Posts Tagged ‘EVE Online’

Storytelling Star Trek: Willpower

Willpower is an important part of my vision for running Star Trek. I’m a big believer in players having pools of magic beans that give them some control over when they succeed. Willpower is also a powerful feedback mechanism in the Storytelling system. In our conversion, it will provide reinforcement for following your character’s Values and Nature, as well as fuel for the Aspect system.

The Name

I considered renaming Willpower “Action Points,” as we did in the Storytelling adaptation of EVE Online. In that game, the goal was to make Willpower an entirely metagame resource, getting rid of the flimsy mapping between the idea of “willpower” and an increased ability to succeed.

However, I think I want to keep a flimsy mapping of that sort. Therefore, I’m going to follow the Last Unicorn Games version of Star Trek and call Willpower “Courage.”

Starting Courage

Characters start each new episode with five Courage points.

Uses

 Courage points will have a few more uses than in the World of Darkness.

  • Flash of Insight: Spend a Courage point to get the familiar three die bonus to a roll.
  • Use Aspect: When one of your character’s Aspects is relevant, spend a Courage point to gain a five die bonus to a roll.
  • Lucky Break: Your character finds a clue, such as one accidentally left behind by an antagonist.
  • Spirited Defense: After someone has successfully attacked your character, roll three dice. Your successes are subtracted from the incoming damage.
  • Escape Condition: Shrug off a Condition (like being stunned) without making the necessary Escape Roll. More on Conditions in a future post.

Getting points back

  • Once per scene, you can get a point of Courage back by fulfilling one of your character’s Values.
  • Once per session, you can get a full Courage refresh by fulfilling your character’s Nature.
  • You also receive a point of Courage when one of your Aspects is activated against you.

Aspects

As per Stew’s recommendation, these replace Merits and Flaws. Aspects are a concept borrowed from Evil Hat’s excellent FATE system. They’re character traits which can be positive, negative, or, frequently, both. Aspects cost a point of Courage to activate in a character’s favor, and give a point of Courage when used against the character.

Coming Up

I’m working on starship combat. While I don’t intend it to be a central feature of my chronicle, I want to have a distinct and fun combat system that imparts the feel of big, heavy starships crewed by specialists.

I think FASA’s system was really good, and easily the slickest part of their Trek RPG. However, I don’t want to use their hex-based positioning, or give two players (the science officer and the communications officer) heavy bookkeeping to do even on turns where their characters don’t take any action.

I’m starting from two places: first, an initiative and tactical positioning system inspired by AGON. Second, Ben “Bailywolf” Baugh once designed a neat starship combat system that split each “ship turn” into several “crew turns.” I like the idea of mixing lots of crew-scale actions in between large-scale ship maneuvers. As usual, I’m interested in any suggestions.

I’m kind of stuck on lifepath rules. I like the idea of charting out your character’s academy history and tours of duty (something that was cool in both FASA and LUG), but most Star Trek characters are specialists and I’m using a short skill list, which means each tour of duty would be something like “yeah, another helm job, pile on one more dot.” I’m thinking of taking a look at Traveller‘s most recent High Guard book and seeing if there’s anything inspiring in there.

Interview at RPGamer

I recently did an interview with RPGamer about Bleeding Edge and some other general topics. I talk a bit about personal stuff, a bit about work routine, and a bit about CCP design philosophy.

X1: The Panel of Dread

I wish I could say I dread moments like these.

If you haven’t seen it, basically:

  • We’re at a convention. Player asks a designer why an NPC’s position in a novel isn’t reflected in-game.
  • Designer responds that he thought the character was dead.
  • Player provides supplementary information. NPC is not dead.
  • Designer says they’ll fix it.
  • Crowd applauds wildly.
  • Internet cites video as evidence that either the player is an undesirable or the designers don’t know their own game.

I’ve been in the… what do you even call it… professional mythology business… for five years now. I worked on EVE Online, the world’s second-biggest MMO. I’ve been in charge of what I think is the world’s most complex vampire property.

And… yeah, I’ve probably given a wrong answer at a convention at some point. It’s not that big a deal, for a couple of reasons.

