Flameseeker Chronicles: How Guild Wars 2 can step up its roleplaying game

Norn Elementalist in the swamp
I'm a roleplayer at heart. My characters have backstories and relationships and hobbies and favorite foods. They have careers beyond "Necromancer" or "Guardian." They have homes and responsibilities. All of them have their own little places as supporting characters in the much larger story of Tyria.

Sadly, I've never found Guild Wars 2 to be the most welcoming MMO for RP, mostly because none of the above can really be expressed well through gameplay. There's a lot of emphasis on epic stories and your character influencing the world and being a hero, but because GW2 is such a combat-focused game, it's hard not to feel as though my characters are too busy being epic to have lives outside of tireless badassery. That confuses me because so much of what ArenaNet wants to do ostensibly revolves around making the game world seem more alive, and I can't think of a better way to accomplish that than by giving players the tools to help create that feeling for ourselves.

Welcome to roleplaying, where everything is made up and the points don't matter

In order to correctly frame what I'm going to discuss, let's clarify a few terms right off the bat. Roleplaying can refer to several different activities, and some are social while others are non-social. Non-social RP includes elements in games like Skyrim, Mass Effect, or (hey!) GW2 that tell players a story but allow them to customize certain aspects of that story and feel immersed in playing it out. It can also refer to the literal act of playing a role in a game through a class, profession or specialization. Social RP is the act of players telling their own stories in a mix of collaborative writing and improvisational theatre, and it boils down to people acting out their characters as though they were live NPCs. There's a lot of crossover there since anything that supports one type can potentially improve gameplay for the others, but for the purposes of this article I'll be referring exclusively to the impact of features on social RP.

Let's further separate social RP tools into two categories: in-character tools and out-of-character tools. IC tools are things that allow a player to express whom they're playing without breaking character; these are the props, settings, costumes, and emotive actions available to support the concept you're acting out. GW2 has several of these, although interaction with them is somewhat clunky for the purposes of social RP. OOC tools allow RPers to find each other and give and receive important information about each others' characters or play preferences that can't be established just by glancing at character models. These are things like official RP server designations, the ability to flag yourself as in-character and looking for RP, and customizable character profiles. GW2 has none of these.

IC tools are more common in MMOs than OOC tools primarily because of the extra resources viewed as necessary to police things such as character profiles consisting entirely of the word "dongs" (I have never personally seen this, but I've been assured that constant vigilance against the dong-based threat is necessary). Developing UI elements ain't exactly cheap or simple, either. Community-created addons that provide those tools -- such as MyRP, FlagRSP, and TSWRP -- are therefore invaluable when it comes to things like profiles and IC flagging, but GW2 doesn't officially allow those.

The result of not having official OOC tools is that RPers need to resort to out-of-game channels to find each other. It also results in RP concentrating in a few select spots where people can be sure that they'll find other players in-character. These are challenges faced by RP communities even in games with official RP servers and other OOC features, and while the GW2 community has survived without them, it's also difficult to attract new blood or make people feel comfortable. Social RP thrives in games where players feel as though the game type is welcomed and supported by the developers.

Getting personal

As a company, ArenaNet's definition of "roleplay" appears to be closer to non-social RP. I'm trying to be careful not to jump to unfounded conclusions, but I think this one is obvious just by virtue of prioritization. When asked about tools for RPers prior to launch, ArenaNet invariably responds with some form of, "We think you'll love the personal story!" The personal story is borderline useless to social roleplayers because it tells the story to us, when we're generally more interested in telling our own. It also places our characters in a role that's impossible for all of them to fill. Some of the biography questions at character creation allow us to define our characters' preferences, personality, and place in society, which would be great for social RP if anyone but the player could see any of it! But the story itself sets up our customized character with personae of the writers' design and casts them individually as the main character of GW2. In social RP we can't all be Commander Shepard -- or Commanders of the Pact -- and so we have to ignore the pre-named missing sisters and deep personal connections with members of Destiny's Edge that the personal story constructs for us. It may be entertaining, but it doesn't support social RP.

In fact, nearly everything ArenaNet has done by way of the living story has been in the form of telling stories to the players in the fashion of a single-player RPG. To its immense credit, ANet did respond to pleas from RPers in the beta for the ability to walk and to have a /say channel in addition to an area-wide chat channel. On the other hand, these are things we had to ask for, when they're the absolute minimum developers usually add in the way of RP tools. I'm not trying to huff about things that totally should have been in already because they're MMO standards, but in most other MMOs social RP is rarely even close to a priority for the developers, and those features nevertheless tend to be a given. It was disheartening to see how low on the priority list they were for GW2.

Even today, GW2's communication channels don't exemplify ease of use for RPers. Custom emote text is available -- if I recall correctly, it was also by request -- but the range on all emotes is awkwardly large. It's also easy for RPers to run afoul of the strict anti-spam filter, which will occasionally lock people out of speaking for over an hour if it decides they've said too much. Ironically, the rash of RMT spammers that cropped up during the latest free trial seemed to be excellent at circumventing it, but normal players are frequently stumped by message suppression even when they think they're following the rules.

The ability to interact physically with the world is hit-or-miss. We've got big, beautiful cities but no useable chairs. Our characters have dialogue choices that influence their personality in ways that are invisible to other players and almost entirely useless for anything other than personal reference. And we have limited animated emotes.

Show, don't tell

Emotes are an area with massive potential in GW2. The relatively tiny number of them is understandable because character animations can be pricey to create. However, that means that the emotes that do exist need to count, and from a roleplayer's perspective, should ideally be multi-purpose. The emotes that currently exist in GW2 tend to be over-the-top and goofy; I was kind of embarrassed recently when I used /laugh on my male Sylvari and he busted out with a ten-second string of sinister, knee-slapping whoops that I'm pretty sure had even the Mad King thinking, "Whoa, man, are you OK?" When your character /sleeps, she lets loose with comically loud snoring. Female humans don't just /point; they wink at whatever they're pointing to with their mouths wide open in glee. Watching stern Ellen Kiel do that is kind of uncomfortable, and Evon Gnashblade's campaign video for Cutthroat Politics even poked a little self-aware fun at how hilariously bizarre some emotes make characters look.

