Series Info...Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #52:

Courting Misrule

by Shannon Appelcline

December 6, 2001 – Welcome back, one and all. As you're surely noticed from the title of this week's piece, I'm not discussing a building block this time around — neither courts nor misrule are integral parts of the online game experience, in my book. Instead I've decided to take a break from my continuing series of Building Blocks, to give both myself and you the readers a short breather. I think I'll be occasionally alternating like this, as the current sequence of columns unfolds.

As is sometimes the case in this column, this week's article is directed at StoryTellers — those folks who run online games, live. Out in the world of MUDs they're called gamemasters, or just admins, but the overall idea is the same. They're the people who actually interact with players on a day-to-day basis.

I've offered advice for StoryTellers before, with Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #7 "Hosting on Your Toes" being one of my favorites. You can actually get a complete listing of all of the admin articles now, at the TT&T topical index.

I actually have a fair amount of interest in StoryTeller-related issues and even have some experience with it, which I haven't really mentioned before. I used to do customer support: I was a system administrator, responsible for helping to keep a NASA project happy for about four years, and then I did network support for Sun for another thirteen months or so. Thus, I've got a lot of ideas about how customer support works in another industry, and am always eager to apply it to this one.

With that said, onward to the topic at hand.

Population Control: A Dilemma

At the start of November, the StoryPlotters of Castle Marrach did something really amazing — they populated the Inner Bailey. It was something that we'd all wanted for a long time, but it had proven difficult in the actual game. After we opened the Inner Bailey, in December of 2000, we'd never managed to get critical mass; we couldn't get enough people interacting in that new place to start creating new stories there.

We had hoped that we could repeat our experience of populating the Outer Bailey; but, when we had done that, it was through massive StoryTeller involvement. Tons of Skotos staff members had worked hard to play numerous characters and run multitudes of plots — that was how we'd achieved success the first go-around. But, moving on to the Inner Bailey, we no longer had those resources. In December of 2000 some of us were still working on Castle Marrach, but stuck on Outer Bailey plots, while others had moved on to billing systems or Galactic Emperor: Succession or whatever else caught their eye.

So, we had an Inner Bailey, mostly empty, and we dribbled a few characters in, but it didn't really take off. It was sad and wasteful; even worse, the fact that everyone was gathered in the Outer Bailey caused problems of its own. Scott Roberts discussed this issue, called "sandboxing", in The Mummer's Dance #19 "It's a Small World". The gist: new players couldn't find a place to fit into to the Castle because their entry ground — the Outer Bailey — was already full up.

In the months before November the StoryPlotters of Marrach — Deri and the others — came up with the solution for the population problem that we hadn't managed when Skotos was running the game. Players. They realized that putting lots of player characters into the Inner Bailey could create the same strong basis for storytelling that we'd created a year before when we put lots of staff members into the Outer Bailey. Thus, for the start of November, they planned an event that would introduce lots of people to the Inner Bailey and also cause them to sever their Outer Bailey ties.

The Estrella Festival.

Most of the promotions were done quite normally, through Her Majesty's Court, but there were a very few promotions, done at the Feast of Misrule, that, due to their arbitrariness caused a flood of unrest and criticism, as chronicled in a number of forum threads:

Why? A useful question for the StoryTeller to consider.

Setting Expectations

I will contend that the main reason players were upset by the Feast of Misrule is because they were surprised. They'd already learned how characters could move up the links of the great Chain of Being. Diligent politicking and much favor was required. To have "undeserving" characters suddenly jump upward several links was... unexpected. Even if the positions given out were largely ceremonial ones, such as Tax Collector and Royal Falconer, there was unhappiness.

Some players perhaps weren't just upset, but instead felt betrayed. Take Yaoi, who had long wanted to become the Keeper of the Doves. To find someone else officially named the Royal Pigeon Keeper must have been a huge disappointment, even though there are no pigeons to keep. But, that's really another way to say Yaoi was surprised. And, when people are surprised, they tend to get angry, or defensive, or unhappy. It's human nature.

So, how do you avoid this? The answer is very simple: set player expectations. By this I mean, help your players figure out what the realities of your world are and how those realities are going to work for (or against) them.

Closely related is another important rule: keep players informed. This implicitly sets expectations. You tell players what's going to happen (kind of), and then it happens, and they're not surprised.

Easy, but I suspect that the StoryPlotters out there — and probably anyone who's ever thought about the dramatic structure of stories — are tapping their feet and waiting for their chance to break in and explain how I'm totally wrong. And I am, kind of.

