DDO, or how to take the RP out of ‘RPG’

Allow me to preface this by saying this isn’t a hateful post. It’s merely an observation.

I’ve got absolutely nothing against DDO. I think it’s a fine game. Not the best game there is, but does it have to be? It provides fun and that should be the basic mandate of any game. I like the visuals overall. It’s AD&D which, despite its DDO-specific splashes of flavor, is basically a known quantity and familiar waters if you’re into that kind of swimming. It treats its F2P players well and the Eberron setting is interesting.

However, after coming back to the game and playing it more or less steadily for the last couple of weeks something rather ironic stuck out at me: The RP scene is quite barren. The sadly ironic part of all this is that we’re essentially talking about D&D, kickstarter extraordinaire (however you wanna slice it) of Roleplay Gaming, paper or not. So it should have a more or less healthy RP community, but I haven’t observed it (and yes, I know where to look. Us RPers are like dogs sniffing each other’s butts when it comes to this).

So where’s the disconnect?

Lacking RP scenes in online games usually happen due to three major factors, one of them a rather overriding one.

First, it could be that there simply is no critical social mass of players. Whether this is due to a new game that finds itself largely off the radars, or because of an aging game that cannot retain a bleeding playerbase, the end result is the same; there just isn’t enough people around. And since RPers are (almost by default) a minority, well there you go. But I don’t think this is the case with DDO. The game might be aging, yes, but it’s hardly bleeding players away. The much-touted conversion to F2P has definitely netted the game a nice influx of players.

The second common reason is that the game’s setting doesn’t lend itself well for players to RP with, but we can toss this one out of the window when it comes to DDO. I found Eberron to be interesting to be in, and at no point I got turned off by environments, content or lore. There’s plenty there to exploit.

The third factor, however, is the big kahuna and the one which DDO I think fell prey to: The game doesn’t give any tools to its RPers for them to use and create anything of note.

Now, let’s not beat around the bush here. To date, NO MMO, has succeeded in this. Some came closer than others, naturally. Some did better jobs. But MMOs are largely static environments with static resources in which the words “user content” (which is essentially what RP is) are as much holy grail as they are a cuss word as far as most designers are concerned. I’m not ragging on DDO and DDO alone because it fails to adequately cater to its RPer population. It’s endemic to the genre as a whole. But I am ragging on DDO because it only provides an absolute minimum in this area.

It’s quite painful to see AD&D, the game system which has been the great catalytic agent of RP to the masses, the one which spawned countless worlds, settings and variants, one which is so ripe with possibilities to be reduced to this; not only a static playspace, but also a rather confined one as well. RPers essentially generate their own content, and as such they only need two things: room and tools.

What I mean by room: Not strictly geographic or game world room (although it’s always nice), but rather room to play in. Bringing our characters as close to life as we can requires that they feel and seem as alive as they can to us and to those we play with. To do this, a large selection of visual emotes are necessary. Many clothing options are necessary, with a good level of granularity as well. A good interaction with the environments our characters are placed in is necessary, because that usually finishes selling the illusion.

What I mean by tools: Mechanics and options that us players can use to improve and finish fleshing out our characters in a believable way. This is beyond mere cosmetics and naming/titling options, but it does include them. It includes a metric asston of fluff items. It includes the ability to use dyes and accessories on wearables. It includes mechanics to enable us to distinguish our guilds and associations from one another. It includes mechanics to allow us to create our own fluff items and quests.

DDO, sadly, lacks in providing room and tools for its RPers, so it’s not surprising the scene seems to languish. As a norm, due to how static our game worlds are, RPers tend to play around the game and its limitations, and the saddest thing about DDO is just how evident and how strong its RP limitations are. The DDO Store does a good job in providing cosmetics for a price (and we applaud that, seeing as how many of us here at KTR are fans of letting people pay for fluff), but even the Store has its limits. Seems to me DDO began with a very basic framework of what is the absolute minimum of things required for RPers to exist as players in that world but never progressed past it. The list of emotes is paltry, and visual emotes are even more rare. Wearables largely tend to come as a package deal in which you wear something or not, not many parts allowed. Character interaction with its environments is pretty dismal.

So you end up with what essentially is a large stat-based dungeon crawl game. By the way, nothing wrong with that at all. I enjoy those as much as the next guy. But it could have been so much more had it paid more attention to the “RP” instead of the “G” almost exclusively. It’s a very fine game which, unfortunately, tends to make it severely uphill to roleplay in. Two different things.

