Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 27, 2015
There are no girls on the internet

Not a game story, but nevertheless an online community story: Boing Boing reports that the recent leak at Ashley Madison, an online dating service of extra-marital affairs, did more than embarrass a few politicians and celebrities (all male). It also revealed that the whole site was a huge scam: For over 20 million men who checked their Ashley Madison messages there were only 1,492 women who did the same. Apparently the leak only showed that many of the female profiles were simply fake. At least in this case the old meme that there are no girls on the internet proved to be quite true; at the very least girls on the internet aren't there in order to have extra-marital affairs.

Habit forming

I own over a thousand games. Or rather, as a lawyer would tell me, I own limited licenses which allow me to play those thousand games I bought on different platforms. Plus there are thousands and thousands of games I could play for free or little money if I wanted. Supply definitively isn't the problem. The problem is having a real life which limits the time per day I can spend playing. The problem is coming home tired from work and not wanting to deal with anything too complex any more that day. The problem is learning curves of games, especially if you wanted to flit from one genre to another for more variety.

All these reasons result in that there is a high probability that the game I play on day N is the same game I played on day N-1. That usually requires the least mental effort, and it is likely that when I closed down the game yesterday there were still things I wanted to do in it. So let's play it again, Sam!

Game companies know that. And because they know that, they add "daily" features to their games. That isn't some new-fangled invention of the Free2Play age, already Ultima Online gave you double progress in the first hour you played every day. World of Warcraft introduced daily quests, daily crafting cooldowns, and in this expansion a bunch of stuff in your garrison which is on a daily timer. Of course Free2Play games also use that sort of feature a lot, you usually get some bonus for login in every day, and the longer the chain of daily logins gets, the more rewards you receive for that.

The idea is to form a habit with players login in every day. As long as players login every day, they are more likely to be willing to pay subscription fees or whatever is on offer in the item store. If you don't play, you're less willing to pay. But like all features the "daily" features have a risk of being overused and showing their downsides: At some point the daily login becomes a chore, which hardly isn't the way to endear the game to you. Miss a day, and it will feel like a punishment to have broken the reward chain or at least missed out on a day of easy to get rewards.

But as Zubon reports, there is a new trend to make daily quests a bit less of a chore: Accumulating daily quests. Magic Duels gives you a new quest only every second day, and the previous ones are stored on a list which can hold 3 quests. Thus if you only play Magic Duels every weekend, you still haven't missed any "daily". Apparently Heroes of the Storm also has a way to accumulate quests (I'm not currently playing that, although I logged in today to get a free Diablo hero). Even World of Warcraft has introduced weekend events with a very wide definition of weekend to accommodate people who are on a slower schedule than daily.

You might see that as yet another brick in the wall of the ongoing casualisation of games, but I do think that accumulating daily quests and having weekly stuff as well is a good idea. Personally I'm getting sick and tired of the daily garrison maintenance in WoW, even if that pays for my subscription.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 01

After a warm-up session before the holidays, yesterday my new D&D campaign started in earnest. The player characters are members of the Royal Homeland Constabulary of Risur. Risur has been at war with Danor repeatedly. The nation of Danor is a magic-dead zone, so they developed steam age technology and guns, which proved to be superior to Risur's druidic magic. So Risur has been industrializing over the last 40 years to catch up technology-wise. This is the background for the first assignment of the players: Providing security at the launch of the RNS Coaltongue, the first Risuri ship completely powered by steam, with no sails at all.

At the headquarters of the RHC the group received instructions and information from their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft. They got an itinerary of the event and a guest list. The elf of the party also received from the RHC skyseer Gaethan a vision of what she saw in the stars the night before: A crowd, a purple ribbon, the Beran city of Seobriga, an empty bed, a broken tin whistle or flute, and a girl with a lisp singing the Risuri royal anthem.

