Game of Despair, Realms of Thrones

If you haven’t started season 8 of HBO’s Game of Thrones, minor spoilers follow.

Jon Snow has at long last been reunited with his sister Arya, along with most of the other characters of the series who are alive, reuniting at Winterfell. The series has been structured around several strong, central locations like Winterfell, the Red Keep, and so on. As the series has progressed the locations have evolved and the nature of them changed. Right now you’re probably picturing the Starks at Winterfell, the last great fortress of the north, yet, just a short time ago it was the home of the Boltons. Same place, different feel.

At the same time there has been a surge of interest in fantasy games, material, fan literature, maps, and so on. Yet true new usership of the Realms seems elusive. It is undoubtedly only going to appeal to a fringe audience. In the era of readily available games with flashy graphics and sound, almost disposable in their nature – play for a while, win the game, chuck it and back to the app store, to state the obvious – Realms is a very different creature. Yet it does attract a certain type of user, and I would argue holds a great deal of entertainment value.

Persistent area building over the last 25 years has created a rich play environment with many different puzzles to be solved and despite the publishing of many tricks and walk throughs on RodPedia there are still many, many things to learn and a great deal of value in figuring it out yourself.
I wander the Realms mapping and trying to solve the Glass Menagarie puzzles, among other things. People like Sylphain dive deeply into a single area even trying to understand the connections in the way a builder crafts puzzles to discover yet unsolved mysteries in old areas. Some only care about getting new, more buff items and so their interest is in finding their way through the Southern Mountain Range Trade Route into the EisenCastle or fiddling with the altar in Winterlight beyond Bridgette for a daily trip into the abyss to grind for the elusive pop items.

Is this the end game? Waiting for glory quests for an incremental game or playing the RNG slot machine for increasingly rare gains? Chasing increasingly obscure esoteric knowledge?

Some time ago I talked with Belkira about the idea of expanding housing into user kingdoms. It was only a very rough idea, the broad strokes were that players would be allowed to add more vnums to their houses outside of the protected inner sanctum of the 5 rooms we currently enjoy. These public rooms could be invaded and played by others. The player could gain an income from their area but would need to spend some of it to hire guard mobs to protect it. Alternately the player’s area might simply be a place to ambush players, lots of thief mobs that steal from you, brigands, but then that might drive a bounty system where the players are motivated to come attack the mobs.

In this sort of system simply having everything cost gold would only increase the strain on golding areas but arming your soldiers by attracting blacksmiths and giving them thievesblades and shieldbreakers, doomgivers and kings crested swords … being careful to make the system support a very wide base of low-mid range gear to encourage people to revisit the old content… or maybe this just feeds grinding.

Watching people gold on PK chars lately in Coral Depths and seeing no one log in to attack them really demonstrates part of the problem, not only with golding but with PK. Sorry PKers, but it seems that PK is essentially a group of cheese tricks and buff gear to win instead of a real matching of wits between two players. I may be missing the nuance to it, I don’t PK, and no amount of cool skills or buff gear will ever attract me to it. Knowing that when I hit level 15 or so Joe is going to come kill me with his already prepared “level 15 killer” or that if I get to av the Arcanes crew will log to gang bang me doesn’t excite me. The pk-tag requirement on gear means you can’t be pk-casual. Yet at some level it is precisely the interpersonal competition that the PF “end game” seems to be trying to replicate. It’s not pk’s fault, the Realms combat system is inherently boring. Once you see the formulas, even in an interpreted, obscure way, you lose the fun.

As we have been drifting along missing the surge of interest in the fantasy genre during the promotion of Game of Thrones season 8 I ask, why? Lack of retention of new players and of the interest of older players. Older players can solo a lot of the stuff new players need and so there’s no incentive to be helpful yet if you make everything need 3 players people go back to the sitting at recall chatting “I’m bored, who wants to do stuff” days.

First and foremost is retention of new players. The Realms web client is a right minded step I believe. CMud is unsupported. Mush Client is a little too complex for the average user I think. None of them really integrate what a modern HTML5 web browser can do with ease. Unfortunately requests to access the appliance that goes between the Realms Website and the Telnet back end were denied. Anyone interested in doing development on features or creating their own client is shut out. So … no community building with diverse implementations to choose from. I can see some technical reasons for this based on how the Realms of Despair works, but we have reached the point where a person using a TOR browser could spoof IPs limitlessly. We need a better mechanism than IP checks to limit farming.

I had suggested account level tagging of gear. The motivation was to allow you to share your own gear among your own characters. Character tagging is a pain. If I level a new character I have to replay content solely for the “I need this item”, even if I’ve done it many times before. Why do I have to level new characters? It’s still the easiest way to improve stats, even in a post reroll 95 stat environment vs the old 102 based stat environment. Sect tags? Use the family name that is already available? Yes you want to allow players to add characters without this being totally abusable, what about 5 glory to add/remove someone from your family? Sure some might bite the bullet and pay it to exploit something, but at least we can start talking about it.