Clearly, if you set expectations too much, and if you keep your players too well informed, your game is going to be really boring. Everyone always knows what's going to happen. No mystery, no suspense, no surprises, no plot. It's like reading the last page of a mystery first. So how do you balance setting expectations with keeping secrets? I've got a formula for that too: mask specifics of secrets with generalities.

Say, for example, that we at Skotos had seen the need for arbitrarily promoting characters up the Chain of Being back when we created Castle Marrach, before there ever were StoryPlotters. (And, we didn't, which is why the uproar wasn't all their fault.) If we'd done that, then, from the first day players asked about the Inner Bailey, we could have said, "It's based on a system of intricate Favor, but on occasion denizens of the Outer Bailey have gained position and authority by whim alone."

Sure, there still would have been complaints after the Feast of Misrule, offered by people who felt like they were cheated, but a lot more people would have said ah-hah! and nodded their heads, looking back to that seed that we'd planted so long before. Because they would have already expected that something weird could happen on occasion. This wouldn't have spoiled the secrets behind the Feast of Misrule, but it sure would have set players up to understand afterward.

Looking at the case of the disappointed Yaoi, a similar tactic could have been taken. Active discouragement of this "commoner's" aspirations might have led to less disappointment after the Royal Pigeon Keeper position was taken, because Yaoi would never have really expected to get that position.

As a StoryTeller, you're probably now seeing a corollary to the rules I offered already: plan ahead. Without that, you can't prepare your players, let alone yourselves.

The Rightness of Players

The whole issue of a player uproar, rather it be over arbitrary promotions or star-shaped cookies, raises another issue that's critical to a StoryTeller: are the players always right? In short, no.

This is one of the most difficult lessons that I had to learn when I started doing computer support, and it was a really difficult one to relearn at Skotos too. If a character really wanted Launfal to do something nice but simple for him, for example, it was difficult for me to resist the urge to say OK. It all boiled down to the fact that it's hard to disappoint a customer. But, in actuality, it's often required. There are tons of reasons:

  • Sometimes players are wrong. As a StoryTeller or StoryBuilder you probably have a better understanding of the needs of the game than an individual player does. You're looking at the overview, while individuals are looking at things from their corner of the world. It's a totally different experience.
  • A game needs disappointment. A fairly hard fact, but nonetheless truth. If everyone always got what they wanted, your game would not be a game. It'd be a utopia, and ultimately your players would become bored. If there is no chance of failure, what is the value of success? If everyone has something, why strive for it?
  • Sometimes a player wants too much. Finally, as much as we hate to admit it, there's only so much that we can give to any one player, be we CE staff, StoryPlotter, StoryCoder, or just another player. When a player asks for tons of attention, it might be that they should be paying an hourly rate for their entertainment rather than a low monthly fee.

So, StoryTellers, even if the whole world rises up against you in your game, understand that you may be in the right, and the rest of the world may be in the wrong. The Feast of Misrule, and the whole Festival surrounding it, may have both vitalized the Inner Bailey and freed up the Outer Bailey for new players. If it did so, Castle Marrach has the opportunity to become twice the game it currently is, putting it further down a path to success — which will ensure that there's still a Castle Marrach for you to play next year this time.

With all that said, let me offer a counterpoint to my earlier arguments: sometimes the players are right too. The players will log tens of thousands of hours into your games — far more than you ever possibly could. That means that there will be cases where they understand the game better than you, and thus you should always carefully weigh their arguments and ideas.

To find the best balance between what you know about game design and what your players know about your game, you should always, always follow once last precept: communicate. Explaining your reasoning will sometimes assuage your players' bad feelings, and if your players do the same, you might understand their point of view too.

And a world full of honest understanding... that's my kind of place.

A Final Caveat

Although I've spent some time this week exploring how you might be able to improve StoryTelling techniques, it shouldn't be in any way considered criticism of the Marrach StoryPlotters. They did a terrific job with the whole Festival of Estrella — a terrific job that should really payoff for Marrach.

And, we at Skotos have made our own StoryTelling mistakes, some of large magnitude, such as the infamous mass food destruction, which probably would have gone over much better if we'd told people what was happening beforehand, and let them have a last orgy of feasting and roll throwing.

Running a live game with live players is a really careful balancing act, and all you can do is consider the many important "rules" and apply them as best you can.

Next week, back to Building Blocks. I think I've decided to talk about maps and zones before the end of the year, then open up with portables and inheritance as 2002 dawns. But, we'll see what muse strikes me.

In the meantime, you might want to take a look at Thinking Virtually #33 "The Fun Factor", over at RPGnet, where I cover a few of the same ideas I hit in this week's column in a very different context.

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