In the online-only, NPC-less post-apocalyptic world of Fallout 76, the Cult of the Mothman is an echo of pre-war Appalachia. But some players have taken it upon themselves to reestablish the Cult - whether the game itself likes it or not.
"Who can resist such a cute lovecraftian horror?" Lori, one of the co-owners of Fallout Roleplay, a website for networking for roleplayers in Fallout 76, tells me. Her Discord server is a lively place, packed with players who discuss their in-game roleplaying plans and post in "looking for group" channels. Fallout 76, which launched to a critical mauling, does not have an in-built looking for group feature, nor any way to communicate with players on a global or even server-wide basis, so players are coordinating their efforts outside of the game to help get things going inside of it.
These players have established half a dozen or so unofficial settlements in the game where people get together to roleplay having met up on the Fallout Roleplay Discord or its forum. These settlements are places where players set up camps and invite other online friends to roleplay. The most prominent settlement, Lori says, is situated around an old radio tower. There's another in the Civil War-era recreation town in the north of the map. By adding each other to their friends list, roleplayers will often log in to see their friends playing Fallout 76 and automatically join their world. This, Lori says, usually leads to between five and 20 roleplayers all in one world, and they all roleplay when they see each other.
Make no bones about it, this is a workaround. Fallout 76 is built in such a way that players never see a server. The game automatically finds a world for you to play in with 20-something other players. Every time you log out, your session ends. Next time you log in, the game will find you another world to play in. The only consistent is your camp, which the game will attempt to rebuild in the same place it was in the previous game session.
Because of this, Fallout 76 feels surface level, transitory and without impact (for more, check out our Fallout 76 review). It's difficult to meaningfully impact the game world, or establish long-running areas of operation for others to run into. So, players - particularly those who want to roleplay - are filling in the gaps.
It doesn't help that Fallout 76 doesn't do much to support roleplaying in-game, either. While you can join various factions, the game hardly reacts to your membership of them at all. Want to roleplay the role of a Fallout raider? Well, you could try attack other players on the map for a laugh, but the PvP system is so bad, why would you bother? Want to roleplay as a member of the Brotherhood of Steel? Well, you could run around in Power Armor and spout self-righteous nonsense over the proximity-based voice communications to anyone who'll listen, but beyond that, but you'll spend most of your time screaming into the abyss.
Fallout 76, then, is a bad game. But I am surprised to discover that despite this, players are trying - some really hard - to find the fun. There's a surprisingly large number of people who are doing this - over Discord, over forums, on reddit - in an impressive display of collective initiative for a game that launched without many features fans had hoped for. Features such as text chat, private servers and mod support would have facilitated meaningful multiplayer interaction. Unfortunately, like Fallout 76's NPCs, these features are currently M.I.A.
"A lot of people just couldn't wait for private servers, so we make do with what is available," Lori says. "We just facilitate the means to achieve this early. It's like Bethesda said. They want us to be the NPCs... we took it to heart."
The Fallout universe is packed with potential for roleplayers. There are multiple factions and a world in which pretty much anything goes by default. Some members of Fallout Roleplay are roleplaying as survivors ("the lore in the game shows evidence that quite a few people in West Virginia survived the initial fallout," Lori says). Some are roleplaying as Vault 76 reclaimers. Others are roleplaying as recruits for the Brotherhood of Steel and the Enclave.
And then there's the Cult of the Mothman. The Mothman is already a fan-favourite monster in Fallout 76. He's best stumbled upon, so I won't spoil his location here. Suffice it to say, the Mothman is one of the better things about Fallout 76 and Fallout roleplayers are excited to get stuck in. "We plan to provide some eerie fun in the Fallout universe," Lori says. "We have a team putting together extensive lore to make a cohesive setting for long-term roleplay."
One of the things I'd hoped to be able to do in Fallout 76 was play the role of a trader. I love the idea of selling items to other players in a trading post of some kind. But Fallout 76 does not have a player hub. And the trading system is so bad, players have found it easier to drop items on the floor for others to pick up rather than trade directly. There is no shop for players to sell items from, no auction house to upload things to, no in-game way of selling your wares to the highest bidder. And so, traders have gone out of the game to establish a Fallout 76 market - and, I'm surprised to find, it's thriving.
Macbacon runs the 1000+ member Fallout 76 Trading Hub Discord, a place where players sell their wares for caps. I've been a member of this Discord for the past couple of weeks, and I get notifications of players advertising various high-level guns every few minutes. Say what you will about the popularity of Fallout 76, but there are a lot of people buying and selling their loot outside of the game.
