Role-playing in multiplayer environments

Susana Pajares Tosca

[Presentation at the conference "Computer Games & Digital Textualities. IT-University of Copenhaguen. March. 2001]

1. Introduction
Computer games have graduated as a serious independent object of study for some time now (see for example Herz or Poole), have been the centre of interest in various international fora (like RE:PLAY) and contemporary culture journals (like M/C). Many of the studies that analyse computer games do so from a very general perspective, trying to describe the limits of the computer-gaming phenomenon, to give an account of its history or to draw conclusions from some of its generic qualities in order to compare games to other artistic forms, specially to literature. However, there aren't many in-depth studies of specific games to help us develop a critical language as well as to provide us with carefully researched material to draw more general conclusions from. This is what this paper wants to do by looking at the game Vampire: The Masquerade. Redemption.

V:TM Redemption is an interesting game for various reasons. It springs from an immensely popular series of tabletop roleplaying games created by the Whitewolf company, that has been said to have changed the roleplaying world radically with its games where interaction and storytelling are much more important than combat or the accumulation of treasure and points. The computer version also claims to be different from the usual hack'n'slash RPGs, integrating a directed storyline in the tradition of the last Final Fantasy games and incorporating the darker psychological aspects of the tabletop game (the struggle not to lose humanity that the vampire characters must face) into the gaming system, so that the players have the task to balance their "humanity level" at the same time that they must complete their quest, creating an interesting conflict of interests at some points.

While the computer game is not as unique as its advertisement claims (the combat is quite repetitive, the storyline is not very compelling, etc.), it contains a multiplayer storytelling development kit that allows game masters (here called "storytellers") to create their own "chronicles" (or various sessions adventures) to be played either over a LAN or through the WON (World Opponent Network). The Storytellers tools let you create an scenario, people it with characters and objects, and then control the way the game develops by possessing non-playing characters and talking through them. For the players, the way of playing is the same as in the single player game, with the added feature of being able to communicate with a group of characters animated by "real people" through the chat/text interface. This interface is one of the most important characteristics of this game, as the development of the "story" that all the players collaborate in creating centres around it.

I am interested in the multiplayer option to see how succesfully a tabletop roleplaying game can migrate to the electronic form, what is lost and what is gained, and how the digital medium affects the nature of the roleplaying activity. Based on my participation in numerous gaming sessions (both of the tabletop and the computer versions of this game), I will describe the kind of interaction that takes place between players and what conclusions can be drawn to apply to the computer gaming phenomenon in general.

2. The Game
In its single player option, V:TM Redemption is a combination of role-playing, action, and it even has some elements of an adventure game. The player takes the role of Christof, a French crusader who is turned into a vampire in medieval Prague, and has to look for his lost love (a nun called Anezka) throughout the centuries visiting Vienna, London, and finally New York in the present day. The story is absolutely linear, with some dialogue choices along the way (that don't change anything), and your next movement always perfectly clear in the "quest panel", that tells you what you have to do next. Apart from a couple of puzzles in Tomb Raider style (like finding a lever to open a door or avoiding a pendulum trap), all that's expected from the player is that she engages in almost constant combat with all sorts of enemies. To fight enemies the player attacks them by clicking on them until they die, and she can use her various "disciplines", or vampiric powers, to do things like grow claws for the fight, possess non-player characters, gain supernatural strength, speed, etc. In practice though, most disciplines won't be used since the player doesn't have time to stop and select, so that most of the interviewed players (2) ended up hacking at enemies with a sword or battleaxe all the time, even in present day New York, as the use of modern weapons is cumbersome as well. The role-playing element comes from the points gained in the fights, that will let the player upgrade her character's stats between levels, and also buy him new equipment with the treasure picked up along the way. Christof's stats are given from the start, and then the player can develop the ones she thinks most useful. The humanity trait measures how much of a monster the vampire has become, the lower the worse, and during the game Christof will lose humanity if he kills innocent humans (whose blood he needs to survive) or commits immoral acts.

The scheme seems similar to that of the Final Fantasy series one: an action game with a linear story between fights, with the difference that the story in V:TM Redemption is not very compelling: most characters (including Christof) are cardboardlike and their actions don't make a lot of sense. I think that this problem is partly due to the fact that the story takes for granted that the player is going to find the "World of Darkness" interesting per se, maybe because of previously being a fan of the pen and paper version. If this is not the case, the player is left wondering why should Christof dedicate his life (eight centuries at that) to find one woman he has only seen (and talked to) for a few conscious seconds, why should non-playing characters (NPCs) like Serena or Erik join in Christof's quest and sacrifice their lives, and generally why everyone behaves so bizarrelly. Being linear, the story could have been much more coherent. It is true that the graphics, visual effects and music are stunning, and that compensates a bit for the lack of true immersion in the story.

