My Name is Julesy

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.


Again, rabbit, fantastic writing.
And also a very helpful comment on DDO. I, too, am an old PnP D&D player from back in the day, remembering the CSotIO very fondly. I had considered getting this game to try to reunite with some of those old folks who are slowly, as maturing children allow, getting back into gaming.
Ultimately I don't think D&D stands up well in digital form to Diablo or WoW with their instant gratification. It excels at storytelling, when done right (Baldur's Gate, BG2, Planescape), but my experience is that it tends to need to be done solo. I had a fantastic time with Neverwinter Nights player-made modules, but never played them with anyone else, just compared notes (granted, this was mostly due to the fact that the game will not allow online teaming if the players have home networks, and do not possess advanced networking certification).
I wonder if anyone will ever be able to recreate the open-endedness of PnP D&D. I think they will not, because it so often came down to the interaction of the personalities of player and DM, not the core rules.
Nice piece, rabbit

Jakobedlam wrote:

I wonder if anyone will ever be able to recreate the open-endedness of PnP D&D. I think they will not, because it so often came down to the interaction of the personalities of player and DM, not the core rules.
Nice piece, rabbit

Agreed. The interaction between players and the DM, the freedom to do whatever, and the camaraderie of many a long session made D&D the success that it is. How I long to hear the epithets of "Killer DM!" thrown at me...

Nice job, Rabbit. I really enjoy your style of writing.

Thanks folks,

What I do think there is an opportunity for (and a few bad attempts exist) is a set of tools that make doing online PnP RPGing really good. Right now, with a zillion AIM windows and some spreadsheets, ol' red can run a good session. But that's because we all know each other really well and are essentially playing diceless/statless from a player perspective.

What would be neat and cool and whizzy would be a good way of integrating maps/stats/rulesets/decision making/graphics/sound effects into a session based system like that. Unfortunately, unless some 19 year old open-source kid gets a jones for it, I don't think it will happen as theres a miniscule market for it.

Excellent read, rabbit - I enjoy your sauce.

Re: Internet DnD sessions, do you guys use voicechat and/or webcams?

Nope. For quite a few reasons. OS discrepancies being the easiest excuse, but also, several folks aren't comp gamers and thus aren't neccesarily keen on getting headsets, etc. etc. etc... I suppose in an ideal world we'd have perfect webcam action going in every direction, but 6 or so streaming voice/video channels would tax everyone pretty well. Add to that the issue of one or more of us either being on the couch with the TV on next to our wives, or being on the road or in an airport lounge...

This is an interesting program designed for playing PnP RPGs on the computer over the Internet. I've never used it in actual practice, but I have messed around with it. Might solve some problems for you all.

Someday I'll do PnP gaming again. Someday.

zeroKFE wrote:

Someday I'll do PnP gaming again. Someday.

You know, I just don't have the drive to PnP anymore.

I can still name the clans and auspices of the Garou or some of the Crafts and Traditions of the Mages. I can talk about what was happening in Fornost Erain in T.A. 1648, discuss the rivalry of the Space Wolves & Dark Angels, or tell you stories about Cromwell, a Paladin of Torm. But I haven't played for three years, and I just don't have the impulse really to play anymore. (Except to try and figure out how to play Aria, but that is more out of sheer stubbornness.)

Now, I still flick through the books occasionally. Heck I've still got my nice leatherbound copies of Mage & Werewolf, and all of my MERP books sitting on my shelf. And the deisre to relive those moments overwhelms me every so often, but it fades just as quickly.

Why is that?

Klooge is cool. Does a lot of stuff im not sure we'd need to get to into, so mostly its an issue of what you turn off I suspect. Thanks for the link. Can't believe I never saw it before.

Haakon - I think there are several things at work. I find that as I get older my tollerance for rules that get in the way goes way down. Much of PnP rulesets are, I think, rules for the sake of rules. They put way too much G in the RPG and lead to munchkins. I bet you don't fondly remember "that time I rolled a natural 20 and then maxed my damage and the guy failed his resistance" you remember "the time we beat the crap out of that guy and we conned so and so into giving us the map" or whatever.

