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Hyperspace Beacon: Rockin' the Roleplay


I once asked, "What is roleplay?" in Massively's IRC channel. My intent was to define roleplay in its simplest terms. After all, the majority of us play RPGs, even if they are MMORPGs. I was surprised that, once you added "game" versus just the word "roleplay," the context changed astronomically. For instance, roleplay taken by itself could be defined as taking on another character. We all know that LARPing (live-action roleplay) is dressing up as character and performing the actions of a character who is not you. If you ask someone who considers herself a roleplayer in an MMO, she would define roleplay similarly: taking on a character in that particular setting. But ask a group of gamers what defines an RPG and you'll certainly get a wide variety of answers. Some define it as leveling. Others say it's telling a story in a game. Some define it by the DIKU-type playstyle. Some go so far as to say that you have to have a gamemaster, rules, and story for it to truly be an RPG.

Our Senior Editor Brianna Royce suggested in the interview with Star Wars: The Old Republic Community Manager Stephen Reid that BioWare is "putting the RPG back into MMORPGs," to which Reid replied in general agreement, "I think that's part of it. It's really about allowing you to experience real choice in a great story." The phrase "putting the RP back into MMORPG" (or something very similar) was used a couple of times in "booth chat" with developers of SWTOR. It was good to see a developer respond to that phrase. But is it true? Does SWTOR put the RP back into the MMORPG? What makes an RPG an RPG? Does SWTOR fit that bill? How will it will work with traditional MMO roleplayers? Join me past the break to find out.

A large section of roleplayers is made up of free-form roleplayers. These individuals, generally speaking, like to create a character, plop him down into an environment, then react in-character to the situation that surrounds them. This type of roleplay requires a very large community of roleplayers or at very least a central hub with a large number of roleplayers who hang out there. This type of roleplay can be very bi-polar. Some days there will be absolutely nothing happening; other days can be filled with adventure like you've never thought could happen. In my experience, there is usually very little in between.

Another predominant group is made up of the event-based roleplayers. These individuals usually rely on a rules system or events to spur their roleplay. Some of these roleplayers only roleplay when an event is happening. The other times you see their characters, they are just gaming as themselves. Others will switch to free-form mode when there is no event. The quality type of roleplay, provided you are familiar with the gamemaster, is less sporadic.

A free-form system relies a lot on a living world, like EVE. There is a general overarching story, but the it's up the individual how he fits into the world system. On the flipside, an event-based roleplayer relies on the GM to provide the overarching story as well as the role she should play in this specific story. Granted, there are varying degrees of each. Some free-formists may place their characters in a city with rules but no storyline. And there may be some GMs who create a story but allow the player to place any type of character in the situation.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is, obviously, a GM-based roleplay game, with the BioWare writers acting as the gamemaster. Most themepark games are like this. The story is very linear. BioWare generally gives players some semblance of choice with dialogue options. A roleplayer on The Old Republic Roleplay community site expressed a very pertinent concern: "I worry that, since this game is so story-centric, the characters you are playing through in BioWare's story won't be your own. They will be BioWare's."

We know for certain that BioWare wants to encourage roleplay. In fact, Stephen Reid mentioned in the interview last week that there are roleplay moments. "One of the quests, early on in the Jedi Knight arc, is about romance. When I got the quest, I suddenly realized: this is a roleplay moment. I can decide to play this based on my own personality, or I could roleplay this the other way and go light or dark depending what I think my character would do," he explains in the article. Even PvP seems to want to encourage roleplay. To paraphrase PvP designer Gabe Amatanglo from his Gamespot UK interview: His team took all the game-y elements of PvP and gave them a "visceral coat of paint" to serve storytelling.

However, this does not exactly answer the concern about whose character we are playing: ours or BioWare's. We know there are limits to the type of species we can play, but to be completely honest, that is not an unusual thing. What is different is the reason for is this limitation. Daniel Erickson hinted about the reason behind this in a forum post a couple of months back: "The Old Republic is, and always has been, about starring in your own version of a Star Wars movie. Not playing a background character from scene 5[...] Did we limit [species] for our goal of bringing cinematic storytelling and the dream of living the Star Wars movies to the MMO space? Absolutely." Granted, this does limit the species we can play, but does it honestly limit the type of character we can play?

I have mentioned before about my talk with Daniel Erickson about the "guided tour" and how BioWare is going to be the GM for SWTOR. He did mention in the same conversation that BioWare gives us the starting point for the story. How our characters got to this point is up to us, and they how spent the last 26 years prior to that is up to us. By the same token, where we take our characters from that point is up to us, too. However, after the starting point, we are relying on BioWare to guide us. I can quote their intentions behind the "guided tour." When talking about multiplayer dialogue to GameInformer, Erickson said, "We were trying to recreate the old pen and paper feel of having a bunch of people around a table arguing." This PnP idea seems to be a running theme for the design of SWTOR.

Where does this leave the roleplayers? I believe it leaves them in an interesting place. It also requires them to make a decision about their playstyles. We know that BioWare is not going to give a world with our own tools to play with so we can create our own storylines. But it is giving us the tools where our character's story can be unique. In my opinion, that is an interesting middle-ground between the free-form roleplayer and the GMed roleplayers. There are no player GMs, but BioWare's writers have attempted to give the player choices that will impact the direction of gameplay.

For me, I am going to ride out BioWare's story. Unlike stories in other MMOs, this game's story will impact the experiences of my character. BioWare games have had very immersing stories in the past. They were single-player games, but I am very interested in trying out that storytelling method in a massive-mutiplayer setting. On top of that, the specifics of SWTOR lore have not been fleshed out, yet. I am nearly obligated to follow BioWare's lead until I know the world well enough to make up my own stories.

How about you? Do you trust BioWare enough to lead your character to his destiny? Or do you think BioWare's storyline is secondary to the story you make for yourself? Is SWTOR going to be, as DarkenedLight suggested, about BioWare's story, not yours?

P.S. Tomorrow is my birthday, and I accept key codes, Steam gifts, and credit card information.

The Hyperspace Beacon by Larry Everett is your weekly guide to the vast galaxy of Star Wars: The Old Republic, currently in production by BioWare. If you have comments or suggestions for the column, send a transmission to Now strap yourself in, kid -- we gotta make the jump to hyperspace!

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