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Storyboard: Get them in a tree, throw rocks at them

Eliot Lefebvre

The past week or so has been pretty terrible for one of my favorite characters in Final Fantasy XIV. Over the course of the last week, she's been drugged, been tied up, had her heart broken twice (more or less her own fault), broken someone else's heart, been scarred, and been screamed at, and she's managed to see one of her dearest friends begin to turn into an enemy. And I'm writing this on Monday, so I can only begin to imagine what's going to happen over the course of this week.

Of course, there's a disconnect here because while she was knee-deep in roleplaying misery, I was having an absolute blast -- some of the most fun I've had roleplaying in a long time, actually. Now, there's something to be said there about making your characters miserable for fun and profit, which I intend to discuss next week. But it occurred to me that this is one of the fundamental disconnects between roleplayers and the non-RP part of any game's population. The goal in any MMO is to become more capable... but the goal of roleplaying, at least to start with, involves making things worse and becoming significantly unhappier.

In MMOs -- and games in general, really -- you follow a pretty straightforward power curve. At the beginning of the game, you're essentially insignificant. You might have abilities far beyond those of mortal men, or you might just be an average schmuck with a sword, but in either case you lack any real power. In order to accomplish your main goal, whatever that may be, you have to become stronger first. And so you set off to do a variety of tasks, facing ever-greater challenges for ever-greater rewards so that when the time comes, you're ready to face your real challenges. Ultimately, you overcome the challenges at the end due to the power you gain at the end.

The narrative arc, however, is frequently meant to subvert this. Luke Skywalker might have grown more powerful from the beginning of the films, but in the end it wasn't that which helped him emerge victorious -- it was strength of will, the same as he had at the beginning of the movies. The Bride acquires a talisman of power in the first Kill Bill film, one that proceeds to be less and less useful on her journey until she overcomes her final challenge specifically without it. The ring gets thrown into Mount Doom at the absolute nadir of Frodo and Sam's ability, with Frodo nigh-comatose and Sam falling back only on his ceaseless devotion to Frodo.

In games, we get more powerful as we go. But when you're storytelling, we want our characters to be challenged, to face threats that grow larger, and to frequently outpace them. A character who's been played for five years in an MMO is likely to have nearly every advantage possible, but in roleplaying terms, you want him more or less devoid of any real power or influence because stories are much more interesting when he can't just bull rush his way through every obstacle.

Usually, this is accomplished by giving the characters problems that can't be resolved with their respective sword arms. You can be the best fencer in the world without being able to keep a single steady relationship going, after all. The alternative winds up robbing the plot of any sort of dramatic tension, which is the whole element that keeps moving the story forward.

Newer roleplayers have a problem with this, and truth be told, the game itself doesn't help. The game rewards you for leveling, for training, for getting better. This isn't unique to MMOs, either -- there's a reason that Dungeons & Dragons starts you at level 1 and makes you work up to all the cool things that you see in the handbook. Even in games where you can start off significantly more powerful, there are always things present to entice the players with the thought of how earth-shatteringly cool it would be to get that new power at level 30. We're gamers, not just storytellers, and having new stuff is cool.

The problem is, when you extend that philosophy to its logical conclusion, that means you don't want to lose fights or fail at relationships or be caught flat-footed or anything of the sort. You want to be capable, right?

Except you don't. You want to lose. You want to have awful things happen to your character, and if at all possible, you want them to be awful things that could almost be prevented for added tragic consequence. In short, to really make your roleplaying the best it can be, you want to subvert absolutely everything that games have taught you to do, including the game that you're playing.

Now, obviously, no one wants to play a whining, meandering wreck whose every step is a failure and who spends all her time crying about how bad life is. There's a balance to be struck, and no matter how bad things get, you want to have ways out and triumphs and reasons to persist. But it's easy to see why it's hard to just get roleplaying, especially when at a glance it's people not just standing around chatting (and not doing anything with their characters) but talking about how bad things are. Why would you want to play someone who's flawed?

The answer is one we've talked about before, of course: Your flawed characters still do manage to rise up and defeat their demons, and when you do triumph over something, it's all the sweeter for your character's weaknesses. Games aren't good at providing that sense of a weak person who triumphs in spite of that via mechanics, but you can add quite a bit of that with narrative. So even as Rhio's life was getting worse, I was enjoying myself because it's that downward swing that makes the upward path even sweeter.

As always, feedback is welcome in the comments or via mail to Next week, I'm going to continue in this vein and talk about how to make your character miserable for fun, including the varying degrees of misery. So expect sunshine.

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.

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