Monthly Archives: October 2009

Cool Things on Monday: Terrible Minds

One of the nicer things about achieving some small success in game publishing is that it has completely changed my views on it. Prviously, it had been fairly abstract and distant, with a few banner names and products that sprang, fully formed, from the brow of their respective companies. Some of you are laughing, I know I am, but that’s what it looked like from the ground.

Nowadays, I see a very personal ecosystem, teeming with hundreds of folks all doing their bit out of a love of the hobby. I look at the guy working for a big company and the guy working on his dream game in his basement, and the differences between them are much different than I ever thought they were. It’s not a difference of passion, and usually not one of skill either. Mostly it’s just a difference of hours worked, and the willingness to work more.

Which is, as you think about it, just like everything else.

Anyway, I mention this because this change in perspective has made it possible for me to actually meet people in the gaming industry as fellow gamers rather than as some sort of crazy icons. This has been awesome (though I’ll say right now, I swear to god Half the people I met at Gencon 2008 were named some variant on Jason or Justin, and I remember NONE of the names) and it leads directly to the gentleman I’m hoping to point y’all at today.

Chuck Wendig was at Dreamation (or maybe Dexcon, I mix them up a lot) to promo the upcoming Changeling: The Lost and to do a little panel work. I was there for my usual hippie indie reasons, but I was very curious about this new Changeling – I’d loved the old one in a conceptually-wonderful-but-unlikely-to-play-it sort of way – so I grabbed a slot. It ended up being a lot of fun. Chuck runs a tight game, and it showcased a lot of the things which ended up really exciting me about C:tL. So, when the game wrapped up, we chatted a bit, and I asked if he was interested in a meal. Turns out he was, so he joined a number of us hippies at the restaurant, where I think everyone was a little surprised that no one burst into flame at this pro & indie mix.

Anyway, the universal assessment was Chuck was a cool guy, and as a result he had a small posse show up at his panels (which was hopefully not too weird) and a good time was had by all. Plus, we got to meet Mrs. Chuck, who was charming and seemed possessed of infinite patience.

I mention this as framing for a much simpler point: You should read Chuck’s blog at He’s actually had one for a while, but it used to be a terrifying monstrosity, which I’d have to select-all to read because on anything but IE, the text was black on a black background. It had no RSS, and this made me sad. Thankfully, he’s been dragged into the twenty-first century, and has upgraded to a wordpress blog with all the appropriate bells and whistles, so now the rest of the universe can actually read it.

So why should you? Well, sure, you could read it because Chuck’s done some awesome game designs, having recently wrestled the new Hunter: the Vigil to the ground like a bear and having a trail of credits that sparkle like stars in the sky. But if that was all there was to it, it wouldn’t be as interesting. See, Chuck also writes, and writes about writing, and does both of these things with a unique, compelling, and sometimes profoundly useful style. His stuff is insightful, and it’s genuinely fun to read; check out his posts on writing in the weeds, blogging about blogging and fake writing for a start. Plus, he occasionally throws in some really spectacular macro-lens photography, which makes for lovely (if sometimes disturbing) eye candy.

With all that, the fact that he’s a cool guy is just a bonus.

The Pitch

I have probably been unduly influenced by reading too many screenwriting books, but I have a bit of a habit before I start a new game. I like to write up a pitch for it[1]. It’s short, usually only 500-1000 words, with the idea that it can just go into an email. The idea is to sum up the tone and premise of the game and give the players enough to start chewing on character concepts, but there’s a bit more to it. The act of writing it down in this fashion also helps me focus on the idea and see if I’m actually excited about it. There have been plenty of times when I’ve had an interesting seed, but in the act of writing it down I discover that I don’t have anywhere I want to take it, and I’d much rather find that out before I start the game.

This comes up because I’ve been wanting to run a gritty fantasy game. I’ve been influenced in this thought by Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains, but also by a kind of nostalgia. My old Rolemaster games were pretty much pure urban grit, and I’ve been itching to get back to that. The other night I was finally struck by a solid premise that got around some of my concerns of the genre (specifically, I like giving characters a shared backstory, but that’s usually much nicer than fantasy noir demands) but created an open enough framework for some straight-up sword and dagger goodness.[2]

The pitch is as follows:

When the hordes came out of the east, the Empire was unprepared. It had gone unchallenged for too long, and while its armies were vast, they were poorly led. What would have once been little more than a border skirmish turned into a full-fledged invasion that threatened the imperial capitol itself. The empire proved robust, and the shock powered its counter-attack, leading to a year-long stalemate on the eastern front. The warlord of of the horde sought to break the impasse with a daring move, leaving a fraction of his forces as a distraction in the east and leading the rest on a march across the deadlands.

