Let me tell you about the moment that forever changed how I think about interactive storytelling. In the late 80s, I spent most of my time in the locale of the role-playing club I co-founded at my university. It was a dingy place, a dilapidated building in a strangely always muddy part of the campus, but we didn’t care because we were exploring the worlds of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu, Star Frontiers, Rolemaster, Paranoia, Runequest, Traveller, Marvel Super Heroes, James Bond 007 and many other games you’ve probably never heard of unless you have an extensive knowledge of French RPGs. However, even if the game systems and the worlds were as varied as they could be, playing these games was always done in the same way – at least among the few dozen roleplayers I knew at the time. I would qualify that experience as being player-centric and adversarial. What that means is that the details of these worlds existed only insofar as they helped the player accomplish their goals. The game master would, for instance, drop the adventurers in a village close to a dungeon so that they could learn some legends, listen to some complaints from whinny NPCs (“monsters eat our children”, “we’re cursed”), replenish their inventories at the local shop, memorize their spells and, soon, exploration and monster killing would start. The world had no depth and only existed when player characters interacted with it. There were no stories going on beside the forever unresolved nearby menace, characters had no goals of their own and the world didn’t change. It was frozen in time. The NPCs that the players encountered were purely functional, reduced to their bare stereotypes, forming a set cast that could be found everywhere you went: the grumpy innkeeper who only lightened up when he saw some silver, the shopkeeper who had never heard of bargaining (“these are the DMG’s prices”), the local cleric who only prayed for cure spells in case a group of wounded, diseased or blinded adventurers happened to drop by, etc.

Since the NPCs were so shallow, the game master’s duties were concentrated on creating interesting and, when he was good, fair challenges for the PCs. The game master was an adversary and tricking his players was part of what made the game fun for him. Conversely, players took pride in “beating” the dungeons, accumulating loot and powers for future forays. I “game mastered” more often than I played a character and I thought of myself as a good provider of fair and interesting challenges, as well as tricky traps, and never looked beyond that because my player groups seem to like it. Until that day at the club.

I was leaving the place, passing through a room where a game was going on, so I watched for a while. The PCs were in a palace, talking to two noblemen about the details of some mission. That was a bit odd. Why would you need more than one character in order to give a quest? There was some back and forth between the PCs and the nobles and it was clear that said nobles didn’t agree. And suddenly, they started arguing between themselves! The game master was of course playing both parts, switching voice and tone to suit each character. This was a revelation for me. No longer was the game master a mere interface for the continuation of the story. He was an embodiment of the promise of RPGs that I had never seen realized before: a gateway to a living world. These two nobles mattered. They had conflicting goals which hinted at forces in play beyond the immediateness of the scene. They didn’t need the PCs to exist, yet including them into their story made the experience more interesting for the players. I’m still learning the lessons from that moment 25 years later.

In my mind, interactive storytelling and living worlds are now so intimately tied that it’s most certainly why I find the current offer of MMORPGs lacking. These game play as RPGs did in the 80s: their worlds can’t change as the result of a character’s actions, they are static until the next expansion; so each character’s story revolves primarily around himself and this removes the incentive for having NPCs that seek true (attainable) change. Consequently, the game is merely an adversary and its NPCs simple quest givers or automated shops with whom bargaining is impossible. At Namaste where I now work as lead designer, we want to fulfill that promise of providing players with living worlds in which their choices and their actions matter. In our worlds, NPCs will have autonomous lives, react to the PCs and to each others, have goals and relationships that affect their day-to-day behaviors and their choices. Stories will be built on top of this fertile ground, so that heroic actions by the players can truly impact the lives of the worlds’ inhabitants. Pursuing this goal involves many tough design and development choices that the other team members and I will be writing about in the upcoming months.

My RPG club’s name was “The Lords of the Astrolabe.” An astrolabe is a contraption that lets you find out where you are by pointing at the stars. Once again, we’re shooting for the stars. You’re welcome to ride along with us.

[The title of this post is taken from the eponymous article written by Katino in Imagine magazine #11 (Feb 1984). A few years before this episode, it outlined how to make monsters more interesting and three dimensional. But that’s the subject for another post.]

If you want to learn more about Namaste, you could do worse than going to our official website.