Massively Multicursal
A Case Study of the Massively-Multiplayer
Genre as Ergodic Literature

Gregory Lord
Engl 467
Prof. Kirschenbaum

The Decisive Decision Branch

Info / Further reading on these events can be found at:
Should the Stars Fall: Warcry | Jackcat
The Child of Daralet: Warcry | Jackcat

As the primary example of this sort of multicursal event in Asheron's Call, most players would refer to the “classic” pair of events occurring between November and December, 2000, entitled “Should the Stars Fall” and “The Child of Daralet.” While the events were noteworthy primarily for their initial appearances of the title character, Asheron (a sort of benevolent, if ill-fated, demigod within the game's lore) and the legendary and infamous demon, Bael'Zharon (referred to by most as “the Hopeslayer”), the events taking place between these months were all particularly decisive moments in the contemporary history of the world of Dereth.

Since the first month of the game's story, players had been taunted by the presence of mysterious Crystal Shards, the destruction of which had introduced new and powerful artifacts into the world – new weapons, armor-crafting materials, etc. Though players blithely destroyed these crystals as the monthly events came (the difficulty of doing so being motivation enough, for most), the in-game lorebooks, to those who were interested, continually hinted that their presence was linked to an event in the ancient past, wherein a malevolent demon had been bound outside the world through the use of these “Soul Stones.” Finally, by the time of the November 2000 events, all six of the known Crystal Shards had been destroyed, leaving many to wonder what would come of their world.

At last their answers came as quest leaders led their assaults on the newly-discovered (newly-implemented) “Empyrean Cathedral,” where an ancient undead king, sworn for 3000 years to protect the final, hidden Shard, implored his destroyers (the players) to take up his task and defend the final shard, which he referred to as “The Shard of the Herald.” This single bit of information sufficiently divided the playerbase in half – those who were eager for the ever more powerful treasures and fame to be sought in the destruction of the Shard, and those who sought to keep the now-legendary demon imprisoned.

Thus, the developers devised a system whereby the decision was left to the players – the path to the Shard of the Herald was restricted to only those who had “sworn allegiance to Bael'Zharon” (in game terms, to those who had converted to the status of “Player Killer” – PK – whereby they may attack or be attacked by any other Player Killer). The intention, in terms of the story, was that only Bael'Zharon's loyal followers could enter, such that they might free him from his long captivity. But those most daring monarchs (leaders of player-organized guilds) accepted the risks of swearing to the demon (or, in game game, “went PK” or “went Red,” as per the color of a PK's in-game compass blip), organizing globally to thwart the efforts of those other monarchies known to be planning attacks. Thus, monarchs with sufficient manpower would organize strikes upon the towns or strongholds known to house the enemy allegiances (which, in a time before the implementation of formal in-game housing, was a much more difficult task), weakening and distracting the enemy from their goals of the Shard's destruction.

At the shard itself, the real heroism took place as round-the-clock “Shard Vigils” (as the reflective lore would dub them) were held, where monarchs and vassals alike would dedicate hours of their time to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their comrades, forming an impenetrable wall of players, where the only way through was to fight. The dungeon beyond their ranks held monsters and the Shard itself, animated by the original mages those thousands of years ago to attack would-be assailants. Thus, even those assailants able to break through the initial vigil had little chance of accomplishing the task on their own, in their weakened state. So it was that the now-legendary “Shard Vigils” began, preparing to defend the Cathedral for the entire month, if need be.

But the task itself was not as easy as it sounds, nor were the assailants easily deterred, knowing the kind of rewards that surely awaited them for the accomplishing of these tasks. So yet another first occurred within the game – the interference by developer-controlled NPC's (non-player characters), taking the helm such characters as the disembodied voice of Bael'Zharon himself. Through the game's chat interface, Bael'Zharon would hold private conversations with the most capable monarchs of the gameworlds, promising them fame and rewards for their freeing him. These few monarchs that passed his tests of worth were given powerful items for their service and dubbed Bael'Zharon's “Dark Masters.” Those servers that had been weakening in their attacks now redoubled their efforts, attacking with a sort of crazed fervor, not only at the promise of rewards, but in the sheer excitement of having been personally involved in such momentous occurrences within the game's story. Thus, one by one, the defenses of the Shard of the Herald fell, and eventually those monarchs now allied with Bael'Zharon overcame the defenses.

