@internet -- The End of the Game

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After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

After Hours Reality Check Magazine A Season in Methven Our Host Send Me Mail

Home Articles STARK REALITIES About This Site My PGP Public Key

I'm as beat as the big bass drum after marching band practice.

For more than a month now, my wife and I have been going through the death of a thousand boxes that is the do-it-yourself moving experience. In that time, we've driven over 3000 miles, back and forth from the Bay Area to Mariposa, made five or six trips to the dump and repeatedly managed both to merely injure and to actually incapacitate ourselves in the process.

Yesterday, at 1:43 in the morning, I arrived here with the last load from our former residence, after an exhausting 340-mile round trip that climaxed with our venerable Ford pickup stalling out completely on the brutal grade between Mariposa proper and our spread near Bootjack. In celebration of our successful evacuation, after we unloaded the truck my friend, the honorable D. L. "Larry" Damon, (who will be Mayor of El Cerrito by the time you read this,) had so expertly and thoroughly packed -- and got a few hours' sleep -- we split a local Zinfandel our realtor had given us as a housewarming present.

Then we went back to bed, because we were both pretty much dead on our feet and could think of no sweeter or more welcome way to commemorate the occasion than to spend a few more precious hours sawing 'em and stacking 'em.

The ordeal is a long way from over, of course. We're surrounded by a chaos of clutter that desperately needs restored to -- or, rather, "stored in" -- some kind of comprehensible order. We need to buy and repair motor vehicles, construct an office for me and do a bunch of fairly urgent home repairs -- plumbing, roofing, deck repair, you name it. And, as if that weren't enough, we have to deal with the nasty little matter of a scorpion infestation, as well.

So the long and short of it is that I haven't had time to do the research necessary to expound usefully on what has, since 1994, traditionally been the subject of my December @internet column: online games and gaming. It's too bad, too, because I like that kind of research. It's fun.

But, perhaps it's just as well. Things haven't changed all that much since last year's column on the subject and the one game I was truly looking forward to discussing didn't make it out in time for this column's deadline -- and might not be released for another year or more.

I'm talking about the much-anticipated Neverwinter Nights from the good folks at BioWare, (who appear to have been more than somewhat distracted by the demands of crafting Baldur's Gate II -- sequel to the bestselling Baldur's Gate -- and by work their yet-to-be-named Star Wars RPG collaboration with LucasArts.)

As to why I have such high hope for this officially-licensed, multi-player, quasi-vaporware, perhaps some background is in order.

Long Time Gone

I've been playing Dungeons and Dragons for a long, long time. So long a time, in fact, that I still have the original three little booklets that credited both E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson as the co-authors of the game. Heck, I even still have my original velo-bound copy of the Chainmail rules for military miniatures that inspired Arneson to come up with D&D's initial -- and badly brain-damaged -- combat system.

Even then -- long before the incredible proliferation of monsters, weapons, treasures, equipment and other minutiae that easily lent themselves to expression in tabular form resulted in an explosion of Second Edition manuals -- the game was overly chart-bound. By the time Gygax talked Arneson into signing away his credit as co-holder of the D&D copyrights, the situation was entirely out of control.

That was one of the things that led me to come up with my own combat, magic and character systems -- not to mention all the other original aspects of role-playing worldcraft -- for the Methven adventures. In part, I did it because I wanted a simpler-to-manage game environment than "classic" D&D offered.

(Another reason was that, as a Game Organization Director with a certain pride of workmanship, I was constantly irked at the profusion of detailed information on the various things and creatures players might encounter that were listed in the Second Edition's various Player Guides. I thought that encountering the unknown was a big part of what made the whole RPG genre so enjoyable -- and that being able to look up a critter or a possible opponent in a handy reference guide that featured a convenient list of its probable assets and liabilities pretty much defeated that purpose.

I won't start here on the corporate misdeeds of Tactical Studies Rules -- although their misappropriation of most of the world's mythology for what they claim as their own copyrights is well-known to the better-informed Internet gamers -- but a desire to eliminate any possibility of running afoul of their lawyers also played its part in my desire to establish for myself a separate creation.)

Over the years there have been a steady stream of attempts at reproducing the D&D experience on computers, starting with the original Unix ASCII game called Rogue and extending in a two-and-a-half-decade wave to Baldur's Gate II. Some of them have managed to evoke a reasonable approximation of the hack-and-slash aspects of the game -- what my friend Kevin Kissell once summarized as "killing things and looting their bodies" -- but only the MUDs and MOOs and MUSHes of the Internet came anywhere close to reproducing the shared act of improvisation that the very best face-to-face iterations of the game provide.

The multiplayer FPSes didn't come close, deathmatch modes notwithstanding. Even the runaway online RPG hit Everquest falls short of that experience -- and only in part because it requires you pay recurring fees to participate.

The thing that's really been missing from these and other entries is the DIY aspect. And I'm not talking just about game modules, here, I'm talking about spontaneously creating and embellishing over time a shared mythology or culture of the game and the world in which it takes place -- a community.

I'm talking about the team that forms, not only between the individual players, but between those players and their dungeonmaster -- and a model in which most of the participants' investment takes the form of time and creativity, instead of time and money.

That's what had me so excited about the prospect of playing and discussing Neverwinter Nights: because it looks to me as if, under the auspices of Wizards of the Coast -- the new owners of the D&D franchise and squillionaire developers of the Magic the Gathering phenomenon -- BioWare is finally about to reproduce that part of the experience. And the model they've chosen to base it on is squarely in the best tradition of the original Internet culture.

What I Like About You

First of all, although it has a single-player mode that should also be useful for designing and play-testing user-created game modules via the similarly as-yet-unreleased Neverwinter Toolset, NwN will be the first game of its kind specifically designed to be run by a dungeonmaster.

Which is to say that, just as in the pen-and-paper version of the game, if you're a lazy referee, you can simply sit back and let the charts and tables -- or, in the case of NwN, the default game mechanics -- dictate things like routine encounters and random terrain, while you, as the dungeonmaster, concentrate on designing quests or treasure rooms and deathtraps or whatever other lame focus you desire. Or, if you're a control freak like me, you can run pretty much everything yourself: speak and act for non-player characters, generate specific encounters, incidents and artifacts, tip the balance of melees and other contests for or against the players and generally run things by the seat of your pants.

Playing G.O.D. -- now that's entertainment.

Better still, NwN is going to be designed to let a dungeonmaster support up to eight players via a 56K dialup line -- and quite a few more over higher-speed connections. It's also supposed to permit DMs to link their individual worlds together via "Portals" that will allow players in one DM's world to enter and interact with a different DM's world and its players and NPCs.

That's what really interests me, because it holds out the promise of enabling players to create self-organizing Internet-based D&D communities. And Portal linkages will permit highly complex, interdependent networks of myriad idiosyncratic D&D communities to proliferate, all of them ultimately reachable from any member world via a sufficiently determined quest.

But perhaps it's just as well that NwN won't be the Game of the Century. Instead of marking the acme of computer RPGs in the Twentieth Century, it may be more fitting that it presage how game design and community-building will intersect via the Internet in the Twenty-first.

Who knows?

For now, I have a long day ahead of me -- with a bunch more, just like it, crowding the horizon. And I won't have a minute to spare for playing games any time soon.

(Copyright© 2000 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)