Posted by: NiTessine | April 12, 2008

Online Roleplaying

Today, I’ll be talking about online roleplaying games.

Not MMORPGs. I consider the term a misnomer, because you’ll be hard-pressed to find any actual roleplaying even on a roleplaying game server with most of their ilk. Also, the graphic user interface is an inherently limiting feature, which goes against one of the most basic things that RPGs mean to me. In World of Warcraft, my character can’t climb a tree, for example. I can /emote it, sure, but the character will still just stand there beneath the tree, looking vaguely lost. Though I enjoy World of Warcraft (and to a lesser degree, enjoyed EVE Online), I would not call them roleplaying games.

Not play-by-post games, either. I’ve tried them, and concluded that they move too slowly for me to retain interest and stay inside the game. Also, there doesn’t seem to be an elegant way to involve the rules, and there are strange and imaginative ways of producing unbiased dice rolls for the GM to view, all of which are overly clunky. The alternative is a storytelling freeform thing, but I don’t do freeform and the ones I’ve followed have had the unfortunate tendency to devolve into purple prose riddled with Mary Sues, stories with six main characters locked in a passive-aggressive mortal combat for the limelight.

No. When I roleplay online, it’s on IRC, OpenRPG or, in the distant past, a MUD.

IRC

IRC, Internet Relay Chat, is the easiest of the lot, though poses certain problems with certain games. It’s a text-based medium, and in many ways identical to a face-to-face game. Just slower. With a good dicebot script, you can do all the regular dice, plus weird stuff like d39, for example, in pools or all counted together, with bonuses and penalties. I’ve seen a deck of cards for Deadlands, too, and a One-Roll Engine pool script that calculates the roll’s height and width for you.

Private messages are a handy feature of IRC that facilitates secret conversation between the Game Master and players, which is a big plus. You can pick your fellow party member’s pocket without everyone deducing it was you based on that slip of paper you gave the GM. (Now they can deduce it based on you having the highest ranks in Larceny, Pick Pocket, Sleight of Hand or whatever.) Out-of-character chatter can be directed to its own channel, to keep from cluttering up the game channel. It’s a good system.

The major shortcomings are the general slowness of the game – a snail’s pace compared to tabletop – and the lack of a proper battlemap for more tactical games like Dungeons & Dragons or Warhammer Fantasy Role-Play. However, I’ve played several campaigns of D&D over IRC without great problems, other than the strange tendency of the party’s clerics dropping like flies. I don’t think that’s tied to the medium, though.

OpenRPG

The second, and my current medium of choice, is the free software OpenRPG. It’s basically a chat program with a built-in dice bot, character sheet support, and a whiteboard that may be overlaid with a battlemap grid or used to display images for the players. It’s still buggy as all hell, however, but when it works, it’s the best way to play D&D online. I’ve been using it to play Living Greyhawk over the net. Unfortunately, the majority of the player base is American, which leads to many games starting at three o’clock in the morning.

The character sheet (or monster sheets, or scenario boxed text, or whatever else you want to pester the players with) is a little thingy where you write down your characters skills and abilities and whatever you may need to roll for, along with a short dice code. Then, when needed, you can click a button on the sheet and it sends the text and the dice code to the game table and rolls dem bones.

For example, “Melee attack: can of whoopass [1d20+9], damage [1d12+10]” would come out as “Can of whoopass [1d20+9] -> 28, damage [1d12+10] -> 18”. The DM or the player can then give descriptive text for how said ass is whooped.

When OpenRPG works, it’s great. The rest of the time, it keeps eating all my nodes when I shut it down and every time I play a new game I have to rewrite my character sheets. But then, I don’t play online all that often. Like IRC, OpenRPG has that inherent slowness compared to actual tabletop gaming. Your average Living Greyhawk module is supposed to run about four hours, so I generally schedule at least six for any play on OpenRPG. Recently, many groups have moved to using Ventrilo as a supporting software, which speeds things up a little.

MUDs

Here’s one for the old school…

For those not aware, MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons, are the text-based predecessors of today’s MMOGs. Some of them, such as Aardwolf, are entirely hack and slash and killing mobs for xp and loot. Entertaining, yes, but not really roleplaying.

