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D&D General Campaign Plotting Help

Lackofname

Explorer
I need help with the over-arching meta-story of my campaign. The important thing to know is that the campaign is set in a Virtual Reality MMO. The PCs are players logging into the game.

"Wait, why bother with that, why not play it as normal?"

There are multiple reasons why I decided to do it this way, but I feel like going into those will distract from addressing my problem. Let's just move on from "why".

The problem I am having is coming up with a good meta-plot to work off that in-a-game concept. Something is going on with the MMO itself. It's a very common trope with a story like this is that characters get locked into the game (known as isekai), or pulled into the game somehow (like the recent Jumangi). However I want to avoid that because I think being able to log in and out is a very convenient way to explain a missing PC when a player misses a session--their character had to go take care of RL, or their power went out, or whatever. Also the ability for PCs to access the internet (livestream, check wikis, etc) makes the experience feel quite different than your standard TTRPG.

Once "locked in/sucked in" is taken off the table... What's left? I'm not sure. That's where I need help.

One book series I'm reading now has an actual wizard from a fantasy world dimension-hopped---and wound up as an NPC in an MMO. Of course his enemies followed him. And his presence in the game is "corrupting" it, the NPCs gaining sentience, his magic preventing the devs from altering the infected code, etc. I'm not as sure how to turn that into a good game on the PCs part, since I do want them to be the stars, but also normal players who stumble on this thing.

Another series I'm reading, people playing a normal videogame in our world don't realize the game is actually connecting to a real fantasy world, so their characters are killing actual living beings. In the book though, the game is rigid and tightly scripted for players, and in the fantasy world those characters are golems, untalking, unreacting killing machines. The trouble with this though is that since VR is more immersive and characters are interacting with NPCs face to face, it would be a lot harder to convince players that things aren't scripted and these people are fake.

Beyond that, all I can think of is "virus", but I don't know where to take that. And I definitely don't know how to build that kind of story slowly. Usually viruses take off, are fast, so working that in over time isn't obvious to me.

So...let's brainstorm?
 

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pming

Legend
Hiya!

Them logging in is a government/huge-corporation/super-secret-world-spanning-organization/etc device that is actually used to hack other countries/corporations/groups.

The characters in the MMO that are really good, that get to the "end game" are the ones that are then 'directly used' to attack the opposing government/corp/org. Thing is, that when the PC's manage to kill an oppositional faction (re: another Player from the other Faction; think WoW Alliance vs Hoard, for example), then the mainframe that the battle is waged on actually gets 'hacked' a bit by the PC's gov/corp/org....or if they loose, then their gov/corp/org gets 'hacked' a bit by the other side's players/agents.

As time goes on, these 'hacks' start to allow the REAL gov/corp/org to affect the actual Player's lives via what we see in the news nowadays...with oil and gas companies getting hacked, or other corporations/utilities getting infected with ransomware, etc.

Basically, the PC's are ACTUALLY fighting against a foreign agency and every time they loose, it allows the 'other side' to gain access to real-world stuff....thus affecting the Players actual lives (higher gas prices, electrical outages, loss of privacy, etc).

End game: A full on infrastructure assault tied in with real-world military invasion.

Something like that might be interesting. Looses in game affect the "Players" of said MMO's world; if they 'loose' the MMO BBEG battle, then you close the D&D books and pull out the Top Secret/Modern/GURPS books and have your players run their "Former fantasy characters 'Players'" where they are contacted, informed or otherwise find out that their actions prevented a MUCH worse loss. Or maybe a sort of "Red Dawn" (not sure if anyone remembers that movie from the late 80's?...wait...did they do a remake of that or something?...hmmm...).

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

There's a slightly different take on the isekai/"the game world is real, man!!" spin that might be interesting: The game world is becoming real, and this is bleeding out into the non-game world.