"I wanted to get some player interaction going on," Macbacon says. "The first day I played every player ignored each other. Then I also quickly realised how scarce some resources are in the game and it really could use a good trade, but it was hard when people just... you know... didn't care."
Macbacon reckons maximum legendary heavy melee weapons are currently going for the most caps on the Trading Hub because the melee build "is the meta right now". One player was after 20,000 caps for a special super sledge, which, if you're playing Fallout 76 you'll know is an eye-watering amount of cash.
What's interesting is some players are fusing trading with roleplaying. Grant, a 37-year-old from just outside Toronto, Canada, is a long-time Fallout fan and keen video game roleplayer who has taken to Fallout 76 in a... unique way. "My character is going down a very dark cultist/prepper path currently and uncovering things in the mines..." he says.
Grant will, like so many others, organise in-game trades with players over Discord. But when he meets these players in-game, the roleplaying begins.
"It's when I invite them up to a cabin in the middle of nowhere wearing a cultist mask, slowly walking around and speaking very low over the open mic that it freaks people out," he laughs.
"I had someone in Flatwoods see me walking through and when I tried to talk to them they said, 'F this' and ran."
Even broadcasting for trading via Discord is done in-character. Grant provides me a couple of examples from the Fallout 76 Roleplay server. The first is from a player roleplaying as a raider:
"Rose be quite trying to explain something!
"Hey shit for brains, Two Bit here. We're looking for anybody looking to join up with the Maniacs and start making some caps. If so...
Crash and yelling.
"Rose I swear if you don't make him quit I'm gonna cut his tongue out!
"Anyways, if your looking to join up, add Suspected Alien on your Pip-Boy and you know where we are at The Top Of the World. Come on over and prove your worth."
Here's another, from an ex-vault dweller:
Screech of radio.
Static on the radio.
"Vault dwellers and survivors, this is Esther Daniels formerly of Vault 76. Just lettin' you know I spruced up a rundown home on the edge of the western river. There's beds, food, and drink... strong drink if you need it. I also sell or trade whatever else I happen to scrounge up. It's located southwest of the WV Lumber Mill. Just follow the 81 north of the fairgrounds and keep your eye on the river. Can't miss it. Esther out."
And, finally, another from a player roleplaying as a member of the Brotherhood of Steel:
Static on the radio before silence.
The radio static clears to reveal a young male speaking in clipped, crisp, tones.
"This is Knight Liam Ravenson. I am in the market for the schematics for a portable latrine system (Plan: Portable Toilet). If anyone has any leads you can contact me via Pip-Boy using the call sign Kieran. I can provide ammunition, or other schematics in return."
The static returns as suddenly as it cleared.
Discord user Indie's Fallout 76 name is Smittzeh, but the character they play is called Deathclaw Dundee, a leather armour-wearing, cowboy hat-donning, muttonstacheioed tour guide. Indie sets up "expeditions" around the wasteland, taking other players on tours of the various hunting grounds of West Virginia in exchange for caps. These expeditions are first booked on the Fallout 76 Trading Hub Discord. The customer decides which location they want a tour of, and Deathclaw Dundee steps in.
Two locations are currently available: Deathclaw Island and Hopewell Cave. Each has a huge, incredibly dangerous monster inside. Deathclaw Dundee sets up a camp near the chosen location and offers some tips and pointers for encountering large beasts, "and maybe I'll throw in a few jokes" he says. Then the player is guided into the lair and the beast is slain. The payment is made and it's time for an in-game photo opp.
Indie says he was motivated to start his expedition service after seeing other players offering bodyguard services for Fallout 76. One such bodyguard is Nimufujiko, who tells me about the time he was paid to help another player who was trapped for an hour against a legendary yao guai, Fallout's mutated American black bears. "I took it out in four punches and they were amazed," Nimufujiko says. "About 10 minutes later he asked me to kill a scorchbeast for him as well."
One day, while playing Fallout 76, Thomas Rigby found a police uniform. When he put it on, something came over him. He turned his microphone on and started to pretend other players were breaking the law. If he found someone inside of a building, they were trespassing on private property. If he saw a player firing a gun, he'd ask to see their firearms licence.
And then Thomas found a priest uniform, and that's when things got super weird.
