Blockchain and RPGs: When Fantasy Meets (Digital) Reality

The advent of blockchain technology has effectively given the intangible real, permanent value. When it comes to fantasy games largely relegated to the imaginary realm, blockchain technology could now ensure your character's +3 sword is truly unique...and could even be sold to someone else.

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Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Meet Blockchain

Blockchain has become a popular term because it backs digital currency like Bitcoin and Ethereum, but the potential applications of blockchain technology to other areas of gaming are enormous. Wikipedia explains the basics:

A blockchain is a decentralized, distributed and public digital ledger that is used to record transactions across many computers so that any involved record cannot be altered retroactively, without the alteration of all subsequent blocks.

Essentially, blockchain technology creates permanency in the fluid world of digital where anything can be modified or hacked. Blockchain provides a layer of stability, like real life currency, that ensures it has an existence independence of one single computer or even one authority managing and monitoring it. Blockchain's cryptography (currently) requires massive computer resources to create, which in turn reinforces its scarcity -- the effort to hack a blockchain likely outweighs its potential value.

The idea of digital currency having value is not foreign to gamers. Digital currency in Massive Multi-player Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) have been around for some time, and players can often purchase the in-game fantasy currency with real money. This in turn has led to some strange comparisons, where an official World of Warcraft token is worth $20 or over 200K in virtual gold -- which in March of 2018 was seven times the value of Venezuela's bolivar.

But why make a game that converts currency when you could just build it on blockchain technology to being with? One game did, and it all started with cats.

Meow?

Cryptokitties took blockchain technology to its logical conclusion in the world of adopting digital pets. If a cat could be created with blockchain technology, that digital feline would be utterly unique -- the only one in existence, as identified by its tag. Blockchain also gives those pets longevity -- the kitties exist as tradeable objects. In fact, the Cryptokitty game was built on the idea of breeding cats, with each specimen capable of siring a new kitten, that can in turn be sold with creator AxiomZen taking a cut.

It worked. One cat was worth over $100K at the time of sale (it's now worth $300K). It worked too well:

At one time back in December, the CryptoKitties smart contract took up nearly thirty percent of the total transaction count on the Ethereum blockchain. The network started to clearly show its scaling issue as transactions began backing up daily (at one point reaching almost 30,000 transactions).


Cryptokitty demonstrated that permanency has long-reaching effects for the value of a virtual object, and even a virtual being. Which is where RPGs come into the picture.

Mining a Different Kind of Block

To date, most gaming efforts have been around making the player (and the game) money by mining more cryptocurrency. One such game that's trying a different dynamic is Huntercoin:

...a hybrid cryptocurrency/decentralized MMORPG that was released to the public in February 2014 by hobbyist developers, and which continues to generate low-level cultish buzz due to its unique dynamics. What distinguishes it is that it provides the first ever example of 'human mining,' in that players mine its currency (HUC) by travelling across the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game world and finding it. It also provides the first example of a truly decentralized game server, with the developers unable to influence the game’s unfolding except by changing the underlying code.


Building on the appeal of games like Minecraft, Ethercraft launched in January of 2018:

Our initial launch will consist of disseminating 60 unique items to players, many of which will be available completely free of charge, rolled out in waves of eight to ten items at a time over the following hours. Players will be able to purchase (or acquire for free) these items as soon as the client goes live which will be announced here on Medium and via social media (links below).

Of significant note was how gold and items work, which is to say that they have permanence, value, and can be sold or traded. Conversely, characters who die lose their equipment too. In a world of permanency, character life and death takes on new meaning.

What This Means for Tabletop Gamers

In the past, organized play has been managed using certificates (AKA "certs"). Here's how Wizards of the Coast announced special magic items using certs:

Certificates are given out for special rewards and permanent magic items at stores and public events where available. Possessing a certificate for your magic item, in many cases, unlocks the ability for you to trade the item – the certificate even has a trade log right on it if you'd like to trade it to another player's character. Each tradable item can be traded up to two times in total. Magic items can only be traded on a one-for-one basis and only with another item of like rarity (so, for example, a rare item for a rare item). Most other rewards that are presented on certificates are non-tradable, as well as a small number of very special magic items. If you pick up a faction pack at your store during D&D Encounters, you'll get a few of these special, non-item certificates. As long as you properly document the acquisition of your magic item, it may be possible to receive a certificate for items you previously obtained that did not have a certificate. This might be helpful if you're looking to trade out an item at a later time, but otherwise, it's not necessary.

The certs program is managed by the Adventurers League, but there's many other organized play groups that perform a similar function in ensuring a large group of players can play equitably with each other using one agreed-upon system of rules and management.

In addition to managing basics like certs (who needs a print certificate when you have a blockchain account confirming your +1 sword?), the possibilities expand considerably to home play. A third party could launch a blockchain-backed inventory system for everything from characters, who would now have a digital "life," to magic items. Those items, using blockchain, would each be unique and "digitally permanent," capable of being used across games that could authentic the veracity of the imaginary product. With digital platforms like Roll20 enabling tabletop play, blockchain tech could make cross-game compatibility between players and groups even easier.

Blockchain technology has implications for real world currencies too -- Venezuela's government launched the world's first sovereign cryptocurrency, the petro, in February 2018. The possibilities for any form of fantasy play are enormous, as Cryptokitties demonstrated. Thanks to blockchain technology, your character could outlive you!

Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
 
Michael Tresca

Comments

Interesting article, although I wonder how likely it is blockchain-style technology would be used in RPGs on any sort of wide-scale implementation. That tech is intended to ensure security and uniqueness, implying that the underlying asset is (a) unique and (b) requiring of some sort of security. That might be true for some instances, such as competitive play, but I'd suggest that in the overwhelming majority of cases, you can whip up any sort of character imaginable for free at any time: Being free means that security is largely irrelevant, and there's no need for uniqueness - if someone on the next block over (or the next continent over) has a similar or identical character, it really doesn't matter.
 

talien

Community Supporter
Interesting article, although I wonder how likely it is blockchain-style technology would be used in RPGs on any sort of wide-scale implementation. That tech is intended to ensure security and uniqueness, implying that the underlying asset is (a) unique and (b) requiring of some sort of security. That might be true for some instances, such as competitive play, but I'd suggest that in the overwhelming majority of cases, you can whip up any sort of character imaginable for free at any time: Being free means that security is largely irrelevant, and there's no need for uniqueness - if someone on the next block over (or the next continent over) has a similar or identical character, it really doesn't matter.
Right! To that point, it's really what the motivation to have a "secure" virtual object is. As the examples I think illustrate, money is usually that factor -- which is where competitive play/esports potentially becomes that motivation. What gets interesting is if that extra layer of security makes it feasible to say, play at home, and bring the character to an official session with the implication that it's "more official" than just jotting something on your character sheet.
 

Rygar

Explorer
Right! To that point, it's really what the motivation to have a "secure" virtual object is. As the examples I think illustrate, money is usually that factor -- which is where competitive play/esports potentially becomes that motivation. What gets interesting is if that extra layer of security makes it feasible to say, play at home, and bring the character to an official session with the implication that it's "more official" than just jotting something on your character sheet.
This is overkill. A QR code with a log can do the same thing and is an order of magnitude more simple in RPGs, or signed certificates, etc.

"
Cryptokitty demonstrated that permanency has long-reaching effects for the value of a virtual object, and even a virtual being. Which is where RPGs come into the picture."

I can replace "Cryptokitty" with "Everquest", "Asheron's Call", "Magic the Gathering Online", and many many others and pull up the same statement someone made years ago. Virtual objects have no value, because the only one that owns them is the company that created the software that supports it. As soon as the game goes defunct, whether through the company closing or people moving on, all value disappears and you're left with literally nothing.

I also doubt that Blockchains can handle RPG Characters. A blockchain works because some immutable thing is discovered and can be guaranteed to be un-forgeable. RPG Characters must be mutable, so how does anyone verify the block is not tampered with if the block must be tampered with during use?

Put a QR code on it and be done, developing obscenely complex math algorithms just to store an RPG character or item is the definition of over-engineering.
 

jmucchiello

Adventurer
I also doubt that Blockchains can handle RPG Characters. A blockchain works because some immutable thing is discovered and can be guaranteed to be un-forgeable. RPG Characters must be mutable, so how does anyone verify the block is not tampered with if the block must be tampered with during use?
Okay, obviously you don't store the character in the chain. You store the "important" deltas. When the PC receives a +1 sword, you create a transaction saying they received it. The problem here is the QR code idea is just as robust. And doesn't require MINERS. Blockchain requires that there are people so invested in the chain that they will mine value from it. There's nothing to mine in RPG characters. Where is the value in mining such a chain.

Also, an adventure league does not need to be decentralized. The other major part of blockchain is the decentralized nature.
 

dbm

Explorer
Block chain is ‘the new hotness’ in IT at the moment. People are looking at applying it to all sorts of things. It’s essence is a decentralised database which cannot be hacked in a practical sense because that would break the chain.

Anything you might want to store in a database can use a block chain to secure, but it’s just a token. My understanding is that you don’t store large volumes of data in a token. Tokens are the things you mine, and they require real computing power to create. Eventually they will be very expensive to create so you need to think ahead and sanity check that the system will still be worth operating in a few years time. You would probably have to incentivise token miners in some way, maybe giving them a significantly reduced subscription to any service you are planning?

The ultimate question that needs to be answered is: what is a block chain giving you over a regular, singular database? This is the reason for blockchain in cryptocurrency: so no one can unilaterally create or destroy your ‘money’. But that really isn’t a great risk with RPGs, is it?
 

Koloth

Visitor
One concern not mentioned yet is the energy cost of some of these blockchain 'currencies'. Some of them are showing up as whole number percentages on lists of major world energy users. Pretty sure I don't want D&D and other RPGs getting dragged into the energy use/climate change debate over use of blockchain to manage in game items.

Plus use of tech solutions assumes the players will have a tech gizmo capable of handling the file/algorithm in question and will want to have it in use at a game session.
 

Larrin

Entropic Good
At first I though this was like LoJacking a Hot wheels. Now I'm pretty sure this is more like LoJacking a picture you drew of a car. Even if its a really good picture and you're entering it into an art contest, that's not the most reasonable way to go.

The ONLY way this could make sense is if some one was trying to look forward to some sort of large scale competitive RPG with a lot of money on the line...oh wait, they might be trying to do that. If D&D becomes an wide spread "esport", yes you'll need to enforce uniqueness and Identity. And if it gets really big and there is hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, you'll want blockchain level of protection keeping everyone honest. But that is but a dream, and one that has yet to show much promise or value to me. At the Adventure League level, the only place this could have any relevancy currently, QR codes or the like is sufficient. In a home game, if you ever need to blockchain your character, something has gone wrong.

(in case Hot Wheels and LoJack are regional terms: Hot Wheels: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hot_Wheels#Collectors LoJack: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LoJack )
 

dbm

Explorer
The ‘unique’ value of blockchain is that it’s impossible to hack without that being immediately obvious, and that really only matters when you want to keep something both secure and decentralised. Even for a tournament with big money riding in it you would have an organisation who was inherently ‘trusted’ to keep the official records by virtue of being the governing body.
 

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