Friday, May 31, 2013

West Marches and the MMO

I was re-reading Ben Robbin's West Marches how-to blog posts just recently and I had an odd revelation.

Before a few guys dropped out due to time constraints, and some of us started our own Roll20'd DND session on Sunday mornings, we all played Lord of the Rings Online a lot. My ~78th level Minstrel is still there, twiddling his thumbs somewhere outside Galtrev.

It struck me that Ben's explanation of how to run a West March style game had a lot of mirrors with how we (and I guess other people) played LOTRO, and perhaps MMO's in general.

How's this pan out for Ben's points?

Setting: Go West Young Man

This one's easy. Every place in the MMO world is dangerous that's not a town. The areas are broken up into different regions by default - it's basically a trope of the genre. My first (and only other) MMO was Everquest I, which had forced-loading "zones" - LOTRO just kinda flows from one to the other.

If  you're a complete newbie you quickly learn what's what in where you can go. It's often pretty darn clear.

Scheduling: Players Are In Control

Infinitely so. The game world sits there brooding while the players are gone - NPCs hawk wares to no one, orcs guard never-challenged forts. The GM is the server on the far side of the world, and has all the content ready to go at a moment's notice.

And, we all had multiple characters. Is Bob's 23rd level Champion online? Well, then Joe chooses his 20th level Hunter, and they group up, if Joe didn't have something he wanted to finish with his 80th level Burglar.

Stopping an expedition and heading back to town - for rest, for inventory management, for stocking up on consumables - also well-mirrored.

Shared Experience: Game Summaries & Shared World: The Table Map

This is something that happens mostly in an MMO via twinking out alternate characters, or helping a late joiner get up to speed. All the content in an MMO is repeatable by each player character, so it becomes less fiction and more a how-to, but that's the nature of the game.

The table map is also rendered mostly irrelevant, many? of today's MMO's provide a map with many points of interest marked out - and usually when you get a quest, it tells you where to head to complete it.

There's several odd affections like that in a game that lacks a thinking DM, and relies on programmatic responses to player input.

Recycled Maps: Evolving Dungeons & Recycled Danger: Wandering Monsters

MMO dungeons don't so much evolve as respawn, but the concept is somewhat there. Wandering monsters, the same - same place, same time. It's almost a parody of itself; Everquest I would spawn this high-level wizard in the newbie zone on some ridiculously long schedule; out of nowhere, dozens of high-level PCs would pounce the guy for whatever he dropped (a crystal ball of some sort, I think?).

Again, something with a lot more verisimilitude with a thinking DM. Reimagine that wizard as a powerful NPC who travels to this certain place of power every week or so, and put that place of power where the PCs find it at low levels. Make it into an encounter that changes - change is something sorely missing from MMOs, not that it's their fault, really. There's only so much you can do.

I do recall, however, when Everquest I had an 'event' where they refreshed the Splitpaw dungeon. It was a neat place - the dungeon entrance was in a mound like the palm of a paw, and there were other mounds with giant "claws" coming out of the ground in the expected places. It was full of gnolls, and a place our guild spent a lot of time - we kinda treated it as our clubhouse.

Anyway, one day they had this event where the Splitpaw tribe was evicted by another tribe of gnolls. I don't recall it being much more than a movie cutscene, though we made an effort at defending "our" gnolls from the others. Not that they appreciated it.

And, if you were on my server at the time, you would have been treated to the ranger Koewn belting out a song in memory of those gnolls, sung to the tune of Don McLean's 'American Pie'.

Danger Gradients: Paths of Exploration & Danger Pockets: Barrow Mounds & Treasure Rooms

Easy enough. Everquest I had several starting zones for each race. LOTRO has the same, but they're all more-or-less contiguous, out in the safe West, from Bree to the shores.

I recall Everquest had little 'gotcha' areas that ramped up in danger quickly (like the aforementioned wizard), I'm not sure about LOTRO. There's certainly many areas you can't adventure solo in, mixed in with a zone of  your level, so that's much the same thing.

That maps pretty well. Let's see how Ben's advice on Running Your Own West Marches holds up against an MMO mirror:

Building It

The towns are safe. Unless you attack a guard, or, in some games have faction issues.

NPC adventurers are non-existent. If they exist, they are there as quest hooks for players.

Dungeons will and do have pockets of danger - they're designed as "levels", and there's a big bad at the end.

Running It

Appearing passive - not even an issue. The code is the code. In general, MMOs go out of their way to be passive and fair - balance is a huge issue - no paying player wants to be left with time sunk into a suboptimal choice.

Getting started is easy, obviously, there's a newbie quest that sends you straight out into that dangerous wilderness to slay 10 rats or whatever-the-heck.

The players certainly do all the work of an MMO, and there's no doubt there's competition - intra-party for just the sheer need to do so, and inter-party for the next 'loot drop' or first-to-finish a quest.

Scheduling certainly happens - look at all that work that goes into those 100-man raids or whatever there is (we've never gotten that big - our group is just the same people we'd always played DND with), and the social monster is always present in a group of more than two people.

So, there you go. A West Marches style game approximates the experience of playing an MMO (or, perhaps the other way around?), with the caveat there has to always be a DM available when players want to "log in".

With a trusted group of experienced players, having the DM duty rotate amongst whomever can do it that day would work out to increase play opportunities - if you hew to the line of not having overarching plots, just a pure exploration game, then there won't be any collisions. Say, one player really wants to run S4, or Sunless Citadel, or what-have you, they can plop it in a hex and go.

If there's a Dungeon Master Master who can "reserve" hexes for plot point areas and also run the background machinations of that plot, that would more-or-less complete the MMO-style experience, and allow a bit of non-player-centric story.

All the convenience of an MMO, all the goodness of real DND.

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