How 'The Secret World' Role-Playing Community Became Too Real
Blurred boundaries and a baked-in distrust of authority and narrative poisoned a great role-playing experience.
all screenshots courtesy of Funcom
"I just want to tell stories," I complained bitterly to another game master, burnt-out and increasingly discouraged. We were both running role-playing groups around Funcom's conspiracy-fueled MMO, The Secret World.
She typed-out a laugh, and darkly informed me: "We all say that." After a beat, the typing indicator came back up: "But we all know it's not going to happen."
One of a writer's deepest fears is that we are ultimately writing for no one. I had managed to cultivate an audience that irrefutably disproved that fear; I had enough of a following to make decent money on Patreon through fan donations—hell, I had fans—and there was constant, intense interest in my work.
I was a professional game master for the The Secret World's fan roleplay community, serving a niche audience within an already niche MMO community. It was an unlikely place to achieve some of my earliest success, and despite my good fortune I felt a creeping anxiety. I felt like I was getting caught in an increasingly elaborate maze of expectation, need, and conflict. I knew who exactly what I was writing for, and that certainty nearly ended my ability to write at all.
The Secret World—recently relaunched as Secret World Legends—is a mature horror MMO that touches on conspiratorial and Lovecraftian themes.It was supposed to be fiction, but the developers and then the fans started blurring the edges of the game.
It turned out that the the roleplay community would be more dangerous than anything the developers could cook up.
Entering The Secret World
I immediately fell in love with The Secret World. It felt alive and real, the danger urgent but fascinating, plunging you into a world of secret societies warring over Maine, Egypt, and Transylvania, packed with mounting cosmic horror. The game centers around an ordinary person who is plunged into a morally confusing war against dark forces from beyond, waged by secret societies that nurse their own ancient grudges and rivalries.
Ultimately, The Secret World was a metafiction about conflicting narratives and how history is created and remembered, an MMO for people who love worlds as much as games.It asked players to peel back the layers of each story, and some investigation missions required you to look outside the game, to see where the fictional world tied itself into the real one.
The developers had faith in the players to pick up the philosophy references NPCs dropped and use their browser to look up Latin translations or sheet music to solve investigation missions. Perhaps an employee profile on the nefarious Orochi Corporation's website would yield answers. A long quest line might lead you to a very realistic, very boring academic lecture about demons, recorded at Oxford and put on YouTube.
There were some warning signs that the lines were becoming a bit too blurred, that things were becoming too personal.
The Secret World also blurred the lines between the real world and its own characters—like the intensely disinterested Kirsten Geary, whose callous middle management defined the laughably corporate Illuminati. And these characters weren't confined to the game itself: They were all on Twitter via official, in-character accounts run by the developers themselves, interacting with players to push the game further into the real world.
By the time I showed up to The Secret World, these accounts were sparsely maintained. Despite this, a thriving community of The Secret World roleplayers had sprung up around them, seeds watered by the in-character attention from devs. There was a lively cast of player-characters. Some stuck close to the in-game canon, and others used the game as a writing prompt before springing off in wildly different directions.
I immediately jumped in. I had run campaigns before in a variety of systems, including a hacked-together Secret World homebrew campaign, and decided that this would be the perfect arena for a new campaign.
The Endless Tabletop
We chatted and talked in Slacks and Skypes. We built long lasting friendships (some of which have survived to this day). We wrote hundreds of thousands of words between us, drew art of our characters, built websites, and encouraged each other creatively. All the while, we shared the Twitterverse. It had started as an ARG-style marketing campaign for The Secret World, but it eventually became ground zero for urban horror MMO roleplay.
A pen and paper game of Dungeons and Dragons is carefully planned to get six adults at a table at the same time every week. The pacing, and investment, is similar to tuning in for a TV show, working through a season of conflict.
The roleplay environment I helped maintain didn't have that clear delineation. We used forums and Google Docs, where players would write "scenes" in-between attending clandestine meetings in physical locations in The Secret World client itself.
