Posts Tagged ‘World of Warcraft’

Annie, Would I Lie to You?

Edition War

Edition War

Yesterday, Mike Mearls made a plea for Dungeons & Dragons players to make peace in our edition wars:

Whether you play the original game published in 1974, AD&D in any of its forms, 3rd Edition and its descendents, or 4th Edition, at the end of the day you’re playing D&D. D&D is what we make of it, and by “we” I mean the DMs, the players, the readers, the bloggers—everyone who has picked up a d20 and ventured into a dungeon…

When we look to the past, we learn that there are far more things that tie us together than tear us apart.

Needless to say, I agree. As far apart as any two things called “Dungeons & Dragons” might be, we, the players, are a single community. We share a soul. A network, as Ryan Dancey might say, with balls-to-the-wall externalities.

There are, however, those who doubt Mike’s sincerity. He’s just making nice for the Pathfinder players, they say, in order to lure them insidiously into his brand-new gingerbread house D&D products. The ones that look like candy, but are soaked in cyanide. And WoWcraft.

That last paragraph was my initial response to the skepticism. “You must be crazy to doubt this guy,” I was thinking. But, you know, you don’t have to be crazy at all. It’s one of those things that looks different when you’re working in the industry.

‘Cause, here’s the thing: you don’t get to have the proud but exceedingly unromantic title “Dungeons & Dragons R&D Group Manager” without being a huge fucking fan of Dungeons & Dragons. How do I know? Because I’ve been there. I am here. When you are asked to take charge of designing new stuff for a beloved-yet-still-valuable intellectual property, it is not because you were the person who thought all eight previous versions sucked, and you can do better.

Those people, by and large? They take other career paths.

When you’re put in charge, you’re the last fan standing. You’re the one who loves the game enough to keep working on it when the entire market is alternately shrinking and filling with pus. You’re the one willing to put up with the corporate bullshit. And don’t kid yourself: once you’re in charge, there is corporate bullshit, no matter how wise or well-run the organization. By the time you get to be in charge of ruining the franchise for a whole new generation of fans, you’ve been through a lot, and still love the game so fucking much that you’re willing to step into the line of fire.

From now on, everything that goes wrong will be laid at your feet. At best, your mistakes will get chalked up to the interference of “suits.” At worst, your successes will become dividing lines in new conflicts between the fans. You will go to bed every night knowing that the future, if not the fate, of the world you love more than anything rests on your shoulders.

In those late, hard hours, when you’re trying to wring every drop of cool out of the twisted rag your employer’s property has become, do you hate the rag? Do you hate those who came before you, with their brown books and their red boxes?

No. You love them even more. You look at your predecessors, and do you see men? No. You see giants. Not the kind that eat people. The kind that are Ultraman. You love the work that came before yours all the more because now, just a little, you see what those greats were up against. You know what it’s like to face a fraction of what they faced.

And so you love them with the fury of a thousand suns. When the fans of your work pile up on the message boards and talk about how great your stuff is and how much the old stuff sucked, you want to jump in and start smiting. Just as much as you want to defend your own work against those who call it a debasement, a soulless corporate abomination that has seized a once-great name.

You see the big picture. Because you can no longer see anything else.

Yes, I’m projecting. But I think I’m right.

You go, mearls.

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.

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.


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.


Splinter Cell: Conviction screenshot

Splinter Cell: Conviction

So, my housemate, Orrin, played through the demo of Rich Dansky‘s Tom Clancy‘s Splinter Cell: Conviction. For the moment, her observations hold more water than mine, but just watching her, I could see the writing on the wall. For her, it was all stuff like “INFILTRATE THE MANSION,” but for me, it was “POST MORE ON ENVIRONMENTAL NARRATIVE.”

Because this is something that’s worth talking about. You’ve got all this crap that’s going on inside the head of the character, and all this crap going on inside the UI (or on the character sheet) of the player. Generally, though, the environment doesn’t reflect any of this. If you’re lucky, you get some post-processing shaders to put everything in stoner blur (or the GM narration equivalent) when you’re dazed.

If you’re really lucky, you get one of those entire maps where you’re crazy, like in BioShock 2 or Velvet Assassin.1

Heads, HUDs, and types of action

Video games have been trying to push character and game state information into the 3d environment for a while. Dead Space and Ghostbusters both replace classic interface elements with animations on your character.2 The reduced screen clutter is supposed to immerse you more in our friend the environment.

Does it? I think it worked a little in Dead Space, but thought it was almost irrelevant in Ghostbusters. Seeing the character state on the character looked great, but it didn’t make me feel like there was any kind of focus on him or his world. It wasn’t his story, it belonged to the actual Ghostbusters, and that was okay. The game also did a good job of conjuring the environments from the first film, but didn’t share that film’s gift for evoking 1980s New York.3

And the environment in Dead Space was an impressively rendered rehash of other games, kinda like every half-decent remake of Aliens. Focusing on it more didn’t really do anything for me.

Splinter Cell, though, is taking one of my own personal demons (quest text) and marrying it to one of my personal fascinations (the dungeon, or, if you must, the level). Your environment doesn’t just tell you what you have to do… the tooltips for climbing and sneaking and peaking and all are projected into the environment, too.

