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.

20 thoughts on “SMORPG?

  1. NWN persistent worlds are one of the boggles I’ve recently paid attention to in my gaming conundrum because I was part of a persistent world for NWN (and subsequently NWN2 when it released). The world was called Avlis and it was good. It was a pure RP world (had to apply to have access) and everything was done IC. Sure you could put (()) around stuff or whatever, but people rarely did. You could lie, cheat, steal, defend honor and justice or just exist, being a crafter (the team made a whole new crafting system from scratch).

    I really love the idea and played for a bit, but I always seemed to just play a little less each week until I never logged in, forsaking it for another MMO. Why? I have no idea.

    1. Aye, I played in Avlis and as I recall it was one of the good ones. It’s been a long time though, and my memory sucks, which was why I didn’t mention any by name. 😛

      Also, the NWN2 world-building tools just aren’t friendly enough to allow an imaginative amateur to easily build worlds — or rather, they weren’t when it first came out. Dunno what they’re like now. I’m also peeved that Obsidian seemed to think people played NWN primarily as a single-player game — did they do *no* research into what made NWN1 (not-AOL) as lastingly popular as it was? Beh.

  2. I’m not a fan of other people’s use of thee and thou, because they GET IT WRONG. If thou’rt going to use the familiar terms, prithee get them $£@!ing right.

    However, small games like that sound like a great idea. I reckon they will have to be software that individuals can set up, NWN style, because there’d be far too much admin to run them in a full-on commercial style.

    Although… $15 a month by say 2000 people (to get 400 conurrency) is $3000 a month, which would allow a company to put one person in charge of, say, two or three servers, so maybe you could float it that way. Or the soon-to-be-ubiquitous micro-transactions…

  3. I ran a NWN persistent world. It was very popular for my players, and freaking exhausting for me.

    Now that was then. Network connections were pretty crap, machines were sluggish. I spent as much time on the tech side of things as I did running the game.

    I don’t think you can get much easier than the NWN toolset though. I had friends who’d ‘guest DM’ events and he learned how to run them pretty easily.

    I think you can have your dream situation as long as you’re willing to accept transience. Most of these worlds won’t exist for years since they’re going to be user-built and run and people tire of projects.

    I think timing is going to be a problem. I’ve never done tabletop RPG but wasn’t a huge part of the experience that everyone was gathered in one place at one time? What happened when one of your party couldn’t make it? Did you just have someone else ‘run his character’ or did the DM just adjust the adventure so that one character opted to stay in the inn or …??

    Because the big factor with online games is that they’re always there. Maybe the way to do these medium sized games is to only have them run 2-3 evenings a week. Some artificial scarcity should help to encourage people to all get online at the same time so storylines can move along in an orderly fashion.

    The closest I’ve come to what you seem to be getting at was on a message-based RPG BBS. The DMs would set a scene, then everyone in that campaign would compose a message telling what they’d do next. Characters could talk back in forth via messages, and once a week or so, the DMs would “process” a turn, taking into account all the various actions and their DMness, they write another post about what happened to who and so forth.

    Since it was so text heavy, pretty much everyone taking part could write reasonably well, and it was small enough that players weren’t afraid of having their characters make mistakes and have flaws. It was quite compelling.

    I mention this just because more and more it sounds like you’re not really concerned with the ‘game’ aspects of RPGs, you’re mostly jonesing for the role-playing. Do stats and gear really matter? We didn’t have anything like that on our RPG BBS and it was awesome.

    1. “I mention this just because more and more it sounds like you’re not really concerned with the ‘game’ aspects of RPGs, you’re mostly jonesing for the role-playing. Do stats and gear really matter?”

      To some extent I’m Jonesing, since I haven’t tabletopped in years, but mostly I’m just theorising. Call them thought experiments, because I’m interested in games, I’m interested in social interactions, and I’m interested in how little we RP in these games even though those games are rooted, at least in part, in a roleplaying tradition.

      Single-player games are starting to tell stories a lot better than multiplayer games. But why? And does it have to be that way?

      Just stuff I think about. I have no problems playing MMOs, and in fact I don’t RP online much (as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t find it comfortable and doubt I ever really will). But it’s still fun to think about.

      Maybe it’s time I pointed out that sometimes I just like to ponder stuff. I’m female, it’s what we do. We’re not as results-oriented. At least , I’m not 😉

      1. Ysh, single player games will *always* tell better dev-initiated stories than multiplayer games. Multiplayer games are about the *players* telling stories on a shared stage. You can’t have a strong dev-written narrative work competing with that. They work to cross purposes, and will always wind up with one or the other compromising, thererby blunting whatever story the other is telling.