First of all, continuity gets mussed. Dozens of writers, a half-dozen designers, small mistakes get made. We don’t like that, but it happens. I’m told Star Wars has employees devoted entirely to continuity, and they still have mistakes and inconsistencies. We mess things up, and we have to fix them later. Or we change them, because we’ve got a compelling reason.1 I object to bad retcons, but not to retcons generally.2

Second, your game designer has to keep everything in their head and notes at once. Whereas a player asking a question is capable of considerably more focus on a specific question. I don’t have all of Vampire memorized: I look things up when I don’t remember them. At a con, I don’t have that luxury. It’s quite possible that someone will ask me a question about, say, the Akhud, at Gen Con, and I won’t get it right.

Mistakes frustrate me sometimes. I remember one, in particular, in a Requiem book. No one’s caught it so far, but it bugs the hell out of me. If it comes up in a future book? I might well contradict myself. I’m certainly not going to shoot the setting in the foot to keep it consistent with something I did wrong in the first place. Any more than I let rules that I wrote poorly dictate the path of new rules I’m doing right.

Should players be mocked for being so into things? For having that focus? Not generally. This guy was polite, reasonable, and apparently had spotted an actual error. Nothing wrong with that. Hell, I’m pretty sure I could ask Green Lantern writer Geoff Johns a really tough question if I cornered him in a public restroom.

So, no, I generally don’t dread getting asked a question I fumble. When you work on big settings, it’s just the kind of thing that happens. You move on, fix mistakes, explain ambiguities, or, sometimes, leave well enough alone.

It’s a day in the life. Have a no-prize.

  1. Or something looks inconsistent, but it’s supposed to — it’s a clue for later.
  2. An example: some EVE characters got name simplifications at one point because their names were too difficult for most people to pronounce.

Canon, Setting, and Transmedia

Canon, it’s been observed, is what people argue is true about stories that aren’t. Continuity, similarly, is what’s supposedly consistent in worlds that aren’t.

Metaplot is what you call either one when you want to start a fight.

I’m faintly offended by the idea of canon in roleplaying games. RPGs are by their nature varying and modular. Trying to lock them down to a consistent set of facts is disrespectful to players and painful for everybody.

I’ve been told that a consistent body of facts is essential to establishing a property across multiple media. That if you don’t keep on top of it, and you don’t start early, you lose what’s identifiable about your setting.

That’s only true, I think, if you’re telling a single story across multiple media. And when you’re selling a setting, rather than one story, I’ve thought for some time that it makes sense to reinvent that setting for each medium.

For example, if I’m writing a Green Lantern novel, I have opportunities and limitations that just aren’t present in the Green Lantern comic. I can develop the world in ways that just don’t make sense in comics — complicated aliens, the psychology of power ring use, and so on. And those ideas would often be clumsy and overly detailed if they were ported back to the comics.

Still, as we move towards transmedia-native properties, I’m changing my mind again. Transmedia narrative involves more inherent cross-promotion than “simple” adaptation. Where adaptation is about following a core story or core concept across media, transmedia’s in large part about following the details. It matters that a tweet reflects a detail on a physical asset.

Why am I thinking about transmedia storytelling, anyway? Well, because it’s the way my jobs have been going for several years. When we started the story initiative for EVE, we wanted people to follow information from the chronicles to the news feeds to in-client artifacts. Rather than telling versions of the core story of EVE1 in each medium, we wanted to build one narrative across four or five media.

There were high points and low points to that process. The launch event for The Empyrean Age expansion and novel was extremely effective, despite a few hiccups. We later brought the same techniques together to do an immersive event around Fanfest 2008, using news articles in real time to lead up to a trailer showing a battle between the Amarr and the Gallente. That story had visible effects in-game2, and was reflected in online short stories around the same time. It also quietly resolved a plot thread that we’d left dangling for years.

We were telling a relatively small and simple story, but it worked. People at Fanfest were checking for updates during the show. RP arguments broke out on the forums.

Part of why it worked is that the EVE setting is transmedia native. From the very beginning, EVE stories have been told through pictures of the week, short stories, live events, news feeds, and a host of other channels. In the last few years, we’ve added novels. Since the EVE setting evolved in multiple media, it has strengths rooted in each one.

