Castle Marrach: A Design Perpective

This essay was mostly written about 2005, and first published in 2008.

In May 2001, Skotos opened Castle Marrach, their first text-dominant interactive roleplaying game, to the paying public. Nearly eight months of open beta-testing meant that a lively community was already in place, and the numbers of beta-testers who became paying customers attests to the appeal of the still-developing game platform and story setting. In fact, the number of current players who can date their “awakening” (to borrow a castle term) back to the beta test is remarkable, and players who have committed two and three years to portraying the same character in Castle Marrach are commonplace.

While published reviews of Castle Marrach are generally mixed, the continued growth of the player-base and the fervor of those players indicate a relative success for the company. While subscriptions come nowhere near those for MMORPGs such as Everquest, such numbers were never intended for the socially-oriented, space-constrained castle setting. Instead, Skotos sought to create a more intimate environment where narrative and roleplaying would take precedence over combat, treasure seeking, and level climbing.

It was the emphasis on the narrative quality of roleplaying games that first attracted me to Skotos when I was contracted to assist in the development of Castle Marrach. The Skotos StoryBuilder Server offered a platform that would allow anyone to construct a game without having a background in computer programming. Players would benefit from the sophisticated parser and proximity systems, which would protect them from egregious abuses by others, allowing them to concentrate more fully on roleplaying. Even the language endorsed by the company emphasized narrative: StoryTellers instead of game masters, Grand Theaters instead of game worlds.

It was with this emphasis on storytelling that the design team set out to build Castle Marrach. My personal purview was the creation of the background, characters, and plot arcs that would form the narrative structure of the game. Others on the team oversaw such arenas as the physical layout of the castle, the development of systems such as dueling and magic, the creation of food, clothing and other objects, the development of guilds and other player groups, and the construction of the character creation sequence.

Early documentation about the game focused on four words: mystery, intrigue, romance and fantasy—terms that still dominate promotional and support material for the game today. That Castle Marrach will provide opportunities for involvement in all four types of narrative is the promise made to each player on their first visit. The responsibility of the design team was to ensure that this promise was fulfilled at every level of game play. A brief overview demonstrates how each of the four primary themes was infused into the design of Castle Marrach.

Mystery: The biggest mysteries in Castle Marrach are existential ones: What is the nature of the castle? How were we brought here? And for what purpose? Players are confronted with these mysteries from the moment they are rolled to their rooms from the Necromancer’s workshop. Other, less fundamental mysteries saturate the game world as well: secret tunnels, weeping statues, missing wizards, and anonymous authors of treasonous poetry. Each of these mysteries, major and minor alike, were conceived with the intention that revelation could be achieved via player actions.

Intrigue: The design of the Court, a delicate interweaving of political and social alliances, is centered on the twin precepts of favor and influence. In a society without an economy, favor is the chief commodity in the castle and influence the primary conduit to power. Through the cast of non-player characters (NPCs) a number of competing factions were established which player characters (PCs) must negotiate in order to win advancement. Conflicts between the factions of varying intensity provide a means by which players can improve their own status and affect the general status of the castle as a whole using devices such as rumors, secrets, lies, name-calling, blackmail, kidnapping and murder.

Romance: More than just love stories, the use of romance in Castle Marrach hearkens back to classic medieval tales of heroic adventures across exotic and beautiful landscapes. Romance is a mood established in the castle by the setting (a majestic palace of an indistinct but pre-industrial era) and costume (gowns and doublets, slippers and scabbards), the institution of certain behavioral codes that promote courtesy and chivalry, and an epic, on-going story in which players are invited to participate, filled with heroes and villains, knights and ladies, magicians and monsters, and, of course, lovers both tragic and eternal.

Fantasy: Castle Marrach is permeated with traditional fantastic elements, starting with the Queen, a magic-wielding Fae who makes her home in an enchanted, mountaintop castle. Sorcerers, magic swords, flying horses – Castle Marrach takes inspiration from multiple sources of fantasy, fairy tale and myth. In fact, just about the only fantasy motifs that can’t be found are those associated with certain brands of dark fantasy, particularly vampires, werewolves, and the like (a deliberate decision to keep the game from falling into patterns already established in other gaming arenas).

These four themes provide a variety of appealing story types for players to participate in, depending upon their interests and strengths as a roleplayer. In addition, each of these themes suggests activity of a distinctly social nature, encouraging players to interact with each other in pursuit of dramatic goals, instead of competing against one another (or against the environment) to achieve personal advancement. Such skills and systems that would be put in place would be considered secondary to or supportive of the primary storytelling aspect of the game.

