Series Info...Guest Voices #3:

Storytelling Strategies: Some Observations from the Mortalis Victus Alpha Test

by Staci Dumoski

Staci Dumoski is a veteran of the MUD & MUSH field as well as an experienced storyteller. She was the core developer for Castle Marrach and was later the game Lead. This article details her experiences during the alpha test of Mortalis Victus, a new Skotos game which has since opened for beta play in late June. Some additional material for this article was contributed by Annie Warren.

In the time of the first making, when gods first sent mortals across the bridge of stars, no sun hung in the sky to light their way upon the world. In darkness, the First Tribes hunted and gathered, danced and warred, but things went badly for them, for always did the shadows loom against them and the cold of the blackest nights grip upon their hearts. Then one man, wise and brave, beseeched the gods for aid, and in Their great mercy, They bestowed upon him a gift: a great sphere that shone brightly, spreading light and warmth across the world. For this gift, the Lightbearer, as he was known ever after, was greatly honored by his tribe and across the land his name was sung with admiration.

But not all looked upon the Lightbearer with joy. With envy in her heart, a mighty warrior thought to wrest the sphere from the Lightbearer so that she might possess its light for herself. But all her efforts to strike down the Lightbearer and take the sphere came to naught, and for her failure the warrior cursed the gods and refused to honor them with dance or praise. Wroth, the gods came forth to inflict their punishment upon the warrior. Hereafter, they decreed, would she be known only as the Barren One, and all who befriended her would become as barren and withered as was she. The Barren One was cast from the light, and sent to wander in the darkness.

But the taint of the Barren One had already begun to spread throughout the First Tribes. Determined that their creation should not become corrupted, the gods resolved to begin anew. And thus, with fire and flame did they unmake all that which they had made and struck apart the world they had given to the First Tribes. The golden sphere they kept, but in the Second Making they placed it high within the sky so that no mortal might think to possess it. To remind mortals of the great gift they had been given, the gods decreed that each night the sphere would fall from the sky and darkness would return. And in that darkness walks the Barren One, a vengeful shadow filled with hate and envy for all who may look upon the light that is forbidden her…

In January2005, I participated in the alpha test of the newest prose game from Skotos Tech. The premise of Mortalis Victus is pretty simple: the gods created the world and threw some people on it. While the in-game technology is largely stone-age (and will evolve as the game progresses through various “ages”), there is no established culture or background that define the society of the game world. In an unconventional approach to multiplayer game design, the creators of Mortalis Victus have opted to leave the social development of their world in the hands of the players. Faction code provides a structure for player groupings, but the nature of those groups will evolve during the course of play instead of being imposed by external forces. Players, who may advance to godhood themselves, will provide the primary impetus in determining what the world of Mortalis Victus is, and what it will become.

Similarly, there will be no official oversight of the dramatic aspects of the game. Though roleplaying and storytelling are intended to be primary activities (as opposed to achievement oriented activities) there will be no StoryPlotters or GameMasters directing the direction of the story (or stories), or to provide dramatic situations for player participation. Authorship of the game’s storyline will be the responsibility of the players themselves. Almost certainly, this approach arose as a rejection of the rigid storytelling atmosphere of Castle Marrach, where, at times, it seems almost nothing can happen without the intervention of a StoryPlotter on some level or another. Mortalis Victus will offer an appealing opportunity for players to take control of their roleplaying environment, allowing them – as a community – to shape the world and story to suit their own desires, instead of being constrained by the vision of the game’s designers.

It’s not without risk: even in Castle Marrach with its full raft of StoryPlotters there are frequent complaints of “nothing ever happens.” Players of Mortalis Victus will have to overcome the basic inclination to be entertained, and act on the responsibility of entertaining themselves. To be clear, “entertain” does not simply mean having something to do. There will always be deer to hunt, plants to gather, and tents to make in Mortalis Victus, along with plenty of other activities to keep players busy. But the Skotos platform doesn’t encourage these kinds of repetitive activities as the primary focus of gameplay; there are other options for players whose interest is skill-building, whether it be combat, magic, or crafting.

The real entertainment value in this type of social game is the ability to participate in complex storylines, which means there must be opportunity for players to make dramatic contributions to ongoing events. Once again, I return to the example of Castle Marrach and the oft repeated claim by devoted players that what really held their interest was the background, or the plots, or the characters that they met in their first days: in other words, the dramatic elements of the game. The question for Mortalis Victus, then, is whether or not players, without the guiding hands of an active StoryPlotter staff, can create the dramatic atmosphere that will consistently attract and retain new players to the game world.

