This is a story about identity, about how a game can come to define a person or offer sharp relief from mediocrity. How a world made by fans becomes an on-going soap opera that bleeds between two worlds – the real and the fictional. It’s also my story…
When Bioware were promoting their forthcoming 2004 RPG Neverwinter Nights, they talked about their DM Client, a powerful tool that they said would enable players to recreate the Dungeons and Dragons Pen-and-Paper experience on their PC. Along with the Toolset – a map creation tool – they envisaged people creating and running full PnP campaigns for their friends in the game.
But part of me wonders if they ever thought people would be crazy enough to create whole worlds, to be lived in and logged onto every single day. Because they were crazy enough. Both Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2 still have dedicated players who log on every single day to talk, slay monsters and live their lives, in worlds designed and administered by passionate volunteers.
I’m going to restate that point, because it’s important – there are people living inside these worlds, and I don’t mean basic ciphers or visual avatars. These people may not breathe, but they have personalities, strengths, weaknesses, goals and aspirations. They live, they love and they kill a heck of a lot of monsters.
Roleplaying is kind of the ugly step-child of acting, something that is routinely mocked and locked in the basement of disdain. From the outsider perspective, it’s seen as a way for people to live out their fantasies - you get to be Conan the Barbarian cleaving heads with a gigantic sword, or Elvina the sexy sorceress, handy with a spell and rocking that skimpy robe.
The thing is, when you spend over 4 hours a day roleplaying the same character in a world filled with other sentient entities, you need to be more than that. ‘Burly guy with a sword’ can only sustain itself as a concept for so long, unless you’re really fond of long silences or typing ‘*He polishes his giant sword*’ over and over again throughout the course of a day (and don’t get me wrong, there are certainly people who do that).
I spoke with Troy, admin and creator of the Persistent World ‘Legacy: Dark Age of Britain’, and he puts it like this: “My goal as a player is to, as much as possible, play and understand the ‘role’ of the character, and understand what it must be like to live in the world he’s living. How his motivations, morality, fears, faith, etc. are different from my own given the circumstances he’s in and what actions should he take and what goals would he have based on those factors.”
When I first stumbled into the Neverwinter Nights persistent world scene, it was almost by accident and I hadn’t quite thought it through to that degree.
Occupation: Worshipping Fire
I was driven to the PW scene primarily by disappointment, as Neverwinter Nights 2 had not lived up to my lofty expectations. While searching in vain for any quickly released single player modules that might spark my interest, I stumbled across the website for a server called ‘The Frontier’, a Forgotten Realms Persistent World set on a remote island which required players to submit a biography before they could play.
I created a hilariously stereotypical biography for a ‘fire priest’ (a cleric dedicated to the Forgotten Realms fire god Kossuth). He had a bad temper (some might say ‘fiery’) and ginger hair (because it’s, like, the colour of fire). Then I logged into the world and found myself seriously out of my depth.
I quickly realised that my ginger priest guy was probably the most bland person there (bar the elves, but elves are always rubbish). There were rowdy-yet-soulful dwarves, reminiscing about their far away homelands, a mysterious wizard, hell-bent on becoming a politician to expose the corruption of the ruling Paladin order, and there was a magic school, where applicants must prove their credentials by writing an academic study on an aspect of magic. I was a priest with ginger hair who worshipped fire. Oh.
I tried alcoholism to make me stand out from the crowd (I’ve learned since that this is a pretty standard attention seeking ‘look a me’ tactic among new players trying to be edgy – I’ve seen a player roleplay projectile vomit for over an hour). I tried running around the more hostile mob-filled areas and approaching strangers, but we barely got beyond ‘well met’ before I ran out of things to say -turns out “Fire is awesome!” isn’t the greatest conversation starter, and would often kill any interaction stone dead.
At this point, I felt like I could see the potential of this format and of the interactions and stories that can come from putting so many detailed and well-rounded characters in the same space. But so far I’d been stuck on the outside, looking in at something that seemed totally out of my grasp.