A campaign would last about three weeks, and could have anywhere between six and thirty players. I'd start with an initial hook—a city plagued by mysterious murders, or an Illuminati labyrinth being discovered by amateur monster hunters in Toronto—and a few plot points. From there, the players would choose what routes to investigate, which NPCs to talk to, who to trust, and what to believe.
As time went on, especially as my player base became more personal, I found myself in constant contact with my players. To some, it was about more than play. Their participation was what kept them away from the stress of a rough job or lonely home life. To others, they loved the attention that came with a one-on-one scene, of having someone sit down and focus on them and their creative achievements. My job was to weave these personal plotlines and collaborative fictions into a broader story where, somehow, each player sharing in it felt like it was "their" story. Sometimes this meant I would write four or five "scenes" a day with individual players, other times I ran a massive project where I GM'd for a group of over ten players. I was good at what I did, and my roleplaying group grew.
At the same time, though, my role as GM separated me from my players in a key way. While I was performing the technical aspects of the campaigns, which had evolved well past a Dungeons and Dragons scenario and into an I Love Bees or Cloverfield style ARG, I was blind to most of the scuttlebutt going around the community. I focused on hiring voice actors to create audio logs, drawing art, and figuring out environments—all of which led to running four-hour roleplay sessions for a dozen people once a month. In the background, tension was growing between players, but as the GM, all I heard was the sound of players buzzing and laughing at the end of a session, sharing their favorite moments and bragging about what their character had pulled off. Thanks to Patreon, and the support of people enjoying my games, I could have kept on doing this forever, or so I thought at the time.
One of the hooks of The Secret World is that every faction has its own agenda, but the apocalypse forces alliances. I offered opportunities for players to work against each other and pursue their own agendas, or choose to work together. The conflict between factions is boiled down to a ranked battleground system in the game itself, but I wanted to give players an opportunity to explore that conflict.
There were some warning signs that the lines were becoming a bit too blurred, that things were becoming too personal. Players would be become defensive or fiercely protective of in-character positions. Our in-character Twitters encouraged us to advocate and argue for our position. It was getting harder to tell when people were speaking as a character in a story and when they were speaking for themselves. Or whether they really understood the difference.
About eight months into these campaigns, I fell ill with pneumonia and was admitted into the ICU. At the same time, I lost my job as a digital marketer. With my husband's blessing and under doctor's orders to avoid 'real' jobs, I kept running The Secret World campaigns—and collecting money via Patreon for it—full-time. At the time, this seemed like a dream. It would eventually lead to the entire operation's downfall.
Roleplaying communities online often have the same demands as an in-person groups playing Dungeons and Dragons. One person is the Game Master, and they take the lead on controlling the action. Being a GM is hard enough when you're playing for four hours a week and running a game for a few buddies. It's even more difficult when you're playing in a greater community, posting and updating regularly, and engaging over a dozen people.
With time It became obvious that the entire community was splintered into numerous subgroups. At first, I thought this was simply about creative differences. But it went deeper than that, as it slowly dawned on me that, like the fiction of The Secret World itself, our little community was built atop a thousand simmering grudges and disagreements. Some predated the game itself, carried over from City of Heroes, a superhero-themed MMO that shut down the same year that The Secret World launched.
Separating into cliques and cabals was not the problem; in fact, it was probably what kept the community alive and working for as long as it did. The problem was when pieces of this balkanized community had to interact with each other.
The Secret World speaks in terms of a constant battle to control the truth. For better and for worse, the community adopted that same framework.
In The Secret World, everything is both true and contested. This held true for the community as well. Every time a player came to me with complaints about a past dispute, this became more and more complex. Were some players abusers? Did some cabals (the in-game parlance for guilds) lead witch hunts? Were some storylines racist, or hurtful? Did some cabal leaders or GMs abuse their power?
