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Backstage by Wes Platt

Cat HerdingEdit

For nearly five years, I've managed one MUSH.

Nowadays, I manage three.

I wouldn't do it if, on some level at least, I didn't love it.

Or maybe it's just that the management gigs are a necessary evil in bringing certain visions to life online. I think that's much more like it. Because, to be quite frank: I *hate* the management crap.

Managing an online game isn't just like herding cats. It's like herding one fairly large group of cats, some of which hate each other and lash about with their claws while others are yowling in heat or hiding under the bed or hanging from the chandelier or tearing through your closet - and you get to play referee.

That means picking sides. You're either with the scratchers or the yowlers or the hiders or the hangers or the tearers. Oh, sure, you can try to be neutral, The Portrait of Objectivity - and that's when ALL the cats start pissing on you.

Gee, guess I *am* slightly jaded on the management side of things.

If you're thinking about running your own game - let alone three - make sure you're ready for life in the trenches. Make sure you've got a thick skin. Make sure you're ready to make mistakes on your own terms. And make sure you're prepared to swallow your pride and fix things you break, if it benefits the game.

Because you will be attacked. You will be questioned. You will be second-guessed. You will be undercut. You will be backstabbed.

You will do some things just because you want to, the hell with what anyone else thinks.

And you will be faced with choices that will determine the fate of your game. If you stubbornly refuse to fix problems out of pride, then you condemn your game to acrimony and mediocrity.

So, that brings me to why I'm here.

I want to help.

In the past, I've focused more on storytelling and plot-management. I'll still do that in these columns. But I plan to spend at least as much time sharing my own adventures in MUSH management - the good, the bad, and the ugly - so that maybe you can learn from what I've done right and what I've done wrong.

All experiences, good or bad, are valuable. Maybe you'll read these columns and get a hint about how to steer clear of certain pitfalls.

Running a game can be rewarding. No matter how nasty it sometimes gets, I'm still doing it - in triplicate! So, with that in mind, you can either consider my sage advice to be worthy of consideration, or you can write me off as an absolute nutcase who is too much of a glutton for punishment to be granted any serious credibility.

Either way, I hope at least to be entertaining and informative.

Welcome Backstage!

Now, pass the Tylenol.

Putting the Band TogetherEdit

How many posts like this have you seen on Top MUD Sites and The MUD Connector?

"I have n idea 4 a kewl mud. Need coderz, bilderz, n00b helperz, webmasterz, plotterz."

Too many, right?

Way too many.

How do I put this politely? Screw it. There's not polite way to say it:

If you're the person who posts that sort of thing, STOP IT! Quite cluttering up the Internet's precious bandwidth supply! Suck it up! Go back to the MUD you used to love that pissed you off so badly and keep on playing!

Still reading? Then you must not be that guy. Or, you are that guy, but you recognize you've got a problem, you need help, and you want to know what to do.

Either way, listen up:

If you ever want to start your own game, you really can't start it alone. The odds already are stacked so high against text-based games these days without putting yourself further in the hole at the outset.

Just because you've got one half-baked idea for a game and a server to host it on doesn't make you ready for primetime. Hell, you may have the World's Most Original MUD Idea, and people might drop in to look - but will they stay? Will they stick around, if all they've got to deal with is you and your empty promise that one day, players will come?

No.

Before you post anything anywhere, you need a team. You need people who already know each other, who can work well together and who share your common cause and vision. Without that core, your first cluster of loyal fans, you might as well hang it up.

It took me about a year to work up a team just to start developing my original MUSH, OtherSpace. I didn't run rampant in forums trying desperately to get coders or builders. I built a team of like-minded players from another game we all played together. With that team, we bashed out coding ideas, thematic concepts, policies, spaceflight systems - the works. Our energy and enthusiasm fed each our momentum. We roleplayed characters together. We opened the doors, invited new people to come in and share the energy and excitement. It snowballed. Now, five years later, OtherSpace is probably the most successful original-theme space fantasy MUSH around.

Quite a few core staffers remain. All the rest have come from the playerbase over time. We NEVER take someone onto the staff who isn't a player first. Grooming people to come up through the ranks takes longer, requires patience and infuriates the occasional egomaniac who hasn't played your game but firmly believes he is God's gift to coding.

