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a few thoughts on RPGs

If you've had to sit through this before, feel free to walk away and read something else.
If you have more insight into how MMORPG like World of Warcraft work than I do (THIS IS NOT HARD) I would appreciate your comments.

And in this box were three little books, not well edited, which had rules for role-playing in a fantasy world that was kind of like Tolkien's Middle-Earth* but had some weird magic systems filched from Jack Vance's The Dying Earth and a really confusing armor class system. Still, despite the minor glitches and typos, people bought this box in sizable numbers, invested in pencils, polyhedral dice, and quadrille ruled graph paper, and began to pester their friends about playing the game. Now, this was of course D&D, which spawned a seemingly-endless stream of modules and revisions and manuals and suchlike publications, to say nothing of imitators.

Now, the original campaign that D&D was based on was about as structured as the original medieval era, so when a character got up to a fairly high level, say, tenth, they would generally retire to their castle and become NPCs, because in the original D&D a 10th level lord was a pretty serious killing machine even before you added in all the magic armor & weapons said lord had accumulated in his adventures. Ditto with magic-users and clerics; as for thieves and assassins, they had a Guild structure to force them into the background once they got senior enough.

Unfortunately this wasn't true of a lot of other campaigns, whose GMs hadn't bothered to take the time to set up a fairy-tale kingdom for their characters to operate in. (To be fair, building a dungeon under the old rules was enough of a ball-busting task to start with. Having done it myself, I can easily understand why other GMs couldn't be arsed.) As a result, you had players blundering around the landscape indulging their taste for slaughter, pillage, burning and more pillage in a sort of anarcho-feudal landscape. i.e. Sherwood Forest. Because if you're not a PC, this shit happens every day. And eventually the PC reach the levels where they should be settling down, administering justice to the peasants, brewing up magic potions for the low-level PC, and/or selling curative spells to the critically injured. Since there's no structure in place to force this, though, and most GM don't want to alienate the players, the characters just keep blundering around getting more powerful and encountering the kind of threats on a regular basis that would have made the medieval era a veritable Hell on Earth. Or, conversely, once these super-characters got done with it, a Shire on a global scale with the elves, humans, dwarves, hobbits and ents living in harmonious oneness once the Final Solution for those orcs, hobgoblins, and kobolds had been implemented.

I get the impression that World of Warcraft isn't that free-form, that the emphasis is more on doing quests and running around with your guild doing these quests. Frankly, I'm not interested enough to find out, and the same goes for the new online D&D MMORPG. At this point I'm more curious about the general features of those worlds and the social structure, if any. I think the first MMORPG designers who can come up with something like EVE (where there is an orderly center that's safe, not too risky, but not too profitable either, contrasted with a lawless outer zone which has rich rewards if your alliance can hold off the other alliances) for fantasy RPGers is going to make shitloads of money. Because really, these games are all about friendships and alliances, and if they don't allow you to form those and use them in the world of fantasy, what good are the games?

(Originally written 12/28/08)

*Enough so that the lawyers of Tolkien's estate forced the game's authors to do a better job of filing off the serial numbers and repainting the ideas so the theft of intellectual property wasn't obvious enough for a judge to bring down the hammer. Still, everyone knew who the ents, hobbits, and orcs were.



( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 21st, 2009 02:46 am (UTC)
Don't play WoW, don't want to.

Dec. 21st, 2009 02:48 am (UTC)
I hear you. I know people who do, but never got the urge myself.
Dec. 21st, 2009 04:23 am (UTC)
I'm not sure what your question is...?
Dec. 21st, 2009 04:23 pm (UTC)
Do the contemporary fantasy MMORPGs have anything more than an endless series of modules to offer? Can you build your own kingdom in the world of D&D Online? I'm assuming they don't; am I wrong?
Dec. 21st, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC)
Of course not. If you could build your own kingdom, you could conceivably "win" the game and want to stop playing. The whole business model of MMPORGs is to always give you something more to aim for: more character development, more gear, more pets, more bling. All so that you never feel "done" so you never stop paying to play.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:58 am (UTC)
I guess what I see as one of the major failures in fantasy MMORPG is the lack of a metagame, the ability to support actual nations within the game that can contend with each other as alliances and corporations do in EVE. You know...a crossbreeding of WoW with the Hundred Years War simulation Jim Dunnigan used to run. This would keep the interest of players and generate more plots and quests and missions than any single group of developers could possibly come up with.
Dec. 21st, 2009 04:51 am (UTC)
The standard D&D setting is actually a little more promiscuously mixed than you seem to be implying: the combat system is supposed to suggest Conan, while the thieving system is more like Fritz Lieber's Lankhmar stories and the magic system is (as you say) all Vance. (The framework D&D uses for clerical magic does appear to be original, more or less, although it has some clear Vancian DNA in it.)

