Long before I indulged in the sinful time sink of MMOs, I preferred my gaming served up with a side of solitude. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the occasional two player bout in the various Street Fighters, or running my buddies off impossibly high sky-ways in F-Zero, but in general my gaming time was all about me and the single player experience. My favourite games were always the ones where I could just immerse myself in the game world and forget about absurd concepts like chores, school and that abstract notion of a social life. RPGs soaked up most of my gaming time and anything with "Bioware" or "D&D" made me salivate copiously. So it didn't take a soothsayer to predict that I'd have a rather splendid time playing Bioware's latest RPG outing, Neverwinter Nights. I remember seeing the trailer for it bundled into the "extras" on my Icewind Dale II disc, and I flipped out like a fish on a dock. When I finally got my grubby little mitts on the game I didn't waste any time devouring the beast. Yes, it was awesome, but that's not the point of this blog really, so I'd better get to it.
After completing the game and literally hundreds of community made mods of varying quality I was hungry for something new, but I wasn't quite finished with Neverwinter Nights. I'd noticed various adverts for Persistent Worlds on many of the mod sites, they all made promises of unique game-worlds and constant adventure, like a D&D session that never ended. I was intrigued, but hesitant. I'd never played D&D before and I wasn't really sure I wanted to share my adventures with the unwashed masses. Curiosity eventually won out and I delved into one of the more popular, roleplay heavy worlds. I created a light-hearted, amusing character that I knew would be easy for me to roleplay and I crossed my fingers. At first I was honestly quite nervous. Looking back that seems utterly absurd, but it was all very new to me. Whenever anyone initiated a conversation with me, I'd freak out trying to find something interesting to say without sounding like a complete tit. These friendly folk had been playing on that world for some time, they'd developed their characters, they knew all the lore and they were perfectly comfortable chatting away in character and all I could do was make my character get drunk so that whatever I made him say it wouldn't seem too stupid coming from an inebriated idiot. If I'd switched off my PC and ran into a room of elderly strangers, naked, I would have felt more in my element.
That could have been the end of my experience right there, I was about to say my farewells (for good) and log out when another player sent me a message saying they found my drunken buffoon of a character hysterical and they welcomed me to the game. The tiny ego boost and friendly welcome made a surprising amount of difference. It was like being the new kid at school where all the other kids are using slang you don't know and talking about TV shows you've never watched, but then someone invites you to play on their SNES with them after school (which is great unless it's the forty year old janitor). That one insignificant gesture encouraged me to give this whole roleplay/persistent world malarkey another shot. I ended up playing that character for well over a year, playing most evenings. My character went from being a drunk idiot to a drunk mercenary/rent-a-bard in a week, and beyond that became a bit of a dashing hero and even eventually got a statue carved in his likeness. But none of that would have been any fun if it wasn't for the fantastic people I got to play with.
Where once I reveled in my solo adventures, they ended up seeming hollow compared to the fun I got up to with my fellow nerdy roleplayers. I ended up making several friends there and went on to help one of them with a new guild which they'd been allowed to create. The world was split up into a couple of different mods due to it's size and our guild was on the much quieter mod. The server population wasn't nearly as high so the Dungeon Masters didn't pay as much attention to it. So instead of us waiting around for a DM to create some quest for us to embark upon, like players did in so many of the persistent worlds I went on to visit, we were left up to our own inventiveness. We typed out lore for our guild until the blisters on our fingers looked oddly like orcs, together we crafted centuries of fictional history, not just for the guild but for the whole continent, in a constant collaborative brain storm. Because there were so few of us on this particular mod we became a tight knit group. Yes, there was drama and there was certainly a lot of differences of opinion, but in the end any bullshit was rapidly forgotten as we got stuck into the next adventure.
After playing on this persistent world for longer than I'd played any other game, and indeed longer than I'd ever stuck with any hobby, it looked like a tragic end was in sight. Our server was being shut down and our guild was going to be forced to disband. At best we were going to have to make new characters on the main server and start fresh. While that might not seem too bad, after all we would still be playing together, the characters that we had played were more than avatars which we used to interact with the game world, just as characters in novels are more than just vehicles for the views of the author. It just wouldn't be the same. Hell, even after knowing each others names for quite some time we frequently still referred to each other by our characters names just because we were so used to it. So it looked like that was going to be it. To put it bluntly, it was pretty shit.
