Saturday, July 21, 2012

You're Having Fun Wrong

Warning:  Long, self-indulgent post.

A few years ago I used to play on a NeverWinter Nights persistent world called The Silver Marches (not to be confused with "Tales of the Silver Marches"). The Silver Marches was a roleplay-focused server, in that they expected everyone to stay in character and to have some passing knowledge of the Forgotten Realms. They looked down on players who constantly went out into the wilds by themselves, just to kill monsters over and over for xp. After all, experience points is an out-of-character motivation, and you were only supposed to do things your character would do.

Actually, there were a lot of activities they frowned on, to the extent that I wonder how anyone actually had fun on their server. They didn't want you farming mobs just for xp, but doing the same quest twice was also out-of-character, and there were only so many scripted quests available. They wanted to encourage people to explore in groups, but only if they had a real reason to be together.  Plus they didn't want people in groups more than a few levels apart, which is admittedly a valid concern (it made it too easy to powerlevel the low level characters)... but if we're supposed to stay in character, why wouldn't we want to team up?  A mechanics-based rule in the midst of hundreds of roleplay-related rules just makes things that much more frustrating.  With only about 15-20 people online at any given time, getting a good party together was pretty damn difficult.

They claimed to encourage original characters, but every time I saw someone come up with a truly unique character idea, they got shot down.  Part of the fun of running an RPG is how players will take your ideas into directions you never considered.  But in the Silver Marches, it was like the admins only wanted people to play a very specific way.  They may as well have handed us all scripts.

Long story short (too late), it was a wonderful module with lots of fun areas to explore, but it was bogged down by strict roleplay rules and a judgmental staff.  Even their message board was a bit draconian with its rules.  They got so paranoid about moderating flame wars that eventually the most minor disagreements would get a thread locked.  The mod's owner was actually a nice guy, if a bit easily stressed-out.  But his best friend/adviser was a hardcore gamer who constantly wanted to make the module tougher.

One of the changes that was proposed most often was the idea of permadeath.  We're talking about a game where many players die 10 times a day.  I understand their point of view - why would anyone fear death if they're just going to wake up at the local church and keep going?  Sure they lose a little gold and xp, but if they power through a dungeon by attempting the same monsters over and over, the net xp/gold gain might outweigh the cost of death.  So I totally get why unlimited lives makes death seem like a minor inconvenience.  They hoped that if they instituted stricter death rules, players might treat their lives with more respect, and be more careful about what they choose to fight.

But this is what you have to understand:  Video games are not true RPGs.  Not even the most detailed MMOs can give DMs the amount of creative control a pencil-and-paper RPG allows.  There were too many out-of-character ways you could die, such as computer glitches and server lag.  It absolutely sucks to permanently lose your character just because your internet disconnected during a fight.

In addition to permadeath, the Silver Marches admins also considered a system by which you would have to face your deity in the afterlife, and convince them to send you back to the mortal plane. This idea never got past the "wouldn't it be neat if" stage, so I don't know if they would have accomplished this through conversation trees or if you'd have to wait until a DM is online. Either way it sounds like something that would be neat at first, but would get tedious after a while. Though I suppose they wanted it to be tedious, so the player would be encouraged to let their character stay dead and start a new one.

Obviously they were trying to attract a very specific (and rare) type of player, and most of the server's actual players weren't it.  When I finally got sick of their rules, I went and made a module of my own, promising myself that I wouldn't make any of the same mistakes the Silver Marches admins made.  Itropa was a moderately successful persistent world, with hundreds of areas, many regular players, and it stayed up 24/7 for several years... and I built it out of spite.

Itropa was a whimsical universe based on bad sci-fi tropes.  I set out to design my module so that no previous knowledge of the universe is necessary. New characters were recently-arriving immigrants to the setting, so that the players could discover things at the same time their characters did. Detailed FAQs about the universe were available to players who wanted to know more, but I always stressed that it was not required reading.

