“If you could make any game you wanted, and were guaranteed not only enough money to build it to your precise specs, but even guaranteed that it would be a success (in other words, setting aside all financial considerations), what would you make?”
This is final entry of a 5 part series exploring some of the pen-and-paper settings which have come to my mind as a result of contemplating that question. Note that, unlike most of my other posts where I refer to PnP RPGs, in this series of posts I’m talking about setting, not system. I’m not presenting in any particular order, either… just posting them as they come to hand while I scan across my bookshelves.
In a previous post in this series, I mentioned I was shying away from including settings that others have done or are working toward doing. Given that, you may well be wondering, what is this doing here?
For those who are unfamiliar with it, Thieves World was/is a setting developed by the author Robert Asprin for a rather successful series of heroic fantasy anthologies. The idea was to create a common, consistent backdrop, then invite a wide variety of authors to write stories using that setting, but exploring their own characters and interests within it. The City of Sanctuary, and the Vulgar Unicorn, inn and tavern in the heart of the Maze, are some of the results of that effort.
Sanctuary and environs was populated rather differently from the typical heroic fantasy setting, however. The dashing and virtuous knight, the powerful wizard, the brawny barbarian made the occasional appearance, there is plenty of magic and swordplay and divine intervention to go around… but the real focus was on a somewhat different social class: these were the stories of the town guardsman (usually on the take), the artful beggar, the alluring (and devious) courtesan, and most of all, your friendly neighborhood thief.
In short, the differences in this setting from most of what has come before would be 1) emphasis on success through subterfuge and subtlety, not “thud and blunder”, and 2) the majority of play would occur within a medieval cityscape.
Sanctuary would not be the only possible option here. Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser’s Lankhmar is a similar option, as is Tun Faire of Glen Cook’s Garrett, P.I. fantasy/detective series. Many fantasy worlds developed for pen-and-paper RPG have cities that would serve, as well (Greyhawk, Waterdeep)… DDO was somewhat of an attempt at this type of thing from the Eberron campaign world. In all these cases, you have large cities with widely diverse neighborhood, rampant chaos held barely in check by a weak and largely unconcerned central authority, and all the elements of fantasy crammed in cheek-to-jowl.
However, the core difference here is the focus of play: the cityscape setting simply serves to make the style more logical. Slaughtering everything that moves and everyone that looks at you funny is simply not a viable alternative in a city. The other residents get a bit, shall we say, “tense”, under those circumstances, and find ways to discourage you. Permanently, if necessary. And they outnumber you by a large margin. A measure of restraint and subtlety is required.
This game would focus on subterfuge and deception. Instead of having every activity revolve around seeking out and executing a long series of combats, the game would revolve around largely avoiding or circumventing such situations. Combat is the last resort, not the primary option. There would almost never be a mission that could not be best accomplished through deception, distraction, dissembling, or deceit. Bribery is as common as breathing, thieves guilds negotiate for turns robbing various merchants and temples, and a possession is only considered “yours” for as long you have it in hand (and even that is questionable).
(Some might say that DDO already offers this… not really, to my mind. The number of missions that can be accomplished without encountering some required element of “kill this group to get this key”, “kill this group to activate the rune”, “kill this guardian to open the chest”, and so on is small to the point of vanishing. Even when it is possible, you forego up to 20% of the total possible experience reward to do so. In short, wrong focus.)
There are difficulties, of course. Most true-to-life thief-style operations are solo endeavors, or perhaps 2-3 people… not necessarily the best fit for the MMO (then again, how many times do many players actually successfully gather a group of 6, 8, 10, and hold it together for more than a quest or two?) Combat is a well-defined, well-understood mechanism of play… subterfuge, not so much. However, given the wide-open terms of the question, I wanted to include this on the wishlist, despite the challenges.
Most of my other dream settings were distinctive in terms of “time and place”, with some small element of “style” as a secondary consideration. This setting (and Call of Cthulhu, in some measure) were selected instead to highlight a very different “style” or “focus” of play.
Thieves World isn’t on this list because of how it is like EQ/DAoC/WoW/etc. It’s on my list because of how it is not.
That rounds out my original list. However, as time went by and I scanned across my bookshelf, it became more and more difficult to keep this to the original 5. I’m going to do a followup “honorable mentions” post, I think, just to get some of the others out there as well… too many intriguing ideas to just let them slide back into oblivion, unmentioned even in passing.
As always, commentary is quite welcome. Anyone else who wishes thieves were more than high DPS drones in MMOs?
Now returning you to the far more normal, irregularly scheduled posts…