Thursday 21 December 2017

The Third Side of the Story

Recently I was looking at the world map for my current game, and wondering what to put into some blank areas near the Orc Territories, and I thought: 'Maybe I can steal something from World of Warcraft?' After all, back in the day, I played the damn game for the best part of a year. In that time, I played through something like fifty zones worth of content: well over a thousand quests, all told, taking in everything from science fantasy to Gothic horror. Surely I could find something worth using?

But I really struggled, and I found it was almost always for the same reason: the set-up for virtually every zone was 'this area is a [biome] where the [whatevers] are fighting the [whatevers]'. Orcs vs. humans. Zombies vs. werewolves. Dwarves vs. trolls. Druids vs. cultists. They barely even qualify as ideas. A random generator could spit them out by the hundred. 'In these mountains, the goblins must battle with the minotaurs!' 'In these jungles, the elves must battle with the centaurs!' And so on, and so forth, forever.

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Have you guys tried, like, not fighting? It's been twenty-four fucking years, now!

The trouble with this sort of straight-up warzone, in which you just pick a side and march off to beat up the dudes on the other team, is that there's so little scope for complexity. Unsurprising for an MMO that evolved from an RTS wargame, but disappointing from an RPG perspective: there's just nothing to get stuck into. The one area which felt like an exception was the plaguelands, where, for once, the situation was much more complicated. I'm no expert on Warcraft lore, but from what I recall from playing through the area about seven years ago, the set-up was something like this:
  • An evil necromancer king unleashed a zombie plague that depopulated his kingdom, turning it into a haunted, monster-filled wasteland.
  • But he's dead now, and many of the undead he created are now free-willed and trying to decide what to do with their unlives.
  • Except some of them are still loyal to his vision, and just want to kill everyone in his name.
  • And others are just mindless and feral, a danger to everyone around them.
  • Some humans survived the plague by holing up in fortified compounds governed by religious extremists, where they became violent isolationists, convinced that all undead were inherently evil, and desperately afraid of outsiders as potential plaguebearers.
  • There were some elves here, too, but the undead army killed most of them and wrecked half their city, so now the survivors live in the intact half while the other half collapses into ruins.
  • And many of the surviving elves have gone a bit crazy due to their out-of-control magic addictions and have been banished into the ruined districts.
  • But the ones who are still relatively sane have forged a cautious alliance with the free-willed undead.
  • Now that the necromancer is dead, humans from outside are starting to move into the area, tentatively beginning to resettle its edges.
  • Except the free-willed undead still think this is their land.
  • And the necromancer loyalists still want to kill all humans.
  • And the survivalist cultists no longer trust anyone else at all!
See? Complexity! Multiple factions, only one of which is obviously villainous. Goals which aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, unlike the tiresome turf wars which dominate most other areas, in which your gain is necessarily someone else's loss. A genuinely open situation, which could end up being resolved in any number of ways, rather than just having a single predetermined 'victory condition'. That's a setting worth playing in. (Of course, WOW turned it all into a series of tedious kill-the-baddies slogs, but that's MMOs for you.)

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You don't need this many factions... but I think almost any scenario is enhanced by having at least three, or two if the PCs are effectively a 'faction' of their own. (A straightforward warzone is fine if the objectives of the PCs are orthogonal to those of both warring sides.) If it's just us and them, red team vs. blue team, then it's much harder to create situations more interesting than... well, than those you'd find in the average MMO. Everything in World of Warcraft is built around providing excuses for you to kill things: everywhere you go you find populations who have been driven mad by pain, or rage, or spiritual corruption, or magical pollution, or brainwashing, or whatever, rendering all their previous affiliations meaningless, and transforming them all into interchangeable manifestations of The Enemy. I'd argue that this is the exact opposite of the approach a tabletop RPG should take: instead of looking for opportunities to assimilate different groups into 'the enemy', it should seek every opportunity to dis-aggregate 'the enemy' into multiple different groups, thus opening up spaces for stories and solutions other than us vs. them hackfests. Wargames and computer games are better at those anyway.

Three factions. That's the minimum you need. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The red team, the blue team, and the PCs. The Wicked City has thirty-one factions, many of them riven with internal subdivisions. You don't need that many. But I think that you do need at least three.

Otherwise you might as well be playing World of Warcraft...


  1. yeah im putting faction generator and faction events into everything now. Fallout does it better but when i support the authoritarian well meaning jerks who could hold a state together longer than me personally the game makes me feel like hitler. I dont really think the heroes should run the state personally and have it fall apart when they die. Its why i never started a cult. But yes factions are awesome and even factions need factions. Dr who used to meddle with them all the time

    1. Ah, video game morality. How I loathe thee.

      That was one of the other reasons I ended up abandoning WOW, actually - whether I was playing Alliance or Horde, I kept feeling more sympathy for the Designated Opposition that for my own side. My characters always felt more like war criminals than heroes, and it was only ever a matter of time before I started to kinda hate the genocidal little bastards.

      Anyway. Like you say, I totally agree that 'even factions need factions'. That's a pretty good slogan, actually...

  2. One of the things I love about Metamorphosis Alpha and its scions is that factions come and go along with the intelligence of their members.

    One day some mice may simply have antennae and clam shell wings and the next they are brilliant engineers that are working towards leaving the Warden. Unfortunately for them the mutagen is still around and a week later they lose their ability to reason, but not see and manipulate technology, thus the reason for their extinction- their fuel tank over filled and then detonated.

    Life ends strange in those settings.

  3. Do you find you need to stagger the information about the factions? Like it shouldn't be such a complex web represented that players back off because they feel confused or uncertain or feel like they will get gotchas no matter what they do.

    Im thinking of a sort of subdivioson chart. Like in the above youd have survivors abd the undead. And the survivors, if the players pay attention to them, subdivide into the elf cities and the religious fortifications (and so on)

    Im interested in how you carry out suuportive world unfolding rather than world building.

    1. Absolutely. Info dumps are death. Bryce is totally right about players turning off after three sentences.

      So you never present the whole web at once: instead, you allow the PCs to stumble into one corner of it and uncover it organically from there. So maybe they start of with Faction A, which is an ally of Faction B and an enemy of Faction C. But when they go to Faction B they learn they've actually made a truce with Faction C, because the people they're really worried about are Faction D, who faction A has never even heard of. And so on.

      It's just like real life. People can get their heads around situations of almost infinite complexity - the plot of a long-running soap opera, for example - provided it's introduced to them one step at a time!