It is never just a game

I keep track of several roleplay PWs on various platforms. One of them is Arelith, an NWN1 world. I highly respect the team that built and maintains the world. Their world is a mod of a seven year old game that last had an expansion nearly five years ago, yet the community is still healthy and active.

One thread on its forums however caught my eye, because it is about a design decision that makes me cringe. Like most NWN PWs, Arelith is a diku style world with a serial martyrdom death system. It has the slight variant to this that a dead character can either respawn, or wait until someone brings their corpse somewhere to be raised. If they are revived, they escape the death penalty that would otherwise have been applied. So far, this is typical NWN and there are many variants on this theme; some of which leave the player’s camera at the scene of death and others that move the camera to a death plane, leaving the corpse behind that can be revived. In NWN, the camera is tied to the PC avatar, so the latter is usually accomplished by moving the avatar to another location and leaving a corpse object behind. In Arelith’s case, the corpse object can be picked up and it can also be destroyed. The owner of the dead character currently gets a message indicating whenever their corpse has been picked up, dropped or destroyed, but not who did it. If the corpse has been destroyed, the destroyer gets a skull, a small amount of money and the “victim” loses his/her get out of jail free card and must take the respawn penalty.

This is where the fun begins. There is a mechanism where one player can make gain by inflicting other players with a perceived loss.

I’m not privy to the motivations for that design, though I suspect a pen and paper (PnP) D&D influence. Most likely, the convincing arguments were on a gamist and/or simulationist basis. In the former case, the idea that someone would want to avoid the “legitimate” penalty for failure is anathema. In the latter case, there is a realism factor in carrying corpses. I’m not actually interested in the specifics of the system or in the reasoning behind it so much as in the effect on the players. Some players have little or no advancement motive. If the player does not derive pleasure from counting points, grinding is a job; an entry level, low pay, low status job and loss of avatar capital is akin to not being paid for putting in your hours at McDonalds. Such players will go to great lengths to avoid a death penalty. If there is a way for them to avoid it by waiting for a rez, then they will do so.

If another player comes along and takes away that escape clause, it will cause distress. There are lots of arguments that the whole thing is entirely appropriate because it is in character (IC) and that it is just a game, so nobody should get worked up. Such arguments forget a little aspect of human psychology. When people feel that another player – as a player – has screwed them – as a player – over, then what is IC and what is metagaming simply does not matter. It does not matter if that player feels that it is entirely legitimate that the victim accepts the penalty. The victim feels that they are losing hours of grinding at the hands of another player; especially as it is not on a consensual basis. It is as if someone jumped on their sand castle and losing your sand castle this way is never just a game.

If you wanted to create a gameplay mechanic tailor made for griefing, you could do little better than Arelith’s corpse bashing, except perhaps by adding permadeath to the mix. Well, you could remove the message that a character’s corpse has been destroyed, causing them to wait in vain.

Anyone who has ever read through Nick Yee’s excellent work researching MMO player motivations may have caught the fact that the roleplay motivations are quite independent from other motivations. They might also have noticed that the roleplayer motivations are held more often by females and older players and the competition tends to be a motive for younger, male, players. In short, though you can’t make the blanket statement that roleplayers are carebears, the transect between the darkfall playerbase and the roleplayer motivation is only a fraction of the roleplay crowd. If your world is Darkfall meets roleplay and you are building for those players whole like to be IC while they gank people, then you can just tell the victim that he is being a whiney carebear and be done with it. Otherwise you have to do your best to “goon proof” your world.