It was at this stage of the story that an interesting and wholly unique occurrence within Asheron's Call took place, wherein the game's seven separate servers were made asymmetrical for the first time. On the “Thistledown” server alone, the Shard Vigil remained unbroken, forcing the unique countermeasure wherein the “Dark Master,” Vidorian (a player), was joined by several mythological followers of Bael'Zharon to finally break the defense and destroy the crystal. Given that the odds were intentionally stacked against the Thistledown Shard Vigil, their efforts were deemed successful nonetheless, and in the coming months, the NPC's of Dereth erected a statue to commemorate those who stood against Bael'Zharon's dark followers, bearing an inscription dedicated to the leaders, listing them each by name (Loresraat, “The Vigilant” http://www.loresraat.com/contentid-33.html). Thus, the meta-game decision of the developers – to force the same outcome for the one disparate server as the other six – had been acknowledged by all, somewhat intentionally breaking down the illusion of inter-server cohesiveness to reward those people who had actually brought about the favorable outcome for their server. In an article posted to the website of developer Turbine Entertainment, the developers and producers gave their insights on the event:

People wanted the chance to defend the crystal, to keep BZ imprisoned. We thought that this would make for fantastic role-playing, and tried to come up with a system that would allow people to take a more active part in the event. Thus the PK-only dungeon for the final Shard was created. We wanted to give the players a choice -- to defend the Shard, or to destroy it.

What followed became, half by design, half by fortune, what was probably the most dramatic event in any ORPG to date. While most worlds broke the crystal in rather short order, Thistledown mounted a defense. And what a defense it was! The Shard was monitored around the clock in well-organized shifts. Needless to say, this exceeded our expectations by a long shot!

(Davidson, AC Producer, available through Jackcat )

Clearly, even with multicursality at the heart of the event's design, the methods by which people aimed to bring about their goals shocked even the developers in terms of its organization, complexity, and dedication. Players were genuinely invested in their worlds, even at the expense of their real schedules and lives.

In this way, the game functions also as a kind of collective or cultural tradition, wherein players of Asheron's Call must live with the decisions of all other players of Asheron's Call, not just exclusively those of their own specific game world. Thus, though the Vigil defenders of Thistledown held their defense bravely, they were forced to live with the actions of people such as the infamous Khao of Solclaim (my former “home” server), who was one of the monarchs helping to defend the Cathedral until he and his followers so famously turned on their comrades, attacking and killing them off-guard and continuing on into the dungeon, in large numbers, to successfully shatter the Crystal. There is something to be said for the fact that, to this day, those residents of Solclaim – though they may have no statue to commemorate their success – still have a lasting hatred for “Khao,” despite his having long-since left the game.

Though the successful containing of Bael'Zharon may have been nearly impossible to achieve, the fact that one server did manage the task proves the multicursality of the game's storyline. Many speculated (and rather wistfully, at that) about what the world may have been like had the Shard Vigils held. Their pensive hypotheses were hardly difficult to understand, given that the next month found them with rivers and seas turned to blood, skies burning with falling stars, and frequent raids on their beloved hometowns by the demon himself, and his followers. Though no one may ever say for sure how the story might have otherwise progressed, it is certain that the history of Dereth could most certainly have been radically different. And indeed, many were glad for the unfavorable outcome, as they, at the very least, had the chance to experience such awesome events, such devastation, and the chance to participate in its undoing. An alternative storyline may indeed have lacked the sort of emerging heroism of the following month.

If only for the resulting literature and the appearance of Asheron himself, many of the characters interested in the literary story of the game (“Lorebies”, as other players affectionately or perhaps condescendingly call refer to them – the likeness to “newbies” indeed seems troubling) were glad for the turn of events, in retrospect. As the following month played out, Asheron himself (having participated in the demon's original binding) revealed the methods by which the Hopeslayer might be stopped – a process which involved learning much about the man the demon had once been, a sort of valiant antihero once named Ilservian Palacost. The easily sympathetic history of the man led many to take his side, while still others, the monarchs of the servers, openly swore their allegiance to the demon (a formal in-game system, not merely a statement of intent). As the event concluded, with Bael'Zharon once again defeated, Asheron published his reflections on Palacost, imploring the world to forgive the man for what he had become, blaming the dark history of Asheron's own people for Palacost's malevolent insanity. This text itself was not introduced in-game, but rather as a link offered upon the main login page of the game itself – featured out of context perhaps to stress its importance or perhaps also to call attention to the significance of Dereth's collective and interactive history itself. The story itself, written by long-time developer and lore writer, Chris L'etoile, I have made available here.

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