There’s no reason for the empire to have expected that. The lands of the north are called the deadlands for a reason – the things that wander it are old, and little is known of them except that they kill. The idea of leading an army across it was inspired madness – even if they succeeded in reaching the pass, the citadels that guarded it would hold them long enough for the things in the north to descend upon the invader. But if they could succeed, and strike through Tramontana pass, they would have a clear run at the exposed belly of the Empire.

The northernmost citadel was the Dragon’s Head, also called the Shield of the North. It was manned with five thousand of the empires finest troops, veterans of numerous deadland incursions. Hard, hard men. The khan pulled the walls down around their ears within a week and pressed down the pass to the second fortress.

Waiting at the southern end of the pass was the Dragon’s Tail, also known as the Ass of the North. It was populated by every soldier who had pissed someone off enough for the worst assignment in the Empire, as well as a handful of mercenaries, explorers and traders. When the horde arrived, the commander filled the southern gate with fire powder and withdrew with his bodyguard, making it clear that retreat was not an option. All in all, there were almost seven thousand people within the walls of the Dragon’s Tail when the horde came. In a week, there were half that number. In another week, perhaps a thousand remained. By the end of the third week, when the things from the north fell upon the horde’s rear flank and reinforcements were still a week out, a few hundred defenders remained. The things had reached the gate when the forces of the empire finally arrived to hold the fort, and there they found only a hundred defenders, tattered and bloody.

A proud and victorious (if somewhat by default) empire paraded these heroes back to the imperial capitol. There were 91 of them in all, but with the commander, his bodyguard, and the general of the reinforcing army it made a perfect 100, a number the sages and bards seized upon and called for celebration of the Golden Century, the hundred who had saved the empire. A hundred golden medals were hammered out, granted to these heroes along with other recognitions – including an audience with the emperor himself. They were the heroes of the empire, feasted and celebrated in every corner of the land.

That was then.

Seven years have past since the Dragon’s Siege and the members of the Golden Century have found that heroism tarnishes faster than gold. Some leveraged their fame into position, at court or away. Others used the opportunity to pursue other goals, dreams of education or exploration. Still others have faded away, disappearing down the back alleys and wine shops of the empire. They are all history now, an unwelcome reminder of a time best forgotten.

Still, they know their own. Karl Mitterand was one of them, and his death has drawn out his compatriots for his funeral. Karl had been a soldier, and a drunk, and since the Dragon’s Siege, he’d steadily become more one than the other. The ceremony is in two days, and apparently Karl sold his medal for drinking money. It’s embarrassing, but there’s no way in hell he’s going into the ground without it.

Some questions for Chargen:
What were you before the battle?
What have you done since?
What have you done with your medal? (And what’s your number?)

Now, I have some more ideas about the setting in my head. For example, I think the empire has a wild range of cultures within its boundaries, and I’m pretty sure the Heroes of Dragon pass were awarded lands, but they mostly got cheated out of them since they’re under the oversight of either the reinforcing general or the citadel’s commander (if he’s a dick – he might not be) and thanks to some bureaucratic wrangling, he basically owns them. He’s done pretty well by this whole hero gig, a point to hold in contrast to the actual heroes.

I could go on, almost indefinitely, but I am intentionally reigning that in[3]. I’ll answer any questions players have, but this is a loose sketch that has just enough framework for the characters to fit in, and to allow the players to bring in details that appeal to them. That said, you’ll notice the pitch makes it clear where the action will start – looking for Karl’s medal. I’m all for open-endedness, but it’s essential to have some direction to start with.

By accident, this also suggests a fairly practical model for scheduling purposes. I have a core of folks I intend to offer seats at the table, but there are many more people out there than there are chairs. The Golden Century is a great model for allowing guest characters, even recurring ones, by filling in some of the remaining numbers. Serendipity.