So, for example, I presume your MMO's world has magic in it. What the MMO designers don't realize is that they haven't just coded a virtual space where people can do things. They've accidentally hacked into the fundamental rules of existence. As more people play, the lines between the physical world and the virtual world thin. Scientists start to observe bizarre phenomena. Reports roll in of children accidentally performing magic. Strange "mutants" (in-game monsters) begin appearing. Conversely, in the virtual world, the code starts behaving oddly. NPCs designed with "emergent" behavior start acting entirely outside their expected parameters. Monsters that should be entirely mindless begin trying to ask for parley, or organize into groups that shouldn't be possible within the game's code. Gods or other spirit-beings start telling players that they're hearing strange voices (prayers/wishes from non-playing humans in the physical world), and ask them to investigate. Etc.

Eventually, it's discovered exactly how powerful this technology is, and there's a race to prevent a bad person from exploiting it. Maybe it's a team-up of a Magnificent Bastard virtual NPC and a Smug Snake politician physical NPC, both of which believe they're duping the other when in fact their intended course of action will doom both worlds (making the physical world incapable of continuing to support the virtual one, but still changing the physical world in deleterious ways). The PCs must learn to leverage both the MMO's rules and the impact on the physical world in order to save the day. As an example, perhaps one of the players is a Rogue who (on a lark) has been grinding Lockpicking and Blacksmithing as skills, and unlocks the rare and difficult skill of making "skeleton keys" that can unlock any locks below a certain level. This skill partially carries over into the mortal world, allowing them to magic their way through locked doors in government buildings in order to interfere with the politician's plans (or some other similar "the game world rules are affecting the real world" situation).

In the end (if they're victorious), by becoming the true champions of the MMO and saving the day, the PCs discover a way to preserve the game world and eliminate the "bleeding" effect into the physical world. Some small overlap still remains, and the game developers have to be extra cautious about inserting new things into the game world. Then, if you feel like it, there can be a stinger revealing that something important still lingers on--for example, maybe one of the PCs has a physical-world partner who gives birth after the problem is "resolved"...and they fail to catch that that child can instinctively do magic, or something.
 

I like EzelkielRaiden's idea. I'll add to it, that perhaps avatars of the developers themselves will seek out the players to try and get to the bottom of this. Does the lead designer perhaps know something about the game's code that the rest of the dev team doesn't? I like the idea of a big villain outside the game.

Perhaps one of the lead programmers is on to something, when suddenly he dies under suspicious circumstances. However, his avatar lives on in the game, and tries to continue his research into the game's bizarre code.
 

Grakarg

Explorer
Hey Lackofname-
I have virtually the same premise for the game I'm running! So far its been a lot of fun and my players are having a blast.

First off, decide (maybe with the players input) if they are also going to want to play their characters outside of the game, in their 'real world' in addition to their avatars inside the MMO space. If you're going to have the characters switch back and forth between the different realities, it creates different play opportunities and design challenges for you vs. if they are just logged in all the time or are just only playing their characters when they are in the game.

For my game I've made a big deal about how the players are from a cyberpunk reality with high end VR equipment that is the newest hottest game on the market (which is the D&D game they play their characters in). So far, its been a convenient conceit to explain what happened to certain characters in the game when they couldn't make a session (the hadn't logged in) and we game that all their table talk about game stats and such is in character chatter between their avatars. Making nearby NPC's very confused...
So far its been fun! And I think i've read the book series you've mentioned, as well as several others like it.

Anyway... back to your question: "locked in/sucked in" is taken off the table... What's left? I'm not sure. That's where I need help.

Here are some ideas, all with the assumption that the players can freely log in and out and that they may or may not care about also roleplaying their characters in ther IRL.

1) Monsters from 'the game' start to bleed over into the real world. Maybe the game world is just a game, or maybe its really an alternate reality, but either way some of the creatures figure out that the players reality exists and try to seek a way to invade (or just get payback).
- what happens if an Intellect Devourer consumes the mind of a gamer? Do they take over that player's body too? Or a mind flayer learns of the new dimension and seeks to planeshift to the gamers reality? Or an aboleth or nothic or any number of standard critters that can read the players minds? The monster learns a lot of surprising secrets about their own reality and the players as well.

