Saturday, December 15, 2018

Because Walking into a Throne Room in Full Plate is Just Normal

Silk and Barack stood in the corner, talking quietly. Barack was hugely splendid in a green brocade doublet, but looked uncomfortable without his sword. Silk's doublet was a rich black, trimmed in silver, and his scraggly whiskers had been carefully trimmed into an elegant short beard.

"What does all of this mean?" Garion asked as he joined them.

"We're to be presented to the king," Barack said, "and our honest clothes might have given offense. Kings aren't accustomed to looking at ordinary men."

Durnik emerged from one of the rooms, his face pale with anger. "That overdressed fool wanted to give me a bath!" he said in choked outrage. "

It's the custom," Silk explained. "Noble guests aren't expected to bathe themselves. I hope you didn't hurt him."

"I'm not a noble, and I'm quite able to bathe myself," Durnik said hotly. "I told him I'd drown him in his own tub if he didn't keep his hands to himself. After that, he didn't pester me any more, but he did steal my clothes. I had to put these on instead." He gestured at his clothes, which were quite similar to Garion's. "I hope nobody sees me in all this frippery."

--Pawn of Prophecy, by David Eddings

One thing I've puzzled about over the years is how a toon in an MMO (or RPG) interacts with leadership in-game. Now, I don't mean the local constable or even some minor noble, but rather a titular head of government or a leader of the military*.

Unless you're starting off as some sort of noble (or ex-noble), a character in an MMO or RPG is simply not important enough to draw the attention of any ruler of any game universe. Now, if the size of the ruler's country is tiny, yeah, there's a better than average change that Durek The Smasher might actually have met the King of Tinyacropolis.** However, given the insularity frequently found separating the nobles/upper class from the common folk, your not very likely to have any real interaction between the classes other than in a master/servant (or worse) situation; drinking with Prince Hal ala Shakespeare's two Henry IV plays ain't very likely, and even if it did happen Prince Hal would deny it did happen once he ascended to the throne.

So why does your toon end up hanging around kings, queens, Great Mages/Wizards, and other leaders of the world?***


I've mentioned in the (far distant) past that I consider this scenario --found in MMOs from LOTRO to WoW to SWTOR and ESO-- something that you see right out of David Eddings' series The Belgariad. The story revolves around the most powerful people in the game world, the faction leaders and whatnot, and they go off and have adventures along with any protagonists/narrators.

While I really love The Belgariad --having read it as a middle school student right as it was released-- I do recognize that the main players in the story really shouldn't be doing what they're doing at all, and instead having other people do the work for them. Think about it this way: if you were at a university, how likely would it be that the best football player were a cousin of the President, your advisor is Elon Musk, your Resident Assistant is a combination of Black Widow and Jeff Bezos, and you happen to be dating Beyonce and Jay Z's daughter? Oh, and that all of these people are incognito, too?

Yeah, I thought not.

But at the same time, this sort of thing eventually ends up happening in a lot of MMOs and RPGs. And that's not even counting the Mary Sue-ism aspect of your toon, either, rising over the course of a very short time to being the counselor and best friend of the most powerful people around.

This whole scenario is pretty damned unlikely to me.
When the Skeptical Kid meme has more
caution than Amalexia or Emeric.


I thought about this situation a bit after having finished the original ESO storyline for the Ebonheart Pact, and since I'm about a bit over halfway through the storyline for the Daggerfall Covenant this has been really bugging me more and more. You don't go from being a nobody to the King's trusted confidant and advisor that quickly. Hell, it's more likely that the King would take the credit and give you a token or trinket to essentially pay you to go away. After all, you're not from the upper class.

Think of one of the basic quest types that you find in an MMO: the delivery of a letter. Think of what is behind such a simple quest:

  • The ability to read.

    In a SF or modern setting, the assumption that everybody reads (or reads well enough) holds, but in a medieval setting that is not likely the case. If you're middle class or upper class, then yes, but if you're lower class...
  • The amount of trust the quest giver has in handing you the letter.

    This kind of goes without saying, but someone who "just shows up" and is given a letter to pass along sounds a bit fishy. Would you entrust a letter to a relative stranger? Would you simply stop a passerby and give them a letter to deliver? Or better yet, deliver tidings to the King? If you are truly a loyal subject of the King, why would you trust a delivery to someone who you may have fought a few battles with, but before that nothing was known?
  • The ability to even deliver the letter in the first place.

    It may be one thing to finally reach a destination and deliver a letter to a tradesman or a merchant, but quite another to deliver a letter to a member of the nobility. A tradesman may see you directly, a merchant may make you wait in an outer "office" room before delivery to a secretary or bookkeeper, but a noble? It's must more likely that you'll deliver the letter to a minor functionary, who will in turn hand it over to a courtier or advisor, and then the letter will be delivered to the noble. And if it was going to the King? The King would likely not receive the delivery in public, and if he did, he certainly wouldn't read it in public.
All that means is the simple "delivery" quest has the potential to be completely wrecked by reality.


Before you say "Hey Redbeard, you're missing the point. The entire point is to advance the plot and move you up the chain in the circle of nobility," I get it. Before you snort and say "Hey, you're supposed to be The Chosen One (or whatever)," yeah, I understand the why behind it. But to me, the end isn't as important as the journey itself.

If you're going to deliver a letter to a noble and you're not a formal courier, the noble's handlers aren't going to let you close to said noble. If you're as dangerous a person as you're supposed to be, it would be a short matter for you to assassinate a noble if you had that in mind, and believe me, the nobles know that.
Ah, Mel Brooks. You put it so plainly.

Besides, there's the Divine Right of Kings, and even in a Fantasy environment --especially so, given that the gods can be pretty active and direct in a Fantasy setting-- that means the nobility believe they have the supreme right to be where they are, and that anybody not of their ilk had better remember that.