The singleplayer game is thus difficult to evaluate, since on one hand the graphics, 3D rendering and atmosphere are absolutely brilliant, but the story fails to immerse the player and the gameplay is extremely monotonous, not really bringing anything new to the action or roleplaying genres.

White Wolf's tabletop game Vampire: The Masquerade appeared in the early nineties, when roleplayers were getting a bit tired with the most popular games and their complicated rule systems that forced people to look through pages and pages of tables to determine the outcome of a combat's single action (3). The White Wolf system is wonderfully simple: each attribute or ability has a rating from 1 to 5 dots (unless in the case of very powerful vampires that exceed normal limits), 2 being the normal average human. Whenever an action needs rolling, the player rolls as many ten-sided dice as dots she has (combining a major attribute with an ability, for example, to pick a lock she would roll her "Dexterity"+"Security" rating). The game master, here called "Storyteller" determines the difficulty of the action, which would be 6 for something normal, 4 for something easy, 9 for something extremely difficult, etc., and the number of dice rolled with a result above the difficulty rating determines how successful the action is (4). The system was met with certain scepticism by the most seasoned game masters, but it soon became very popular with players who were more interested in participating in interesting stories than in how true to reality a combat system was. Indeed, the rulebook called the game master "Storyteller", and it described the roleplaying activity thus:

Long ago, before movies, TV, radio and books, people used to tell stories. Tales on the hunt, legends about the gods and the great spirits, or gossip about the affairs of others all drew rapt attention. They would tell these stories aloud, as part of an oral tradition of storytelling, but this tradition has been mostly lost. Other forms of storytelling have taken its place.

We no longer tell stories, we listen to them, we sit passively and wait to be picked up and carried to the world they describe, to the unique perception of reality they embrace. We have become slaves of our TVs, and passively permit others to describe our lives, our culture and our personal reality through the stories that are constantly being told.

However, there is another way. Today the ancient art of storytelling has been rediscovered. A new movement is slowly growing. People are bringing stories home, making the ancient myths and legends a more substantial part of their lives. Storytelling on a personal level, rather than on the big screen or on TV, has become increasingly a part of our culture. That is what this game is all about, not stories that will be told to you, but stories that you will tell yourself." (Rein-Hagen, 1991: 20)

The appeal of the tabletop game came mostly from people's enduring fascination with the theme of the vampire, as uncounted books and films show. The game offered players the opportunity to play vampires, who for the first time in role-playing games were not stupid zombi-like villains, but tortured souls struggling not to lose their humanity. The romantic appeal of the tormented lone being stalking the night (most of the time also beautiful and always stronger and wiser than the humans who fear her) proved an enormous success, and the White Wolf company launched a whole series of games based on the same system (5). White Wolf's vampires are more similar to Anne Rice's than to Bram Stoker's, and the adult nature of the themes explored (death, eternity, addiction, disease, the nature of evil, passion, damnation, etc.) were gratefully received by role players who had grown up killing trolls and amassing treasure in Dungeon&Dragons and now wanted something else.

VTM: Redemption wants to be to multiplayer computer games what Vampire: The Masquerade was to tabletop roleplaying games. The multiplayer option lets a storyteller create an adventure with the "Storyteller's tools": choose a setting, people it with non-playing characters and objects, and then invite some players to her world. Except for combat against NPCs set up in the "aggressive" mode automatically, the development of the game won't at any time be controlled by the AI, as it happens in other multiplayer environments; here the storyteller has to "possess" the NPCs to talk through them, know where the players are at anytime, and create and delete objects on the fly to accommodate the progress of the plot to what the players are doing. The Storyteller can shift between "storyteller mode" (where she moves through the environment as a floating head that the players cannot see) and "character mode" where she either uses a character of her own or possess any of the NPCs or even PCs (playing characters) if necessary.