If you don't have a team to start with, it's too soon to start.

If you don't have the patience to wait for a core team to form, then, I'm sorry, but you deserve every crash, server breach, database wipe, temper tantrum and theme change you must endure until 1) dumb luck blesses you with a miraculous Team To Save Everything or 2) Darwinism prevails and you shut down in disgrace.

The Walls Have EyesEdit

Be careful where you lurk.

Players are a different breed of cat when it comes to issues of privacy.

I've made the mistake of occasionally being too blunt about privacy on a MUD:

There is no real privacy. Potentially, everything a player types can be recorded for later perusal by staffers who have access to the server.

Primarily, that's a feature used to protect the integrity of a game's security. Sometimes, players behave maliciously and try to crash a game.

But it is easily abused.

I've abused it before, sort of.

A few years ago, we had an incident on OtherSpace involving two players who ultimately were invited to leave. It as an ugly parting, with one of them declaring a personal fatwa against me and OtherSpace, embarking on what he called a "campaign of truth." He's nowhere to be seen, and OtherSpace is still going strong, but that's a topic for another column.

The OTHER member of that dynamic duo returned some time later, as a guest character on the game. Now, as a matter of habit, our guest characters are set to log their activities. As many of my staffers know, I've got a scary memory for IP addresses, and I recognized the one belonging to this guest.

Without server access, I could see he was paging my players. I felt compelled to see just what he was saying to them, so I logged into the server. I watched his side of the conversation for a while. He was recruiting for another game, badmouthing me, badmouthing my game - basically stirring up trouble.

Back in the game, I privately paged him, saying "Knock it off." I told him to leave.

Boy, did I feel good just then.

And, boy, did I blow that play.

Just because you CAN see what a player types doesn't mean you should use the information to power trip.

So the guy said bad things about me via page. Big deal! I'd been called far worse by better people in public forums. So he was recruiting for another game. Whatever! Any game that would have him for a recruiter deserves what it gets, and any player who bought the crap he spouted deserved to go with him.

Not once during his visit did the guy try to breach my game's security. Not once did any other players complain about harassment.

I shouldn't have given him the satisfaction of knowing it mattered what he thought or that I felt the least bit threatened that he might sap my playerbase.

How I should have handled it, and how I suggest anyone in the same position should handle it: Ignore him. Unless he's being a jerk in public, trying to breach your game's security or causing other players to complain about harassment, LEAVE HIM ALONE.

Your game's - and your staff's - reputation for even-handedness and fair treatment is more important than a glancing blow to your ego.

Bringing It Down A NotchEdit

I hate it. But I have to do it.

I had tremendous expectations for the quality of roleplaying at Star Wars: Reach of the Empire, the second of my trio of online games. But what I’ve found since the game went live in September 2002 is that many of the new players drawn to it are attracted by the theme, but don’t necessarily have the first clue about roleplaying.

Here’s a quick disclaimer: Some of the participants are outstanding roleplayers. They can describe themselves without going over the top with the black trenchcoats, black ninja suits, black boots, black Matrix outfits, and black facemasks. They can pose well-written and spell-checked poses, and respect pose order.

But far more are totally new to the concept of playing a role. Far more are coming from games where all they do is run from room to room, killing things, looting corpses, hunting for treasure, and seeking higher-powered equipment, trying to level up. Assuming a part in an evolving online story, where actions have consequences that can’t always be controlled by how many experience points you’ve invested in blaster pistols skill, is like entering an alien world. It’s like learning a new language.

No surprise, those of us who have spent years working on the high-quality environment of OtherSpace suddenly find ourselves poised to explode over newbies speedwalking all over the place, powergaming in their descriptions and poses, posing whenever the mood strikes ­ one line at a time, chattering OOCly during a scene, or wandering blindly into death traps because they didn’t read a room description ­ and then complaining about the trap.

It huuuuuurts to see it, because as the game’s chief RP developer, I must worry about the possibility ­ no, not the possibility, the VERY REAL LIKELIHOOD ­ that allowing my game to be a haven for poor RPers will keep good RPers away.