I’d like very much to say that the alpha test offered a sound measure of proof that Mortalis Victus can conquer the problem of passive players, but I’m not sure if it that’s a fair assessment. The (approximately) 80 people invited to participate in the test were a select group of Skotos players and developers, chosen largely for their dedication and experience, and not necessarily representative of the wide spectrum of player types that populate any game after its official release. The complex, mythic tale that did evolve during the two-week alpha test can be largely credited to the group of 20 or so regular players who had already proven their interest in creating and participating in dramatic storytelling, through their contributions to other Skotos games. Whether a larger player base with less cumulative experience and initiative will be capable of generating similar feats of storytelling remains to be seen. However, the example set by the Mortalis Victus test group does demonstrate some practical lessons about storytelling in an interactive environment, how tales emerge cooperatively, creating characters that support dramatic growth and, finally, turning a string of events into an actual story.

Devising Conflict: Factions, Resources and Other MacGuffins

The primary impetus of a dramatic story is conflict, and while an internal conflict can provide a fine reading experience, interactive storytelling requires the presence of external conflicts in which two or more players can participate to create stories that are effective and mutually satisfying (the player who tries to dramatize an internal conflict on his or her own is typically labeled a “drama queen” and not looked upon favorably by others). Roleplaying games typically provide at least a rudimentary basis for conflict, whether it be heroes against monsters, good versus evil, competing nations, or some other form of conflict that provides an opportunity or excuse for players to act (both in the sense of dramatic acting, and simply to perform actions).

Mortalis Victus has no predefined conflicts, but the systems for forming factions, claiming land, and controlling resources provide a structure for conflict should the player community develop competing or hostile groups. On the other hand, players might choose a more peaceful, cooperative atmosphere, which was the case in the alpha test, at least for the first week. Tribal rivalries did allow for a bit of “our tribe best” chest thumping, but for the most part everyone got along. In fact, as a whole, IC interaction was little more than a gloss over the primary in-game activities of exploring and trying out various systems. There was very little in the way of dramatic tension that could be considered as the foundation for an actual story.

Then, one day, a god appeared and handed a glowing sphere to a character named March. To my knowledge, the staff had not established the nature of the sphere at the time of its introduction: the intention was to provide a concrete source of conflict, presumably so that a more extensive test of the combat system might take place. In this respect, the sphere functioned as a perfect MacGuffin, a plot device that has no actual purpose within the story, except to provide a focus for the action and interactions of the characters. Whatever power or purpose the sphere might have had never impacted the course of the story that evolved around it. What mattered was the ways in which individual characters reacted to the sphere, and the dramatic situations it enabled.

It might take a little nudging by the staff to ensure that a MacGuffin becomes an object of interest to the players. Something that represents a puzzle or a quest automatically engages player interest by triggering the “gamer” side of the player’s personality, and focusing attention on questions like, “how does it work”, “where can I find it,” or “what am I supposed to do with it to win?” In this sort of game play, the character becomes peripheral to the plot, because any “cog” can fulfill the requirements to meet predetermined success conditions. Without this automatic “play-to-win” response, players are freer to concentrate on how their character responds to an object or situation, asking “what does my character think about this”, “how does he feel about the reactions of others”, and “what does he want to do?” The choices made in answer to this sort of question allows the players to shape the dramatic situations so that the evolving story is actually about their characters, leading to a more engaging and personally relevant experience.

Unpremeditated Plotting: Opposition, Confrontation and Sacrifice

In multiplayer narrative, the one guarantee about developing plots is that there are no guarantees. Because a different author controls each character no one is ever sure exactly what is going to happen. Sometimes, in order to curtail the uncertainty, players communicate out-of-character about the direction of the plot and even go so far as to script key events in advance. This ensures a more coherent plot, but does rob the experience of some of its spontaneity. In Mortalis Victus, out-of-character communication about the plot was at a minimum, yet the participants produced a tale that was both well structured and completely improvised by drawing upon three basic elements that any player can use to develop compelling stories without advance planning: opposition, confrontation and sacrifice.

Opposition is the surest way an individual player can generate tension and conflict. In Mortalis Victus, Xoza’s opposition to the gods was a hook which created subsidiary conflicts between characters that opposed or supported her, and gave the inevitable cataclysmic ending (inevitable because of the limited duration of the alpha test) a much more personal face: the end came because of actions taken by the characters in the game, not just because it was ordained by the gods. Opposition can vary in degree from a simple difference of opinion to a rivalry to outright rebellion, but what is most important is that the characters involved must have something personal at stake, or they will have no reason to act, and without action there is no drama.

If Xoza had not demonstrated her opposition to the gods by confronting them with her objections, there would have been no dramatic development in the storyline. Most of us are naturally inclined to avoid confrontations (especially within our own social group) but the desire for everyone to simply get along serves no purpose in dramatic storytelling. The essence of a story is the movement of the characters from one state of mind to another and the character who does not act maintains the status quo and inhibits any change from taking place. Confrontation is not the only way to initiate movement, but it is the simplest, and – important for the multiplayer arena – it allows other characters to become involved easily in the story, as they may choose their actions and reactions to what’s going on around them.

