Category Archives: MUSH

Rethinking Props

This is a MUSH one, so other geek tribes can probably just skip it today.

So, I’ve bee thinking about props and realizing that I have a lot of faulty assumptions. To begin with, I assume that a prop should have a propco simply by virtue of being a prop. That’s bad enough, but more subtly, I think I’ve made a somewhat backward assumption: that propcos are there for the sake of the prop.

That is, the more I think about it, all crap.

Ok, so here’s the thing. Running plots on a MUSH is a pain, especially since consequences and impacts are hard to come by and difficult to implement. Staff can do it, but in the absence of staff, the theory is that a prop controller can have consequences of play reflected in the prop he controls. That seems like a very reasonable model, but how often do you see props handled in that fashion? The default assumption is that it is the propcos job to “look out for the interests” of the prop and to keep it form being abused.

That’s one of those things that makes a lot of sense when you’re hip deep in it, but from a distance looks completely ass backwards. Props do not need protecting. Props are, ultimately, not very important. Their importance is solely in terms of how much they serve play, and they serve play by reflecting consequences. To my mind, if the prop is not in the hands of the person most willing to see it changed by play, it is in the wrong hands.

Now, that’s not to say it needs to be in any hands. For many people, props are an organizational unit of information. They are valuable for the background and playgroup they provide. Those are, absolutely, important things, and while they might require a subject matter expert – someone who knows the lore of the prop and can answer questions about it – that doesn’t mean it needs a propco. The prop might well be off the table in terms of the impact of play, at which point it’s not really a prop at all, just a background element. There’s nothing wrong with that: setting depend on having some elements that aren’t going to be constantly subject to change, and so long as it’s clear what’s “in play” and what is not then all is well.

What’s more, the role of propco is one that gets horribly muddled by the non-prop responsibilities. Being a propco is a responsibility, and while most propcos will agree with that, the reasons they do so are a little different than you might expect. it is not that they feel it’s a lot of work maintaining the prop, it is that by virtue of being propco, they are also de facto head of the playgroup. That means they spend their days herding cats, which is a lot of work. One of the rewards of that work is the social status that comes of being a propco.

At this point, it really feels to me like the bad parts of the system really feed back on themselves. Under this one umbrella, “propco” we really have several VERY different roles:

  • Keeper of Lore
  • Head of Playgroup
  • Keeping Prop Dynamic (handling consequences)
  • VIP of the Game

Is it any wonder that props end up static, fiercely guarded little principalities? Keeping the prop dynamic is the least rewarding of the roles, and is often in conflict with the other priorities. If a playgroup is tied to a prop, then taking consequences to the plot is often at odds with your responsibility to the playgroup. If you dig the social status of being a propco, diminishing your prop diminishes your status. Subject matter expertise is the only role that doesn’t conflict with handling consequences, and it’s the one most often farmed out to someone who is not the propco.

I propose that we rethink the prop and see about divvying up these responsibilities a bit. First and foremost, separate the props from the setting elements. The simple act of saying that the element-owner[1] can concentrate on other priorities will remove a huge amount of stress from the system. By calling out the props that can be impacted by play, and putting them in the hands of players who have a vested interest in seeing them change (which may mean players external to the prop, to prevent conflicts of interest) you free props up to be more play centric, and that would be a welcome thing.

What’s more, it would also relax play in the fixed elements. If people know that play cannot substantially change something, and come to trust that, they will often get much more relaxed about short term consequences, knowing that the long term smooths it all out. Remote elements become more playable because there’s no sense of needing to clear your play with the propco.

Other roles would, I suspect, sort themselves out. People have a way of finding leaders and social currency no matter what the situation. And this would by no means be a panacea – the first danger i imagine is that we’d end up with propcos who only allow their preferred playgroup to make changes in their personal element of the setting. That’s inconvenient (though if done properly might work very organically), but since staff have fewer props to worry about, it’s not hard to keep an eye on who is changing what, and watch for trends.

