Saturday, May 13, 2006

PlayByWiki goes live

If you've noticed a falling-off in the regularity of posts to TinkerX in the last couple months, it's probably because I've been working on another Web-based project. Or the world has been static and I've had nothing to say. Or you haven't been pestering me and sending me gifts of cheese.

But, probably, it's the other project thing. Along with a gang o' pals and my wife, Chris, I've been messing around with the idea of hosting a wiki for text-based RPGs. Over the years, I've been involved in lots of different kinds of role-playing-games, everything from pen-and-paper up through single-player and masively-multiplayer computer versions.

Some of the most rewarding RPG experiences I've had have revolved around the creating of cooperative, text-based adventures, often termed play-by-mail or play-by-email. Over the past few years, this kind of interactive, group text adventure has come online, often using bulletin boards or forums for the posting and editing of text, rather than doing it through email. Termed play-by-post, this kind of cooperative, game-based fiction is logisically easier than play-by-email, as the posts are all published in one central location, rather than distributed via email. It's one step closer to a "shared text environment," which is the ideal for collaborative writing projects.

Which brings us to wikis.

In doing some research for a client on wikis, I came to the conclusion that they are a natural fit for collaborative, text-based RPG play. Because the group text lives in a common environment, it has shared-yet-distributed benefits similar to those of bulletin boards or forums. But wikis have a major (big major; major major) advantage of those technologies, in that they allow editing of the text directly on the wiki page, rather than an updating and re-posting of newer "versions" of the story as it progresses. In effect, the text truly "lives" on the wiki.

Wikis are generally also much more free-form in terms of their linking structures and page creation abilities. The top-down, parent-child-grandchild "tree" structure of most Web site navigation plans is not appropriate for large numbers of large groups of people who each want to build their own, organic spaces. Wikis grow more like coral than like trees, with clumps of pages growing where they need to, linking when they need to, and being deleted when no longer needed.

Yes, it's less organized. From a "web-master-centric" standpoint. But since there isn't supposed to be one web-master, that works out pretty well.

So I spent quite a bit of time looking for the right/best wiki engine/farm to host a cooperative, group-based RPG wiki. I had a couple major requirements.

Permissions: First, and probably most importantly, it needed to have a permission structure that allowed for the creation of users within groups, and page-level view/edit/create permissions for those groups. You needed to be able to say, "Group 'A' can create and edit 'Group A' pages, but not 'Group B' pages." Sound easy? Try and find that wiki engine yourself. Many have no permission structure -- they are completely open. Some have a simple, two- or three-tiered structure that allows or registered users to edit pages, but visitors to view only. Very few have anything approaching the complexity necessary to assign users to groups and allow them to have group-specific, page-specific permissions.

WYSIWYG editing: It may sound... non-geeky. But I think we're past the stage where people, even grognards, will casually put up with entering in a bunch of paired <b> codes </b> to make text bold. I don't know if you've ever added or edited an entry on the Wikipedia, but they use a wiki engine called MediaWiki. Now, I'm a huge fan of the Wikipedia -- as you may guess from all the links I throw at it from here -- and MediaWiki is a great piece of software. But the text editor is still, in 2006, basically Textpad. To make text look like anything, you need to mess with a bunch of codes. I don't mind. I'm a giant tool. Huge geek. But most folk? They get turned off by having to use a bunch of funky codes to make stuff look nice. For example, to make text look like this:

Related Methods of Role-Playing

  • Play-by-mail gaming

  • Play-by-Internet

You have to type in this:

== Related Methods of Role-Playing ==
* [[Play-by-mail gaming]]
* [[Play-by-Internet]]

Rather than using some nice selection tools a-la MS Word or every other text editing program we've been putzing around with since 1988.

Now... there is a reason for this code stuff, and I'm not ignorant of it, and I don't want hate mail from the wiki-text purists out there. Yes, text formats by code is much cleaner and easier to interpret for the wiki engine. Yes, if the WYSIWYG editor is "bad," you can end up with horrible, junky HTML. Yes, it's hard to throw a layer of interpretation between the site and the user and that violates another philocophical principle of wikis involving touch-barriers, etc. etc.

All that being said... 98% of the people out there just want to highlight their text and click on a big, fat "B" to make it bold. And I think that a wiki dedicated to cooperative writing should be friendly like that.

Those were the two biggies. User/group permissions and WYSIWYG. There are bunches of other little things (like price...) that entered into it, but I needed a wiki engine or host or farm that could do those two things.

Gosh, I tried like heck to find an Open Source wiki engine that would do the trick. No soap, polar bear. Not yet. If you know of one... ping me. At some point in the future, I may change over. But for now...

I ended up going with EditMe. It was a close race between them and JotSpot.

JotSpot has a ton more cool plug-in tools at this point. And, with my bro, I'd created a wiki there for the use of one of his (John's) clients. Nice stuff Jot's got. But, in the end, EditMe's permission structure was better, and their editor was a tinch slicker and smoother. There's a few things Jot's got I wish they had, but the two biggies are the two biggies.

So. With a host in mind, we set up Originally, some friends and I thought we'd just use it to implement various play-by-post type games based on existing RPG systems; D&D, GURPS, Everway, etc. But then we started thinking... we've always played text-based RPG games based on systems that were designed for pen-and-paper.

What we need is an RPG system designed from the electrons-up for text. Rather than forcing a great tactical game like GURPS into a role it wasn't really designed for, why not invent a system that is meant to exert exactly the kinds of forces one wants in a text based game? Instead of concentrating on hexes and actions-per-second, such a game would focus on character and plot points.

And so, on top of building out the wiki for the general use of groups who want to play whatever-the-heck-rules they'd like, we've also been designing an entirely new RPG system, Ninth Sigil, for use specifically in text-based, wiki-centric games.

And what a lot of fun we've had doing so.

It's not done. It will never be done. You never really stop "picking" at it. But it's ready enough to show people and call a "public beta." So, if you like, take a look and let us know what you think.

I couldn't find any real examples of RPG, text-based, wiki hosted games on the Internet. I'm sure there's something out there. But the Web abhors a vacuum. And I abhor not having an easy way to play these damned, 2-year long text games with JB, Stu, Ed, Bill, Jo and Kirke. And whomever else wants to jump on board now.

The voice said: "If you build it, they will come." Well, I ain't building it. You have to build it yourself. But that's the whole point of RPG games. So... if I let you build it, will you come?

We'll see.


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