Anyway, with that out of the way, I need to see about scheduling and picking a system, both of which will require some work, but I’m good with that.

1 – I also tend to name the campaigns. This one is looking like “Golden Century”
2 – Curiously, I still haven’t picked a system for this yet. Rolemaster would be perfect, but for the bookkeeping element. Burning Wheel has some merit, but the minigame is too transparent for what I’m looking for. So I’ll chew on that for a bit.
3 – This is crazy hard for me, since I know what questions I want answered, and how I’d answer them, but I must be patient.

Competence Porn

John Rogers is responsible for adding one of my favorite new terms to my vocabulary: “competence porn”. See, people like to talk about conflict and drama in stories but every now and again you just want to see someone be awesome at what they do. You want to watch the master-thief overcome the million dollar security system. You want to see the ass-kicker kick some ass. You want to see the grifter run a con. Whatever form it takes, it’s not about uncertainty of outcome. The pleasure of watching doesn’t come from tension, but rather from the sheer joy of watching someone do what they’re good at. When a piece of media gives you some of this, it’s delivering a little bit of competence porn.

This idea is one that may be even more important to games than a lot of more traditional dramatic ideas like conflict and arcs, since this speaks mostly clearly to what a lot of players have in their head. When they make a character, they almost certainly have an idea of what that character is (or should be) capable of, and that idea looks a lot like competence porn (just gonna call it CP from here on). Players carry that idea around with them, and it helps inspire them to get excited, but nine times out of ten they will never get the chance to express that because most games are designed to make it impossible, and most advice for running a game steers things far away from it.

Now, this is not unreasonable. CP only works in small doses, because if you’re being all awesome, all the time, then you’re effectively writing a Mary Sue story. And sure, there’s some fun in that, but not for anyone but you, so it may not hold up so well at tabletop. Even setting aside the indulgence of it, it will get boring very quickly – adversity is what keeps play interesting, whatever form it takes, so it’s important to keep that adversity coming. CP requires that contrast to stand out – if 95% of play is hard, that 5% where they get to show off really shines.

The problem, of course, is that every rule and most advice is keyed towards that 95% because that’s most of the game. You want to introduce challenges. Make your players sweat. Never give them a free ride because they won’t thank you for it. All this is true so much of the time that it’s really hard to remember that every now and again you need to step back, stop thinking of ways to make life harder(*cough*more interesting*cough*) and let the player show off through the character.

The good news is that once you remember to do this, it’s surprisingly easy to actually do. The ways your players want to be cool are usually written quite clearly on their character sheet, so the only trick is unleashing that. There are a few ways to go about it. One trick works well if you are playing with a system that does not support much player narration; make an exception. Wait for a really good roll, look at the dice, raise your eyebrows, lean back and say “Whew. You blew it out of the water. Tell me how it goes down.” Let them show off for a few minutes, then pick up from there. Alternate approaches to this include allowing characters to make elaborate plans and then surprise them with a “And that’s exactly how it happens. You’re now in the throne room. What do you do?”

That hints at the real underlying trick, and that is to work this sort of competence into your game in a way that feels meaningful, but which doesn’t overrun the game. You don’t want a CP montage to solve all the problems at hand, but thankfully that’s rarely where it’s needed. CP is much more potent in the muddled middle, after your players have a sense of what needs to be done, but before they have much of a clue of what they need to do to make it happen. Giving a player a chance to show off in these situations can be a great way to skip over slow parts of play, and bring players back to solid ground where their options are clearer.

Put more simply, if your character is the best X in the world, then you don’t want him to automatically solve problems by doing X – instead you want X to be what gets him to the point where he can do whatever is necessary to solve the problem at hand. If your badass guy needs to fight the boss, then you can have him roll over the surrounding mooks by sheer virtue of badassness. If your thief needs what’s in that safe, she can effortlessly glide past security systems that would stop anyone else so you can pick up play at the safe.

GMs might notice that we’re getting a twofer here – we’re showcasing the character’s capabilities in a way that makes the player happy while also moving the game directly to the fun stuff.

Just remember: that’s not lazy, that’s efficient.