That’s a happy place to be. Although coordinating multiple channels is a huge effort, it’s paid off. Our consistent body of facts3 has been the backbone for a lot of the cool stories we’ve told.

How should settings be customized to individual media? Does live content have a lasting impact on your perception of a setting? Why do you like complex continuities, and why do you hate them?

  1. Pirates vs. Truckers vs. Day Traders
  2. A starship graveyard. Everyone loves Wolf 359.
  3.  Admittedly, it hasn’t always been consistent.

Your quest is not your story

Good morning, MMO designers. Nice day, isn’t it? Well, I hope it is where you are. I’m in Atlanta, where we have “southern charm,” a concept best summed up as “the curse the swamp-witch put on us for choosing to build here.” Or, perhaps, these summers are the ghosts of Sherman’s fires.

Anyhow, it’s great to have you all here and I’d like to talk to you about something important, vital, beautiful even.

The story your player experiences when they play your game.

I realize you’ve got an opening cutscene, and a heavily-scripted tutorial sequence that’s almost like a real game. But in a couple of minutes, you’re going to let those players out into your world1 and they’re going to be experiencing a very different story.

Ah, but you’ve got quests to handle that, right? And voice acting, and instances, and…

…no. No, I’m afraid that’s not going to be the story the player experiences.2 From here on in, they’re experiencing their own story, and it’s going to flit in and out of contact with the ones you’ve prepared.

A minimal quest narrative might go like this:

  1. “Those hobos are creating a nuisance outside of city hall. Kill 10 of them and bring me their bindles.”
  2. “You did a good job killing those hobos, son. But now the hobo king is angry, and you must travel to his instance in the Poor District to defeat him.”
  3. “Those hobos won’t be much trouble without their king. But my friend over in Frostysmooth is having trouble with veterans demanding their benefits. Can you head over and help him?”

However, the typical player won’t experience that narrative directly. He’ll come into the zone to help a guildie get his bindles, get plot point #1, run into a Drunken Fratass spawn and spend a while grinding Alpha Betas, gain a level, alt-tab away to check the message boards, go to the auction house for a better Beat Stick, go farm the hobos, hang out in local chat for a while looking for a group to take down the king for #2.

In most single player games, an individual quest3 is a continuous narrative and gameplay experience. In MMOs, this is almost never true. Rather than being thought of as atomic units of gameplay, quests must be broken down a lot smaller, as I’ve said before.

What I didn’t treat back then is that players don’t experience those units in order. They zigzag through content chunks and through other gameplay systems (trading, open PvE, PvP, etc).

The ramifications for content writing are significant. Each segment of a quest must be self-contained not only on as an objective, but also as a narrative. The player must be able to come back to part 2 days or weeks after completing part 1. Even within parts, they need to be able to quickly get back up to speed on mechanical expectations and narrative context.

The impact on narrative design is even wider. The game’s story cannot be carried entirely by elements that players will walk away from and will only probably come back to. The real story they experience is a product of many systems and many content chunks.

That means that not only does your content have to be able to get players in and out and up to speed effectively, but your other gameplay systems have to carry your game’s story.

If players have to spend hours in the auction house, then a big part of your game’s story is the auction house. That means the auction system should have some narrative gloss, and that other narrative elements should acknowledge and leverage it.

Some elements of EVE are really good at this. The centrality of the player market, for example, is tied in to the setting fiction. If I remember right, we actually put the market window in a storyline trailer.

There’s a lot of room to do better, though. And the first step is to admit that traditional narrative structures don’t quite fit the MMO space. The second is to find narrative structures that do.

I’ll be looking at that soon. But first, we’re going to have to consider what “multiplayer” really means.

Next: Solo doesn’t mean single player

  1. Which, by the way, is now theirs.
  2. And neither is that business with gods and the 15,000 years and the EPIC WAR.
  3. Or mission objective, or however you break it down.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

I’m going to raise a bunch of issues here. Fair warning, I won’t be providing the solutions by the end of the article… or all at once. But there are a number of intertwined problems in basing next-generation MMOs on current-generation MMOs, and I need to dump those all on the table before I get around to figuring out where we need to go next.

First, the angry bit

It hasn’t been a good week for quests. First, Justin Achilli proposed we get rid of NPCs and questing. Then, Guild Wars 2 announced that they’re going to get rid of quests entirely.

