We've seen how Lona and HGS approach events and event planning in my last post. This Randy Varnell's postmortem on a very successful, multi-guild, serverwide story event in Everquest. Randy, aka Jythri (EQ) and Davyn (AO and SWG), was also the main organizer of the biggest, all roleplayer, city ever seen in any MMO: Starsider's Vagabond's Rest. He considers The Saga of the Gresh'Maj his most successful effort to date.
This isn't the only way to go about planning big campaigns in MMOs and as I come across more examples I'll post them as well. I'd also ask the reader to point out useful models too.
First Saga of the Gresh’Maj
A player-led saga in Everquest, Fennin Ro Server, Fall 1999
Why it started
For a few months, I had led a group of bards who performed concerts in-game on a regular basis, on the Fennin Ro server, which had been chosen as the unofficial RP server by the roleplaying community. Doing so allowed me to get to know many of the guild leaders, and all of them appreciated the RP flavor we added to their gaming experience.
After several months, a few of us decided that we wanted a broader experience with which to engage our friends, and immersive RP story that would be compelling and truly explore the possibilities of a 3D MMO as a campaign medium.
How we made it work
There were several key phases to getting things rolling:
1) Develop the Story
We wanted a story that compelled players to become involved, both through personal interest and also by attaching them to the lore of the gameworld. So, we played upon sketchy information we knew about the first EverQuest expansion, Kunark, which was due out in only a couple of months from the time we began our saga.
I wrote an epic ballad, ‘The Ballad of Gath Rakkor” (http://www.soerbaird.net/Oldbards/library/gathrakkor.doc) which detailed the beginnings of a group of iksar (the new player-race coming with the Kunark expansion) called the Gresh’Maj. As my bard Jythri, I began seeding this into concerts, sharing the lore with anyone who would listen.
I then proceeded to develop a rough plotline for where our saga would run, tying into the ballad. Our ‘modern’ Gresh’Maj would be non-iksar cultists who sought to restore the old ways. They had a fanatical leader, Chakrar, who had found an obscure volume of prophecy, and was acting on his translation/interpretation of those scriptures. He believed he had to release the ‘blood of the nobles’ in order to restore his people, and return their dragon-goddess, Veen’Eshteni to the world.
To add color to this, I created the basics of a language, Ancient Iksar, to add color and authenticity to our characters. I began with a few phrases we used in our liturgy, and with the help of a UCLA-professor friend, we developed it into a fairly functional language, with a small but workable vocabulary.
Our basic story in-game, then, would be abducting guild leaders from as many RP guilds as we could manage, and then seeding rumors that we were going to sacrifice them in some sort of ritual event.
2) Gather the players.
We wanted this event to be huge. I also wanted to involve as many of the guilds and guild leaders as possible. I also wanted to maintain as much of the ‘surprise’ as possible, so that meant I had to work to keep our overall plan secret.
Through email, I contacted about 30 of my closest friends and guild leaders, asking them to commit to a 2-month saga, without giving them any details of the events. They simply had to trust me from what they knew of my previous work, and assume we could pull of a big event.
Almost everyone I asked accepted, and soon I had a group of 25 folks working to involve a much broader pool of players, eventually close to 800 players altogether (about half the live server population at its peak).
3) Communicate the plan.
In order to communicate privately all the details needed for keeping the event coherent, I created a rough website and forums so that our team could communicate encounters. The website contained our background material, snippets from the language, guides for creating and playing Gresh’Maj cult members, and a calendar of the sub-events we had planned. Also, as we drew to the conclusion of our saga, I posted a detailed plan for our final encounter and got firm commitments for the participants.
The remnants of the web site we used to coordinate this can be found here:
4) Ensure the involvement.
There were two things we did to ensure that the community got involved in the saga.
First, as we began events in-game, we tipped of members of my bards guild (who were unaware of my involvement in the plot) that encounters would happen and that they needed to record and then spread news of the happenings. We knew, then, from the beginning, that we would have quality ‘coverage’ for what we did, and even the small opening events would become public knowledge, released across a number of fan sites.
