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.