In other words, the game takes a somewhat new approach to two things:

  • Required action (Infiltrate the Mansion)
  • Potential action (Jump on this crate)

You find yourself looking into the environment for your goals and opportunities. Will Hindmarch says:

Conviction is all about putting you into the head of Sam Fisher, more so than his body. The game projects his thoughts onto the walls and surfaces of the game world, turning literal space into a figurative, psychological terrain at the same time.

That’s particularly interesting to me, because I think that the dungeon (electronic or imagined) is a landscape of psychological terrain.

The Dungeon as Psychological Projection

Conan beneath the Scarlet Citadel

Conan beneath the Scarlet Citadel

Sometimes, that terrain is the designer’s headspace.4

Sometimes, it’s the hero’s. If you look at Quarmall, 5 or the Scarlet Citadel,6 you see environments that reveal the essential qualities of the characters therein.

The Scarlet Citadel reveals almost only what Conan brings in: old grudges, bold action, murderous ferocity, and a canny mind ready to exploit any weakness. And, yes, he fights a giant snake. Says it all, really.

Quarmall is more your “ecosystem” dungeon, with its giant slaves bred to pump the ventillation system, its halves controlled by warring princes, and ruling over all, its withered wizard-king. Here the Gray Mouser encounters charlatan wizards, and Fafhrd muscle-brained fools — both things they’ve been accused of being themselves.

Each also finds opportunities to showcase his most conspicuous qualities. The Mouser abducts a girl and attempts a spell, Fafhrd finds his romantic inclinations overwhelming his better judgment.7 And, of course, traversing the dungeons levels leads the two to reunite and perpetrate one of their own greatest scams.

So, if the dungeon is, in part, a projection of the hero who enters it8, is that something to consciously model in roleplaying games? It’s not hard to envision a mechanism for doing so, something like 3:16‘s flashbacks, only projecting into the environment, rather than exclusively the hero’s own past.

If I’m a little suspicious of the idea in a roleplaying game, I’m even more suspicious when it comes to MMOs. Do designers even have the right to tell a player what’s going on in their character’s heads? I’ve been told that an exclamation point is already a bridge too far. Should the character even be acknowledged as someone psychologically separate from the player, or is that just a legacy inherited from other sorts of games?

And if we’re facing the death of the character9, then is it acceptable to make psychological assumptions at all?


  1. Hard not to type a 2 there, but it’s unlikely, anyway.
  2.  Arguably, World of Warcraft does this with its various floating punctuation marks. I think that’s an in-between case, myself. I’d love to see an MMO push character-mind stuff into the environment, though.
  3. Something I think the film still evokes a quarter-century later.
  4. Making it a dangerous place for oversharing, as a few people over at RPGnet have found out. I remember something about a treasure room full of greased halflings.
  5. Fritz Leiber, The Lords of Quarmall
  6. Robert E. Howard, “The Scarlet Citadel”
  7. It’s arguable whether Fafhrd or the Mouser have better judgment, but I’ll save that argument for a discussion of heroism in Leiber at a later point.
  8. Jesus, this sounds disturbingly monomyth. Somebody hold me?
  9. My money was always on the spike trap.

Race, Class and type in the evolution of D&D

Today’s familiar model of class in fantasy games works like this:

  • Pick a race, determining base characteristics and/or available classes.
  • Pick a class, determining the majority of your character’s abilities and advancement path.

That’s the model Gary Gygax created for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in the late 1970s. Although there have been variant models over the years, the race/class model has stayed dominant. We need look no farther than AD&D’s most popular successor, World of Warcraft, to see the influence.

The AD&D character model can be described thusly:

  • Character
    • Common attributes
    • Race
    • Class

However, not all earlier models of D&D character construction work that way, and looking at the evolution can be enlightening.

OD&D, Dwarves and Elves

The original D&D Men & Magic booklet describes characters principally in terms of their class. Taking a nonhuman race grants a couple of bonus abilities, but limits the character’s growth in levels. We might infer that this was meant to limit the playable lifespan of nonhuman characters. Take, for example, the dwarf:

Dwarves may opt only for the fighting class, and they may never progress beyond the 6th level (Myrmidon). Their advantages are:
  1. they have a high level of magic resistance, and they thus add four levels when rolling saving throws (a 6th level dwarf equals a 10th level human);
  2. they are the only characters ableto fully employ the +3 Magic War Hammer (explained in Volume II);
  3. they note slanting passages, traps, shifting walls and new construction in underground settings; and
  4. they are able to speak the languages of Gnomes, Kobolds and Goblins in addition to the usual tongues (see LANGUAGES in this Volume).

That’s pretty close to the AD&D race/class model: choosing dwarf limits your class selection to fighting man and provides some innate abilities. It’s easy to envision two discrete entities that make up the character: dwarf and fighting man. The elf, on the other hand, changes things around:

Elves can begin as either Fighting-Men or Magic-Users and freely switch class whenever they choose, from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game.