As opposed to the single player version, the stories here don't have to be linear at all, since the storyteller can prepare the previous settings but has no way to predict what the players will do, in what order, and, most importantly, what they will talk about between themselves and interacting with the NPCs. The combat system is still the same as the one in the single player version, with the difference that the storyteller can possess any NPC instead of letting the AI do the fights. A very interesting point is that the game doesn't allow the players to fight between themselves, so that they are always a team (a small team; playing with more than 4 players would be very hard to control as a storyteller). This makes V: TM Redemption different from other multiplayer games like Quake or EverQuest, where players do indeed play against each other and newcomers are usually abused by more powerful characters. Another difference with the usual multiplayer games is that the PCs in V: TM Redemption don´t have to start in any "Level 0 or 1" where they are then forced to accumulate experience points and treasure to amount to something at all; here the Storyteller can let players start as weak or powerful as the story demands and keeps control in her game so that if a player is exaggeratedly powerful and spoils the gaming experience for the others she can kick him out of the game.

In his article "Postmortem of Nihilistic Software's Vampire: The Masquerade-Redemption", game designer Robert Huebner explains that the design team wanted to incorporate what they felt were the better qualities of the early MUDs, with wizards that made sure that everyone was having a good time by creating personal adventures and with a focus on conversation thanks to the game chat interface.

Using the White Wolf license also meant that our users would have high expectations in terms of story, plot, and dialogue for the game. It's a role-playing license based heavily around dramatic storytelling, intense political struggles, and personal interaction. Fans of the license would not accept a game that was mere stat-building and gold-collecting. (Huebner, 2000)

And so the multiplayer option chose the same storytelling oriented strategy as the tabletop original game, with the designers knowing that this feature would be the most appealing to the gaming community. Nihilistic even adopted the same look, tipography, and specially rhetoric of the White Wolf original game books in the material that accompanied the CD-ROMs and in the official strategy guide. The guide maintains that the main difference of this game with other roleplaying games is "the graphical richness of the game and the fact that you are not playing a hero, but rather one of the creatures of the night, a childe of Caine, a vampire!" (Rodriguez, 2000: 220) The texts surrounding the game revel in the romantic rhetorical excess of the vampiric genre:

Be Immortal… Your unholy showdown begins in medieval Europe and rages on into the modern day, as you track a soulless enemy in an eternal struggle to destroy him. (Rodriguez, 2000: backcover)

Is V: TM Redemption's multiplayer option really as sucessful a storytelling tool as the tabletop game Vampire. The Masquerade?

3. Medium migration. From Tabletop to Computer Game
Plenty has been written about how books are turned into films, films into books, even books or films into games and vice-versa, but there isn´t much about how games change shape while remaining games: is digital poker different from real life poker, or digital chess different from real life chess? Tabletop roleplaying games have been turned into computer games quite often, indeed the computer roleplaying genre is now arguably more popular than its real life counterpart, but it would seem that is usually taken for granted that the reproduction of the rules and the character advancement system guarantees a similar experience. This might be true of games whose aim is, as Huebner puts it above, "stat-building and gold-collecting", where the great speed of a machine to determine outcomes is much more desirable than the tedious dice rolling and table browsing. But it is not so in Vampire, where dice are rolled less often than in most roleplaying games (6) because of its stress on storytelling and developing a collaborative plot. To see how both media differ, I have chosen a few points for reflection.

3.1. The Interface
The tabletop game uses the classical roleplaying elements: the rule book, the character sheets (with a list of all the statistics for a particular character), and the dice to be rolled (in this case very simple since they will be a bunch of ten-sided dice). These are all familiar objects that players know how to use and (unless they are absolute beginners) need no explanation to get started.

The computer game is something else though. No matter how seasoned a player we are, every new game requires us to learn how its interface works. The multiplayer interface of V:TM Redemption is very similar to the single player version: we have a main view taking the best two thirds of the top part of our screen (that shows the scenarios, our character and the rest of the characters), and the bottom one third that is left divided in three parts: to the left, our picture and the control buttons to call up the different panels, like the inventory or the discipline panel (that would appear partially covering the main view); in the middle, the chat interface; to the right, a summary-list of objects in our inventory and a quick access to the six disciplines that we use more often. Our way to move on screen is using the mouse, that here has the form of an ank (7) that we have to click for virtually every action we want to take, from moving, to picking up an object to attacking another character.

It is a very easy to use interface that only becomes slightly cumbersome when we need to look for something quickly (i.e. a discipline) in the hidden pannels. Its learning curve is 5 minutes and it gives the player all the control that she needs to know what is going on in the game and act accordingly. It is flexible and simple.

