Storytelling in MMOs: Tips & Tricks – Personalising Your Story

Apr 10

Storytelling in MMOs: Tips & Tricks – Personalising Your Story

There was a bit of a hullabaloo yesterday, so I didn’t get a chance to get this out as planned, so here we are.

Last time, we talked about adding elements from an MMO’s main story arc to your group’s story arc. This time, we’re going to discuss adding your players’ characters’ personal plots to your groups plot – personalising your stories. While it may sound easy, it can actually be quite daunting and often can get you calls of favouritism if you’re not careful with your execution. First, let’s take a look at the tools, and then let’s take a look at the execution.

One way of gathering information about your players’ characters is to simply observe and listen. Your players are going to want to talk about their characters, either amongst themselves, or directly to you. Standard information gathering skills like note taking can get you quite a bit of useable plot bits without ever having your players know what you are up to – even while you’re helping out someone with their character, you can be taking notes for plot, and they won’t be the wiser!

This method, however, is the slowest way to gather information on your players’ characters, and will take the most time to get anything really coherent enough to make a character plot arc out of. You might not even get enough to drop hints about a player character in your normal plot arc. It all depends on how chatty people are, and how open about their characters’ secrets they are OOCly.

The second method I use is the public character dossier. This is all the information that is publicly available…that not everyone is going to bother finding out about. You’d be surprised how few people bother reading through every character dossier on a group’s site, let alone deciding what information their character knows, and copying it down in their notes. For the storytellers, however, this can be a great method of letting public information slip out – especially if you have a rumours section in it like I do.

Since a lot of people don’t keep track of the dossiers, this is a great source of introductory information for a character plot arc, or the start of information to drop in general plot arcs if you don’t want to run character-focused plot arcs but want to personalise your normal arcs. It’s like the icing on the cake, the first thing people get to see and taste about the character in question.

I’ve had a sort of standard character dossier for the past few MMOs that can be viewed here. It may need to be slightly tweaked from setting to setting, but it generally gets the job done. I make header banners for each group I’m working with, but I left them as plain headers for this document. The dossier has had bits taken from dossiers like the one at the Raven, Mythic of EverQuest II fame, and the social section came from a posting at Aion Roleplayers, while other parts came from a Guild Wars 2 role play site.

The last tool I use is called the Advanced Character Worksheet, and it can be a beast of a project; I don’t suggest using it unless you have a lot of time or multiple people on your storyteller staff. The ACW allows a player to tell the storytellers all of the secrets about their character – written down, and if your site is up to it, in an editable, updateable format – for you to use in your plot arcs! This sheet is extensive and asks a lot of things that the player may not have thought to flesh out, as well as has a “Consent to Harm” section that will let you know exactly how much of a beating you can give each character.

This sheet was based off of a similar form the guild Magitech in Rift used, but has had additions made based on things from Ash’s Guide to RPG Personality & Background, and has been streamlined over several iterations; it is quite different from its forefather, with many questions changed and some removed and some added. While there are several questions that have to be tweaked depending upon your MMO setting, the vast majority of them are fairly generalised and work for all MMOs.

Again, this sheet is not posted somewhere the public can see it. For my Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn Free Company, we have a forum that is set up so that each poster can only see their own post, aside from our storytelling staff, who can see every post in there. This way, the posters can update their ACWs whenever they need to and post a reply to let us know they were updated, while we can view their sheets in one spot. We have a separate forum that only the storytelling staff can see where we discuss the ACWs, picking out things that work for plot arcs from each one, and talking about when, where, and how to use them. Of course, you’ll have to decide how to set things up for your group, but we’ve found this to be the best way for us – if your forums can do the same thing, and you think this will work for you, great!

There is a copy of the current incarnation, as of this writing, of the Advanced Character Worksheet here; keep in mind it is tuned to Final Fantasy XIV, so you will need to make adjustments for your MMO. I also make fancy banners for each heading of the ACW, however I left them out for the template here. Feel free to use this tool for your own groups, and change it as you see fit – some people will want access to all of this information, others will see it as too much. It’s meant to be fluid, so edit away!

Once you’ve disseminated information, there are a couple of ways you can use it. You can run short, character centred plots in between your larger story arcs, or you can let the information slip out in your larger story arcs, or you can let random NCPs or forum posts leak information, and of course, you can do all the types of information leaks.

The anime Fairy Tail shows excellent examples of character centred story plots between larger, non-character centred plots. Throughout the course of the season available on Netflix, you learn about each of the main characters in small three to four episode (or so) plot arcs that focus on telling us about their pasts, showing us how they became who they are in current storyline. These arcs pepper the show while other Fairy Tail guild centred plots make up the rest of the show. We can learn from this by tailoring the information we’ve gathered into small episodic “end of season” or “start of season” events to break up our larger plot arcs, giving characters a chance to shine in the spotlight, rotating through members of the group and letting people learn about their fellows.