Despite the name, not all MUDs are dungeon crawling. However, the structure of the world is composed of separate rooms, be they a stretch of city street, a bit of the forest, or a 10′-by-10′ room with an orc guarding a pie. The one I devoted most of my time back when I had the time to devote was called FaerunMUD. It’s no longer active, after a cease and desist from Wizards of the Coast in 2001, but it did spawn a pair of spiritual successors, Rauvyon and Arantha. I deny responsibility for the Nurminen gnomes of Arantha – the name was given by a friend of mine, Lari, a fellow Finn who originally introduced me to FaerunMUD around 1999. When FaerunMUD turned into Rauvyon, we got to keep our characters, and I continued until Rauvyon went offline in 2002. It returned later. I did not.

FaerunMUD was based on the AD&D 2nd Edition ruleset and set, as one may have guessed, in the Forgotten Realms. The clunky AD&D system was quite bearable even after the release of 3rd Edition. It’s easier when the system is hidden and the computer gets to do the rolling.

On FaerunMUD, and Rauvyon after it, roleplaying was heavily enforced. Killing other player characters was allowed, but you had to write a 500-word, in-character mail to the admins about the event and its motives. It was an automated system that sent the requests whenever you attacked and killed someone in combat or with a spell, but me and Lari created a precedent by killing someone with poisoned tea. I’m slightly proud of that. Also, whenever a character levelled up past level three, the player had to write an approval text, a piece of in-character fiction going over what the character has been up to since the last level-up, and his hopes and dreams for the future. The rest of the player base would vote yes, no, or skip on the approval. If it passed (50 yes votes in a week’s time, I think), you could continue levelling. If not, you had to rewrite it and wouldn’t earn xp until you were approved.

The system is a bit harsh, looking back at it, but it did have its advantages. It was a living world, easy to immerse oneself in. It felt like the Forgotten Realms, and there were a number of cool player characters there. For one thing, there were elves who weren’t played like pointy-eared humans. There were heroes and villans and people in between, from the literally baby-eating evil of the drow Drinlith or the cold, conniving mind of the witch Nacinthe to the exemplars of law and good, Stromgren of Waterdeep and Lawrance, blind paladin of Tyr.

Ah, those were the days. This, however, brings me to one of the things I perceive as advantages of a text-based online medium over a face-to-face game.

The Pros

The first advantage, which is a purely personal thing, is that it’s easier for me to get and stay in character on a text-based medium. It’s probably partly because I’m a writer by nature – just look at the size of this entry – and a bit shy in real life. Online, it’s simpler for me to find and maintain the voice of a character with those ten seconds longer that I have to think through my word choices.

Of course, the experience is also one step detached from a face-to-face game.

The second one pertains to the poisoned cup of tea I mentioned earlier. I’ll relate you an interesting anecdote relating to the subject. It’s a stunt that Sampo Haarlaa, a Living Greyhawk module author and Triad member and the Point of Contact for our Living Forgotten Realms region, pulled a while back in a series of Living Greyhawk sessions over OpenRPG. The modules played were part of the Blight on Bright Lands plot arc, which includes a couple of the finest modules released for the campaign.

The Tale of Avrian and Gardakan

Avrian is a half-orc, a fighter and a ranger, with a grim demeanour and a knack for hitting things with his trademark halberd. He’s not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is very cunning.

During the recent crisis in the desert domain of Bright Lands, Avrian worked for Rary, called the Traitor by some, who rules the desert and its tribes from his tower in the Brass Hills. Opposing Rary was the paladin Karistyne, backed by the archwizard Tenser, a mortal enemy of Rary’s.

For those keeping track, Rary is neutral evil while Tenser is lawful good.

Most other adventurers in the region were allied with Karistyne. Pesky do-gooders. However, the goals of Rary and Karistyne coincided – both wished to gain possession of certain powerful magical items, such as the evil scimitar Bane of Itar and the warhammer Goggorddu.

Avrian saw no reason to disclose all his allegiances when he joined a group heading into the ruins of Utaa to retrieve Bane of Itar. The party’s leader carried a powerful magic item that would whisk them and their prize magically back to their employer once it was recovered.

The ruins were dangerous, home to a variety of enemies. In the end, the heroes prevailed, and Avrian, being the physically strongest of the party, picked up the Bane of Itar, which sapped the very life force of all but the vilest of men who attempted to wield it.

