Monday, August 23, 2010

SIgnature Coolness

So, back when the Star Wars Galaxies first rolled out it had many problems, more than I could go into in any sort of constrained space. But one decision in particular stood out to me: playing a Jedi was not really an option. I mean, there was a way to do it, but it was convoluted and required a lot of luck and commitment, probably most comparable to building a full set of high tier gear in World of Warcraft.

Now, the first thing I want to emphasize is that this was a design decision, not an oversight or mistake. The thinking was quite clear: in the canon of the Star Wars universe, Jedi are rare and few and fare between. If every player could play a Jedi, it would undercut that sensibility and make the game feel less like Star Wars. The image of thousands of players running around public areas waving lightsabers would break suspension of disbelief and ruin the game.
It is easy to appreciate this logic, but it overlooks one simple truth: When someone buys a Star Wars MMO, they want to play some Star Wars, and that basically means you want one of three things: 1) Cool Boba Fett style armor, 2) The Millennium Falcon or a reasonable facsimile thereof or 3) A freaking lightsaber. Explaining to them that you're keeping it from them so that it stays special is a great way to come across sounding like a jerk.[1]

This is on my mind because a recent interview about the forthcoming Warhammer 40k MMO suggested you could not be a Space Marine right out the gate. Now, my generous reading of this is that you'll just need to jump through some hoops - get out of the newbie zone and get to some reasonable point in play to be able to become a Space Marine.[2] An alternate reading suggests that it may be another Jedi situation which inspires a bit of bile.

Whichever way it settles out, it got me thinking about to reflect rare coolness in a large scale game, such as a MUSH or MMO.

Now, one option is just to not worry about it. If you take a few seconds to think about the heroes of World of Warcraft and the things the do, it becomes clear that there's no shortage of suspension of disbelief. Given what gamers tolerate, there's a good case to be made that ubiquitous lightsabers would hardly raise an eyebrow.

Alternately, you could just make the coolness more common (as I suspect the new Star Wars MMO does by placing it in the days of the Old Republic, so there's an in-setting excuse for lots of Jedi). There's a bit of a trick of scaling to this: in a LARP, it is reasonable that everyone be a vampire or the like, but that might not scale to an MMO, especially if there is such an idea as the Masquerade. A lot of White Wolf MUSHs have had to wrestle with this issue over the years, with the most common answer being "Ah, too hell with it."

This factor is one reason I've always felt that Exalted, especially the Dragon Blooded component of it, would make a fantastic MUSH or MMO. In setting, there are a LOT of Dragon Blooded Exalts, enough to support a very large game without it breaking the setting since that's rather the point.

The last solution is probably the hardest, but possibly the most rewarding. To be totally frank, it probably would not work on an MMO, both due to scaling and due to different play priorities. The idea is to have enough different ways to be cool that every player can take one and be one of a fairly select few. To illustrate, on Road to Amber, there is a group called "Custos" who are basically bodyguards for the wizards of their culture.[3] On paper, they're very distinctive, with elementally themed weapons and a very clear role. The rules support the sort of things that they can do, but that's about as far as it goes. The net result being that the fact that you've bought this power does not actually reveal much of anything about how it relates to your character. The player whose concept is that they're a hardcore Custos is, mechanically, no better off than someone who has dabbled in it.[4]

I have to ask if perhaps there might be a way to distinguish those two characters, so that for one, ''Custos" is their signature - it's what they're known for and, mechanically, it creates specific bounds within which they excel. The dabbler has a non-signature version of the power and while his color may be similar, it only carries so much weight.

It is, perhaps, easier to illustrate with something simple, like strength. One character, Jerry, is the paragon of strength of the campaign, renown for his might. The next character, Chuck, is pretty strong. I mean, he's a big guy, look at him, not someone you want to meet in a dark alley. But no one is writing stories about how he knocked out a giant with one blow. In a given scene, they might both a feat of strength to give them an advantage, but Chuck's use will be more prosaic, and Jerry can probably perform more feats, more potently. If Chuck and Jerry throw down in a contest of pure strength, Chuck can put up a fight (unlike Mike, who isn't particularly strong at all) but it's ultimately one-sided. Strength is Jerry's thing.

I once had a system for Amber that produced something like this at the tabletop. It allowed for freeform attributes (So Ranger, Pattern, Soldier, Con Man and such were all on the table rather than the usual power options) with the rule that if you bought one, it cost you 5, 15 or 50 points. At five points it was a minor detail in your character's history. At 15, it was an important part of your character. At 50, it was THE important part of your character's history. It holds up well in a fast and loose way, but it gets a little weird with magic.