Now, before I go on much longer, let me just say: I need to shut the hell up with my whining. I know it. It’s actually a good thing that I have enough players in the game to worry about issues of quality. And I should cut players some slack: Most of them aren’t old enough to remember the first Star Wars movies, and all they have to base their vision of the universe on are the recent installments of the prequel trilogy. But don’t get me started on those movies.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Quality. I brought the issue on myself, really. On OtherSpace, players must endure the rigors of an application process in which they demonstrate their basic familiarity with the universe and with concepts of roleplaying. It takes time, an investment of effort on the front end, for a player to get in the door. This helps weed out troublemakers, but it also puts a barrier in front of RP newbies. On Star Wars: Reach of the Empire, I ask people for a description and a +sheet for perusal. Biographies are only required if players want to get gifts/faults/quirks or XP bonuses. On ROE, I’ve lowered the bar so that all you really have to do to get in is provide a correctly spelled, accurate-looking description and a sensible +sheet of skills. By lowering the bar, I made the game much more accessible to complete newbies to the roleplaying genre. And I somehow deluded myself into thinking, at the outset, that we’d be able to immediately mold people into fighting shape with tough love: Penalties for speedwalking, for example.

But that’s not how it works best.

These guys are new. They don’t get the whole “speedwalking” issue, because they’re not used to games where people interact with *each other* rather than running around in an automated environment. So, when I bring the hammer down for a violation of advanced RP etiquette, it embarrasses the newbie and creates a chilling effect. That’s a bad thing.

Along with the group of friends who helped me get ROE off the ground, I wanted to create our ideal Star Wars roleplaying universe. But I also wanted to offer a game that would be newbie-friendly, accessible ­ a sort of airlock between traditional MUDs and a more ambitious roleplaying project like OtherSpace. What we’re coming to understand is that we can’t have it both ways if our ideal demands that inexperienced players suddenly perform as well as people with a decade of roleplaying experience.

So, we’ve got to lighten up and ease off on being judgmental. Make the place fun. Welcome new people. Ease them into the roleplaying concept with help from RP motivators. Provide them with a handy Survivor’s Guide for the game. Encourage them, rather than scold them. Maybe, if we provide some nurturing, our ideal Star Wars roleplaying game will coalesce. As I recall, back in 1998, we didn’t start with a lot of veteran RPers. Given a chance to grow and flourish, with our care and guidance, we might get what we want and show a lot of new people a good time in this hobby of ours.

Power CorruptsEdit

Few days go by that I don’t regret, at least a little, leaving behind my days as a simple player of online games.

As a player, I could make a difference without being online every day. I just had to be around enough to keep my circle of fellow roleplayers active and thriving.

As a player, all I had to do was *play*. That’s it. Inhabit a character or two, craft poses and dialogue, run the occasional plot for my friends. If you’re an admin now, you already must know what I’m about to tell talk about. Keep reading. We can commiserate. If you’re thinking about being an admin, keep reading. At least make an educated decision.

Something awful happens when you become a staffer. It’s like The Matrix. Neo’s just going blithely through life, a cog in the machine, when he gets uplifted and shown what really goes on behind the scenes. It ain’t pretty.

It truly is a sausage factory. As a staffer, you become party to inter-admin backbiting, listen to problems between admins and players, get second-guessed by players and fellow staffers on decisions you make, and handle complaints, all while trying to add new and exciting features to your game, and to keep up a warm and welcome public front on behalf of the staff. Lots of nasty stuff. It is easy to get burned out. It is easy to blow a fuse. Because, once you become a staffer ­ if you’re a *real* staffer, and not just some lazy slacker who gets the bit and then coasts while the rest of the staff carries your dead weight, what used to be fun quickly becomes work.

The job is one part personnel management, one part crisis resolution counselor, one part den mother, and one part psychoanalyst. And God forbid you find yourself caught between two friends on the staff who are quarreling, and they want you to pick sides.

And, unless you’re terribly lucky, you’re doing all this for free. Power corrupts. Authority and responsibility might be alluring from afar, but unless you’re ready to peek behind the curtain and find out the great and powerful Oz isn’t perfection incarnate, you should steer clear of it. Stay a player.

It’s kind of weird. I learned the same lesson in real life. For years, I worked as a writer at a major metropolitan newspaper. I loved the work. I enjoyed meeting new people. I had my beat to cover. My piece of turf. Then, my job evolved into an editor’s position, and suddenly I was management. Instead of meeting new people and writing interesting stories, I was juggling different personalities of journalists working on multiple beats, assigning and editing stories, and dealing with bureaucratic backstabbing, politics and paperwork.