At the event there was a big crowd waiting to be let in. The regular police was charged to let in only 800 people to not overcrowd the docks. The RHC was in charge of making sure that among those being let in there were no troublemakers. They started that well, by identifying the groups that were most likely to cause trouble: The dockers, who are angry how the city treats them in the growing social conflict brought on by rapid industrialization. The primalists, traditionalists of the old Risuri druidic ways, unhappy about modern technology. Agents of the fey terrorist known as "Gale", who has a history of attacking industry. And finally the veterans of the 4th Yerasol War, who aren't happy that it is a Danoran tiefling who is building the Coaltongue.

With a series of skill checks the group identified 20 possible suspects among the 800 people let through the first security checkpoint. One of them was standing next to a tree with a purple ribbon around it, and got visibly nervous when the constables eyed him. Another was the only one not looking towards the checkpoint before being let in, instead apparently being very interested in a map of Ber in the shop of a cartographer. The group didn't look out for the girl with the lisp, but the vision had provided them with some clues.

Now there would have been a possibility to approach the suspects one by one, and send away those not deemed to be safe. Instead the group opted for a different method, letting through the 780 not suspect people through the second checkpoint, while detaining all the 20 suspects at one spot. Of course that group wasn't really happy when the constables started to question and search them. A few were found to be harmless enough, a war veteran who was willing to hand in his sword until the end of the event, a druid who still was royalist in spite of the king's passion for technology, and so on. A few suspects got fed up and wanted to leave. At that point Eldion, being an eager constable, decided that they should search the people wanting to leave, which caused some commotion. And during that commotion a group of 4 dockers, including the guy next to the tree with the purple ribbon and the guy at the map shop, made a dash through the second checkpoint and onto the bridge leading to the quay. The group went after them and combat ensued.

The dockers were armed with belaying pins, and later pulled knifes, but still managed to deal some serious damage with a few high rolls. But they didn't have much armor or defenses, and also missed a lot of attacks. In spite of me reminding the players that the event was on a schedule and there was no possibility to take a long rest after the fight, Aria the sorceress used her daily power in the first round and her action point later. That is the same player who used this alpha strike tactic consistently in the last campaign, and then always nagged the group to rest after every fight. I think he will find that in this campaign this will work a lot less well, as events are frequently on a tight schedule. The group used non-lethal damage on three of the dockers (in 4E D&D that decision is made on the last hit that brings the enemy down). Only the healer, annoyed at having received two serious knife wounds, decided to kill the one docker he brought down. The other defeated dockers were handed over to the police to be thrown in jail and to be presented to a judge the next day.

After the fight another docker turned up, who was known to Eldion, the deva invoker and politician of the group. Eldion had worked for one of the district mayors of Flint and had come in contact with this docker, Thames Grimsley, before. Thames is trying to organize a union, and is preferring less violent methods of class struggle. He came to warn the constables of a potential threat by a group of 4 dockers, but came too late. At least that confirmed that there weren't more docker troublemakers in the crowd that the party might have overlooked.

While the first of the invited guests arrived, the group had a debriefing meeting with their boss, Stover Delft. He introduced them to Harkover Lee, Principal Minister and closest advisor of the king. Both congratulated the group on having handled the troublemakers without causing any inconvenience to the guests, and apparently nobody was much troubled by one dead docker. The group was invited to provide further security on the ship, once it was christened by the king and the guests embarked. Right now only crew and staff was allowed on the ship, the group saw for example a halfling chef bringing a tray of chocolates on board, and some crew members carrying instruments. Due to the vision of the broken tin whistle or flute, the party checked whether any of the instruments were in fact disguised weapons (think blowgun), but found that the marching band actually used rather larger instruments than a flute.

A lot of invited guests assembled close to the ship, waiting for the king to arrive. There was the tiefling engineer Geoff Masarde who had built the Coaltongue; Captain Rutger Smith, who would captain one of the escort ships, the Impossible, which was actually a ship of the Royal Homeland Constabulary; Flint Governor Roland Stanfield; Principal Minister Harkover Lee; Industrialist Benedict Pemberton; and Duchess Ethelyn of Shale, the king's sister. A lot more NPCs than in my previous campaign, and there were signs that the players suffered from a bit of information overload and started to worry how to keep track of all of them.