This also might be a good use for Big aspects and Little aspects, as I was discussing a while back. As I think about it, I'm already doing this a little bit with my Cold War game, with the characters effectively having 4 little aspects and 1 big aspect, the one that controls their superpower, but that's slightly different. Their superpowers are necessarily reflective of their essential nature.

On a MUSH, it might be possible to designate "Signature Level" powers and allow only one of them per character, with a non-signature version of most such powers available for others who buy into it at a lesser level of intensity. Thus, you can have two characters of the same noble bloodline but with very different relationships to it. There are a lot of interesting things you can hang off this. Suppose, for example, in game items or changes of a certain level of significance were only available at the signature level. That is to say, in an open system, it's not hard to find someone to create a magic sword. But if doing so was limited to people who specifically chose Mystical Weaponsmith as their signature, then suddenly you've introduced scarcity. If you want to fight a war, you need a *General*. If you want to throw a really big party, you need a socialite and so on. This is a mixed bag, certainly - some people hate being force to interact outside their circle, and when everything's available, closed circles are more viable, but I'm kind of ok with forcing people o acknowledge other people's cool, especially when it's merely rare rather than unique.

Of course, now I'm thinking about Signatures for tabletop, if only as flags for "This is how I intend to change the world." Hmmmm.

1 - This is one of the areas where tabletop play can end run around MMO's - making a table full of people special is far less hard to handle than making thousands.
2 - Perhaps comparable to getting a mount in WoW. Many MMO's have a secret (or not so secret) internal sense that there's a point where the "real game" begins, usually in the higher levels, with the idea that the earlier levels are an extended training opportunity.

3 - Yes, the idea is ripped off from, like, 4 different sources. I'm ok with that.

4 - This is complicated somewhat by the fact that many such powers are several powers deep, and there's an implicit suggestion of extra investment in buying more powers from that tree, but the reality is that those decisions are oten made based purely on the utility of the particular powers.


  1. Oddly enough, Relic and THQ (the company putting out the Warhammer 40K Dark Millenium MMO) are releasing a Gears of War style game called Warhammer 40K: Space Marine, which is exactly what you might think it is.

    I agree that the idea of taking something iconic to a setting, like a Jedi or a Space Marine, and making them difficult to attain in a game rather than a jumping off point for your buy-in is just poorly thought out.

    Bioware and their upcoming "Star Wars: The Old Republic" seems to be designed in a way that will remedy some of Star Wars: Galaxies past indiscretions with the franchise.

  2. It's a pity about the Warhammer MMO. Personally I would have allowed players to be Space Marines but generally confined them to a separate part of the game. After all, they are supposedly something of a monastic order, generally only found on their covenants or on battlefields. They'd start in the augmented high risk part of the game. "Normal" players could enter these zones if they wished (and probably would once they became powerful enough). This would provide an area for people to have fun ubermensching out without breaking canon. And quests for Space Marines should probably be mandatory for them.

    One thing I tried for the PDQ system, in an attempt to get a little more verticality into the system without totally disrupting the game mechanics was running it through various stages. At the top was the legendary stage. In an Arthurian game, Lancelot would have the Legendary Knight Forte, but Arthur would have the Legendary Sword Forte, so both could compete effectively at that level (such as emulating the duel on the bridge from Excalibur). Initial idea here. Details still heavily fudged. <grin>

  3. I have begun to think that the MMO community has a whole, or at least expatriates like myself, need a little (or a lot) less M and a little more L. In other words, I keep thinking of a game, perhaps an "LMO" (or Limited Multi-player Online) where the world is consistent, open to player driven goals and objectives, modifiable by the players, and limited to anywhere from 10 to 100 players. Once a goal is completed it _is_ completed. Defeat the dark lord and he's dead.

    The game would not require a monthly fee, but expansions would be more like D&D modules, with a new adventure added on, and all players wanting to join that expansion putting up some coin to get it on their system... Ah well, such are my dreams.

    Suspension of disbelief would be easier to maintain if there are only a few heroes, and it gives you the idea that you are the hero.

  4. My vision for an Exalted MMO was one that was free-to-play if you were fine with playing a Mortal. Then there were different tiers of pay-to-play accounts for the different exalt types. I think the best deal would be you pay the standard $15-$35 a month to get your Dragon Blood account and in doing so you also got put on a waiting-list to play a Celestial Exalt on that server when one became available. (The exalted setting having a highly limited number of Celestials running around.) Then as Celestial characters die-off the high-powered exalt goes to the next person on the waiting list. The tricky thing would be character-hoarding of the Celestial Exaltations, where Players basically sit on their characters and don't log on with them so not to put them at risk. I think the answer to this would be a combination of a "loss of exaltation" penalty for not playing the character for 20 days along with certain epic world changing events that can only be accomplished by Celestial Exalts being fairly obviously implanted in the setting would keep such abuse from being too rampant.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.