Father Shadow is an old-school priest who spreads the message of the Almighty throughout Appalachia in an effort to "save the innocent and condemn the sinners whilst battling demons". "I feel more immersed in the game because of this, I feel that my character is lore friendly and more believable, he has a background and a purpose," Thomas says. Father Shadow even has a Twitter account.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT! #76commandments ?Thou shalt not worship false idols!?— Father Shadow (@father_shadow) November 22, 2018
For those of you who are worshipping this demonic entity, know this - you will pay the price and that price is your soul! I will send this demon back to hell! #fallout76 #mothman #demon @Fallout pic.twitter.com/1BNX8r3GAl
"I have never roleplayed in any game before this because I have always thought it was ridiculous (it still is, but I really enjoy just being silly in this game), but I think it really helps in this world. There are no NPCs so we have the opportunity to fill in the blanks. There are no characters so why not be one?"
Korima, along with some friends, roleplays as a squad of Enclave officers. They've set up a soundboard with the Enclave Radio from Fallout 3 playing at a low volume, and approach new vault dwellers with scrap and ammo, courtesy of the Enclave. Oh, and there's always a message: "Do not interfere with Enclave operations."
Korima's had some interesting roleplay-themed interactions with others so far in Fallout 76. "After the initial release I spent some time fighting some power-armored high levels claiming to be the Brotherhood," they say. "While I played Enclave Radio, one of them played GNR and we kept fighting over Poseidon energy for a good hour-and-a-half before laughing about it.
"Another was a time my camp got replaced, so I called for reinforcements and requested the owner of their camp to move: 'Interfering with Enclave operations will be dealt with. Harshly.' Needless to say both our camps got destroyed multiple times before calling truce and dropping supplies for each other."
I love these tales from the wasteland, these roleplaying escapades. It's this kind of player interaction that touches on the multiplayer dream I had when Bethesda first announced Fallout 76. This post-apocalyptic fantasy is filled with would-be traders, mercenaries for sale, bodyguards for hire, and player-run factions to join. It's a dream of raiders up to no good, goodie two shoes getting what's for, and making a meaningful impact on this virtual West Virginia - not so much rebuilding it to pre-war glory, but reimagining it in the face of monsters.
And then the dream turns into a nightmare as the reality of Fallout 76 sets in. Most of the roleplayers I speak with for this article have harsh words for Bethesda and Fallout 76. Most lament the lack of private servers, push to talk, a global text chat, an in-game settlement or auction house. Some, though, go even further, painting a bleak picture of the future of the game.
Seadog started the Discord faction server Talon Company Mercs, which is based on the group from Fallout 3, because he wanted to play a mercenary faction when Fallout 76 came out with no rules but with a military structure of sorts. The Discord grew quickly in the run up to launch, but has since dwindled.
"Sadly a lot of our members are not happy with how Fallout 76 has turned out, and to be honest with you not very much roleplaying has occurred due to the fact PVP in 76 is completely pointless, and there is no way to select a server where you have other people willing to roleplay," Seadog says.
"On top of that, things like having no push to talk makes immersion very difficult when you have Bob near you yelling at his girlfriend/wife, kids screaming, dog barking, or he just turns off voice chat all together.
"All the Fallout 76 faction Discords were incredibly active throughout the months leading up to the game launch. We almost acted as small governing states and engaged in diplomacy, trade pacts and military agreements. It was fun for all of us to prepare to act out all of this in-game and imaginations of what the game was going to play like for us ran wild. With how poorly the game has turned out, a lot of the servers are dying or shifting towards other games.
"Ours now has a mix of activity and has become more of just your regular meetup spot for a weekend of games."
Can Fallout 76 be saved? I find a hope among some key roleplayers that Bethesda can improve the game. There is a tangible willingness to stick with it, just in case Fallout 76 realises its potential. A lot of this hope is pinned on the promised mod support, coupled with private servers. As Bethesda struggles to recover from perhaps the most disastrous launch in the publisher's history, modders may be the best chance Fallout 76 has got.
"As it stands right now it's not viable for roleplay," Tony, one of the co-owners of Fallout Roleplay admits.
"We're holding out specifically for private servers. With that said, we keep up to date with what Bethesda has promised and we've been made aware that push to talk is coming in December and as for a chat box for text, that should be down the line. However, without a set date for private servers this makes it difficult for us given public and private do not usually mix well due to the risk of disruption and immersion breaks within the game world environment.
"We knew this from the beginning, but were willing to wait it out and network roleplayers together in preparation for the day we get those private servers to do what we all love."
"It was a clumsy first step, but that's what it is," Lori adds. "This is a first step. It's the same process they went through with Elder Scrolls Online. Now, ESO is well polished and a grand old time."
"The day it's opened to the modding community, where we have those private servers, we imagine it'll be very different from what we're seeing right now," Tony says.
"When this happens as a roleplay platform, it'll not only be ideal but likely one of the best. It just takes patience and for anything else... there's us."