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"Goodbye, Jean-Luc, I'm gonna miss you. You had such potential. But then again, all good things must come to an end."
- Q, Star Trek: TNG

Designing a Play-By-Wiki Game

by Ken Newquist / September 16, 2006

Running role-playing games online is a kind of hell. Be it by blog, forum, e-mail or some sort of real-time hookup, sustaining a game can be near impossible. While I have no hard data on this, my guess would be that only 1 in 10 online games succeed, and that's probably wildly optimistic -- the real number's probably closer to 1 in 50.

The problems are legion, but mostly come down to a question of time: players not having enough time to post, game masters not having enough time to respond, and everyone having a sense that the game is moving a glacial speeds. This fractured time warp leads to disinterest and apathy, which leads to the dissolution (or more likely, outright abandonment) of the game.

At the same time, online RPGs offer the possibility of following roads not taken in tabletop gamez because of a different kinds of time restraints. Almost every player I've known has wanted to dig into a world and make it his or her own: setting up shops, military academies, monasteries, temples, guilds, criminal gangs -- you name it, player characters have dreamed of it. Yet in most campaigns these things tend to take a back seat, since most people would rather spend time adventuring, solving mysteries or unravelling political intrigues than spend time building up individual characters' empires. Sure, it can happen, particularly in long running campaigns (my own has several player-created institutions) but world building often loses out to adventuring. With the right tools, an online game could allow players to pursue their individual goals while at the same time participating in larger story arcs.

They can have their gold ... and spend it too ... and wikis just might be the perfect solution for doing that.

Living in the Wiki Wiki West

Wikis are open-ended, collaborative Web sites that make it easy for a community of users to post and edit documents, both their own and those created by other members of the community. Wikipedia is the best known example, but people have used them for everything from writing books to chronicling Star Trek to RPG world building.

Before I delve into my mad, mad plan, here's a quick overview of how a wiki works. Every page on a wiki is divided into two parts -- the "public" page, which displays the information that the world sees, and the "talk" page, which is where the contributors to the wiki discuss changes to the public page. Any one who edits these pages can choose to add them to a "watch list" which tells you, usually via an e-mail, when the page has been changed.

New pages can be added on the fly simply by creating wiki links which are created by adding some simple code. You just add two brackets to the beginning and the end of the text, and that instantly becomes a link (so [[Neutron Springs]] becomes Neutron Springs, except that in the wiki that link would actually work). If you click on this new link in the wiki, it creates a new page for you, which you can immediately begin editing.

Pages can be grouped into sections on the fly as well, with new categories being added via a slightly different bit of code, and wikis will even create an table of contents for you via sections.

The end result is a decentralized, easy-to-edit Web site that allows folks to explore and expand its content at their own pace. And that's exactly the sort of thing that gamers can make use of.

"It's Alive!" (Multithreaded Cyborg Edition)

I want to take advantage of the collaborative strength of wikis by creating a hybrid RPG campaign that's evokes classic text-based games like Zork, the old interactive MOOs, and play by post. It'd be something that players could explore -- and expand -- at their leisure, coming together with other players when necessary for the obligatory adventuring.

To start, I'd build and populate the world, taking the "public" version of my notes on towns, businesses, people and situations, and post individual entries for each to the wiki. I imagine a cloud of 50-100 entries, with perhaps a dozen fully fleshed out including three or four which would be the home towns of the player characters. The rest of the entries would be short, 150-250 word stubs, existing to give players a sense of the setting. Some of these entries will be sorted into categories, representing knowledge already known by the players; the rest would be accessible only through exploring the wiki and finding the links. I envision augmenting them with a map of the world, detailing the location of the starting towns and well-known geography.

Next comes character creation. In keeping with trying to keep things moving as quickly, I'd want to use a simple, diceless ruleset so that players don't have to sit around waiting for someone to throw the virtual dice -- options abound, but RISUS Diceless is my personal favorite. Players would add themselves to the wiki, including a link to their character from their home town.

And then the really fun part begins.

Players set out from their various towns, independently of one another, and start exploring the landscape. They interact with NPCs, posting their actions, comments and questions to the "talk" page of the entry they're interested in, and I -- as the GM -- respond, having been notified of any changes via an email from the wiki. Major developments from the talk pages -- such as the addition of new non-player characters, the accidental destruction of an inn by fireball-happy adventurers, the arrival of a new shipment of goods -- would then show up on the public page. Eventually, the PCs link up with one or more of the other PCs, exchange what they've learned and -- with any luck -- start adventuring as a group.

And then there's the world building. Players want it, game masters want to encourage it, and a wiki makes it all possible. As part of the game, I would want players to take ownership of locations, businesses and NPCs in the game. They would flesh them out, add new entries for their own original creations, and then handle the "talk" pages for those entries.

For example: Jason is playing a landed knight, one who holds about 500 acres, has a manor house, and a number of serfs whom he is responsible for. In the normal course of things, this would all just be backstory, with the occasional side quest involving the manor thrown in every real-time year or so (if that). But with the wiki, the player could flesh out this manor, creating the NPCs who populate it. The GM could initiate a mini arc by throwing challenges at the NPCs that the player is responsible for running, all of which might culminate with the knight being called back to help.

Meanwhile, another PC plays a barbarian who's tribe lives in the mountains near the manor. As the campaign unfolds, perhaps he sends some of those tribesmen down to trade at the manor ... or to summon help to deal with their own challenges lurking beneath the mountains.

As the wiki evolves, and new players join -- or perhaps secondary characters belonging to the original characters -- who do their own exploration, and start interacting with these areas under the control of existing players. So while the knight is off adventuring, a wandering cleric stops in at the manor seeking an audience with the lord, or perhaps just lodging for the night.

Done right, all of this could avoid the time trap -- there's always something for players to do, either on their own, or with the group. Moreoever, the campaign becomes collaborative in a way that few games manage ... and that could make for a truly exciting online gaming experience.

The big question, as with all play-by-post games, is how do you keep things moving? To me, this is a question of a social contract: everyone needs to agree to a certain number of "post" or "moves" per week, and then the GM has to hold everyone to that pace. Based on previous experience, I'd require a minimum of four posts per week.

Structuring the Wiki

So how do you structure it all? Here's my take.

The Home Page

Like every web site, a Wiki needs a home page. Like most campaign home pages, it needs to include a campaign summary, links to rules being used and the appropriate downloads, as well as announcements about happenings in the campaign. In this case however, I also see the wiki home page serving as a launching point for the campaign -- it's where each player would start the journey into his or her own part of the world, so there would need to be links to prominent areas of the campaign.

These links would all be formatted using one of several kinds of templates for locations, sites, organizations, people and story, each with their own structure.

Places Template

  • Place Name
  • Description: Description of the location
  • Sites: Areas of note within the location, such as shops
  • People: A list of NPCs residing in the location, and PCs associated with it.
  • Happenings: Summary of actions taken on the talk page for the location

Sites

Identical to the "places" template, save there would be no sites listed.

Organizations Template

  • Organization Name
  • Description: Description of the organization
  • Sites: Sites associated with the organization
  • People: A list of NPCs connected to the organization.
  • Happenings: Summary of actions taken on the talk page for the location

People Template

  • Person Name
  • Description: Description of the person, history. etc.
  • Stats: A list of the person's game stats (if available)
  • Relationships: A list of links to associated places, sites and people.

Sagas Template

  • Saga Name: Week Info
  • Description: Summary of the events of the saga
  • Saga: An overview of all of the happenings within the wiki for the last week, with links to the appropriate entries/talk pages

Learning more about Wikis