It’s a truism that the differences between tabletop RPGs and MMORPGs are heightened by how similar the two kinds of games are. While it’s not something that most gamers consciously think about, it’s those very same differences that are thrown into stark relief whenever there’s a CRPG version of a tabletop game, or, more rarely, a tabletop version of an MMORPG. Usually, the differences are ignored, falling victim to the rationale that it’s necessary when translating the game from one medium to another. But what if you wanted to run a tabletop game that kept those quirks from an MMORPG? That’s what Worlds Within Worlds, the debut product by Identical Games, attempts to bring to your table.
The premise behind Worlds Within Worlds is that you’re playing computer characters in an MMORPG, something which gave me problems right from the start. Essentially, you’re role-playing a guy who is sitting at home playing a computer game. Questions of existentialism aside, shouldn’t this mean right away that you need two character sheets – one for the guy you’re actually playing, and one for the character that he’s playing in his online game? You might think that the element of role-playing a real-world person is essentially ignored, and you focus on the idea that you’re playing an MMORPG character, but this isn’t the case. Worlds Within Worlds keeps presenting us with information about the “real world” that this computer game takes place in, such as talking about the timeline of events regarding the game’s release, or hinting at the dark secret of the company that put the game out. Despite this, there’s no talk about what your character that’s playing this game would do; as though they don’t expect you to ever look up at your GM and say “You know what? If this MMORPG my character is playing is doing something to the people playing it, my character is going to log off and start investigating it offline.”
That said, let’s dig more into the book’s specifics. After opening with a brief discussion about the book’s premise, Worlds Within Worlds talks about using MMORPG tropes in your tabletop game, liberally mixing in examples from its MMORPG campaign setting, the Lost Realms of Conflict.
Following this, we get our first real piece of new crunch, PC stats for the zebrey, a new race of humanoid zebra people. Now, I like new d20 crunch as much as anyone, but bipedal zebras just seem a little odd; that said, I do like that they made sure to give full racial information (e.g. age tables, height tables, etc.) despite having told us just before that this sort of information usually doesn’t matter in an MMORPG; they’re giving it to us in case we want to use the race in a normal tabletop game, and I applaud them for that. Better to have it and not need it than the other way around.
Classes are only briefly discussed, largely in the context that MMORPGs tend to have a few classes anyone can take, and a single class that’s racially-restricted, along with notes for how that’s broken down in the Lost Realms of Conflict. Following this are three new feats and two new skills, most of which seem geared towards breaking the very guidelines just laid down. Now, by itself that’s okay. It’s just that these, again, highlight the weird dichotomy of the fact that you’re playing a character that’s playing an MMORPG. For example, one of the new skills is Hacking, which lets you basically break the game (though it never lists any specific DCs or effects to use the skill with, notwithstanding the special ability of one monster later in the book). But why would the character in the MMORPG have ranks in a skill like hacking? Wouldn’t that be a skill taken by the guy sitting at the computer? Seriously, this is starting to make my head hurt.
The sections on alignment, equipment, and magic are, like the classes section previously, treatises on how to use these things in a manner consistent with how they function in MMORPGs. One new spell and a small handful of magic items are given, though, which is a nice bit of further crunch. Following this are more sections writing about how to make NPCs (these get a number of pages, including descriptions of example NPCs in the Lost Realms of Conflict), death, and adventures in MMORPG-style. Finally, four new monsters are presented (one being a monster version of the zebrey).
Ultimately, this book had some good ideas, but they were clearly lost in the proverbial translation. Beyond not addressing the fact that you’re playing a modern-world character playing a talking zebra on his laptop, this book was alternately presenting generic new d20 material, giving advice on running an MMORPG-style tabletop game, and presenting information about its campaign setting (both in the real world, and the computer game itself). It kept trying to present three different things at once, and didn’t accomplish most of what it wanted to do. The new crunch is perfectly fine for cherry-picking (save maybe for the Malfunctioning Creature template), but there’s not much of it. The essays seem odd in that they’re basically telling you to limit your tabletop game to better mimic MMORPG conventions, and there’s not enough campaign information here to use on its own. Worlds Within Worlds tries to do too much, which results in it not accomplishing any of its goals.