What we have considered the interface in the tabletop game is really the "hardware" where the rules are kept (the book) and the information that will decide the outcome of the actions (character sheet, dice). In the computer game, the rules are not accessible from the interface (the book is outside the computer, and the online help outside of the program), but we also have the information that will decide the outcome of the actions at hand (our statistics and inventory). The main difference is the screen view in the computer, where we will see and experience the game actions, in the pen&paper version this will happen only in our head.

3.2. Rules
Above I have explained the dot-system for the stats in the tabletop game, as well as the necessary combination of basic 9 attributes (divided in physical/social/mental) and 30 abilities (divided in talents/skills/knowledges) for each action rolled. Other features of the pen&paper character sheet are the disciplines (vampiric powers with a dot system as well), blood pool (that the vampire needs to keep relatively full not to enter a murderous frenzy), willpower (a 0-10 rating that can be used to achieve automatic success for actions that are of great importance to the PC), humanity (0-10, the more the better, if the PC gets to 0, the player loses control over her character and it turns into a monstrous NPC), and the virtues (conscience/self-control/courage in 0-5 rating), used to determine the character's humanity and her reactions at certain difficult moral choices. Experience points are very sparsely given (typically 2-3 per session), and it takes a great effort to advance one dot in any characteristic (players need for example 5 experience points to raise a dot in a vampiric discipline; the more dots you already have, the more expensive it is to buy additional ones).

The computer game keeps the attribute and disciplines systems, although instead of dots it uses a 1-99 scale, as the designers believe this is more satisfactory to the players, who can witness the progress of their characters better this way (as they state in the "Readme" document that is packed with the game). I think this has been done so that the players are not frustrated with the slow development of the characters in the dot system, since in the computer version they get many more experience points at the end of a session and can visibly advance their characters (in the tabletop game you might well have to wait three sessions to advance one dot in a particularly expensive discipline). Are computer roleplayers less patient than tabletop ones? This rule decision would seem to indicate that designers think so.

The computer game doesn´t use the abilities, so there is no combination needed when the time to "roll" comes. This means that actions are less precise; in the tabletop version you could specialize in various actions that require different sorts of dexterity, for example it is not the same to wield a sword than to drive a car (you might have dexterity 3, melee 2, drive 4, which means you roll 5 dice when fighting with a sword and 7 dice when driving), in the computer game you would have the same simple dexterity rating in both cases. This seems a strange design decision, since it wouldn't be so complicated for the computer to take into account this more complex calculations. It might show that again computer players are perceived as less sophisticated than tabletop players (or less interested in this kind of detail) so that the fact of having to carefully give ratings to 30 different abilities (with a limited number of start points) might put them off altogether.

Finally, the computer game also does away with the willpower and virtues, which togetether with the humanity rating (that the computer game keeps) comprise the "moral traits" of the characters, so that the players suffer the consequences of their actions and their character-design decisions. For example, if the PC has a high willpower, she'll be able to resist her hunger, or the attempt at domination by an older vampire; if a player has a low self-control, she will be prone to lose her temper more often and maybe kill innocent humans, thus losing humanity and being in danger of becoming a mindless monster. The computer game simply reduces the player's humanity rating if she kills humans while feeding, even if there is no other way out of a situation. In the multiplayer mode, the lack of these traits makes for a less rich experience as the moral progress of the characters is one of the key interests of the vampiric theme. This can be compensated by roleplaying, but it is more difficult, as the storyteller cannot really arbitrarily make a player lose humanity in a particular situation because it clashes with her deepest beliefs; in the tabletop game, she would just have to roll her conscience and depending on the outcome she would or wouldn't lose humanity.

The combat system is also different. Not only does the computer do all the calculations (so that the player just has to click on enemies until they die), but there is no"initiative" roll related to the character's wits, simply whoever is quickest with the mouse attacks first. The pace being so quick, there really is no time to fumble through the disciplines panel to see which one would be more appropriate each combat turn. The diversity of disciplines that each character has (8) thus remains greatly unused except for the most obvious ones like feeding or blood healing, something that is ultimately frustrating for the players, who have most likely spent points in developing interesting disciplines. The multiple discipline system was really thought for the pen&paper game, where each combat is divided in turns and all players have time to think and state their actions, choosing disciplines and spending blood points while doing so and having a clear picture of what is going on all the time. In the computer game things are different, if you stop clicking on your enemy for a second to go and click on a discipline at the bottom of your pannel, you can die because your character will stop attacking but the enemy won't. The only chance to use the disciplines is to work in a group, so that while your companions keep the enemy busy you can stop and reflect for a moment.