As a professional content designer, whose livelihood at times depends on MMOs having quests, I have to say… I agree.

If you allow for the fact that a lot of people want to play World of Warcraft, and that I don’t want to take World of Warcraft away from them, then I’m 100% on board with getting rid of quest-giving NPCs.

Quests are a useful game mechanic that most games use to add a little bit of context to standard play activities. When you log in to kill things and take their stuff, the quest suggests which things you should kill, and offers you a little bit of extra stuff for taking the suggestion.

Since, for some reason, it’s not okay for our genocidal medieval combat squads to get their orders directly from God, we have quest-givers. These handily-marked1 NPCs provide a front end for the quest system, and attempt to put a friendly face on it.

Way back when, with EverQuest (and to a lesser extent, Ultima Online), quests were there mainly to help you find your way at the start of the game. Then you made friends and started doing your grinding with them, exploring new regions and killing new things and taking new stuff.

I have no real objection to quest-givers as the video game equivalents of the guy at a Ren Fest who tells you that you should really try the Drench-a-Wench. Where they fall down is when they become the custodians of Story.

Story

Now, all of a sudden, it isn’t just a guy telling you he wishes you’d roust the underserved minorities off his farm and offering you a pair of boots in exchange. It’s about Heroism and Lore and the story the developers want to tell you.

And the story the developers want to tell you is about a bunch of NPCs and their Epic Conflict (which, even though the NPCs never do anything about it, is Epic, trust us). Usually, this involves WAR! and 15,000 years of backstory. And probably some shit about gods. Especially dark gods. MMO devs really fucking love Zoroastrianism.

You know what this story isn’t about? You. It’s not about your little guy, the one you spent so much time finding a name that wasn’t already taken for. If you’re playing the nicer sort of MMO, he might get called a hero from time to time, but nobody’s going to throw a party for him or do anything to make his life easier.

No, instead they’re going to cram more Story at you and tell you it’s vitally important to the fate of These War-Sundered Lands that he march up a hill and ride Pirates of the Carribean.

I mean, can you imagine if actual theme parks were like that? If you walked into Disney and every costumed character was jumping up and down waving a glowstick telling you how vitally important it was that you preserve DisneyWorld’s Forty Years of Magic by going on their particular ride right now?

Sure, the rides are fun. They’re great. I like the really old ones about the future, especially. But at Disney, they give you a little brochure and let you wander around the park yourself.

Funny thing is, though, they don’t abandon you. Walk around Epcot. The design of the space tells you where you should and shouldn’t go, suggests possible activities, and so on. And you absorb a lot of narrative as you navigate the space. Discrete plaques and displays tell you little factoids about the history of the park and the various countries it alleges to represent.

The Story, in other words, is embedded in the navigational experience. Seems to me we had a word for that the other day… oh, yeah, environmental narrative.

If there’s a war on (and it’s an MMO, so of course there’s a war on), you should be able to see it. And if you can see it, it shouldn’t be necessary to present fake reasons to get involved.

What if they gave a war, and nobody came?

Mm, yes, that’s a problem. Because for all the talk of Epic War and A World on the Edge of Total Darkness that MMO developers are so very, very precious about, most of the actual warfare comes down to watered-down PvP systems which largely don’t affect the rest of the game. I can at least say in EVE Online, players send their characters to war for reasons that matter to them, and that have a defining effect on the game’s landscape.

Which is great except that very few people actually like Epic War and grand strategy and military logistics, and most of them already play EVE Online. We’re not going to redefine the genre by cloning EVE anymore than anybody’s doing it by cloning WoW.

And that’s when the war is a real conflict, fought over definable resources, with long-term effects on gameplay. In most games, it’s just a couple of catapults and some instanced capture the flag.

Where next?

The thing about an environmental narrative designed for a couple thousand people is that it has very little to say about your individual choices. Even when the landscape’s a dynamic place of exploding spaceships and scarce resources, the little guy tends to get lost. And the rule of MMOs is that, statistically speaking, you will be the little guy. Or rather, your little guy will be the little guy. Or something.

But that’s okay. Because when I next visit this topic, we’re going to talk about an important component of  MMO narrative… and surprise, surprise, it’s not about quests at all. It’s about something… smaller.

