Adventures in Forum Gaming

I wrapped up my first play-by-post Pathfinder RPG scenario last week. I ran it on our Finnish Pathfinder Society forum, as a sort of an experiment on whether it can be done and to figure out how it works. The module I used was The Frostfur Captives, by Jim Groves. It’s a pretty good module, but that’s not the main point of this text. You may consider it a companion piece to this post from 2008.

First things first: yes, we finished it. Forum games are fragile things and die easily. They don’t require a great deal of time or commitment as such, but they make their demands on a daily basis. The Frostfur Captives took us 93 days, with six players and a GM. There were some quieter spells at some points, especially when I lost steam in mid-March, and during my trip to Berlin in April. No players dropped out, though. Overall, I deem the experiment a success.

Of course, the play-by-post format imposes certain limitations on the practical side of the game. All rolls were handled by me. Some I rolled by hand, some on a dicebot on our IRC channel, depending on where I was at the time of posting and whether the roll was such that the players could know about it—e.g. Perception rolls to detect an ambush would be rolled in secret while the initiative rolls when the ambush gets sprung are public.

Similarly, not all information was public for all players. We utilized the private messaging system of the forum extensively, especially when characters executed their secret faction missions. After complaints by one player, the decision was also made to shift information on the health of a fallen player character to private messages. They were also used to communicate ahead of time what the characters would do on their combat turns.

Another important thing is that there’s no battlemap. While there are various ways I could execute it, they’re all rather work-intensive and anyway, as one of my players pointed out, the lack of a battlemap reduces gamist thinking. I give descriptions of the environment and list distances and directions. It is up to the players to interpret them accurately. Of course, I have a notepad with an accurate battlemap that I use to keep track of where everybody is.

We host character sheets on the Mekanismi wiki, with the rest of our local Pathfinder Society stuff. Usually the character sheets are public. One of the players likes to have his sheet behind a password, but I had access to that one as well. It’s pretty much mandatory to have the sheets somewhere online for a game like this, so I can update the game on my mobile phone from a café, if need be.

We had two separate forum threads for the game. Primarily, there was the in-character thread where the gaming action occurred, and secondarily the out-of-character thread, where people asked questions, commented, had arguments about differing playstyles, and complained about the leisurely pace.

PFS scenarios are organized into several acts and the action usually flows logically from one act to another. In some of the more sandboxy scenarios, the middle acts can sometimes overlap or be played in a different order from the one presented, but The Frostfur Captives is about taking a bunch of goblin prisoners from Point A to Point B, through intermediate points, wherein lay encounters and challenges. I opened each act with a longer, very descriptive post, sometimes utilizing art and always including a YouTube link to an appropriate piece of music. For this scenario, I drew from the soundtracks of the games Icewind Dale and Icewind Dale II, since they do an excellent job of evoking the kind of cold, wild desolation that I envision Irrisen to be.

I think the act structure and the fact that there’s a clear endpoint to the game in sight is a contributing factor to the game’s success. Everyone is working towards a goal and, for the most part, will have an idea of what they should accomplish next. The action keeps going and it’s pretty much never dependent on a single player to make a move. If someone falls silent when their character is called upon to act, I can allow them a day or two to react and then just coldly skip them. This has been an issue with many forum games that I’ve seen. To my shame and regret, I’ve pretty much killed one last year by falling silent, and I was a mere player.

The scenario chronicle sheets were printed out, filled by me, and then scanned and mailed to the players as .jpg files after the game.

The forum game differed from tabletop sessions by its tone. The written medium forces people to consider how they express themselves more carefully than they would in a face-to-face situation. OOC banter is also entirely absent. The result is that the game moves closer to an exercise in collaborative storytelling. Of course, each participant has their own idea of what the style of the game is and the characters can be a very strange bunch. For instance, the party in my game included two sorcerers. One of them was Black Annis, a very dark sorcerer character from the far north, whose player was essentially running her as a Vampire: The Masquerade character, and the other was Gnublebum Rikikii, a whimsical gnome with an affinity for goblins. It’s a challenge for the participants to reconcile such disparate characters and the story of the adventure itself into a cohesive whole. Unlike a regular tabletop gaming session, a forum game is not ephemeral but is preserved for posterity, even if some of the events that transpired are visible only to me and the player in question, in our forum mailboxes.

I’ve now seen how a journey module works online, and I think it worked pretty well. My next project is Mists of Mwangi, which is closer to a traditional dungeon crawl. I am interested in seeing how it works on a forum.

Incidentally, the game is now accepting players. It will be played in Finnish, I estimate the timeframe to be around three months, and will be played at Tier 1-2. The signup thread is here.

Where to Find Online Games

Someone asked me for this after my last posting, so I’ll just list a few places here where I’ve previously played online.

IRC

Most of my IRC gaming I’ve done on the network Otherworlders.org. There are a few channels, such as EN World’s official channel #dnd3e, which I moderate, and #realmsofevil, where one can hope to find an online game. They will be mostly D&D, though I am aware of at least one user running Shadowrun.

Another place where I’ve gamed on IRC was the MagicStar network, where I suppose the channel #rpgnet, RPGnet’s channel, would be the best place to find an IRC game.

Both network homepages have guides on how to use IRC, if you’re new to it.

OpenRPG

OpenRPG, as I stated, I use solely for playing Living Greyhawk. For organising games, there are two Yahoogroups, LG Europe Online and Online Game Day. The activity has dropped since the announcement of the campaign’s ending, though. Many games are also organised via Warhorn.net’s Adhoc Online Gameday event site. Most of the games take place on the Blackstar server, and in the evenings it can pay off to just go sit there in the lobby and see if a game forms.

Forum Games

Though I don’t do these myself, I can recommend EN World’s and RPG.net’s forums for those who like this kind of thing. Most every gaming forum has a place for these, though. Some of them are active. Others are not. Roolipelaaja’s play-by-post forum hasn’t had a single post, ever.

MUDs

Finally, there are MUDs, a dying breed of games. Mudconnector, I suppose, is as good a place as any to get started. To play a MUD, you’ll need a MUD client program. ZMud is what I used, but I can’t seem to find a free client there now. For the MUDs themselves… well, FaerunMUD is gone, but Arantha and Rauvyon persist. Tell them Dyvnal sent you, for some blank stares. There’s also Aardwolf, but that’s about as much a roleplaying game as World of Warcraft is. Then there’s also BatMUD, which I’m not personally familiar with but is positively ancient and still going strong, which must count for something. It’s of Finnish make, but the language in the game is English.

WoW

And then there’s always World of Warcraft. I’m on Scarshield Legion as Kronth the tauren druid and on Dunemaul as Arrindor the blood elf warlock. You’re unlikely to ever be able to catch me there, though, since the damn thing keeps crashing my computer.

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.