When briefing the constables, Harkover Lee had mentioned that some guests might be not too pleased about the king's speech, looking at the king's sister, who had arrived with an elven handmaiden in tow. The duchess waved to Malicia, the paladin, because her family was close with the royal family, and Malicia knew the duchess and the king since she was a child. When Merian, the avenger and only character in the group with some connection to the Unseen Court of the fey from his childhood, went to check out the handmaiden the duchess gave her servant some instructions, and the handmaiden called Merian over to talk to the duchess. Duchess Ethelyn was feeling tired, and requested that the constables would organize a room for her on the ship to take a nap.

From that request the players jumped immediately to conclusions, thinking that there was a danger of the duchess being assassinated and started making plans on how to prevent that. This was interrupted by the arrival of the king, who christened the ship. Then the king went onto the ship, and the guests began to embark. At this point we stopped the session, and the next one will cover the events during the maiden voyage of the RNS Coaltongue.


Monday, August 24, 2015
World of Warcraft has 100 million players

I think Blizzard is doing a really bad job of marketing here by reporting accurately the actually relevant number of subscribers (and then still being attacked because subscribers in China don't pay as much as subscribers in America / Europe). Other companies are doing a much better job by *not* telling you how many active players they really have, but instead giving you a much larger number that can easily be confused with a player number. For example EVE Online counts the number of "accounts", which because you can only gain xp on one character per account is pretty much equivalent to the number of characters. Imagine how much better Blizzard's number were to look if they reported the number of characters instead of that of players!

The latest example is Final Fantasy XIV reporting the number of registered accounts. I am pretty sure that World of Warcraft has somewhere around 100 million registered accounts. I mean, that is counting everybody who ever tried the game, even if he never subscribed after the free month! As Syncaine assures us that a registered account is the same as an active player, so if that is true for FFXIV than it must also be true for WoW. Would you have thought that World of Warcraft has 100 million players? Thanks, Syncaine, for that information!

What really is going on is that after all those years World of Warcraft is still by far the market leader, and the real numbers of WoW make all the real numbers of the various competitors look bad. World of Warcraft has more players resubscribing for an expansion and then quitting again a few months later than most other MMORPGs have subscribers. You just need 5% of those 100 million registered accounts deciding to check out the new expansion to get 5 million players coming and going in a short time span. As those numbers are then all over the news, the competitors are reluctant to post how proud they are to have 1 million actual subscribers, because that sounds like small change (which it really isn't).

I think it is an achievement for EVE Online to have 100,000 players, but that number doesn't look good enough in marketing, so they have to multiply it by the number of accounts each player has. I think Final Fantasy XIV is really very successful with 1 million subscribers, but Square Enix inflates that number by reporting registered accounts. As you can't unregister an account, that number can only ever go up, so marketing has never the problem having to report players leaving. And as only Talarian does the math, they aren't afraid to report that each of those registered accounts played over 50 hours a day, what an achievement!

In short, player numbers have gone from being a useful information to being a marketing tool and subject to a series of lies and manipulations. Blizzard should join the club and also use those inflated methods of reporting player numbers to even the playing field!

Economic downturn

A MMORPG is not one game, but rather a collection of many interconnected games. Different people pursue different personal win conditions; and the game has different counters telling you your iLvl, your various currencies, your achievement points, your PvP rank, and so on, so that you can follow your progress in your chosen goal.

Now I am one of the players interested in the economic subgame of World of Warcraft. I count my gold pieces (one and a quarter million at the moment) as indicator of progress. And I observe what is going on in the economic game. Which, right now, is an economic downturn.