It’s really not much fun.

You’re going to make mistakes. You’ll be judged. Questioned. People will use your mistakes for their own gain at your further expense, and they’ll probably smile warmly at you while they do it.

The players will make you nuts. Bugs will infuriate you. Petty bickering will drive you to distraction. Meanwhile, your ability to work behind the scenes, to see more, to know more, will make you jaded.

I’ve known staffers who became physically ill from dealing with issues that arose from working on MUDs. Occasionally, I get nasty stress migraines from it. Staffers aren’t perfect, but some of us really want to be, and we hate when it doesn’t work out. We hate when we lose our cool, make a bad call, say the wrong thing, or let some chucklehead get the best of us.

Power corrupts. Responsibility intoxicates ­ and then leaves you with a hangover.

Some overwhelmed staffers quit. They either go back to being players or they vanish entirely from online games. If you’re a senior staffer dealing with a burnout case, I can’t stress enough how important it is *not* to throw a guilt trip at someone who is quitting because they feel worn out and ragged. Accept it, show some sympathy, and offer your support. Give them space. Assure them they’re still welcome if they find they can stomach the demands of the job. Some will come back, eventually. Others won’t. Nothing you can do about that.

Other staffers do what I do: Take a break every once in a while. Spend a week or two vacationing from the responsibilities. Focus on playing characters or turn your attention to a completely new diversion. Get everything back in its proper perspective.

Power corrupts, but some rest and relaxation can significantly slow the poison.

The Myth of FlexibilityEdit

Five years ago, when a player asked whether my storylines were tightly scripted, I took that to mean that players didn't want plots with pre-destined outcomes.

But, since then, I've come to this understanding: That's a load of camel dung.

In general, players are perfectly content with - and actually prefer - rigidly structured storylines under the following conditions:

1) They win in the end, somehow. 2) They don't die or suffer severe injuries as a result of the storyline. 3) They're allowed some measure of flexibility within the rigid plot framework.

For most roleplayers, that's the simple truth. You may find a precious few who love to live on the edge and want a less predictable ending. But, by and large, players who invest any kind of effort into developing their character won't want him killed due to an unexpected twist in the storyline.

At first glance, you may be thinking that this is adding up to a knock against players who want predictability in their plots. At first glance, that's absolutely what I intended. But the more I think about it, the less I really consider it such a bad thing. It's not bad. It's plain old human nature. Real life throws enough curveballs as it is without your favorite diversionary activity doing it too.

Sure, it feels good to say you want an open-ended plot where anything can happen. But for most people, that really means you want room to maneuver within the structure of the plot to ensure that your character survives the experience, with a clear victory if possible.

As I sat down to write this column, I considered that mindset to be loathsome. From a purely improvisational storytelling standpoint, especially if you develop and perform storylines, it's easy to bang that drum decrying a player's desire to protect their character from extensive harm or death. However, from a *player* standpoint, that desire makes sense and it's actually a wonderful quality: They're attached to the character and your game enough that it matters what happens to that character.

Way back when, in my just-a-player days, I got first-hand experience in what was obviously, in hindsight, a carefully scripted storyline on TOS TrekMUSE. The staffers put on an extended plot featuring these deceptively cuddly psionic teddy bears called the Ikarans, who threatened the cosmos, ate brains, seized control of the minds of certain Federation starship commanders and served as a menacing villain that needed wiping out. The Ikarans terrorized the galaxy for months, but all the players recognized that the storyline must end with the defeat of the Ikarans. We drew our roleplaying inspiration within that rigid framework from the crisis at hand and how it affected our comrades. The uncertainty - the plot flexibility - came in the form of how we set up our coalition attack fleet between the Klingons, the Federation and the Romulans, and who ended up going down to the Ikaran homeworld to kill the queen. Kill the queen, and the war ends. My character, Gavalin Brody, a Starfleet captain aboard the USS Excelsior, got to lead the assault on the queen. He got to shoot and kill her. In retrospect, that was terrific payoff for months of waiting, but it still came within a rigid plot framework - and that was *great*! I still got to roleplay the aftermath of being a hero.

