The Contrarian: Masks in the Woods

They’d gamed together before, this group. I’d never met them until that night. They were veteran tabletop roleplayers, passionate about their characters and their methods. So when Gantry threw Douglas against the wall and then fastened his hands around Douglas’s throat, choking him, I decided to trust that they knew what they were doing.

They did. It was fine. But it took your breath away to watch all the same. Later, when Gantry announced he was now going to murder Douglas, chasing his desperate, half-mad victim outside into the consensually imagined rain, putting the gun to the back of his head, even he was just as riveted as the rest of us when Douglas, still in the throes of a hallucinatory flashback to his damaged childhood, sobbed out his sister’s name and pleaded for her to stop hurting him, his tormentors now interchangeable. Even that stone killer, cold-blooded Gantry, the bully, lowered the gun and led Douglas back inside the lonely farmhouse, satisfying himself with simply handcuffing the weeping man to the couch instead of blowing his brains out. Which made it all the harder to listen to Douglas plead with him not to handcuff him there, not to leave Pfeiff, the blond woman with no tongue, in charge of guarding him. She’ll kill me, he cried.

When Gantry left, she did. She slipped the knife into Douglas’s heart and that was that. Douglas was dead, murdered by the woman who in real life was his girlfriend. But tonight, she was Pfeiff and Pfeiff never said a word, and Gantry never realized, but she was the scariest and craziest one of them all.

Pfeiff usually was. Even when Pfeiff was a man.

In the space of two years, in one anonymous hotel room after another, I gathered four people together to play a game. I did it 37 times. The game was In Media Res, and it was a tabletop roleplaying adventure loosely related to Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. From convention to convention, weekend after weekend, I ran this scenario repeatedly. It only takes about 90 minutes. Each player receives a jumpsuit with a last name, an identification number and a patch reading “Liberty Center for the Criminally Insane.”

They begin the game standing around a table on which lies sprawled the bloody corpse of a prison guard. One of them says a strange, mystical phrase while holding the flesh of the guard’s face over his own, a moist mask. A Rorschach blot is painted on the wall in the guard’s blood. None of the players have any idea who they are or what is going on. Suddenly the player who read the line coughs and spits something onto the table: A human tongue, taken from the dead prison guard along with his face, supernaturally allowing Pfeiff, a mute, to speak an occult rite. Knowing all this and no more, the players glance at each other nervously. Then, I would say, “What do you do?”

The very first time I ran In Media Res and asked that question, the player playing Morgan shot the player playing Douglas in the head seven seconds later. The game was off to a promising start, and one of my most memorable journeys through roleplaying began.

My goal with In Media Res was to make a cinematic thriller, one that would heavily tax the players’ appetites for roleplaying. With no more than a brief sketch of their personalities, I dropped the players into the deep end of the pool, and they had to figure out who they were, what was going on, where their memories had gone and how to best flee from the farmhouse where they were hiding out after a prison break. The Rorschach blot on the wall meant something different to each character, and in the right circumstances it could trigger a flashback sequence. I would lead the player into the hotel bathroom, close the door and then guide them through a very intense memory of the first time they ever killed someone – the day they became who they are. It was after this flashback, when Douglas remembered his sister binding and torturing him when their parents were out of town, that Gantry chased him into the rain intending to finish him off.

Recommended Videos

Of all the players who ever went through In Media Res, that group was something special. They jumped into their characters with everything they had, cut loose with their emotions, got very physical with each other and improvised their parts to the fullest. Even when they did things that frightened me, like when Gantry started choking Douglas, I could tell they were in control. They weren’t just roleplaying. They were acting, and it was something to see.

When Gantry was about to shoot Douglas and Douglas let out that plaintive wail to his long-gone sister, the moment was electric. My whole body seemed to vibrate with the emotion, chills rippling across my skin. I’d never been in the presence of that kind of power – except in real life.