Whatever the solution, the bottom line is that a lot of what we do with props today is out of habit more than anything else, and like any habit, it merits some examination to see if our actions are really serving our goals.

1 – Yes, it needs a catchier name

Bow to Your Partner

So, New Years Eve was geeky indeed. Three games of Pandemic (2 wins, 1 loss) followed by extensive and satisfying geeking with Fred and Fuzz. This is always a magnificent thing, and we ended up getting onto winning and losing on MUSH.

So, I’m mostly channeling Fred here, since the key idea was his, but it was awesome enough that it deserves some broadcast.

A lot of the problems with conflict on MUSH come down to the fact that most peopel really suck at winning. This means a lot of things, but the big one is that people tend to be very bad at findign ways to win which remains respectful of the loser. For the most part, if we win, we don’t want to respect the loser, we are focused on getting them to respect us. This cuts to the heart of most issues: people aren’t afraid of most bad things, they are concerned that they’re not being respected. When every party feels that way, it’s hard for an atmosphere of trust to ever be established, and things get and stay toxic.

This is where Fred’s idea comes up. He proposes a ritual element to conflict where the first thing you do is to ask the other party what they desire you to respect. The example used is someone gettign in a swordfight with Benedict (the swordfighting badass of Amber). If Bob asks that Benedict respect that he’s good with the sword, and Benedict asks that Bob respect Benedicts higher social role, and they both agree, that sets the ground rules for the fight in a non-intrusive way that allows both players to steer things towards what they want.

This is not an idea that needs any mechanical support (though maybe some code support to publicize these boundaries would be useful), and that’s part of the point. See, while the information about the boundaries is useful and can shape the fight in fun ways, it is arguably even more important to have asked the question. That moment of stopping to think about it, like saluting an opponent, is a moment to focus on the sport and how to go about it. In my experience, most people mean well, but they need a nudge to be reminded of behaviors they support on paper.

Obviously this won’t always work. There will be disagreements about what should or shouldn’t be respected. There will be passive-aggressive, snarky social nonsense. Edges will blur and people will get indignant. But all that happens already. I am optimistic enough to think that a moment of reflection and respect can go a long way towards improving it.

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.

Road to Amber, Lessons 6 Through 10

Following up on Tuesday’s post with the second half of the lessons from Road to Amber.

Lesson #6. People Lie Without Even Knowing It
If there is one single thing that makes staffing a game absolutely maddening, this is it. I’m not even talking about the people who intentionally lie about things (though there are plenty of those) but rather people who are sure they want one thing, but actually want something entirely different. This comes up most often in the context of risk and conflict, but it can really come up in almost any context.

The simple truth is that the least reliable yardstick of what people are looking for in play is what they say they want. There are exceptions, of course, but you will drive yourself mad trying to find them. Ultimately, you need to apply a skeptical ear to requests until you’ve had time to see people in play (and specifically, how well they can handle being in a bad position).

Lesson #7. Ownership is Powerful, but Stagnates Over Time
One of the most effective ways for staff to delegate responsibility is to give the control of setting elements to players. These prop controllers (“PropCos”) have the autonomy necessary to make the decisions regarding matters that might come up in play without needing to consult staff. This tends to be awesome for a while, but eventually the situation will come up where the prop may be endangered, and the player is put in the unfortunate position where he might end up diminishing the prop if he allows that. Since that would mean diminishing the potential for fun in the future, he makes the rational decision to preserve the prop. Thus, with every good intention, we start a decision-making chain that ends in the prop never changing, ever.

This one’s pretty hard to shake once it sets in, and most attempts to do so result in bad feelings and other unpleasantness. You can try to establish strong rules for what owners can and cannot do, but those are only worth the paper they’re printed on (so to speak). I sometimes wonder if there might be some way to subject props to regular review, but that only feels like half of a solution. I expect this one to bug me for a while yet.

