The year: 1999. The game: Ultima Online. The place: Moonglow Lycaeum. The event: A lecture, designed to provide some information related to a quest which, by that point had been running for a few months. I was a Seer, the UO equivalent of a supernatural bard, given the spotlight by Origin to draw players into game lore, and generally encourage people to roleplay.
That night, I stepped out of the Seer’s mysterious green robe and into my favorite role – the Lycaeum’s most famous professor, ready to spin a tale to a crowded room. The event was designed to spread information, yes, but then we would “surprise” the players with an attack by monsters “from the great and dangerous northern lands.” The usual creatures were on that night’s playbill: frost trolls, wyrms, poisonous ice serpents. Everybody would be happy – the hardcore, information-hungry roleplayers would be satisfied by the story I was telling, and the people who just loved to show up and crush enemy hordes would have a turn, as well. It was a textbook case of a good event.
Then, things changed. Behind the scenes, we were watching the players fighting, then someone said, “What if … ?” someone else said, “Sure!” and suddenly, right there in the middle of all the other deadly creatures …
The players were stunned. In fact, the action paused momentarily, but once the shock passed, the action picked up right where it left off. Some even laughed – even after they fell to the chicken. After fighting in scattered fashion and barely holding its own at some points in the battle, the group realized they needed to work together fast or get pwned by a fleet of chickens and its icy leader. They rose to the challenge admirably.
Behind the scenes, things were understandably merry, and I was impressed by how things turned out. It had been a long evening, and it was getting late by the time the attack finally ended, but people hung around to talk about how events unfolded, even those that had just been called in as backup from the ranks of instant messenger. That night, the players had new information to process and faced an unexpected challenge, and still went right along with the turn of events, speculating about the “unusual tactics” of a now very unpredictable enemy force. Everyone had a great time, and a “good event” became memorable in an instant.
By this point in time, I had been running large-scale events for a while, so I was clearly not a newbie. However, it was at that precise moment in the event, when the chicken appeared, when something became clear to me: Don’t take everything so seriously.
Over the years, I would learn this lesson time and time again. I needed that knowledge. In fact, many people call me a “hardcore roleplayer” because I won’t break character in a room full of non-roleplayers to get my point across. But in that one instant, it sunk in – it’s OK to laugh, and in fact, it’s encouraged. Now, I always try to take a moment whenever I’m running an event to remind anyone helping: If we’re not having fun, people are going to notice. Go have fun out there (just not at someone else’s expense). Remember the ice chicken! Immersion is good, but at the end of the day, if it isn’t fun for someone else, what’s the point? Running online events is definitely not about the person writing the event; it’s about the audience and what they bring to the virtual stage. It’s about interaction and roleplaying. Otherwise, there’s really no point. If I want total control over something, I’ll write a novel. The rest of the time, I’ll run events.
The next thing I learned was the plan can always change. In fact, if there isn’t room in the original plan for change, rewriting the plan before it ever sees another person is not only well-advised, but necessary. Yes, having a plan is part of the legendary, albeit not entirely tangible Event Runner’s Code, in which everything you needed to know about running an event, from A-Z, and handling the inevitable press (good and bad) afterwards is covered.
Any “how to” only gets you so far on the virtual stage. If it’s a good how to, it may cover the basics of what happens when the stage light falls on your fellow actor’s head, suddenly taking them out of the action. Most often, you’re just on your own with a reminder that calling an ambulance might be helpful. But it’s up to you to learn to improvise, doubly so if there’s no working phones to be had.
Most events don’t quite go off as planned; some do, but those are exceptions rather than rules. Or, you may find, on occasion, the plan should be tossed out the window and a new one made – on the spot if necessary (and it often is). It’s fine. Even when the ending is screwed up because of some game patch, and therefore has to be retooled, it really is possible to rearrange the steps from A to B. It honestly helps if you’ve read a Choose Your Own Adventure book at least once in your life.
The final lesson from the “ice chicken incident” was: Never underestimate your audience. Although it was illustrated in a very minor way then, I now realize it is the most important lesson of all.
An indecipherable code meant to last an entire day will most likely be solved in 10 minutes. Someone will always want to ally with “the villain” of the tale. The person you can always count on to share “vital secrets” with others will one day decide that this secret should remain so, and all the cooperation with other players you were banking on flies right out of the door. It doesn’t matter if you have five alternate endings for an event (no joke) when something unexpected happens ten minutes into the event that makes all of those endings fairly implausible and “more trouble than they’re worth” to push into making happen. I learned to improvise constantly.
When people are so far immersed in a story, everything the story touches develops meaning. First, it was the feathers from an ice chicken. (“Grab the feathers! We should study them!”) Years later, when I was running an event for another game, it was a bag of sugar in a space station, thought to contain deadly substances or vital clues to a mission. (“But why would he fixate on a bag unless it’s important?”) In fact, it was just something improvised by the person behind the scenes playing a government delegate being rescued. Sometimes it’s a vital clue; sometimes it’s just a bag of sugar. Who knows what it will be tomorrow? I can’t wait to find out.
Nova Barlow is the Research Manager for The Escapist and Playerbase Solutions. She is also a regular contributor to WarCry.