Thursday, October 8, 2009

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 e
nd 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.


  1. On Prop Rot --

    One of the big problems is that people are afraid to put their prop (their resource) up to any sort of risk. Because a size of the resource has perceived "value" or "currency" and losing that prop or damaging that prop means losing value or currency. But it's unclear even from the inside what the value or currency of that prop really is so that there is fear that surrounds the risk. This is pretty common in security risk modeling because no one understands the risk or understands the value of their data so they do not make good judgements regarding what they have other than yelling "MINE."

    It becomes magnified and paralyzing when you have a group of people who are involved with that resource and they all have a certain amount of "play" as currency invested in that resource even if they are not the owner of that resource. They have a strong incentive to pressure the resource owner to not engage in risk-like behaviors because they perceive that if they are involved in a resource that is taking on risk their own characters and play -- which has high perceived value -- is now at risk as well.

    What you get is prop rot. No one will put anything up to risk, and even if there is risk, the risk is going to be pretty small. The social ramifications of the risk in the social society of the game has great pressures to disincentivize the use of the resource.

    My solution -- ensure anyone who has a prop has played Diplomacy and stayed in to the end -- is not popular. I don't have a good idea how to manage the perceived value vs. the risk on a MUSH when it comes to politically-focused props.

  2. Really, in an ideal universe you need 1) a good way to model gain and 2) a reduced baseline for security. That is, if a prop is worth 100 whatever, you need a way for it to get bigger (and for that to mean something) but for that expansion to involve 9require) risk of some of that 100, albeit with some manner of backstop, so it can never drop below, say, 50.

    Easiest way to do that is to curve the difficulty, so it's EASY to make gains from 50 to 100, then gets steadily harder from there. All well and good, but it all hinges on an agree-dupon (or mechanically functional) sense of value. I think that's doable, but there are a few new tricks it would require.

    -Rob D.

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  4. #10 has big implications for the role of secrecy in tabletop play, let alone the larger-scale play you're talking about. But really, what you've done is talk about the 25% without talking about the 100%. I don't see you getting into why it's important to finish 100% -- instead, you just explain why you don't want to show more than 25% of it (at start).

    The answer for me is a bit self-evident too, but let's say it: sometimes the players want to run down that path you've forecast, and it's good to be ready for it.

    Also, it's sometimes hard to tell where exactly the 25% mark is. If you reveal 25% and that doesn't lead to them springing into action -- maybe there's more yet to be said on your part.

  5. "Prop rot" ought not to come as a surprise to anybody. We saw this on AmberMUSH (and if you're on Shangrila, it has happened there also): how many times did we see people RP really hard and earn a big position or title...and then get bored, or get eaten by RL, and not relinquish the position/prop/title so that somebody else could play? I would say....every time. This happened to piddly little titles as well as to monarchs, and those people would disappear, or cloister themselves with a few friends only, and RP that required those positions would also come to a grinding halt, like an engine with all the oil drained out.

    The 'risk', as you note, is really the risk of losing what one has acquired or accomplished. So that is kept, status quo....and something greater is lost instead: spontaneity, mobility, dynamic energy. Props cannot change hands IC or OOC, usually by IC refusal to engage in "throne war", and OOC refusal to step down. It has happened on Shangrila: though the rules say there should be elections for the Dukedoms, there hasn't been one held in years. They have begun replacing their drop-outs by appointment, ensuring a closed "ruling" group and serious stagnation. It even happened on AM with staff, to the point that when people WANTED and OFFERED to take over the game and inject new life, the existing staff forbade it. You know what happened there...slow, inevitable stagnation and death. But that's just a larger version of what seems always to happen.

    I don't know how to fix it, except perhaps to require people who hold props/wizard positions/whatever to abdicate if they are absent too long - whatever too long means. But that would require a whole lot of staff oversight and would suck to manage.

    Maybe this is why MUSHes have an average lifespan of just a couple of years?

  6. Honestly, your secret weapon for prop rot is to find someone (if possible) willing to take it on who understands writing and the structure of stories...because they will WANT to introduce strife and change in their prop, and if skilled, will do so in such a way that doesn't seem like a hostile takeover (like one MUSH who decided that this prop needs a clean slate, so everybody in that sphere dies!)

    Of course, this secret weapon can be countered by the player base not giving a damn that the changes are happening, but that's a sign of a different issue.


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