Writing in Role-Playing Games

Designing Role Playing quests and events kick-started my interest in Game writing, besides teaching me a lot about story progression and sustained player immersion. For that reason, I feel inclined to list this experience here. All in all, my experience for writing within the confines of RP-games spans a period of 10 years.

Tavern RP

Tavern Role-Playing is a common denominator in many fantasy game worlds

Although I could mention other examples, I want to focus on two learning experiences: Dungeons & Dragons, and The Lord of the Rings Online.

Dungeons & Dragons

The seminal RP-experience by Wizards of the Coast had always fascinated me, even from a young age. Unfortunately, I was never in the position to join a RP group in the (relatively meagre) pen and paper gaming community in The Netherlands. So I did what any single player would do: play the video games and design my own quests.

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Some of the Dungeons and Dragons source material I own and used

While the former allowed me to enjoy the D&D worlds as it was created by others (mainly through Black Isle Studio’s Icewind Dale 2 and Bioware’s Neverwinter Nights), the latter allowed me to pour my creativity in game world, quest lines and (non-)player motivations. Although (unfortunately) only a few of my stories were actually played by others, those that were revealed to me the unpredictability of player actions and the need for quick, reflexive improvisation. Through these experiences, I came to the realisation that you may try to steer players in a certain direction, but they can try to (actively or passively) avoid, circumnavigate or reject story catalysts. Basically, I learned that story structure in games like these should be logical and cohesive, yet not dependant on single (inter)actions.

Games like Neverwinter Nights taught me a lot about quest structures and quest chains

The Lord of the Rings Online

I spent many hours in Turbine’s MMORPG, and it was in fact the first MMO I participated in. Having been a fan of Tolkien’s works since my mid-teens, I loved to partake in activities and events on a RP-server. It took me a few months to start my own guild with some friends, followed by event planning and story design. Writing stories came in two forms:

Background stories and role-play

I wrote extensive background stories for my own characters (17 in total) that worked within the established lore of the game, were sensible and down-to-earth, and presented refreshing and innovative motivations for each character to explain why they were fighting/travelling in Turbine’s Middle-Earth. Where possible, these background mesh with those of other characters, played by friends or guild members.

Some examples include:

  1. a Dwarf who searches the lands for his long-lost wife;
  2. that Dwarf’s father, who had been a warrior all his life and is looking for peace now;
  3. a Man of Rohan who had lost his youngest son to an Orc-ambush and is deeply disappointed with his perpetually drunk oldest son;
  4. a Hobbit who tries to convince his brother that an adventurous life is preposterous and that they should remain on their farm in Bree;
  5. an Elven bard who travels to remote locations like forgotten ruins and ancient forests in search of long-lost tales to recover.

 MerengurMerengur, an Elven minstrel seeking long-forgotten tales

In addition to my own characters’ backgrounds, I aided others (per request) in devising creative backgrounds for their own characters.

All characters were role-played continuously and their stories and personality would change according to developments and from these interactions with other players.

(Story-driven) events

Not long after becoming a guild leader, I began to spontaneously design events for players to participate in. My goal was to evaluate the existing game structure already in the game, and experiment with innovative ideas and solutions in order to create wholly new experiences. As the word ‘experiment’ indicates, these events included successes and failures; both teaching me how to improve future events’ stories and activities.

Small guild gathering

A small scale event with guild members

My events served different purposes. Some were meant for a small group (guild members and friends) and often focused on character development and social interactions. Others were intended to present a story that was created by myself or others. Then there were events that tried to deliver an exciting experience for larger groups of players (60-70). I also tried to combine these types of events: for example by writing story events for a large group of players. Here are some event examples:

  1. small-scale RP-events that either focus on group interactions or introduce (the background of) a new character, allowing other characters to react on the newcomer;
  2. game-events intended for larger groups, in which the story aspect was diminished to ensure a fun experience for all types of players;
  3. a multi-phase event for several guilds that included the participation of a Game Master (GM):
    1. The first phase brought the guilds together for a ceremony. The GM spawned several monsters to interrupt the ceremony, allowing the guild leaders to teleport out of the area in the following confusion.
    2. The second phase called for the guild officers to rally their members and organise a search party for the ‘kidnapped’ guild leaders, who did not play their characters for a week.
    3. The last phase was an enormous battle in the game’s Player-versus-Player zone. The guilds’ members could either play as a Hero or as a Monster: the former attempted to free the guild leaders from the latter’s custody. Only those who were at a high enough level could fight against the Monsters, allowing players from all levels to join the event on two opposite sides.
  4. a multi-phase event for several guilds, that was intended to cater vastly different play-styles and tastes. Participants were allowed (and encouraged) to drop in and out of event-phases as they saw fit:
    1. The first phase was a social gathering for all the guilds’ members, that was interrupted by some incognito player, and sent the guild members on a riddle-filled scavenger hunt.
    2. The second phase was the aforementioned scavenger hunt. This hunt spanned a few weeks, as players were given the opportunities to ponder on the discovered riddles in between event sessions. The riddles eventually pointed at a mid-high level location with many enemies.
    3. The third phase was an all-out battle, in which the game’s classes were reinterpreted and grouped together as medieval battlefield roles. Some classes were non-combat, others were support/guards, while only a handful were actual front-line soldiers. Each class was assigned a commander who had to ensure that the class-groups followed their new rules.
    4. The final phase was a celebratory gathering in light of the guilds’ success in battle. This event also allowed for remaining (story) questions to be answered, and for players to reflect on the past event phases together.

Grand Alliance event

An event involving many players, in addition to a Game Master

Since MMO-players play for different reasons, I learned to anticipate on the different expectations and preferences of all types of players. This forced me to think in broad terms, often generating multi-phased event stories, where some focused on combat and others on social interactions.

What I learned:

  • Play with story conventions
  • Write within the confines of an existing lore of a franchise
  • Reflect on the unpredictability of player motivations and actions
  • Construct large amounts of dialogue (often in real time), that would be recorded/displayed on forums for others to read
  • Devise a multitude of character backgrounds
  • How characters build upon experiences and make them grow through interactions
  • Plan and adjust story activities in real-time and adapt them to the player needs on the fly
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