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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Worldbuilding in The Battle for Wesnoth

As the huge dork I am, a couple years ago I participated in a community endeavor to come up with rules to use the elemental Bending abilities from Avatar: The Last Airbender with the D20 system  used by Dungeons and Dragons. It was a great project and I had a lot of fun geeking out whilst arguing over how these fictional capabilities worked, writing lots of narrative fluff, and creating a world for collaborative story telling. It satisfied both my “left” and “right” brain sensibilities, since it allowed for development of qualitative narrative as well as lots of quantitative mechanics. Until recently, however, I never considered the same sort of amateur collaboration could be applied to a computer game.

After 8 years since its first release under GNU General Public License (GPL), version 2, the independently developed “The Battle for Wesnoth” is still releasing new editions. They’re up to version 1.8.5 for their latest stable version, and a 1.9.5 released in March which is still under development. Part of the reason an indie game has run for so long is the strong community built around it. Since the original release, the developers have accepted outside input on game play and story continuity and including user-built campaigns as part of the official releases. As a result, the gaming community built around The Battle for Wesnoth has developed a home-brew role playing culture not dissimilar to that of many tabletop pencil and paper games.

Pencil and paper role playing games offer a lot of fudge room when it comes to rules mechanics, since all the crunch work comes down to rolling dice and deciding what sort of things to add and subtract. Really the only difference, at least when it comes to mechanics, between a computer game and a pencil and paper game is that the program rolls the dice for you. The Battle for Wesnoth contains a map editor, and the source code is released with its own mark-up language which allows those with an affinity for programming to join the collaboration.

The narrative of Wesnoth is largely a world-building one, where the plot is derived out of the politics of warring factions rather than individual characters, with the exception of the leaders of those factions. Heir to the Throne, the main campaign which was released with each version since the original, follows the young heir Konrad on his journey to reclaim the throne of Wesnoth. While not a particularly original storyline, Heir to the Throne introduces most of the different factions of the game as well as the geography of the continent. Other scenarios reference the history that goes into and results from this campaign.  

This one gets you an origin story for Delfador
Some of the shorter user-developed campaigns delve further into the backstory of certain key figures, or explore the distant future of Wesnoth, or even just a short look at the plight of some group of villages. Most of these narratives have very gradual character development and very few exciting plot twists, but that has less to do with the quality of the story or the teller than it does with the fact that this is still a tactics game - there are a few scenes of intrigue that happen mid-scenario, but any narrative that doesn't happen on the battle field is presented in prose form as setting for each battle. The lay of the land is the core of any plot and the extensive time line in Wesnoth's history gives a mortal depth to the feel of the game; for all the grandness of the primary campaign, it's just a story to the bandits of another campaign, or a page in a lost history book to the elves struggling to survive in another. One of my particular favorites is Descent into Darkness, a story of a young mage who turns to necromancy in order to save his village from marauding orcs. At the end of the campaign, after he turns evil, the last scenario replays over and over cycling through different kinds of armies until you are defeated by an opposing hero, or at least as far as I can tell it does that. I might just not be good enough to beat it the 3rd time.

Sometimes playing as a bunch of dragons doesn't need a story

The creative community lies at the heart of The Battle for Wesnoth's success. Every single aspect of game development has its own forum, from faction and story ideas to patches to the games code. Essentially, instead of having a development staff, they have the players. It would be a case of inmates running the asylum, except no one’s making any money off of this. Since all campaigns can be attached to the same general history, stories can keep the culture of the game while still being written into their own individual canon. Even taking certain characters slightly out of context is alright if it’s done from a historical standpoint – considering how often historical figures in the real world are taken out of context themselves. The effect of all this is an almost universally reusable kernel that can feed into different kinds of stories as well as different kinds of games, not to mention artwork and music – speaking of which, the animation and scoring are pretty good for something people are doing as a hobby. It supports gaming as a mixed medium for amateur artists from many walks of life as well as being a great free addition for the casual tactics gamer.

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