Part of the problem is the major business cycles of World of Warcraft: Every expansion, every raise of the level cap, also increases the amount of gold in circulation. So long-term the game is inflationary, a stack of copper ore today on the AH costs a lot more than during vanilla WoW. Overlayed on that long-term trend, during each expansion there is a strong deflationary trend: The very first time an item drops it is worth a lot, and the price declines from the start of the expansion or patch that introduced this item. The bind-on-equip epics (crafted or looted) that were interesting and expensive in patch 6.1 are much less so in patch 6.2. Felblight went for over 700 gold when it was new, then dropped to around 400 gold, and now is frequently sold for less than 200 gold.

For an economic player, that is a problem. In spite of the term "gold farmer", very few people actually farm gold directly. It is a rather inefficient method of making gold. Instead you gather resources, maybe craft them into stuff like epics, upgrades, or 30-slot bags, and sell those to other players. So the lower the AH prices are, the less gold the economic players make. Long periods with no new content lead to market saturation and fewer opportunities to make gold.

In addition to this general trend that has happened before, I am observing a new effect: Blizzard in their infinite wisdom have decided that economic players like me are really the best of the best, and should be able to play for free. Which we do. Any economic player with the most basic skills can earn more gold per month than it costs to buy a WoW token, even on European servers where they cost nearly twice as much as on American servers. So there is really no reason for us economic players to cancel our subscription, as it doesn't cost us any real money, and every month we stay subscribed, we earn even more gold. I have 4 WoW tokens in my bags, and enough gold for 2 more years of subscription even if I didn't earn any further gold.

The same cannot be said about the other World of Warcraft players. The *do* have good reasons to cancel their subscription. Apart from flying, which people didn't want to lose, but probably aren't so interested in that it drives subscriptions, there will be no more new content until the next expansion. And it becomes increasingly unlikely that the next expansion will release anywhere soon, presumably the beta only starts with Blizzcon in November. Furthermore I believe that the WoW Token market is real, as Blizzard says. Okay, I don't see the person who is selling me his token for my gold; but historically MMORPGs had a lot of problem with third-party gold sellers, which suggests that there is no lack of players who are willing to spend real money on gold, and there is no reason why they shouldn't be willing to do so when the gold buying becomes legal. The difference in price between regions for a WoW Token for me is proof that this is a real market, and Blizzard is neither injecting gold nor tokens, every sale has a player buyer and a player seller. So while I pay nothing to play, other players pay double: Their subscription and mine. They pay my subscription by buying a WoW Token from Blizzard, selling me that token for gold, and then handing me that gold back by buying my stuff from the AH. Which is a rather good deal for me, and a rather bad deal for the non-economic player. I wouldn't be surprised if in view of the lack of content and the cost, non-economic players would quit the game at a higher rate than economic players.

The result of that is observable on the AH: Supply and demand are out of balance; all the stuff that economic players usually make money with, like crafted epics, essences to upgrade crafted epics, or bags, are present in large numbers on the AH, with nary a buyer in sight. That is leading to price wars driving down prices. You can get epics or 30-slot bags for less than 1,000 gold now. The upgrade essences are being sold for the price of the savage blood / felblight needed to craft them, giving away the soulbound resources and sorcerous elements for free. The flow of gold from the AH into my coffers has slowed down to a trickle.

In a way that is okay with me. My interest in the economic game is to observe the market and to develop new strategies to make money. Grinding out the same strategy for months is far less interesting. I'm growing bored of farming trapped animals for my barns, even if that is still a good money maker. I'm growing bored of logging on every character twice a day to collect resources from the garrison and do missions and daily crafts of soulbound resources. I think I have demonstrated that I can make gold in Warlords of Draenor, and that I have more than enough for the next expansion. I just need to decide how many tokens I still want to buy. Do I want to continue playing my alts and just don't bother with my level 100 characters any more? Do I want to try something else with those characters, like finally visiting some dungeons? I don't know yet. But the economic game for this expansion has lost its luster for me.

