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The Roleplayer's Redoubt

Is there a really place for roleplaying in MMOs? What do roleplayers bring to the table? How can developers foster stronger roleplaying communities? How do traditional concepts fit into the realities of contemporary online roleplaying?

Author: OddjobXL

Roleplay In Action: Spinning The Saga of Gresh'Maj

Posted by OddjobXL Thursday March 12 2009 at 7:59AM
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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” ( 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.

Post Mortem
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
true RP.

* 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.

neopythia writes:

This sounds like a tremendous event.  I think the last point in Randy's addendum is the most important one.  Any successful event needs a lot of coordination from a number of people.  A quality RP event cannot happen through the efforts of one person alone, although a strong leader can do a great deal.  

I'll have to disagree with the notion that events like this cannot happen in modern MMO's.  I think it all depends on the group of RP'ers.  The game itself is just a tool set for our use.  It is just a matter of finding the right group of people to execute it.  The biggest problem I see is a fragmentation of the RP community across any number of games and servers.  There are still people playing EQ, SWG, UO, or any number of long running games.  There are strong RP'ers in Eve, or in LOTRO.  I'm sure there are groups going in DDO or even WoW.  With each new game released the community fragments further.  I think choice is the greatest challenge we face these days.  At $15 a month, there are only so many MMO's one can afford and due to the time commitment necessary for quality RP, as illustrated above, there are even fewer one can play.  

Sadly, I forsee a future of further fragmentation.  We can only hope to keep contact with a network of RP'ers across games and find one another as the fates will. 

Sat Mar 14 2009 2:35PM Report
jythri writes:

Hey neopythia!

About can/cannot happen...I agree big events CAN happen in a modern MMO. Small events happen ALL the time, if you know how to look for them. But BIG RP events...the kinds that involve, say, 500+ players...that's harder to do.

I think you put your finger on it with the fragmentation issue. We have lots of things that compete for attention, especially as a MMO matures into it's later days.

I think (my opinion here) that the best chance for big events is within the first year of release, after some pre-game ramp-up and consolidation of the RP community.  Once that edge of passion has diffused for a MMO, and the lure of game-centric rewards has settled in, it's much harder to get large groups of people to get excited about events.

Though, I do think a possibility might exist later. It just takes more energy from the story aggregator(s) to get momentum developed. Honestly, that's always what it will come down to, I think: that special kind of person who is part diplomat, part writer, part actor who has the time and energy to devote to a major coordinated story.

Sat Mar 14 2009 10:04PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

Jythri, you should come visit Starsider sometime.  While we don't have big, organized, things like Gresh'maj very often, and certainly no big cities like VR anymore,  there are hundreds of roleplayers there.  It still is the unofficial RP server of choice and with free server transfer there's a flood of new blood there.  It's the biggest server in the game and most of the people do roleplay.

In some ways I think best, and sneakiest, way to get hundreds if not thousands of people roleplaying is to design a game in which all the mechanics support the setting.  Everybody in Eve Online, and involved in those massive wars and doubledealings you read about, is an unwitting roleplayer.  Witting roleplayers can cruise right though the universe with zero cognative dissonance.

The problem is PvP.  Many people just hate it and, Eve Online aside, I can't think of a game where it serves the setting well.  It's just too disruptive and attracts some troubled folk.  Luckily, Eve's setting is flush with troubled folk.   They support the setting no matter what they do.

That fragementation makes me wonder, Neopythia, what would happen if someone made a game for roleplayers that was so irresistable we could get, say, half of the ones in existence to come on over.   We are scattered.  Yet we make up the balance of the population on some of the most successful servers in many MMOs.  

All we need's a roof, an outhouse and a porch.  And other stuff.  Which I write about in my other blog entries here.

Shameless plug.

Sun Mar 15 2009 10:11AM Report
neopythia writes:

I think the biggest obstacle in creating an RP paradise is that of setting preference.  I freely admit that I am guilty of such a bias.  When I look at upcoming MMO's, the first thing I look at is the setting, and whether it is based off an IP that I'm interested in.  It is difficult to fully commit to a new mythology like Eve when I can play in the same Star Wars universe I've been dreaming about since I was a child.   Why play generic fantasy MMO #3453 when I can explore Lothlorien or the depths of Moria?  The MMO I most look forward to is the new Old Republic MMO despite the fact that I know it's going to be built on the WoW, LOTRO, non-sandbox model.  My expectations are so low, I'll be impressed if they have Multi-player ships and a functional space component.

For me the perfect MMO would give players developer like powers.  We need the ability to shape the world in a much more meaningful manner than even the storyteller props in SWG allow us to.  I've often wished for an MMO version of Neverwinter Nights. (With a functional camera).  The ability to world build is the greatest aspect of that game.  Picture an MMO version of Second life where you could invite players into your personal space to create an evolving, impactful, story.  It would be a true recreation of the dynamic present in table top games.  

As RP'ers all we really want are tools to do our thing.  The problem is that the freedom to do so quite often negatively impacts other aspects of the game, such as PvP.  Most RP'ers don't look at immersion as being a total package.  If I'm off grinding grauls, or slaughtering storm troopers I'm not really doing it IC, as the MMO mechanics are silly.  Eve certainly gets around that with the off-line training method, but in Eve the storyteller often times gives up control of the story.  It seems more about spinning the aftermath of an encounter as opposed to creating an elaborate story arc.  I'm not certain the event described above is possible in such an enviornment as there is too little control. 

I'm rambling a bit, but I don't think the perfect RP paradise would be enough to draw all the RP'ers out there.  Despite the music we could make together, people want to play in the playgrounds of their childhood, or prefer a particular genre. 

All that said, I'd love to see a developer try.  I'd love to see someone truly create a sandbox game for RP'ers, world builders, and socializers.  I guess Koster tried, it's too bad he ignored the Star Wars IP when he did so. 

Sun Mar 15 2009 3:02PM Report
OddjobXL writes:

The problem with giving players too much control,  beyond issues like misuse of creative tools for tactical ends, for players is that, well, we ain't all that good at storytelling or creation.  And when our realities butt up against each other the variations are jarring at times.  Look at the mess you get in forums when experienced RPers start arguing over ideas that don't even exist in the game yet.

Having tools for players to create content for other players to voluntarily take part in is very useful.  SWG, Ryzom and now CoH are heading that way.  I've only dinked around with Ryzom's mission creator a little but, boy howdy, does it blow Storyteller out of the water in terms of what you can do with a conventional instanced 'adventure' setting.  Storyteller is a great deal better for events and decoration as it has more items and the area isn't instanced.  We have yet to see how CoH's Architect system works but likely it's more of the Ryzom model.

What we really need is a developer to take a known IP, as you point out that will draw more roleplayers and it gives them a good footing in terms of knowing how the setting works, and then design the game to recreate the kind of interactions between players that the characters in the setting engage in.

Don't design a stage or a mechanical entertainment ride but a booster rocket.  You need to get the players out there, moving in the right direction pychologically, by rewarding them for behavior that fits the setting.   There has to be some way to get players out of the mindset of just being players.  Eve Online seems to have some of the answers there. 

I agree, PvP can be a problem even as much as it's part of the solution for Eve Online.   That's' why techniques like competative PvE and procedurally generated PvE missions in Star Trek Online are so very interesting.  PvP's only real strength is that it creates a dynamic context that sustains interest.  The downside, of course, is the often off-putting nastiness in the communities (not all but enough it can't be discounted as a fluke), and as you mention, lack of control over quality and context in planned storytelling.

There's got to be an answer.  Hopefully I'll see it in my lifetime.

Sat Mar 21 2009 9:02AM Report writes:
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