The separation between player and character is at the core of the role-playing experience which is what separates DnD, MUDs and MMOs from other multiplayer games. By definition, when you’re playing a role it’s assumed that the role is not that of “person playing a role-playing game”. Aside from the physical and sociological differences between the player and character, how is this split realised in the game? And how has the separation between player and character developed from DnD through MUDs and through to MMOs?
I encountered this in my regular DnD game recently: The DM provided us with an encrypted message and gave us a real-time week to solve it. Now I’m a fan of cryptography, and puzzle-solving in general, so I set to work to satisfy my own curiousity. The cipher was a reasonably straight-forward rotation cipher, but I was struck with a dilemma: Should I share the information in the message with the party given that my Dwarf Paladin with an average intelligence and no clear history that would expose him to working with cryptography, as well as no levels in any skills outside of Athletics, Diplomacy and Intimidate, probably wouldn’t have solved the puzzle as easily? In this instance, I did share the information after pressure from the other players and it taught me a lesson: If the player vs character issue rises its head again, I won’t even attempt something that my character wouldn’t.
MUDs and MMOs, in general, allow for role-playing opportunities alongside hack-n-slash adventuring and therefore also allow a player-character separation to exist. There are, however, some key differences. Whereas in DnD a DM will allow for character knowledge in the story that unfolds over a campaign, the MUD developers must assume that all players have access to the same knowledge base. It is a foregone conclusion, then, that a player who is in character might have to accept that their character will not develop at the same rate as other players who are not. For MUDs, this is fairly reasonable as the motivations for MUD players in my experience tend towards the character and interaction parts of the experience more than the power gamer, although there are exceptions to this rule.
This can definitely become a larger issue in popular MMOs where for end-game character advancement, co-operation between characters who are sticking to expected roles is required. Players who role-play in an MMO environment must then find groups of people with similar playing styles and accept that they will probably not experience all of the content in the world. It is arguable just how much this will limit the enjoyment of the game for the role-player, given that their character may be happy to chase chickens all day. Having said that, I don’t know of many MMOs that offer the player the flexibility of character advancement that DnD, or even MUDs, do. For development, complexity and balancing sake, MMOs tend to have restrictive rules that govern characters with strictly controlled development opportunities. EVE Online is an example of an MMO that does allow for great character customisation, with a wide range of skills open to all players for their characters to develop, however it suffers from the same issue that any multiplayer game developed for mass appeal faces: Generic quests that are not tailored to the character the player is playing.
Given that the popularity of MMOs centres around power gamers rather than role-players, it is not surprising that less effort has been put into developing a game where the player can really sink their teeth into a character that they’re playing; it’s also an incredibly difficult feat if you want mass appeal. This is why I have come back around to DnD and other table-top games: I am in a small group with someone at the table directing events and other players supporting me and allowing my character to grow as a character independent of me as a player. That is the core of fantasy gaming and escapism and the MMO that cracks that particular nut will find great support.
See also “The search for identity” from Imaginary Realities, November 1998