Pendragon, the Wrathgate and the Battle for Darrowshire

23 September 2010 § Leave a comment

Tamarind over at Righteous Orbs recently wrote a post that really resonated with me, about storymaking and Blizzard. His point was that Blizzard seems to have moved the players even more into the centre stage roles, as witnessed by mega-events like the Wrathgate/Battle of Undercity as well as now with Operation: Gnomeragan and the Conquest of the Echo Isles. He also suggested that this is actually not a good direction: that good stories (in terms of immersion) comes from small moments of introspection much more than big battles.

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I agree so much I’m making a post about this, even though I don’t know that I can add anything to what Tam said. So you will have to bear with me rambling on this topic for a bit, and hopefully at the end I will have said something that reinforces Tam’s argument.

Have you ever played Pendragon? If you haven’t, you’ve missed an absolute gem of a game. Pendragon is a table-top role-playing game set in Arthurian Britain, originally published by Chaosium. To this day, it is one of the best games I’ve played, mostly because the game system and the setting mesh very well. Anyone who played it, however, will tell you of a problem: there is a temptation to make your knight take a central role in the story. The problem is, the story already has its heroes: Lancelot, Parsifal, Gawain and all the names that are familiar from the stories. And trying to shoehorn the player characters into those roles always feels forced, untrue, and quite frankly uninteresting. The best adventures I’ve had in that wonderful game were the ones where my group of friends and I were tangential to the main story: we interacted with the main characters, but our roles were secondary, either because we were doing something else, behind the scenes, or because we were simply extras, part of an army of knights in specific crucial battles.

WoW works in the same way: there’s a Story going on, involving Thrall, Sylvanas, Garrosh, Vol’jin, Wrynn, Jaina, Alexstrasza, Arthas and all the other figures. And then there are stories, with a small “s”: the farmers trying to survive in Westfall, the goblins trying to make an easy buck, the spirits that need to have closure on their deaths to be able to move on. Of course I want to be involved with Thrall: but if Tsark is involved with Thrall through quests, then so are all the other 11,499,999 players (or thereabouts). You can easily see how suspension of disbelief is stretched when you are asked to pretend that every single adventurer on each realm is a major figure in the Horde (and of course the same goes for the Alliance). RPers cringe when they see back stories that try to establish player characters as the illegitimate son of Thrall and Jaina, raised by Alexstrasza and blessed by Therazane – and trying to tell every adventurer that really, Undercity would have been lost if not for them, is almost the official, Blizzard-sanctioned equivalent of that. The quest I remember most fondly in Wrath is not the Wrathgate/Battle of Undercity line, but the Matthias Lehner questline (and I wish Blizz had done more with it, making it more important in the overall ICC story). Similarly, across all expansions I think my personal favourites remain the Battle for Darrowshire (the redemption of a Redpath) or the Fallen Hero of the Horde (albeit this latter one has a little too much travelling to be worth doing now). All these questlines focus on side episodes of the great stories: people that got caught in something bigger than them, and were corrupted (Redpath, Arthas) or failed (the Fallen Hero).

These however are considerations of story – so most of the WoW players can go “lolRP” and dismiss them. I would argue however that even from a gaming perspective they do not result in much enjoyment. Today, a guildie of mine was completing the Conquest of the Echo Isles, and he asked in chat: “Can I just let Vol’jin move ahead and meet him at the last battle?” Tam confesses he spent the Battle of the Undercity fishing. The last time I did the Battle on Horde (for my warlock), I actually dozed off at the keyboard – about the only time it has happened to me in WoW, which tends to engage me pretty thoroughly. I’m not blaming Blizzard for poor design: given the premises (players help Thrall and Sylvanas retake Undercity), clearly the two faction leaders need to be way ahead in terms of contribution, and it is awesome to see their powers in action (I love that Sylvanas uses Songs, and Thrall’s use of elemental powers is absolutely kickass – in fact, these powers are part of the reason I think the Horde version is so much better than the Alliance one). But the result is that your contribution is a rounding error, and thus you get bored.

There is no question that Blizzard has got a lot better at storytelling in its six years of production of WoW. The flow of quests has improved, they have got rid of annoying drop rates for quest items (I still remember Helcular’s Rod as a nightmare, 6 years after I quested for it), phasing technologies helps a lot in making you believe that your actions actually have an effect on the world. I also loved the Wrathgate cutscene, although some of those character models are just painfully bad to look at, when you have close-ups. The problem is how to use these additional tools, and the higher skill at designing quests in the most profitable way. We already suspend disbelief while we raid (how come these bosses come back to life every Tuesday around 8am? How is it possible that 90% of the server population has slain the King when I don’t remember them being with me when I did?) but that’s in many ways unavoidable and part of the game mechanics. Questing however is much more under Blizzard’s control – here’s hoping Blizzard still allows people their small stories to enjoy!

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