Telling stories

If there’s a single sentence that can act as a simple summary for what role-playing games are, it is surely “telling a story from the characters’ points of view”. Any modern table-top role-playing game has this at its core; that the players, with the game-master, are developing a world and a story together as they play.

However, other aspects of the role-playing genre, notably computer role-playing games, have struggled with this aspect. The first game to truly crack this nut will attract the attention of role-playing fans, but would it also capture the attention of gamers in general? Why haven’t computer role-playing games been able to tell stories in the same way that table-top gamers do every week? What will be lost from the genre if they do? Continue reading

In medias res

A while ago there was an episode of the DnD podcast from Wizards of the Coast that had a tip for DMs to start every session with the players rolling initiative. This usually indicates that combat, or at least some action sequence, is about to play out and initiative determines the order that the characters act in. The idea is that by having your players start the session in medias res, literally “into the midst of affairs”, they will be more engaged in the session as a whole.

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The written word

Through all fantasy games, single- and multi-player, virtual or table-top, runs a common thread: The writing. It has been argued many times, and reasonably successfully, that the history of fantasy gaming was born of the ground-breaking work of Tolkien, however it is more correct to say that he was the great populariser of a genre that has been with us for hundreds of years. The archetypes that exist in his work still inhabit the games we play today: Orcs, Dwar(f|ve)s, Elves, Trolls, etc.

The images that those names invoke, and that are visualised in modern MMOs, aren’t too far from the descriptions found throughout fantasy literature. So what of the state of writing in fantasy games themselves?

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Player vs Character

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?

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MUDs, MMOs, and me, oh my!

Two pieces of news have inspired this today. News the first is that the humble text-based MUD is 30 years old. The second is the news of a new MMO from a company that I have a vested interest in seeing succeed, and based on an IP that I have a certain fondness for.

Most of my gaming background is rooted in role-playing. I started gaming when I was around 12 or 13 when I was invited to a lunch-time session of the Marvel Super Heroes role-playing game. The invitation was from an older boy at my school who was known as a ‘strange’ one, meaning that he had long hair and wore a black trenchcoat. Stereotypes have to have a grounding in some reality, right? These lunchtime gaming sessions were a relief to the young me that ate packed lunches quietly in the corner of the playground and avoided all ball-based sports that were played around me.

I’m not quite sure how the progression went, but the next memory I have of gaming with friends is a small group of us meeting at one of our houses every Sunday to play Rifts. I must have been around 16 years old, and I know that we met through a combination of pub-going1 and loitering around youth-clubs2.

It was around this time that I started finding out about MUDs. I’d been online for a while and had run a BBS for a while3 with a couple of friends, and of course I’d been playing text-based games for years, so when I found out that someone had combined these two things into an online text-based game with actual real other people playing, I was instantly hooked.

I don’t remember my first, or my second, but I do remember my last. Discworld MUD managed to hook me in with yet another factor I could not deny: Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. I played so much that I ended up as a creator, coding new rooms or items for players. This ended up with me meeting my future wife as she was my boss on the MUD. It also started getting me thinking about a career as a software engineer in the games industry rather than the theoretical physicist I thought I was going to be. I owe quite a lot to that game.

Right before moving to Singapore, I found a new gaming group. We played through the first couple of stories in a 3.5 edition DnD campaign, but then it was time to leave for the other side of the world. It’s my first time playing DnD, believe it or not, and I loved every second spent with my Gnome Barbarian/Sorceror (don’t ask).

I don’t play on MUDs so often now. I have to pick my hobbies more carefully due to a more limited playtime schedule and there are just other things that capture my interest more. I have played a few MMOs (EVE Online, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft) and have recently picked up Warhammer Online for the pleasure of exploration of a new world, and I’ll always pick up other non-RPG games to see what is out there. When it comes down to it, I’d still rather spend time sitting around a table with a group of friends rolling dice and arguing about rules than anything.

I suppose that’s why I couldn’t resist the 4th edition DnD Player Handbook when we went shopping for books for the upcoming flight. I’m not sure I agree with the changes they’ve made, but I can’t wait to find a group of players in San Francisco to find out how it plays.

1 – Playing in bands, rather than under-age drinking. Honest.
2 – Sounds Workshop: A recording studio masquerading as a youth club.
3 – Archetype, on the off-chance that anyone ever used it