There are other differences when comparing both rule systems, but these are the most important. It is not my intention to imply that the computer game is "worse" than the tabletop one, but simply to try to find out what the differences tell us about both media. So far there is a tension between simplification and diversity suggesting that the digital medium is more immediate (players would judge a lengthy character creation process negatively), less morally sophisticated (the moral attributes have no place in the computer version since they are hard to quantify: how does a machine know when your actions or words might constitute a moral breach and ask you to roll your conscience dice?), and at once more and less faithful to reality (the need for acting quickly in computer combat is more realistic than the extended combat turns of the tabletop game, but the fact that the mouse can only do one action at a time effectively prevents the player from using disciplines, which in real life would be a matter of thinking about it automatically). This paradox springs from the fact that the visual environment of V: TM Redemption needs a greater simplification of relationships to be effectively immersive, whereas the tabletop game works with a mental immersion that is not broken by further abstractions (the more specific rules). The visual illusion has to be kept simple and intuitive or lose its charm completely.

3.3. Character interaction and objectives
In V: TM Redemption, the PCs have four main possibilities for action:
- explore (the virtual space: walking across the landscape and inside buildings, the graphical quality of the game makes for a compelling experience)
- find/use objects (hidden door switches that need to be operated, ancient vampire lore books that can be used to learn spells, etc.)
- enter combat (exclusively against NPCs)
- talk (between PCs/with NPCs/with the Storyteller in OOC, Out Of Character, mode)

Initially, these possible actions are not different from the ones that players can undertake in the tabletop game, except for the crucial fact that the two first kinds of actions and their outcomes are narrated by the storyteller in the tabletop game, whereas in the computer game they happen in real time; the player is not limited to build a mental picture of the actions but has the chance to see/hear what is going on and can directly affect it. Of course the storyteller has prepared the scenario previously, filling up rooms with objects and NPCs using the storyteller's tools; but it is not the same to sit around a table looking at your friends and hear one of them describe a scene (say: "you enter a dark room that must have once been magnificent but now is in great decay. Rotten tapestries hung at the walls and there is a strange dripping noise in the far east corner where darkness reigns") than actually walking into that room and seeing and hearing by yourself, even if it's virtually and you are represented by a character that looks nothing like you. The immersion in the digital space eliminates the need for descriptive mediation and contributes to making the experience more direct (9); the experience is indeed direct, if only virtually.

The sense of immersion is augmented by the possibility of real time interaction with the other players and the NPCs using the chat interface. The visualization of the other characters and oneself as a part of the digital world also helps to the impression of direct perception and participation, going beyond what textual chat can offer (10). The fact that people are not playing face to face as it is the case in the tabletop game makes it easier to stay "in character" all the time. In my experience, players will only go OOC when they experiment some technical problem (or for example want to tell the others that they are going to be AFK "Away from Keyboard" for a couple of minutes). In the tabletop game, OOC talk is quite common when for example the storyteller is busy with one player individually and the others talk about their "real lives" to kill time; some players even enjoy making constant OOC remarks that mock their "in character" sentences. In this respect, the computer game encourages a much more focused storytelling experience, since it is the only thing that the players share (their bodies being in different rooms, even in different countries, with not even a common weather topic to chat about). The computer helps a lot to isolate ourselves from reality.

The computer doesn't participate in the interactions since it doesn't control any of the NPC's dialogue, who are always possessed by the storyteller as it would happen in the tabletop version. This overcomes the limitations of dialogue interfaces in computer games, often reduced to the choosing of topics from a list or the short commands loaded with keywords in the old text adventures. In this case, the NPCs understand all that the players say and can respond no matter how bizarre the idea.

The objectives of V:TM Redemption players are not defeating each other or amassing treasure and points to go up a particular level. Unlike in most multiplayer games, accumulating points is not a valid objective here. The point of playing this game is participating in a collaborative story, and this is not only an advertising catch phrase, if a player concentrates on fighting and looking for objects on her own without taking her fellow players into account, the storyteller will give her less experience points than to anyone else, since she spoiled the common story. The computer version of the game allows for performance to be rewarded, and performance might be the key word when thinking about the objectives of this game. The players play their characters and work together to solve a common plot, creating an engaging story along the way (at least for those participating). Character advancement is welcome, but is not the sole objective of this game. In fact the computer version gives more importance to character advancement than the tabletop game; however, talking to other gamemasters over the WON, everybody said that they gave less experience points to their players than the computer does when playing the single player option. Obviously, the single player option caters more to traditional computer RPGs fans, while the multiplayer option is the one that the tabletop roleplayers would favour.

