Sunday, 2 August 2009

A design idea for a MMO RPG

Let's role!

I present to you a game idea designed to encourage roleplay in a MMO setting

Role-playing games became a sensation in the 70s and 80s because they were such great fun. Now they are in decline because it seems the technology works against them now that most of us would rather game online than travel out to someone's house on a Wednesday night once a week for four hours of dice and pizza.

I think there's a lot that could be done to bring the enormous fun of roleplay back into gaming by making it a more core element of MMOs.


When I talk about role-playing what I mean is a game design where people use characterisation to progress. To win, to beat an encounter, you may have to get inside the head of your imaginary friend and act appropriately.

RP in modern MMO tends to be a side-interest. Not only do the main progression mechanics not depend on RP they actively discourage it. A Paladin who refuses to group with demon-using Warlocks wouldn't get very far in WoW raiding.

RP is a form of play. Dancing on tabletops in inns while typing songs about beer isn't really playing the game, not in any progression sense, it's a sidetrack. It's something you can do instead of progressing in the game.

In order to make a genuine RP game you need to incorporate RP into the play mechanics.

RPing to win

One of the best examples is Baldur's Gate. In that game you are given branching options at most of your dialogue points.

Let me give a generic example: You talk to the little old man and you can either rescue his drowning cat or laugh at him while the poor moggy goes under. Your decisions will eventually change the dialogue options that you are offered and open up new story that you wouldn't see had you picked the other options.

The easiest way to play such a game is to roleplay. It's much easier to think "I'm going to be as mean as I can at every opportunity" than to look up on some site how to leverage each quest for maximum reward.

WindupAtheist over at F13 did just that and wrote it up as a story. Despite this being an old game this story is very interesting and fresh because RP is creative and ever-different.

His story demonstrates one of the challenges for an RP MMO: you have to anticipate the unexpected and build a world that supports it. So cupboards in random NPC's houses have stealable loot inside and there's a system for NPCs getting angry that players are committing crimes etc.

It also demonstrates that there will be loopholes: he says "and for the record I haven't actually lost even a single reputation point yet. Haw" and then he explains about the Reputation mechanics.

Player police

What follows on from the demonstrated faults in Baldur's Gate's judicial process is the notion that computer justice will always be exploitable so what you need therefore are player police. Players whose progression depends on their ability to catch and punish criminals.

Some ideas for this profession include:

Accuse ability - challenges another player in an area controlled by NPC guards. If the other player has committed a crime in the last 24 hours the policeman fines them 100g per Crime Point and gains experience. The criminal loses status.

Capture ability - upon defeating a player in pvp combat a policeman can "capture" a player turning them into an inventory item for 5 minutes which can be redeeemed at the local jail for fine money and experience points.

The players are your content

With player police, player politicians, player villains, player heroes, player cooks you create a world where players are creating interesting content for each other simply by pursuing their own disparate career paths.

This is very much like what Star Wars: Galaxies originally set out to do. In that game you had player politicians whose content was their citizens. You had player Bounty Hunters whose content was the highly illegal and rare Jedi characters.

SWG saw people really getting behind their roles. Scout players tended to go off exploring and get a feel for the lay of the land. Entertainers were concerned about their looks and their act and whether people liked them. We had an Entertainer come along to tourist a tough combat instance once. The instance was important and serious business for us but for her it was just a daytrip sightseeing. We really didn't want to upset her because she was actually very useful but we didn't have any reward to offer her. So it created the interesting situation with a hardcore raid team escorting a mildly bored tourist around a dangerous zone trying desperately to keep her motivated by complementing her outfit, her adventurousness, her dancing etc etc.

To get players to role play you must give people different goals. If everyone wants to kill the raid boss then people stop roleplaying and start theorycrafting. If 3 of you want to kill the raid boss, one wants to catch criminals, one wants to steal all the loot at the end of the run and one is just tagging along because she's bored you actually have a natural setting for RP.

So to make the players your content you need to give everyone reasons to interact with players who aren't necessarily pursuing the same goals.

Let's look at a game that does this brilliantly: Eve Online.

In Eve miners mine rocks. They do this for ISK but a side-effect of them doing this is metal is available for crafter players and easy targets are available for pirate players. The metal gets turned into ships and ship components a process that generates work for ancillary professions such as researchers and haulers and again offers opportunity for pirates. Ships etc get sold to various players including pirates, pirate victims, and in the process offers opportunity to financial predators to act as overcharging middlemen.

The economy basically runs on war, the more ships killed the more happy everyone is.

Very few players in Eve have the same goals as other players outside corp or alliance ties. But the whole is a beautiful synergy where the more any player does the more content there is for other people.

In a character-based MMO it is necessary to create the same virtuous circle of player involvement if you want to get players to role play their parts. Players need to be good at their roles to succeed and those roles depend to some extent on other players doing what is needed to generate content. So for example the politician player declaring a city next to the volcano might need a raid to kill the volcano monster once a year. The killing of the volcano monster might be a great opportunity for merchant players seeking to buy a rare metal harvested from its hide worth a fortune to metalsmiths.


