I should preface this article by stating that my experience with role playing games is fairly limited. It's not for lack of trying ... I bought Sir Tech's Wizardry: Nemesis and Interplay's Fallout. But I could never figure out how to get started. You get a snippet of introductory story and then wham! There you are in the middle of some god-forsaken landscape and ... what? Fight monsters? Run an errand? Save the world? As an adventure gamer, I was used to a lot more structure and a storyline that moved me in a specific direction. I didn't know what to do with the freedom afforded by the RPG format.
Having given up on the whole idea of RPGs, it was cruel irony that put me on the invitation list for the early Asheron's Call beta. I logged on for the first time last April and, to my great surprise, spent the next six months falling in love with the world created by Turbine Entertainment. When the game went retail last October, I surrendered my Visa account number to the MSN Gaming Zone and have been playing ever since.
Through the Looking Glass
My alter egos are named Luna and Tezra--a mage and a warrior (both female, of course!) who live in the world of Dereth on the Thistledown server. I am a founding member of the Crusaders clan--a group of 100+ characters that is ruled by a monarch and governed by a Council. The clan has a website, holds meetings, and organizes events to maintain our sense of community. My very favorite clan member is my own (real life) daughter, whose presence in Dereth has gone a long way towards bridging the generation gap.
At this point, Dereth feels like a real place to me. I know the geography and landmarks as well as I know my own neighborhood. I would not call this an addiction or an obsession. Instead, it is simply a way I choose to unwind after a long day ... a form of entertainment that is unique and wonderful. Think of it in terms of a virtual playground ... a place where we can all go and it's recess 24 hours a day.
A World Like No Other
Dereth is a persistent world. For those unfamiliar with this concept, it means that the game stays in motion even though you have logged off. In your absence, weather changes, creatures migrate, and character relationships evolve. Dereth is also a vast place with diverse topography and all sorts of flora and fauna. You can hike in the desert, climb mountains, walk on the beach, or enjoy a sunset from an ancient ruin. You can look across a valley, pick a point on the horizon and travel there. Upon arrival, you can turn around and look back to where you started.
And, best of all, Dereth is a world in transition. Once a month, the seasons change and new quests and items are introduced. Turbine's strategy to keep their creation interesting is to modify it on a regular basis.
Be All That You Can Be
You have a lot of flexibility when building a character in Asheron's Call. After selecting a basic heritage group, you build your appearance by choosing from an assortment of eyes, noses, mouths, hairstyles, and skin tones. Then, you select the style and color of your clothing. Finally, you balance your attributes (strength, endurance, quickness, focus, etc.) and pick your skills (magic, sword, healing, running, etc.).
This means that you won't find many twins in Dereth. Although all player characters are human, there is a tremendous amount of diversity in appearances. You get to express your personal style further by assembling a costume from the ever-changing stores of clothing and armor. Finally, you control the way your character develops. When you use your sword, your sword skill goes up. When you cast a spell, your magic skills increase. At the same time, you also accumulate "unassigned" experience points that can be applied to whichever attribute or skill you choose.
For those overly aggressive types who need Player-versus-Player (PvP) gameplay to feel good, the option to become a Player Killer (PK) is theirs for the asking. Luckily, PKs can't harm the less violent residents of Dereth and are restricted to picking on their own kind.
Where Everyone Knows Your Name
On an average night, you can expect to find over 2,000 players on each of the Asheron's Call servers. As you spend time in Dereth, you will be amazed to see how many characters you begin to recognize and interact with. These ties can be formalized through the allegiance system or maintained temporarily by a fellowship during a shared adventure.
As in real life, you have all kinds of people in Dereth. You have chivalrous knights and thieving rogues ... mature gamers and in-your-face teenagers ... those concerned with power leveling and those who prefer to just hang out and chat.
So, What's the Big Deal?
When it comes to adventure gaming, I often feel like that Jimmy Buffet song that talks about being "... an over-40 victim of fate ... arriving too late." Our genre is not dead, but it has certainly seen better times. The days of having a shelf full of Infocom and Sierra titles to choose from are long gone, and there just aren't that many writers like Jane Jensen or Lee Sheldon who can bring a story to life in this medium. Truth be told, I am very weary of wandering empty landscapes and doing puzzles. My own need for intelligent, interactive entertainment is simply not met by much of what is on the market today.
At its core, Asheron's Call is still a basic RPG that requires a lot of combat with creatures in order to build experience. Although there is a backdrop story that is supported by artifacts in the game, it does not have the kind of structured plot or character development that we see in games like Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within or Under a Killing Moon.However, the introduction of real people into the equation creates an immersive experience that gives me some of the same warm fuzzies that I get from a good adventure game. Real people (who are not killing each other) are about as interactive as it gets, and they add elements of unpredictability and emotion.
Do I believe that massively multi-player online RPGs are a true replacement for adventure gaming? Absolutely not. But I would suggest that interacting with other people in a fantasy world provides some of the rewards that one gets from an adventure and may help fill the void while the genre regroups.
Multimedia PC with Pentium 166 MHz
Windows 95 or 98 with DirectX (6.1 or 7)
32 MB of RAM
170 MB of disk space plus 100 MB of swap space
Quad speed CD-ROM drive
Super VGA (800x600) monitor
Super VGA (800x600) video card supporting 16-bit color
Internet connection with browser software and 28.8 KBPS modem
Active MSN Gaming Zone account ($9.95 per month to play)
3D accelerator card (8 MB or more of RAM recommended)