Can MMOs ever insert roleplaying during quests?

As someone who never had enough friends into roleplaying games to be a part of a genuine D&D group, my childhood impressions of tabletop gaming pretty much begins and ends with the above scene in E.T. and whatever I could imagine from gaming manuals.

Wait… what WAS going on in this scene? They’re playing D&D… while drinking Tab and coffee… and smoking… and there is a can of Raid there? I think these kids have a death pact. That totally changes E.T. for me.

Anyway, my impressions of an average pen-and-paper roleplaying experience is that it’s not just wall-to-wall fighting. There is interaction between characters and NPCs, characters and each other, and characters and the world (as well as characters and “god,” AKA the game master). That outlines the four realms of potential conflict, by the way. Players reason through situations, act as their character would act, attempt creative and unorthodox solutions on occasion, and make choices that would result in greater ramifications.

Thinking of this leaves a hole in my average MMORPG experience, because there is almost never any choice, any deviation, any interaction aside from “click the glowies” and “kill the baddies” during a quest. There especially isn’t any actual mid-quest roleplay aside from a precious few MMOs that have gone out of their way, and even then, only on occasion (DDO, STO, and SWTOR come to mind). Maybe the quest systems aren’t flexible enough. Maybe the devs have metrics showing players get bored with such things. I don’t know. But I do miss seeing quests develop in interesting ways according to the choices, words, and actions we take.

Somewhat related to this topic is a recent Extra Credits video, which challenges games to give our characters moments where we take stock of what we’ve done and why we’ve done it — even and especially if we’ve been murder machines up to that point. I often employ this tack while blogging as a humorous way to comment on the kill-happy, excuse-lite nature of MMORPGs, but it really could make our questing experience more interesting.

I remember a long time ago, back in my Warhammer Online days, I was beating on a drum for the notion of a branching quest. This would be a repeatable quest that changed based on “choose my adventure” picks as you went along. There was incentive to repeat it to see how the story played out differently, and perhaps even extra rewards if you got all of the different endings. Still haven’t seen much along those lines. EverQuest Next’s Storybricks hinted at such flexible flowchart adventures, but that’s a “what if” that will never be.

There’s this Transylvania quest in Secret World Legends where the final step is to find another player and share a story with him or her. Even though this is actually just a clickable item that bestows some sort of buff on you both, I like the thought of the quest requiring some interaction with others — to show them something, not to group with them. It was a glimmer of a different social angle than we normally get.

Letting players craft their own stories and take on the roles of dungeon masters would be another way to weave more lore, choices, and interactions in quests. Some games have taken stabs at this, but we still aren’t living in an age where there is a highly popular and refined example of such a system.

If more quests had choices and interactions that were something other than killing-related, then it would open up a lot more opportunities for characters to grow and develop as more rounded individuals. We wouldn’t be merely trying to max out DPS, but could be concerned about our prowess when it came to adventuring obstacles, background characteristics, technological challenges, social interactions, and the like. And it should be integrated with quests, not segregated like WildStar’s path system.

I guess I don’t have a solid solution or even a reasonable conclusion here. I don’t want to abolish the quest system, I want to see it jump forward in what it offers and to take a cue from tabletop gaming to offer more of an actual “roleplay” experience than what we usually see.


12 thoughts on “Can MMOs ever insert roleplaying during quests?

  1. Gevlon October 5, 2017 / 9:13 am

    The fundamental problem is that in order to make branching meaningful, it must have effect on the World, that in turn will annoy other players. Imagine that players could choose to side with DETA or Nesingvary and by most choosing DETA, the side would overwhelm the field and those who sided with Nesingvary (for roleplay or rewards) would lose.

    If you make the effect go away, people will just click the first option always.

  2. Minimalistway October 5, 2017 / 11:41 am

    Just yesterday i saw a video about Nethack, i didn’t know the game could offer so much options, and it is an old game, take a look, it may have some good ideas:

  3. Ettesiun October 5, 2017 / 12:34 pm

    I just finished Dishonored, and this games offer two thing missing in MMO :
    – abilities that are interesting and not directly related to killing – mainly quick teleportation
    – the possibility to kill or not to kill, without power impact, only story one. – good ending, bad ending

    With those two points, the choice to kill or not is no longer a meta one – how to achieve the best build – but a story one.

    If I try to be a little bit more abstract, you need :
    – a way to interact with the game without killing
    – the liberty to kill or not, without gameplay impact

    The games that make it happens the best, often use infiltration – that does not work well with 100 people.

    Another genre not using killing are the building game – Minecraft, Stellaris, Fortnite. That could scale well with 100 people – see building in real life – but the organisation/managment need to be tackled.