Show me Where it Hurts (So I Know where to Kick)

While we were discussing consequences and explicit statuses, Fred threw out a point which has sent me thinking. The idea is that you might be able to explicitly lay out what consequences you are willing to accept for your character in advance. In a multiplayer game, this makes useful public knowledge. If you know what sort of consequences another player is willing to take, then you can cater your play towards that (or avoid play with people whose choices are too far removed from your own). This is a pretty good theory, though I admit I think it would fall apart under actual stress. Specifically, I look a back on the lessons (People Lie) and expect that even something as explicitly clear as this would probably lead to drama.

However, it occurs to me that same approach could be very fruitful on the tabletop. See, when you make a character, you’re communicating things to the GM and the other players. Fred and I call this “The Secret Language of Character Sheets“, and it’s a fruitful topic, but it has one dangerous flaw. When a player buys a power or skill at a high level (like a fighting skill), he is communicating one of two contradictory messages. The first is “I am really interested in this thing, and I want to really get pushed hard within it” and the second is “I want to be good enough at this that I don’t have to worry about it.” The contradiction means that this is a potential landmine unless the GM takes the time to communicate with the player to figure out which is which.

This kind of communication with the players is important, and that’s what got me thinking about, of all things, John Wick’s other hundred points.

The Other Hundred Points is a technique John Wick used in 7th Sea for getting player input into the nature of the game. Players are given 100 points to divide between the thematic elements of swashbuckling that interest them most – the 5 options are Action, Romance, Intrigue, Exploration and Military[1]. Every player divides the points as he sees fit, and the GM uses that information to shape the campaign appropriately.

I bring this up because I think the two ideas (explicit consequence and the other hundred points) can be combined to create something that could help a GM further tailor events in his game to his players tastes. The idea is to take the model of the other 100 points and, instead of dividing them among thematic elements, divide them among consequences that the player is most interested in running into. Put another way, the assumption is that bad things are going to happen (Doyce Testerman had some great observations about this) but this way the player can steer those bad things towards the things that interest him most.

So what are the categories of consequence? Off the top of my head:

Physical – I’m looking to take physical punishment, most often in the form of injury. I want fights, and I want the big threat to be the damage done by violence.
Personal – I want the threat to be to the things I value. Treasures to be stolen, houses to be burn down, weapons broken and so on.
Social – I want to be hurt through people. Not only do I want my relationships to be at risk, I want the people in those relationships to be at risk.
Emotional – I want to be kicked in the teeth, metaphorically speaking. I want to be sad, angry, broken-hearted and everything in between.
Abstract – I want high level threats, threats to the world, the kingdom, things which are important but which don’t impact me directly.[2]

The list could probably use some refining – Emotional is a little vague, and social might be two categories, just for starters. But the basic shape of it should be pretty transparent. I need to think about this a little bit more, but I think this might be something to add to the pre-game bag of tricks.

1 – I think. Going from memory here.

2 – Some of your are rolling your eyes at that one, since it’s really the “I don’t want to be threatened” choice, but the reality is that mode is out there, and you cannot bully people out of it. The best you can do is respect it, but make sure that the prices that other players pay are awesome enough to make the player consider extending you enough trust to take a real risk. You can’t change your players, only yourself, so take this sort of a response as an opportunity to look at yourself and ask what you are doing that is making this a desirable choice. It’s easy to say that you always act in a way that is deserving of your player’s trust, but when you get a clear sign that maybe that trust isn’t there, you shouldn’t just brush it off.

Of course, also don’t beat yourself up over it. Some players just roll this way, whatever the level of trust. If your player’s happy with this and everyone’s having fun, then don’t worry about doing it “right”.

Conditions, Consequences and Kung Fu

Weapons of the Gods has a wonderful system for kung fu, and has some of the best mechanics I’ve ever seen for integrating the rules with the setting. However, it also has a bit of a reputation as being opaque, one that is not entirely undeserved. The primary points of confusion emerge from the subsystem which is used for non-kung fu activities (things like medicine, magic and such).

The basic idea is that powers put statuses on your stats (or on concepts that correspond with your stats) – these status might be good or bad, and the color on them is all about the kung fu flavors – having your chi out of balance and such – but the mechanic tends to be a bonus or a penalty to the stat. The basic idea is that once you create such a status, it can be increased, decreased, inverted, or moved to another stat. The logic of how these things are done are where thing get a little convoluted.