That actually accounts for a lot of what makes D&D strange, archetype-wise; you've got all these archetypes from heroic fantasy running around in a world that's more like Middle-earth, and the two subgenres don't really play well with each other. Remember that in Tolkienian epic fantasy, victory isn't achieved by force of arms: it's only when you mix in sword and sorcery archetypes, which would be more at home scrapping with mindless beasts and evil cultists, that you get the odd ethnic-cleansing-as-a-sacred-calling bits that D&D has become infamous for.
Dec. 21st, 2009 04:25 pm (UTC)
This is a good point. I hadn't been aware that they'd drawn on the Conan stories for the combat system, which looked like bog-standard medieval miniatures rules to me, but I had forgotten the ties to Fritz Leiber's work.
Dec. 21st, 2009 08:39 am (UTC)
My wife plays Final Fantasy XI, which has only enough D&D in it so one can see the ghosts, and almost nothing of Tolkien left in it (there are orcs and elves in it, but that's about as close as it gets). It's very much a team game with all kinds of quests and missions. Solo level grinding just isn't done. It's also very social. I know of two couples that have met online and gotten married.
Dec. 21st, 2009 04:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, but the world of FF XI is fixed, amirite? You can't just get together with your friends and carve a barony/county/earldom/kingdom out of the wilderness, can you? It sounds to me like all the other online games in that the computer GM is just running the parties through a series of modules.
Dec. 21st, 2009 07:26 pm (UTC)
IIRC, Vana'diel is pretty much a fixed world, unless Squarenix decides to make another expansion that adds a new continent to the mix. And that's doubtful, since they're basically working on FF XIV right now.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 12:42 am (UTC)
I can't comment vis-a-vis WoW, being a City of Heroes player. Nevertheless, I'd have to guess that one problem faced by any software developer trying to address the question you are asking would be how to integrate a MUD-like free-form player-driven kingdon/barony/shire creation system into your existing world. Such a system would require planning for allotment of data space to *every* character for *every* player - not that 100% utilization would be expected (or achieved), but so that there should be enough resources for a reasonable projection of need.

Additionally, there would be a question of available gamespace in which players could create their own satrapies. In a game where the map of the world is pre-determined, you will probably not be allowed to build a barony just anywhere, and even if you could, the landscape would eventually be littered with baronies, which would eventually make it impossible for new development. As a result, it seems likely that a "homeland portal" would come to exist, which would take players to their personal domains, or possibly to the domains of their allies and friends.

Hmm. More comments later, as I must turn my attention to a game of Power Grid.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 01:16 am (UTC)
If EVE is any example, I daresay there will be more than enough goons and/or griefers to trash any baronies that don't exert themselves enough to maintain their defenses.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC)
That depends on how (or whether) the developers decide to handle the PVP vs. PVE issue as regards personal domains, and it also depends on whether or not such domains can be owned by multiple PCs, or if PCs who have no domains can choose to be vassals or mentors to the domain holder. Those questions alone could, depending on their answers, require several man-years of programming effort to implement.

The economics of such domains will add more man-years of programming. Your holding must start at some basic point, and you will have to pony up the in-game wealth to create the initial structure. Call it your Hall, since we're discussing semi-medieval fantasy, and if you aren't wildly wealthy you are probably starting with a wooden structure. The Hall gives you a place to hold court (literally, since you're the local authority), a basic defensive structure, and a place for your starting complement of armsmen to sleep. A community theoretically springs up around this Hall, and *should* become the source of revenue and people with which you can improve your holding.