Secondly, the most useful arrangement we had devised was to have the abducted guild leaders actually play cultists as alternate characters, with the responsibility for involving their guild in the overall plot. As a person was abducted, they ceased playing their guild leader character at all (a big commitment) and played the cultist for the duration of the saga. In that role, they were asked to create whatever sub-plots necessary to allow their guild to discover the nature of the guild leader’s abduction, and to slowly allow them to learn about the cult in general.
It worked beautifully. In the space of a week (the first three abductions), our cult members were constantly followed around by crowds of people, angry mobs who wanted their friends and companions back.
5) Play out the event.
Once all that was achieved, we had to actually play out the event. We had nearly 20 abductions to stage, as well as the slow dissemination of information about our cult and our purposes.
At the core, I became the quality control manager, and chief owner of the story. And offshoots of story were approved through me, and I continually answered questions and helped develop new ideas about our cult to keep things lively.
None of our events, save for the very final night, were scripted. We went in with some rough goals, and some guidelines for how to play our characters. For the most part, once we were in an event, we were so well immersed that OOC sidelines communication was unnecessary.
For the better part of a month and a half, we were active every evening in-game as our cultists. There were small encounters, where groups of scouts would track one or more of our number down. There was even a time we allowed one of our cultists to be abducted and tortured. There were also several big gatherings, where large crowds of players would gather and demand answers. We made ourselves available for all these, and when they didn’t occur naturally, we fueled them by gathering our presence at the major cities in the game.
Other events spawned from our efforts as well, led by groups of players who were enthralled by the saga, but not one of our ‘quest team’. There was a meeting of notable people (other guild leaders or officers) to determine a course of response to the common threat. On another evening, a large group (150+ players) assembled to hold a candlelight vigil for the missing leaders.
Overall, our strategy was to keep things moving between abductions, and to do any and everything we could within the scope of our fiction to keep players interested. A few weeks into activities, this became quite challenging as we ran low on new content, and as those involved longed to return to play their main characters.
6) End the Event
We knew we needed a spectacular ending. At one point, we actually tried to solicit GM (developer) assistance to get some special features for our end event. The GMs were unable to help us, so we worked with what we had.
The full plan for the event can be found here:
Basically, things went exactly as planned. The cult was destroyed (with an insidious plot-twist revealed) and the guild leaders were returned to their groups in an emotional evening of reunions.
7) The Follow-up
For all the things we did well, this is one area where we could have done a lot better. We were all a bit tired after two months of planning and execution, and very, very intense nights of roleplaying. However, if we would have done a better job of presenting the whole story as a follow-up, we could have made the event even more memorable for the folks involved.
I have yet to see or be involved in any other RP event in a MMO, either developer or player led, that was as successful as this first saga of the Gresh’Maj. To this day, I still receive compliments from folks who were involved claiming that this remains the most immersive roleplaying experience of their life. This saga proved, even with the feeble tools provide to us as players, that MMOs could indeed provide depth and scope for campaign-type sagas in-game.
Here are some other more specific conclusions I reached about the event and how we carried it out:
• Even with the work we did, we would have done better with more content. We had problems keeping participants in sub-plots over the course of a month. A few more mini-events (10 or 15) would have been nice.
• Involving the guild leaders as we did worked very well in quickly involving hundreds of players.
• Asking someone not to play their primary character for a month is difficult. We had to relent on a few folks and return their abductees to them ahead of schedule.
• Flexibility in the minor details is KEY. The players need to feel like they can affect and interact personally with the characters.
• For big events, a large cast of insider players is necessary to facilitate the volume of one-to-one interaction that needs to happen.
• Staying in-character as a key player is must. Even small lapses into out-of-character speech or action breaks the fragile bubble of immersion.
• We needed a better public running timeline of events. Several folks on guild-specific forums tried to do this, but it would have been nice if we had one or two people dedicated to in-character event summaries for those people who came to the saga later in its execution.
Additional perspective Randy sent in an email note:
With some additional reflection, I might also point out the following:
* This all worked because EQ was much slower-paced than modern MMOs.
There was a lot of downtime, and a lot more players willing to engage in
* The saga worked mainly because of the credibility we gained as the
Soerbaird before we began. Without that, I would not have been able to make
crazy requests of guild leaders that made the saga interesting.
* There was a LOT of coordination involved. I no longer have a
low-end job that afforded me a lot of time to chat on IMs, make web
pages, post on forums, and send emails. Someone has to spend that time
to make these work.