Stéphane Bura

 

Tuesday 26 July 2011

Storybricks, Lore and the Kingdom of Default

I had a conversation with Phil Carlisle, Namaste’s AI guru, about whether our storytelling toolset should contain any lore. It was a spirited argument but an interesting one because it made something clear: we didn’t agree on the meaning of the word “lore”. In MMORPGs, lore can mean (at least) four different things, two of them that we want in the Storybricks because they’re fundamental yet underexploited, and two that are less useful and that we can probably do without.

Let me explain.

The Lore of the Ding!

The Demon Prince of Ashvale stole the Scepter of Life from the Forger Kings and used it to marshal an army of plant elementals against the forces of the New Crimson Pact…

As a pen and paper RPG writer, I’ve written hundreds of pages of text like this, hopefully not as florid as this passage. It’s what most MMORPG players think of as lore: the backstory of the world their characters inhabit. This story is often ongoing, the fate of the world always in peril and the need for heroes never abated.

In that sense, lore is useful for giving some context to the players’ goals: there are Demon Princes and Forger Kings, pick a side and kill the other one. It’s the wrapping paper on the quests. There is some reason, somewhere, why it’s important to slay demons in this game. This is comforting for some players because it brings a sense of order to the world – a sense that the developers know where they’re going. This kind of lore is also useful for setting up worldwide events and giving context to new content. However, even if lore distilled through quest texts can be very well written, most players skip it (trust me) because, in the end, it’s inconsequential. Players have no influence over such lore and its details have rarely any bearing on what they effectively have to accomplish. Does it really matter whether the demons you’re battling come from Ashvale or Xwgallg? Probably not.

Lorem Ipsum

The second use of lore is for describing the game world, rooting its places in its history. We have lava-filled dungeons because that’s where the Forger Kings create mighty artifacts. There are ruins in this dense forest because that’s where a destructive battle against plant elementals took place. The New Crimson Pact was formed when the Realm of Thoros fell, betrayed by Slovinn, the Duke with the Undead Hand… You get this lore by reaching new places, examining everything and talking to everyone your mouse can point at.

When I was playing MUDs in the 90’s, there was a name for this kind of lore: tiny scenery. It was a derogative term because it was felt that if you were given editing privileges in a world, you could do more interesting things that write pages of descriptive text. It had to be about how the player could interact with your creations, not how evocative your prose could be.

Tiny scenery has its uses: it can set the tone for a scene; it shows that your world has depth; it can help players build their own stories in their minds, envisioning how they play a part in a bigger narrative. But it’s not enough. If it’s not related to interaction with the world, it’s hollow. It’s only for the players who like watching a movie’s making of. A lot of role-players fall into this category, but we can provide them with lore that better fit their tastes.

Lore and Data

What do the Forger Kings want? What would they do if they recovered the Scepter of Life? How is the Demon Prince changing the world with it? Are there factions among the Forger Kings and, if so, how do their interests diverge? What would happen if one of these factions gained more power?

Lore can be so much more than something the players consume. It can explain how their world works, especially what important NPCs want and how they go about obtaining it. This kind of lore is only different from the previous ones if the world can be changed by the characters’ actions, and that’s the type of worlds we’re building our toolset for.

In artificial intelligence terms, it’s about providing enough world data so that NPCs can make plans toward achieving their goals, execute them and react to changes. Making NPCs capable of looking at the state of the world and capable of planning opens up the possibility of procedurally generated quests. The old Forger King Gustav can seek out a member of the player’s faction because it is indebted to him. He could ask him to bring back the Sunbite Hammer that had been stolen by another player faction. And if he obtained it, he could forge the demon-slaying blade that would help him get rid of his nemesis and half-brother. But of course, he wouldn’t do it himself. He’d need a hero to wield this sword…

When a world contains such lore and the AI to exploit it, the PCs can become resources and actors in the lives of the quest-giving NPCs. They can truly influence things in an organic, believable and unscripted way.

Folk-lore

The finale type of lore seems the least glamorous but, to me, it’s the foundation that makes all the other types work: how the day-to-day behaviors of NPCs are affected by the backstory.

So, there’s this magic item called the Scepter of Life and it control plants. A King owns it. You can bet that the farmers in this kingdom have a completely different life from your stock farmers’. They don’t fear droughts and they don’t need to take care of their lands so much. They’re much better at harvesting, since they do that all year-long. Inns serve soups, salads, jardinières and pies, as much as you want. Commerce is based on the exports of virtually free food, with dozens of caravans and shipments leaving the kingdom every week. Nobles fight over the amount of woodland and arable lands they control. The woodcutters have the most powerful guild. No imagine how all this would change if the Scepter of Life were to be stolen by some Demon Prince…

Lore-lie

Without the latter two kinds of lore, the former two are lies. They make you believe that something is there where there’s nothing. It’s fine for a book or a movie, or even for a tabletop RPG supplement, because these media are about stimulating your imagination. But games are about interaction.

The Kingdom of Default

So now that we’ve defined what lore is, we’re back at the beginning: does a storytelling toolset need lore? What we’re working on right now is writing behaviors and interactions for NPCs as well as the framework that can handle them. Basically, it boils down to what happens when you greet a friend or what a guard’s day is like. So, you won’t find references to Demon Princes or Forger Kings in these behaviors because we want to be as generic as possible. We want them to be useable in the largest number of stories possible. But does that mean that there’s no lore?

