The thoughts one has just before drifting off to sleep at night are occasionally genius and very often crap. Nonetheless, I woke up this morning with it still in my head, which is often a sign that, while the idea may still be full of crapitude, there’s something there that may be worth pondering.

A few years ago, Neverwinter Nights (not the current version) might almost have presented a little competition to standard MMOs, with amateur-created and -run “persistent worlds.” These worlds mostly weren’t huge, since many of them were being developed as they went along by enthusiastic amateurs who had real-life jobs and bills to pay. Many of them weren’t really very polished. In fact, many of them were rather crap. But a few stood out — good background, decent lore, good writing, good zones… some weird and arcane mix of qualities that you only notice as a good playing experience if it’s there but definitely notice when it’s lacking.

Now, many of these persistent worlds ended up being designed as mini MMOs, with quest hubs, quest givers, mob camps and spawning areas, and all the usual — and rather overdone — trappings that we now associate with our online games.

Those didn’t appeal to me. Why the hell would I “wander gaily off yonder, there to hunt me some snark!” when I could just log on to an MMO and go kill shit without having to use artificially stilted language to do it?

What the better persistent worlds did was put the RP back into MMORPG. Again, those were few. There were many, many NWN persistent worlds that told you in great detail and at great length exactly how you should roleplay, and woe be unto you if you should break their many and varied rules. And then there were a few who laid down clear, usually pretty short (for roleplayers) ground rules and just let players get on with the business at hand.

On those rare few worlds where good world-building and good RP-advice came together, you could log in just to RP with someone for a bit, and you didn’t even have to pretend you were about to gambol off to bag yourself a brace of goblin.* People had stories and backstories, which often had to be vetted (at least cursorily) before you’d be allowed to play there. Since NWN was directly based on a roleplaying game, most of these worlds assumed you were there to do just that, though an increasing number ended up just being kill-ten-rats-fests.


So here’s what I wonder. I have no idea if the hardware and software allows it, though I suspect where there’s enough of a will there’s usually a way, and I don’t think this is rocket science. — What if we had SMALL Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games? Or hell, redefine the initial M as Medium — doesn’t matter what it stands for as long as it’s not “Massively.”

Small is beautiful (tangential link).

I’m talking games where you’d have maybe 200-400 concurrent users on a server, tops. (I guess that number would have to be refined, I’m just picking it out of thin air.) That’s enough people so that you probably wouldn’t know everyone who was on, but few enough that a regular player might well come to know most of them, if only by sight. Small enough to provide community but large enough to provide some variety (bad guys, good guys, and everyone in between). Small enough to be manageable but large enough to allow for backstabbery and treacherism between players.

Small enough, in short, to allow for some real roleplaying. Because I’m wondering if one of the obstacles to role-playing effectively and consistently in MMOs isn’t their very size. Most RPers I know just create a “subset” of that world for themselves — they either ignore vast swathes of the population or they ignore vast swathes of the game. In large, quest-driven, static MMOs, you have to fit your RP into the nooks and crannies. In a smaller, more controlled world, the RP would pretty much be the world.

And that’s the key term: control. Too much of it and you’re bowing to the whims of yet another control-freak GM… but too little of it and you’re just playing Yet Another Fantasy MMORPG. That’s another reason to limit the population size, so you don’t have to have an army of GM’s on hand — but so that those you do have can take an active part in shaping the world.

Such worlds could even do away with the questing hamster-wheel, at least to some extent. In such worlds, you might not be able to go out and kill rat after rat after rat just to level so you can kill bigger rats to level some more so you can kill giant rats. You’d have to have a reason for going other than simply to progress in levels. Hell, you could do away with levels, but I suspect that would be too much strangeness and too little goal-orientation to suit most players. In these worlds, if you killed 500 deer you might well cause famine in the nearby villages; because in these worlds, player actions could be accorded more weight in the world at large. Less players = potentially more, and more permanent, impact.

The world-building tools would have to be robust, flexible, and easy to use, or maintaining & evolving the worlds would be far too much work compared to the size of each world’s player base. And world-building could be an amateur thing for the most part, or at least a smallish-scale thing. But that’s the beauty of it. If anyone could run an MMO, imagine the quality we’d see. We’d see some abysmal poop, I’m sure, but I’m betting there are loads of extremely talented people out there — it was evident in the NWN persistent worlds and in the masses and masses of quality NWN self-contained modules produced by fans.

This leaves a bunch of questions like, how would this be paid for, at both ends? What guarantees of permanence? Of quality? blah blah blah — valid questions, but not ones I can be bothered to deal with. Don’t crash my castles in the clouds with your accountant’s lead!

The kind of world I describe above is, to me, the ultimate fusion of the tabletop experience with the online gaming experience. Small enough to be meaningful, big enough to be beyond my direct control most of the time.

It’s just an idea. Not, I suspect, a very feasible one, but fun to ponder.


* Okay, I admit it, I’m a roleplaying snob. Fake Shakespearean theeing, thouing, and miladying is NOT roleplaying. It puts me off horribly. I understand how to many people that’s the essence of RP, but really, it’s not. It’s pastiche. Besides, “thee” and “thou” were the familiar form of you and not, as many seem to think, the formal form. A little research goes a long way. Besides, people fit in their environments — yes, they spoke differently in the middle ages, but their speech flowed just as ours does today. Gussying it up too much just puts brakes on the imaginative process.