I just got back from a four day camping trip with my folks, my brother, my sister, and my husband.  The day before I left, my husband and I stayed up all night questing and burning off the blue ‘bonus xp’ from our alts.  Sleep-deprived, we hit the road.  As soon as we were rolling, my sister suggested we play a pen-and-paper RPG on the way. What a refreshing experience this turned out to be!

We didn’t take any RPG books or character sheets.  We ended up just making up various character bio’s and linking them all together by saying each person’s character was sucked through a dimensional rift to the same place in Rifts Earth where they had to team up to fight the various demons that also came through the rift.

We didn’t have any dice, so I made up a coin based combat system based on the change I had in my pocket.  On a combat roll, I might toss a nickle, dime and penny into the cup-holder next to me.  A heads meant damage was dealt (in the amount of the coin’s worth) while a tails meant a miss.  To keep track of hit-points, I just wrote down everybody’s name with “100 hp” next to their name.  As combat went on, I’d scratch out or erase and re-write their health amounts.  Combat was surprisingly both challenging and satisfying for everyone.

What kept us laughing our asses off and screaming wildly was the story we created.  I let the players do whatever they wanted, and they did some crazy things.  Whenever they went someplace new, I made up something new for them to encounter there.  They fought terminators and kid-napped psychics.  They time traveled and killed a flying spaghetti monster.  At one point, one of the characters became a triple amputee with machine guns grafted onto her stubs.  At another point, the entire party of adventurers were bit by vampires and forced to serve their glorious vampire lord for a hundred years.

We may have spent more time talking about what happened to our characters than we did actually playing our characters.  At times we laughed so hard that our sides hurt and we had to try thinking unfunny thoughts just to breathe.  In short, it was awesome.

Once you get away from the dice and the rulesets, pen and paper RPGs are story-telling games.  I have a hard time recreating that feeling in an MMO.  Sure, I may talk about ‘The time the tank died’ and my medic had to finish tanking until the end of the battle, but it’s not quite the same.  If a developer was so inclined to make an MMO be heavy on storytelling, would it even be possible?

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Suzina is a 27 year old who usally plays the same MMOs as her husband. Games played: UO, EQ2, FFXI, SWG, LOTRO.

8 thoughts on “Storytelling”

  1. Try paring yourself down even further. No HP, no combat system, just pure storytelling. Some time ago a friend of mine started running what he calls Simulatory. Players play themselves, beginning in exactly their current situation and carrying only what they actually have on them at the time. The story starts from there with the players filling in the parts of their characters. Action is simply decided by the storyteller.

    It really is some of the most fun I’ve ever had playing any RPG.

  2. Upcoming star wars MMO: The Old Republic by Bioware, makers of Baldurs Gate and Neverwinter Nights, have said the aspect that will seperate their MMO from the others is a heavy focus on storytelling.

  3. I used to do some pen and paper back in High School. The group I ran with did two games, DnD and Vampire: The Masquerade. Of the two I always found Vampire (and later the World of Darkness) setup to be more fun. At least when I played DnD, the system never felt intuitive, and the actual story that was being told felt bogged down by arbitrary tables and combat. So for an MMO to reach this point, combat and other systems would need to be simple and intuitive enough to leave room for free form story and interaction. Maybe if players volunteered to be DMs or storytellers or whatever, and were given the proper tools, rather than simply relying on a computer filled with algorithms to denote structure, the MMO might be closer to RP’ing than simply a game. However, given too many people trying to play a story at once, it would cease to be a story and simply fall into people trying shout over each other.

  4. A friend of mine has the reason why this never would work. She edits a live journal called Bad RP’ers Suck, and its just wall-to-wall posts about both online and offline roleplayers having to deal with people who don’t know how to do what you did.

    Most people are simply not creative. I can’t understand why so many people in the MMO industry think that user-created content and storytelling would work, when most of such on the net is pure dross and thinly veiled cyberporn.

