Series Info...#18: Steal This Article!

by Shannon Appelcline

January 25, 2001 – I'll admit it, I have a chip on my shoulder about authority. Not authority in general per se, not necessarily the idea of someone telling someone else what to do. What does drive me crazy though is when someone in a position of power does something detrimental to those people he has power over... for his own good.

I edged around the topic a little when I was discussing the election and the archaic electoral system that's still maintained because it's beneficial to sufficient Senators and Representatives. I touched upon it again when I talked about lawyers and what they've done to online volunteer programs... at the request of a few angry people.

In the last weeks, though, the abuses of power in California have been so extreme that I finally realized there was a topic here. I'm talking about the electricity situation in California over the last few weeks, where we've been subject to rolling blackouts, promises of regular 12-hour outages every day, and threats of natural gas being totally cut off to all customers.

(Before I go on, let me say that Skotos itself isn't in much danger from the small-scale blackouts that have occurred in California thus far. We made a very good investment in a generator and UPSes about 6 months ago, and our ISP is equally well protected.)

There's lots of blame to go around regarding California's electricity disaster, from the Governor who pushed deregulation five years ago (that's "Wilson", W-I-L-S-O-N, in case he turns up in another Presidential primary) to the average citizen who sat idly by and watched when the electricity transmission companies started paying 100x the old rates for their power (that's "Me", M-E, and possibly "You", Y-O-U).

I think a lot of the blame, however, can be placed squarely on the backs of a few authority figures, namely:

  • Politicians who blindly passed legislation due to the demands of governors/peers/constituents/lobbyists without actually looking at the potential consequences.
  • Executives of electricity generation plants who blithely allowed power transmission companies to pay ruinous costs for a required resource, more concerned with their profits then human decency.
  • Executives of electricity transmission companies who greedily sucked up their profits into shell companies and paid them out to stock holders rather than planning for a rainy day.

Fortunately in the United States we have a good history of dealing with authority gone terribly wrong. It's called "civil disobedience" and was beautifully described by Henry David Thoreau a century and a half ago. From the Boston Tea Party to the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s, Americans have been very ready to express their displeasure with authority.

Sometimes it's been by violence, sometimes by nonviolence. Sometimes it's been by shouted words, sometimes by written paragraphs. In America, authority is not sacrosanct.

If rolling blackouts continue, if natural gas is cut off to millions of homes in the middle of winter, if electricity starts dropping out for half of every day... Californians are going to do something about it. We have over two hundred years of history that prove this.

Civil Disobedience in Online Games

Which brings me to my topic for the day: the question of civil disobedience in online games. There's authority in Castle Marrach, represented by the Queen and Lord Chamberlain Launfal and the Watch and the Royal Guards. There's probably authority in any online game.

However, there's a curious problem that appears in Castle Marrach (and other social games of its ilk, if the history of MUSHes can be used as a guide). Players respect in-game authority too much. Civil disobedience is almost unheard of. The act of rebelling against authority is often treated as a vile OOC faux paus.

As usual, I don't want to paint things with too broad a brush. We've seen exceptions in Castle Marrach – players who are willing to fight against authority. Retribution strikes me as a notable one, unbroken even after months in the Castle. Overall, however, most players in social games tend to fall into one of two categories:

  1. Nice Folks – These are people who quite simply don't want conflict. They try and do everything they can to make things peacable and to bring people together.
  2. Angry Folks – These are people who seem to have a chip the size of Mount Arden on their shoulder. Everything out of their mouth is offensive or intended to anger.
The two types of players are pretty much flip sides of the same coin, with a happier medium that should appear somewhere in between never materializing.

I was going to say that "Angry Folks" tend to be primarily OOC, saying and doing things that a real person would never do in the same situation. I believe that's true. In retrospect, I think "Nice Folks" are often OOC too, turning the other cheek and brushing off conflicts in ways that a real person would never do in the same situation.

Clearly everyone should play our games in ways that they're comfortable with, but let me suggest: there are alternatives to the nice/angry dichotomy.

It's OK to Disagree

At heart Castle Marrach is a game about stories and conflict drives stories. Remember back to your High School English classes and you might just recall how your teacher used to make you find the conflict in a story. Man versus man. Man versus nature. Man versus the unknown. Man versus himself. It wasn't just a form of strange torture, meant to prepare you for decades of irrational requests after you entered the workforce. It was actually a way to look at the core of a story.


Without conflict there's no uncertainty in a story, nothing to worry about. No one and nothing changes. The world is static, unchanging. Boring. And stories shouldn't be boring.

Imagine The Lord of the Rings without conflict. Hobbit gets a ring. No one wants it. Dwarves stop by for tea. Hobbit has plenty of tea. Dwarves are happy that nice hobbit owns all-powerful ring. Dwarves move on to dig mines, sing songs, and tell innocent girls that they should feel free to eat apples if they really want to. Powerful old guy stops buy, asks permission to carefully place all-powerful ring in fire. Strange runes appear on ring. No one cares. Tea happens. Powerful old guy moves on, making plan for an early supper with the Balrog of Moria. Ring wraiths drop by. More tea ensues.

After a while all the tea and general happiness gets boring.

