Storyboard: The RIFT project

Yeah, they just keep getting stranger.
The biggest problem with roleplaying in an MMO is that there's a certain amount of enforced stasis. No matter how determined you are to bring about long-term change in your group, there's the simple fact that you generally need to have characters working together and staying alive. Game considerations force you to refrain from anything that would rock the boat too severely. So most main characters have plot armor, most relationships need to stay at a functional professional level, and most villains have to be guest stars. It's a compromise we make so that the game itself remains playable.

But what if you didn't have to make that compromise?

This isn't a story about RIFT, and it isn't a story about PAX East, but both of those elements come into play because that's how the idea came to me. What would it look like if you had a month during which there were no restrictions on roleplaying? How would things play out if you could feel confident about a month of play that's completely self-contained, with no need to preserve characters any longer than the story required? Would it make roleplaying more interesting, or would nothing change?

Hey, anyone want to give me a free game so I'll have two?For those who didn't attend PAX East this year, you may not have caught the fact that the convention gave away a surprising bit of swag: a free copy of RIFT. Not a trial code, but the entire game, shrink-wrapped in a retail box. I had played the game's free trial forever ago, shortly after the game launched, and I wasn't really impressed on the whole but thought it was decent enough. Even so, a free game complete with free month is the sort of attendance prize you don't want to just ignore, and I wanted to figure out how to get some use out of it.

The answer came to me pretty quickly. I knew at least one person who would happily dive into the game for free with me, this being the oft-mentioned Ms. Lady. That made it a perfect opportunity to try something out that I'd long been curious about. I knew exactly why groups could stagnate, something I described right up in the intro of this article, but what if you were intentionally playing the game just for a brief period? What happens if you no longer have to worry that killing your character now means never using him again?

All I needed to pull off this project was a second copy of the game. And this being the sort of convention that it was, there was no real challenge in finding someone who already owned RIFT and thereby could do nothing with a fresh copy. So I had our two copies, complete with free month, and I could put together a plan for this particular project.

The plan

Pretty simple, really. I wanted to try roleplaying for a month with no expectation that there would be another month. Let character dramas evolve naturally without the usual hand of authorial intent to keep things in check. If character A should really be stabbing the heck out of character B right about now, then let's get with the stabbing. And if someone does something appropriately smart or clever, he or she might get to make some long-standing changes to the environment, at least in a conceptual state.

In other words, by having a set end date, there's no need for anyone to get the usual layer of plot armor. There isn't even a need to give the setting any plot armor. Sure, realistically someone wheeling and dealing her way into a position of power should generate some big in-game changes... but if she's there for a day before the project ends, well, the lack of effect isn't really notable, is it?

Oh, paladins, always with their rules.The rules

No familiar imports. Neither Ms. Lady nor I was allowed to just import our frequently played characters wholesale because the whole point was setting up a very different dynamic, one that we couldn't predict. The whole thing is pointless if we have a month to run through plots with a familiar cast of characters because either one of us can write that story in the time between breakfast and lunch.

No compromises. Characters are free to be as odious as we can make them. Of course, that also means that said odious character might get bisected by an honor-bound warrior, but that's the double-edged sword of existence.

Take risks. One of the benefits of having a set conclusion is that characters at risk of getting boring after three months of play won't get that chance. That means that there's the opportunity to stretch things a bit further and really go for broke.

No ratings grabs. You might not think of them as such, but that's what they are -- the moments when a character does something that seems wildly inappropriate mostly to capture the attention of others. Just because the whole project has a closed ending doesn't mean that we need to go out of our way to cause random drama bombs.

Burn bridges as they come. What if we fall in love with the game? Deal with that as it happens. If we hate it? Deal with that as it happens. If we make long-term connections inadvertently? You get the idea. The whole goal is to see whether things naturally develop; planning out escape routes will definitely cause issues.

The results

Well, I don't have any yet. We just started last week with two characters on the Defiant side and two characters on the Guardian side. As of this writing, they've had a week to get moving, and it's produced some neat interplay thus far. Pretty sure at least one of them might wind up dead... but nothing's set in stone just yet.

I'd like to note that I'm not doing the project for the column; I thought of the project and then thought of including it in the column. So if this is interesting, I'd be happy to keep providing updates for you dear readers, but I also don't want to bore you to tears. So I'm breaking out the poll feature.
%Poll-76343%
As always, further non-poll feedback can be left in the comments below or mailed to eliot@massively.com. Next week, I'm either going to do that "getting into roleplaying" column or a project update, depending on how the poll goes. It's a bit up in the air.

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.