And since we also love food metaphors in here so much, DDO is like pizza without toppings. Nutritious enough. Serves it purpose. Myself, I like to indulge on cheese pizza too every now and then when we order. My kids like it. But it lacks the layers of flavor, texture and extra nutrition that toppings provide. It’s just the base, and none of the art. Leaves no room for RPers to top it as they see fit.

Memo to Turbine (and while we’re at it, to arena.net too, since they also created another huge cheese pizza a while back): Even my kids are now beginning to have their cheese pizza with olives. We can eat more than base. We want more than base. Give us toppings, give us a large enough base to put them on and let us use it.

28 thoughts on “DDO, or how to take the RP out of ‘RPG’

  1. Keen

    DDO simply lacks the key factors of a social game. It’s highly instanced and lobby based. There’s little, if any, connection between the players and the world.

    It’s become about content crunching. Buy content, complete content, buy more content.

    RP in MMO’s comes from the sense of a virtual world, which inherently brings with it both the ability to support the roleplayers and give them tools they need.

    1. Andrew

      DDO simply lacks the key factors of a social game. It’s highly instanced and lobby based. There’s little, if any, connection between the players and the world.

      Have you played DDO Keen, or just read other’s impressions of the game… because this is pretty much ludicrous based on my experiences.

      Those “lobbies” are pretty darned big social hubs that are usually bustling with people looking to form groups, recruit for guilds, and all the other stuff that “normal” mmos have in their cities.

      1. Keen

        Yes, I have played DDO.

        “Those “lobbies” are pretty darned big social hubs that are usually bustling with people looking to form groups, recruit for guilds, and all the other stuff that “normal” mmos have in their cities.”

        So basically all the same things as WoW’s trade chat? ;) Notice you didn’t say RP or just talking and socializing with other players.

        1. winter

          Keen is so absolutely biased against any F2P game because he got burnt on Allods. You can’t listen to anything he has to say because he can’t be at all objective about it. For instance, WoW is all about content crunching too by his definition. As the time to the next expansion nears, everyone gets ridiculous buffs so they can do all the raids. Then they buy the next expansion. Then Blizzard nerf everybody.

          You can see this by the exploits of Keen and his guild finally succeeding at some raid content. I think that is perfectly fine as people have paid for the content so they should be able to experience it.

          The simple fact of the matter is that I have never seen decent RP in any online game with a visual component. You can have quasi RP where characters have some back story and say “Hail good sir!” but that is about as far as it goes.

          In my opinion it just wont happen. Roleplaying as I’ve always done it is far too detailed to be constrained by the tools given to you in a game.

          The only decent RP that I’ve even come across on the internet is on a mud named Armageddon.

  2. Ravious

    “So you end up with what essentially is a large stat-based dungeon crawl game.”

    Isn’t that largely what DnD is (especially 4e)? It’s a boardgame with a small amount of RP fluff. I mean, maybe I and everybody I know played it wrong, but the core books, the modules, the experience rules, almost everything in DnD distills down to that.

    1. wilhelm2451

      It all depends on how you play it. I have played D&D in groups where role play has been the major factor. In fact, dispensing with the some of the rule book burdens of D&D was why one group of friends I knew moved to Tunnels & Trolls, which is very light on rules and heavy on player initiative.

      If DDO were in Waterdeep and included overland areas of Forgotten Realms, I am not sure I could stay away. It is that sort of thing that keeps calling me back to LOTRO. Eberron though… there was nothing wrong with it, but neither was I particularly drawn to it when I was messing around with DDO.

      1. Syncaine

        Using Eberron was IMO one of the biggest mistakes DDO made. You have an absolutely loved setting, one perfect for an MMO, and yet you decide to go with something that no one has heard of or is invested in. Such a waste.

    2. Julian Post author

      @Rav: The game mechanics, of course.

      But PnP DnD was the base upon which RP fluff could be solidly built upon. And it has been. MMOs have, by large, failed miserably to replicate this. They provide only the base number crunching, a very awesome representation of the world(s) and that’s about it. All the room and tools RPers need to build on this base are utterly missing in any one package.

      I completely realize it’s a tall order because we’re essentially pitching imagination against static systems, but I think at least we could -try- to provide more than the base or the bare minimum.

      It’s f’n 2010.

      1. moondog548

        Pretty much every single TTRPG system that has come out BESIDES DnD has been better for RP than the DnD system.