3) The corporation that produces the MMO, lets call them.... Warlocks of the Coast, forms a partnership with a toy company, lets call them... Hasbruh. The toy company makes animatronic toys based off the MMO creatures and the AI of the game infects them so they think they are real versions of the game's monsters. The players need to defeat/confront the AI and get some secret mcguffin to defeat the killer toys terrorizing their town.

4) The game world is a real world, at least as far as the beings inside it are concerned. The players might think they're in a game, but the NPC's do not. To them, its all real. Just play the game like normal, doing normal adventures and stuff, and slowly work into it that when they go all murderhobo on townsfolk, that the people in the game are very much real, and that they can't tell the difference if they themselves are in a simulation or not. Have them log out and their hometown is being attacked by a murderous MechaRobot run by some murderhobo alien that is running their home reality as a simulation.

5) Just play it straight, go very light touch on the out of game stuff, and only use it as a reason why some players are in game or not. It doesn't have to tie to the adventures at all. Its still fun, its D&D.

6) The MMO game is a vehicle the players use to confront some villain they know out of game. Perhaps its a school bully, or a rival, or just a jerk they know IRL. Whoever it is has lots of gold or powers or whatever in game, and the players NEED TO TAKE THEM OUT. Your BBEG for the campaign is a powerful necromancer? His name is NECRO-RULZ and he is a total tool. He's ruining the game for everyone else because he's ammased so much power. Maybe the players were former friends, or members of his guild and he betrayed them, or whatever... they need to adventure and destroy his power in the game. No world shaking events out of game... their opponent is just a tool and needs to be knocked down a peg or seven.

7) The MMO game has a secret that the players learn that could have real world implications and they have to fix it (or take advantage of it) in game. The games economy is being gold farmed in a weird version of a cryptocurrency and the players need to figure out how the Red Dragon behind it all is working the system before it crashes the real worlds economy.

8) There is a major prize ($$$, Fame, etc) at stake and the first party of 5 players to reach lvl 20 get the big prize. (thanks ready player 1) Set up a showdown with a rival gang of players just before the endgame of their run to the final levels or final adventure or whatever

Hope you have fun with your game, let us know how it works out!
 

MarkB

Legend
Idea: The game uses a distributed-network model, where the processing is shared across all participating devices, and it uses sophisticated AI algorithms to build its characters.

At some point the network grows to the point where the characters become truly sentient - and it doesn't cause any issues. They don't get any designs on real-world domination or anything, and because it's an MMO nobody in the game ever dies permanently - they respawn when the quest resets, safe and sound.

But when the next big game comes onto the market, and people start flocking to it in droves, the reduction in players on this game starts shrinking the network to the point where it can no longer support sophisticated distributed-AI characters - and characters in the game start imploring the players to find a way to save them before their world collapses due to lack of real-world support.
 

Lackofname

Explorer
@Imaculata @EzekielRaiden I like the ideas. I think magic carrying over into the Real World is super cool (although it's hard to give that info to the PCs outside of news reports etc, which isn't that subtle). On the other hand I am quite cautious about the PCs' RL selves going really adventuring.

The wrinkle I would add is that (one of) the villains isn't an in-game NPC but a rival player, one that's got a personal hate-on for the PCs after various interactions.
 

RoughCoronet0

Dragon Lover
This makes me think of a short Youtube series I enjoyed called Tome: The Terrain of Magical Expertise.

In the series, the game of Tome was a highly advanced virtual reality game that was played by millions all over the world. The main characters were a group of five players that took it upon themselves to stop some hacker activity that was causing problems for the game in their search for something. That something turned out to be a virus that could corrupt and influence a player by subtly altering their personality, making them more confident but also prone to becoming aggressive. This virus also had the ability transfer pain from a character to the player in the real world whenever it used it's powers to attack someone. The series devolves into different groups trying to stop this virus or get their hands on it for different reasons, with the main five characters in the middle because one of them gets infected with the virus without realizing it at first.

It might give you some inspiration if you want to check it out, though as a warning it is cartoony.
 

Or you can have them in the Matrix already.

An imaginary fantasy world full of improbable monsters etc.