Anyway, this is where I end up thinking about simplifying the whole system, but keeping the idea intact, by using the fixed status list. The idea came to me as I am thinking about healing in the MUSH context, turning a “Hurt” status into a “Tired” status, or even into an “Angry” status to do berserker rage.

As with all such models, a lot of this hinges on coming up with a robust list of statuses (a task of its own) but the idea of how the statuses interact and can transform is a fruitful area to play around in mechanically. But to illustrate, let’s assume a 4 stat system of Earth, Air, Fire and Water, in a vaguely Everway sort of arrangement. Each might have a positive and negative status: Earth might be Resolute/Inert, Fire might be Energized/Tired, Air might be Sharp/Dull, and Water might be Flexible/Spineless. (Pick other statuses if you like. This is purely for illustration.

So, something bad happens and you end up “Tired” (Negative Fire). You go to the Shaman, and what he does depends on his skill. He might be able to do one or more of the following:[1]

  • Flip an element from negative to positive (on a per-element basis, or universally) – In this case turning “Tired” into “Energized”.
  • Move an element one step clockwise or counterclockwise – Tired could be changed to “Inert” or “Dull”
  • Move an element to the opposite element – “Tired” could be turned to “Spineless”

Let’s say this Shaman is a skilled Water practitioner, so he can turn water statuses from negative to positive and back, but he can only move things “around the wheel”. He would need to move Earth/Tired to Air/Dull to Water/Spineless and then invert it to Water/Flexible. That’s 3 steps and assuming each step has a cost or skill roll associated with it, that’s much more complicated than, say, going to the fire Shaman who could just flip “Tired” to “Energized” in a single action.

Obviously this is a fairly crude example, but consider if it had a somewhat more flavorful or setting-specific set of statuses, maybe things that actually represent curses and blessings – say a saint and a devil for each position of the cross, or as Weapons of the Gods does, the humors of the body and the good and bad parts of each. This wheel model is one of the neater semi-hidden features of WOTG, and explicit statuses seem to be a way to make it easier to introduce into another game.

Alternately, this need have nothing to do with stats or character sheets. With a little bit of tweaking, this is a decent model for any closed-but-flexible dynamic, such as a political system. Imagine if you replaced the elements with, say, the factions at court (King, Queen, Church and Council, for example). The statuses become “In Favor/Out of Favor” and you suddenly have a map of the dynamics of the court, and your place within it. Even if there are no explicit mechanics for the change, this is something that the GM can use to keep track of the results of events in play.

1 – There are also a lot of even more fiddly options, like “Invert, but only by changing it to the opposite element”, to say nothing of creating and removing statuses. And, of course, it’s entirely possible a character might have more than one status if the setting logic allows for it.

More Good Things on Monday

So, this runs the risk of sounding like an advertisement, but I’m ok with that. If a product makes you excited, it’s worth saying so, and that excitement is what the advertisers are trying to sound like.

If you use multiple computers, then you should consider taking a look at dropbox. Here’s how it works – you sign up with dropbox and install a (very small, pretty innocuous) bit of software and it creates a folder on your machine called “My Dropbox”. Anything you save in that folder is also saved online at dropbox, and can be accessed through their website.
That’s all well and good for automated backups, but where it gets useful is that if you install the software on a second machine, it will create the folder and copy the contents of the original. That is to say, every machine that has this folder has the SAME information – change it in one place and it changes everywhere. [1] The second and subsequent folders are all on your machine so you can access them offline – the connection is only used for syncing up.[2]
What’s most amazing to me is how smoothly it works. This has entirely replaced me carrying around a usb drive for backing up all my work – if I write it, it gets saved in my dropbox, and I know it’s backed up. Then, when I crack open my netbook out on the road, I can get at the same files and pick up where I left off. Plus, if I need to grab something from another computer entirely, I can do so through the web site.
That would be enough for me, but there’s one more feature that I have only scratched the surface of. Dropbox allows you to share files as well. At its simplest, this means you set a sub-folder public, and people can logon to dropbox to download the files you’re sharing, but if you’re also a dropbox member, you can add the shared folder to your existing folder, and it becomes part of the sync up. In practice that means that if you and a friend are working on a cookbook together, you can have a shared, remote, backed up folder called “Cookbook” on any machine either of you needs to use which has all the files you both need. If you’ve ever collaborated on a writing project before and dealt with mailing files back and forth, you can imagine what a lifesaver this is.
Now, there are a lot of other services that offer similar benefits, or tangential ones. There are file-sharing sites like senduit that let you pass around much bigger files, and sites like 37signals have more collaboration tools, and they’re all well and good. Dropbox is pretty simple in terms of what it does and how it does it, and that simplicity makes it robust. You could get a fancier, more expensive tool and maybe use it, but dropbox makes itself so simple that it becomes hard not to use it, and that’s the mark of a great tool.
For all this, I still just use the free service. Not that this isn’t something I’d be willing to pay for, but I’m not a graphic designer or a media guy – all the files I need to back up and sync are buckets full of words, and those just don’t get very big. If I ever find myself pushing the 2 gig limit, I’ll probably look at their pricing plans, but I don’t see that coming anytime in the near future. I admit, I feel a little bad about that, but I shouldn’t. They’re smart guys, and every user of the free service makes their product more valuable to the people who are paying for it – like fax machines, the value goes up as the network expands – because the ability to share files is more valuable with more users. Plus, given that price point, why not give it a try?