    Stopping here as too many ideas are popping in my mind, I should open a Blog some days… 😉

  4. Bhagpuss October 5, 2017 / 1:58 pm

    Hmmm… I’m not so sure plenty of MMOs haven’t done this in the past. I seem to remember plenty of quests in a number of games that had branching possibilities. Personally, I absolutely loathe them. I strongly dislike making choices whose outcomes are not known to me. Remember that late main quest choice in TSW? I forget the details after all this time but I still remember how completely pissed off I was that I was put in the position of having to make a potentially character-defining decision without knowing just how my character would be defined by it – and from reading the forums at the time i was very much not alone.

    If I ever run up against these things (there’s one early in the main storyline of GW2’s Path of Fire just as there was early in HoT) it can bring me to a dead halt. I will always go google for information on outcomes before committing myself and if I can’t find any I will sometimes decline to continue and shelve the quest until I can get more information.

    Gevlon is right about the unpopularity of these systems if they are expanded beyond the personal, too. There have been plenty of examples of that in MMOs I’ve played and, while they haven’t been permanent changes, even changes that affect a single zone for an hour or two cause big arguments among players. I recall the zone from the Shadows of Luclin expansion in EQ, where three factions fight for control and players can choose to aid one of them, resulting in different vendors becoming available depending on which side wins. That caused endless arguments back in the day.

    I think that (plus the obvious extra workload) is why developers don’t use these systems as much as they used to. It’s another example of players saying they want something and then kicking up a fuss when they actually get it.

  5. Telwyn October 5, 2017 / 2:37 pm

    Playing some Divinity 2 at the moment as a group of four we’re encoutering the limitations of this. The game has quests and NPC interactions that have meaning but when playing in a group that can lead to consequences, or at least reloading a game save to “undo” stuff. If the game surprises you by an unexpected fight with a key NPC, one that another player character needs for their personal story, then meta-gaming is almost a given (“let me do my bit first before you are forced to kill him/her”).

    That’s not likely to work well in MMORPGs given the persistent state and lack of save points or games to load back to. That said even the limited multi-player interactions offered by SWTORs conversation system felt like an advance to me, it was fun seeing who’d “win” a choice and I rarely if ever felt like the decision or result was so bad that I’d want to redo it.

  6. melbrankin October 5, 2017 / 9:17 pm

    I thought this was part of what eq next was going to have with the story brick system. Sadly will never know. Neverwinter and a few other games attempted to bring in a GM type role but im not sure it was that successful.

  7. talismanAU October 6, 2017 / 3:59 am

    My group of mates progressed from pen and paper DnD in high school and uni to persistent worlds using the NWN engine. We skipped when gamers went to WoW and came to MMOs when LOTRO went F2P. During the NWN days there would be frequent opportunity to engage similar Roleplaying mechanics found in PnP in the digital worlds including active GM involvement. One time I was doing a routine treasure run through a tomb (a repeatable quest) but as I was returning a GM had placed some spiders and an NPC in front of me before I could exit. After some banter in game. I decided to fight my way out. Not prepared for the random encounter (having used all my potions earlier) I was killed. The GM apolgised in chat and offered to resurrect me but I took the death hit and told him I should be more prepared when I’m tomb raiding.

    Telwyn mentioned Divinity and I hope to try that sometime in the future. I heard you can create GM adventures and maybe some game masters of old might recreate some of their persistent worlds in the future again or maybe using another engine in the future.

    Scripted encounters with a decent story are good but there are never quite the options or responses you want that reflect your character in MMOs. More to progress the story the writer has created. I find there are seldom encounters that make me respond as that character I’m playing.

    I read somewhere gamers are looking for a more personal experince in gaming not 1000s of players but maybe 50 to create a real living experience. Perhaps with a GM changing things as the story progresses based on player decisions. Maybe something to look forward to int he future.

  8. talismanAU October 6, 2017 / 4:03 am

    PS. Oh and the can of Raid is there because if it’s anything like our DnD sessions which would go all weekend. With all the pizza and snacks left around we need something to kill all the roaches that would turn up.

  9. DonV October 7, 2017 / 6:38 pm

    I was fortunate enough to have a childhood friend that became a DM, and I had two female housemates that were interested in playing regularly. A good DM can really make an adventure interesting above just killing stuff. Real role-playing in an MMO is difficult and mostly is just staying in character when you chat etc. The best that can be done is to play homage to D&D dungeons such as for example “Good Intentions” in DDO where the Gazebo monster attacks you and is based on a famous table top fiasco as presented here:

  10. baldwinp October 10, 2017 / 9:08 am

    ESO does a decent job with this. The main quest in each part of the map usually ends in a choice you have to make, which is often whether to let someone live or die. If you have been following the story, it can be a tricky choice to make. Even though it doesn’t change things overall, you do get different vignettes that play out or different reactions from the NPCs when you talk to them afterward.

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