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Thinking Virtually

#10: DEaD Again: A Statement of Purpose

Shannon Appelcline
April 30, 2001  

It's been 10 weeks now that I've been at this. Five new articles and five reprints. While the articles haven't exactly been all over the map I've covered a few widely divergent topics. Now that I've got two months of writing behind me I've finally got a handle on exactly what I want to talk about here. So, I'd like to take the opportunity of a slightly abbreviated column this week to say what it's all about.

The actual statement of purpose is pretty easy:

Thinking Virtually is a column that discusses multiplayer computer roleplaying games (MCRPGs).

Pretty simplistic in itself, but there's more. To be specific I intend to center around three topics:

  • What MCRPGs are.
  • How MCRPGs relate to tabletop games and the idea of roleplaying in general.
  • How to create MCRPGs.

Those are the bones that I intend to hang this column upon.

The idea of What MCRPGs are would seem to be a simple question that can be answered in a single column, but I actually see it as more of a continuing debate. We all know what RPGs are but we don't necessarily know how to best apply them to the virtual era that's opening up before us. Back in Twenty-First Century Roleplaying and Coca-Cola or Pepsi?, my first two columns, I explored this issue a little bit, but I plan to return to it in the future. According to my current outline for this column my next new article is going to be on a number of different ways that computers can improve the roleplaying experience--including topics that I didn't cover in my initial columns. (I should note my outline of articles for this column changes at least once a week.)

For clarity's sake, however, I'd like to offer my basic definition of MCRPGs here, as part of my statement of purpose:

MCRPGs are games that encourage roleplaying, that are played on computers, and that are played by lots and lots of people, usually via an online medium.
That may sound a little pedantic, but I want to make it clear that I'm not talking about those computer roleplaying games that you might have installed on your local hard drive. Ultima XXVI and Heroes of Might & Magic LCMI might be a lot of fun but they don't encourage roleplaying. The games I'm talking about don't necessarily exist yet, except in crude forms. MUDs, MUSHes, EverQuest, and Ultima Online have only gotten partway there. Game Developers are still working to try and create games that truly offer roleplaying in the online environment; I hope that my own company, Skotos Tech, is in the lead in this area.

The question of How MCRPGs relate to other roleplaying is a hook that I plan to use to differentiate this column from other articles I've written on online games. My goal here is to, whenever I can, offer up information and advice that might be also interesting or useful to tabletop gamemasters. And, in particular, I want to look at ways that ideas have evolved in MCRPGs via tabletop RPGs.

With all that said, it's really the question of How to Design MCRPGs which I think will be the core of this column. It's a topic that I've been immersed in for the last year and a half, that I've thought of since I played my first MUD in 1989, and that I have tons of articles ready for reprint. It's the question of design that brought about my rather odd title for this week's column: DEaD again.

DEaD, you see, is an abbreviation for the three phases needed to create a MCRPG: Design, Engineering, and Development. I'm going to be covering all three of these phases in this column and for that reason this column may occasionally head off in some very different directions. But, it's all intended to have the same result. Call it a complete-kit-for-building-virtual-games.

Phase One: Design

Before you can actually write a single line of code or describe a single room for your MCRPG you need to know what you're doing. That's where the design phase of game creation comes in. You're laying your foundation. It falls into two parts: story design and game design.

It's the story portion of design that I've spent the most time on thus far. You need to make sure that you have all of The Elements of Good StoryTelling in a nice little row. You must have the rough outline of your setting, character, plot, and backstory in place before you can make any other decisions. I'll be continuing on the topic of story design next week, when I start reprinting some design articles by Travis Casey.

Once you've finished a rough story design you'll be able to start working on a game design. You need to figure out what players do. Is their prime form of entertainment going off on missions (Paranoia or James Bond), looting through ancient dungeons (D&D), or fighting against enemies (BattleTech).

Beyond the core gameplay issues you also need to figure out what systems you want to build into a game. Is combat important? Crafting? Fatigue? Influence? The game systems you design will determine how players play your games.

Phase Two: Engineering

Once you've figured out the core story, and thus the core game that you want to present, you need to figure out how to build the game systems. In a tabletop RPG this would be the part of the design where you start figuring out things like how player success or failure is rated. In a MCRPG you not only have to figure out how those systems work, but you also have to program them.

I will not be talking about programming in this column. It's a topic that I lost interest in within a year of taking my first programming course at a university directed toward theory rather than practical application of knowledge. I will however be talking about a lot of the questions that come up when you start engineering systems. Some will be questions that generally apply to all RPGs (how do you restrict multiple uses of abilities that have opportunities for failures?) while others will be very specific to MCRPGs (how do you keep a setting dynamic when players are running around killing your NPCs, taking your treasures, and generally making a mess of things?)

Phase Three: Development

And that brings us to development, which is really a mirror image to engineering. In engineering you take your core ideas for game design and expand them; in development you take your core ideas for story design and develop those.

I've just barely touched upon some of the issues that come up when developing stories for online RPGs. There are lots more including:

  • What type of things can and should a MCRPG setting reveal?
  • What are the advantages of player villains?
  • What are the problems of conflicts between players?
  • How can standard movie plots be applied to RPGs?
  • How can episodic plots from television and comics be applied to RPGs?
  • What are the advantages of giving players backstory versus letting them create it themselves

A Few Final Notes

There's considerable overlap between these three phases of MCRPG creation. There were topics that I wasn't quite sure where to put. In the coming month or two I'd like to spend some more work laying down the foundation, trying to offer as much discussion as I can of the initial design phase of RPGs, and also trying to discuss that general question of what MCRPGs are.

After that, however, I'll be willing to discuss any of the topics. Engineering and development are both fairly organic and a lot of the issues flow together. I hope you'll tell me what you want to hear about in the forums.

Next week I'm going to be reprinting some more excellent material from the Skotos web site--more stuff about design. The article in 7 days is by Travis Casey and it's about how you get ideas. 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

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