MMOs and RPGs

Posted: August 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

It’s no accident that my last post was more than 5 weeks ago. I resubscribed to World of Warcraft to try out the last expansion, Warlords of Draenor. I have to say that I have enjoyed it more than the last two expansions, and spend several hours a day to that end, hours that were previously dedicated to Twitter,, and this blog.

I play MMORPGs somewhat obsessively, particularly WoW which I’ve played off and on since 2007, but I’m aware of this OCD-like tendency, so I don’t keep the subscriptions running for long. As soon as the fun curve starts to dip down, I cancel and give it a few months or a year before returning.

What occurs to me is … are MMORPGs really RPGs? I’m sure that several publicly available definitions will claim such, with sufficiently shallow definitions. But, are we really ‘playing a role’? Are we immersed?

Stylistically, MMORPGs often are skinned with High Fantasy or Sci Fi settings, and use random number generators to resolve conflicts, so they so seem very similar to RPGs.

Take Monopoly. You play it as if you were some kind of mogul or real estate tycoon, and acquire property, charge rent, and attempt to own everything, at which point victory or loss is determined. There are even Fantasy and Sci Fi skins of Monopoly. But you don’t immerse yourself in the fictional world of Monopoly. You don’t make choices based upon ‘what would your character do’ versus ‘what should you do tactically’.

Isn’t WoW the same? You make choices, yes, but not as a character. I don’t choose options based upon what my character would feel that he/she should do, but instead, I make choices to progress the characters along measureable paths, such as acquiring currency, or advancing skills, or gaining levels, or replacing gear with higher quality.

Here we stray into the gray area of roleplaying… are you really roleplaying if you aren’t immersed in the setting, or if you are really just playing as yourself. My wife and I both felt that in the times when we really got involved in miniature combat, our PCs became staler and we slowly drifted away from immersion and roleplaying into the tactical boardgame side of the hobby.

So there, are MMORPGs really like RPGs, or are they more akin to tactical boardgames?


There is no United Nations agreement or Geneva Convention on what constitutes a roleplaying game. There is no tax implications or professional body that certifies what is and isn’t a roleplaying game. As such, existing public sources such as Wikipedia are more inclusive in their nature rather than definitive. Wikipedia, for example, states that MMORPGs are RPGs, but trading card games and wargames are not. Why? How is this defined? Is every MMORPG automatically grandfathered into that, even if it’s really just Farmville?

If we want to re-examine the premise (or to be precise re-re-examine as I’m sure that The Forge and other RPG theory sites have discussed this), let us examine what delineates two popular games, Monopoly from Dungeons & Dragons. According to Wikipedia’s lame definition, Monopoly is a RPG because it “is a game in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setiing”. My character might be a Shoe, and the board of Monopoly is clearly fictional. Now, calling my shoe a character may worth being challenged. After all, apart from the acquisition of wealth and property, the character doesn’t develop. But that is just a way of keeping score. The same is true of a World of Warcraft toon, in that it’s gear, skills and wealth may develop, but that is just how we keep score.

However, the acquisition of more stuff allows your WoW character to do new stuff, new abilities are unlocked, new actions become possible. You character does change. Having more money and property in Monopoly does allow you to do new things, too, for example you can’t build houses until you own a set of linked properties.

In Dungeons & Dragons, however, the possibility exists that your character can develop based solely upon your portrayal of the character, that is, you can roleplay and have it be persistent and meaningful in the game. Games like Dragon Age are clearly RPGs in that they allow your dialog choices to influence future events in the game. In WoW, you simply choose to Accept or Deny quests, but there is no character, no personality being evoked by the player.

I’m sure that there are MMORPGs that allow for actual roleplaying as we would define it in tabletop RPG terms. WoW and other games even have RP (roleplaying) servers where immersion is nominally required by the guilds that operate on those servers. In these circumstances, RP elements are attempted to be grafted onto what is otherwise and engaging but non-roleplaying experience.

And to be fair, I’m sure that many gaming groups blur the very definition of roleplaying but playing almost entirely as a tactical, combat game with little or no focus on character personalities and emerging histories rather than the rote overcoming of obstacles.

In the end, I don’t interact with other players in WoW as if we are immersed. Instead, we talk as players would over headsets in Call of Duty, or on reddit. That is, we converse as players not as characters. Because of this, for me, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, EVE Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, TERA, Perfect World, Dungeons & Dragons Online, Lord of the Rings Online, etc., have never been roleplaying games. Just games.

  1. hamletc1602 says:

    I admit I haven’t given it a fair try, but I don’t think I could ever see the rigid worlds of the current MMORPG’s as ‘true’ role playing, since the structure of the game itself forces certain repetitive actions rather than encouraging creativity and originality.

    The only computer gaming experience that has ever felt like ‘real’ RPG to me were the text-based MUSHs and MOOs (like MUDs but less rules, and possibly object-oriented. It was a geeky time 😉 ) There, if you wanted something to appear you could just re-write the room description (within limits)

    (It occurs to me in writing this that RPGs like WoW may actually reflect ‘real world’ better than any other style of RPG gaming with it’s insistence on slogging through repeated tasks – Interesting thought – Though if I wanted a ‘real world’ experience I’d probably spend more time there 😉


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