These emotes are great for supplementing a Box o' Fun while waiting for Tequatl to spawn, but they're of limited value in social roleplay because the accompanying text and animations define them so narrowly. Social RPers are essentially performing theatre and creating our own scenes in-game, so asking the ArenaNet cutscene and writing teams to describe their ideal storytelling tools might be a really good way to get a sense of what will appeal to roleplayers. Of course, if that were economically feasible we might already have them. It's hard to know.

Let's consider examples of great expressive tools from other games. The Secret World has a number of persistent stances for characters to switch between in addition to the regular idle animations: /crossedarms, /handsbehindback, and /handsonhips are all exactly what they sound like. There are also useful minor animations such as looking to the left or to the right, peering around corners, and drinking. Phantasy Star Universe not only had an immense range of emotes for what was basically a lobby-based dungeon crawler but allowed characters to swap to the default emotes of the opposite gender with the push of a button. Final Fantasy XIV has a huge number of emotes as well, including varying degrees of intensity: /laugh is full-belly laughter, while /chuckle is less pronounced. The game also allows for changes in facial expression through commands such as /smile, /smirk and /straightface, all of which can replace the default expression of a given emote.

FFXIV also has one of the most valuable roleplaying tools I've ever encountered in an MMO, despite its simplicity. Some of you have heard me wax poetic on this before, but you get to hear it again because I'll harp on it until the day I die: Typing the name of an emote and then "motion" (i.e., "/laugh motion") in FFXIV or its predecessor will cause the emote animation to play without the accompanying text. I cannot overstate how amazing that is. Default emote text defines not only what the character is doing but the intent behind it, and removing the text allows us to use emotes to express a greater range of intent. I'm reminded of a part in the personal story in which the NPC Caithe uses /no to shake her head, and the text makes her appear to be disagreeing with the player. She's not actually disagreeing in the context of the story, but the text defines the action anyway. Sure, it's ignorable, but most of the fine detail in social RP comes from text. It's actually easier to avoid the animated emotes when using them is a potential goldmine of inappropriate responses and unintentional hilarity, and that results in a lot of talking heads in social RP.

Norn lady in town clothes
Costuming conundrums

ArenaNet has expressed reluctance to consider allowing town clothes in combat out of concern that it would break immersion. I've written before about how the line between town clothes and armor is mostly mechanical and how it's already possible to create a character straight out of Jem and the Holograms using combat-ready armor and weapons, so now I'd like to talk about how town clothes in their non-combat state could be a tremendous boon for roleplayers but currently fall short.

Town clothes already have special skills attached to them through the toy slot. Bafflingly, these are described as "roleplay skills" in the gem store, but they might be better described as pseudo-combat skills. While I might dress a character in the executioner's garb for some purpose unrelated to Halloween, I have a hard time imagining a situation in which the skills wouldn't look silly outside of costume brawl. Interactive objects are another area with potential: There used to be an official comic strip that suggested that things like beer mugs would allow normal interaction or combat-related uses, but interactive objects are mostly only for combat or heart completion tasks.

Imagine being able to buy a tray of wine glasses from a vendor or from the gem store that would set up an interactive object similar to food trays or bonfires, allowing anyone to take a glass. With the wine glass bundle equipped, characters could gain access to a number of actions, such as sipping from the glass, making conversational gestures (which NPCs can do, but we currently can't), swirling the wine in the glass, and possibly dashing it to the floor. Wouldn't that be great for social occasions? Picking up a branch in the open world could allow your character to scratch at the dirt with it, point with it, or lean on it in addition to the standard "hit things until it breaks" options that currently exist. Anything to make standing around more visually interesting while providing greater control over our characters' actions. In a fantasy world where everyone is a dashing hero capable of going on mega-adventures, more basic, everyday interaction with the game environment is at a premium for RPers.

Necromancer in Orr
It always bothers me somewhat that MMO developers in general don't do more to encourage or at least facilitate social RP because I think it pays dividends in the long run. We're players who don't need frequent and mindblowingly huge infusions of content to keep us engaged because in the absence of developer input (and occasionally in spite of it), we create our own. Throw a little sand in your themepark, and we'll busy ourselves using it to build villages. We will absolutely stick around for years in games that make us feel welcome instead of treating RP as an unsupported game type at best or a weird fringe activity at worst. MMO social RP has its roots in tabletop roleplaying games, the very same soil that stat-based character advancement and pretend dragon slaying sprung from.

Later discussion in the PvE collaborative development thread on the official forums has veered toward requests for things that would make characters themselves feel more grounded in the world: player housing, relaxing features like fishing or gardening, expanding the little-used personality system, and continuation of stories that were established as important at launch. Most of these would be of interest to social RPers, but other types of players can appreciate them as well because they add depth to a game world. Immersion is more than lovely scenery; it's a sense of place, of being in the world you're playing in. Sometimes that means letting us play Uncle Owen and giving us moisture farms to come home to. Players who are solely combat-inclined might scoff at spending resources on such features, considering them unimportant to "real" gameplay...but ArenaNet is trying to create a living world. Frankly, there's only so much that can be done to make the world feel alive by having us kill stuff.

Do you RP in GW2? What do you think ArenaNet can do to make it easier or more welcoming? Who are your characters (yeah, I'm the guy who wants to hear about them)? Tell us all about it in the comments below, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.
This article was originally published on Massively.