In which our hero, 29 years later, spends a weekend inside Dungeons and Dragons Online
"I can have fun playing any RPG. If the GM is good." - Gary Gygax
My name is Julesy and I'm 11. My friend Chris got this new game called City State of the Invincible Overlord for his birthday and it's really cool and I have this fighter named Torga with a magic sword and he's totally kicking it in the slave pits.
My name is Jules and I'm 16. I'm in this great campaign with these guys from my mom's theater company. My character is Torga and he's this half-orc fighter-thief. This one time, when our Dungeon Master smoked a lot of pot, we went into this cave and it took us like 9 hours to finish it and it was like 2AM by the time we were done and we listened to this new band called "Joy Division" and we were all freaked out and spooky by the end.
My name is Julian and I'm 19. Jason's running this campaign for just a couple of us that's set in Arkham. He's been doing these one-on-one sessions online through the University mainframe's chat program. It's cool because he and I really get into "what would Torga do" and since I'm typing I'm way less self conscious about actually being Torga.
My name is J.M. Murdoch, III and I turned 32 last month. I was dying to play Dungeons and Dragons this year, so I bit the bullet and actually called the number on this postcard at the game store. I felt like such a loser just dialing. But after the first "date" they turned out to be a pretty cool bunch of guys--older, like me. It's a blast too--as much about the bad jokes, Monty Python references, and martinis as it is about the game.
My name is Julian Murdoch and I turn 40 in the fall. 40. I'm still playing D&D with these guys and I'm 40. We're scattered all over the country now so we just play through AIM once or twice a month on a Sunday night. It's great having the backchannel to the DM. We vacillate between being really in character and being complete goofs. I think it depends on how many martinis we've all had. And whether anyone is multitasking a LOST rerun.
My name is Torga. I live between worlds. I am strong. I am angry. I have been wronged, I know not how, but I am angry. I have been Tauren. I have been Orc. I have been Troll. I have been mech. I have been a superhero. I have lived in bright worlds full of color and motion. I have lived captive in dreams and words. I have lived locked in a metal body. My name is Torga and I am a Tank.
In this life, I am Warforged: a relic from a war fought for reasons not my own. I am machine. I am flesh. I am rage inside a hardened suit that poured across my flesh in heat and hate.
But my beginning in this world was comfortable this time--the clatter of the numbered bones, my flesh molded into its form from a thousand pots of paint and vats of flesh. My mind and body tuned for purpose and perfection.
My new home is wondrous strange. Magic is everywhere, as machines ruled other worlds. Every corner is marked with magic, runes, incantations. The world is bright and sharp and sometimes beautiful. My tools are fit to the tasks at hand--the heft of sword and scroll and potion and food and drink--all plows the right size for the fields of blood.
Every soul I encounter has a job to be done--dirty work for one such as me. Mindless toil. Slaughter. Fetch. Destroy. Always the same. But the rhythm is familiar. The rhythm is good in its way.
This city is crowded with ones like me--those seeking outcry of their strangled voices. I need them. Without them the way is too hard even for the strong. So each night, I find companions. Each night, we run our errands: we bleed, we steal, we kill. But why? There is no direction in this void, this seething pit of sweat and toil and magic and death.
When the journey is strong, the task worthy, I can hear the voices of the gods themselves surrounding me. They point the way. They smell the air for me. They hear the whispering voices on the wind in the dank places. They see what my dark eyes miss. They lead us into the abyss. Here there is a sense of purpose. But only here. Never enough.
I think--is that the word? Do I think in this body?--I think that I won't be here long. Other worlds call.
Dungeons and Dragons Online carries with it the baggage of thirty years--innovation, stagnation, rebirth, reputation, and repetition. Each iteration over all those years boils down to four simple things: rules, settings, character/world interaction and player/game interaction.
Torga the Tank enters DDO with a tremendous head start. Because it's D&D to the core, Torga experiences no adjustment shock--he knows how to be here. He knows what works, what doesn't work; what has value and what is worthless.
His world is likewise familiar and vibrant. The setting is a lovingly crafted representation of a tiny corner of the latest (and best) entry in the pantheon of canned D&D settings: Keith Baker's Eberron. The sights are familiar. The politics are well understood. Torga's ever-evolving backstory has already been written, read, edited and owned in this world.
The challenges that Torga must face in his new world are familiar too. In each epoch of Torga the Tank the world presents experiences, stories, victims, friends, and enemies. These are the grand MacGuffins that drive him forward. But it's the discrete, individual challenge of the moment that makes up the core of any single session. Torga must make a decision. Torga must fight, flee, chase, seek, discover. The challenges for Torga in his electronic worlds (this or any other) can be wondrous, engrossing, creative and addictive and this world is no exception.
All that remains is the interaction between Julian the Roleplayer and the game itself.
DDO's answer to this problem is unique. It re-inserts the DM. Ignoring the timeless advice of a thousand tired and and desolate 9th-grade English teachers, DDO tells rather than shows.
I creep down the corridor towards the tomb of the Lich-king. It has been a long journey. The way is dark. Around me are the sounds of wind and dripping stone.
Snap! (that was my disbelief failing its 'suspend' saving throw)
"The room is full of lurking horror. You hear the grinding of stone on stone. A creature rises from the coffin in front of you 'die intruder!'" (modulate with hokey evil wizard voice).
At first this spectral DM seems innovative and cool. After a few hours, it becomes at best ridiculous and at worst obscene. A kind of blasphemy over Torga's 29 year investment in blood and toil (and Julesy's 29 year investment in imagination and peer ridicule).
In each epoch of Julian the Roleplayer the interaction between Torga and his transitive world is subservient to the interaction between player and DM. That's the base metal seeking alchemical transformation. When it works, DM and player become co-authors and audience members: Knight, Nun's Priest, Shipman, and Cook around the pilgrim's campfire each with an ear to listen and a story to tell.
This campfire cannot be replaced by a voice from above because there are no ears from above. Roleplaying online is simply a different experience than roleplaying in person. Dungeons and Dragons Online exposes this truism with a simplicity of vision both because of the history it carries in its name, and because of its attempts to disprove it.
And so Torga will move on.