Series Info... #4: This Blessed Plot, Part One

by Shannon Appelcline

October 12, 2000 - Sometime between February 15, 1999, when Zell started working on DGD, and September 21, 2000, when Skotos launched Castle Marrach, we came up with the idea of a Grand Theatre. It was to be a type of game that had never before been produced commercially and Castle Marrach was to be the first demonstration of this method of gameplay.

I've written about Grand Theatres elsewhere on the web site, but I should probably take a few minutes to explain the term here. A Grand Theatre is a type of interactive fiction game which is based upon socialization and storytelling rather than competition or combat. People interact, plots unfold, and stories are told. It's different from the majority of text-dominant games out there, and that difference is what I want to explore this week, because it points us toward the fact that Castle Marrach needs to consider some very different models of gameplay in order to succeed. We'll get there...

Here's MUD in Your Eye

The traditional multiplayer text-dominant game (and the only type which has been commercially released) is the MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). These games tend to have well-defined goals: gain experience; increase the power of your character; and collect unique items. They also have well-defined ways to do these things: fight monsters; gather loot; and engage in quests.

A few years ago, I was describing MUDs for a computer science encyclopedia I was putting together. I whimsically wrote the following about an early MUD: "people could log on to [AberMUD] from all over the world and participate in a shared world experience that primarily involved running around as fast as one could type, killing monsters, taking treasures, and dumping them down a bottomless pit. (A rather strange economic system, one must admit.) By accumulating enough points, one could eventually become a god."

Now, MUDs can be a lot of fun; I spent about two years addicted to them, from 1989-1991. EverQuest, and some of the other graphical RPGs, tend to use the same basic gameplay as MUDs, and they're doing very well. My point isn't to say that our Grand Theatres are better than MUDs, or vice-versa. Rather, it's to point out how different the gameplay is and to show how that results in different requirements for game design and development.

MUDs are pretty easy to develop – and I say that having done some design and development work on MUDs myself. If you ever play on an old AberMUD, you can probably find an area that I designed almost ten years ago called "Dinthiar's Elven Forest". In order to design for MUDs, you simply need to create a location in which players can move around, and then sprinkle it with some monsters and some treasures. Voila! You're done!

If you're designing good MUD areas, you'll probably do a little more work. You'll create a background so that there is consistency in your creation. You'll form the basis of a plot, so that players can engage in actions that have a meaning in a larger context. You'll write a few puzzles, so that players will have to do more than just type "hit monster". I remember a few puzzles from Dinthiar's Elven Forest... a crown hidden under a throne and a wall of thorns that you had to light with a torch to reveal a cavern beyond. Not MENSA-level mysteries, but pretty decent gameplay for the state of MUD art in 1990.

Once you've developed a MUD area, you can just let players go. They'll solve all the puzzles, kill all the monsters, and take all the treasures. And then the area resets and they'll do it again. And again. And again. It's like a renewable resource. If you finish the initial development work, your players will always have something to do.

And My Point is...? Plots!

My long-winded point here is: Grand Theatres (and thus Castle Marrach) aren't like that at all. In Grand Theatres, there aren't monsters to kill or treasures to collect. There may be a few puzzles here or there, but for the most part the only thing that players can do is participate in stories; thus, active plots and interesting characters are the only things that keep players involved. This week I want to look at plots. In MUDs, they were a nice afterthought; in Grand Theatres, they're the core of gameplay.

It's now M-day +21. We've had quite a few interesting plots in the last week: two players were inducted into the Winter Watch; anonymous poems began to appear, eventually leading to heated words between the Poets and the Muses; Victor and Retribution were thrown in jail; Anastacia and Philo engaged in a great drama aided by Martel, Petris, and most of the rest of the Castle; Katherine and Felix held auditions for the Poet's Convocation this Friday; the Lady Serista appeared for the first time; and much, much more. The fact that there were over twice as many notable plots as I listed tells me we're starting to get the hang of this. And, we're learned some interesting things.

Looking at this list even now, I'm struck by how many of the plots were to some degree player-directed. Some were generated by Skotos StoryTellers, but quite a few sprung whole from the foreheads of our players, and that seems like an important point to concentrate on this week: how players naturally create plots in these Grand Theatres.

The first lesson learned is pretty simple: When characters begin pushing their own plots, go with it. We'd expected people to want to join the Winter Watch and to want to apprentice to the sorceress Serista, and thus we were ready to go with these when players pushed for them We've been a bit more thrown off when players ask for something more unexpected – like starting a supernatural hunter's guild or becoming the brewmaster of the outer bailey. We're learning how to react to those things – how to start juggling those plots with our own and form them into the tapestry of the Castle as a whole. We want to learn even better, because we know it maximizes player involvement.

There's a close corollary to this rule: Don't let StoryTeller plots be more important than StoryPlayer plots. We'd planned a big duel between two NPCs for early in the Castle Marrach cycle, but then Victor and Martel appeared and started mouthing off to each other, and the next thing we knew, their seconds were talking to Launfal, and the whole castle was abuzz about their upcoming duel. We (correctly) decided to focus on Martel's duel rather than some NPC duel which wouldn't have had nearly the same importance to the Castle denizens.

And another one: Do the extra development work to help players create their own plots. We've had a few requests for the creation of specific objects or the modification of player descriptions; these requests have mainly been as a result of players wanting to run their own plots – but needing a little development help. We've done our best to accommodate them and thus far it's paid off. By extending a little development time we help players to create hours of interesting plot.

Looking back at the first three weeks of Castle Marrach I find many of the most memorable plots to be player-driven and I salute those folks:

  • Martel, who stood up to Victor, and got Marrach's first duel going.
  • Arrion and Brahm, who fell in love and got Marrach's first romance going.
  • Corbin, who acts utterly insane, but in the process seems to be moving toward some odd goal of his own.
  • Philo and Anastacia, who made life just a little uncomfortable for everyone.
  • Felix and Katherine, who have taken a leadership role among the Poets and thus made it more accessible.

There are tons of other notables. Its neat to see how many really active players have appeared in just twenty-one days.

Those are my thoughts on plot this week: why it's important for a Grand Theatre and how the players are starting to drive it. There's lots more to be said. I'm interested in writing about it from the point of view of the Skotos StoryTellers, as we've begun to learn which plots work and which don't. I'm interested in talking more about how we expect players to become even more important for Marrach plots than they have been thus far. So, I'll return to this topic at some future point. Perhaps next week, perhaps not, depending on what's going on then.

The Rest of the Story

Overall, the rest of Skotos has been pretty mellow this last week. No more huge disasters. We're still running with a fairly high number of StoryHosts and are trying to learn how to juggle all their plots in order to create a harmonious whole.

We've been having a few minor problems. Every once in a while, the game stops accepting new connections. We tried to do a major upgrade (again) to DGD, the server at the heart of the StoryBuilder system, but it became unstable (again). Third time's the charm.

Our most obvious bit of coding in the last week was the courier system, which seems to have been quite well accepted (type "help courier" if you haven't used it yet).

We've actually been putting work into a lot of CNPCs. You might have noticed guard CNPCs in the castle. Most obviously, they keep people from going places that they shouldn't go (like the inner bailey). However, guards also maintain the morals and ethics of the castle. In particular, guards look for nude people. When they see nude people they drag them away to the tailor (or seamstress) so that they can be suitably clothed.

Or at least that was the theory.

As it happens, we didn't really define "people" that well. In particular, we didn't constrain it to just include humans. And the castle is chock-full of cats, most of which are notably unclothed...

I'll let you write the punchline this week.

your opinion...