When a confrontation takes place, someone must lose. Sometimes, this means that the player simply avoids the confrontation in the first place because he knows he can’t win. Other times, it results in a dramatic stalemate as both sides try to posture themselves as victors when in fact nothing has actually been accomplished in a dramatic sense. The player who willingly accepts the consequences of being on the losing side of a confrontation makes a sacrifice for the sake of the story. Xoza defied the gods knowing full well that there was little chance she would not be ruined by them. She suffered physical and spiritual consequences, but in exchange she enabled a wide-range of dramatic encounters for herself and others that would never have occurred otherwise, so while the character may have “lost”, the player came out a winner in the end.

Resoution: When the Story Ends

When we read the last page of a book, or the movie screen goes dark, we know the story is at an end. Happy or tragic, we know that some sort of resolution has been reached for the characters we have come to know over the course of the story. Mortalis Victus provided the same sort of closure for its story, because the world exploded when the alpha test ended, a definitive ending following a suitably cathartic climax. The player-audience knew the fates of the characters and could walk away with a sense of satisfaction.

Unfortunately, multiplayer narrative can’t always provide such clear-cut resolutions because of the persistent nature of the worlds and the fact that the dramatic lives of the characters continue past the climax of any given plot. In this, they are more live serial television (soap operas), with complex interwoven storylines that bleed together with no clear delineation between the ending of one story and the beginning of the next. Organizers (or key players, when there are no official organizers) can improve this condition – which detracts from the collective experience of the drama – by announcing the date and time the climax or other key events will take place. Not only does this enable the participants to ensure their presence, but it also gives them opportunity to prepare for whatever actions they wish to take that will shape the outcome of the story. It’s like a deadline: do it now, or don’t do it at all. The actions and reactions become focused in a single moment instead of being dragged out over the course of days or weeks due to player indecision, hesitation or absence, and the whole experience is more intense and more enjoyable because it is shared by everyone at once.

Another tactic for getting that sense of satisfying resolution is to become a storyteller after the fact, either in-character or out-of-character. Look back over the course of the story and choose the defining moments that can be crafted into a prose narrative that is shared via appropriate methods.

Players of the Mortalis Victus alpha test will recognize that the story related at the beginning of this essay is not an exact account of what happened in game: it has cast some characters as heroes and others as villains, while in reality the lines were not so clear, and it has turned the whole thing into a creation myth explaining the origin of the sun, which really had nothing to do with what was happening in the game. What it has done is taken a string of related but unplanned events and framed them in a way that extends the appreciation of the story beyond the immediacy of the roleplaying experience. In the midst of an intense scene it’s easy to loose site of the greater picture as players focus on their own characters’ actions and reactions; a good retelling restores a holistic understanding of the story, elevates it in terms of context and meaning, and preserves it for the future. Not every story has the potential to become a myth, of course, but every story can become more than it started out to be with just a little creative effort. Just remember that there is more than one way to shape a story, as shown by this account of the same events in the Mortalis Victus alpha test, as retold by another player:

The siblings, known as the Gods, decided to shape a world and so they did making land and water and plants and animals. When they were done, they extended their arms and led mortals down to live in their creation. The mortals explored their new world and gathered together into separate tribes finding much to do and learn both day and night.

It came to pass that one day the mortals were visited by one of the Gods who came bearing a gift. The golden sphere was handed over to one of the mortals who promised to guard it with his life and treat it with due respect. Others gathered around him and sang praises to the Gods and their gift, hailing the giftkeeper for taking on the task of guarding such a valuable treasure.

But there were others who were wary of this mysterious gift and believed a godlike thing had no place on mortal land. One such mortal, Xoza, feared what might come of such a powerful globe in mortal hands and set to the task of confiscating it and sending it away where it could not taint the others. The brave warrior that she was, Xoza fought for control of the sphere but tragically lost. To add insult to injury, the Gods became furious with her for trying to rid the world of Their gift and so hastily punished her.

Thereafter she was known as the Barren One and other mortals were warned to keep their distance, but those that had believed in her mission stuck by her, unconcerned by the consequences they might me dealt. From the heavens the Gods watched as the Barren was not banished as they had expected, but instead kept in the fold of her tribe and considered an equal still.

In dismay at seeing mortals turn their backs to Them and going against Their will, they summoned up the golden sphere and crushed it, spewing forth the fire it contained which rained down upon the world sending it to a fiery death. And the siblings were saddened that what they had made was no more.

[ <— #2: The Cost of Insecurity: Griefing, from Anonymity to Accountability | #4: Interview with David Bowman of Tulga Games —> ]