If the developers require you to personally earn all of the wealth needed to improve your domain, growth will be ridiculously slow, unless they make it ridiculously cheap. If they create a tax system to generate wealth to drive growth of the domain, it will be necessary for the player to decide how to use his taxes to improve the domain - which will make this aspect of the game anathema to some players. Remember that we're talking about a sizable number of man-years worth of programming effort to produce something which will be engrossingly interesting to less than half of all MMORPG players - possibly a *lot* less than half.

Going back to the PVP issue - to what extent will your domain be susceptible to raiding by enemy players? "Safe" zones would presumably represent the lands of established powers, so you can't build there... you end up building on the frontier of your "Kingdom", because that's where the "new" land is. So, you can be attacked... if you're out of town on a busy holiday weekend, and don't get a chance to log in, does this mean that you'll return to find that all of the stay-at-home players have raided your new domain out of existence?

Would it be necessary to set limitations on how many people can attack a domain, and how often? Is it even *reasonable* to allow people to attack the domains of any given other player? Only a few such attackers should actually be able to *reach* your domain because of theoretical geographical limitations. In EVE, it stands to reason that large numbers of combatants can cover enormous distances with relative ease, using FTL travel. In fantasy campaigns, this kind of portability should be difficult to achieve.

Finally, moving back over to economics, how much damage should a person suffer when raided? Are they subject to being raided by someone much higher level than they are, or by groups which in theory should be able to overrun them completely based on numerical superiority? Can they rely on support from "nearby" allies?

The problem is that the MMORPG starts to become a MMORTS game after al while... and that appeals to a different audience. Not exclusively so, but different.

And, off I must go to deal with other matters... I'll add a closing remark or two later.
Dec. 22nd, 2009 09:49 pm (UTC)
Moving long distances in EVE isn't as easy as it sounds, since most interstellar travel is through jumpgates, which in zero-sec space can be camped and/or bubbled, trapping ships in an interdiction field that keeps them from warping out to safety. Effectively, you can only move quickly in space where there aren't any gankers around, which is why it's a bad idea to travel alone. :)

Yeah, the economics of a medieval RPG are going to be a turnoff for some players, but you can rely on NPC seneschals to do some things for you. So I guess you'd wind up with a fusion of RPG (for the hacking and slashing, etc.) and RTS for building a barony.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 01:29 am (UTC)
Well, I didn't *say* that it would be a *safe* trip - just that it could be done fairly rapidly. The same just shouldn't be true in a fantasy setting, at least not for mass raiding parties.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 02:51 am (UTC)
Agreed. In fact, mass raiding parties would move slower than forces defending a castle, since raiders would need to bring supplies with them - or resort to pillage, which has its limits. Defenders operating out of a castle would have a relatively secure supply base, assuming the NPC seneschal (or PC seneschal) has been doing his job.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 02:26 am (UTC)
In closing, I'll say that what you're looking for is not impossible, but i *is* going to have to be a specific *goal* of the game developers. Frankly, I'd like to see Blizzard try it, and they actually have an upcoming opportunity to do so. STARCRAFT II will theoretically be released at some point in the next year or two, and it would provide Blizzard with an opportunity to springboard another MMO from one of their RTS's. They would have a chance to develop a lot of new things in such a MMO without upsetting their great big cash cow, and if they found that some of he new features were popular with players they would be able to port the basic ideas over to WoW as expansions.

If it comes from someone else it will most likely be someone swinging away at the fence, with the logic that they have little to lose and everything to gain if the idea pans out.
Dec. 23rd, 2009 02:54 am (UTC)
CCP is also in a good position to do it; they could build on the foundation that exists with EVE.
(Deleted comment)
Dec. 23rd, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I know what you mean. I'm none too enthusiastic about showing up for scheduled ops myself.

I think if someone did do the kind of fantasy MMORPG I'm talking about here, there would have to be GMs taking an active part or at least fixing things when they get broken - which they inevitably will. As you point out, people have an amazing ability to break things when you get them together in large numbers.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )



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