When it comes to designing any online RPG, staff must often make a choice between freedom and control. Greater player freedom allows players to express themselves more, to develop more interesting characters, and to be more invested in those characters. But it also allows for them to imagine characters less appropriate for the setting, to ‘twink’ more heavily, and to use their freedom in abusive ways. One area of this struggle comes in the form of player building; how much do you want your players and/or your story staff to be able to alter or add to your built gameworld?
Section One: World Alterations
Allowing your players and/or story staff to alter the existing grid can be a fantastic tool for creating the impression of the world as a living and changing place. Being able to walk down an alley and see the bullet holes from that firefight you were in last week adds a lot to the immersive feeling, and makes that firefight feel like more than just something which happened and then was over with no consequences.
Players being able to personalize areas such as houses also makes those areas mean more to them. The time and effort they have spent customizing it to their liking causes them to care more about what happens to it. It also allows them another tool to express their character; for instance, perhaps when you enter the enclave of a combat badass, you find walls covered with posters of kittens — he’s just a big softie after all.
Any type of player housing, which is a natural type of grid alteration, can make it harder to get your players’ characters to encounter and interact with each other.
Additionally, creative destruction is the most effective way of griefing other players. Leaving another character with a wound which limits what they can do until healed can be annoying, but ultimately pales in comparison to how disheartening and miserable it can be to have someone destroy the things you’ve put time and effort into making — whether that destruction be an entire character (through death), or even room and or item descriptions, or other creations that your players have put a lot of time and energy into developing. It is never fun to have someone else break your toys. Any type of grid alternation then runs into the risk of being used as a griefing mechanism, with people using the ability to alter descriptions to destroy or re-write what others have done in order to frustrate them or spoil their gameplay experience.
Any type of creative control can be used by players to try to get an edge over others. You give them the power to personalize their living space and you may find them filling it up with crystal chandeliers and diamond sculptures. The line between using creative freedom to create more identity for your character and using it to improve the identity for your character can be a very blurry one.
Ultimately where you want to fall on the control vs freedom spectrum is going to be entirely up to you. But for any given point there are always ways to minimize the downsides and maximize the upsides. You can, for instance, make adding detail a lot easier than removing it, to reduce the potential for griefing. Or you can create rules in which different types of customization have preset costs that must be paid before people can hang a crystal chandelier and the like. Depending on your staffing structure you might let players add details, but only let them be destroyed or altered by staff, or have added details fade over time. You might use game mechanisms to determine which PCs have ‘control’ over an area, and give customization rights only to them. You could limit the number of houses available so that players will be forced into cohabitation. No solution is ever going to entirely remove the downsides of creative freedom, or the downsides of creative control, but smart design can go a long way to reducing the effects of either.
Section Two: World Additions
Allowing players and/or story staff to create new rooms for your game can make your game world grow and develop over time. It also has many of the benefits of creative freedom as listed above, without some of the potential downsides of creative destruction.
Particularly with regards to story staff, world additions can offer a way for them to create pre-written content perfectly in line with the story that they wish to tell. If they want their gang of antagonists to be holed up in a warehouse full of traps, they can create said warehouse.
For players, if they wish a particular location to exist and it currently doesn’t, they can build it. Allowing for this depends on your setting of course; you may have a setting in which it is part of the world that only the rooms already constructed exist. But in many settings there are towns and cities and the like which are implied, or only partially built in a concrete manner. So if I want to take my friends out for a guys’ night to a strip club, but there isn’t a strip club, I can make one and still tell that story.
Again, you can run into concerns with players making these locations with a mind to making their characters seem ‘cooler’ than what is appropriate. Although, if they have no personal in-character attachment to the location, that issue is less problematic.
Organization can be a problem; if people are freely adding to your grid, the grid can become disorganized and poorly laid out. If people are adding rooms of lower quality than the rest of the grid, things can seem patchy and denigrate the average quality of the built world.
Memory can be an issue on the backend, too. If players and or story staff create content but it’s never destroyed, then over time it’s going to use up more and more memory. Even aside from system resources issues, it can also cause clutter for the players and staff if player-built locations are never likely to be used more than once.
Exerting control over how and where people can add rooms can help with organization. For instance you could have roads people could make new rooms off of but they can’t make new roads or make things anywhere not attached to a road, with your roads being either static or dynamically generated. You can also detach these rooms from your main grid to reduce the confusion or impact they might cause. With regards to clutter and memory keeping track of what’s been made and when it’s been used allows you to set up systems for the automatic recycling of assets.
Section Three: Haven
This is a brief description of how we tackle these issues on Haven: Mist and Shadow. If you’ve no interest in Haven, feel free to skip it.
Haven employs several systems to try to facility creative freedom with regards to the game world, while limiting abuse. With regards to on grid alterations, we give all players an ‘adddesc’ command, allowing them to add detail to any existing room. However, it does not allow them to alter the underlying room description, and the added details can be removed by any other player.
We also make use of player property ownership, which is something of a hybrid between creating rooms and altering them. It can only be done at specified locations, usually along roads in the gameworld, and will turn a block of rooms from wilderness or forest into a building site. These sites can then be turned into shops or houses with the players having almost unlimited freedom to create their layout and descriptions. Each of these properties incurs a cost, both for the location of the land, and for the number of rooms developed. Additional costs apply for the ‘decor level’, making players pay if they want to hang that crystal chandelier that their character has always dreamed of. No one, apart from the owner and those they trust, can generally alter these properties. The properties do, however, have an ongoing monthly cost. If a player fails to pay that cost, be it through poverty, inactivity or death, the property can be bought by anyone else and then altered as they see fit. Buying an existing property is always cheaper than developing your own, encouraging players to reuse existing assets.
Additionally, we have a system which allows characters and/or story staff to make off-grid rooms. These don’t connect to the main grid in any direct way but instead have to be traveled to, a process taking different amounts of time depending on how far away the location is from the game’s central location. This allows players to roleplay out visiting any location they could conceivably wish to visit. Said rooms can either be recycled by the creator, or will be automatically recycled if they become too inactive.
Story staff, in particular, make use of a slightly modified variation of this system in order to create zones in which to carry out their adventures and plots. Sometimes these are simply one room, in others they can be whole areas. Moving many staff-run stories off of the main grid helps us to avoid issues with the difference in speed of IC events between normal grid activities and run stories. It also limits the potential for players’ OOC friends to just ‘happen’ into the scene by chance, to give their buddies backup. This solves a number of ‘twinking’ issues with our system.
Of course, Haven’s approach is just one way of doing things, but it hopefully helps to shed some light on how one game tries to maximize the player’s creative freedom, while minimizing the problems and potential abuse that freedom can cause.
Section Four: Summary
As a game designer, you will face many choices with trade offs. Creative freedom versus creative control is one of them, and it will manifest in your game in a multitude of ways. It may manifest in how much control you want to give players to alter or add to your grid, such as it does in Haven. What’s most important is not where you fall on the creative freedom spectrum, but rather how well you understand the potential advantages and disadvantages of your choices, and how able you are to smartly design around them. Human creativity is infinite; there’s always a better solution to building a more immersive RPG, and it’s just waiting for you to find it.
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