If you’d told me a few months ago how many hours I was going to blow on Star Wars: The Old Republic within my first month, I wouldn’t have believed you. After all, I’ve been clean of World of Warcraft for nearly five years. I’ve played other DIKU-style MMOs in the intervening time completely casually, often getting bored after a few hours in. I’ve been eagerly awaiting Guild Wars 2 for precisely the reason that it’s replacing a lot of the most obvious inheritances from EverQuest and WoW. Yet the gameplay in TOR could almost entirely be run in any standard DIKU from WoW to Rift with just an art and sounds change. And, while I’m a big fan of lightsabers and all the other assorted brand identity of Star Wars, that in itself wouldn’t explain the draw of the MMO.

What does is the story.

The most obvious evidence of this is the sheer amount of cash spent on voice acting and animation: every mission in the game has at least a short conversation that is fully voiced, animated, and cut like a scene from an animated film. It’s leagues beyond “click NPC, see mission text, click accept” and the level of animation and NPC interaction is far beyond even any other voiced MMOs I’ve played. When you get your quest to kill ten rats you’re going to feel viscerally that the death of this arbitrary number of arbitrary critters is a matter of life or death for your questor. Not only do you see the emotional reaction to your mission completion, you even usually get a thank you note a little while later giving you the denouement of the plotline.

That’s useful, high-production-value gloss. It really makes the game shine. But it’s not the true engine of the story.

The real brilliance is the story flow, which is something I’ve never seen another MMO really do in the same way, and certainly not to the same success. The way most MMOs these days work is the concept of quest hub to quest hub. You go to a little village or camp, there are a bunch of NPCs that have missions in the area that need doing, and eventually one of them gives you a mission that takes you to the next quest hub. There may be some overarching logic to your overall path, but it gets drowned in the noise of all the quests you’re doing. And the overarching logic is shared by everyone in your faction.

TOR starts with a personal, class-specific quest. It’s different for each of the eight primary classes in the game. You’re on a personal mission: the quest to catch and ruin the criminal that stole your ship, the careful dance of ending a terrorist conspiracy, a secretive search for a rival operative that threatens to undo your master’s plans, and so on. Each of these personal stories is broken into a whole series of smaller goals… and each of those smaller goals sends you by the ubiquitous quest hubs to pick up a few more missions while you just happen to be in the area. It’s a simple and yet winning change: instead of the focus being on whatever arbitrary pile of tasks happen to be in the area, it’s on the much more compelling (yet equally arbitrary) series of class story tasks that happen to send you through the area.

And these tasks are incredibly arbitrary for the simple fact that every one of the four class stories in a faction has to share exactly the same series of beats. If you travel in a group of four, each a different primary class, you’ll never have to wander more than a bit out of your way to do each other’s story quests. The agent goes to the temple to stop terrorists, the inquisitor is hunting a relic buried there, the warrior needs yet another relic, and the hunter has to eliminate a troublesome NPC that happens to be there. Yet the overall design is clever enough that your own story doesn’t feel especially slighted by knowing everyone else is going to the same places for different reasons.

That’s a long lead up of explanation to get to the question: Why don’t we do this more often in tabletop RPGs?

One of the biggest problems I’ve seen in tabletop games, particularly those run by new GMs (or just for new groups where the GM doesn’t know the players well), is in getting player engagement. As a GM, you put your story out there and the players either find something about it that their characters invest in, or they slog along out of friendliness hoping something will eventually click. I’ve seen a lot of games eventually stall out largely because most of the group never really cared much about the story.

The obvious solution to this is to run a sandbox game where the players completely drive the action based on what their characters want. But, in addition to not working well for all genres, a true sandbox requires a level of improv skill and/or prep time that not every GM is ready to bring. Plus, ignoring the derisive label of frustrated novelist, a lot of GMs get inspired by a story idea that they want to try rather than an open setting.

TOR offers a compromise: an individually-directed story that nevertheless parallels and draws the player into the story the GM is interested in telling. Instead of the player character’s goals being side tasks that sometimes distract the group from the main story, they’re the hooks that get the group into the main story in the first place.

Interestingly, the place I see this kind of thing most often is convention games with pre-gen characters that have written backstories. GMs that make these often take great pains to ensure that the pre-gen’s goals will keep the plot moving. Why not do this with your home game where the players each have their own character? For all but the most closed or disinterested players, it’s a simple matter to ask them for their take on where they’d like their characters to grow or what they want them to accomplish. Then set measurable steps to this goal (either as achievements out of play with the player, or delivered in-character but clearly during the first session). You can even bribe the player with the promise of a big dump of exp or other upgrades set to milestones or total completion: for certain players, nothing focuses the mind like pursuit of system-based character improvement.

Once you know where the players want to go and you have a finite series of steps to get there, it should be a simple matter to bind those steps into the main story you want to run. Want the players in a haunted house? The solution to a player’s personal mystery is hidden inside. Want them to infiltrate an enemy group? One of them has information pertinent to a player’s story that has to be socially engineered. Need them to kill ten rats? A contact has a crucial piece of the puzzle and that’s his price for turning it over. Sure, the players may grumble a little: it is obvious what you’re doing. But as long as it has a measurable impact at getting them closer to their goals, they’ll most likely play along.

And the coolest thing about this in a tabletop game is that you should be able to disguise it more easily than an MMO with areas that have fixed levels of enemies. Player goals don’t necessarily all have to serendipitously wind up at the same place. They can be trusted to help one another on disparate goals only to see a story emerging from all of them together. Or, for groups where their goals run largely perpendicular to one another, you could even gloss the entire game as periods of downtime progress on goals with sessions chronicling the times that a bunch of the PCs’ goals happen to intersect.

It might not be high art, but it certainly beats a player complaining that he doesn’t even know why his character is there.