Fourteen years. That’s how long I have been playing MMOs. From Ultima Online all the way to Star Wars: The Old Republic, I’ve pretty much run the gamut of online gaming. I love the MMO genre. Love it.
I also love genre fiction. The conventions of fantasy, science-fiction, and horror are pretty much my life’s blood. If there aren’t wizards, spaceships, or things that go bump, then it’s probably not on my bookshelf.
So when I sat down to write The Technomage Archive (my upcoming trilogy that starts with the novel Birthright), I knew I wanted to somehow marry these two great loves into something special, something awesome. Something awesomely special.
So I thought to myself, B.J, how can you write an MMO-inspired novel without it reading like an adaptation of a bad D&D campaign?
That’s when I realized that the most enticing aspect of MMOs wasn’t anything in the games themselves. It was the people. The people are what I loved about MMOs; the gameplay only facilitated our getting together. Once we were together, what happened was in our hands, not the game’s–if games had hands, that is. I mean, it’s not a perfect metaphor…
So in Birthright, I took the MMO approach to my characters. They each possess specific skills and talents (much like the MMO “holy trinity”), and they are brought together by circumstance and chance based on those skills and talents. (LFG tool or WoW Dungeon Finder, anyone?) There’s a medic, a couple of soldiers, and a couple of scientist-type researchers.
But here’s the thing: once together, what then?
Initially, I let the “holy trinity” run on autopilot, and things progressed fairly typically. The soldiers tried to take the lead, the medic stayed in the back, and the researchers did their own thing. They worked as a team when they had to, but there was no real socialization. They got through their ordeal, not as a team, but a collection of individuals.
And my beta readers hated it.
I got scads of notes from them about how I relied too much on the archetypes. The tank’s job does not always have to be “protect the squishies,” nor do the DPS characters have to be trigger-happy and spastic.
I had written a novel, yes, but I had missed the most important aspect of my MMO influence: there are real people behind the characters, hitting the keys and clicking the mouses.
With that in mind, I went back and did a complete overhaul of Birthright’s manuscript. I rebuilt the characters from the ground up, keeping in mind as I did that their relationships should be based on their personalities, not their roles in the group.
Just like a PuG in an MMO. I mean, sometimes the healer’s the diva, sometimes the DPS, sometimes the tank, and sometimes no one, right?
So as I thought about this, I had to recall back what it was like to be in those groups. What kinds of circumstances required me (I play healers or support roles, typically) to take the reins of a group? When would I be comfortable letting someone else guide us to our destination? And, from a storytelling perspective, which decisions were made based on archetypal roles and which were made from a player’s perspective?
The more I revised, the more I realized exactly how complicated party dynamics and leadership in MMOs are. There are so many variables that it’s amazing any groups ever finish a dungeon at all.
For example, the main character of Birthright, Ceril Bain, is leading his team through uncharted territory. They come to a point where there are two paths, and neither choice seems any better than the other. Instead of making an informed decision based on their situation, he asks what the team thinks. Over and over again. Even after being given pretty solid answers, he keeps asking for consent.
Leadership faux pas, right? Take a survey, then do what you think is best based on that information. Don’t wait for a consensus; you’ll never get one. That’s why you’re leader in the first place. These folks defer to you to make decisions, not the other way around.
Now, keep in mind that Ceril is primarily a researcher, though he has a pretty solid amount of combat training. Let’s consider him a hybrid-class, playing a support role. Technically, he’s the party leader, but he still asks his team for input. He wants to make an informed decision, playing on his background as a researcher and scholar.
Unfortunately, in my initial drafts, Ceril came across as too uncertain. While he was in the leadership position, there was no leadership. Constant deferment stalled the narrative and muddied my attempts at storytelling.
Imagine being in the middle of a dungeon crawl, and no one in your group has ever been through the adventure. One person asks in chat, “which way?” and two people say “left” and two people say “right.”
In some cases, the asker would make the deciding vote and lead the group away, seeing the content and finishing the run. In others, the impulsive, pull-happy tank would charge in a random direction and expect the party to follow in order not to wipe, while some groups would have a discussion about the pros and cons of each path.
Each is a perfectly valid outcome, and I’m sure you’ve been a part of all three. In Birthright’s case, the discussion just interrupted the flow of the action, stalled the book, and weakened my character.
That’s when I realized the difference between MMO adventures and narrative adventures. Yes, I had been influenced by and incorporated some elements of gaming, but that didn’t mean I could treat my story exactly like a game. That led to it reading like an adaptation of a bad D&D campaign.
So in subsequent revisions, I removed the heavy-handed gameplay elements from Birthright while still being true to their spirit. Ted wasn’t tanking and protecting squishies, and Ceril wasn’t trying to be supportive by including everyone equally. Instead, I treated the characters and their roles like people–like they were real people just playing those roles in a game.
That’s when everything clicked. I saw relationships forming, and motivations became apparent. The story was no longer muddied, and the team was able to move through the situations I put in front of them much more easily and with less prodding.
Just like when in a group, you treat the people you’re with like people. When you call them by their names–even character names–instead of their class or their role. When you realize that there are actual people sitting behind those avatars, and that they’re playing a game for the same reasons you are.
So in the end, I realized that, much like running a dungeon or leading a guild in an MMO, telling an MMO-influenced story was less about the gameplay, mechanics, or artificial roles and more about people and making connections. The fun in MMOs doesn’t come from healing two dozen avatars through a cone of dragon’s fire. The fun comes from whipping the snot out of that dragon with a couple dozen of your best buddies.
The same can be said of Birthright. Anyone can tell a lifeless story about a group of uninteresting characters who go from Point A to Point Z, but when those characters become people, that story becomes an adventure. And Birthright, if I do say so myself, is one fine, MMO-influenced adventure.
B.J. Keeton is currently running a Kickstarter campaign for Birthright, the first book in The Technomage Archive series. He is is a writer, blogger, and teacher. When he isn’t trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he writes science fiction, watches an obscene amount of genre television, and is always on the lookout for new ways to integrate pop culture into the classroom. B.J. lives in a small town in Tennessee with his wife and a neighborhood of stray cats, and he blogs about pop culture, geek media, and awesomeness at www.professorbeej.com.