From Tabletop to Laptop: Putting the “RPG” back in MMORPG

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What is your story?” If ever there was a tag-line that encompassed the major difference between Guild Wars 2 and its predecessor, it is this. It is not the new skill bar. It is not the new playable races. It is not even the new combat system. Quite simply: it is the story. All sequels and expansions address game play and add new content. Guild Wars 2 adds a something MMOs have been missing for a long time: Role-Playing.

Several months ago Ree Soesbee, Lore & Continuity Designer for GW2, wrote an article about the personal story of GW2. I recommend giving it a read, if you haven’t already, before you continue reading this article. Ree covers a lot of ground talking about how GW2 will be taking a lot of steps toward making our game play experience something, well, personal. Skipping over the dynamic events system for a moment, I would like to focus on the personal story and what it offers to both hardcore and green role-players alike.

A Brief, Incomplete History of Role-Playing

First of all, what is role-playing? I like the definition from wiki personally. It is succinct and covers the bases for this discussion. More specifically, here is what wiki has to say about role-playing games (RPGs):

A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories. Participants determine the actions of their characters based on their characterization, and the actions succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines. Within the rules, they may improvise freely; their choices shape the direction and outcome of the games.

Tabletop paper-and-dice RP games like Dungeons & Dragons, White Wolf, and GURPS (among others) have been around for years. That’s where I got my start. They amount to creating a character based on a system of rules and then playing that character with your friends. Some games are more combat oriented (e.g., D&D) while others are often more oriented toward character development and interaction within a story (e.g., GURPS). You can  “get into character” or create a backstory as much or as little as you want. The options are wide open for RP. This is why I have continued to play these games with friends for over a decade.

Old School Legend of Zelda

With technology came console games for the NES, Playstation, XBox, etc. I still have my original copy of Legend of Zelda. /reminisce. Side-scroller games like Mario and Sonic don’t really qualify as RPGs, but there are plenty examples of console RPGs out there including the Zelda series, Dragon Quest, the Final Fantasy Series, Phantasy Star, Chrono Trigger, Xenogears, and Suikoden, to name a few of the older ones. Mass Effect and its sequels seems to have a lot of clout as a  more current RPG and I believe it is one of the more closely related RPG series what we will likely see in GW2 regarding the personal story.

And then there were MMOs. Bypassing some of the basic PC games like Might & Magic, Elder Scrolls, and Diablo for a moment, let’s look at MMOs or MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games–for those of you living under a rock). The main difference between these and console games are the big “O.” Simply put: you can play with lots and lots of friends. And while MMORPGs placed a great deal of emphasis on the social and cooperative/competitive aspects of gaming, the only carryover from the RPGs of old was a story. Let me say that again: a story. Not your story, but a story. Typically, it is the story of your character within the world. All of your actions lead to the same result. With GW2, as with paper-and-dice games of old and new, as with new-age console RPGs like Mass Effect, as with hard core RPers who write fan fiction about their characters and meet in empty districts to socialize, you get to tell your story.

Tell Me About Your Avatar

Now, where there is a will, there is a way. People will RP on forums, join RP guilds, and create stories and blogs about their characters to enhance their game play experience. Most MMOs will tolerate this at best, while some community forums will have sections or threads created specifically for this purpose. One of the more important things to most gamers is (surprise!) their character(s). We spend a lot of time and money on what our characters look like, what perks they have, and how unique they are. I’ve written an article on my blog about this, so I don’t feel the need to get too invested in the discussion of what our characters look like here. Suffice it to say: avatar appearance and customization are important to us. If you don’t believe me, then you should check out Felicia Day’s (a.k.a. the voice of Zojja) video on the subject.

Dye Customization in Guild Wars 2

But the lines blur from there.

Outside of simple character/avatar appearance is your character’s story. In the case of most games your character’s story is the game’s story. Games like Mass Effect and Dragon Age provide you with opportunities to shape your story and apply consequences to your in game decisions. This is what we will see more of in GW2. In the original Guild Wars you were able to chose your profession and character appearance. From there, you customized your gear and skillbar. Otherwise, you were a clone of the next gamer. The story of Guild Wars, while rich in lore, was told from your perspective (like the console games of old) and your decisions made little difference in the game’s progression. Everyone had essentially the same character and played through the same story. There were no consequences. This will not be the case with the sequel. Based on what we know so far, you can chose not only your profession, gear, character appearance, and skillbar; but you can chose from 5 races and make decisions during character creation that ultimately affect your overall personal story. You have the overarching epic storyline of GW2 (i.e., the story of the dragons) and you have your own, unique, personal story.