Okay, so what's the point?

Well, the point is that a game's story can be better than what it is right now. Just because you don't get to meet with the king directly doesn't mean that the plot is shot to hell; I'd argue that because you have to navigate the bizarro world that is the nobility a story can be made much richer.

Instead of "deliver a letter to the King, who sends you out to deal with the next item on the plot", how about something like this:

  • Because of XXX, the courier has no choice but to give you the letter to deliver.
  • Along the way, someone tries to kill you or steal said letter.
  • Once you arrive, you're
    a) Not Believed and you have to try to prove you are who you say you are
    b) Believed, but you're sent to a room to be cleaned up and presented to a minor functionary who then makes you wait (via cutscene) and he provides you with a quest in return.
  • If you perform a few quests right, you're granted an audience with a higher member of the nobility. Maybe that person likes you and maybe not, but more quests are given instead of the King doing it directly.
What this does is provide that obscuring layer between you and the King. You don't know if you're truly acting in the King's interest, and the minor nobles say so, but what if they're the ones plotting against the King? Couldn't they be setting you up to take the blame if their plot fails, and the ire of a nation if it succeeds? Maybe you have to find a way to meet with the King without them acting as a go-between just to make sure. Or should you even trust the King at all? Does he have the interest in his kingdom at heart? Or is maybe your mind playing tricks, and you were the bad guy all along?

All of these little interesting plot points add to the richness of a story and allow the paranoia and class arrogance of the nobility/upper class to improve the story beyond the basics of "deliver a letter to the King".


In the end, I suppose, money is the critical part here. All of this extra work in a game means extra money spent on development, and software companies have to choose between plot development and extra time spent on enriching a story. If more time is spent on the main quest line, does that mean the side quests suffer?

Perhaps that's why in ESO at least, the side quests are frequently better written than the main quest line in a zone.

But another reason the way quests are is more a matter of fan service: some people want to play an MMO to see some of the key NPCs in action. A LOTRO fan wants to see Aragorn or Gandalf or Elrond; an Elder Scrolls fan wants to see Vivec; a Warcraft fan wants to pal around with Thrall or Khadgar. And for those fans, the more interaction the better.

I guess that there's no truly easy answer here. But still, I'd at least like to see things a bit more realistic than the current state of quest design.

*Although they are frequently separate in modern times, in prior centuries the leader of the military was also the leader of the country/empire. Sure, in the US the President is also the Commander-in-Chief, but I can't think of a President after Washington who led troops into battle as President.

**Or in a barbarian campaign where there is no overlord for barbarian clans, your clan chief is pretty much it as far as leadership goes.

***It kind of goes without saying that includes gods/goddesses/primal dragons/demons/whatever and their leading support staff.


  1. I don't think the letter delivering thing is that weird. As far as literacy goes, these are idealised fantasy worlds, not an actual recreation of the Middle Ages, so near-universal literacy is usually assumed. And as far as "trusting a random stranger" goes, the idea is clearly that the people who give you these letters don't get a chance to / aren't able to travel much and there is no official postal service, so they jump on any opportunity to get something from A to B. Though admittedly our own ability to jump through portals at seemingly every corner does clash with that image these days. It makes a bit more sense in an old-school game where legging it from one place to the next takes a while even for the player.

    As for the rest of the post, I... kinda agree but can't actually think of that many examples where that happens? I remember in Vanilla WoW it was a big deal to be sent to the throne room in Stormwind Keep for the first time, at the end of a lengthy quest chain, and then the king wasn't in anyway. Thrall was a bit more approachable from the start, but then he's someone with lowly origins. I know in modern WoW you speak to important NPCs all the time, but at least that has been "earned" to some degree through several years of dragon slaying, even if I personally don't like it.

    In Vanilla SWTOR leadership also keeps its distance - Imperials never even see the Sith Emperor in person (not counting the warrior having a brief conversation with his voice on Voss), and Republic classes may earn a meeting with / speech by the Supreme Chancellor at the very end of their class story, but it's treated as a special event and definitely not routine.

    1. Oh, I understand that they're idealized fantasy worlds, which is only mildly bothersome compared to other things, but I also feel the farther up the class structure you are the less likely you're going to be grabbing an average passerby to deliver a letter. And it's doubtful the nobility or the military would entrust communications to you, the itinerant adventurer.

      In the quest that actually began this post, after stepping off a ship in port right in the middle of a zombie attack, the Guard Captain recruits you to send a status report to the King. To which I actually talked back to the computer screen, saying "Don't give me that bullshit; you had a ton of guards that were hiding from the zombies, and none of them could deliver this thing? Yeah, let's get the guy fresh off the boat to do it instead."

      SWTOR is a bit of a different animal than other MMOs in that the Jedi and Sith personal stories involve the Dark Council and Jedi Council practically from the beginning; The Dark Council schemes are pretty much what your toon gets involved with, and the Jedi Council determines your fitness to become a Jedi in the first place. Yes, the Sith Emperor is pretty much unseen, and the Republic Chancellor is only observed at the end on the Republic side (and has a surprise in store as well if you played all the planetary questlines).

      Vanilla WoW did a much better job of overall faction leaders, BC was good as well, but it was in Wrath that things began to go a bit off the rails. Tagging along with the entire Wrathgate Event and working with senior faction leadership in the Icecrown 5-Mans showed some cracks in the "we're just people who work outside the main power structure". Cataclysm broke it entirely, starting with the Cataclysm pre-release event, and there's been no going back since then.

      Throughout almost the entire leveling experience of Age of Conan you don't actually see Conan at all, it's only at the very end of your personal story do you actually see him. But LOTRO, TERA, ESO, and GW2 (among others) really put you right in with the faction leadership at the earliest opportunity and don't really let go.