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Role-playing in Fallout 76 is a dice roll, but it’s so worth it

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I got shook down outside a shop for my springs and I loved it

Bethesda Game Studios / Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

At first glance, Fallout 76 is fantastic for shooting super mutants in the face with high-powered weaponry while a ghoul menacingly T-poses behind you in the sky to establish dominance, but it’s terrible for role-playing.

The game instead focuses on the story of Appalachia and its sandbox elements over meaningful player choice and customization. That isn’t stopping fans from rolling up their sleeves and role-playing anyways, because this is the closest thing we’ve gotten — or likely will get for quite some time — to a proper Fallout MMORPG. As such, we’re seeing players wrestle the game into becoming the arena where they’ve always wanted to live life, completely in-character, as a citizen of the wasteland.

For instance, there’s my buddy’s humble shop. Since the launch of Fallout 76, I’ve spent a fair amount of my evenings working as a bodyguard at his fine establishment. After all, it’s the wasteland, and you can never be too careful when you’re advertising your massive supply of high-quality, high value-goods in the middle of the post-apocalypse. The shopkeep, who has dubbed himself Jake Legacy, takes pride in his work. Between the bright red walls, adornment of lights, and the assortment of flamingos and broken fridges near the road to give the impression of a garage sale, you can hardly notice the protective turrets standing guard.

As travelers pass by, Jake calls out to them in a voice that’s a mixture between Deckard Cain’s and a southern gentleman’s. Sometimes, they keep running; you can’t trust anyone out in these parts. Other times, they cautiously advance, and we trade. The shop is run at a complete loss, unless you count all of the highly effective dog food Jake gets out of the deal; he’s absolute nuts for dog food, and will cut massive bargains to get his hands on the stuff.

a roadside shop at night with a traffic light hanging in front of it in Fallout 76
If you see this shop and you have dog food, you’re in for a bargain.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

It’s a little patch of peace in the middle of Appalachia ... or it was, until the Brotherhood of Steel started their patrols. In-canon, the Brotherhood of Steel have been completely wiped out by the Scorched, leaving their suits of power armor and mighty forts empty. Players have the ability to pick up their legacy and don those suits, making themselves paladins of the wasteland.

These were two such players, and we heard them before we saw them.

“CITIZENS OF THE WASTELAND,” they called. “We are the Brotherhood of Steel, and we seek to liberate you of your technology, so that you may be truly free. We are in search of ...” They paused, and we hesitated. “SPRINGS.”

This was one of the worst things they could have said. Laser weaponry and fusion cores can be found nearly anywhere in the wasteland, if you search hard enough, and they tend to last you a lifetime. Springs, screws, gears, and adhesive are seemingly everywhere, but if you build bases and upgrade your gear, you’ll burn through them constantly. My character serves as a scavenger for my group of four friends, and I spend a decent amount of time farming springs from battered clipboards; we still have a shortage of the fucking things.

The Brotherhood of Steel paladins stopped in front of our shop in full power armor. We looked at them; they looked at us. We weren’t about to abandon our post — we have a duty as shopkeeper and bodyguard, after all. The paladins had a duty as well, so one of them told us to get out and let them check our place out. We refused. They told us to get up and let them check the shop out or they’d burn it down to the ground. We saw the merits in their arguments.

They didn’t take our springs, and they didn’t burn our shop down. The spokesperson for their little band of paladins admitted that they never had any intentions of doing so; they were in this standoff for the love of the game, as it were, not out of any intention to grief. We laughed and broke character for some time, chatting about the game, and it was genuinely nice until my friend Jake equipped his Enclave underarmor and winkingly told them to check it out.

The fight was back on. “Up against the wall!” the paladins barked, once again in character. “Up against the fucking wall!”

Characters outside a shop in Fallout 76.
You meet all sorts when you’re running a humble shop in Appalachia.
Bethesda Game Studios/Bethesda Softworks via Polygon

There’s no way to really build roots in Fallout 76 — there’s no player housing beyond your camp, which constantly shifts servers to new populations. There’s no reputation, no biographies, no way to display yourself as even being in character at all. This gives all of the role-play in the game an ephemeral feel; nothing can last past a log-off (or the game crashing, which happens too often for comfort). Because of this, role-play in Fallout 76 is never about lasting legacies or long-term effects. It’s brief and brilliant, like a flash mob, and when it disperses, it leaves nothing but a memory.

Fallout 76 feels like you’re constantly playing with Wild Wasteland on. Wild Wasteland is a perk in Fallout: New Vegas that adds or changes encounters to the game to include weird, dark humor that is more in line with the original Fallout games’ special encounters. A gang of old women with pink dresses and rolling pins emerges to mug you, corpses crop up that are clear references to pop-culture hits, and an alien ship shows up full of spicy alien loot.

Community members have shared similar stories on the Fallout 76 subreddit, like the Chameleon stealth agent who appears behind you and whispers in your ear if you want to buy any drugs, or the clown inmate who stalks you until he’s ready to leave nothing but bones and ash behind as a memory. One report even tells of a brave soul camping out at an abandoned outhouse, waiting for someone to wander by and save him from his plight.

When people say that the world of Fallout 76 is empty and dead, they’re likely not wrong. But it seems like so much of your success in this game is built on that dice roll of who’s on your server. When it’s players like the makeshift Brotherhood of Steel or shopkeep Jake Legacy, I know I’m in for a fun, weird time. When I’m on a server full of people who are consciously avoiding each other, I feel that loss. I know how good Fallout 76 can be — with the right people. The game without them is lesser for it.