This poses another interesting question that is relevant when thinking about RPGs in general: how do you win then? Unlike the single player option, V: TM Redemption multiplayer has no single desirable outcome or even the need to take the characters to a particular level of advancement. Concrete game sessions have concrete goals: like defeating an enemy or recovering an ancient scroll, but that doesn't put an end to the game, and its success will rather be measured by the degree of fun that the group had participating in the story. If the players reach the specified goals but were bored, they will avoid that storyteller or those companions the next time they connect to the WON. In that sense, RPGs are much more similar to children's play than to other games (11), and indeed the performance feature that I pointed out earlier has a lot to do with children's games of pretend.

3.4. Gaming styles
V: TM Redemption boasts of being able to accommodate different gaming styles, mainly referring to the usual industry distinction between RPGs that are combat oriented or interaction oriented. The tabletop game specifically distances itself from combat games, and while the computer version claims to admit both styles, the monotony of the combat (and specially the fact that there are much better action games in the market) makes it doubtful that anyone is going to play V: TM Redemption as if it was Mortal Kombat.

The fact is that the multiplayer game has been designed for storytelling, and that means group interaction and teamwork; this is not a deathmatch. V: TM Redemption doesn't suffer from the problem posed by Jonathan Baron in his "Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games", where he identifies the fact that new players are routinely shamed by experienced players eager for glory as the main obstacle for the popularity of this kind of games. Nobody likes to be humiliated in front of people (not even virtually), but V: TM Redemption, with its closed scenarios and collaborating groups of players, is the ideal environment for people to start feeling at ease with the technology and the interaction. In my experience, players are much more collaborative in the computer than in the tabletop version of the game. The virtual players understand that someone can be new to the medium and often explain things OOC (like why the game has paused so that the new player doesn't get nervous, how to un-freeze their characters, how to whisper, etc.) without the storyteller's intervention. In the tabletop game newcomers are usually explained the system by the storyteller, and experienced players try to get advantage out of newbies by letting them talk to dangerous NPCs, using their mind-reading disciplines while the new player is trying to figure out how to use hers, etc. The tabletop game lies heavily in political intrigue and who posesses crucial information first, and this is why an "innocent" player is slightly abused even if the group still has to work as a team. It would seem that the computer encourages social collaboration as people are more aware of the difficulties that the new medium can pose, something that is not seen as relevant in the tabletop game. It also helps that the computer companions don't see (and probably won't meet) each other; it is less embarrasing to confess to a stranger that you are completely lost than to people who are sitting in front of you. The geographical distance helps cross psychological barriers.

4. Welcome to the World of Darkness
The key to the multiplayer experience of V:TM Redemption is that the creative aspects of the adventures are left to a human: the storyteller, who exercises absolute control in real time over all aspects of the story. There is a collaborative story because the storyteller has created and peopled a world and thought about NPCs backgrounds and stories, so that when the players enter this world, it seems alive and able to accommodate their personalities and actions, that stay open even if the group has a particular goal. The problem with the storytelling tools of V:TM Redemption is that they are difficult to learn for someone not very experienced in computer games (12), although it helps a lot if the potential storyteller is well versed in tabletop RPGs. RPGs gamemasters are creatures of arcane lore, and will possibly be able to recite a list of spells from some obscure medieval game or know by heart the stats of a prominent villain in some of the worlds they have created. This means that they are by nature open to learn new forms to create worlds, fans of the fantasy genres, and probably seasoned computer users anyway, so that I don´t think the transition is very hard for them.

The World of Darkness has grown into a very lively community of dedicated storytellers who exchange tips about how to edit the game (the designers wanted to facilitate this from the start) and have put their findings and creations up on the web for everyone to share (13). There are entire libraries of maps, places, "skins" (as the characters are known), objects, themes for chronicles, etc. Creative storytellers have rendered popular locations in 3D, and created "skins" that look like everyone imaginable (a very popular one is the Lara Croft "skin", and there are "skins" for many famous actors and fantasy characters). Thus advanced players mould objects that will then be part of the world the characters will inhabit, tinkering with the 3D generators for hours, as Flaubert was said to do with each of his paragraphs.