There is a general rule that 1% of the population is sociopathic. This does not mean that they are raving serial murderers, but it means that at least one percent of the population – a subset composed almost entirely of males, so 2% of all men – lack empathy. Some are simply indifferent to the needs of others. Others actively enjoy inflicting anguish. The anonymity of online games is an attractant to these people in the same way that sweets attract bears at a campsite; so we have to reckon that our sociopath fraction is higher than 1%. Even if there was no gain to the character that destroyed the corpse, such people will derive pleasure from it for its own sake. That world currently has a problem with a griefer who repeated returns despite being repeatedly being banned. If he were more sophisticated, he’d not be attacking live characters, but instead anonymously bashing corpses. Such an individual could operate indefinitely, cause a great deal of psychological harm and never be caught. How many such individuals are currently operating this way on Arelith, using the IC cover that their character is evil? In addition to the bona fide sociopaths, a sizable portion of the playbase will not be averse to putting the screws to someone outside their monkeysphere if there was something to be gained from it. They’ll give plausible IC justifications of course, but the fact is that they – as players – are defecting when they harm other players in a non consensual way. This may sound strange coming from a advocate of strong IC systems, but “it is IC” can also be used as a pretext for a player to be a wanker. A “be nice” rule is meaningless in such an environment.

With this in mind, consider that your highly networked players are statistically more likely to be older females. 40 year old librarians who live with three cats and can name every character from the Wheel of Time series are a bit more likely to end up victimized by such a scheme than to be perpetrators. It is a hard fact that some of your players – the highly networked ones – are simply more valuable to the health of your community than others. These people won’t say a word, they’ll just leave for greener pastures and their friends will eventually follow them. This has happened before. I’ve spoken to one roleplay NWN2 PW admin who had his playerbase decimated by a something awful faction moving in. (Edit) Some of them (SA people/goons) seem to be excellent roleplayers, but they’ll still leave your world as a bloody, empty corpse if they don’t like it; and still might anyway even if they do. (/Edit) Now imagine if goons invaded your world? Do you have any systems that can abused to empty it?

The question I’d have for the server admin is whether he/she has an overview of the usage patterns of this bashing feature. Any time you have a gameplay feature that can be abused, you should assume that it will be and closely monitor it. The best way would be logging corpse related actions (perp playername & character name, victim playername and character name, the races of the two, was it bashed? Dropped into a container? Rezzed? Etc.) to a database and periodically pull it into Excel to data mine it in a pivot table. Such surveys would tell the server management who is doing what and under what conditions and would let them easily root out abuses of the system.

As for player behavior, he/she should also consider game theory and that if there is a gain and no penalty for defecting, eventually defecting will become the norm. He should resist calls to exacerbate the problem by removing the message that the corpse has been destroyed and instead give a clear indication of who picked the body up and what they did with it (e.g. if it was put down and where or put into another container). Such accountability may be metagaming, but by exposing players to a possible tit-for-tat retaliation if they defect, it enforces the be nice rule.

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About Dave

I’m a 38 year old American who has lived the past 9 years in Germany and India.
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2 Responses to It is never just a game

  1. mule says:

    Welcome to the internet. Get a few corpses destroyed? … The admin could adjust the server to just say, “So and so destroyed your corpse” instead of, “your corpse has been destroyed” to the player. This would remove the anonymous griefing. The community can be self policing too. If they know who the griefers are they can gang up on them. Of course this takes people with a modicum of ability in PvP which leaves most of your librarian types out. But I don’t have much pity for a person who joins a PvP server without any ability to defend their self. And yes, you should always assume everything will be abused by players. It’s a fact of life.

  2. Marc says:

    Hello,
    I play Arelith quite regularly as a powerful Orog (evil race of UnderDark Orcs). Nobody likes griefing, save the griefers, but there is a flip side to this situation. When I come acrossed a corpse, I usually pick it up, look to see if the dead person is online and rez them. Sometimes they pay me back, sometimes they just say thanks. The problem, I’m a nice guy, my character is Chaotic Evil, hence is not. Were the person an enemy of mine, I would still, most likely, rez them and demand something to not outright kill them or make them a slave of Grond (The non-drow UnderDark city), but I would still give them a chance to live and not get hit with the (now HUGE for me) xp hit. My Point, Death == XP Loss == Time lost in Hours == The TRUE Enemy of any character on NWN. There are times when this desire to rez my fellow player is Meta-Gaming that is thinly veiled by some Role Playing motivation. Dave is right, it’s motivated by empathy. It sucks getting killed and losing hours of play, but there is a point where players need to let go of the hope of a rez, take the hit and “man-up” too. Hopefully, the times you get a lucky break and the times you get griefed balance out. Most things in Arelith do. Best RP server out there.

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