What Can I Expect From My Personal Story?

Your personal story is your story. You create your character. You decide on race, gender, appearance, and a name. You decide your personal storyline from a number of questions. You make decisions as you play to develop your character’s personality. You play through the game and make decisions and your decisions have consequences. You create a personal instance (not unlike the HoM of GW) that reflects these decisions. Ultimately, your personal story is your own unique version of GW2. Whatmore, you can play through your personal story with the help of your friends and they can experience it too. To put it another way, you actually get to role-play your character while playing the game. While in GW1 you were essentially an avatar who ran around smashing things and completing quests (an oversimplification, I admit), in GW2 you get to create a character that has substance. Your character has a history and a future, and you get to decide both. This is a definite plus for all of the hardcore RPers out there who join RP guilds and gather in empty districts to interact with each other (just so we’re clear, I drank the RP Cool-Aid long ago). This tells us that ANet is paying attention to our gamer needs and is working hard to meet them.

How Can I Get The Most RP Bang For My Buck?

Every character I have ever played has had a story. Sometimes it is nothing more than a paragraph. Other times it is a bit more involved. Regardless of the size or quality, a simple story works wonders when fleshing out a character. GW2 provides a ready-made story for every new gamer, be you new to RP or more hardcore. The biography questions asked during character creation talk about likes/dislikes, group affiliations, preferences, wants/needs, etc. These shape your overall personal story. For the average gamer, that’s more than enough. Heck, it’s more than some gamers will have experience with anyway.

When creating your character, think about his/her motivations. Why did he/she join the profession he/she did? What kind of personality does he/she have? What does he/she think about the elder dragons? Answering a few questions like this before you make your character will not only make it easier to decide on the biography questions, but will enrich your story overall. There are many RP aids out there to help flesh out a character story. The one I frequently reference is almost certainly overkill for this purpose, but it is good for considering things about your character that go beyond the pre-set GW2 character creation process.

Good ol' PvP sums it up (from Ree Soesbee's article on

Once you’ve created your character, consider how he/she might react in situations. Is he/she cool under pressure or more of a hot head? Does he/she have pet peeves? Does your human character hate charr or has he/she befriended one or two and realized they’re not so bad afterall? What role (i.e., playstyle or profession) do you favor and how does that mesh with your character’s personality? Who are your friends/enemies? What are your goals?

Finally, find a group of gamers who role-play. You can do this by cruising any of the local Guild Wars forums or researching role-playing guilds and joining one. Learn by doing. Most RP groups are open to helping people learn and if you find one that isn’t, move on. I recommend that you do not try to RP in Pick Up Groups (PUGs), as you’re likely to be made fun of by people who aren’t interested in RP, don’t understand it, or are just jerks. Try different things with RP. You can RP on forums as well as in game. If you are fond of a particular character, you can write about his/her travels and experiences. RPing is not for everyone, but it is something I have found that enriches my own gaming experience and something I like to share with others.

The Story Of Tiny

One of the characters I plan to create in GW2 is a norn warrior by the name of Tiny. Tiny is the 7th son of a well known and well respected norn champion. His given name is Saer, but his brothers call him Tiny since he is the smallest of them. While his brothers before him each mastered a different weapon, Tiny spent much of his time learning from the local shaman of the Raven totem who trained his late mother. Shortly after Tiny was born, his mother and father took to arms to battle the minions of Jormag with a hunting party. His father returned alone. Tiny’s father vowed to defeat Jormag’s champion in the name of his wife and trained each of his sons to be masters in their chosen weapon. Tiny, seeking to connect with his siblings and father, took to weaponsmithing and crafted weapons for each of his brothers and father.

On the day that his eldest brother was old enough to lead a hunting party, Tiny’s father and eldest brother left to battle Jormag’s champion. The survivors of the battle returned with Tiny’s father’s hammer and his brother’s axe. Tiny prayed to Raven for their safe journey to the Underworld while his brothers, in turn, doubled their efforts in training. As the years passed, each brother lead a hunting party to avenge those who had died before and as the years passed Tiny collected the weapons of his siblings until he was the only one left. When his day came, Tiny gathered all of the weapons he had collected over the years and left his village. Seeing the hubris of his father and brothers and their insistence in mastering only a single weapon showed Tiny the flaws in their plans. They fought with heart, like all norn, but they did not fight intelligently. Determined to succeed where his family had failed, Tiny left in search of teachers and masters. He would master each of the weapons he carried and would return to slay Jormag’s champion.

