Flameseeker Chronicles: How Guild Wars 2's living world can liven up roleplay

Anatoli Ingram
A. Ingram|02.18.14

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Flameseeker Chronicles: How Guild Wars 2's living world can liven up roleplay
Lion's Arch fountain at dawn
Scarlet Briar is planning an attack on Lion's Arch, the central hub city of Guild Wars 2. L.A. is the city where all of the playable races -- and plenty of individuals from others -- live together in one big, piracy-flavored metropolis; despite the theme of ruthless capitalism, it's also a place that symbolizes peace and camaraderie. Humans in Kryta may view diversity as an astonishing novelty, but the people of L.A. chortle at the hayseeds and go about their business.

Among the GW2 roleplayers I know, several have characters who live in Lion's Arch. A few of them were born and raised there. After watching some of us chat about the massive upheaval the city's destruction will create in the lives of those characters, one of my favorite people ventured that this was probably a bad time for her to dip her toes into GW2's RP scene, right? Nope. In fact, there hasn't been a better time to jump in since, well, ever.

Starting out in MMO roleplay as a social activity can be pretty daunting, especially in games that don't do much to support RP. You can spend hours perfecting your character's backstory, polishing up their habits and personality, and making sure they're the sort of person who isn't a complete drag to be around, only to get stuck on possibly the biggest hurdle: going out and meeting people. Most of the time, this is an out-of-character concern, rather than an in-character one; you can probably find any number of other characters and groups that might be a good fit for the character you'd like to play, but newcomers often have to find ways to work themselves into existing storylines and established character relationships. Just being "the new one" in a tight-knit group of people requires some intestinal fortitude.

For a new RPer, it's totally understandable that a situation that causes intense emotional and psychological conflict for established characters and plots might look like a bad time to get involved. After all, when things are calm there's plenty of time and space to ease in and find a niche, and characters in turmoil might not make for the most stable of companions.

Dawn in LA
I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it's always February 2nd, and there's nothing I can do about it

Think of an event like the destruction of a major city as the roleplay equivalent of a gear reset or the release of a new dungeon or raid. Most MMO players probably have some experience with the difference between old content and new content: When everyone is new to something, getting involved as a new player is more low-pressure than it is when most of the community has the content on farm. You're less likely to be expected to have best-in-slot gear, to know the layout of the encounter back and forth, and to be willing to speed run through it. MMO communities don't build those expectations just because they're dirty elitists who can't be bothered to teach new players but because after a while they've seen it all, and they get bored. Efficiency, smooth sailing, and high standards for group compatibility start to become requirements for enjoying content, and even if veterans are more than willing to help new players, it's hard to be that new player and not feel as if you're playing catch up rather than enjoying a brand-new experience.

The same is true for MMO roleplay in a lot of ways. MMO landscapes rarely change much, which means that RPers have often been treading the same ground for months, or even years. The cities are the same, and the canon conflicts are the same, and as a result it's very difficult to incorporate the setting into RP in a meaningful way without things getting a little stale. Our own Eliot Lefebvre writes an entire column on MMO roleplay, and he has plenty of advice on how to keep things fresh. Until an expansion or new patch comes along to provide new horizons, though, we're all stuck tiptoeing around the fact that MMO worlds are fairly static.

When ArenaNet started talking about dynamic events prior to GW2's launch, I was excited at the prospect of being able to set up RP in towns where things could actually change. I knew that DEs would eventually cycle, but after years of RPing the "defender" of an outpost in World of Warcraft that was threatened only by a mid-level Alliance player riding too close to the guards once in a blue moon, I think having areas that could legitimately benefit from defense seemed promising. In reality this doesn't really work because any town or outpost in GW2 that's capable of being attacked sees the events cycle about every 15 minutes or so. Plans to space events out by adding more of them over time haven't really panned out so far, to my immense disappointment, and if you're roleplaying a character from a place like Nebo Terrace, you'd be forgiven for not having her spend much time there; it's no exaggeration to say that the place is under near-constant siege by hostile NPCs. You would probably have just enough time between fending off centaur attack events to have a brief conversation about why the hell your character still chooses to live there: "I'll get right back to you on that, but right now I hear hoofbeats and the musical twang of a trebuchet again."