I couldn't have been more wrong. A few of us got together on MSN and spent some time waxing nostalgic about the "good old days", but looking back we also realised that a lot of the fun we had was despite the game-world and those than ran it. We got to talking about how we would have run things if we had been in that situation and what direction we would have taken the world in. It didn't take long before we were actively discussing the creation of our own persistent world, with us as DMs rather than players.
We painstakingly crafted a deep, complex and most importantly, fun world (blowing my own trumpet!) and I can honestly say I've never had more fun with a game, nor have I been more invested in it. One of the benefits of being a DM was that a lot of the time we would set up a situation for the players and just let it unfold organically, so while we were having a blast playing there with our friends we also spent a ridiculous number of hours just socialising and getting to know each other better. At the time I was going through a bit of a low point in my life. I was flunking university by then, I fought all the time with my girlfriend and my flatmate, and I barely had enough money to buy a sandwich. Things were really getting to me, so being able to express myself through writing lore and quests and occasionally venting with people who knew me, but at the same time didn't know me enough to judge my whining, made my horribly shitty situation a lot more manageable. Between thinking up new and inventive ways to drive our players bonkers my fellow DMs always managed to find a way to cheer me up. A couple of them were quite a bit older than me and had already gone through a lot of the crap I was still swimming in and their advice and support were invaluable. A few years before I would have never imagined that people who I'd never met and lived in other countries would have any real impact on my life, let alone such a positive one. Much of the time it was as simple as being able to have a laugh with someone who wasn't somehow entangled in my personal drama. It was a two way street as well, I was more than happy to lend an ear when they needed someone to talk to and it stopped merely being about being invested in the game, I was invested in my fellow players and DMs as well.
We fell out, we made up, we argued about ridiculous things from pedantic lore debates to how to get more players and on more than one occasion my ego got the better of me and I needed to be taken down a notch or two. When I was nursing a bruised ego it would have been easy for me to just say "fuck it" and stop playing, but there was no other game where I had as much fun playing, and there weren't any other folk I would have rather played it with. Amazingly it even helped strengthen my relationship with my girlfriend. I bought her a copy of the game and we got a laptop for her to play on and we started to have fun together again. I got to see a side of her I hadn't seen, she was a lot more creative than I had ever given her credit for, and she got to see why I was so passionate about the game and why I spent so much time writing for it and playing it.
Like most things it all came to an end. There were arguments that didn't end amicably, real life drama seeped into the game and I started to focus more on saving my university career. I ended up taking a break, periodically checking in to see how everyone was doing, promising that I'd be back to DM soon, but it never happened. Real life got in the way. Neverwinter Nights 2 was on the horizon and people had started to play the original less and less and then one day I realised that I hadn't even checked our forums in about six months. I caught up with some of the "old crew" just before the server was shut down, it was nice to catch up but we'd all moved on and it didn't seem like we had as much in common as we once had. Years later I still hear from a few of them every now and then, we exchange a few pleasantries and not much else, they're still great people, but most of our fond memories are tied up in a game hardly anyone plays anymore.
Writing about it now I can't help but feel slightly melancholy. At the time it was the perfect game and I played it with just the right people. I've attempted to recreate the "awesomeness", for lack of a better, more descriptive and less lazy word. I tried to set up a D&D group with some friends, but getting any group of people to sit down together and play a game that isn't on console or a PC once a week is nearly impossible, it seems. I had hoped to get some of that spark back by playing MMOs, but while they can be enjoyable they restrict players so much and they are incredibly mechanical, the communities tend to leave a lot to be desired as well. But to lay the blame on my crappy D&D group (which only ever managed one session) or MMO communities would be disingenuous, because I know that much of it is because I look back at my time playing on persistent worlds on Neverwinter Nights, with truly great people, through rose-tinted glasses. But damn it if those glasses aren't bloody comfortable.
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