Behind the Mask: The keyboard is mightier than the text bubble

In roleplaying, everyone has his own preferences. Some people like simple, character-to-character interactions without a lot of heavy plot. Others love in-depth storylines and lots of character drama. One of the most heated preferences in roleplaying, however, is the way that characters should resolve conflict.

Roleplaying is strange in that player characters get into fights about 3000 times more often than people do in real life. I'm a former US Marine, and I've been in less than a half dozen fights (including the kind involving guns) since I turned 18. On the other hand, my roleplaying characters tend to get into serious, earth-shattering battles involving guns, high-voltage electricity and psychic strangulation powers on an almost-weekly basis.

Because I play Champions Online, this should be sort of an oddity. There are no playable villain characters in CO, so most characters should be do-gooding champions of love and justice. Even in comics, we rarely see heroes go up against other heroes except in strange circumstances. Isn't it a little odd that heroes would beat the heck out of each other all the time for no real reason?

For whatever reason, conflict is an inevitable part of roleplaying. Even in my PnP groups I run into scenarios where my players are itching to fight each other. When the other characters are faceless people behind a computer screen, it's easy to let the egos run a little high and pick a fight with someone because he said something snarky in a bar.

The tension is hot, and you and your opponent are ready to duke it out. How do you actually fight it out? You're ready to type out a deft series of well-described attacks when the duel rocket lands. Your opponent intends to actually "fight it out" in the actual game engine. What audacity!

Jin Yong made a lot of money this way

Typing out a fight has a lot of advantages. Text allows a player to be much more creative in the way he attacks. An ice character can create solid obstacles with ice powers or freeze the ground to restrict movement, for instance. A magician character has a lot more flexibility with his actions, which is almost the opposite of what exists in-game.

Another great thing about text is the power of imagination. When we read a block of text, we get to fantasize about the exact events that occur. We get to visualize the actions in our heads, and when the text is expertly written it sort of puts a smile on our faces. I think that, especially in non-combat situations, it's really satisfying to roleplay with someone who is particularly good at describing things.

I'm a huge fan of wuxia fiction and I write for a living, so it's sort of natural for me to favor writing versus facerolling on my keyboard. I have a lot of reasons to like the flexibility of text. However, the #9 thing I hate about RP is unmoderated power use. I like writing, and I like creative descriptions, but I like them most when there's harmony and agreement between players. If there's disagreement, writing doesn't work. We really need an unbiased solution.

Johnathan Wendel made a lot of money this way

Although PvP has a lot of other failings in any game system, the one thing we can be sure of is that it is unbiased. If we are presented two different characters, an in-game conflict between them is the most likely way to get an honest representation of who would win in an actual battle.

Compared to PvP, text is simply incapable of displaying a real difference between two characters. In any sort of text battle, the winner will likely be the player who can embellish his or her own character more. When a low-level character wielding little or no real "power" magically dodges everything using the power of text-fighting, it cheapens any sort of resolution that might be gained.

On the other hand, PvP isn't really a contest of character power. Powers in Champions Online are subject to game balance. This means that a gun-toting hero has a decent chance of winning against an intangible ghost superhero, because in the game rules, the intangible character isn't really intangible and physical attacks still hurt. A mechanical superhero can be subjected to bleed attacks, which makes little sense. PvP has no consideration at all for "flavor." It only cares about what works.

Even when we bypass conceptual characters that can't truly be made in the game engine, PvP is mostly a test of good PvP building and not actual in-character ability. If a power is ridiculously good, it advantages a character regardless of what that power actually does. If Sniper Rifle were suddenly buffed to be too good (or if Explosive Arrow were still overpowered), that wouldn't really mean that a sniper should be able to defeat a master of electromagnetism. PvP doesn't really reflect how things might (assuming superheroes were real) work in the real world.

Finally, PvP is an out-of-game skill test. It is entirely possible, and in fact extremely likely, that your roleplayer opponent has no idea how to PvP. CO's PvP is a tricky game of reactions, timing, and careful decision-making. Not every player is a PvP expert, and a character who is a master tactician can't be imbued with PvP skills his player doesn't have. While text-fighting is also an exercise in creativity and embellishing, "i doge ur atak" is unfortunately just as effective as a clear, detailed description of your character's evasive technique. If we're looking for an actual contest between characters, PvP is also far from a perfect solution, even if it is less biased than text-fighting.

Nierenberg made a lot of money this way

The problem with PvP is that it is not a very good answer to the question of "which character is more capable?" The problem with text-fighting is that it is unmoderated and prone to favoritism.

The problem with in-character conflict is that out-of-character ego too frequently bleeds into the events. If we stepped back and analyzed the situation, we can often determine a solution without a conflict of egos. If our characters are actually upset enough to fight (and most of the time, they really aren't), often a simple OOC discussion can determine the actual winner of the battle.

If one player understands that the other character is supposed to win, it solves virtually all of the issues with text-fighting. The players can layer on embellishment and detail into an interesting and fun exchange. If text-fighting is a competition, the players feel obliged to make their characters win. If one character is supposed to lose, the pride goes away and the fun of roleplaying returns.

My friends and I can usually determine who would win between our characters (and no, it's not always my characters). If you take an unbiased view of the fight, oftentimes you will be able to as well.

The last resort

If you and your roleplaying friend can't determine a winner (sometimes it could go either way, or one person refuses to give), there are really only two solutions:

  1. Get a player whom you both can agree on, and who knows both of your characters' powers very well, to moderate a text battle.

  2. Go outside and drop the duel rocket.

The final, bottom line is that any uncertainty must be moderated. If you can't find a moderator the two of you can trust, PvP is the only real option. Some people might argue that PvP isn't particularly fair, but the alternative (allowing godmoding) is far worse.

The real moral of the story: Unless you're really into RPvP, I recommend getting into fewer fights and more interesting storylines. I find that ego really damages roleplaying communities in general, and "who is the strongest" arguments are often at the forefront of that. They're not the only cause, of course... but that's a discussion for another time.

See you next week!

(Bonus nerd points if you got all the references without looking them up.)