Friday, August 21, 2015
Hero Forge Steel

I very much liked the idea to get 3D printed figurines for my D&D campaign from Hero Forge. The $15 basic plastic version looked too rough for 30 mm figurines, so I went for the $25 ultra detail plastic ones. That worked well in many aspects: Delivery was fast, the detail on these is fantastic, and I was able to get figurines for my Zeitgeist campaign that would have been difficult to represent with generic standard fantasy figurines. For example I now have a figurine of a sword-and-shield fighter with a rifle on his back, wearing a policeman's helmet.

In other aspects I was not perfectly happy with the figurines I got: They are reportedly fragile, so I have to carry them around in bubble wrap. They are also very lightweight compared to the usual metal figurines. And they are made of a semi-transparent plastic that has a slight yellow tinge, so the finer parts look white, but the thicker parts look distinctively yellow. Painting will fix that, but I can't paint myself, and haven't negotiated yet whether one of my players is willing to do so.

In any case, a while after receiving my plastic figurines I noticed that Hero Forge now has two new materials on offer: Steel figurines for $35, and bronze figurines for $99. Now the bronze ones look absolutely fantastic, but I need 6 figurines and wasn't going to pay $600. So I ordered a set of figurines in steel. They arrived just in time for my campaign start on Monday.

The steel figurines are made out of steel powder fused together by bronze. So they are incredibly sturdy, probably more so than standard white metal alloy miniatures. The surface is rougher than those of the ultra detail plastic ones, but less pitted than it looks on the Hero Forge website. The photos on the website also don't quite catch the color: The bronze/steel mix results in a rich, dark brown that looks very good by itself, even unpainted. I am very happy with these figurines, because they will be perfect for starting play Monday in their unpainted form, and then we still have the option to paint them.

Thursday, August 20, 2015
Paying to be the hunter

There is some unexpected comment activity on an old thread of mine about EVE Online, where a commenter now remarked that "I'm not on Eve to be some psychopath's game content." as reason for quitting. I found the remark quite interesting, and wondered whether better game design or a better business model could help.

MMORPGs in general can be observed to have huge differences in power between different players. Power tends to be somewhat proportional to hours played. So as players don't all start at the same time, and don't all play the same amount of hours per week, power levels diverge over time. PvE games tend to try to fix that with level caps, which make power gain per time spent increasingly slower, so that people can catch up. And in a PvE game power differences also have a lesser impact on the enjoyment of the game. In a PvP game, especially if free-for-all and with no level cap, the power differences have a much bigger impact. Some people get stuck in the role of the permanent victim, as the amount of time they spend in the game isn't sufficient to become strong enough or built a strong protective network to fend of attackers. Being repeatedly the helpless victim of somebody much more powerful is not a lot of fun to the victim, and thus it is understandable if he rage-quits.

From a game design point of view the solution could be to eliminate the difference in power level that comes from things like levels and gear. Many other games don't have character power levels or gear, so it is totally possible to create a game in which playing a lot would only make you stronger in as far as you become more skillful in the game. You would not benefit from having higher stats on your character or on your gear than a brand-new player. The added advantage for that would be that any PvE content would be viable forever and never become outdated because everybody has become much stronger through levels and gears.

From a business model point of view I was wondering whether the hunter and his prey should be paying the same amount of money to play. It is said about social networks that if you don't have to pay to use them, you are not the customer, you are the product. People nevertheless use those social networks, because at the price point of "free" they don' t mind being the product. So it is possible that at the price point of "free" they also wouldn't mind being effectively "content" in a PvP game. And the people who use this content, the powerful hunters that chase the weak prey, would be the ones who would have to pay for that privilege.