        You’re neglecting that even though it was the first, it is arguably the “worst” for that particular aspect of TT/PnP gaming.

        It only stands to reason that online game based on it (And it’s just D&D ever since 3.0/3.5 which is what DDO is based on, no A no mo) is first and foremost about the action, adventure, and loot than it is about drama, character or otherwise.

  3. melianos

    D&D mechanics are very far from RP-oriented. If you ever played it, what do you mostly remember about your characters ? Most probably their level, their stuff, or what monster they defeated.

    So it doesn’t surprise me at all. Try looking at other P&P rpg, Vampire from whitewolf by example, or Chtulhu, most mechanics don’t have anything to do with combat.

    1. Julian Post author

      I’ve RP’d in WoW, LOTRO and GW extensively. Also CoX a little less and I can say I’ve had the most miserable time trying to do or create anything RP-wise in DDO.

      Diff’rent strokes I suppose.

  4. Lumin

    I agree with the article.

    When the average person hears, “Dungeons and Dragons” they think about a small group of people acting out a role of some fantastical character in a dark, candle-filled, basement.

    So when DDO is practically absent of all role-play, when it’s IP arguably invented Pen and Paper role-playing to begin with, it comes off, at best, ironic and, at worst, -really really- ironic.

    Obviously, those of us who have been exposed to the ins-and-outs of RPGs know that pen and paper D&D is not especially hardcore when it comes to strict “role-play”, but I don’t believe that diminishes the irony here at all.

  5. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I’ll echo what others have said. Back in the bad old days of Usenet, (A)D&D was the game everyone bitched about sucking up all the attention instead of “real” RPGs. While you certainly could role-play in D&D, I’m not sure I’d claim it was standard. As others have mentioned, there were other systems that emphasized the role-playing aspects a lot more.

    One problem with “role-playing” is that if you ask 10 different people to define it you’d get at least 15 different answers. My idea of RP may not be the same as yours. This is one of the main reasons why games haven’t embraced role-playing, because an ERPer in Goldshire isn’t going to necessarily share the same core values as a person who thinks OOC channels are an affront to real role-playing immersion. Of course, most role-players thing people should just conform to their ideas. :)

    [Role-players] only need two things: room and tools.

    “Only” he says. Ha! As has been said (and demonstrated) many times before, tools are a very hard thing to do right. Especially when it comes to something as ill-defined as role-playing.

  6. Dblade

    Your solution wont work though. Problem is that the ruleset for MMOs are simply too restricted to roleplay in, because so many situations can’t be covered except by a live human being and their imagination. All hero creator and cash shop fluff in the world wont matter.

    You’d have to design a system where it’s possible to bribe, threaten, flee from, attack, hide from, distract, or hire a goblin mob, for example. All these things a pen and paper rpg can do because of the GM. But they are near impossible to recreate in a mob’s AI.

    MMOs are not roleplaying games. They are very much like those battle books like Steve Jackson’s Fantasy or Lone Wolf where you have a system of mechanics to deal with pre-set encounters on each page, and no way of deviating from the few options given.

    To fix that you’d have to make a miracle and somehow make an MMO engine that can replicate a human GM’s ability to shape a story. Wont happen any time soon.

  7. Bhagpuss

    I found the mechanic of providing a base award of xp for destroying the maximum number of crates and boxes in any dungeon to be the antithesis of character play. Why would my dwarven cleric systematically destroy every destroyable item? Is he supposed to be chaotic?

    That’s just one of numerous examples of game systems that positively reward non-roleplayed behavior in DDO.

    1. RogerM

      Thats the flaw in the commenter’s logic. It presumes that players are constrained in their actions by things the Developer decides.

      Anyone who acts within the worldview of the game they’re playing can role play.

      My lawful good monk breaks no crates, and does ‘good’ deeds, like wasting time rescuing all the prisoners in a dungeon, regardless of xp rewards. He meditates on high places.. a lot.

      My chaotic barbarian on the other hand, acts like one. He’s the bull in the china shop, he steals anything thats shiny, throws away unglamorous stuff. He buys roast turkey legs at the taverns, and swills lots of beer.

      Really, the fun of role playing consists of either roleplaying or watching others roleplay. This article seems to focus on the voyeur’s guide to roleplay, like going to a Renassance Faire at the local park.

  8. Rog

    I think I’ve known more AD&D players who “meta-game” than roleplay.

    I know it’s supposed to be the big paragon of traditional roleplay, but I never saw much of that.