It is this emphasis on storytelling, however, that may be the biggest impediment to the long-term success of the game. The designers accomplished our goal of creating a setting rich with dramatic potential and social interaction; one of the comments heard most frequently from players (and former players) is how the possibility for becoming involved in the on-going stories immediately grabbed their interest, while social connections keep them coming back, day after day, month after month. But the idealistic vision of a game driven by story instead of mechanics led to the neglect of systems and technical development that were necessary for the intended story to unfold. The subsequent effects are frustrating delays in unfolding plots, and “patches” intended to correct the original systematic oversights but instead have ultimately altered the original conception of Castle Marrach.

I don’t think anyone really anticipated the amount of time technical development would take in the SkootOS environment. When the beta test began in September of 2000 very few systems were in place and the castle had something of a raw feel to it when it first opened. Players could duel, but they couldn’t be wounded or die. There was no magic, save what staff members were able to concoct through restricted commands. There was no food or drink available in the kitchen. There was no dungeon, and only half the castle had been built. The lack of coded support didn’t hamper the creation of an active community, though, and technical improvements filtered in regularly. Soon “Remember when…” became a favorite game of those who had played the game the longest.

After the first few months, the rate of development slowed significantly as Skotos employees moved on to other projects, and slowed even more when the game passed into the management of a volunteer staff. Even now major systems such as Wizardry and Alchemy have yet to debut in the game, frustrating players who wish to pursue those skills and stalling planned plots that depend on characters with those abilities. NPCs associated with each school of magic have been kept on the shelf, as have certain plot arcs featuring those characters. Players are unable to generate their own plots centered on magical use, and they cannot use magic in support of other story types: no cursing a rival in love, no scrying an enemy’s whereabouts, no murders by poison that must be solved (not without StoryPlotter assistance, at least, which can be hard to win). Since most players are only, at best, infrequent witnesses to magical use, the overall feeling of fantasy in the game is diminished.

Building is another area where development has been slower than expected, with long-term consequences. The primary narrative arc in the castle has been on hold indefinitely largely due to building delays, leading to dissatisfaction among players who hope to participate in plots uncovering the mysteries of Castle Marrach. Another example is the lack of an Inner Bailey at the game’s opening, which created a mystique of seclusion and preferment around the inaccessible half of the castle that persists even now. While it was understood from the beginning that new characters would have to earn the right to gain access to the Inner Bailey, it was never intended that the bridge between the Inner and the Outer Baileys should serve as such a divisive force. While the Queen lived in the Inner Bailey, courtly activity would not be confined there, but would take place throughout the entire castle. This would have supported a less segregated population where nobles interacted more regularly with those new to the castle, and lessened the sense of a distant ruling class that held nothing but disdain for the common folk.

This sense of division was further emphasized by the introduction of the Chain of Being and the subsequent Crafting Guidelines that regulated what items characters were entitled to own and wear depending upon their rank. In the design phase, the idea of “precedence” was used as an OOC method of tracking rank: most particularly, it was used to monitor who had access to certain areas of the castle. The higher your precedence on a scale of 1 to 10, the more doors you could go through. While certain jobs in the castle were given more precedence, it was not linked explicitly to “rank”: differentiation in rank was left primarily at noble, knight and the rest of the court (everyone else in the castle).

When the Chain of Being made this numeric classification public, just about the time the game went pay-for-play, what had been a simple utility mechanism became the defining factor of castle life. The Chain provided a concrete measure of success by which one player could compare his or her progress against the progress of every other player in the game. The Crafting Guidelines further emphasized the importance of rank, because the higher rank a character achieved, the better stuff she or he got. On top of that, with a high enough rank, a character can move into the Inner Bailey, which presumably offers a superior lifestyle all around.

The Chain created a shift in the essential social structure of the game, a subtle one not evident in the immediate aftermath of the change. However, the reverberations seem to magnify as time goes on and promotion has become the primary focus of the game, as opposed to building relationships of favor and influence that engender dramatic storytelling opportunities. Players are rare who are willing to risk losing all the rank and privileges they’ve earned for the sake of a story. Likewise, StoryPlotters are hesitant to penalize players by taking these things away, even when characters have acted in a way that deserves punishment. Ergo, undistinguished plots dependent upon stock NPC villains who can take the fall (while the PCs remain secure in their positions) dominate the storyline of the game. In addition the emphasis on advancement leads to out-of-character resentments, and hurts the game from a storyteller’s point of view, as players become focused on gaining rank (and all its privileges) instead of telling interesting stories about their characters. Too often players are afraid of taking dramatic risks because they do not want to hurt their chances of earning a promotion.