So, my point here isn't just that conflict is OK within an online roleplaying game like Marrach, but rather that it's necessary. It drives plot, provides for interesting interactions, and really opens up the potentials of the mediums. Players shouldn't shy from it, afraid that they might make someone uncomfortable. They should glom onto it, like a Nazgul glomming onto a free-floating all-powerful one-ring-to-bind-them-all, and see where the conflict leads them, be it to the Cracks of Doom or a nice hobbit's tea room.

I loved it when I heard the story of Punzel and Starke's duel. They disagreed. They fought. Despite the fact that she appeared to be in the right, Punzel lost. She lamented that her honor was gone. And – here's the good part – Andrew shouted out "Honor Sucks!"

The authority of Castle Marrach says Honor is a "Good Thing™". And Andrew was willing to speak out against that when he saw injustice done. That's conflict.

Conflict happens every day in our lives, because every one of us a different person, with a different worldview, and different opinions. Republicans and Democrats conflict over social values. The rich and the poor conflict over economics. Heck, I occasionally conflict with my boss over priorities. It's natural.

It should be natural with characters too. Consider differences with other characters, and don't be afraid to express them. If you think authority is doing loopy things, as I suggested at the start of this article, don't be afraid to do something there. And, if there are some built-in conflicts, say the one between the Duelists and the Watch, don't be afraid to build on that.

It'll make good stories. Fun stories. And that'll just make things more enjoyable for everyone.

It's OK to Be a Villain

But, I want to take another step forward, and say that not only is Conflict good... but Villains are good too. Let me clarify for a second, by asking a few questions.

What is a villain? Typically, it's someone who's opposed to authority. So how does that differ from our praiseworthy rebels practicing their civil disobedience? It might not...

Consider the case of some anarchists who lived in Massachusetts two hundred years ago. Because they determined that they shouldn't be paying taxes for the civil services their government was providing them with, they decided to commit Breaking and Entering, then Grand Theft: Tea. Then they dumped their stolen goods into the harbor, a wasteful act of Vandalism. How many innocent merchants went out of business because these criminals destroyed their livelihood? What damage did their crime do to the ecology of Boston Harbor?

Yeah, I'm talking about the Boston Tea Party again. It's a very narrow line between civil disobedience and villainry.

So, don't be afraid to play a villain. Just remember, you shouldn't be entirely vile. Villains with no purpose, except to be evil, went out with trickle-down economics and the Me Decade. Now they can only be found in zoos, James Bond films, and back issues of Superman. In today's world, villains have purposes – reasons for their supposed villainry – and they really aren't that different from you... or me.

Don't even think of yourself as necessarily playing a villain. Rather, consider yourself playing a character who happens to be in conflict: perhaps with another player, perhaps with an organization, perhaps with the authority in the Castle itself. From that conflict you can build rational structures for why you do the things you do.

Rationale for villainry can be a particularly fun thing. You might have "evil" reasons for doing what you're doing ("After overthrowing the Queen, I will rule the entire Castle. Bwahaha.") or you might have altruistic, or least understandable, reasons ("Queen Vivienne. You killed my father. Prepare to die.") You might have personality quirks that lead you to cause conflicts ("I have taken personal offense at the fact that the Queen keeps Newly Awakened out of the Inner Bailey, and for this reason I shall overthrow her.") or you might have semi-insane reasons that you, as a player, know are plain wrong ("I believe the Queen is actually a dish of partially melted Strawberry Sherbert, and I hate Strawberry Sherbert, for my one memory is how Strawberry Sherbert wronged me as a child... so I shall overthrow her!") Reasons for supposed villainry can run the spectrum, and could be entirely heroic. The core of villainry isn't really "evil". It's core is conflict, primarily against authority.

Before I close my pitch on villains, let me say one last thing: It's OK to lose. This is good advice for "heroes" too. When you're causing a conflict, and thus advancing a plot, set your own criteria for success and for failure. Villains lose often. Heroes lose sometimes. It's the way of the world. Without the chance of failure or loss, there's no plot and thus no story.

Building Worlds of Conflict

I hope I've genuinelly convinced a few folks here today that it is OK to both be a villain and to cause conflict, that doing these things can make the joint stories of Castle Marrach more enjoyable. However, I'm usually addressing this column to StoryBuilders, so let me step back and try and offer some advice for them too.

Here's a short and simple rule: Players take action based upon the gameplay values you've created. By this I mean that players do things that are rewarded by the core gameplay of a system. Take a look at Ultima Online: new players spend weeks killing livestock and then selling off animal body parts. In AberMUD players made it their whole goal to gather unique and valuable items and dump them down bottomless pits. Both of these seem like very odd economies with little basis in reality. But, players do these things because the game system awards them – with experience, gold, or whatever the coin of the realm is.

So, we've seen a definite problem where social-based games seem to shy away from conflict and villainry. The obvious solution is: reward conflict and villainry. It's easier said then done, and definitely something that you don't want to go too far overboard in, lest you destroy the exact society that is actually the drawing point of your game, but in moderation... it'd be great.

We're not planning anything like this for Marrach in the near future, but I can see many possibilities: measuring rank in societies like the Duelist based upon conflict; offering in-game villains rewards and resources; and giving support and "screentime" to folks who are using conflict to advance cool stores.

Even more abstractly, you could give out "plot points" or let players vote for good villains.

No solutions here this week, just the one mandate: Consider what actions you want to encourage when you're building a game system.

And, remember: it's OK to disobey authority; it's OK to cause conflict; it's OK to be a villain.

Now get out there and fight!