1 – Mechanically, it does this by virtue of the local copies looking for updates from the remote copy. As anyone whose dealt with remote backup knows, that does introduce one potential problem, where a document is saved in 2 different versions on two different machines which aren’t connected. The fear scenario here is that one version overwrites the other, but thankfully dropbox handles it pretty intelligently – if it detects a conflict, it will spawn an additional version of the file so you can fix the problem.

2 – Yes, that means files are stored redundantly, which may not seem incredibly futuristic-elegant, but it turns out to be incredibly practical. And compared to other things, storage is cheap.

Bonus Lesson: Safe Harbor and Consequences

Ok, so something came up in discussion of the Lessons of RTA that probably merits some discussion of its own.

One of the biggest problems with any system of resolution on a MUSH is that it’s a low-trust environment, by necessity of being broadly multiplayer. Small groups may form to play in isolation, and within those groups the play may be very high-trust, but that breaks down for any sort of public play. Public play[1] is essential to a MUSH (because otherwise, why not just play remote tabletop?) but at the same time it introduces most of the logistical complications for the system.[2]

Getting trust in a public context is rough. A referee can handle it, but that’s labor intensive and subject to calls of bias and other nonsense. System can handle it as well, but doing so requires clarity in what the system can and can’t do. If the system allows for undesirable outcomes, players will avoid it. To provide an example, if the system allows for an outcome where you might win by enough to cut my head off, I am likely to assume that is the outcome you will go for. This is basic risk math – if a potential outcome is overwhelmingly bad, I need to prepare for it, even if the likelihood is low, because risk is based of likelihood AND cost. Because death is the ultimate bad outcome, it’s price is effectively infinite, so even if there’s only a fractional chance of it happening, it still looms largest in my personal math.[3]

What players really need is a degree of “Safe Harbor”, a certain baseline of protection against bad actors. This could be a simple set of rules, like “Characters can’t be killed, crippled or removed from play without their consent” but as soon as you lay down such rules, people start to weasel around it. They try to find ways around those limitations, or apply social pressures to force people to give their consent. In response, people refuse to consent to a broader and broader circle of things by virtue of indirect impacts (“You can’t kill that NPC because it would socially cripple my character!” and such) and we find ourselves back at square one – little trust and little fun as a result.

Now, at the risk of sounding tangential, I’m very pleased with the RTA stat system. The stats (Force, Grace, Wits and Resolve) are all about how you do something more than the specific details of what you do. Force could just as easily be strength as it could be kung fu, or just luck in dropping heavy objects. Wits could be intellect, cunning, situational awareness or god knows what. The bottom line is that there is a mechanical core (the value of the stat) that offers guidelines for a very broad range of color (a term for description of actions and things) surrounding it. I mention this because I think this same logic could help the trust issue.