After seeing dozens of Gantries and Douglases and Pfeiffs and Morgans struggling to understand themselves and each other, lashing out in violence or in guilt, running that scenario at game conventions I can’t even name anymore, it’s really hard for me to take online-game “roleplaying” seriously. In my experience, very few games have really progressed past the point of “Blue Elf is about to die!” or “Warrior needs food badly!” When Brothers in Arms included a voiceover by your character where he freaks out and starts screaming and sobbing about how his best friend died at the hands of those stinking Nazis, I felt only mild embarrassment for the actor who had to perform that stuff, as if someone at a cocktail party broke down and revealed his infidelity to complete strangers. It wasn’t moving, it was just awkward, and that’s about as good as it gets in this field.

Yet, people try. If the game-makers can’t do it, maybe the game-players can. The truth about In Media Res is my hands were tied. As gamemaster, I gave all the power to the players. There were no NPCs, not until the very end, so there wasn’t much for the gamemaster to do in that scenario, except describe the location and answer questions. That game was only as good as the players, and they certainly weren’t all good. But when they were good, the game was great.

Is that possible in online gaming? Can good players make a great game? It certainly isn’t easy. A human being emoting three feet from you is a very different experience than a human being emoting in text messages interspersed with notices like, “You hit the Large Sand Crab for 5 points!” or “Cleric 5 LFG!!!!”

There are a lot of guilds out there for online games, and many of them advertise a roleplaying focus – or RP, as it’s known. They’re often very passionate on the subject, at least in message boards where they write stories about their characters or pass the time at work roleplaying conversations. They have their controversies, too, such as the degree of IC vs. OOC gameplay. IC means “In Character” and OOC means “Out Of Character,” and RP guilds frequently have guidelines for how and when you use each form of text messaging. One guild might demand all chat on the guild channel be IC, while another uses guild chat for OOC and local or group chat for IC.

A good example of a typical RP guild is the Black Moon Tribe, on World of Warcraft‘s Emerald Dream RP-PvP server. The Tribe primarily consists of trolls organized in a sort of religious cult dedicated to kicking the Alliance out of Stranglethorn Vale, the ancestral troll homeland. Their most recent game event, the Rite of the Black Moon, saw the guild gather amid ancient troll ruins. There, members had the opportunity to advance in rank, celebrate, pray to the spirits and even duel the leaders to take control of the guild. Rite screenshots like this one are oddly moving, as the tribe kneels before its leader, who proclaims they have now returned to their ancestral home.

Their in-game RP exploits sound fun, as in this example I heard from Sahn’Jin, Dark Elder of the Tribe:

“A few months back, one of the guild officers had an extended absence and was unable to communicate with us. When it came time to have our internal duels for leadership, known as the Rite of the Black Moon, we decided to let someone else take his officer spot. He returned shortly after and roleplayed that the tribe had betrayed him and was slowly dueling certain members he faulted for the loss of his position. Out-of-character, everything was fine and he understood the decision.”

The Tribe speaks in character for all forms of in-game chat, other than the guild channel. “We do this not only to enhance our own playing experiences,” Sahn’jin says, “but because when those around you see you RP, it triggers a natural urge to do so as well…a domino effect.”

Fittingly for a medium whose primary mode of expression is text messaging, however, the lengthiest roleplaying efforts seem to be put forth on message boards. In a lengthy thread, for example, Black Moon Tribe members collaborate on a story in which they meet at a tavern, get drunk and have some fun. It’s difficult to imagine even this straightforward exercise existing in any useful way in the game, where facial expressions and gestures cannot very effectively be tied in with text messaging – let alone the inability of the game to provide you with a new character entering the scene at a dramatic moment as a plot twist. The control over narrative and expression that RPers clearly crave just doesn’t exist in the game, and so they divert their energies to this kind of writing.

Tabletop game designer Robin Laws has a term for this sort of thing: “closet drama.” In gaming books, closet drama is the endless backstory nobody but the gamemaster is ever really going to know. A tabletop game might have 18 centuries of heroes, villains and legends, but there’s little chance players in the game will ever glimpse more than a fraction of it at the weekly dungeon crawl. It’s just reading material for the gamemaster, slathered on thick. That Black Moon Tribe thread was written over the course of 16 days by several different players. Will it come up in their online play at all? Or is it just closet drama, inaccessible to anyone in the game who doesn’t also read the forum? RP guilds are often divided this way, their energies neither wholly in the game nor in the forums. At their web site, they play passionate, engaged characters who face life head on. In the game, they assiduously level up and quest for loot.