Surely, it affected even Avrian, though hardly as much as he was letting on.

The artifact claimed, the group huddled together with their leader, who activated his magics and sent the party miles away back to their employer.

Except for Avrian, who had refused the magic. Teleportation spells do not work on unwilling targets.

When, hours later, the party’s leader had managed to have himself teleported back into the ruins, there was no Avrian and no Bane of Itar – only a set of footprints leading into the desert.

The rest of the party were not to be stymied by this setback, and directed their energies toward acquiring the warhammer Goggorddu. The party’s makeup was, of course, slightly changed on this next errand. Avrian wouldn’t have been accepted even had he been found. Instead, a human warrior named Gardakan, with a backpack full of javelins and a sword at his waist, joined them.

The party again set out, overcame tremendous adversity and recovered the powerful warhammer. No teleportation magics were handed out this time, and they had to make their way home by the conventional means – trekking across the desert. Goggorddu was carried by Gardakan, a physically strong individual.

On their walk home, the party was accosted by a small cavalry force loyal to Rary. Combat, naturally, ensued. Gardakan began by downing a potion. The label read “Bull’s Strength”. He also picked another bottle into his hand, and then, at the dramatically appropriate time, suddenly soared into the sky. Ten meters of height he gained, discarding his sword in the process. Then, he drew from among the javelin shafts of his backpack, a familiar-looking halberd. Finally, he removed his helmet, dispelling its illusionary magic, and shifting his form and visage into that of a familiar half-orc.

“It is I, Avrian!” he announced, before quaffing the second potion, turning invisible, and flying away with Goggorddu.

——————

The tale above is true, for the most part. I may be off on some details as I wasn’t present, but that is pretty much how it went down. It’s a masterpiece of deception, plotting, and intrigue that enhanced the game for all concerned and would’ve been quite hard, if not impossible, to pull off in a regular game.

The layers of deception are many. Avoiding the teleportation was easy – a private message to the DM saying “I’m an unwilling target.”

Pulling the wool over the party’s eyes the second time was harder. Firstly, I believe his public sign-up was done under an assumed name. The DM was, of course, mailed with the real personal details and an outline of the plot.

The character of Gardakan was announced as a human fighter, as opposed to the half-orc fighter/ranger that Avrian is. I think Gardakan was also said to be a level lower, possibly to account for his slightly decreased combat performance when not wielding the signature halberd so easily connected to Avrian. The helmet was, of course, a hat of disguise. Even the name Gardakan was carefully considered to arouse no suspicion and create the image of a casual player out just for fun.

With the potions at the end, he stated on the public channel “I drink a potion of bull’s strength and pull out a potion of cure light wounds“, while privately messaging the DM of their true natures – a potion of fly and a potion of invisiblity, respectively.

This kind of intrigue and deception is great when it works out in a roleplaying game. I should know, we played that series in the same way. In the last five adventures, not a single one went by without at least one juicy double-cross. Really, it’s one of the most fun things you can get in a roleplaying game.

While it can be accomplished in a face-to-face game, the other players will still know something is going on because you and the GM will be passing slips of paper back and forth. They can read expressions. They can choose not to use metagame knowledge, of course, but the awareness will affect their playing and they must take an extra step back from the character to think what their character would do were he ignorant that the other character is up to something.

Online, all those problems are removed. The medium does have its own shortcomings, no disagreement there, but in this one area, it is easily worth it.


Responses

  1. […] gaming history. One of my earliest significant roleplaying game experiences was FaerunMUD (which I spoke about last month), a large community that essentially formed a living world. You played, you logged off, […]

  2. Just Googled Drinlith the drow and found your Blog post.

    Which brought back old times. I too played FaerunMud. In the Times of Drinlith and Stromgren. You will not remember me I think but I played Elrik Phelan the wanderer… and I still reminice about playing him fairly often.

  3. Elrik Phelan… I have the dimmest of bells ringing, but that might just be because of the character’s more famous namesake. Nevertheless, it’s good to see old veterans of FaerunMUD popping up.

    My characters were Dyvnal Khaldam of Tyr, and Caldour Dalaith, the Silverfox Bard.