Secondly, rumour rapsheets, perhaps in the form of a gossip column an NPC keeps up, make for an interesting way of slipping out character information – whether from the dossiers or the ACW. These types of information seeding can also be plot triggers, as when people go to follow up on them, they find there’s more than just a rumour there. This works for both character arcs and your regular plot arcs, so don’t discount the power of the rumour monger.

Of course, you can also have NPCs directly give information about characters – and of course, other types of information – to the players during the course of your normal plot arcs. They can be forthcoming or vague, making the characters question their fellow for more information, which can lead them further into the main plot of your group or further into the character’s plot. A streak of character plot can push the main plot along for a moment without becoming a full on character story arc, making the characters and players more invested in the story than they were before.

These personalisations will draw your audience, the players, into your story and invest them in the progression of the plot. It will make them want to see it through to the end by involving them as more than just the random heroes who happened to be in the area when trouble started brewing. It makes them an integral part of the story, because suddenly it is about their characters in a meaningful way – it’s about more than finding the lost relic, or stopping some bad guys they have no connection to. Suddenly, there are connections everywhere, drawing them deeper and deeper into the story, turning it into a shared experience.

I strongly suggest trying out some of the tools I’ve provided, even if they seem a bit daunting at first. It takes time to get used to any toolset, any process, and any method, but the results are well worth it. When your players are excited and paying attention to your story because it’s about your ideas and theirs, you’ll be glad you did.


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Storytelling in MMOs: Main Story VS Your Story?

Mar 05

Storytelling in MMOs: Main Story VS Your Story?

Welcome back to Storytelling in MMOs.

Last time, I mentioned that one of the key problems with MMOs these days is that they still run with a main storyline that implies the player character is the “one true hero” or something to that effect. The key events focus around the player character, and often make the character powerful compared to the rest of the world, including the NPCs.  This leads to quite a lot of contention about whether these events are even usable by PCs and Storytellers at all, and how they affect role play in general; it can tear entire communities apart when certain kinds of storyline events hit, particularly if class elements become tied to the “one true hero”, and make a class singular to that powerful near-Mary Sue.

It is possible to use the main storylines as a Storyteller and even a player, it just takes some work to marry them into your storylines and backgrounds. I call it “taking a side step” from events, using the information there to create sidelong plots that entwine with the actual events, but rarely cross over into the actual events themselves – your players don’t go slay the main dragon, but they may take out one of his brood or “general” type dragonkin, for example.

The trick is to use elements from the main plots without using the largest key points from the main plot. Some of you may already have learned to do this with the large plot arcs that some table top and LARP books and groups make if you didn’t want to follow the arc that closely, particularly if you were buying the books or were part of a larger group right as the arc was “airing”.

If you’re playing an MMO like Guild Wars 2, where they have a very actively changing main story – they call it the Living Story there – the world around you changes at a very rapid pace, with a lot of huge events happening in chained short story arcs. For the more part, the player character is the “one true hero” alongside some key NPCs, so outright using the main plot as your story is typically a bust. However, while I was playing, I found using the smaller elements such as the Events System or related Hearts and even the smaller quests were great for converting into storyline elements.

Most MMOs have a longer storyline cycle, however, giving you more time to pick apart storyline elements and use them in your own storylines. This slower introduction time also allows your players more time to savour the elements of the story, and enjoy the role plays you provide, and also process those into their own “downtime” RPs.

The underlying benefit to this is that it marries your plots to the game itself, removing the potential argument that your storylines are just a distraction from the game; when your elements are bringing the players back to the current content time and again, and even processing current content while being done, this argument often becomes invalid. It also gives your storylines a deeper tie to the lore, which is appealing to many players, even those who don’t necessarily lore hound all that much, because it makes it more “realistic” to the setting.

It may take a few patch/story cycles to get used to picking out viable elements to use in your stories from the main stories and larger side stories. Don’t be afraid to try adding these elements into your stories, or basing entire stories around them – just explain what you are doing to your players, and ask that they give you time to work out the kinks in the system. Storytelling, like role playing, is an ever evolving creature, and will take many twists and turns as you get comfortable in your chosen game and setting. Mastery does not come overnight, and most players will understand that and give you the time you need.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to side step main storyline concepts and elements you don’t believe will work for your group or your storylines; however, acknowledge that they happened in the world, just don’t involve yourself and your group with them in a direct or side-stepped manner. They happened in the world, they just weren’t something that happened to anyone your group knew well.

As mentioned before, the events of the main storyline have to be acknowledged in some manner, even if distantly, as they do change the world around you and your players. The “one true hero” and their supporting NPCs will carry on with their quest, the factions will fight, and the world will change whether you wish for it to or not. Always take what you don’t use, and at least have it mentioned in passing in some manner so that it’s known.

With these basics, you can start using the world story and integrate it into your group’s story, making it your own and becoming one with your chosen game. So get out there, and start finding the elements that you like, and make them part of your world!