This split between what RPers want and the reality the game gives them makes me sad. I wish they could have their stories and tell them, too. They do their best. But game companies haven’t shown much interest in innovating tools for RP.

But you know what really makes me sad? The Order of Mithril Twilight.

I ran across their website while researching RP guilds in World of Warcraft. The melancholy music, the animated scrolls, the devotion to a higher cause – it all adds up to something rather nifty. This group of holy warriors has extensive histories and gospels explaining the story of their guild and Lady Twilight, in whose memory they quest against the undead. As I read through page after page of what was admittedly closet drama, I got more and more curious about who these people were and what their gameplay was like.

Then, after spending a while prowling through their writings, I clicked the Forum link to see what the discussion was like. And I found this cryptic message:

Board Offline

A note is attached to the wall: “Turn back! Warning to all ye who seek The Order Of Mithril Twilight. Plague has besieged the Order. With my dying breath, I write these words of warning for any who venture this way. Our fallen brethren, The Mithril Twilight Legion, was too strong for those few of us remaining. They have – “

The letter ends with no other information. Perhaps you should seek out the Mithril Twilight Legion for more information.

A link led me to the Mithril Twilight Legion’s website. There, I learned the Order of Mithril Twilight had gained a splinter sect, the Mithril Twilight Legion. The Legion was an evil group of fallen members who had become the undead they used to fight. Now, the two guilds fought against each other, each attempting to persuade the other of their supremacy. The Legion’s site had more of the strange, mystical texts, positing a sort of inverse set of lore to that of Lady Twilight. But according to the note on the Order’s web site, the Legion had won and the Order was gone forever.

I was deep into closet drama at this point. But I was hooked. What happened next? A forum posting on the Legion’s web site made it painfully clear:

“And All That Was Mithril Is Dead: Well, Mithril Twilight Legion is no more. We have merged into The Shatter Scar Clan.”

And that was that. Both the Order of Mithril Twilight and the Mithril Twilight Legion were defunct. This whole journey I’d just taken through their lore was for nothing. The Order vs. Legion war had ended before it ever really started. This grand and glorious foundation, which seemingly could have launched years of RP, had all gone to ruin.

What happened? For that answer, I interviewed Endsong, founder of the guild and creator of the Order’s website, and Kalis, who led the guild in its latter days through the merger with the Shatter Scar Clan. In the process, I got a look at what an RP guild goes through in pursuit of its dream.

Endsong started the guild in mid-2003 after playing various MMOGs from Ultima Online forward. He researched the Warcraft setting from previous games and began to build his concept of a holy order fighting the undead. This led to his experiments in writing fiction, and then to teaching himself Flash, Photoshop and Painter for purposes of making the site he imagined.

As WoW went through beta, the Order and some other RP guilds in the World of Warcraft Roleplaying Association decided to settle on a player vs. player server. The choice was somewhat arbitrary because the game’s developer, Blizzard, hadn’t designated any servers as being RP-specific.

Another choice Endsong and the guild made in beta had to do with the theme and characters of the guild:

“Having been in the WoW Beta program, I knew how strong the Paladins were against the Forsaken and how vanilla they were against everything else. In the Beta, the Forsaken was the one race that was difficult for the Alliance players to fight, due to their special racial abilities. However, when a Paladin and Holy Priest teamed up against a larger number of Forsaken players, they became a force to be reckoned with. I foresaw that our RP guild could have special RP roles to play in PvP to counter the advantage of the Horde by being anti-undead (Forsaken) specialists.”

This backfired. Well after the Order was established, Blizzard changed the game design to revamp Paladins, making them much less effective against the Forsaken. Conventional wisdom soon coalesced that having more than one Paladin in your party was “inefficient” – that great tyranny of MMOGs – and although the guild did their best, they were stuck with a class whose focus had changed in an unexpected way. As Endsong says, “Blizzard took away our principle advantage and role in PvP and gave us nothing else, so it became frustrating for many of our members … we were an RP-PvP guild without much of the PvP.”