Did anyone ever play Aria? Ever?

rabbit wrote:

Did anyone ever play Aria? Ever?

We tried... Oh, we tried... But its crazy mathematics and referencing destroyed our brains.

Just to rehash for the unenlightened, Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth was a PnP of which only two books were released (the Core Volume and Aria: Worlds). It was founded on the idea that the myths and legends of a society helped to shape that society's development. It gave you the freedom to craft your own society from the bottom-up and then play characters inside those 'worlds'.

The hope was that you would play a series of adventures as certain characters, then the stories of those characters would turn to myth and legend over the course of the societies growth. You would then pick up characters further along the timeline and play another set of adventures. Aria: Worlds gave you the tools to help create societies and the core volume was primarily the mechanics of character creation. It was like a more realistic and in-depth version of TSR's Birthright.

The problem was in the mechanics, though. There was lots of math, lots of references to unclear terms and, well... it was almost impenetrably dense. So we never actually PLAYED the game. Spent 6 hours once designing a primitive culture, and then tried to make a charcter in it and gave up. Similar instances of that occured several times.

I loved the books, though, and the concept. Still do. My friend was going to sell his copies on eBay and I snagged them off him. For nostalgia's sake and because of the genius of the concept. I always felt it was only the execution that was lacking. Still wish someone would make a playable game around that concept. Computer or PnP or whatever. Doesn't matter to me. I'd play it.

I find as I get older that I have less and less interest in roleplaying games and more interest in card games, board games and miniatures games. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's how slow they tend to be. A combat session that takes up 30 seconds of game time takes 3 hours to play through. Or maybe it's the concept of playing a role. Your mileage may very.

One of my groups is set to start our tabletop Paranoia game next week and my other group is going to begin playing Shadows of Yesterday tomorrow night. There's still nothing on the computer that compares to the experience of face-to-face pen-n-paper role playing.

I'm shocked no one who ever played DDO with the GWJ crew has commented on this article. It must be dead indeed.

As a recap, I absolutely loved my brief time with DDO, but despaired of getting the experience that I wanted out of it. There are penalties for adventuring with people of differing levels, and many random peeps want to brute force the quests rather than experience them the way I do (not saying there's a right or wrong here - there's a spectrum of how much role playing you want in an MMO). It seemed like it would be impossible to always find cool people of the same level to play with. Among the GWJ crew, some wanted to play but once a week, and some wanted to play every day. That would quickly lead to people being of very different levels and usefulness in the quests. It seemed to me that the only solution would be to, if possible, find a regular group of like-minded players, but if you're only playing once a week or so, I'm not sure $15 a month is justified.

Fedaykin: I agree entirely with the need to create a real "group" and how that conflicts with the very nature of most online play. I know in the "biggies" many folks have 10 different characters at different levels so they can hop around between.

Paranoia: You HAVE to try the card game. Even better than the new Paranoia (which is pretty darn good). Picked both up at Gencon last year (maybe 2 years ago for the new PnP version, my brain is gone.)

rabbit, I am aware that people have lots of different "alts", but they seem to me to run contrary to the traditional RPG experience of spending lots of time developing one beloved character, as well as the experience of an ongoing campaign with a more-or-less ongoing central story. It seems to me that DDO would tend to become a game where you look for a quest that you haven't done (too many times), load up the properly-levelled alt, and find people of like level to adventure with. In other words, none of the things that made me salivate at the idea of DDO.

Probably I would prefer something like an ongoing Neverwinter Nights campaign with a faithful group of people who are all experiencing the game together for the first time. (as opposed to playing it multiplayer only after beating it singleplayer, because then they already know all the traps, surprises, etc., and many will give spoilers, either purposefully or inadvertantly) The only problem with that is that I wasn't that wild about the whole NWN interface and combat experience. I really enjoyed the DDO experience.

If they basically took DDO, cut out the MMO elements, and made its multiplayer element more like NWN (which I haven't played multi, so forgive me if I'm wrong about all of this), then I might find that to be the perfect online RPG.