To me it seems somewhat weird that in EVE as well as in WoW the trend is rather in the other direction: The system of selling PLEX / WoW tokens favors certain veteran players, even if that isn't necessarily the players with the highest power level. For a brand new player it would be rather difficult to make 30k - 50k gold to pay for a monthly subscription, while for somebody with several max-level characters it is a lot easier. And the people who play the least are those who get the most bang for their buck out of paying additional money for in-game currency and buying stuff in game with it. So the people who play less end up paying more, and subsidizing the people who play more. And I don't see the veteran players skilled at making money providing "content" for other players to consume.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015
Lifetime membership

Syl regrets *not* having taken a LotRO lifetime membership, while I regret having taken one. Maybe that is funny. Maybe that is an opportunity to talk about lifetime memberships. Do these even exist any more? I don't remember having seen one on offer recently. Besides Lord of the Rings Online, the games I know had that option were Hellgate London and Star Trek Online. Seeing how the company that made Hellgate London went bankrupt and the game went under (to be "resurrected" by a different company as Free2Play later), I'm pretty certain that at least that one was a bad deal.

For me the main attraction of the LotRO lifetime subscription was that I bought it when I still thought that LotRO would remain a subscription game forever. Subscription games have a disadvantage of that it becomes problematic to play them on and off. If there is another game coming out that you want to play, do you cancel your subscription, only to take a new subscription once you want to come back? So at the time the lifetime subscription for me removed that problem, giving me free access whenever I wanted without hassle. Of course then LotRO went Free2Play, which removed my prime motivation for the lifetime subscription. If I had played LotRO a lot that might still have been a good deal, because the lifetime subscription was converted into advantages of the Free2Play game. But in hindsight I didn't play LotRO all that much, and wasted my money.

So the main problem with lifetime subscriptions is that they are usually on offer only at the very start. Just like expensive collectors editions they are sold on hype, not on a solid experience with the game. As MMORPGs frequently undergo changes, both to gameplay and to business models, a lifetime subscription today sounds like a risky proposition. There probably isn't much demand any more, which probably explains why I don't see them any more. When a new subscription MMORPG is released today, the first thing people ask is "how long until it goes Free2Play?", and not "how I can I subscribe for this for eternity?".

Right now I don't know any game where I would be willing to pay $200+ to get a lifetime subscription for. Not even World of Warcraft, seeing how that one has effectively gone Free2Play for me. How about you?

Monday, August 17, 2015
Regrets, I've had a few. But then again, too few to mention

Syp started the latest MMORPG blogosphere trend talking about regrets, followed by Rowan Blaze and Telwyn. I was a bit surprised that they all shared the regret of not having gotten into MMORPGs earlier. I'm not in the same boat: I played LPMUDs on a university mainframe computer with ASCII terminal, 25 x 80 text characters "resolution". I played Ultima Online on dial-up, and quit after the first telephone bill arrived. I played Everquest relatively early on, even if I wasn't there for release. I started my MMORPG blog over a year before World of Warcraft was released, and at that time already had played pretty much every game on the market. I'm just not sure that Syp, Rowan, and Telwyn missed much.

Certainly, the early period of MMORPGs pre-WoW had more variety, the formula of what a MMORPG is was less fixed and less static. There was a lot more experimentation going on. On the other hand, a lot of that experimentation went horribly wrong. There are events, like the launch of Anarchy Online, where my regret is to have been there rather than not having been there. Anarchy Online also showed what could go wrong if you designed worlds and stuff by algorithms, for example by creating weapons that actually had negative stats, because the weapon existed at 200 different levels and the formula designed the stats at level 100 and the slope of increase/decrease per level could be so steep that the low levels fell below 0. Several games experimented with open world player housing, leading either to horrible overcrowding (UO) or deserted player cities when server populations shrank (SWG). Star Wars Galaxies was full of failed experiments, like the first Jedi design, or the NGE, but probably had the best resource gathering and crafting system I've ever seen. Everquest and Final Fantasy XI showed up the limits of forced grouping. Nearly every early game failed to foresee that some people would camp or grind stuff 16 hours a day (and modern games still haven't found an adequate solution for that). So the early days of MMORPGs kind of resembled the mythical Chinese curse of "may you live in interesting times". I don't regret having lived in interesting times, but the experience wasn't always pleasant.