  9. Scott

    I also have to wonder how many people actually played D&D or AD&D back in the day in more diverse settings than their little group? A *LOT* of D&D games were run as little more than a tabletop version of Diablo — 100% hack and slash combat. D&D’s ‘rules’ were combat-focused.

    Whether anyone (or everyone) actually role-played their character depended on the individual players, and the group as a whole. Really no different than in how some people in MMO’s refuse to talk over VOIP; some people refuse to even type or communicate at all in PUGs.

    As I’ve said for years, and someone mentioned above, until we design AI/VI that can replicate all the nuances of a creative human GM, video games will never have what we consider “true role-playing” in the traditional sense. Computers crunch numbers, and numbers equal combat rules.

  10. Graham

    My general experience with RP in MMO’s is that the more diverse the gaming population is in an MMO, the less likely it is to have any RP’ers.

    By which I mean, if you have a game with a reasonable population, the majority will just be gamers, not roleplayers, even on a so-called roleplaying server. A small percentage of those regular gamers will be assholes. If they see RP taking place, they will make fun of the RP’ers and/or grief them for the hell of it.

    That has certainly been my experience in a few different games. I gave up trying to roleplay in MMO’s and just saved it for my weekly tabletop groups.

    If you want to see RP, I daresay you will need to head off to games with smaller populations, especially games that are well designed for it (Ryzom for example).

    I’m not sure the gaming environment itself has a huge bearing on whether or not its good for RP though. Most of the good MMO RP I have taken part in was created from the imagination of a few very creative individuals, the setting itself could have been in any fantasy game.

  11. Julian Post author

    All your points are well taken. I think my observation still stands, though. I’m not entirely convinced the RP in DDO is lackluster because it’s Eberron or because it’s d20. Of course some people won’t like that, so they won’t play. That’s fair enough. But I don’t think those two alone (or together!) have enough of an effect to create the poor RP environment I’ve observed.

    And of course I’m well aware that a static collection of systems can’t compete with human-to-human interaction and a human DM with imagination, where rules can be created, bent and improvised. But that’s not what I’m saying. I know that goal as of today is unattainable. But what I’m asking is, can’t we at least -try- better at moving towards it?

    If it’s almost 2011 and all we seem able to do is to let our players create guilds which are functionally identical, maybe let them have a guild tabard or a cape, maybe append a preset title to their characters normally after a huge grind… when walking animations are normally spastic at best and our environments are so static you can’t even properly sit on chairs sometimes…

    Well that all makes me sad. We are able to do better than this, but we don’t.

  12. OrderedChaos

    Litle nit pick here. DDO is based off of D&D 3.5 Edition, not AD&D (unfortunately).
    I too, feel they did miss the boat, bigtime, by pushing Eberron, instead of using Mystara, Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms as the game worlds. Heck, even Dark Sun/ Athas would have been a lot of fun.
    I am curious, but not too much, about how Cryptic’s Neverwinter Nights secret MMO is going to go. I wonder how they will address Role Playing, or if they will just ignore it.

  13. Meljinx

    DDO at one time had a fairly good RP base on Sarlona. The Official Unofficial RP server. Keen was very right in the sense when the game opened up. The heavy instancing made it really difficult at times. For as long as the Arrrr Peee lasted I had some good times there.. granted it did not last long.

    1. winter

      I’d be interested to know what RP actually went on. Like what did it actually entail? As Dblade said previously, I just don’t see how any real RP can happen in MMOs.

      “I burn with hatred for the Darkwood Elves for killing my wife and daughter!”

      “Dude, why didn’t they just use the spirit healer?”

      “…”

      MMOs are really just not designed with “true” RP in mind…

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  15. Vangus

    Well i believe most of you should give a try , to play NWN 1 , there are lots of worlds-systems out there with Lots of RPG possibilities.In this game you have the tools to create not just a character , but the whole world that you will be playing in as a DM or Player or both at the same time!!Personally i believe that this game so far has provided the deepest RPG experience and the best visual representation you can get via a Computer software.And its free to play too!

  16. Jack Bombs

    It’s quite painful to see AD&D, the game system which has been the great catalytic agent of RP to the masses, the one which spawned countless worlds, settings and variants, one which is so ripe with possibilities to be reduced to this; not only a static playspace, but also a rather confined one as well. RPers essentially generate their own content, and as such they only need two things: room and tools.

    Jack,
    Diablo 3 skills chart

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