A game of social achievement is not necessarily a bad thing. Many players like an environment where goals are clear and progress can be charted. The problem is that Castle Marrach, with its early emphasis on narrative, was not designed to feature social promotion as a primary function. Systems to control and monitor influence and rank were discussed but never made a priority, and therefore promotion in Castle Marrach is by default an attention-based system: players must get the attention of the StoryPlottters in order to advance. Since there is a finite amount of attention available, it’s inevitable that some players will fall through the cracks, either by not getting a promotion their character deserves, or getting promoted when it hasn’t been rightfully earned. This, of course, results in all sorts of dysfunction within the community, both in-character and out-of-character.

If the designers had implemented a comprehensive system of rank, promotion and privileges as the foundation of the game, we could have ensured that the system worked to support the original vision. Instead, successive piecemeal efforts to fix immediate problems have reshaped the nature of the game, turning it away from its focus on narrative. Likewise, prior to opening more time should have been spent constructing intended systems such as Wizardry or Alchemy; even rudimentary mechanics meant to be elaborated upon at a later date would have allowed the planned storytelling to progress and flourish.

A secondary problem in placing such a strong emphasis on narrative is the demands it places on those who are running the game. The time factor itself is prodigious—the fewer systems in place, the more staff must be involved on a first-hand basis. Apart from that is the resourcefulness required by anyone trying to coordinate a story in this complex medium. Most people don’t know the elements that work together to create a successful narrative, and those that do have no experience in building one that can accommodate scores of improvisational performers who tend to enter and leave the story at irregular and often inconvenient times, thanks to the vagaries of the Internet. Even the most gifted novelist or experienced tabletop game master would have trouble adjusting to storytelling in this environment, and there is no manual of techniques to ease the learning.

The formidability of actually pulling off a good story is such that the emphasis of the plotters has eased away from storytelling to dramatic recreationism: that is, roleplaying life in the castle as it might realistically and logically occur. There is a great deal of game design theory regarding “narrativist” versus “simulationist” game play; without delving into that theory here, I’ll just say that the problem with the simulationist management of Castle Marrach is that there are not enough rules to support it. The resulting irregularities could be excused in a more heavily narrative environment—people are willing to overlook a great deal when caught up in the emotional impact of a good story—but they have only caused more frustrations for players who cannot figure out how the system works.

Finally, there are certain elements of the setting and background that work very well as elements of a story but hinder the player satisfaction with the game. For example, the large cast of NPCs add depth and color to the history of the castle, and embody a lot of dramatic potential waiting to be mined. But players have become overly dependant upon them as sources of information and instigators of action; instead of taking on more proactive roles themselves, the tendency is to look to an NPC to lead the way. Keeping all those characters active strains the staff considerably, and they face noisy player complaints when NPCs disappear. In retrospect, it would have been wiser to provide a bare minimum of NPCs, even though it would diminish the backstory, allowing player characters a greater opportunity to take on leadership roles.

Hindsight also suggests that a more elaborate setting would have been a good idea, with more visibility to players of the history and sociology of the world their characters live in. While the mysteries of Castle Marrach make good story fodder (or would, if they’d yet been explored), so much is unknown to the players that it is difficult for them to do much without significant oversight and approval by the StoryPlotters. Even if the history of the castle itself was kept a mystery, players should be given more information about the world at large which they could use in creating their characters, forming relationships, and developing plots on their own. Their characters are the only thing players can control directly in the game, and the more constructive help they are given in creating those characters, the more productive they will be in the game as a whole.

Over the years since Castle Marrach opened, periodic complaints have arisen that “nothing ever happens.” It is hard to imagine that the game could actually grow stagnant when there is so much story built into it that is yet untold. Actually, there have been moments of fantastic storytelling within the game, but they are interspersed with long, fallow periods where there seems to be little progression except the unsteady climb of player characters up the Chain of Being. It seems ironic, but if we, the designers, had spent less time thinking of Castle Marrach as a story, there would be more of the stories being told in the game now. Staff—freed from playing catch-up all the time—would have greater opportunity to concentrate on actual storytelling, while players would be enabled to contribute more effectively themselves. In fact, the greatest oversight in Castle Marrach was not giving players greater capability to do for themselves; the more players are allowed to you use their creativity the more engaged they will be in the narrative process and the more satisfying Castle Marrach would be in the long run.
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