_____

  1. No, not marking them doesn’t improve things. It just makes the same old thing less convenient.

#godfail

Gary Gygax

Gary Gygax

So I talked about my disconnect with the cleric and fantasy religion in general yesterday. Apparently, Gygax had a few words on the issue:1

This capable and knowledgeable individual2 suggests that data on the deities is insufficient for usefulness in an AD&D™ campaign. That religion, being so much a part of our real history, must likewise play a part in your campaign.

J. R. R. Tolkien did not agree, for he wrote many pages without mention of religion. Most of the heroic fantasy and swords & sorcery books written do not feature any particular religious zeal on the part of their protagonists. Consider Conan, Fafhrd and Grey Mouser, Harold Shea, and the list goes on and on.

I do not agree that it needs be a significant part of the campaign. As AD&D™ games depend on participant input for their character, the detailing of deities and those who serve them is strictly a part of the role playing aspect of the game.

Must all evil characters sound sinister? Does an elf have to be flighty? Need a ranger be lugubrious? Actually, the game system tells you what is necessary for a campaign, but how the campaign is role-played is strictly up to the DM and players.

I’ll admit I don’t know what Gygax means in the last paragraph.3 Gods aren’t necessary. Cool. Got that, agree. Fiction need not match one reader’s view of history. Check. Play it your own damn way. Correctamundo.

But, ah, are elves flighty in conventional views of history? Did evil-aligned personages4 actually speak in a sinister fashion? I’m really not sure what the Father of Roleplaying5 means here, even though I suspect I agree.

I should probably mention that my current campaigns tend to have gods, but I don’t really mention them all that often. I more or less assume that you must believe in something, and that sometimes that something’s real. That sometimes she talks to angels, when she has her little fits, even.

I don’t, though, typically involve gods overmuch. They get little shrines and prayers and sometimes saints6. But my desire to rewrite Dune has dwindled over the years,7 and I’ve simultaneously become very frustrated with playing or playing with Religious Character Who is Crazy Because Religion is Crazy.8

One of the fastest ways, in fact, to turn me off your game9 is to start telling me how important religion is to your setting. I don’t object to it, but if you’re at the place in the creative process where that’s what you’re most passionate about, well, then, I’m in a different place.

And do keep in mind, as I say this, that I’m someone who writes about vampires from a very Catholic perspective for money and enjoys the hell out of it. It’s just that, again, I view religion these days as something of a given.

Nelson, The Simpsons

A game designer

Oh, and if your main original idea is that Christianity Was Wrong, well, then, you can show yourself the door. I’ve got my own opinions on Christianity by the loads, a fair few of them unfriendly, but I nonetheless don’t need another game designer going “ha ha, I wrote the end of the world just slightly different from Revelation, buy this big WoDalike to find out about it.”

Christopher Lee in The Wicker Man

The device I'm employing here is actually a "straw man," but I like this picture better.

Oh, and by the way, sorry, if the Celts were a world superpower I think I’d be awfully tired of them, too, so don’t think “ha ha Christopher Lee was right” is going to sell me on your latest “dark fantasy epic” either.10 And by the way, we all know that fairy tales are dark, that Santa is creepy, and that Lilith was Adam’s first wife.11

God save us.

_____

  1. Upon which I am committing the violence of adding paragraph breaks and footnotes. Just like a real Bible scholar!
  2. Read “noob.”
  3. Which is one of the reasons I gifted him with paragraphs, so that I don’t have to say “that bit where he goes all wibbly right at the end there.”
  4. Such as orcs and Hitler.
  5. Roleplaying has two dads. Deal with it now, and get over it, because one day you’re going to hear about the three-way it had with that goth couple back in the nineties and ALEENA WILL NEVER BE YOUR EMOTIONAL SAFE PLACE AGAIN.
  6. I like saints.
  7. Though, you know, give me a call if you get the RPG license.
  8. One of my many not-insurmountable frustrations with EVE and 40k.
  9. Faster, even, than being a famous goth band who starts your sales pitch by calling me a corporate sellout.
  10. Oh! This is ranting! I see why you do this, Internet!
  11. Well, according to some Roy Thomas of medieval theology, anyway.