At OtherSpace, some of our most successful plots have been rigidly outlined. During Arc III, back in 1999, some players opened a strange alien box and found themselves transported to an alien world where they lived the last days of several children whose family was doomed to join thousands in a mass suicide. The roleplaying bliss didn't come from trying to stop the suicide from happening, but from immersing themselves in the lives of those children before they died. During Arc XIV, earlier this year, the players had to stop a universe-threatening Moebius Effect wave. It was pretty clear that I didn't intend to let the galaxy get torn apart, but when the time came for the conclusion, I sought one volunteer to try and stop the effect with the understanding that the volunteer wouldn't survive. The job would be suicidal. (However, I found a way to let the character survive, providing an unexpected twist within the framework.) That player got to have an impact on how the planned ending unfolded, and made it his own, in much the same way as I embraced the finale of the Ikaran storyline on TOS TrekMUSE.

Some of our real stinkers on OtherSpace, when it comes to plots, have been open-ended, let-the-players-drive-the-train storylines. For example, a bunch of players got caught and stuck in an alien work camp, but refused to RP through it because 1) they didn't want to be imprisoned and 2) they didn't want to risk dying at the hands of the brutal guards. I can't say I blame them, really. Without exception, at least in my experience, such plots always end up requiring an excessive amount of admin-cleanup, in which staffers intervene as referees or non-player characters to wrap up the story and get the players out of the situation so they can move on.

In the end, we must accept that players don't want choices as much as they want excitement without great sacrifice. They don't want flexibility as much as they want maneuverability and relative invulnerability. They don't want surprising plot twists as much as they want to win. The trick is finding the balance of excitement and comfort, while presenting the illusion of a flexible storyline by giving players opportunities to affect some aspects of the twists and turns along the way.

Speaking the LanguageEdit

I’m a storyteller. I’m not a mechanical genius or a computer whiz. I create worlds, characters and stories.

And for more than five years now, I’ve been building online worlds without having much knowledge about coding. I got lucky and built teams to work on my projects that included several talented coders, so I was content to stick with my storytelling and world building, and left the clockworks and gear springs to them.

That’s a good way to live, if you’re not an absolute control freak and you don’t mind getting coded systems on someone else’s timetable.

I’ve been a control freak, but never that absolute. And for five years, I felt okay with waiting to get systems when a coder could get around to it.

Not anymore.

If you’re going to run a MUD, even if you don’t know how to code when you open the doors, learn the ropes as time goes by. Learn to be self-sufficient.

What I’ve learned during the past five years is that *no one* is as devoted to a game as its creator. If you want something coded quickly, to your specifications, you can assign it to a coder. But will that coder make enough time to get it done soon enough for you? It can be a tremendous source of frustration for you and for him as days turn into weeks, weeks turn into months, and you’re asking repeatedly: Is it done yet? And he’s answering repeatedly: Not yet, but soon. The coder may mean well, but he may have lots of other balls to juggle and he doesn’t consider yours to be a top priority. And maybe your idea shouldn’t be a top priority project ­ but who else is going to do it, right?

It’s easy for someone who purports to be a writer to shun the idea of coding. After all, I don’t need to know how to use Quark or a printing press to write the great American novel. So why should I have to learn to code to tell stories and build worlds on the Internet?

Why? Because it’s the nature of the medium. Even if you don’t need to know how to use publishing software to write a book, you at least need to know how to work a typewriter, word processor or a personal computer.

During the past month, at long last, I’ve started learning MUSH coding. I should have done this years ago. Of course, back then, I was among the unwashed masses that start up their own games thinking they don’t need to code ­ all you have to do is post a friendly recruiting note about needing coders and they fall from the sky like snowflakes, right? Right. If the snowflakes are falling in Death Valley.

I’m not quite ready to code massive and intricate systems on my games, but I am learning the essentials, the basic building blocks for a foundation upon which to build my expertise. When I have coding down, I’ll be a triple threat: A storyteller, a world builder and a coder. No longer will I have to wait for my ideas to be implemented by someone who doesn’t necessarily share my drive and dedication to the project.

It’s one less thing to get nervous and antsy about, and it helps alleviate the load on your coders ­ and maybe it will encourage them to step their productivity up a notch if they see a non-coder outperforming them. Give it a try!

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