The Anvil of Crom: Roll the bones

MMO guilds are complex beasts, simultaneously serving as competitive outlets, support groups, and even extended families for those of us who devote a good portion of our free time to this strange and marvelous hobby. Guilds come in all shapes, sizes, flavors, colors, and descriptions. Heck, sometimes they're not called guilds at all, but rather corporations, kinships, legions, or even supergroups.

Many guilds focus on powering through PvE content in the most efficient way possible, while others are driven to excel at PvP, conquest, or server firsts. Still others spend their time roleplaying and storytelling in a medium that seems increasingly hostile to it. Funcom's Age of Conan features the usual assortment of PvP, PvE, and roleplaying guilds spread across its four American servers.

Then there's Venja.

Originally formed on Star Wars Galaxies' Starsider server in early 2004, Venja is a self-described heavy roleplay guild and the brainchild of Dan "Khethys" McFatter (who's also responsible for the Darkenvane RP guild from Aion and Warhammer). What exactly is heavy roleplay? Well, aside from in-character guild chat, Venja roleplay consists of weekly interactive story publishes (and associated web-based chronicles), weekly events including fighting tournaments and gambling nights, guild rank progression that unlocks custom lore and benefits, and an elaborate "prestige" character-advancement system that makes use of in-game dice rolls and character statistics inspired by tabletop roleplaying games. Finally, lest you think it's all about sitting around the local watering hole and emoting the night away, Venja also runs old-world dungeons, raids, PvP minis, and Khitai 6-mans with regularity (and in-character, of course).

New world man

If all that sounds like a ton of work, especially for one primary gamemaster, it is, and I recently sat down with Khethys to find out why he goes to such great lengths to provide an immersive experience for his band of rogues. "The majority of roleplay in MMOs these days has been reduced to people sitting around talking in taverns or having a storytelling night where everyone stands around while one person talks for half an hour and everyone else listens. It has no pulse. There's nothing engaging going on. Coming from a tabletop background, it's just unacceptable. People need to be engaged on a dramatic level," he says.

"The majority of roleplay in MMOs these days has been reduced to people sitting around talking in taverns or having a storytelling night where [...] one person talks for half an hour and everyone else listens. It has no pulse."

Indeed, roleplaying in MMOs is rapidly becoming a lost art, in large part due to the genre's exploding popularity with muggles and the increasing marginalization of a small subset of narrative-loving nerds. As more non-traditional (and time-strapped) gamers have begun to throw their collective financial weight around, game companies have responded by moving MMOs away from their virtual world roots and towards a lobby/action game mentality. Fans of character- and story-driven gaming are left to use their imaginations and deal with simplistic, repetitive, and highly restrictive game mechanics, most of which are at odds with how creative types wish to play their characters. The prestige system, as well as Venja as a whole, is designed to mitigate the inherent "we can't do that in the game" roadblocks that MMO roleplayers constantly encounter.

Circumstances

The guild's brand of MMORPG mayhem isn't for everyone though, even those who consider themselves roleplayers. First, there's the NSFW nature of much of the content. In a world as dark and brutal as that of Robert E. Howard's Conan, it's only natural that would-be storytellers choose to explore the dark side, and Venja obliges by styling itself as a lotus-trafficking cartel with its hands in just about every type of Hyborian vice imaginable. Khethys, taking some inspiration from the gritty fiction of George R. R. Martin, set out to bring some fantastical realism to Age of Conan's Wiccana server in the form of his numerous NPC characters and their story arcs that intertwine with those of his guildmates. Due to the harsh nature of the game's source material and the amount of time and energy he spends creating stories, the guild also takes itself fairly seriously and is definitely not the amateur comedy hour that many online gaming clans end up resembling.

For players who are into it, however, Venja is a marvel of escapism, due in large part to the in-game dice-rolling that adds a bit of action and flavor to the time-honored MMO roleplaying tradition of describing what your character is doing (since most of the time she can't actually do it unless it involves killing). In an era when many roleplayers have either retreated to tabletop games, OpenRPG, or Neverwinter Nights shards, Venja operatives are arm-wrestling, drinking, gambling, and taking part in customized story vignettes that offer an alternative to epic lewtz and faction grinding.

The one caveat to the prestige system is that, much like its tabletop counterpart, it's very slow-paced. Newer gamers raised on consoles and MMOs instead of D20s will likely find themselves at the mercy of their digital ADD, as the lengthy roleplay sessions take precious time that could be spent on AoC's various progression treadmills. This is of particular concern for low-level players, as the style really cuts into leveling and gear-up time. Conversely though, it's a godsend for bored endgame folks who have exhausted all of a title's content and have nothing to do aside from rolling their 15th alt or moving to another game.

Subdivisions

Roleplayers have long been the equivalent of the dorky, bespectacled outcast (even in nerd circles); they're the kids lugging their books down the high school halls, oblivious to the kick-me notes stuck on their collective asses by the DIKU jocks who get all the chicks, loot, and development updates. It wasn't always so, however, particularly in the Ultima Online, Asheron's Call, and SWG sandbox days, long before Blizzard blew the doors off an underground geek pastime and invited the masses in for an extended soiree. Khethys aims to recapture, at least in part, these salad days of MMO roleplay despite the genre's current obsession with themeparks and disposable accessibility. If Venja's expanding roster is any indication, he's succeeding.

The only question in this whole manic endeavor is one of longevity, or more accurately, sustainability. Khethys puts a huge amount of time and effort into his events and story publishes, and, despite the occasional assistance of a couple of his senior guild lieutenants, he's largely a one-man show. Given the fact that he's generating more content than the majority of professional MMO live-event teams put together, it will be interesting to see how long he can keep it up, or if any of the guild's growing member roster steps up to the GM plate to help him out as opposed to simply consuming all the free content.

One little victory

At the end of the day, Venja is something of a paradox. It's a family guild featuring some of the most family-unfriendly content around. It's a "serious business" guild whose members nevertheless manage to have a lot of fun playing and hanging out together. And it's a hugely complex enterprise sprung largely from the mind of one man. It's also the round peg in the square hole of current gen MMOs that shoehorn players into a "you're The One" box while speeding them down the specified content track of their chosen archetype. Those folks interested in using MMORPGs as virtual tabletops have markedly fewer options in terms of in-game tools than they've had in years past, but, as long as there are in-game dice and guilds like Venja, there's also hope.

That's all the time we've got for this week. If your guild is doing something interesting, unusual, or outside the MMO mainstream, drop me a line that includes your server, character name, and a brief description of what makes you guys unique. The Anvil of Crom will occasionally highlight the most creative Age of Conan guilds and guild personalities going forward. Until next time, I leave you with an image from the latest Venja gambling night.



Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.