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Free for All: A surprising evening of roleplay in RuneScape


Roleplay is often treated as the odd cousin of the MMO family. You know the kid I am talking about... your Aunt comes to visit and your mother tells you to hang out with him, and he ends up vomiting in your room. (Did it only happen to me?) The truth is that the odd cousin is often just misunderstood and generally a lot of fun. It might take a small leap of faith and perhaps some time, but roleplay can be a very rewarding experience.

RuneScape might not seem like a prime spot for roleplay. I hardly even heard of roleplay in the community, but I knew that the playerbase was made up of individuals from all age ranges. I thought of trying to find a good roleplay clan or trying to attend a roleplay event or two, but I didn't find the time to investigate. It began to look like roleplay was not something that happened in the game.

That was until last night. I stumbled upon some sort of spontaneous roleplay session, and it was mostly thrilling. I even interviewed a few players to see how the whole thing worked. Click past the cut and I'll tell you what I found out!

RuneScape chat screenshot
The interesting thing about MMORPGs is that players often leave out a huge part of the picture when they ignore roleplay. A roleplaying game not only casts us into roles on the screen but asks us to suspend our disbelief and to actively play that role. Sure, the term is open to interpretation, but it shouldn't be surprising when any of us walks around a virtual corner to find a group of players having a conversation while in-character. I would argue that roleplay is not only important to MMORPGs but essential.

Without roleplay, without some expansion of our imagination beyond the light on the screen, we are literally just going through the motions of playing a game. If we have no idea, even a limited one, about who our character is or what he is attempting to do, we are doing nothing more than sitting at a keyboard pressing buttons. In fact, gaming without some bit of roleplay is a dead activity, more useless than an unsatisfying job. Maybe our imagination works whether we want it to or not, whether we're even conscious of it or not. Roleplay might be an automatic activity.

"I am fully aware that some people are creeped out by roleplay or think that talking in character is somehow different or sillier than attacking a virtual dragon."

I am fully aware that some people are creeped out by roleplay or think that talking in-character is somehow different or sillier than attacking a virtual dragon. I am also aware that many people would never consider themselves roleplayers at all. I argue that every player has some idea of what or who her character is. Naming a character, dressing the character in armor, adding points and raising character statistics -- these are all roleplay activities. I will admit that some players I have met seem to care only about the mathematical bottom line of a character and believe that gameplay is simply a means to a high-level end, but again I would argue that the number-crunching and stat math are still part of the roleplay process. Any player who is voluntarily participating in an online game, creating a virtual character, and achieving goals in a virtual setting is roleplaying, albeit to different degrees.

Even so, you can imagine my surprise when I turned a corner in the city of Varrock in Jagex's flagship game RuneScape to find a group of roleplayers. At first I thought it was only one or two, but then more came. The evolving in-character story seemed to be about a visiting king and attempts at assassinating him. The oddest part? There was no combat erupting, no spells being cast. The players were simply describing what they were doing and discussing what the outcome should be. At first I thought they were participating in a sort of virtual attempt at LARPing, complete with rules about who can say what and how attacks land. In LARPing, participants might put an arm behind their back if it was hit during combat, and magic-users fling small bags filled with powder that act as spells. My very limited description of both roleplay and LARPing might sound silly, but to me they are both wonderful. I actually fantasize about attending a LARPer event. I think I would roleplay a thief or trader!

RuneScape roleplaying
After watching the roleplay session for a while, I moved to the side and whispered in out-of-character chat to a player named Wes. I wanted to know what the players were doing and why it seemed so different than the roleplay I was used to. We walked away from the noisy center of town and he explained to me how it was generally working.

"I'm not sure why this sort of roleplay surprised me so much, but it must have something to do with the fact that 'normal' roleplay to me was always a storytelling medium and combat was rarely touched upon."

Basically, players who want to participate in roleplay need to understand that they can't just say anything and have other players react to it. As one of the other helpful players told me, you should describe only what is realistic. If your character cannot realistically pick up a boulder and sling it at an enemy, then it should not be described as happening in roleplay. That would be unfair and would slip into "godmodding." Godmodding happens when one player steps well outside the realistic bounds of combat. If I were to say, "I blocked your axe with my mind," I would be stepping outside of the boundaries of, well, this imagined reality.

I'm not sure why this sort of roleplay surprised me so much, but it must have something to do with the fact that "normal" roleplay to me was always a storytelling medium and combat was rarely touched upon. The roleplay community in EverQuest II, for example, stood around and talked about who they were or whom they didn't like and where they came from, but combat was reserved for dungeons or questing. Looking back, normal roleplay appeared sort of inactive.

Attempting to roleplay combat looked thrilling, although it would take me some time to get to know my character enough to be effective. Because I am always switching weapons and exploring areas, it would be nice to take some time to understand who he is and what he might be specializing in. Roleplay is a nice way to establish a character in more ways than just combat effectiveness.

Next time you're in your favorite game, take some time to notice the roleplayers. You don't have to speak in some sort of accent, and your spelling doesn't have to be perfect. Most of the time I roleplay, I simply avoid any topics that do not exist in the virtual world I am visiting, and I attempt to avoid modern slang. It seems to do the trick. The point is to take a bit of time to look past the character sheet and understand why your character does what he does. You might be surprised.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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