One of the more interesting experiments in computer gaming was Bioware’s Aurora toolset for the single-player RPG, Neverwinter Nights. With the toolkit, players could create their own adventures within the game and make them available to other players in the online community. The tools proved surprisingly popular, and many modules sprung up. And even though Bioware no longer supports the toolset, the community continues to develop adventures using them, even to this day.
The experiment harks back, once again, to tabletop roleplaying, where players were always encouraged to create their own adventure scenarios. Sure, many commercial modules were available, and these were always available to groups who didn’t have time to write up their own stories. But creating your own adventure, running it for your friends, was at the heart of roleplaying—nothing was more satisfying.
Occasionally, I will be posting old reviews I did for The Gamer (print only) magazine back in the 1990s, and consolidating them here. You can also find these reviews on rpg.net.
You can tell when a designer truly cares about the material he’s writing, not just by the amount of detail included, but by a sense that he has been to the place he’s describing, that he’s spoken to the people who live there. From the understated front cover, which illustrates the discovery of a skull-decorated temple (and a fresher specimen in the foreground) to the deranged wallmarkings drawn into the margins of the reference section, the authors have crammed this brooding, 104-page supplement with enough adventure to keep players engaged for a good long while.
At a recent meeting with a group of game developers we were discussing the merits of quest chains vs. open, serendipitous questing.
The original Ultima single-player games used an open system – as you traveled through the world you might talk with a person in a village who, if you asked him about a particular subject (using a method similar to the old Zork games – trial and error typing in your own subject line), he perhaps could tell you a story with a lead you could follow up on – he might tell you of a person in another city who knew more, or possibly of an area in Brittania where an object might be found if you investigated. There was no guide telling the player the exact location, just the name of the city or locale, and taking of notes and using your map was certainly necessary to keep track of the thread. At any one time you might have 4-5 threads you were following, and a decent-sized notebook. If you had somehow stolen from the character or attacked him previously, you might not get the clue or thread in the story. Ultima kept track of your behavior in the world.
In 1978, just about 11 years after TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons burst onto the scene, a company called Chaoisum introduced a new game: RuneQuest. While there were many, many differences between RuneQuest and D&D, the one people point to most frequently is RuneQuest’s percentile-based skill system, and the fact there were no character “levels.” In RuneQuest, rather than templated character classes (“fighter,” “cleric,” “thief,” etc.) with pre-defined abilities, you placed points into skills, and as you used them, each skill had the possibility to improve. So a character might have especially good skills in longsword and shield if they were a fighter-type, or magical spells if they were a mage. Even more of a shock, your “hit points” almost never increased. Your ability to defend (parry or dodge or block with a shield), could become very high, but your base health stayed pretty much the same throughout your character’s life. A lowbie character with a very lucky roll could defeat a high powered one who made a very bad roll—something unheard of in the D&D world.
I logged into Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) for the first time a year ago, knowing it was a free-to-play game, and at the same time feeling a little weary of the Warcraft level and gear grind. There had been something of a hub-bub over LOTRO going free in 2010—it was one of the first to do so—but other than that, I was a bit surprised how such a well-known title had such a quiet following. Or maybe it was just that the Warcraft crowd was bigger and louder.