Lord of the Rings Online
What it's doing right: You could go down my list of features that I expect in a "roleplaying" game and just check off each bullet item for Lord of the Rings Online. Everything isn't just present; it's implemented smoothly and with an eye toward making the game more fun to play. Its implementation of an added cosmetic gear system is one of those things that's done so elegantly you have to wonder why more games haven't stolen it.
Oh, and did I mention that it's free-to-play? (For a given value of free, etc.; we're not having that debate here.) So you don't even need to invest upfront to see if you're going to get a kick out of it.
The biggest flaw: Remember when we talked about the problem of running into the lore and winding up stymied by some of it? If the lore in most games is a truck bearing down on you, the lore in Lord of the Rings Online is a dozen oncoming freight trains packed to the gills. You're only playing within the confines of what is probably the best-known fantasy story ever, due in no small part to its having kicked off the genre. No pressure, though!
And did I mention that it's free-to-play? That's a bit of a dealbreaker for some. It also means that you have no filtering system, as anyone who wants can run around on Landroval and do damage to the atmosphere.
Star Trek Online
What it's doing right: Unlike the first game on this list, Star Trek Online wisely set itself at a point where established lore has yet to take root. Not only is it set in the future of the franchise, but it also gives you your own ship (and eventually several ships), your own crew, a dizzying number of character creation options, and an environment where everyone can be both an epic hero and a part of something bigger. How nifty is it to be able to write up not just a personal profile, but one for all of your crew members while heavily customizing their appearances?
The biggest flaw: Well, to be fair, it'd be nicer to have those features trimmed in favor of the officers' being able to interact with other players as something other than statues. There's no way to explore interactions aboard the ship outside of RP that happens in your head, providing you with a full staff of backstory NPCs who can't interact with anyone else. And as I mentioned when I first ranted, the game lacks critical environmental interaction features, including chairs and the lack of a decent toggle walk.
City of Heroes
What it's doing right: City of Heroes doesn't just have the space for any type of character concept -- it has the tools available to make almost any concept work reasonably well. There are so many variants on powers and abilities available that it's almost mindblowingly easy to make two functionally similar characters look and feel differently -- and that's not even touching on the wide array of costume options available. Add to that the fact that players are given the option of making moral choices that have long-term ramifications for the character and it's clear that the development team wants to let you make your choices and play your character as you wish.
The biggest flaw: Player housing is only available to guilds, and the whole moral choice system really rewards you for picking an alignment and sticking with it through thick and thin. Really, the biggest problem facing CoH is the fact that it's got a long life behind it, and as a result it's showing its age pretty notably. It's still a fun game, but you can tell when it was made.
What it's doing right: Ryzom doesn't just encourage roleplaying -- the developers go out of their way to support it. The game already allowed for player-generated content from an early stage, and its GMs already backed player-run events, so the game's movement to open source is more of a continuation of the philosophy that informs the entire game: that players should be allowed to determine how they want to put things together, from character skills to content. It allows for an environment with a lot of player immersion.
The biggest flaw: If you don't like complicated games, you're going to be warned off. If you don't like small games, you're going to be warned off. The game might be friendly to roleplaying, but it can be very hostile to new players -- not in the community sense, but in the sense that there's a lot to learn and a lot of complicated concepts working at once. It can be daunting to get into, even without considering the game's somewhat spotty service history.
What it does right: Player-generated everything. Housing. Landscapes. Game systems. Character models. If you can imagine it, it can exist within the framework of Second Life and coexist with different pieces as much or as little as you wish.
The biggest flaw: It's not a game. I don't mean that as an insult; I mean that the client is built around developing user interactions and giving players tools to generate content rather than a central game engine. While the sky is the absolute limit, many will find that their patience for and skill at coding and creating models is the practical limit. And we'll not even touch on the debates over the content of the game's roleplaying.
I've listed five games, and sure they have their flaws, but all of them support a robust roleplaying environment. You might like one of them, or all of them -- or perhaps none of them is quite your speed. Of course, roleplaying is where you find it, and that's the next topic on the agenda... two weeks from now.
Like I said, I'm alternating rant weeks. Next week will be kindly rant-free and focus instead on people who are not where they ought to be. Until then, feel free to leave your comments and questions in the usual place, or send them along to email@example.com. (Just please, don't ask why I didn't mention your favorite game.)
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.