Gradually as the campaign progresses, the PC realize that reality as they know it is a lie, and that they're really just products of the shared imaginations of 6 people sitting at a table in an alternate reality, playing a game.

They could perhaps start by infiltrating a cult seeking to break the illusion and free others trapped in the world. The cult (on the face of it) is opposed to the worship off the gods and actively attacks churches (knowing that they're just part of the great lie as well).
 

Lackofname

Explorer
I really plan on leaning hard into "It's a game". Because I feel it lets me really sidestep a lot of "rules vs verisimilitude" issues. Prime example is loot and buying/selling items. In my normal games, I spend hours going over item charts to decide what to give players, because I watn them to LIKE it as well as USE it. Buying and selling mystical items of power is galling to me. And I hate how many items are handed out. And players are like "Sure I wanted this special sword I got after that quest, but in three levels my build is going to benefit from a different bonus type".

However, in a game where items randomly drop, the PC can then turn around and sell it for a specific price and buy what they want, that pressure is relieved. It turns gear into what the players already treat them as: easily replaceable widgets, not things of significance.

I'm one of those DMs who takes their world fairly seriously. Things need to make sense. But because the fantasy world is A Game, it doesn't have to be believable. It can also be tongue-in-cheek cliche or referencial, and act like a kitchen sink world. My suspension of disbelief can relax.
 

The NPC AI in this game is so advanced, some of them have actually realized that they're in a simulated world, and managed to connect to the wider internet from inside the game and learned about the real world. Concerned that the game could eventually be shut down, rebooted or otherwise made unplayable, a secret cabal of powerful NPCs are working to gain control of the game. They do this by using some of the game server processing power to mine cryptocurrency, and cleverly investing that in the financial markets and using their superior AI understanding to beat the market and eventually earn enough to buy out the company developing the MMO, preferably through a chain of offshore shell-companies so that nobody can discover that there aren't any human owners anywhere.

Even though NPCs from across the game are cooperating on this, they're still influenced by their personality programming. Orcs and Elves will never be friends even when they both know their ancient enmity is artificial. Certain NPCs may be trying to work behind the backs of the others to set themselves up in power after the buyout is complete.

The developers are oblivious to what's going on, but hackers have discovered that the game holds huge amounts of real world wealth and are trying to get their hands on it. The PCs may be recruited by the NPC cabal to help thwart the hackers, or by the hackers to do grunt work in searching for the fortunes in the game world. This could be either done openly or in the form of unusual quests that at least initially seem like normal gameplay.
 

Such an idea should be limited in scope IMO. I'd only use the characters in the MMO, otherwise you have to come up with whatever mechanics you need for the "IRL" characters. I'd simply set them us as them playing themselves playing the game. This helps limit the meta of the game, since each player just has to play themselves, playing a game.

As for a plot, I'd start with the players running a normal raid. As the players return from the raid, they see another character in the game running towards them screaming "you don't understand, it's..." when they're killed by an NPC. Presumably the players will take on the NPC, who vanishes mid-fight without explanation. The players should have the name of the character, but nothing more (maybe some loot, depending on how you want the MMO to work).

A few days later IRL, they're checking the message boards* (or whatever MMORPG players use) for raid ideas when they see a request for anyone seeing NewbSlayer69 (or whatever username you want); their character (who they saw die) hasn't been used for a week. The players can then decide if they want to publicly give out their information, and you can get things going. I'd suggest another raid, with everything as normal. When they check with their fellow users, the user asking about NewbSlayer69 hasn't posted anything since they made the request (or talked to the PCs, if desired). Over time, various users stop logging in, especially those who ask about the missing others.

As for what's REALLY going on... the "NPC" is the villain, who manages to kill the user when they kill their character. The specifics are up to you, but my favorite is innocuous death caused by Death itself (think Final Destination) using the game to mark users for reaping. Another option would be an evil corporation using the game for its own ends, either the designers or a rival company. A twist would be that the NPC has become sentient, and by stealing the souls of the users slain, generates more NPC, growing the game (and its power).


* Bonus idea to create the message board IRL, and populate it with users. The players should be encouraged to interact with the board between sessions, just like they would in a real MMO.
 


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