The computer game encourages people to be creative in more ways than the tabletop one, where the exchanges between storytellers are usually limited to storytelling tips and ideas for adventures. But these aspects are present in the computer game as well, that doesn't want to forget its main aim: storytelling. The tips for storytelling are often similar to the recommendations in books that teach you how to write. For example, there is a list of "rules for better storytelling" at, where after explaining the differences between linear and non-linear narrative, the anonymous (14) author explains in detail the following list items:

1. Have a general vision for your world.
2. Decide early on what the rules are going to be for your scenes.
3. Have your players develop backgrounds for their characters.
4. Develop backgrounds for your NPCs and antagonists.
5. Get comfortable with the ST tools in Redemption.
6. Populate the hub of your world based on the tone of your chronicle.
7. Try to keep in mind what the rest of the world is doing while the players are adventuring.
8. Reward the players because they deserve it, not because they need it.
9. Be very careful about awarding experience points.
10. There are very few "mistakes" in storytelling.

This is very much like the recommendations in the sourcebook for the tabletop game. It is not difficult to imagine how the V: TM Redemption storytelling tools could be used to learn creative writing, or should we say creative scripting? The tools lets the storytellers describe all the isolated elements of the adventure (that by the way follow a very structural division into: scenario, characters, objects and plots, Propp would be happy with it) that will only come to life when the players enter the stage and interact with each other and the game world. Until that moment, there will be no story but only an empty set, and it is the storyteller who will control that the players are motivated and have enough clues so that there finally is a story.

5. Conclusion: Redemption?
As we have seen throughout this paper, the experiences of the tabletop and computer versions of Vampire are not automatically interchangeable. I have listed a series of differences introduced by the computer compared to the classical face to face roleplaying experience. To summarize, I would say that the computer creates an immediately perceptible world (instead of an imaginary one), thus eliminating the need for narrative mediation and facilitating automatic spatial immersion. The storytelling heart of the game is fully maintained, but the storyteller now uses computer tools to create spaces, objects and characters instead of words to narrate. Interaction is still mainly textual, although the visualization of oneself as a character-part of the virtual world is very important to the sense of immersion. Some of the most subtle aspects of the tabletop game are lost: like the moral progression of the characters, the accuracy of the description of actions or the effective use of disciplines, but this doesn´t seem so much an attribute of the digital medium as of this particular implementation. Finally, the multiplayer computer game encourages different kinds of socialization and creative collaboration between participants as described above.

After playing many games of the tabletop and the computer versions of Vampire, I can say that both provide rich storytelling experiences, the first relying more on words, and the second on virtual environments. The important thing about the stories collectively created is participating in them; reading a game's text after it is finished is as boring as reading a MUD log without having played it. This particular kind of storytelling is not aimed at finding Beauty or producing a story that people will want to read or view, but the important thing is to be part of it as it unfolds, and to have something to say in its telling, to exercise a bit of control over the fictive world. All interviewed players remember little pieces of dialogue where their participation uncovered secrets, where they outwitted a NPC, or where they simply had a fun exchange that made them learn more about the other characters and the world they inhabit. All roleplayers will be exceedingly keen on telling you their "best stories", and most of the time they will sound terribly dull to those who didn´t live them. A group of roleplayers is even more dangerous than a group of old soldiers remembering the war, they can't stop talking about their adventures.

V: TM Redemption is a fine, if yet primitive, example of how computer games can explore more narrative directions, not following the linear path of adventure games (where the branching destined to offer the illusion of free choice becomes ultimately unmanageable), but recognizing that meaningful non-linear storytelling needs a human behind it, and player's participation has to forcefully be open ended to be really enjoyable. The V: TM Redemption team has made a great effort to create effective tools for storytelling in the new medium and will surely be a landmark in interactive games for a long time.

Game politics
This paper's main goal has been to offer an example of an in-depth study of one particular game, preferring to compare it to other computer games and its tabletop counterpart (something that in this case is a relevant approach) than to other media like cinema or literature. It has therefore consciously avoided the automatic application of cultural and other external theories as there are enough papers that simply use brief descriptions of a few games to illustrate a particular theory but don't really stop to look at the games they talk about. My objective has been to show what kind of questions we can ask when looking at computer games, as well as to help us develop a critical language that is specific for the gaming phenomenon. Following this paper's exposition, my proposal for a typology of the study of individual games would include:

- General description (contents and how they are "sold")
- History/relationship to other games or relevant media
- Action possibilities (nature/duration/fixity)
- Interaction possibilities (player/machine/other players)
- Interface
- Environment
- Game's objectives (goals/outcomes)
- The player/Gaming community

We cannot expect to integrate individual games in a wider theory about the medium and its cultural (and other) implications without tackling these different aspects in depth. There are no doubt more things that could be considered, but I think most fall under one of the general headlines I have proposed, and will be happy to revise them to accommodate new insights. This is, after all, work in progress.