I had suggested we get away from the idea of strongly classed characters and instead move towards a holistic one character approach where people really deeply invest in developing the adventurer. No one wanted to even think about it yet I hear that edmond is putting some effort in that direction. For those wondering if we’ll lose the unique character classes Realms has, I’ll say we don’t have unique character classes or races in Realms. Everything is derivative of somewhere else whether it’s Vampire:The Masquerade or Dungeons and Dragons … it’s ongoing. Dragonborn are a 5th edition D&D race, variations of Draconians from DragonLance or even the basic idea of lizardmen. Nephandi? White wolf – Vampire the Masquerade people. The augurer and the fathomer might be fairly unique interpretations but they’re relegated to the sidelines. There’s been some other attempts at unique interpretations like the Kinux flavour of Barbarians or what I recall of the Julie and Moonbeam style witch class … but how do these things add flavour to our game? Everything is determined still by “what can I kill with this” and “what advantage does this give me”. Why are barbs half-orc? Olsen ears… why were thieves half-troll/ogre for so long? Froggy girth and res pierce. Big clumsy races as the basis for most of the highest dexterity characters.

Many organizations are so starved for activity that there is a feeding frenzy on a new player. I have witnessed this over the last few years, even to the point of chatting with new players who were quitting because they overheard organization leaders saying that they didn’t care about the n00bs as long as they could quaff and circle. Yet that org was vaacuming up every new player, dressing their characters in decent gear because of that heavy golding I was talking about, and moving someone only a few months into the game into the “end game” mentality .. this or that area isn’t worth looking at because there’s no big run mob there, or this or that isn’t worth doing because it’s hard, just gold and buy it. I commented on some of this during Oktoberquest where we had some groups that were forming and helping one another yet certain groups were more interested in promoting divisiveness in order to win the quest because the top 3 get the best prize.

If this continues we will have no one left to play with.

The second part is retention or re-attraction of old players. I think that removing autodelete for avatar characters is one thing that’s long overdue. Drive space is not at a premium and if certain Realms functions are horribly inefficient under large number of pfiles then they are long overdue for fixing. I was led to believe some of that had been moved to databases – in that case it shouldn’t be an issue at all. Modern computer science has long since solved these problems and even without moving to an object oriented C++ environment SMAUG should be able to handle these ideas in code. The evidence is on the Realms Facebook page – player after player modestly interested in returning but not excited about recreating their army.

Next is the idea of giving someone the ability to log in and do something other than grind a new character. At some point if you’ve played long enough you’ve got 4 of everything you want, or more, even people trying to trade Seth pops have a hard time – 25 years of farming the mob has taken its toll. Must be why some groups impose a no-public-trading rule on certain runs… break it and you get thrown off the run.

Orders and guilds are supposed to bring together people so they can get to know each other and work together. How many people would be logging into Inconnu or Dragonslayer daily if it wasn’t for the Vreesar run? What happens when everyone has their 9dr gloves? Do we need the next big thing? The efforts to go over current areas and add new content seems to fit with feeding this desire for new content. Whether it’s for actual gains or like the moldy pillow just for quality of life, this still has a shelf life, especially when the new items obsolete some other content. There was a renewed interest in La Chute with the new robes and rings, and what happened? Feeding frenzy then return to status quo.

Even with the unique recalls of these organizations we have failed to create a sense of uniqueness. Why can’t I have my character recall to Thul when I cast word of recall? Why isn’t that his “home”? I’m not suggesting everyone should just pick anywhere but the fixation with Darkhaven Square and Thoth’s rune suggests this tiny piece of the game is somehow key to everything and yet the content of the game does nothing to support it. After 20+ years of butchering the guards not a single thing has ever been remembered past a few repops.

I think user driven kingdoms that had persistence could change that. I think it’s a possible end game. I think that if a player doesn’t maintain it by playing regularly that it should deteriorate and become a ruin. A player returning can clean it up and resume – they pay a penalty for being away – but they don’t have to start anew. Think of Harrenhall – it’s a ruin but the Lannisters returned it to function and it still had value.

Perhaps nations and role play wanted to develop the rich stories of 25 years of game running. I think this has to be embraced not just as an exercise of the imagination and fan stories, but within the game itself. Regular areas can’t really do this – the idea of a dynamic, evolving story within an area is necessarily finite and though it can be quite possible it would be a massive undertaking. Would players respond well to an area where the actions of the last group through affected them? If you killed Dr. Frankenstein then the Frankenstein monster can never be spawned? What might the loot look like since right now we have the notion of repop so ingrained in us that we think everyone that goes on the run should eventually get a payout by grinding?

I don’t know, but what if the end game was more story and less grind? That you felt part of a world where your actions had impact instead of being continuously and consciously aware that a random number keeps you repeating the same farm over and over? I don’t know either, but it sounds like more fun.

This has been a diverse group of gripes that has been building for some time. It’s far rantier than I really set out to do. I think there are lots of creative ways to continue to enjoy the game for years to come, but I think it requires effort and openness. Some days it seems like it would be much easier to fire up the code environment and start from scratch but that’s giving up on 25 years of continuous game play and the rich history we have.

Leave a Reply