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Storytelling in MMOs: Tips & Tricks – Arriving in an MMO

Feb 04

Storytelling in MMOs: Tips & Tricks – Arriving in an MMO

Greetings, and welcome to the first edition of the Storytelling in MMOs series!

As many of you are aware, each medium where role-playing is found presents its own set of unique problems for the storyteller, from tabletop gaming to forum role play to MMO gaming. While some of our tricks work regardless of medium, some of them have had to be developed specifically for the medium we are playing in. This series of articles will cover not only some universal tricks that will work in any medium, but a few that were designed to work specifically with the challenges that exist only in MMOs.

The first thing many storytellers face when dealing with an MMO is the realisation of the sheer size of their new world. MMOs are often massive, just as their name implies, and often feel more massive than a table top game or LARP setting despite the fact that many table top and LARP settings are a bit larger, while a storyteller coming from a forum based setting more likely than not is dealing with a more massive setting. It can be quite overwhelming for either type of storyteller because suddenly the setting is essentially a living, persistent entity that carries on with or without them.

An ongoing persistent world that continues with or without the storyteller is actually the key element that is the core difference between story telling in any other medium and an MMO. Typically, the storyteller maintains the majority of control over the story, however in an MMO…you don’t.

The control lies with the creators of the MMO, in a way that it did not lay with the creators of the RPG system one might have used for their table top, LARP, or forum games before. The creators of the game will constantly make the world and lore change according to their vision, not yours. Other people will possibly impact the world around you, without your permission, depending upon the mechanics of the game. One day an outpost that was vital to your story may be there, and the next day it may be gone – or it may be gone an hour after your merry band of adventurers left it, due to an event beyond your control, rapidly changing your plans.

Many storytellers become frustrated by the lack of control they have over the world, or by the lack of influence they can have over the world. In some MMOs, there are systems that allow for very large temporary changes that fit great with a storyteller’s plan, but they’re only temporary and leave no real lasting impact on the world, which leads to frustration of a different kind.

These lacks of influence are one of the first challenges a new storyteller has to face when bringing or building a role play group in an MMO setting.  We have to learn to give up some of the control we have on the events of the world in a much harder fashion than we do in other mediums; we  have to accept that the main storylines’ canon is happening, and it is not happening to our group, but that it does impact our group.

At the same time, we also have to make the canon events flexible enough for the information and setting styles to be used by our players. Oftentimes, everything in the game is sort of tailored to being that the player character is the ultimate hero, to the point where even the class information and canon can end up implying – or outright stating – that only the singular player character has unlocked that class and can be that great paragon who can do that one thing.

Such things make it very difficult for your players to be more than just commoners with one health point, which would give everyone very little to work with.

This is where you start to have to apply what table top and LARP games call “house rules”, however, we’re now working in MMOs. We are not working in isolation. Nearly every MMO one goes to role play in will have at least a semi active RP community, and it is very likely that your players will end up interacting with the people from the community. Expect your “house rules” to be judged, expect them to potentially end up being discussed by this community, and potentially ridiculed if they veer too far from the MMO’s canon or don’t fit well with the “community rules” that have been created.

Sometimes, this will be constructive criticism, but sometimes, it will be less than so. You can chose to ignore the commentary, and carry on with your group, and simply not take part with the community as a greater whole or you and your group can attempt to integrate into the greater community and become a part of the RP population on the server. That choice will ultimately be up to you.

If you don’t entirely fit with the community that springs up around the chosen MMO, it doesn’t make you and your group bad people. It simply means you have different ideals and goals for the game. My suggestions is that you keep your doors open to those who do share your thoughts and wish to join in your role play path, but don’t actively try to force your group to fit into the greater whole constantly and continually. If individual members wish to try to create and maintain relations with the community at large, that’s their prerogative, but you do not necessarily have to force the group to do so as a whole.

It can take time to get these initial issues smoothed out, no matter how talented the leadership and storyteller staff of the gaming group is; these initial growing pains are just on the storytelling side of the group, and do not include the basic growing pains a gaming group goes through in general when they arrive in a new gaming situation. While your storytelling staff is getting these things settled, ask your player base to be patient with them, and remind them that it will be worth the wait!

Never be afraid to ask for more time during the initial migration to a new game, or during the initial creation of a new group. As you can see, there’s a lot on your plate that you have to deal with, and some of it may not be pretty once you do get into it. These things have to be sorted through and taken care of, the storytellers have to work these things out, even if some of them are just mental adjustments, before the real core of storytelling can begin with an MMO setting. If these aspects are ignored and the storytellers just jump in, it can quickly lead to burnout and a sudden lack of story content and RP events.

Take your time, think about these issues, and work them out in ways that benefit and work for your group in the best way possible. Once that’s done…

…let the magic begin!



Jumping – Action Pose Reference by Faestock

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