Norn Armor Designs in Guild Wars 2

Final Thoughts

Whether you are new to role-playing or are a seasoned veteran, the personal story aspect of GW2 has a lot to offer. It is a solid plan to reconnect MMOs with the RPG gamer and provides a medium for character development and exploration. For most gamers, the overhaul of the avatar customization process will be more than enough for them to make the character they want, but for those of us who are interested in fleshing out our characters and making them more than something pretty to look at while we smash things in game, the personal story offers an opportunity for maximum RP with minimal effort from the gamer. And who says you have to stop there? There are plenty of opportunities to join RP guilds, RP in game with people, or even write about your character’s progress on blogs or forums. The game is what you make it. ANet is telling their loyal fans that the RPG part of MMORPG is not a thing of the past, and I for one am looking forward to exploring the personal story of GW2 firsthand.

To the readers (From Izari): What are your opinions on what we know so far about the personal story? Do you think it will help encourage RP? HOw do you feel about Role Playing in video games in general? What sort of features would you like GW2 to have to encourage more of it?

About the author:  Belzan is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology who really, really enjoys Guild Wars. He created his character Belzan back in the days of Diablo II and he was his first character in GW. He enjoys writing fiction and has recently stepped up his blogging. He hopes you enjoy what you read. Feel free to catch him in game (Belzan Furu).

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  • draxynnic

    While the “personal story” aspect is certainly a welcome return of the RP to the MMORPG, I’ll have to admit that I do have mixed feelings about it as presented so far. Part of the problem is that as presented so far there are a fairly limited number of options a player could get shoehorned into rather than having a character be a blank page. Take the “greatest regret” question, for instance: What if neither a dead sister, an unknown parent, or a desire to perform at the circus fit the player’s idea of their human character? And in the case of the orphan, what if the player’s idea for WHY the character is orphaned turns out to be different to what gets played out in the personal story?

    Now, I think it’s been mentioned that in release there’ll be more options than that, but even so, ANet can only make a limited number of personal stories. Our characters may not be clones of every other character, but they will still have clones out there, while when our own imaginations can fill the gap there are a wider range of possibilities.

    Another issue I can see with the personal story options is that the choices made are either going to be relatively minor in the greater scheme of things – or, at some stage (like in single-player RPGs that have had decision trees, such as Dragon Age) ANet is going to have to decide just what canonically did and didn’t happen, and somebody’s going to find themselves down the wrong leg of the Trousers of Time. One way to do this could be to treat each time a particular option was taken as a vote, but such a method would only work if the ramifications of a particular choice don’t become clear until the canonical choice has been chosen, otherwise players will find out pretty quickly, through the wikis and other resources, what the “best” option is.

    Mind you, in this response I’m being kind of a Negative Nellie by pointing out flaws in a system that is, on the whole, a big step up from its predecessors in actually putting the RP into the MMORPG. And it WOULD be good not to be forced to put up with your character being portrayed as a dupe by someone who has “BAD GUY!” tattooed across their forehead. Mind you, some single-player RPGs are pretty bad in not allowing logical ways to avoid something bad from happening, and knowing someone is a bad piece of work might not stop you from being forced to cooperate with them yourself, but at least the personal stories should allow the possibility of distinguishing between having doubts over a particular NPC or trusting them implicitly.

    • I agree on many accounts. The personal story system as we know it with character choices at creation is a bit of a skeleton that doesn’t fit every possible situation. I’ve run into this problem planning Belzan’s storyline for GW2 already because, frankly, he’s not the circus type. What I think the system offers is a bit of structure for people who are new to RP and more options from its predecessor. You will get a lot of control over your personal story, but by the nature of things, you will not get absolute control. I think of it a bit like a “choose your own adventure book.”

      That being said, I appreciate that an effort to incorporate the hardcore RP gamers is being made. The persistent world and unnecessary grouping aspects already work wonders for the groups of gamers who wish to RP since they don’t have to find a remote district in a remote town or limit their RPing while adventuring to groups of 8 or less (disregarding dungeons in GW2 of course).

      The personal story isn’t the be all end all of RP opportunities, but another option–and one presented by ANet rather than a hardcore fan on a forum somewhere. People will RP whether there is a personal story or not. My hope is that the personal story will introduce RP to more people and provide a unique vehicle with which gamers can RP a single person’s story together. That’s a definite step up from single-player console/computer games with decision trees and morality ratings.

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