In this case, being an elf becomes an exception to the entire class scheme. The elf can, between adventures, change class. They apparently also have separate levels in each class:

However, they may not progress beyond 4th level Fighting-Man (Hero) nor 8th level Magic-User (Warlock).

So, in this case, being an elf changes the structure of the character. An elf is built like this:

  • Character (Elf)
    • Class 1 (Fighter)
    • Class 2 (Magic User)

What we can see here is that race is really an entire set of optional rules applied to a character, not an element of a consistent structure. Those rules vary with the race chosen.

Greyhawk and multiple class composition

The first supplement to Dungeons & Dragons, Greyhawk, clarifies and rewrites large sections of the rules, including those on race. In Greyhawk, dwarves again follow a model that looks like AD&D. Player character dwarves are again limited in levels, and again restricted to the fighter class.

(As a side note, NPC dwarves may be clerics, but also have level limits and can only resurrect other dwarves.)

Elves… well, elves are complicated.

Elves of 17 or 18 strength can work up as high as 5th level (Swashbuckler) and 6th level (Myrmidon) fighters respectively. Elves with an 18 intelligence can work up to as high as 9th level (Sorcerer) magic-users. Among the elves there are clerical types as high as 6th level (Bishop) who interact only with their own kind. These clerics (fighter/magic-user/cleric types) have magical ability limited to the 6th level (Magician).

Elves, then, are fighter/magic users whose progress is dictated by ability scores. However, they may also add cleric to their portfolio. But what about elven thieves?

Elven thieves work in all three categories at once (fighter, magic-user, and thief) unless they opt to never be anything other than in the thief category. Thus, experience is always distributed proportionately in the three categories even when the elf can no longer gain additional levels in a given category.

So elves have the option of being pure thieves or tri-classed fighter/magic user/thieves or tri-classed fighter/magic user/clerics. The drawbacks are levels and substantial XP drain. Half-elves look more like Men & Magic elves, being hybrid fighters/magic users. No mention is made of changing from adventure to adventure.

Hobbits must choose to be either fighters or thieves, but as thieves they get extra bonuses. The famous “halfling thief” is born, taking his heritage from luminaries like Bilbo Baggins.

With Greyhawk, then, race affects the entire way that a character is composed. It affects how many classes a character can have, what those classes are, and, arguably, how quickly the character advances in each. It also represents the first emergence of choices in character creation besides race and class: an elf player must choose whether to include cleric or thief in his portfolio, and whether to focus exclusively on thieving.

What we’ve seen so far is that D&D characters which add a race can change their composition entirely. Class itself has remained a neatly contained concept. That is, until we meet the paladin.

Greyhawk and the Paladin

With a strength of 18, a fighter may choose to be a paladin. (Whether fighters who have multiple classes due to race may choose to be a paladin is unclear.) “Paladin status” confers a host of additional benefits, with one restriction: the character must be Lawful and act lawful.

The paladin is essentially a “fighter plus,” with healing abilities, extra sensory abilities, and better saving throws. Paladins thus become the only “status” add-on in original D&D. You can see the roots of the prestige class there, but it will be many years before the idea appears again.

Holmes doesn’t weigh in

The Holmes Basic version of D&D simplifies a lot of these rules, but stops short of creating a formal relationship between race and class, or defining race as a discrete rules construct.

In Holmes, a dwarf or a halfling must be a fighter… unless, as the text suggests, you buy AD&D. (The assumption of compatibility there is interesting, suggesting that AD&D really was the advanced game, rather than an entirely separate one.)

Holmes also hints at the tantalizing possibility of the sub-class, something basic D&D will flirt with in different contexts for the rest of its run.

Moldvay and race as class

Finally, after AD&D, the Moldvay basic set decided to simplify things by making races into classes. A dwarf, then, was a fighter-like class. An elf was a class that combined elements of the fighter and the magic user. A character is composed very simply:

  • Character
    • Common attributes
    • Race or class

This carries through subsequent versions of non-Advanced D&D, including my beloved Rules Cyclopedia.

Honestly, this is my favorite approach. The AD&D route leads to the boring mini-game of race/class optimization, or to making race an essentially meaningless choice. There’s also nothing preventing GMs or supplement authors from creating variant or sub-classes of the racial classes. Gygax himself did it with the dwarven craftsman before race/class or race-as-class, and TSR would turn the concept into a running feature in the Gazetteer series.

The video game heirs to the Moldvay model include Gauntlet and, more recently, Warhammer Online.

Next: Yeah, but how did Arduin do it?

Guards! Guards!

Further thoughts on TSR’s code of ethics. This particular bit strikes me as vastly more important than it first appears:


Agents of law enforcement (constables, policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions) should not be depicted in such a way as to create disrespect for current established authorities/social values. When such an agent is depicted as corrupt, the example must be expressed as an exception and the culprit should ultimately be brought to justice.

Town guards, in other words, are the good guys. They’re the voice of the designer, handing down moral judgement. That’s an idea that’s stuck with us: from Dungeons & Dragons to MUDs to World of Warcraft. And it came out of a conference room at TSR.