Without further ado, then -- a baseline set of features and tools.
What it means: Yeah, I have to paint World of Warcraft as a villain again, but the game deserves it. One of the major pre-expansion quest lines was poised to offer players a special cosmetic-only cape that wouldn't require removing your existing cape, an item just for vanity and coolness. But the development team changed its mind, and now the capes are just more useless items that are either clogging up your bags or getting sold to the first vendor along the road to Orgrimmar.
MMOs are a visual medium, and that means that characters benefit from having a distinct appearance. Not only does it allow you to explore roleplaying angles, but it ensures that a field of classes using the same equipment don't look uniform by definition. Give us helms we can display or not based on our whims. Let us choose what our characters look like. Yes, it might break a point of verisimilitude here or there when the tank is wearing a leather coat instead of heavy plate, but it lets the tank be visually distinct instead of wearing the same thing as every other tank in the same progression tier.
Current frontrunners: The obvious games that are doing this with gusto are City of Heroes and Champions Online, both of whom allow you to look like pretty much anything -- with a few themed pieces locked until later in the game, just to serve as some reward. I would be remiss to not mention Guild Wars, however. It uses a standard gear setup, unlike the other two games, but the gear is so flexible and player-determined that you can really craft your appearance.
What it means: Well, for starters, it implies that during your character's downtime he doesn't simply stand in the streets of the last place you visited like a puppet with its strings cut. More to the point, player housing gives you an element that doesn't directly relate to slaughtering things and taking everything they own, and it allows for roleplayers to have a place to just sit and hang out. Special-purpose player housing is one of the oldest tricks in the book, with player-built facilities offering a wide variety of services.
Unfortunately, player housing has always suffered somewhat from the specter of early implementation, which was largely an ersatz version of The Sims that didn't allow you to trap your character on the second floor without a bathroom. (We all did that with the game; it's OK.) Putting in player housing requires trying to work out both how to reward the player-created facilities by roleplayers and reward those who aren't terribly interested in anything beyond progression.
Current frontrunners: Unfortunately, we're kind of shy on concrete examples -- most of the current generation of MMOs hasn't thrown its collective hat in with the housing market. Lord of the Rings Online and Final Fantasy XI both make a genuinely good stab at player housing, but they both have their faults. Still, they include it and manage to work in some game benefit, so that's a decent attempt.
Tools for characters
What it means: I will happily go on the record as being rather fond of Star Trek Online, although I have recently left the game. (It's not that I don't like it; it's the simple fact that I have too many games to play.) But it always got my goat how I could walk up to the chair on my bridge, and I had an emote just for sitting in the captain's chair, but the two didn't interact. I had to perform an intricate dance around the chair to make it appear that I was sitting in the soft, cushioned place of command.
The crazy part is that there are so many games that omit stunningly simple things. It took forever and a day for City of Heroes to allow characters to just walk places instead of running everywhere. Guild Wars still hasn't mastered this trick. I can count the number of games that let me write up the barest backstory about my character on one hand, when all that's needed is just a single string of text attached to a character in a database.
Yes, I know, time spent coming up with a walking animation is time away from designing anything else. But come on.
Current frontrunners: I'm going to give major kudos here to the incoming Final Fantasy XIV, which not only features a fairly robust system of emotes, but features some that react intelligently to the environment -- so typing "/sit" near a chair will cause you to sit in the chair, rather than just sitting on the floor as if the chair's purpose eluded you. Of course, the game also won't allow you to climb over obstacles above ankle-height, so... what am I saying, really? Every game that gets part of this right gets a bunch of other parts wrong.
They're three things. They're not huge programming jobs (all right, housing can be a bear), and they're pretty huge improvements to the roleplaying experience without being onerous. It's a reasonable basic list of requests.
That's this week's diatribe on roleplaying, or at least on what I think should be a decent baseline for roleplaying features in games. Agree? Disagree? As always, you can leave comments or send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Next week, let's take a look at some problem character types and how to make them work better. (Not featuring loners. You've all heard that one.)
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.