When designing these behaviors, I find myself asking questions like “would a nobleman accept a commoner’s invitation to have a drink?” or “would said commoner even make such an offer?”. Even if the base world we create is as generic as possible, we have to make choices: Is there a rigid cast system? Do people seek help from the law when threatened? Are noblemen as superstitious as peasants or do they understand how magic work?

Building this “kingdom of default”, we try at once to be close to what your gut feeling would be about a random fantasy setting, and to provide hooks in the behaviors where the storyteller can alter things (e.g. in my world, noblemen are more superstitious precisely because they understand how magic works.) So we are creating lore, even if it looks a bit bland, along with the possibility of expanding and altering it. Because you need the ordinary in your world for the extraordinary to stand out.

Lore-Playing Game

The Storybricks are the tools with which you can make these alterations in the generic lore. With them, you can specify that this guard captain is a coward and hated by his men, or that all the merchants in this region are lazy and greedy (maybe because the demand far exceeds the offer). Lore design is not only about creating behaviors but also about adding the hooks in them that will let storytellers create their own customized living worlds.

Stay hooked tuned for more information about how the Storybricks work.

Wednesday 13 July 2011

The Private Lives of NPCs

Let me tell you about the moment that forever changed how I think about interactive storytelling. In the late 80s, I spent most of my time in the locale of the role-playing club I co-founded at my university. It was a dingy place, a dilapidated building in a strangely always muddy part of the campus, but we didn’t care because we were exploring the worlds of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, Paranoia, Runequest, Traveller, Marvel Super Heroes, James Bond 007 and many other games you’ve probably never heard of unless you have an extensive knowledge of French RPGs. However, even if the game systems and the worlds were as varied as they could be, playing these games was always done in the same way – at least among the few dozen roleplayers I knew at the time. I would qualify that experience as being player-centric and adversarial. What that means is that the details of these worlds existed only insofar as they helped the player accomplish their goals. The game master would, for instance, drop the adventurers in a village close to a dungeon so that they could learn some legends, listen to some complaints from whinny NPCs (“monsters eat our children”, “we’re cursed”), replenish their inventories at the local shop, memorize their spells and, soon, exploration and monster killing would start. The world had no depth and only existed when player characters interacted with it. There were no stories going on beside the forever unresolved nearby menace, characters had no goals of their own and the world didn’t change. It was frozen in time. The NPCs that the players encountered were purely functional, reduced to their bare stereotypes, forming a set cast that could be found everywhere you went: the grumpy innkeeper who only lightened up when he saw some silver, the shopkeeper who had never heard of bargaining (“these are the DMG’s prices”), the local cleric who only prayed for cure spells in case a group of wounded, diseased or blinded adventurers happened to drop by, etc.

Since the NPCs were so shallow, the game master’s duties were concentrated on creating interesting and, when he was good, fair challenges for the PCs. The game master was an adversary and tricking his players was part of what made the game fun for him. Conversely, players took pride in “beating” the dungeons, accumulating loot and powers for future forays. I “game mastered” more often than I played a character and I thought of myself as a good provider of fair and interesting challenges, as well as tricky traps, and never looked beyond that because my player groups seem to like it. Until that day at the club.

I was leaving the place, passing through a room where a game was going on, so I watched for a while. The PCs were in a palace, talking to two noblemen about the details of some mission. That was a bit odd. Why would you need more than one character in order to give a quest? There was some back and forth between the PCs and the nobles and it was clear that said nobles didn’t agree. And suddenly, they started arguing between themselves! The game master was of course playing both parts, switching voice and tone to suit each character. This was a revelation for me. No longer was the game master a mere interface for the continuation of the story. He was an embodiment of the promise of RPGs that I had never seen realized before: a gateway to a living world. These two nobles mattered. They had conflicting goals which hinted at forces in play beyond the immediateness of the scene. They didn’t need the PCs to exist, yet including them into their story made the experience more interesting for the players. I’m still learning the lessons from that moment 25 years later.

In my mind, interactive storytelling and living worlds are now so intimately tied that it’s most certainly why I find the current offer of MMORPGs lacking. These game play as RPGs did in the 80s: their worlds can’t change as the result of a character’s actions, they are static until the next expansion; so each character’s story revolves primarily around himself and this removes the incentive for having NPCs that seek true (attainable) change. Consequently, the game is merely an adversary and its NPCs simple quest givers or automated shops with whom bargaining is impossible. At Namaste where I now work as lead designer, we want to fulfill that promise of providing players with living worlds in which their choices and their actions matter. In our worlds, NPCs will have autonomous lives, react to the PCs and to each others, have goals and relationships that affect their day-to-day behaviors and their choices. Stories will be built on top of this fertile ground, so that heroic actions by the players can truly impact the lives of the worlds’ inhabitants. Pursuing this goal involves many tough design and development choices that the other team members and I will be writing about in the upcoming months.

My RPG club’s name was “The Lords of the Astrolabe.” An astrolabe is a contraption that lets you find out where you are by pointing at the stars. Once again, we’re shooting for the stars. You’re welcome to ride along with us.

[The title of this post is taken from the eponymous article written by Katino in Imagine magazine #11 (Feb 1984). A few years before this episode, it outlined how to make monsters more interesting and three dimensional. But that’s the subject for another post.]

If you want to learn more about Namaste, you could do worse than going to our official website.