Wednesday, February 24, 2010

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


  1. You have discovered MUSH prop economics. Congratulations!

    The core of the problem are the incentives. The system is incentivised to be as static as possible to keep the people in charge in charge while not jeopardizing the cohesiveness of the playgroup. Even if the propco is extremely interested in making dynamic changes to the prop, the players -- who likely like their play and do not want it shaken up in any way even if it is play inducing -- are heavily invested in not having it change in any way. Thus, a totally static universe.

    The only ways to fix this are:
    - Attacks to the prop from without that do not jeopardize the position of the playgroup and alleviates decisions on dynamics from the internal cliques.

    - Giving responsibility to making changes to the prop to someone from the outside.

    You know, it's kind of like the US Senate in a way. Wacky.

  2. What's most interesting to me is that the stasis comes from choosing player priorities (in the form of the Playgroup) over the abstract of the prop. And that's as it should be! Real play trumps concepts - we get that instinctively. It's just a question of whether the tools support that instinct.

  3. It does a great job of supporting Out of Character player instincts -- wanting to keep the group together, conflict avoidance, wanting to maintain a position of control. But it doesn't make a great game.

  4. I hereby label your body of persons invested in keeping environmental elements protected the EPA.

  5. Part of this conflict is that between prescriptive and descriptive. I've run into this elsewhere where someone wanted to do character summaries but have them be *prescriptive*: i.e. none of the elements written down could change once the character was in play. Whereas I have always seen character summaries of this sort as being *descriptive*, i.e. you describe how the character is intended to be played/has been played, but the elements can change if the character does indeed change or grow beyond those goalposts.

    The lorekeeper or prop historian seems to be a necessary role, and adjudication of changes to the prop is also a necessary role, but perhaps splitting those two roles between people would loosen up some of the stasis. One prescribes, one describes. Keep the describer inside the playgroup because they're close enough to see what's happening. Keep the prescriber outside. They communicate but have different goals.

  6. Your first-line disclaimer didn't work for me because I had no idea what "MUSH" meant.

  7. I wanted a spikard so bad during my days on AmberMUSH. I wanted one for Martin, for Jurt, and for my bad boy Broken Pattern character, Dane. No luck. Stupid spikards. Jurt was going to give one to Julia on one knee as an engagement ring. That would have been epic.

  8. I have become so bitter about "props" that I no longer associate myself or tie myself to them in RP except loosely, in such a way that I cannot get in trouble OOC for causing IC offense, or have my ability to play crippled in the name of "ICA=ICC".

    Why does this happen? All the reasons you give, and for some I think you missed, perhaps. One of the most crippling things IMO about "props" and "propcos" is that it is functionally impossible to get rid of the IC powerholding character who is played by the OOC propco, until and unless that person removes themselves, often doesn't happen even if the prop becomes inactive.

    It's like having a throne war. If the king's player says no, then there is no throne war, end of discussion, you may as well go play romance stories - or random bar fights - or TS - or fancy costume balls now, but you can't actually influence anything, so you there's no point trying. Propcos very often skew the rules in the prop to benefit their IC powerholder, making them as good as invulnerable. This doesn't need to be the case, but I have observed it happening time and again, on MUSH after MUSH.

    It is the nature of most of the MUSHes I have played, that there is a struggle for power, but propco players holding IC powerholder characters, short-circuits that struggle. Or when they give themselves advantages you can't hope to overcome. And that's a shame, because isn't the conflict supposed to be the point? But not when it feels pointless. As you discussed in a previous post, sometimes losing IS the point. But if you know you're always going to lose, then it becomes pointless. You can't even jump in with both feet and ride your own wave, then.

    I'd like to see OOC propco ownership separated strictly from IC powerholder ownership, personally. That goes for staff who give themselves the strongest character(s) on a game and then say newer players can't use that concept, and everything lower down the chain. I don't know if it would WORK, but I'd like to see it tried.

  9. You know when you over-edit and then actually fail to catch your brainos? Sorry about that ^^^.


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