      2. I’m not sure there’s any disagreement here. Or that I was saying otherwise?

        Single-player games *are* starting to give the player more choice in their selection of actions. Yes, it’s dev-initiated, but so is logging into an MMO.

        Still confused.

        In any case, I don’t think it’s as cut-and-dried as you imply. There’s no reason the dev-incited and player-incited stories couldn’t, in theory, reinforce or complement each other.

        All I’m asking is for the option to tell stories, regardless of who does the initiating. Logging in and killing ten rats is not a story, whether you do it alone or with 2000 other people.

      3. I’m definitely not disagreeing. 🙂 Just addressing the questions of “why” and “does it have to be that way”.

        Single player stories and MMOs function differently. They can’t work to the same end. Yes, devs can tell stories in an MMO, but the nature of the beasts means that such will be more like the existing “Arthas is bad, go kill him” via cutscenes rather than a dynamic world that you’d get with a live GM that can alter the world on the fly.

        On the other hand, as you note, if there were an MMO (or SMORPG) that allowed players to actively change the world, then it’s not the dev telling stories, it’s giving players tools to tell their own stories. I’ve long advocated this approach. The dev creates a setting (not unlike a D&D sourcebook), and lets the players do their thing.

        Thing is, it’s scary to let players go crazy and have power to change the world. Griefers will always cause trouble. In tabletop gaming, the GM can keep a lid on griefers, or you can just kick them out of the house. Not so in an anonymous internet “massive multiplayer” world, where one jerk can change things for *everyone*.

        At the other end of the spectrum is the single player game, where the devs have very tight control and can give you anything from a barely interactive movie to a sandbox world that hangs on your every whim. They can do that *because there are no other players to screw things up*.

        In the end, yes, player stories and dev stories certainly can coexist in the same world, but they aren’t the same thing, and they may not agree with each other. In the case of conflict, one side has to win, and thus far, it’s the devs, in the form of clamping down on player freedom to change the world.

        To me, that’s “role playing” inasmuch as I’m stepping into a role that the devs have scripted, not unlike taking on a part in a play. It’s still “role playing”, but it’s a very different animal from playing a role that I’ve concocted as an active participant in the world, a role that I still have an active part in and that posses power to change the game world. Both have their places, but the nature of online gaming is simply such that you’ll never really see the latter *unless* you get the sort of small scale game populations that you’re suggesting, with proper vetting and conflict resolution procedures, complete with player power to alter the world.

        SWTOR is trying to get the best of both worlds, but note that even there, the strong dev-controlled storytelling will likely be strongly instanced (and may as well be single player or small group content) and typically piloted by a single player who makes the decisions (by selecting choices in a conversation tree rather than freeform conversation; again, the nature of the medium). The world will still be there, but if anyone is dreaming that they will have the power to turn a Death Star equivalent loose on Coruscant, or even to blow up a disfavored senator’s apartment to shape a bill the way they want, it’s likely a misguided dream. *That* sort of role playing just doesn’t work when there are so many people playing and so much griefing potential.

      4. Aye — I think the more people you have, the less impact each individual can have on the world at large. And yet, between one player (or, say, 6 in the traditional PnP group) and 2000+, there has to be some sort of medium. But it has to, as you say, cut both ways: you have to preserve some “Gods” power to actually make the alterations (and decide not to if it would harm the world) while at the same time giving the players power, or at least the potential power, to do things which change existing structures completely.

        Too many players and the trust (not to mention admin :P) required for that is probably too much to ask. Too few, and you might fail to breathe life into a larger world than is possible with the standard small group.

        So far, I still think NWN variants came closest, possibly because it provided the best tools *and* because the setting & mechanics and stuff were familiar to the “older” RP crowd (as opposed to the RP crowd that was weaned on MMOs).

  4. Addendum: One of the biggest barriers to enjoyable RP I see in today’s game boils down to typing skills. When you’re trying to RP with someone and it takes them 2 minutes to respond to what your character is doing, it can get frustrating pretty quickly.

    >Jones rummages through the chest and holds up a bit of metal.

    > Redford: “What is it Jones, what have you found?”




    > Redford: “Jones?”



    > Smith bursts through the door. “The Orcs are upon us!”


    > Redford: “Orcs!? No time to waste, let’s head off to meet the enemy!”

    > Redford and Smith draw swords and charge out the door



    > Jones: “It sees to be somek ind of artefact!”

    Do people RP in MMOs via voice chat yet?

    1. Hah yeah. I didn’t get into that because I just end up ranting. I type fast and I type well (mostly), and it’s unkind to be annoyed at those who don’t… but I still get annoyed.

      Speaking of which, have you seen Spinks’ two posts today? Very relevant:


      (Yeah, I could prettify the links but I can’t be arsed.)