Lesson #8. Nobody Reads Anything Longer than an Elevator Pitch
An exaggeration, sure, but it speaks to an important point – people want to get data quickly and get on to the next thing. Of all things, twitter makes for a good set of guidelines for this: ask how you would express an idea with explicit limits on the number of words or characters you can use.

Lesson #9. It is Easier to Ignore Direction than to Find It
The greatest problem for players in any large game is answering the question “What do I do now?” Some players excel at answering the question, and can enthusiastically make their own fun, but even the best of them will occasionally find themselves bogged down. In those situations, it helps if there is some default action to take or direction to go, something that can be picked up and run with. There’s a lot of resistance to this idea since it tends to manifest as “metaplot” or “Railroading” but unless the GMs are forcing it down people’s throats, then this is a good thing to have. The people who need it can tap into it, and the people who don’t can ignore it.

The dark side of this is that the most effective kind of direction takes the form of a problem. In and of itself that’s not bad, but it becomes a problem when players come to resent problems and want them to go away, not realizing that in doing so, they are taking away their direction. They play and solve the problems of the day, but unless they’re willing to embrace new problems, they are killing their own fun.[1]

There’s no good fix of this, short of people realizing that problems are what fend of boredom in fiction, and that’s not happening anytime soon.

Lesson #10. Finish 100%, Show 25%
This is sort of the flipside of “Prune, Don’t Seed”. Have everything done and in hand, but don’t show it all. The image that the players will create from incomplete information will be vastly cooler and more compelling than whatever your idea was, and the only thing that will ever come from a full reveal is disappointment. This is total man-behind-the-curtain, illusionist sleight-of-hand but it is incredibly potent and incredibly important.

This is one of those ideas that I need to step back from a little because i find it profoundly self-evident. That’s great for me, but it makes for a piss poor explanation, so let me break down the benefits.

  • Because players are figuring things out, they’re more invested than if they were just told
  • Because more players will be thinking about it, they will generate more ideas than any one writer ever could
  • Because you’re not showing it all, you can change things if the players come up with a cooler idea

Of these three, I cannot overstate the potency of the first. People are, by their nature, very strongly invested in conclusions they come to on their own, right or wrong. If you can tap that, your game stands to benefit a lot.

Extra Bonus Rule 0: Work With Ninjas
The simple reality is that Helix, God of the MUSH, is a coding machine, capable of creating entirely new systems and doing so in an incredibly short timeline. That allows rapid prototyping, which is incredibly useful.

However, Helix is also one of the kindest, smartest, and also most pinpoint-orbital-strike-weapon-like people it has ever been my privilege to call a friend. She was a joy to work with, and that underscores the most important point. The people you work and play with may have all the skills and talent in the world, but if they’re not people you enjoy, none of it is worthwhile. I don’t regret my departure from RTA, it was the right decision, but I do miss the collaboration.

1 – I feel like the Lorax here, if he were a nerd rather than a hippie.

Road to Amber: Lessons 1 through 5

As noted in yesterday’s posts, I’m drilling down into the lessons learned from Road to Amber. The first half get run through today, and hopefully the rest come tomorrow.

Lesson #1. Everyone Wants to Control the Network

I blame Neal Stephenson. Basically, if you introduce the possibility that players can control some manner of in-game resource, there will always be a few who want to control actual things, like goods or armies, but the first thing that most geeks will ask for is the network. They want to control shipping or the bureaucracy or some other thing whose power comes from the ability to direct and control other things. This is not a huge shock: gamers tend to be inherently Jominian, and this is where their interest lies.

The problem is that they also tend to think they’re being incredibly clever about it, and will often make a big show about how the thing they want is clearly boring and unexciting. This I kind of novel and amusing once, but eventually it just makes me want to bash heads in with rocks. Thankfully, I was given some perspective on this recently. See, my son loves these little dried fruit snacks we give him, but we need to be careful not to let him see the bag. He’s figured out that the bag is where the snacks come from, and he will ignore snacks in favor of pursuing the bag. He’s 8 months old, so I’m pretty proud of his reasoning skills. But I figure anyone older than that needs to realize that this clever idea is one that can be essentially grasped by an infant. Now, when I encounter that phenomena, I just imagine Jamie diving for the bag of snacks, and I smile.