In the constantly shifting timeline of the Twitter community that formed the foundation of Secret World roleplay, you could hear all of these allegations, the defense, and the aftermath in a day via 140 character blurbs. Everyone had their own point of view, and questioning it was verboten. You had to sift through the allegations, align with the people you wrote with, and figure the rest out as you went.
Neighbors, But No Fences
The importance of that Twitterverse meant that if you wanted to play in the ARG sandbox, you had to rub shoulders with them. There were problem players in the community, ranging from people using the community as an emotional outlet to outright pathological liars, and There was no central authority, no person to lay down rules. Funcom had abandoned the sandbox long ago, and no one had the ability to take the throne. The Geek Social Fallacies demanded that everyone be accepted, or at least tolerated... especially in community-wide plots like the ones I ran.
I took an aggressive approach, one that was encouraged by the players who were most emotionally invested in my campaigns. I cut players for making transphobic jokes, for trying to use other players' characters without their permission, for shutting down scenes. The fact that Twitter was the main site for Secret World RP, even as I maintained my own private spaces, made things difficult. Did I have an obligation to the hundred plus people all posting on the Twitterverse, the great commons of our community? Some players claimed I did, others encouraged me to shut things down to a group of a few, trusted friends.
People began to talk behind closed doors about how my plots, community wide and sprawling over Twitter, were problematic. I was elitist, cliquish, downright rude. The public nature of my plots combined with the fact that not everyone could participate came across like a little boys' clubhouse with a 'no girls allowed' sign hung in the window—obnoxious and exclusionary. When I launched a new plot, the Twitterverse would buzz about it to the point where unaware players would ask if this was Funcom content being added to the game itself.
Some people in the roleplaying community felt like my campaigns were being rubbed in their faces, conspicuous public consumption of something not everyone was invited to share. Other people felt like I had become a dictator, ruling a kingdom of dysfunction and barring the wrong people for the wrong offenses. It was impossible to please everyone, especially as the demands of campaigns grew. I was but one GM, and the community was many.
The Secret World speaks in terms of a constant battle to control the truth. For better and for worse, the community adopted that same framework. Players fought to control the narrative on every point, whether it was in-universe ( Can a werewolf be reversed back into a man?) or in real life ( Is this cabal leader an abuser who ran a prolonged campaign of character assassination to ruin a player's life?). Perhaps it was inevitable, then, that as my campaigns grew, and the conflict around them deepened, I became the contentious topic. I was the storyteller, after all, and The Secret World teaches you that the storyteller is least trustworthy of all.
Like the boiling frog, I had found myself in a situation that was becoming increasingly unhealthy. Our group of players, assailed by accusations from the greater Twitterverse, slowly became smaller and more hostile. I became overly invested, defensive and emotional.
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Outside the Secret World campaigns, I was in the lowest point of my life. I was unemployed, recovering from two weeks in the ICU that left me weak and struggling, and suffering from Bell's Palsy. I still had my campaigns, and the people who played in them. In some ways, during that part of my life, it felt like all I had left. My husband noticed my mood drop; he would often come home to find me weeping, drained from arguments.
There was no one moment where I decided I was done; instead, I gradually moved away. First, I stopped running campaigns. Just a break, I said.
My break is now in its third year.
Lost in a Crowd
In some ways, I came out wildly ahead from my time in The Secret World. I made, through Patreon, about eight thousand dollars over two years. I made friendships that last to this day. I even still have a couple of people I would categorize as fans. I'm not sure The Secret World community always remembers me fondly. I recently spoke to a good friend, who mentioned that he knew someone who had played the game. He had asked if his friend knew me, to which she responded: "Oh, that bitch?" I also recently received a DM that the community missed me and wished me well.
When I was still around, I might have wanted to contest that. Now, with distance, I know that both of those people probably have a point.
These days, I still write creatively. I've built a solid career out of it, and my The Secret World experience is a fun thing to mention at parties. The game recently relaunched as Secret World Legends, a different take on the game. I logged on and played for a few hours. There were all new names, all new faces. London was, once again, bustling like a proper MMO hub should, and no one recognized me. I was just one of many.