Mouseguard has a wonderful system of consequences as a result of conflict. There are a small set of statuses a character might acquire as a result of a conflict, things like “Hurt”, “Sick”, “Angry”, “Tired” and so on. There aren’t a lot of them, and while they have very specific mechanical effects, the color is entirely flexible. “Hurt” could mean a limp, arm in a sling, a bandaged head or anything else you can think of within that general definition of hurt. This is not as fine a grain as a lot of injury systems, but there’s a good case that a finer grain is not necessary.

I think this could probably be stolen for a MUSH (or LARP) pretty effectively as a way of creating implicit safe harbor for conflicts. If there are a list of explicit consequences (with mechanical effects) then players know exactly how bad it can get, and with the flexibility of the color, players can protect their concept. That is to say, if Derek and Anne get in a fight and Anne wins, the rules might dictate that Derek gains the “hurt” status[4], which will have certain mechanical effects, and last a certain amount of time. Anne controls the mechanical element (whether or not Derek gains the status) and may use that as a point of negotiation. Derek has authority over the color (though he will hopefully take the events of the scene into account) so he ultimately can decide whether one of the cuts he took was meaningful or if he wrenched his shoulder dodging the last attack or whatever else he can think of.

Now, this works great for swordfights, but this also opens up social conflict in interesting ways. One big problem with any social conflict system on a MUSH is that players are intensely attached to player autonomy, partly because of the nature of the games and partly because – historically – a lot of games in the past have had strong streaks of mind-control sex and other potentially squicky behaviors that leave people super wary. In the risk/reward calculation, surrendering autonomy is possibly even worse than death, so the mistrust is even more intense. But if losing a social conflict means a character is “angry” or “flustered”, but the way to play that is still clearly in the hands of the player, I suspect you might find people a little more willing to mix it up.

So, I lay this out in the manner of an exorcism. I do not need to be spending brain bandwith designing MUSH systems, so I leave my thinking on the table, and go get a cup of coffee.

1 – Sometimes cynically referred to as “Bar Play.” It’s an old joke, but most public scenes on MUSHes tend to happen in bars because they are one of the few places that people can legitimately just hang out until something interesting happens. This is one of the consequences of a lack of direction – if you want to play but have nothing you want to accomplish (or more importantly, no way to actually proceed with it) then going someplace public and hoping to bump into people tends to be the best option. This is probably not ideal, but it’s a reality of the structures of play, and it has some upsides – for many players the socialization element is the reason they play in the first place.

2- At its most basic, it makes it very difficult to delineate when a scene begins and ends – people come and go, and events rise and fall. That’s pretty hard to hang any sort of scene-based mechanic off, and the ability to begin and end scenes cleanly is essential for a lot of the more clever rules out there that might otherwise be very helpful in a MUSH context.

3 – There’s a whole lot of fascinating psychology to this, but the bottom line is that we are far more sensitized to dramatic, extreme risks than we are to ones that seem low key. Consider the fear of flying: you’re much more likely to die in your car, but we’re used to our cars, and a car crash is less dramatic than a plane crash, so we discount it.

4 – There might even be more variety. Maybe Derek can fight defensively and get the “Tired” status instead (or put “Tired” on Anne). Maybe Anne has a gift that lets her poison her blades, so she can choose for Derek to be “Sick” rather than “Hurt”. The mechanical options are broad and fascinating (especially in how it relates to types of fights and potential tactics and abilities) but would start turning into full-bore game design from here.

Do Heroes Change?

One of the questions to ask[1], when looking at any fiction, is whether or not the protagonist changes over the course of events. In the classic literary model he usually is, and the story is the arc of that transformation as he learns valuable lessons and discovers new insights. This is not the case for all fiction though – some protagonists are iconic, and are basically the same at the end of the story as they are at the beginning. Examples of this abound, from Sherlock Holmes to Conan to Spider Man[2], to say nothing of television characters for whom this is pretty much the norm.

Both kinds of protagonists rock, but there’s definitely a tendency towards iconic heroes in the material that is most inspirational to role playing games. I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that that creates a tendency towards iconic heroes in play, but I will say that it’s a robust segment.

1 – Robin Laws has written some interesting stuff about this, and is absolutely the inspiration for some of this thinking.
2 – Iconic heroes do tend to change once; over the course of their origin story where they change from whoever they were into the iconic hero they become. This is a big reason why movies about iconic heroes tend to go for the origin story first – since it has a traditional arc, it’s easier to tell.