  4. I have to say the same, that dim bells are ringing. More with Dyvnal then Caldour. Mostly Hunted the Tethyr woods with Strom and Chethanal back then. And a bunch of others or course. Was a Golden sword [and Apprentice to Krythos] before they did the big betrayal thing. Good Times…

  5. Hmm. Chethanal and Krythos say nothing to me. Probably before my time.

    I was never a big Tethyr hunter. Or really, a big hunter at all. My characters were pretty low-level as a result. I think Dyvnal was barely level 7 at the end, and he clocked in at around 1,500 hours of play time.

    Strangely, Caldour got to level six with a third of that. He always was more fun to play, though. More personality.

    Oh, that Lari I mentioned played Nanothilas. He may be more memorable.

  6. […] which was a living, breathing world based on the Forgotten Realms. I’ve spoken of it before. It’s also a major cause for my fondness of Living Greyhawk. To me, Greenwood also taught the […]

  7. For the record: I, too, googled Drinlith, and stumbled upon this and was aghast that I’m remembered for something I never did! Baby eating, indeed… I ate adults! Sometimes teens, but never babies! I was not a very good babysitter to a certain baby in Faerun once, but that’s not quite the same as making a sandwich out of the brat. That kid turned out just fine anyway.

    I tortured a puppet once as Cyric, but also… not a baby.

    Although maybe McTrinsic was a baby. Gods if I know.

    Nice to see some folks remember the old days, whomever you might be.

    And for the record, whomever is using my name in WoW is not played by me.

  8. Eeek! It is you!

    Eh. The baby-eating thing was what I heard. I don’t think I’ve met Drinlith more than once.

    It was my first day in the game, and I was going with Nanothilas and Amonanor to Ardeep Forest to hunt goblins. I think I was playing Caldour back then (an elf fighter who never made it to level 2, having, in the way of so many first characters, a number of beginner errors in the character creation – such as not speaking Common, I think).

    Anyway, we were resting on the roadside, recovering our movement, and you, along with some woman whose name I don’t remember, came along and scared the crap out of me, mostly by being vaguely creepy and obviously Higher-Level Than Me.

    The woman may have been the mad Cyricist puppet person. I do not remember her name.

    Who was the brat, by the way?

  9. Well, glad I could make an impression just walking on by. If you’d hung around Drin a bit longer, though, I probably would have eaten one of your companions (or you!) or at least made motions to that effect and given you a real reason to worry.

    The puppet woman was called Irinia. She was a really nice and friendly puppeteer lady until Cyric (me) stole her puppet, tortured it, burned it, and drove her mad. To her credit, she played a madwoman brilliantly. The puppet somehow ended up down in the well in Skullport during one of my hiatuses from the game.

    The baby in question was a quest object from some GM run quest that I stole from Heyerdahl’s corpse, spirited away to my hidey-hole in Shadowdale, and who… unfortunately lived in my backpack for several days and could never eat ham or elf again afterward.

    He was subsequently raised in the Manor by Natalya and Shaftiel, and turned into Dalharuk d’Veldrin, who you may or may not remember as a snobby self-styled prince with an attitude, and who was also played by me for a time.

    In fact, I played a character known as Dalhar for a couple of months on Rauvyon after its reincarnation a couple of years ago, who was the same person as Dalharuk, through circumstances that’d take all day to explain. Dalharuk got to survive, but not Drin. Sad day.

    Playing Drinlith is, to this day, the best time I have ever had in any kind of gaming.

    So, to be on topic, I wholly agree with you that text gaming is in all ways (except visually) superior to anything passing for a graphical role playing or tabletop game, in terms of actual role playing.

  10. Ah, yes, Irinia! I remember her, though only met her a few times. None of my characters ever really spent time in Skullport, being either goody-two-shoes or at least trying to pass for socially acceptable. Besides, the Blue Moon Inn served lousy lattes.

    Heyerdahl was also before my time. I think I’ve met Natalya precisely once, Shaftiel I’ve never even heard of.

    Dalharuk doesn’t ring any bells either, sorry.

    McTrinsic I remember, at least. Helmite, good guy.