This means that in GW2, as in most MMOs, the majority of RP conflict needs to come through plots that are designed and directed by other players. That's actually part of the fun of RP, but when the setting doesn't change or grow much, individual player-driven stories can end up moving off in increasingly labyrinthine directions. Approach two different established, long-active RP guilds in many MMOs and you're likely to find that they've created their own separate worlds using the setting as a jumping-off point, and unless they have a history of interaction, their individual takes on the lore may be different enough to qualify as parallel alternate universes.

The end is the beginning

If Lion's Arch is destroyed, it creates a fixed point for characters to rally around, one that's close enough to the present to be fresh in everyone's minds for some time down the line. More importantly, it's a shared experience for characters to bond over and discuss. Unless a character is an elite Pact operative, something like the fall of Zhaitan is not an experience that many residents of Tyria have had, and emotionally it's not likely to be one that hits particularly close to home for the average citizen. Lion's Arch, on the other hand, is important whether you're Marshal Trahearne or some guy from Queensdale; even if a character doesn't live or work or visit there, L.A. is part of Tyria's cultural landscape, just as major metropolises are in real life. You can find this reflected in game: Very rarely do NPCs have dialogue about Zhaitan and the other Elder Dragons if they're not actively involved in fighting them, and the plight of Nebo Terrace is only of vague interest even to humans in Kryta. Lion's Arch is mentioned at least once in just about every zone in the game because it has immense cultural impact.

This means that if you're just getting involved in GW2 roleplay, or even if you want to meet other characters and RP out in the open, you'll have a ready-made topic of conversation. Almost everyone who belongs to one of the five playable races has a reason to care about Lion's Arch being attacked and destroyed. Imagine if something suddenly obliterated a large part of San Francisco: Would anyone in the world be talking about much else for the next few months? Even if you've never found a hook for getting involved in long-running political intrigue plots or found an RP guild in which every necessary IC role hasn't been filled, it doesn't matter. Lion's Arch is burning, and it will never be the same again. This is vastly traumatic, all normal social rules are suspended, and your character can definitely be forgiven for blurting out, "So how about L.A., huh?" to as many total strangers as they like, even if they have nothing else in common.

If ArenaNet continues with the living world story in this vein, we may have a game in which characters can always find current events to gossip or talk about outside of their own social sphere. The psychological impact this has on players can't be overstated, either; part of the reason it's not much fun to have yet another conversation about Nebo Terrace and its centaur problem is that there's only so much going on there, and it may never change. In an area like Kessex Hills, though, the landscape really has changed dramatically. If ArenaNet can cover a zone with the wreckage of a giant tower and blow up the central hub of GW2, then maybe the rest of the world really is subject to upheaval at any time. That gives us reasons to care and to be invested in it beyond using it as a backdrop.

In addition, Bobby Stein has recently discussed plans to establish the living world story and personal story as canonically being a year apart, which is only going to make it easier for ArenaNet to portray Tyria as a world with a defined present tense. That huge rant I wrote about the cleansing of Orr some time ago may soon be outdated, and nothing could make me happier. I feel bad for Nebo Terrace and all, but making progress in Orr would be so cool.

Sylvari playing harp
Look at my wurm, my wurm is amazing

If you haven't met Ser Wiggles yet, you should definitely go say hi. And if you're wondering how ArenaNet got hold of huge gummy jungle wurms, well...the answer is either that it sent representatives to Bloodtide Coast to yank them from the soil or that the incredibly creative Josh Foreman sculpted and made them himself. Pick your scenario; they're both equally heroic.

As excited as I am for this week's release, I do have complicated feelings about it. Lion's Arch is my favorite city in GW2. I love the architecture, the colors, the sound of the fountain, and all of the details. Even when it's laggy and people cover the front steps of the bank in jars of bees, it's still the place I spent hours in during beta, walking from one end to the other and taking endless screenshots. That attachment is part of what makes this development so emotionally wrenching, but it's still hard.

I'll get over it faster if we're allowed to move into the Bazaar of the Four Winds. I mean, the Zephyrites use it only part of the year, right? And they've got their own ship.

How do you feel about the attack on Lion's Arch? Are you upset? Are you excited? Are you going to be first in line to hand the Aetherblades torches? Have you stopped by the latest collaborative development threads to check out the new topics? Talk about it in the comments below, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.
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