Overall I can't say I regret much of my long years in MMORPGs. The worst regret is possibly having fallen for the hype and buying the lifetime subscription for Lord of the Rings Online, and then playing the game very little because of the unresponsive combat system. I certainly made mistakes, both with playing MMORPGs and with blogging about them, but I tend not to regret my mistakes but rather cherish them as a learning experience. Thus the Sinatra quote in the title. The very definition of a game is that it provides a safe environment for experimentation, with limited consequences, thus I would say it is natural to have less regrets about games than about real life.

Friday, August 14, 2015
Training useless skills

Jessica from Herding Cats reports on 5 ways being into games have helped her career. Things like networking, podcasting, raid organization and guild leadership provided her with skills that were applicable to real world situations, and thus helped her career. What struck me about the list, and similar lists I've seem over the years, is that all the skills listed that you can learn from playing a MMORPG are skills that are ancillary to the game.

A large number of players will play the same MMORPG *without* ever learning speaking skills from a podcast, writing skills from a blog, or leadership skills from organizing a raid guild. You'll rarely be asked for those skills if you apply in a top guild. Instead the main skill required to be a top raider is hand-eye coordination: Seeing what happens on the screen and pressing the appropriate key within a short reaction time. That is a skill that is trained by a number of different video games. And there are very few real world jobs in which that skill is of much use (fighter pilot?).

A "seriouz gamer" will look down with disdain on games like hidden object games, which are rather popular (especially with a female audience) on various online or mobile platforms. Or the various match 3 games or other puzzle games. But I would say that those games are more likely to train skills that are useful in the real world than the core skills of most hardcore games. Even Angry Birds teaches you more about physics than a shooter. And you'd better not try to survive in the wild with the "skills" you picked up playing DayZ.

I don't believe that violent games turn people violent. If games would influence real life behavior strongly, I'd be more worried about racing games, because it is more likely that a gamer is behind the wheel of a real car than at the trigger of a real Kalashnikov. However I do believe that games can teach you things and train certain skills. So my main criticism of violent hardcore games isn't that they might affect players negatively, but that I think they fail to affect players positively, they don't teach them useful skills.

Handling lore

I find that my attitude towards lore is very different between playing a MMORPG and a tabletop RPG. In MMORPGs I tend to completely ignore lore. Part of that is because when I was young I read a lot of fantasy literature and learned to tell the good from the bad, and the writing of a typical computer RPG is usually rather bad. I mean, does the whole Warlords of Draenor alternative timeline story make sense to anybody? The other problem is that in a MMORPG lore tends to clash with gameplay. I play different alts, so I end up killing the same main villain several times, or worse I find myself in a script of being betrayed and can do nothing about it in spite of already knowing who the bad guy is. In the other direction lore is nearly always completely irrelevant for gameplay, the game never asks me to make any decisions based on my understanding who is good and who is bad. The good guys have a green name and I can't attack them, the bad guys have a red name, and outside scripted events I can attack them; that is all the lore I need to know.

In a tabletop RPG the situation is very different. Especially for me as DM, being lorekeeper is part of my job. Now there are different approaches to that: Some DMs make up the lore on the spot, as the world only exists when the players come into contact with it. The disadvantage is that this requires a very good memory, because stories tend to loop back to NPCs and other lore elements you described before, and then you better remember what you invented on the spot several sessions ago.

So my approach is usually one of preparation. Especially if I play a campaign or adventure that I haven't written myself. I will read the adventure and campaign material several times and think about the various relations described in there until that virtual world becomes kind of real in my head. If I know the history of my campaign world and the NPCs that are principal actors in it, I can respond to any situation that comes up in the game with a consistent answer.

For my new campaign I was lucky with the timing. This is Europe, with its long summer holidays, and in a group of 1 DM and 6 players it isn't easy to play during summer, because everybody is gone at some point or the other. That creates a huge gap between the last session before the holidays and the first session after the holidays. But as this year we finished the old campaign just before the holidays, and only had time for a short introduction of the new campaign (character creation and a warm-up fight), I had all summer to prepare the new campaign. As the Zeitgeist campaign is *huge* (the first hardcover with the players guide, DM guide, and adventures 1 to 4 has 562 pages), I could really use that time. Now I feel well prepared, having understood the interaction between the various power groups in the campaign world, and events about to happen that the players will interact with.

