who roleplays" problem. Whatever roleplaying features you're used to from the first game aren't present in the second. If you're coming from a sandbox environment, the world feels far more static; if you're coming from a themepark environment, the world feels much more empty. You had a community and a culture built up in your previous game, and now you're faced with the daunting task of starting over again.

But it can happen beyond that, too. Maybe you've never tried to roleplay and you just don't get the point or the issues involved. Maybe you've done a lot of roleplaying in one sort of game but are trying something different. Maybe you're just disillusioned. Whatever the cause, you're finding yourself coming up short for reasons to make the effort.

So why do it? I can think of three excellent reasons.

Some things just have to have a story behind them, even if you never find out those stories.Affect lives, not worlds

I see a lot of people complain that they can't affect the game world in any significant fashion, often from former players of games like Star Wars Galaxies or Ultima Online, and as a result roleplaying doesn't feel significant. But let's face it -- you couldn't affect the game world in those games, either.

Sure, you could build things, have player-run systems with a lot of relevance, and so forth. Let's use Star Wars Galaxies as an example: You're never going to make a large-scale shift to the game's metaplot. There's always going to be an Imperial attack on Hoth at the same time, Luke's hand has a date with a lightsaber on Cloud City, and so forth. You're never going to drive a species to extinction or introduce a new species to an area with runaway ecological consequences. There's no way to cure a major disease or write a book that changes the culture of the populace. The world is still static; the only difference is how much you're allowed to rearrange the furniture.

No, what really gets changed -- in any game -- is lives. And I'm not talking about character lives, although that's a part of it. I'm talking about the players.

Video games, in large part, are experiences. Once the novelty of the concept wears off, if you keep playing the game, it's to experience something new. And roleplaying gives you a way to turn a game into a fountain of new experiences, a continually evolving landscape of things that you would never have seen otherwise. It's a chance to have art unfold right in front of you without any planning, often in such a way that no one else will ever see the same thing you have.

Roleplaying offers an emotional depth to games and experiences that's hard to get most of the time. It doesn't always hit that target, but it does often enough that it's worth the effort.

There's always another horizon to explore.The game never ends

One of the things that's hard to get totally past in an MMO is the idea that the game never ends. We have trouble wrapping our brains around the concept. Objectively, we understand it; subjectively, though, it's hard to get around the fact that you're going to do everything along a given progression path and the game won't go anywhere. There's no point when you win. We've been conditioned as players to look forward to winning at the game, so when we have to keep playing, it's easy to start wondering what comes next.

Roleplaying provides an answer for that. Sure, you're done with one set of goals, but your character probably has his or her own goals to pursue. You have other people around you who need help. You have personal dramas to untangle and a lot of assorted issues to wade through. It can't just come to an end; it has to keep going. And now you have something to motivate you as you go.

There's more to it than just that, though, because roleplaying can actually encourage you to try things in a game that you never would have otherwise. I've got an experiment that I'm looking forward to in the summer (I'll share it when it happens; don't worry) that would never happen without roleplaying. Some of my favorite characters to play in game terms came about because they fulfilled specific roleplaying niches and vice versa. It's like achievements, only broader -- you write your own list of what you can accomplish.

You'd do it anyway

OK, maybe this one is just me. But there's no way I can play a game, any game, without constructing a narrative of some sort.

I'm not just talking about my well-documented love of games with a strong central narrative. I mean every game. My Mass Effect 3 multiplayer characters have stories in my mind. When I sit down to play Summoner Wars in my living room, stories get developed about particularly notorious or laughable units. I can think of at least one occasion when I tried to incorporate storytelling into a game of Monopoly.

Put simply, there's no way I'm not roleplaying my characters in my mind anyhow. And I like to think I'm not the only one. I suspect that there are other players who find themselves getting a feel for the character on the creation screen no matter what, even in games that don't have any option for roleplaying out of the gate. And if I'm going to already be constructing all of these character traits, well, I might as well make them evident to others.

So it's not really a question of "why bother roleplaying" but one of "why bother making it public." And that's easy: because it's one of those bits of fun that gets better as you share.

If you've got other reasons you'd like to share for the "why," feel free to leave them in the comments below or mail them along to eliot@massively.com. Next week is the two-year anniversary mark, which means it's time for a look back and a look forward. And cake, but that's going to just be for me in my own home.

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.