RPGA Report: Evolution of Shared Worlds

Part 3: Living Fever

The first two articles in this series talked about the beginnings of massive shared-world roleplaying game play and the granddaddy of it all, Living City. This time, we’ll talk about "Living Fever" that spread throughout the RPGA during the 1990s and early 2000s, and the challenges the RPGA faced with the burgeoning number of programs.

It was clear by 1994 that Living City had become very successful and the future of the RPGA's programming was moving in the direction of "bring-your-own-character." Classic-style adventures in the vein of the old tournaments in which you were given your character were losing popularity. Work began on other programs to follow the success of Living City.

The first of the spin-offs was called Living Jungle, and it released in 1995. Set in a primal land known as Malatra with no trappings of standard medieval fantasy, Living Jungle was a reaction to the culture that had developed around Living City. It was decidedly light on treasure and magic. The campaign featured non-standard character race options, like shapechanging animals and intelligent apes. It was one of many spin-offs that had a "cult" following -- maintaining a small but dedicated player base. Living Jungle lasted a couple years into the 3rd Edition era and weathered conversion much better than Living City due to its de-emphasis on certified magic items.

The next campaign developed also took a minimalist approach to magic and treasure. Inspired by Ravenloft and drawing directly from the Masque of the Red Death boxed set, Living Death was launched at Winter Fantasy, 1996. The world of Masque of the Red Death was TSR's most ambitious stretch of the 2nd Edition rules system. It was set in the "real" world of the 1890s and featured elements of gothic horror, intrigue, and suspense. Living Death took characters around the globe as part of a secret organization known as the White Rose; adventurers investigated mysterious goings-on and attempted to stop an otherworldly menace from insinuating itself further into the fabric of our reality. Targeting some players' love for history and intrigue as well as traditional horror elements, Living Death was the first campaign to have a planned life cycle. Each year of the campaign world held a direct analogy to the years in the real world, and once the bell tolled on the end of 1899 in the campaign world, the Living Death campaign came to a close at D&D Experience 2007.

Other campaigns soon followed the first two spin-offs. Virtual Seattle was a Living-style campaign set in the Shadowrun cyberpunk/fantasy setting of mid-21st century Seattle. Living Verge was the sci-fi campaign for the Alternity rules. Living Spycraft utilized the Spycraft rules engine, stressing modern espionage and action. Living Rokugan was a Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying campaign, using Asian-themed fantasy as a backdrop. There were other short-lived attempts to create Living campaigns through the RPGA using other rules sets as well.

A new version of the Star Wars Roleplaying Game, updated to the d20 System, was released in 2001. With its release, the RPGA began the Living Force campaign, set in the Star Wars Episode I era. Blending the cinematic action of Star Wars with the structure of a Living rules system, Living Force created many adventures in trilogies, which were designed to emulate the movie experience.

D&D alternatives to Living Greyhawk also appeared soon after the launch of 3rd Edition. Living Arcanis, set in a world published by Paradigm Concepts, Inc., continued the Living City approach of a certificate-based magic system and eventually blended a regional system similar to Living Greyhawk in its programming. Living Kingdoms of Kalamar (based on the Kalamar world published by Kenzer & Co.) also used a certificate-based system for treasure allocation, but took a more minimalist approach to leveling characters and treasure distribution.

By 2001, the RPGA had no fewer than ten Living campaign programs. Many of them were member-run -- that is, outside the direct supervision of Wizards of the Coast (only Living City, Living Greyhawk, and Living Force were directly administered through Wizards, and Living City left the fold before it actually concluded). The RPGA simply acted as a "distributor" for these member-run campaigns. While the membership of the RPGA had many choices, it also started to fractionalize the core player base -- D&D players -- into a variety of small subgroups. It was becoming harder to find groups of players to play the smaller-populated campaigns, so they began to stagnate due to a downturn in membership.

Some programs reach a "critical mass" of players at some point -- that is, the program has enough players to make it easy to find games and acquire new players. This usually results in steady growth of the player population. Living Greyhawk had that advantage; anytime in this decade, someone attending an RPGA event would likely have no problem finding a Living Greyhawk game. The unfortunate circumstance was that most of the programs launched never really achieved that "critical mass" on a widespread scale, so pockets of activity would appear where a few enthusiastic volunteers would champion their favorite program. However, if a volunteer moved away from the area or started spending less time organizing and coordinating events, play would dry up quickly. Games would become hard to find; as a result, interest in the program would wane. The RPGA was still attempting to devote time and effort to these very small campaigns, but it was simply a matter of resource allocation and impact. Supporting a smaller-scale program took resources away from a program that benefitted a much larger number of players.

By the mid-2000's, the RPGA began to make a concerted effort to consolidate its programs. This was an attempt to conserve resources for the programs that were seeing the largest amount of play. A re-alignment occurred, and the RPGA began to conclude relationships with programs that were already essentially independent. In 2007, Living Arcanis was handed off completely to Paradigm Concepts, Inc. In early 2008, Living Kingdoms of Kalamar moved in the same direction to Kenzer & Co.

Now, as of April, 2008, the RPGA's sustainable shared-world programming includes Xen'drik Expeditions, set in Eberron, and the massive program that is Living Greyhawk. Next time, we'll talk about these programs, their history, and the end of the 3rd Edition era.

About the Author

Originally thought to have been raised from a humble Midwestern family, Chris Tulach actually fell to Earth in a meteorite-shaped capsule flung from a planet far outside our galaxy. While under the yellow rays of Sol, Chris’s nerdity far surpasses that of any normal human. Using this precious gift only for good, he has recently become the RPGA Content Manager, responsible for the development and deployment of Dungeons & Dragons organized play programs.

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