So what’s to be done about it? My instinct is to allow it, but set things up so that they understand why the bureaucrats and shippers tend to get the short end of the stick in any real conflict, but that’s just mean. The reality is that if there’s something that people want that much, it should be enabled. The trick, I think, is to make it more dependent on other players – if you want network play, then nodes really need to be other players.

And that’s sort of the rub. Network play tends to be pretty boring in and of itself because players don’t *need* the network. It’s more fun (and more profitable) for them to horse trade directly among themselves. If I need iron or horses or whatever, why not go directly to the iron or horses or whatever guy? The upshot is that the network guy only ends up working with a very generous player, one who is committed to connecting other people. That’s rewarding, but it’s a lot of work. There are other solutions: network guy is often treated as controlling things no one else cares about, but the myriad ways that can go wrong are just overwhelming.

All of which is to say, I don’t really have a solution for this one yet, except that it’s something you need to keep an eye on. If you’re going to allow PCs to take network roles, then you need to have some reason for people to seek them out as connectors. There may be a temptation to give them more information, but that’s a bad plan, as that tends to turn them into information brokers. That’s cool for them, but it’s a whole other niche.

Ideally, if you have a way for currency or resources to change hands, the network guy should be desirable because he makes such transitions more efficient. Consider a game of merchant prince’s, where one family is dominant in shipping. When two other houses want goods to change hands, only 50% of the goods are transmitted (representing cost of shipping and such). If you can get a member of this third, network-ey house to sign on, then 75% are transmitted and the shipper gets some percentage, either fixed or negotiated[1]. This works because there’s a clear benefit in going to the network, but at the same time if the network is an asshole, he can’t *stop* play, as much as he might want to. As a bonus, our network guy is dependent on the other houses for his resources, so he’s drawn more tightly into play.

Lesson #2. Focus was a Win
So, in addition to experience points, players accumulated another currency called “focus” it was accumulated fairly quickly (about a point a day) but it capped at 10 points, so there was strong incentive to spend it rather than let it go to waste. Generically, Focus represented the effort a character put into things when he wasn’t playing, so it could be spent to study things, build things, influence events and so on. The specific things it could be spent on were cool and all, but the real triumph is that this tapped into the part of our brain that loves gaining and spending points. People enjoyed the very act of earning and using focus, and really seemed to enjoy that they could regularly do things with it.

From this I take the lesson to always include something like this. Whatever form it takes, the main idea is to have something that comes more frequently than advancement, and which can be spent for concrete things.[2]

Lesson #3. Complexity Should Emerge from Play, not Setting
This is the nicest possible way to say that players are not interested in nuance.

When we started things out, I wanted to noble houses to feel like part of the setting, not like one-note caricatures (this is the merchant house, this is the military house, etc.) The same thinking was applied to the creation of the Golden Circle shadows (the alternate worlds near Amber). In both cases the idea is that there might be a strong theme but that it would just be the strongest note in a more complicated piece of music.

This was a knee jerk response to too many years of seeing organizations composed of stereotypes as the norm, and it was just a bad idea.

The reality is that players want the stereotypes. They want the groups to be simple enough to summarize in a word or two. This sounds awful on the face of it, since it seems to suggest that players aren’t that bright, but that’s not the problem. The real issue is that they want clarity, because clarity provides them with clearer impetus for play, and play is the ultimate goal. Creating a simple foundation lets players create exceptions (and oh how they love creating exceptions) and lets the complexity emerge from their play.

This is a pretty simple lesson to apply since it actually calls for less work on the part of the designers. You don’t need to flesh things out – paint them in simple stark lines, and players will (hopefully) take care of the rest.