  5. Its a good idea. Look up Arelith and you’ll find one that works right now. However the money model is more difficult because you need to buy more servers and more staff for less large audiences on each. So its not a technical impossibility, its a money difficulty.

  6. Chris F over at ihaspc has requested private servers from Blizzard before. Imagine if a big MMO company had the gonads to sell private servers and support them with patches, effectively letting each server become its own “world” as the local admins do their thing. The company just provides the framework (code and art assets).

    It’s not unlike a digital distribution version of tabletop D&D; the devs make a great playground and let the players get on with playing.

    (It would have the benefit of potentially changing the business model. We don’t put up with renting out D&D books, or paying to play with them. Why do we put up with paying to play these dang MMO things?)

  7. @Pete: Just like everyone MMOs differently (did I just turn MMO into a verb?) everyone RPs differently, including tabletop. Back when (and I’m not going to say just how back when that was! hehe) I GM’d a tabletop campaign I would typically adjust that session’s story. I might briefly play the part of the missing player’s character as sort of a cameo then take him out of the picture for that session. Other GM’s I’d heard of would either play that character the entire time or let another player handle it. Tried that once, didn’t like the results. I just preferred splitting up the group, kinda like Obi Wan sneaking off by himself to disable the Death Star’s tractor beam while everyone else was doing “group content.” Oh, and yes, some people RP over voice. Unfortunately. It redefines the word “creepy” I’ll just say that.

    I’ve wondered if something more “indy” was possible, along the lines of letting players run their own dedicated servers like FPS clans do, but they all worked together (would that be “cloud” computing?) to form a more seamless environment that would auto-transfer you from server to server as you went to different areas of the world. Multiple servers could run the same zone, or could combine to adjust their horsepower to handle zones that become more populated (doesn’t EVE do something similar?) but in the end it would be a joint effort of a few developer servers combined with player-hosted ones. A sort of MMO@Home mentality?

    In general though, I’ve been struck with the notion that the whole “massively multiplayer” is wasted potential currently.

    The typical group size in an MMO is 5 or 6. Raids have steadily decreased in size from 70+ in EQ to 40 in WoW now most are down to 12-25 these days. One of the “Big Deal” additions to LOTRO last year was the small group (2-3) instances.

    It *seems* that most of us only group with a couple friends or guildmates. The exception might be getting more together for a raid/PvP but often then it’s still within the guild. We’ve become very insular and cliquish. All those other “massively multiplayers” on the server could just as well be NPCs for all we care. We see them as we pass by. At most, we might give or receive a drive-by buff or emote.

    We’re just playing multiplayer but on massively multiplayer servers. Where do we get the most massively multiplayer mileage? (Lot of m’s there!) Chat. Sometimes I’m just not sure it’s worth $15/month to chat when I can IRC for free, and single- and especially multi-player games these days are offering a far superior *game* experience than MMOs are providing.

    1. Agreed, Scott. There really isn’t much out there that is leveraging the potential of “massive” gaming. When I can play something like Diablo 2 multiplayer free over a LAN or direct internet connection without a subscription (or even the internet!) to get my loot treadmill fix, and the RP (a good reason to play with others) in these MMO things is laughable, MMOs just aren’t offering enough for their cost.

      If a dev were to make something like WoW as a standalone game with free multiplayer, the gameplay wouldn’t be appreciably different from how the game plays now. If you spliced together “the market” via a back end internet interface (since it could conceivably be run independent of the client anyway), you’d have the “economy” of a massive MMO covered just fine. (And really, how many of us in real life care about the people two or more steps removed from our own consumption portals and immediate interactions? Do we care that Billy the Lineman has hopes and dreams as long as he keeps the dang electric lines from crashing? How many of us even keep in touch with all of our cousins and cousins-twice-removed? Do we know how many kids they even have and what their names are? How many *real people* do we treat as NPCs or vendors?)

  8. I do not think that a lot of new “small MMOs” will work, as really the target audience is rather limited.

    Personally, I like the the community size NWN brings along. UO RP shards usually were up to 5 times larger, but the landmass was also bigger, so the “RP density” was almost the same.

    If just NWN 2 had a somehow streamlined network code, it would be the perfect game.^^ I played NWN 1 for 5 years or so, then I switched over to NWN 2.

    From time to time I look into normal MMOs, but it is not even comparable. The only sad fact is that most “newbie RPers” will start in MMOs and it takes a lot of time, eventually utterly frustrating those people, till they realize they should look for alternatives.

  9. Why not just give MUDs a spin (again)? If you can find one that is decent, customised, and not just Midgaard and has a population… they can be great for RP.

    Once I stop ogling at the graphical shinies, dings, and whistleybells of Guild Wars that are getting me off right now, this battery one is going back to MUDs.

    And Crossover Games can run Zmud! Zomgsquee!

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