When I started playing tabletop roleplaying games in the early 80's, the written modules and campaign guides were all you had to prepare. Today there are other sources, because other people will have played the same campaign and put their experiences in blogs, podcasts, or even videos. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons works well with videos, as long as you stream your virtual tabletop in the video. There are various videos on YouTube basically showing people sitting around a table for hours, and there an audio podcast would have worked just as well. In any case, it is interesting to hear how a different DM describes the same campaign world, and what the reactions of different players are to certain situations. Sometimes it helps you to identify pitfalls in the adventure, where the players ask a perfectly reasonable question or take a logical course of action that the adventure failed to foresee. Seeing that happen in somebody else's campaign helps to avoid the gap in my own campaign. On the other hand every podcast or video is full of player interaction and dice rolls that have no relevance for my own campaign.

The big difference between tabletop RPGs and computer RPGs is that lore actually makes a difference in the pen & paper game. There is a much larger possibility space for players to make decisions in, and only if you have meaningful decisions to make becomes the lore important as a basis for deciding who to help and who to fight. The best a computer RPG can come up is a decision system where you better be consistently good or consistently evil to get to the maximum power level of your alignment-based powers.

Thursday, August 13, 2015
Mixing narrative

While normally I link to other blog posts because I want to discuss the core message of that post, sometimes I can't help but be more interested in a side remark. In a post on Critical Hits the author mentions "the thorny problem of delivering story at the gaming table while at the same time pulling story from the players". That struck a cord with me, because it is one of the principal issues I see for my upcoming new campaign.

Computer RPGs don't have that problem, because they don't attempt to integrate player narrative. There is pretty much only the story the devs want to tell, with only minor variations like side quests left to the player. The strength of a tabletop role-playing games is that the DM isn't the only contributor to the story, which incidentally keeps the game more interesting for the DM. Players can make actual decisions that change the course of the main story, and they all have their personal story that can be interwoven with the main story of the adventure.

As a DM any contribution to the story by the players should be welcome. The mantra of DMing is to never say no, say "yes, and ...", just like in improvised theater. But assuming that your campaign *has* a story, the issue becomes one of getting players to contribute to that story without them destroying it. I failed in that in my previous campaign in one adventure, where the players somehow decided near the end of the adventure to rather run away than to pursue the main villain, thus killing the end of the story that I wanted to tell.

The trick is to find the right balance between what a MMORPG player would call theme park and sandbox. If you provide an endless stream of events that happen, the players can only react and don't have much freedom to contribute their own story. But if you leave them with no clue and expect them to come up with a story, the results usually aren't great either, unless you have a very much narrative minded group full of impro specialists. So your job as a DM becomes to provide a framework, a world full of NPCs who are performing your story, but with enough freedom for the players to choose how to engage with that story. And then sometimes you need to force them to act by creating a situation which requires some action.

"Pulling story from the players" can also involve adding stuff to your story that wasn't originally in there. Some story hooks for the players can easily be prepared: You know the background of the characters, you know your NPCs, so you can devise a reasonable link between the two. Not every NPC has to enter a story as an unknown character, one of the player characters might have a previous relationship with him. And you can foresee how an NPC would react to visible clues, e.g. an NPC cleric reacting to a player paladin of the same faith. Just be careful as DM that you provide story hooks for different players, and not always the same, so nobody feels excluded. The trick is then to use those interactions with the NPCs to draw the players deeper into the main story, but simultaneously allowing them to contribute their part of the narrative by giving them freedom on how to react to their personal connection with that NPC.

The upcoming campaign is probably the most difficult I've ever directed as a DM. Let's see how I fare in this challenge!


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