    I had a project to poke all immortals. I had a big list of IMMs I’d poked in a text file that got erased when my hard drive crashed. A lot of really funny OOC channel logs disappeared with that, too. It was a sad day. As I recall, it included IMMs discussing their supposed huge logs of MUD sex, saved while watching people’s inn rooms. Also, the occasions of at least two of Deral’s infamous wife beating incidents, when he, on reflex, typed “kill” instead of “kiss”. He did that three times, as I recall. I’m kinda surprised Lea stayed with him through all those.

  11. Late to reply but actually it was Eerenvar, you and I that went to Ardeep. Amonanor wasn’t there.

  12. Dim Tuffman, checking in. I miss running around FaerunMUD.org/Faerun.com with Gondar, Barfo, Devlin, Rahkir, Latigo, Odarion, and Iris…not to mention Stromgren, Drinlith, etc.

    I miss the days before the Annotated Road to Shadowdale bridged Waterdeep to the other side of the world. Back when the only longsword to be had was earned by slaying Bleys Crommor on the Docks. Back when the only thing to eat was bread and everyone was begging for coppers to buy some. Back when Aaron rode around in a Corvette. I miss going with Morinfen and Arilyn to slay Elminster’s dire wolf and owlbear. I miss the first Tyr vs. Cyric war, the killcount and the capture-the-statue wargames. Back before PKill letters, level approvals, etc. Back when roleplaying was done because it was enjoyable, not because it was forced. Oh, and I miss my manorūüė¶

    It’s too bad the original FaerunMUD won’t come back. I’m sure Aaron has it lying around somewhere, though.

    And if you see Ean/Fridul around anywhere, stab him in the back for me.

  13. Guys, I’m glad I found you.

    Rauvyon is back up, with no approvals required until level 9, no pkills required, better XP bonuses, magic loot from big HD monsters, and a very very brutal world.

    At least 20 people are online in a prime time day, steadily increasing as I find and bring old timers back online.

    There are plenty of new villains, and dastardly deeds running around, and as one of the 98′ generation of Faerun MUDders, I can honestly say the new style of Rauvyon excites me and takes me back to the old days.

    It’s no fun without people who think the lawless early days were the golden age, so get your asses back here.

    http://www.rauvyon.com

    –A

  14. Emote wonders if this game is still ran by a bunch of jaded DMs that hate evil doing characters.

  15. From what I understand, they’re nowadays far more lenient.

    Besides, I don’t think they ever had a problem with evil characters – something like half of them played bad guys, like Nacinthe, Alledra and, well, Drinlith. It was the chaotic stupid ones that annoyed them.

  16. […] addition, during these years, a friend of mine introduced me to FaerunMUD. I’ve spoken of it previously, and it remains a significant influence on my development as a player. On FaerunMUD, roleplaying […]

  17. Great essay, I was a late comer to FaerunMUD but as a teenager and a budding writer, I look back on it as one of my most important formative experiences.

    I’m trying out Rauvyon, and it is fun, but there just isn’t the player base that Faerun had (probably because Faerun’s setting was more instantly accessible and fleshed out). I know the subject is done to death, but WoTC should really just relax with their Cease and Desist orders. FaerunMUD brought them more revenue, not less.

    For now, Rauvyon will do. The players and RP are great–the setting isn’t as off-putting as everyone says. However, I’d really like to see Faerun resurrected someday.

  18. […] thoughts, that stands awed in the medieval village.” This ties in an interesting way to my experience with MUDs – I still maintain that the best roleplaying I’ve ever done was in a […]

  19. Something in my mind tweaked me to come and punch in faerun mud on google.

    And there were some names I remember. It’s been 2 years since the last post here but I figure why not.

    I was there during Stromgren’s time with his rise to power and so on.

    Not sure if anyone remembers Elias Critchell VI the Paladin of Tyr.

    I also remember fighting Drinlith once to stand up for something and he kicked the living piss out of me.

    I played 2 characters. Elias Critchell and Kaitlin Cross aka the Iron Bitch.

  20. Those were the days all right . . . almost all these names are so familiar. I played Frith, and Grenn, but lastly I played Aragnosh Cordwaine, cleric of Valkur the Mighty. It was the most fun of any game I have ever played. I so much wanted to be able to use Aaron’s code to run my old D&D group on adventures. Alas, that was never to be. His code, coupled with the world itself and the great people, players and admins, created something synergistic, something greater than all its parts. Yup, I still miss it.


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