Eventually, Blizzard created a server that was both PvP and RP. The guild took a vote and chose to move to that server. But, faced with starting new characters from scratch, Endsong and the guild devised a plan. They would split the guild into good and evil schisms, essentially PvPing against themselves to ensure thematically appropriate opposition and better RP. New lore was devised and they made their new characters.

From the outset, though, the new incarnation was doomed. Few players stuck with the original Order, most preferring to switch to the Legion, since playing on the Horde side was still a novelty. Endsong got too busy with life and work to stick with the guild and drifted away. Kalis and other guild leaders finally took control without him. “I’m not disappointed,” he says of this period. “I always told them any guild that has to rely on one person to succeed doesn’t deserve to succeed.” But Endsong’s absence left the guild rudderless too long, and members wandered off to do their own thing. By the time Kalis was in charge, the Order of Mithril Twilight was gone. Only the Legion remained, but it too was weakened. When another guild, the Shatter Scar Clan, came knocking, the few remaining members voted to move over. Indeed, as Kalis wrote, “all that was Mithril is dead.”

There is no golden age here. There’s just another group of players who tried to tell some stories and couldn’t bend the tools to their will. The tools even made things harder in some cases – as in the contentious area of IC vs. OOC chat.

Endsong says the guild started with local chat being in character. But more and more members switched to using voice communication via TeamSpeak. If you thought roleplaying online via text messages was a challenge, try it with a headset. In theory, sure; your voice is a much better medium for expressing emotion. Yet, how many players really feel comfortable trying to summon up dialogue like, “By the Black Sword of Thundril, I shall smite these Alliance scum!” An afternoon on Xbox Live! will make it clear that voice chat in online games mostly means you can use profanity without getting banned.

The guild tried limiting voice communication only to combat, so as to encourage incidental roleplaying in chat. But that didn’t work. Guild members soon argued with guild members over the importance and methods of RP, and ultimately nobody was overjoyed with the situation.

I say there is no golden age here. But there was, or so Endsong believes:

“I think the closest game that had satisfying RPing in it was Ultima Online in its early years. There was so much of the game that was a blank slate for the player. Empires were created, wars were initiated and personal drama was common. Unfortunately, UO decided to take away its most unique aspect and irrevocably changed it.”

You hear this refrain a lot from long-time players who pine for the early days of Ultima Online. But these are the cards the game-makers have dealt us: level grinds, TeamSpeak and no tools for storytelling. It’s like the old line about a falling tree. If a player feels an emotion in a game but can’t express it to anyone else, did he really feel anything at all?

The RPers keep trying. Shatter Scar is assembled from the wreckage of a half-dozen or more guilds, their members not willing to give up. The Black Moon Tribe holds their rites and their troll dance parties. Even Endsong isn’t done. He has started a multi-year project to build a new guild for Warhammer Online. With the game far from beta, he has loads of time to build a new web site, write some more closet drama and recruit a new band of enthusiasts ready for another go.

The saga of Lady Twilight, her Order, and the Legion that destroyed it but then died itself, will never really be told. It’s just another story that doesn’t have an ending, a myth whose gods have died leaving only their dreams behind. We can uncover their ancient runes, for a while, and see what they built. We can examine the primitive tools they left, make suppositions about behaviors and conflicts, and extend the specific into the general as we look at the many other tribes out there attempting to roleplay with the digital equivalent of Stone Age technology.

One thing is certain. On October 10th, 2007, the domain will expire unless Endsong renews it out of nostalgia. The flood will come and extinguish all traces of this lost culture. Highways will go through the land, burying the remains under asphalt.

Perhaps, one day the game-makers may step down from Mount Olympus and give the game-players fire. Until then, they can only strike sparks.

John Tynes has been a game designer and writer for 15 years in tabletop and electronic gaming with Pagan Publishing, Chaosium, Atlas Games, West End Games, Steve Jackson Games, Wizards of the Coast, Acclaim and Bungie. He works as lead writer and game designer for the MMOG Pirates of the Burning Sea and is a columnist for The Stranger, [I]X360 UK[/i] and The Escapist. His most recent book is Wiser Children, a collection of his film criticism.

The Escapist is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy