Should we ignore character classes in roleplay?

Since my first steps into the MMO RP scene, every primer and best practices guide I’ve read, and every reputable roleplayer I’ve talked to, has espoused that character classes are non gratae in RP.

I’ve heard the reasons. They’re an unnecessary limitation. They’re a gameplay mechanic. They just ‘don’t jive’ with the lore. (Nowhere is the latter more evident than in LoTRO, thanks to the much-maligned Rune-keepers!)

For the most part, these are true. Classes are games’ way of making sense of players’ roles in the scripted world, while roleplay is all about the unscripted. But I wonder: could their inclusion in roleplay actually do something?

There are, after all, MMOs where classes are tightly bound up with ingame lore – take FFXIV, or any D&D title such as DDO and Neverwinter. These are settings where people identify themselves as this class or that the way we would say “I’m an engineer” or “I’m an accountant with a Fortune 500 company”.

RPing in such worlds, it would be perfectly normal to style oneself as a Dragoon opposing the machinations of Bahamut, or a Cleric of Amaunator bringing the sun god’s light to the masses. So what about worlds where classes are just that – classes?

The perfect case study for that would, I think, be LoTRO. Rune-keepers aside, I personally saw hostility towards novice RPers who identified themselves as Wardens or Champions or Burglars, et cetera, in conversation. “Your class is just a class. You don’t make it part of your RP.”

Part of the blame lies with Turbine, for their loose and – I would argue – obligatory linking of classes to the lore. Wardens, with their Spartans-from-300 moves and exotic-looking shields straight out of Troy, based on a background character from the novels (who had neither) identified as a ‘marchwarden’? Really? I bought that about as much as I did their pitch for Lore-masters. (Budget Istari. Based on Elrond, indeed!)

Invoking such classes in-character calls for certain liberties in creative interpretation. In the above case, it has been pointed out that the Warden concept more closely resembles that of the Rangers of the North than anything else. Thus: we would be roleplaying such classes in spirit, rather than adhering to the minutiae the game determines. As in, “I’m a Warden, I take it upon myself to keep the folk of the Bree-land safe”, not “I’m a Warden, I can bear a message from Esteldín to Rivendell swifter than any rider”.

In other games, using classes in roleplay would necessitate the Final Fantasy treatment – treating them as jobs or vocations. This doesn’t have to clash with the profession we have chosen for our character (blacksmith, barmaid, town drunk, what have you).

In fact, the dichotomy this could create makes things all the more interesting. It’s not that much of a stretch of the imagination to have a paladin also be a smith – Diablo II veterans should remember Fara from Lut Gholein. Now what if we had a paladin that was also a homeless drunk? What could have led to this? If he still has his armor and sword, why hasn’t he pawned them away for more drink yet? Possibilities.

The advantage of this approach is being able to fully utilize what the game engine gives us – and in any mechanically and sensorially pre-defined world, that is always a plus. Of course, ‘what the engine gives us’ usually means skills and spells – combat-oriented stuff – so this may not apply for RPers who don’t believe in plumbing that side of the game. But I find that it helps with immersion, when called for. (Not a fan of narrative combat in MMOs myself.)

And, naturally, all this presupposes roleplayers don’t set out to break the universe, like using a WoW Death Knight to RP an ‘ordinary civilian’. Worst. Infiltrator. Ever.

Ultimately, I think of character classes as so many tools an MMO gives us roleplayers. Novice RPers shouldn’t be shot down for presenting themselves as whatever they chose to be on the chargen screen. With some adjustment, they can be perfectly viable – and a perfectly viable entry point into the wider world of MMO roleplay.

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5 Responses to “Should we ignore character classes in roleplay?”

  1. As an entry point it might barely be allright. But to be more than barely allright, the game would have to provide much more than most games currently do. There are way too many “you are a fighter” and “you are a cleric” MMOs out there, where you don’t know where you got your training, why you were trained for combat or even just, what’s the name of the deity your cleric actually prays to, not even to think what the ideas and ideals of the deity could be.

    The last game i played with “classes”, where they actually were a foundation of RP actually was in Xyllomer, a MUD.

    The player there started without a guild, but was able to join one. Those guilds in effect acted as classes. While everybody in theory was able to use every piece of equipment, knowledge and proficiency provided by the guild made all the difference. No matter if you wielded a mages staff, the holy idol of a priest of Rokoon or the obsidian knife of a Hutzel priest (see what they did there? Different kinds of priests!), without the knowledge and training of the guild all of them would be no more than a melee weapon.

    At the same time, those guilds provided a RP background. One of the mentioned groups of priests did good the “flowery” way. Having sermons, blessing things, curing people, etc. They were welcome in most of the world. The other mentioned variant of priests “knew” they would have to do sacrifices at times to make sure the sun would not die. For some reason, they were not that welcome in most of the world.

    Similar mechanics, sometimes about ideals, sometimes about power and politics, were present in the three kinds of magic users (two guilds of mages, one of necromancers, all actually using the same mechanics but striving for different goals) and several groups of warriors, the clerics just were the easiest example.

    So in the way the classes were provided, along with plenty of background and information and also enemies, they formed groups and RP worked with them. In fact it was so effective that most of the playerbase actually was involved in RP. But as mentioned, it’s a thing of the past.

    In the scope of MMOs, the quota of RP is low or nonexistant. The only exceptions i noticed were:

    1. Old Star Wars Galaxies. The absence of fixed classes (players would rather assemble their character from classes like pistoleer, carabineer, scout or medic) and the presence of purely crafting or social classes (e.g. architect, dancer, musician), combined with the lore already present in the playerbase allowed very free RP.

    From all MMOs i played, i think it had the highest quote of RPers, but next to everything else i’d also credit it to the time it was around. Those of us who played MMOs at that time just had a RPing background, which is not common for players any more these days. (With only RP nerds playing, MMOs could never get their current subscriber numbers. )

    2. StarTrek Online. During my time there i experienced some degree of roleplay, and it was not all the “i am a tactical officer, foam comes from my mouth and i rage into battle” vs “i am a scientific officer, i stand back and watch” cliché play. Instead, i very much experienced a lot of “we are officers of the Starfleet” and “we are officers of the Klingon navy” roleplay. (The second sometimes having the foam and raging. )

    I am unable to determine why it was like that. One reason could be that to a high degree all the classes play similarily, with only a few abilities being different and that every class can pick and fly any kind of starship, resulting in classes being a bit more “level” than other MMOs. The other reason could be the huge scope of already present lore, which does not need to be delivered to the player any more but simply is present. The high quota of RP being affected by a captains race gives credit to that theory. Unfortunately the almost complete absence of RP in the SW:ToR MMO, which again would have a lot of lore available but uses very strict classes and linear mechanics rather support the theory that freedom is needed for good RP while abundant lore which the players already know is just support.

    3. The Secret World. No classes at all, instead you have very freeform character development. (Which indeed is a nightmare for any new player, especially if he wants to “just play” instead of researching setups. )

    As the game is based on our real world, albeit with a lot of mysticism and secret societies in it, every player automatically comes with some experience, information and “lore” about the mundane part of the world and even some of the mysteries included. Additionally the game provides more info about it’s specific world and the mysteries, not only in “find me” lore entries, but also in well done cutscenes, were people can easily pick up the information.

    So lore is provided and additionally the game supports the community with quite unique stuff, e.g. the Albion Theatre, where players can set up and decorate the stage for plays. Still i wonder if these features are what gives it a comparatively large RP community, or if the percentage of RPers ist just high because some other mechanics just drive away the “normal” player while the RPer quite often is ready to go the extra length and endure some hardships.

    Anyway, all of this is personal experience and no hard evidence. I personally like to think that more freeform game mechanics, while being more complex, just cater more to the people with RP mentality. I couldn’t prove it, especially since even in the mentioned games the action-only part of the playerbase are the majority and RPers being a small part of the playerbase but unlike in some other games, at least they exist outside of the cliché-driven RP of “me warrior, me hit things”. (So yes, classes might be a start for RP, but i find it very boring and bland and sometimes so extremely brainless and stupid that it starts to become disgusting. )

    • Wow, thank you for taking the time to share! Your comment was longer than the vast majority of my posts by a good margin. You should spin this into a post of your own.

      You make a good point. MMOs by their very nature are linear experiences – it helps greatly if classes came with baked-in story aids. As for the games you mentioned, I missed out on SWG and can’t or won’t play STO and TSW, but their reputations are known to me. I’ve heard ragging on the Albion Theatre before, though, for encouraging too much theatre and not enough grimdark. Which is another can of worms: the various ‘styles’ or ‘cliques’ of roleplay in any given MMO!

      And yes, SWToR does prove that abundant lore alone does not make an RP-rich environment. Dev support and add-ons can go a long way, but ultimately, it’s the way the MMO was designed that matters.

      • Hmm. I run no blog, so it won’t become a post of my own.

        On the Albion, interesting. I never heard that complains before. On the other hand, i am there every monday evening, as my girl has her DJ show there, so i might be biased and in the wrong “clique” for that, for indeed they do exist in any MMO and i wouldn’t know a way of eliminating them. (People like to segregate for often trivial reasons. If they wouldn’t, how could you explain guilds in all those games and the fact that some big games failed just because they had no guild system? )

        And on the “not enough grimdark”, while i can’t quote one in-game character word by word from memory, i still would stick to Nassir, the resistance fighter dancing to loud music. When asked for it, he replies that he is well aware of the grim situation, but if you can’t dance and have fun any more during a break in combat, you might as well just die. Considering the situation of our characters in that game, i can very well understand that they look for distraction when not being deep in trouble.

      • You should consider it! Or at the very least, something like this could make a great guest post.

        I suppose the Albion haters were a minority, and probably most are gone now. And that NPC – driving back the dark with revelry, eh? Certainly makes for interesting character interaction. I never thought of the Albion along those lines before.

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