A note on the game sessions
Most gameplay insights refer to sessions played over a LAN in Madrid with a regular group of five players during the second half of the year 2000. All five players knew and were fans of the Vampire Whitewolf tabletop game before, and were willing to share their knowledge of role playing games in general and computer games in particular setting up this experimental team. The team members are David del Moral, Julio García, Olalla García, Rafael Molina and myself, we played in Spanish, and in some cases used our previous characters from the tabletop game. All players played through the single player version of V:TM Redemption, and we then moved on to the multiplayer modus. To extend my knowledge of the game and try other gaming styles, I also regularly played sessions connecting to the WON (15) with players from around the world and English as the main language.

Works cited
- BARON, Jonathan. 1999. "Glory and Shame: Powerful Psychology in Multiplayer Online Games". In Gamasutra,
- HERZ, J.C. 1997. Joystick Nation. London: Abacus.
- HUEBNER, Robert. 2000. "Postmortem of Nihilistic Software's Vampire: The Masquerade-Redemption". In Gamasutra,
- M/C (
- POOLE, Steven. 2000. Trigger Happy. The Inner Life of Videogames. London: Fourth State.
- REIN-HAGEN, Mark. 1991. Vampire. The Masquerade. White Wolf.
- RE:PLAY Forum. http// (August 1999)
- RODRIGUEZ y Gibson, Siôn. 2000. Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption. Official Strategy Guide. Indianapolis: Macmillan.

1. This paper has been written with an oral presentation in mind, accompanied by the live demonstration of certain aspects of the game discussed and numerous screenshots, so that some points might seem a little cryptic with only this text to explain them.
2. See note on the gaming sessions at the end.
3. One of the best examples for this is the very complicated game Rolemaster, based on Tolkien's world, that was born to overcome the simplicity of MERP (Middle Earth Role Playing game) and ended up being a huge encyclopedia made up of hundreds of pages of tables. Game masters interested in being as realistic as possible favoured it, as it painstakingly described the results for actions taking multiple factors into account.
4. Of course the system is really a bit more complex than this, there are for example botches (when a player rolls a 1), extended actions (that require a high number of successes to be completed), or complex combat manoeuvres. In fact the combat system and damage levels are not entirely satisfactory, and many Storytellers modify the rules according to their style of play.
5. The next four games: Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, Changeling were by no means as successful as Vampire, although they all share the rule system, a common background and happen in the so-called "World of Darkness". There are many "adventure modules" and "source books" to all five games.
6. The extreme case would be the game Amber, where no dice are rolled at all to concentrate on pure storytelling.
7. The egyptian symbol for eternity: a cross with a loop on top.
8. Each character has at least the seven common disciplines (Feed, Blood healing, Blood strength, Blood dexterity, Blood stamina, Awaken, Walk the abyss) plus three clan disciplines, that can be simple (like celerity, where a higher rating simply means you're quicker) or made of up to five specialities that count as single disciplines of their own (for example, Auspex is divided into Heightened Senses, Aura Perception, Spirit's Touch and Psychic Projection). This means than a PC can easily have 10 or 12 disciplines that would be useful in combat.
9. The same could be said if we compare V: TM Redemption with classical text adventures or MUDs, where action and descriptions are narrated and therefore mediated, be it by the computer or a "wizard".
10. There already are some inititatives experimenting with visual representations of chat participants on the Internet, one of them is the internationally acclaimed Cybertown (, inspired by the gibsonian vision of an embodied information universe. Self-representation is an important question on digtal environments.
11. That is, when they are concentrated on performance and storytelling as this one is. When they are concentrated on accumulating points and getting characters to the next level, they are much more like strategy games.
12. But much easier than other multimedia authoring programs, like Macromedia's Director, although this has a different purpose.
13. You can get to these community pages from Activision's official site. Some of them are, or, and even the WON zone for V: TM Redemption:
14. It would seem that the author is related to the company that publishes the game, he/she gives a pseudonym: white rabbit, but not a real name.
15. WON, or World Opponent's Network.

Back to the top