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All the World's a Stage: The challenges in roleplay


Last week's discussion about the ways Blizzard supports roleplay was surprisingly controversial. Granted, in this case, "controversial" mostly means "a bunch of roleplayers kvetching about how we wish Blizzard would do a little more for us." It's clear that some people don't feel Blizzard is supportive of our hobby-within-a-hobby. A few of the most common complaints I see about roleplaying in WoW tends to revolve around the lack of guild or player housing. Another common complaint is that characters don't making lasting changes on the world.

Still, I don't think of these things as being a "supporting roleplay" issues. They're simply a pareto issue. The amount of work it would take to create satisfying, Blizzard-quality guild or player housing is immense and only a relatively small amount of the player base would enjoy it. Indeed, it's possible adding effective housing would actively harm the rest of the game by depopulating towns. I'm not saying right or wrong; I'm just saying that I don't think we can pin "roleplaying issues" as being a causal or motivating factor for housing or the lack thereof.

But this isn't to say I think everything is humperdink fantastic. There are some dynamics in World of Warcraft that are actively distracting from roleplaying immersion. However, they're all easily overcome with some old-fashioned know-how.

Teleporting players

I sometimes feel like every denizen of Azeroth must have a pocket TARDIS. When a group needs us to tank, heal or lay down some epic damage, we hop in our teleporting time machine and simply appear at the desired location. Roleplayers have created all kinds of conceits for this dynamic: magic items that teleport you around; "it's all a dream"; psychotic episodes; pocket dimensions.

However you manage to bring the dungeon finder and battleground finder into an in-character reality, it's still jolting to have to do so. The teleportation dynamic isn't simply a matter of in-character versus out-of-character. It's simply distracting from immersion.

Ultimately though, teleporting tends to be worth it. It saves players an immense amount of time in every avenue of play. I actually rather like the teleporting-stone explanation for the dungeon finder. It gives one a sense of responding to an emergency. "Beam me down there, Scotty! Now!"

Instead of simply saying you don't like the dynamic, embrace it. Talk about the gnomish engineering platforms. After all, both mages and engineers can and do teleport people around all the time. There isn't actually anything in lore saying your group can't teleport together.

Dungeon currencies

In Azeroth, the bad guys all carry around special emblems. I've come to think of them as the "bad guy membership card." Whenever someone submits to the temptation of Lawful Evil, a big, bad boss shows up and gives that someone the membership card. Later, when duly deputized heroes inevitably arrive and kill the bad guy, they can retrieve these membership cards. Heroes can then redeem the cards for valuable prizes.

For that matter, the brutal slaughter of your faction's enemies earns you literal brownie points. Again, characters turn these in to receive valuable prizes. We usually rationalize this dynamic by calling the honor points "prestige" or just glossing over the existence of frost emblems. But, still -- if we're going to nitpick the things that hurt roleplay, this is definitely an issue.

But, think back to Indiana Jones or Star Wars. Remember all the awesome upgrades the heroes got? No, you don't? This is because the stories about heroes don't tend to be about their gear. In reality, stories about heroes tell the tale of their progress over time. Focus not on the gear, but instead, on what your character's decisions lead him unto.

Cross-server battlegrounds

If I were to pick the single thing that has most disrupted my in-character immersion in the last five years, it would probably be cross-server battlegrounds. Think that's an exaggeration?

I used to do battlegrounds relatively in character. Oh yeah, RP-PVP was more than an acronym to me; it was a lifestyle. I totally bought into the "faction war" paradigm, and I was all about hunting down my enemies in Arathi Basin. Honor kills were more than ways to drive honor; they were personal treasures.

Until the first time I was joined in battle by the ineffable "Deeznuts." But, that's fine, it's not like roleplay servers have never had bad names before, and I've rationalized away an exponentially greater amount of "hobbitgnomes" and the like. And then I was joined in battle by "Datbooty" and "Toasteroven." They brought with them their good friends "Cowabunga" and "Mikestoon." At that point, I had to give up rationalizing.

For all that I recognize that cross-server battlegrounds have made it infinitely faster to find dungeons and battles, I miss the subtle storyline of a single server's Horde fighting a single server's Alliance. Even moreso, however, I miss having battlegrounds being reasonably in-character affairs. Nowadays, roleplayers are mingled with so many non-roleplayers that such immersion during battle just doesn't seem feasible.

All that being said, remember that in fierce battle, the fog of war might settle in. Names and details get lost. And, after all, it's not like your character can actually see "Datbooty" hovering over that troll's head. To your character, that is simply another nameless troll among a sea of nameless trolls. Much like my advice regarding gear, try and focus on what your character is thinking and feeling. This is where your story truly lies; the story is not in who just capped the flag.

It's not about us

The real secret, though, among the reasons Blizzard does not support roleplay is that the game isn't intrinsically about roleplaying itself. This is a little bit of a controversial statement; I'm sure folks will argue against it. But World of Warcraft is one of the best games ever created. It's awesome. It's brought in millions of players who run the spectrum between hardcore gamers and MMO and gaming rookies. It's done something brand new.

Blizzard has a little bit of something for everyone. It's got PVP, boss mobs, raids, exploration, crafting and even quite a bit of roleplay in it. But it's not intrinsically about any single part of that. It's about an entire gaming experience. And while they do things to support roleplay, the in-character immersion isn't the single motivator.

So as roleplayers trying to tell stories in Azeroth, we can either accept that and work with the game as it exists, or we can fight against it and be left unsatisfied. In general, I enjoy the game so much that I look past its faults. And when Blizzard throws me the occasional bone as a roleplayer, I will nom it (in character) for every bit it is worth.

Roleplay isn't something someone can hand us, anyway. Roleplay is about the stories that we, as authors and actors, write. Roleplay is portraying decisions and emotions in the face of adversity. It's about us making decisions about how our characters would react to situations.

These are things that Blizzard can't help us with. Sure, I'd like to have my little chateau bordering Elwynn, and dress it up with pictures. But the reality is that's just the trappings of roleplay. It's window dressing. The actual story and roleplay are things that I must right myself. Blizzard just can't do that for me.

All the World's a Stage is your source for roleplaying ideas, innovations and ironies. Let us help you imagine what it's like to sacrifice spells for the story, totally immerse yourself in your roleplaying or even RP on a non-RP realm!

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