This is another concept which is somewhat unfashionable these days but it's key to a role-playing MMO. If people and their stable of alts can simply solo all your content, your police player can level up by arresting your burglar alt then you won't get role play nor even much of a game.


One character per account

High interdependency of professions.

For example EQ2 launched with the idea of interdependent professions. However every crafting player had 7 alt slots and a hugh store of resources. In that game in order to harvest the resources you do want you have to harvest resources you don't want to free the nodes. This meant that it was highly tempting to simply level crafter alts rather than shop around for the components you were supposed to be dependent on. I think the first time I played I ended up with 8 different crafters all around level 20-30.

In the game I'm proposing you get one trade (if that) and it's either a harvest trade or a gathering trade. So you might have for example
- sorceress - strong casting skills, no trade
- mage - moderate casting skills can scribe spells and make paper
- woodcarver - moderate combat skills, can make bows, quill pens, wooden weapons and shields
- woodcutter - no casting skills, moderate fighting skills, can harvest wood, some outdoorsy skills

So your sorceress would need to interact with the mage to get her spells written, the mage would need a woodcutter for paper, a woodcarver for quills (who would get his wood from the woodcutter) and an alchemist for inks.

Complex interdependency leading to involved player interaction.

Time and distance

To create a meaningful economic game you need to get rid of instant travel and a centralised auction house. These are mechanics to support a game where economic issues are a side-concern, barely a part of the main gameplay which is about getting a raid together and killing a dragon.

Putting time and distance in means you give value to merchant and highwaymen roles. You create opportunities for clever players to make money. Your economy is interesting instead of simply a spreadsheet.


You can't have a truly immersive RP game if the single most pertinent and meaningful element of life is missing. A character can't live unless it is able to die.

One very valuable aspect of permadeath in this system is that it gives meaning to the bravery of people who risk their lives and opportunity to people who prefer to sit in town in comparitive safety.

A plethora of classes

Not only should there be many classes but players should be encouraged to invent them. If someone invents a class it can be quietly introduced into the game. For example:

"My Lord, there's a man here who claims to be a lawyer."

"A lawyer? What good is a lawyer to us?"

"Erm, my lord? Are you the descendent of Ethelgrad the Magnificent who died owning the Sword Of Tyr and 2 rooms full of gold bullion?"

"As it happens so I am. What of it?"

"Well my Lord if your previous chara..., erm your illustrious ancestor had made a will you would have inherited all that wealth."

"Really? Sounds good, what do I have to do to make a will then?"

"Well so far My Lord this consultation has incurred the fee of 100 crowns....."

So here a player spots that there's a gap in the game system, asks the GMs if he can make a lawyer character, is quietly given the green light and goes out to make his fortune. A player-created class.

No Superhumans

Historically anyone with a weapon can be dangerous. It was perfectly normal for societies of the type that most fantasy MMOs are set in to call upon the general population to take up arms or even to be deposed by the populace in a bloodbath.

In this game while someone can choose to be a pure crafter they should still be moderately dangerous when they pick up a weapon. The only way to do this is not to have level 80 superhumans with mudflated gear. So while adventuring will make you more dangerous you progess in baby steps and even the most maxxed out player in the best armour might be in serious trouble against 3 peasants with pitchforks.


Putting the RP back into MMORPGs could be a very fruitful and successful endeavour but must be built on the notion of consequences. Even in the upcoming SWTOR the gameplay will encourage an RP system by closing doors to people. If you shoot the captain you don't get some benefit later in the mission.

This is a more extreme development of this basic idea. In creating a highly consequence-laden and interdependent game you bring back something that has rather faded from the current crop of MMOs.


  1. Nice post, but I suspect the unfortunate truth is that most players don't want to RP. It's inconvenient to take all that time thinking and imagining when you could be getting more pixels. If there is a best, people will find it and go for it. If there isn't a best, they'll pick one and run with that.

  2. The notion I have is that there's really no point designing for "most players."

    Most players want to play WoW. There, it's over. Done and dusted. Finito.

    After WoW most players will want to play SWTOR. Then three years after that something else will come along.

    There's a huge scope for games offering a substantially different experience.

    And I think the key thing here is that I'm not asking players to RP. I'm placing them in situations where RPing is the obvious way to play.

  3. Forgive me, I've played WoW so long I've forgotten there are other games with other sorts of players. There is a point though: it's profitable. It's what WoW does well, making a game that everyone will play, even if it's not as fun or immersive as it could be.

    RP tends to die when practical concerns take precedent. If an instance is easier with a paladin and warlock, you're going to get a paladin and warlock, unless you give mages similar buffs to warlocks so they can be interchanged depending on the alignment of the group leader. But in that case, what's the actual difference aside from RP? Maybe that's a good thing, that the two would be a choice for RP where 'practical' concerns have no effect at all.

    You say consequence-laden, that could be trouble. Short version: people don't mind realizing they specced wrong if they can respec or load a saved game, but when a poor decision can become permanent, that can be trouble. When decisions have permanent consequences it makes people avoid mistakes at all costs, meaning constant checking of third party sites and planning out exactly how to run a conversation and there goes any sense of immersion.

    I'm sounding more critical than I mean to, so let's go back to my first words: nice post.

  4. No no, feel free to be critical. Sorry if I came across as dismissive.

    What I'm trying to design in (or perhaps to illustrate could be designed in) is a system where the paladin would never raid with a warlock because the paladin gets exp for beating up the warlock not for raiding.

    I think as well there's another quite subtle point.

    I'm not asking anyone to RP. By giving paladins exp for beating up warlocks I'm designing in to the very fabric of the game the correct response.

    It's Pavlovian really. Raid with Lock? Bad Pally, no DoggieSnax (tm)! Beat up Lock? Good Pally here's a DoggieSnax (tm)!

    I completely agree you can't just ask people to RP. WoW has convinced the public it's a silly side-game that hurts your progression in addition to the numerable barriers that already existed before WoW.

    As for defeating the anal third-party site checkers you do that by making players your primary content. You cannot defend against spies in Eve by looking up on some wiki how they will infiltrate because they are players. The only means of defence is to get inside their head.

    The other aspect of that is the site-checkers and theorycrafters will either evolve or leave. I think Darkfall is showing that it's not a bad business model to aim like a bulldog for your niche and damn all the naysayers.

    I'll let you digest my follow-up post on classes and I think you'll see what I mean.

  5. Doing all of this does indeed mean doing away with the mudflation of levels, and the inane focus on combat as the prime motivation for playing a game.

    One caution: Giving players the ability to affect the game can be dangerous. Your lawyer example wouldn't have much pull if the lawyer didn't have the ability to draw up binding contracts, in this case, of inheritance. That's one example of a power that might easily be abused by players.

  6. Yup, you're right Tesh, I'm sure lots of this would fail in the specifics if it actually went Live as is.

    It's just kind of fun to invent a game that breaks certain limitations people are claiming apply to the genre.

  7. Your example of Eve seems a little odd. I don't know of a single person who really RPs in Eve. It truly is hard to because you have no physical avatar, just your ship. The most I RP within eve is that fact that I dislike amarr (minmatar were their slaves at one point. And that is only if I care to look at race.

    By working "RP like" situations into the game you are not actually encouraging people to RP. You are simply encouraging them to interact. The miner intereacts with the trader in eve (or they are one in the same) but they do not RP their transaction. A paladin killing the party's warlock isn't going to be like "Die vile demon bred scum!" he will just see "TARGET" hovering over the person's head.

    Permadeath needs to be meaningful, or at least death less pointless. I don't want to lose a year's worth of work because I lagged. If you must have permadeath make the death of a long lived character beneficial in some small way to your next one. Even tabletop RPGs (which seem to be your comparision) have ways of getting characters back.

    Again going back to Eve for a minute, having an alt is just that; an alternative. Some days I would like to sit back and farm tobacco or whatever. Other days I would like to hunt criminals. Eve has three slots for characters per an account, I do not see any way your rules would be degraded by allowing even just two slots per an account.

    Training skills with in general groups (law enforcement, witchcraft, crafting...) might be a better way to go. No cop catches criminals all day. In fact no person does even their most favourite talent all the time, so why limit people by classes?

    Now, I have addressed ways I think your system can improve let me remark on the idea and origins itself. You say that no modern MMO uses RP as a mechanic for advance. This isn't any different from any tabletop or other mechanics based RPG that I have ever heard of. There is no way to quantify the type of acting (to differentiate between the RPs) that people do with their characters. Some systems (World of Darkness) suggesting giving extra xp for good RP, but this has always been up to the GM what that means. How does the system tell the difference between the paladin who killed a warlock while screaming "I art holier than thou. Die." and the one that just killed him for reward and selfishness?

    I hope this helps with your thinking process as I am not trying to be rude with your idea. I just do not agree with some of your concepts.

  8. Interesting.

    have permadeath, but reasonably easy to recover characters in terms of stuff etc.

    Whilst considering how I would make a RPG of some quality, you could have a system where each character has a certain "gossip" about them, that will affect how NPCs relate to them and can be brought up about a character if you meet them. So, if they kill someone out in the wilds then they would just have a comment about being out in the dangerous places lots, but if they enter a village and slaughter all the shop keepers, then that would show up as well. People could also add their own comments, but they would only matter to PCs.

    as far as reducing loss from death, you could also have most of the skill dynamic not being the character learning a skill and then a hotkey, but different abilities have a different key combination and order which the player themselves has to learn (say from some tutor who teaches you the stuff if you train with him, or from another PC). that would reduce spell spamming and abstractions. I suppose it would require a certain level of OOC interactions though...

    I like the suggestion of economics, but why don't you have just people rather than classes, and Jobs instead, which you take on or leave at the relevant places. That allows more character freedom and combinations.

    just some ideas

  9. Thanks Stephen. I like the gossip idea, it works very well for things like Amazon book reviews.