    For all the awesome experiences that kind of rp can give, it gets balanced out by 50 people trying to roleplay Edward Cullen and Bella in WoW, or Transformers erotic fan-fiction, (yes, it exists.) Or even experienced role-players grousing about Mary Stus, and interplayer drama much, much nastier than lotting rights or DKP systems.

    I mean, technically second life does this already, act as a pure ground for user created stories, to the point of letting them shape the world to fit. It doesn’t seem to have made an impact over the endless linden dollar trading or Gor/Furry nastiness. is the link if you want to see why storytelling on that scale has some serious issues with it.

  5. I guess it depends on what you mean by “heavy on storytelling”, particularly when you say that stuff like “the time the tank died” isn’t quite what you mean.

    I lump MMO storytelling into three categories (with the last two categories being a blurry spectrum between two points):

    1) Developer-driven storylines, a.k.a. “quests”. There’s been some recent rumination about these, and while I think they’re good tools to motivate players into Doing Things (exploring new areas, encountering new critters, etc.) I think they’re pretty poor tools for storytelling. Sanya Weathers recently invoked single-player computer RPGs as a source of comparison, but single-player RPGs are often focused on advancing a story, and thus has things like tailored content and a changing world. In part because it doesn’t have to deal with hordes of people with wildly different levels/lewt/skill points/classes/ad nauseam milling about at the same time, and in part because there’s no real concept of The Elder Game in a SPCRPG — you get to the end of the story, then you can play in the sandbox (if there is one), start over, or pick up another game. (I am very curious how the new Star Wars MMO will pull off the storytelling component.)

    2) Stories that emerge from gameplay. A semi-recent example is from EVE, with GoonSwarm’s mole taking out Band of Brothers from within. Pretty compelling stuff. On the other hand, it’s really just a narrative about stuff that happened during goal-oriented gameplay — narrative as a side-effect of playing the game — and in that sense it’s a tale of “the time the tank died” writ large.

    3) Player-driven storylines. Rather like emergent stories, except more on the “roleplay” end of the spectrum — story for story’s sake. This can range from the Rebels attacking Bestine in SWG (because that’s what you do as “a Rebel” even if you’re not “in-character”) to full-on character creation and roleplay. For me, developers can foster this in two ways: with overt tools, such as CoH’s Mission Architect or the Ryzom Ring, or with open-ended tools, such as player-created towns in (pre-NGE?) Star Wars Galaxies. Player-driven storylines can happen in any game, naturally, but the right tools encourage the behavior. (I wonder if realms like Second Life are too wide-open for this, existing without an overall context or system. I’d guess DBlade’s right about the ratio of storytelling to crap on there, regardless.)

  6. I have never had an experience in an MMO that came anywhere near to being as compelling as my best PnP moments.

  7. Rarely RP, but I did finally talk a friend into joining a local session group that ran at a comic book store. DnD setting, I created a druid and for the premise of the game my pet had been killed upon in the shipwreck that got us to the beach we were on. I like RPing as a wilderness survival type, but that wasnt faring well. I ended up robbing the villagers while they were at church. Without specifying to the Head DM as to wich house I was in, I wound up stealing from the family giving us room and board. When a villager called me on it I denied it. A fellow player and old HSchool buddy rolling a wizard, frostbolted me in the mouth. To wich we all had a good laugh while the local police escorted me to prison. The best friend I asked to join was playing a ranger and decided to try to spring me from jail. (Enter the assistant DM since we were now on a side quest from the main group.) My ranger friend used a fire arrow wich missed its target of the sleepy jailguard and instead created a great distraction by catching a nearby building on fire. The nearby building being the church. Me and my ranger friend hid in the woods after a jailbreak that didnt go quite as planned. Well the Head DM, hated this outcome of events since the church was crucial to the campiagn he had worked on for what I imagine was most of his ComicBook Store career. He decided the church that the god was built to raised all the denizens of the forest to smite the klepto Druid and Arsonistic Archer thereby whiping us from the game.

    Thought that would be a good story…
    I’ve tried running storytelling RP’s. With the majority makes the story as a rule. Effectively you get about as many DM as characters. This helps to curb not too outlandish or unfair gameplay.

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