There was no death on my server.  Instead, dying characters got teleported to a hospital where they were fixed up and sent on their way.  That might sound wimpy to some people, but you know what?  It didn't make the game any less challenging, or the roleplay any less dramatic. 

That's one opinion that I carry over into pencil-and-paper RPGs as well.  I'm not a hardcore player, I freely admit it.  Realism has it's place, and I don't want a game to be too easy. But there's so many ways to add challenge without the risk of death. I face challenges every day, at home and at work, and I rarely come anywhere close to getting killed. You don't risk dying in Monopoly or basketball, and those are plenty challenging. In a well-written RPG plot, the risk of failing your quest should be more than enough incentive to keep your character from doing haphazard things. Meanwhile, death has a tendency to grind plotlines to a halt (one of my favorite campaigns ended early when the wrong combination of characters got killed). It also creates other problems, like whether to allow the new character to be the same level as the rest of the party.

The first 4e campaign I played in, the DM started out by saying, "I'm not going to kill your characters." Despite this near-immortality, it remains the deepest RPG campaign I've been in, and the lack of death did not cause our characters to be less cautious. When I DM, unless a player does something incredibly stupid, I generally allow them to decide how long they live. If one of them dies in combat and can't be revived through in-game mechanics, I give them a choice. If they want to keep the character alive, I will find a way for the character to survive. Maybe they wake up in a prison cell, and have to find a way to escape. Maybe they are revived by a mysterious benefactor who has another quest for them.  These near-death experiences can be great plot hooks. Of course, I'm not going to force a player to keep playing the same character if they want to try something new, but I do want to give them the option of surviving if that's what they want.

I like optimistic storytelling.  But of course some people are just into gritty, hardcore realism, and never want to revive a dead character. If that's fun for you, I respect that. Personally I associate this death obsession with emo goth teens, and I consider it a sign of maturity when you grow out of that stage. Okay... so maybe I don't respect it after all. But at least I recognize that I should respect it, and it's wrong of me to label someone as "immature" or "emo" just because they like hardcore gaming. For myself, I think there's too much death and sadness in real life to fantasize about that when playing a game. Now, I don't want to roleplay riding a unicorn down Gumdrop Mountain to deliver lolipops to Care Bears, either. But I like my motivations to be more creative than just staying alive.

In retrospect, I was wrong to judge the Silver Marches admins.  They built their module with a specific type of user in mind, and I was the one who was in the wrong place. So were most of their other users, from what I could tell; it's a pity they couldn't find more like-minded people to play in their world. It would have been nice of the admins to say, "Okay, if that's not how you want to play, then feel free to use our module to play how you want." But I seriously don't feel they were under any obligation to do so.  Bottom line:  It is not my place to judge how someone else has fun. 

As long as I'm bragging on Itropa a bit, here's some pics of the module:

Welcome to Itropa.  Here's some things you might see...

Robots fighting at the arena.

Hovering robot vs. giant crabs.

Snorf village.

Pirate ships.

A robo-pirate.

Shapeshifter races.

Spaceship console.

UFO sighting.

Fencing training.

Music concert.


Pop culture references.

Everything's better with ninjas.

More pop culture references.

Giant bugs!

Art school.

Don't look behind you!

More bots!

More giant bugs!

Big ol' scorp.

Water lizards.

Evil guys.

Wizard kids.

Plant monsters.

Big ugly things.

Costume shop.

More big lizards.

Ancient rituals.

Robot vs giant lizard.

Some fantasy elements remain.

Christmas episode.

Fairy bar.

Alternate dimensions.

Extra-dimensional creatures.

Flying sharks!

Time warps!


Big bosses!



Cool hangouts!



Killer furniture!


Spider thing!

I'm flying!

What happened here?

Skeevy dives.


Tough guy.

Desert warfare.

Robot weaponsmith.

Sports arena.

Robot factory.

Bug-eyed space mutants.

Butcher shop.

Ice lizard aliens.

Pretty flowers!

Genetically-enhanced scorpions.

Flower shop.


Celebrity cameos.

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