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Thinking Virtually

#14: Thirty-One Flavors?

by Shannon Appelcline
May 28, 2001  

Alright, eyes on the road. For the last couple of months I've talked about how you design games--from laying out the elements of good storytelling to making sure that you're not miring yourself in cliches. But, I don't want to lose track of my purpose here: talking about virtual games. So, for the next four weeks I'm going to delve a little more deeply into definitions of online roleplaying games: all with the purpose of describing what the heck I'm talking about.

I've been pretty loose with the phrase Multiplayer Computer RPG (or MCRPG for short). It's the term that I use to describe online computer RPGs--and to very distinctively differentiate them from CRPGs like Might & Magic or the original Ultimas ... which in my opinion don't offer much opportunity for RPing at all.

But, beyond the understanding that MCRPGs are roleplaying games played on computers by multiple people, what exactly are the things?

I've got an ideal in mind for what RPGs should be like on computers, but in actuality there's a whole spectrum of possibilities, and this week I want to work through them. If you haven't already you should go back and read my second article, Coca-cola or Pepsi?, which runs through some of my thoughts on the benefits of physical and virtual games.

Traditional Models

So, you want to RP on your computer with other players. How do you do it? The simplest model is to simple adapt the existing gameplay directly to the electronic medium, using the 'net as a way to transmit your once-tabletop roleplaying session. There's a couple of ways you could do this:

The Chat Model: A gaming group meets in a featureless chat room which exists solely to transmit their conversations. Functionality exists to roll dice via the chat room since no one can actually see the rolls of the other players. In an advanced chat room, basic system functionality (be it Fuzion, GURPs, BRP, or something else) may actually be embedded into the chat room so that, say, it can not only roll your to-hit dice, but also tell you if you did hit and what damage you did. Basically, you've moved your tabletop game to an electronic medium, but only changed it slightly to deal with the limitations and a few of the advantages of the virtual medium.

The Virtual Gaming Room Model: You can take this a step further and, rather than sitting around a featureless room, instead sit around a virtual living room. A table in the middle of the room could display your miniatures. You could physically throw dice on the virtual table. You could even pass around pizza, spill drinks on the host's carpet, and engage in all of the other experiences that make a physical game truly fun. Wacky? Yeah. Does it allow you to create some of the benefits of physicality? It might. I'd love to hear about someone trying it.

The Virtual Dungeon Model: If you've already got a system where a gamemaster can create virtual environments it makes sense to have the gamemaster actually create the environment that you're going to adventure it--be it dungeon, floating cloud city, or freetrader Beowulf--rather than an artificial virtual environment like his living room. Then the gamemaster can monitor the game (perhaps even tag along like the Dungeon Master in the old D&D cartoon) and introduce problems as players go from room to room. I should note that I'm not talking about creating a working interactable environment here--if you go that route you might as well be writing a MUD. Just by creating the rooms, however, and letting players wander around, the gamemaster might add a high level of truthfullness to his game. Even if the players sit down and roll dice and consult their character sheets in each room. Wacky? Yeah, I think this one is too. But it could be cool.

Computer Models

The ideas that I've talked about so far are all on the tabletop side of the spectrum. However, it's my longstanding belief that you're going to produce the best games if you actually change your gameplay to take into account the strengths of your medium. And, as you might recall from back in my second column, I said that one of the biggest strengths of the MCRPG medium was the dynamism of the people involved in the games: you have constantly changing groups of players and gamemasters available for RPing. By using that advantage you can create models for RPing that are more true to the electronic medium.

The Virtual Mission Model: If you take the next step beyond my "Virtual Dungeon" you realize that you don't actually need to always gamemaster for the same group of players. Instead gamemasters create episodic plots that they run dynamic groups of adventurers through. A random (but appropriate) group of adventuerers show up on any given day. This is my model for how an online Paranoia game would probably work best, though I could see it being used in any type of game.

The MUSH Model: But, even breaking down adventures into the "episodes" that you're familiar with from the tabletop can be too much constraint inside a virtual environment. Why do you actually have to run individual episodes with beginnings, middles, and ends? Why can't you freeform individual events, or plots, or story arcs, depending on your time and availability? Why can't players wander in and out of those plots as they see fit? This is a pretty good description of how MUSHes are run on the 'net. The virtual gamemaster has not only freed himself from being tied to a specific group of players, but he's also freed himself from being tied to a 4-6 hour game session, like he'd expect in the tabletop world.

The MUD Model: Not necessarily better, just different, is the MUD model. Here the gamemaster takes a step back and actually doesn't interact with players, but rather increases the importance of the computer as a conduit. He programs his adventures into the computer, and then the computer arbitrates everything as the players try to take actions. "Adventures" occur whenever players decide they do. Without direct gamemaster intervention, players interact with each other, kill monsters, and loot treasures. The gamemaster has truly become gamedesigner.

And the Winner is ...?

So, which of these gameplay models is true roleplaying on the 'net? To various extents, all of them. Much of it depends on what you play games for. If it's the socialization with a small group of friends, the chat and virtual gaming room models are probably the winners. My virtual dungeon model might appeal to folks who enjoy the imagery and the "wow!" factor of games. Virtual missions could appeal to folks who like regular gaming sessions with beginnings, middles, and ends. If RPing is your big thing then MUSHes are probably the way to go, while gamers more interested in achievement and exploration will more likely go with the MUD model.

And, which of these am I talking about when I say MCRPG? To some degree, again, I'd have to say all of them. I think a lot of the stuff I talk about is going to be widely applicable. But, my target MCRPG is a will-o-the-wisp that I'm not convinced exists. I'm talking about an ideal game which is the perfect representation of RPing on the 'net:

The "True" RPG Model: I envision a model of gameplay that combines some of the computer models, but also takes a step beyond them. At the higher level, the computer has taken the place of the gamemaster and is simulating a complex world, with ecosystems and economies which are both constantly changing and both effected by player action.

But, at the lower, more personal, level, gamemasters stake out particular spheres of influence, one being the master of the goblins, perhaps, or the Lord's Castle, or maybe even the local pub. Each gamemaster has a troupe of NPCs (and monsters and treasures) at his fingertips and he uses them as his tools when he wishes to run plots within his sphere. Players wander in and out of these plots as they see fit and can choose what type of adventures they want: RPing with other players; interacting with gamemaster plots; or adventuring within the environment created by the games' simulations.

It's like MUDs, or MUSHes, or even EverQuest, but much, much richer with multitudes of human gamemasters proactively keeping the world an interesting place to be.

With that model in mind next week I want to look at some of the big computer RPGs out there and talk about how they're missing my ideal ... not as an argument against those games, but rather to offer a contrast to what MCRPGs can be. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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All Thinking Virtually columns, provided by Shannon Appelcline

Other columns at RPGnet

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