Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 14, 2014
I was really looking forward to seeing how they “solved” this one. I guess they didn’t.
I think I was always more of a fan of the theory behind the RPG system than the implementation, although I really loved Mage and played a bit of Vampire as well. But a big part of the “evolution” of the RPG back in the 1990s was that it was taking dice-and-paper RPGs in a direction where computers couldn’t go very well. Dubbed the “Storyteller” system, the game rules emphasized the more human elements of gaming – shared storytelling over mechanics. In my mind, it was all about plot, mood, character, and rule of cool.
Mage, in particular – the original version of the rules, not the kinder, simpler reboot – was in the realm of mind-blowing as far as rules were concerned. Rather than a spell-list like every other game out there, it was more about how much your character could manipulate reality along various lines (or, rather, “spheres”). There were some “rotes” that represented common examples of how it was done, but it was enormously removed from your fireball-wielding magic-user of D&D fame. Successful mages in the World of Darkness were more like action-movie heroes, pulling off amazing but more-or-less plausible feats that appeared to the common onlooker as being nothing more than a combination of not-quite-superhuman skill and good luck.
But those rules were pretty hard for many players to get their heads around. It was a little bit of a paralysis of having too much choice… you can do anything (within certain constraints), which led a lot of players to not really understand how they could do anything. For some it was liberating, but for others it was frustrating.
But at least in the earlier editions, the game was really rules-light and background-heavy (often, sadly, with highly conflicting background information that didn’t always work together – but hey, it was thick on atmosphere!). There was a lot of talking and role-playing, and a lot of just making-it-up as you go and rolling with it if it felt right. These are things that don’t lend themselves well to mechanical moderation. The two Vampire CRPGs that made it to the PC reflected this. Both had heavy atmospheres and storylines, but the rules systems were constrained to the point of only barely resembling the source material. They were made “video-gamey.”
Another issue – worthy of an essay in the Storyteller’s Supplement in the first edition of the dice-and-paper game – was that while the rules were technically compatible within the different types of characters in setting, they were nowhere close to “balanced.” In part, this was a result of the games being designed as completely stand-alone systems sharing core rules and a setting, but without any intention of really integrating them together. I suspect this was deliberate – the original design team tried to make the best game about werewolves as they could, not the best game about werewolves that worked well characters from other games. The essay noted that a high-level mage could literally turn an elder vampire into lawn furniture. You could say that this made the mage overpowered — but if an elder vampire caught a mage by surprise, said mage wouldn’t last ten seconds. The best the mage could hope for is to use his powers to escape to a place where he could then have time and safety to plan his new lawn-furniture construction enterprise.
In some online, human-moderated text-based worlds that used the rule system, the end result was pretty predictable… while characters across all game systems crossed paths, interacted socially, and occasionally worked together on plots, the vampire players really did vampire-y things together, the mages did mage-y things together, and so forth. Characters from other domains were more of a guest appearance.
How would this all work in a major, mass-market MMO? I was honestly keenly interested. It looks like the final answer was… “it didn’t.” As they said in the press release, “We dreamed of a game that would transport you completely into the sweeping fantasy of World of Darkness, but had to admit that our efforts were falling regretfully short.”
Over the years, I’ve often thought about how I would design a fully computer-moderated MMO along these lines. And to be fair — it’s not easy. In fact, if I had carte blanche with the license (like that would happen), I’d keep the setting and overall character types, but completely ditch the rule system as an early design choice. Purists would scream, but it’s not like it hasn’t been done before (with GURPS, LARPing, etc). So I’d be committing the same sins as the designers of Vampire the Masquerade: Redemption and Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, but taken to a greater extreme. The rules would have to change or be simplified to allow for the software to run the game, to allow players to cooperate and not be out of balance with each other, and to allow for a gradual but consistent character progression.
But no matter what, it’s a tough world to translate to the computer.
Bloodlines might have been a buggy mess on release, with some horrendous design flaws borne of a desperate, rushed release (particularly at the end, when it devolves into a shooter), but you don’t have to squint too hard to see its potential. It was a flawed gem, but the developers “got” the game system and the world. When choosing a Malkavian or a Nosferatu entirely changes the game, there’s something special going on there. It’s a glimpse into what could have been. But scaling it up to an MMO? I really don’t know.
But really, what I’d want to do isn’t an MMO for the entire World of Darkness, but really just Mage. And not necessarily an MMO – although a persistent, multiplayer world would definitely be a key feature. Something of a scaleably multiplayer along the lines of what Richard Garriott is talking about for Shroud of the Avatar. A proper Mage game would involve close friends (and enemies?) with a gradually growing circle of acquaintances and rivals. Kinda like social media.
But my fear now is that with the death of this MMO, we may never see another game in the World of Darkness. But hey, if the crowd-funded, wild indie video game world has taught us anything, it is that no license or genre is ever really dead.
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