Lesson #4. When Rushed, Prune, Don’t Seed
The initial rollout of RTA was slightly hurried, partly out of necessity and partly out of the discovery that people were already playing. That meant in a lot of cases we had to plant a flag in the ground where an idea was going to go, but just leave it at that with the expectation that we’d get back to it. It seemed necessary at the time, but as the game went on it became clear that with the pace that new things needed to be dealt with, the time and resources necessary to go back to those seeds was not always going to be available. This would be incredibly frustrating when a player found one of these flags, but it simply wasn’t ready. Either we’d have to sprint to fill it in, or disappoint the player.

The alternative would have been to roll out with less initially – have fewer options available and fewer things going on, limited to those things that were fully fleshed out. That seemed very unappealing at the time, but in retrospect I think it would have been a much better idea. It would have helped forge a stronger central idea of what the game is about, and it would have allowed for staged release of new elements. The fact that this ends up looking like the average MMO release schedule is probably not a coincidence.

Lesson #5. Watch What People Use
Helix[3], bless her soul, loves statistics and hard numbers, and that meant that the game was set up to do really robust anonymized reporting on various game statistics. This meant we could see what people were spending on, what mechanics were being used or not, and generally speaking how people were interacting with the game. This made it incredibly easy to see what wasn’t working, and it also helped to identify gaps that needed filling.

All of which is to say, put some thought into transparency up front. This is not limited to electronic media – do people take home their character sheets? Do item cards change hands? What questions are people asking GMs? Where is play happening? Where is it _not_ happening? These kinds of questions are the ones you want to stop and ask yourself during a game so that you know what’s going to work better in the *next* game.

1 – Negotiated is really interesting since it tends to drive people towards their “fair play” reactions. The optimized transporter might say “You can transport 51% and I will keep 24%, everyone wins”, and while he might be able to sell that to some, most folks will tell him to go piss up a rope. The marginal advantage is not worth the benefit he gains, even if it costs them nothing. Of course, if other members of the transportation family can offer cometing bids, it gets all the more interesting.

2 – Arguably, gold might fulfill this role in some games, but that depends a lot on the surrounding structure.

3 – Chief Poobah and Grand Code Wizard of RTA. Also the ninja referred to in the still-mysterious rule 0.

10 Lessons Learned from Road to Amber

So, a while back I helped create a MUSH[1] called Road to Amber. It’s still going, and you can read more about it on the wiki, but I’ve since bowed out of my role in it due to the time constraints of changing jobs and giving birth to my first kid. I’m pretty proud of what we accomplished, and I think there were a number of ideas in RTA that are going to see use in other games down the line. However, there were also a lot of lessons I learned from what worked and what didn’t work. I’ve been meaning to write them down for a while, and this seems like the venue.

Top Ten Lessons of Road to Amber
1. Everyone Wants to Control the Network
2. Focus was a Win
3. Complexity Should Emerge from Play, not Setting
4. When Rushed, Prune, Don’t Seed
5. Watch What People Use
6. People Lie Without Even Knowing It
7. Ownership is Powerful, but Stagnates Over Time
8. Nobody Reads Anything Longer than an Elevator Pitch
9. It is Easier to Ignore Direction than to Find It.
10. Finish 100%, Show 25%

Bonus rule 0: Work With a Ninja.

Vague enough? This is a bit of a teaser, I admit, but I’m laying these out here so I can start getting into them over the next couple of days.

Edit: And here they are…

Link to Lessons 1-5
Link to Lessons 6-10+1
Unexpected Extra Lesson

1 – A MUSH is an online game played in a text environment – think of it like the old infocom games, except other people are also walking around in it, and play centers around talking and interacting with those people. This type of game has been around for about two decades now, and RTA is far from the first Amber-based MUSH. Amber gives itself well to the flexibility of the medium.

Structurally, it has a lot in common with LARPing, so some of the lessons can migrate back and forth between the two.