This all reminds me that for some reason, RPGs are the only genre where the multiplayer (BG and NWN excluded, as well as Phantasy Star) has to be an MMO.

Anyway, I'll be interested to see what NWN2 looks like when it drops, and what kind of GWJ group forms up.

Great, great article rabbit. Every gamer understands alternate lives, I really enjoyed reading snippets of your Real Life as if it were made of modules. Now that I know you're 40 and not some crazy young college aged knave throwing their wisdom around I have that much more respect for you.

So I skimmed the comments but not the article, and I'm curious: why doesn't your group play Neverwinter Nights? That seems like a perfect intermediate step (unless of course the DM took one look at the tools and said fug it).

I've played NWN, and I loved it. As a true multiplayer PnP replacement, I don't think it cuts it, not the least because of the toolset barrier (heck I gave up on it, and I'm the geekiest one in my extended group). We tend to be a "rules lite" group anyway, so adding levels of technology and complexity is in and of itself a barrier to entry. I've been pinging folks with the Klooge stuff today, and we might give that a shot - but only use the chat and map functions, not all the rule layers.

As for DDO - I don't disagree that the "alt" thing is contrary to good roleplaying, I was just pointing out how other games--or gamers--deal with the issue you bring up. I could see being into DDO in perhaps another version, or a more developed one, or, or, or....

And I absolutely ADORE Eberron. Simply my favorite 'canned' world ever. And that's high praise as I'm something of a setting-junky (second place: ars magica's mythic europe, third place: Planescape boxed) I own settings books for dozens of RPGs I've never even played, but love the genre that is the world-book. I can't really articulate *why* I love it so much, it just hits all my buttons in the right way. In another lifetime with more time in it, i'd run a weekly 5 hour campaign in it and love every minute.

You might want to check out openrpg
or Fantasy Grounds. Both are virtual table tops for roleplaying. They group I play DnD with has been wanting to network some laptops so we can all play from home or use them in person. Both have minimaps, character sheets, die rollers, and a way to chat as a group, or one on one privately.

The openrpg is free from sourceforge, and fantasy ground isn't. Fantasy ground looks prettier, with 3d dice. Check them out. If my group ever gets it working I'll post how it goes.

More cool stuff, thanks. I'm pretty sure Red (GM) is lurking this forum, so I'll harass him. Unfortunately, we need to be REALLY OS agnostic, so Fantasy Grounds, as cool as it looks, would be right out. The opensource one looks interesting, if a bit rough.

rabbit wrote:

I've played NWN, and I loved it. As a true multiplayer PnP replacement, I don't think it cuts it, not the least because of the toolset barrier (heck I gave up on it, and I'm the geekiest one in my extended group). We tend to be a "rules lite" group anyway, so adding levels of technology and complexity is in and of itself a barrier to entry. I've been pinging folks with the Klooge stuff today, and we might give that a shot - but only use the chat and map functions, not all the rule layers.

Well, I was day dreaming the other day, wondering if you could play NWN "empty", with the maps void of monsters or NPCs. The DM could just spawn what he needs, people, fxs, quest items, whatever; talk on full voice chat with the players, and you could have a fun time using NWN as a sort of super Klooge or openrpg. For example, my WoW guild also plays PnP RPGs, why not have the role playing part over voice chat, and the combat part in the game itself? It could be a fun mix.

I'm surprised your group isn't on voice chat, cause every major tool I know is OS X compatible, and a few important ones support linux too. Gizmo, Team Speex, Skype, Ventrilo, etc.

If by "world-book" you mean that part of the RPG that devotes an entire book to describing a civilization and territory, I agree. Can't think of my favorite at the moment.

Not saying the voice thing is impossible, simply that it's a bridge too far technologically for the reality of how we come together--we have a hard enough time getting our group together at ALL, much less teaching the non-techies how to hook up their headset, log into teamspeak, etc. etc. etc...

Just wanted to chime in that this was a fantastic read. I found a lot of resonance with my own RPG experiences over the many years. Thanks rabbit.

thanks scrub...