Series Info...Storms on Cloud Nine #8:

Actors and Reactors

by Scott Holliday
April 18, 2003

Ever since I've come over to Skotos, I've been wildly impressed by the RP community here. Like many of us I've spent years suffering in online games where the players speak only in game terminology and jargon. Imagine my surprise when a well-known lich in Grendel's Revenge politely whispered to me, reminding me what I had just said was OOC. Naturally, my response was a quick whispered, "(ooc: Thank you!)"

Which brings to question, what is RP? From even basic experience, it is obvious that the definition of what is (and what is not) role-play varies from person to person. I've been in a tabletop RPG in which one of the players sat silently through a whole session, only speaking to report dice rolls and actions. One might easily surmise that he wasn't high on my list of good role-players. However, you would have to realize that this WAS the character he was playing, and that normally he was talking non-stop. Furthermore, his facial expressions alone made him into an amazing character.

One of my favorite definitions for RP comes from the best Gamemaster I've ever had the honor to play with. In his words, "role-players are actors in their own story." I've carried that tidbit of wisdom around with me ever since. The lesson is that each player in an RPG generally sees the story as the story of their character. Good or bad, they generally want the story to center around them. Some players want to take the story and show off. Others want to demonstrate their acting skills. Others want to delve into the twists of the story itself. One way a GM can reward his players is to give them a little bit more control. Since GMs themselves usually enjoy role-play, the reverse is also true.

This idea can be carried over to online games, however the scale difference is important. The maximum number of players I can usually handle well in a tabletop is six. Online games can number in tens, hundreds, or thousands. Under these conditions, it is nearly impossible for GMs to let players influence the story directly. However, if there is going to be a story, there better be a way for players to do something! Jessica Mulligan wrote an excellent analysis of how to approach this problem in Biting the Hand.

So then, how does the developer motivate the players to choose roles that feel authentic to the setting? I feel a list coming on...

  • Awareness: First and foremost, the players must be aware of the setting. The question has been raised why modern online-RPGs are spending so much of their time on art, music, and back story. The easy answer is that it is all eye-candy. The deeper answer is that the developers must grab the attention of the player and tell them what kind of world to expect. That way, they know how to fit in.
  • Interaction: If players are to role-play, they generally desire the attention of other players in order to do so. As a result, there should be some additional reason for players to stay together. This can be brought about either by world design or game mechanics. If the world is easier when in a group, players will band together. If other players can help or harm you, then it's in your interest to pay attention to them. In contrast, if it's easier to go kill NPC monsters than it is to speak to another player, don't expect much role-play.
  • Goals: Characters will want goals, and they will want a way to attain them. A life without a purpose doesn't make a very good game. Some players will make their own goals, however many will just be confused. It's in the developer's best interest to provide several 'obvious' long-term goals for players to pick up. Likewise, the developer must provide a way to advance these goals. For instance, if there are to be player villains, then there must be a way for these villains to be vile. A villain who can't effect the world, or cause harm (even with player consent) isn't very impressive. Alternately, if you don't intend players to be villains, you had better give fair warning!
  • Incentive: The three points above will generally handle all of the players that WANT to role-play. However, how do you encourage the remaining population to fit in? It is my belief that at some point, you have to provide some incentive for players to stay in-character. In some cases, just the realization that all the other players are staying in-character is enough to get the idea across. However, in any generally popular game, there will always be some bad apples. Travis Casey wrote an excellent review of several methods in Building Stories Telling Games.

Personally, I really like the idea of player-based voting. Let the players police themselves! The players will have the most contact with each other, and can best decide what nature of world they are building. Naturally, GMs should also have a method to reward role-play (perhaps a separate voting system?), however giving players power is an important step. I'm very thankful for the timing of Travis' article. I had already created a system for player-based RP voting in Orphan Crown. When Travis pointed out the holes in it so succinctly, I quickly started making revisions.

As a conclusion, here is the current system as planned. You are welcome to locate any problems with it, as I would love to improve it further.

  • You may vote for/against any other player at any time (as long as they can see them). Votes are secret - players will never know how many votes they have received. You may vote as much as you want, whenever you want. Each vote is recorded and kept permanently attached to the receiving player. However, if you vote a second time for the same player, it will replace the previous vote.

This seems like a pretty effective system. While a group could still try to "game the system", they are limited by the size of their group. Also, since players can vote as much as they want, if they vote often, then each encounter counts (not just the flamboyant ones). In a way, this also encourages older players to introduce themselves to new players... because a new player means a new vote just entered the game! Naturally, if a player gets deleted, then all of their votes should also be nullified.

I'd like to see what you folks have to say. The major flaw that I still see is that an "evil" player might be voted badly just because he is performing his chosen role too well. Maybe someone out there has a solution to that...

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