|Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities #91:
Advice from the Castle
Compiled by Shannon Appelcline
October 3, 2002 - Since I began this column, my intent has always been to help you, the reader, learn from the experience of me, the writer. From that week when we first released Castle Marrach I knew that I'd be making both mistakes and discoveries in the process of running live games here at Skotos and that by writing them down I might be able to help other folks to avoid those same mistakes and to come to those same revelations.
It's now been two years since the release of Castle Marrach and in that time, in all honesty, my attention has drifted. Though I still listen in on Marrach discussions and offer the occasional comment, more of my attention is on the upcoming Lovecraft Country game, or on version 1.1 of Galactic Emperor: Hegemony.
But, things have not slowed down in Castle Marrach. A group of personable, intelligent, and otherwise wonderful StoryTellers has come to fill the space that was once occupied by Skotos designers. This week, in honor of Castle Marrach's second birthday, I've gone out to the current and past designers of Castle Marrach and asked them, "What have you learned? What piece of advice would you offer to other game designers, coders, or administrators based on your experiences in Marrach?"
Many thanks to everyone who was able to respond.
What I learned about Castle Marrach: Letting go. Being supportive without taking over. Being constructive or quiet rather then critical, as my "authority" speaks too loudly. Just trusting the people who love the game now probably more then I could because it was written for them, not for me.
Lead StoryPlotter Keegan
High drama does not equal a good story. In a cooperative storytelling environment like Castle Marrach, a good story has a character with an interesting personality and a set of motivations. This character comes into conflict with other characters with differing values and goals the player characters preferably. I think many people confuse the word conflict with strife. Characters do not have to assault or kill one another as a result of conflict. Conflict can be the desire to keep a secret, it can be unrequited love, it can be exposure to new ideas, and a whole lot of other things besides.
I always envisioned Castle Marrach as a web of stories; many inter-connected stories, some big, some small, all around a central theme or themes. A web of stories benefits from a good variety of the kinds of stories told. It both appeals to a greater number of people, and allows individuals to explore diverse interests. Foul murders and duels to the death have their place, but so do riddle contests, petty jealousy, and lost kittens.
Don't forget (and try to appreciate) the differences between Marrach and your Real Life. There are those who will come to play as characters, not themselves, and there are those who will come to play as themselves shielded as characters. Be truthful about which one you are and play accordingly and honestly to that. Be mindful that not everyone has the same point of view in their play and that's OK. You can make friendships and bonds that last in and out of game with those you RP with, but be truthful with yourself of who you are making bonds with by communicating with them; know for yourself if it is the IC character that draws you or the person in OOC behind it.
You may already have heard this second piece of advice before but... give more than you get RP-wise even if the focus isn't on you. Give of yourself to help the story along and in your interactions you may indeed find that you have started your own intrigue that others will wish to support and be part of. Have fun with what you do, no matter how minor it may be. Sometimes, the most fun and rewarding moments are when you roleplay with a player who may be pivotal or the center of a story arc or plot, but doesn't behave like it and never makes anyone else that he or she interacts with feel any less important to the story or drama being told. That is someone many will want to roleplay with again and again.
Socializing the Skill System in Marrach. I have been around since the initial beta testing started and throughout that time, I have seen some highs and lows of Castle Marrach. What makes me return to this game each and every day is the opportunity to tell stories and achieve a sense of "I have entertained" today. Perhaps it is the wanna-be actor in me, who constantly strives to find some conflict in any given situation that I run into, whether it is to present a strange philosophical character view, or to push the intrigue envelop to the limits.
If there was one thing I would stress, from all my role playing in Marrach, it's that skills are simply an enhancing tool for a larger story. If players can actually take the social aspect of staying in a single room and practicing skills and add a "story" while they are assessing and teaching/learning, you will suddenly find yourself forgetting the lesson is over and actually be intrigued with the dialog that is presented. To simply put it, it's the social aspect of the game that makes Marrach so special. Make skills sociable, and you will have folks coming back to you wanting to learn just because you can tell a story.
You are the author of a story about the character you are playing, and you are not writing this story alone. It is collaborative, and not unlike theatre sports or that lovely show on English TV, "What's Cooking?" In that show, two contestant chefs are given a mystery bag of five grocery items selected by the contestant players, and access to staple items in the larder. In half an hour they must make a meal. The fun part is, halfway through, the compere does something unexpected she might give them an extra item to include, or make the chefs swap places, or even take one of their food items away. And the creativity and ingenuity of the chefs is staggering! They still manage to make a mouth-watering meal in less than thirty minutes.
Playing a game like Castle Marrach is like that. You plan out what your character looks like, their personality, and perhaps a goal for them. And you start writing their story. Next thing you know whammo! Some other character gets that guild leader position you were writing your own character into. Or your character sees a grisly murder before their eyes. Or your character is randomly selected and promoted into the position of Royal Pantler and must move to the Inner Bailey (which earns the scorn of your former friends, and the scrutiny of the aristocrats).
How does this affect the story you had planned? You have to incorporate all these things not so that your character can achieve whatever goals you originally laid out for them, but so that you can tell an interesting story about them. The characters which have had the most unexpected things happen to them, have the most opportunities for creative stories illustrating just how setbacks and hurdles affect them.
The goal of the game is not to get the most items, nor to get promoted into the highest position. The goal is to cook up a tale that is refreshingly creative. Mouth-watering and intriguing.
Lead StoryPlotter Deri
I received a great piece of advice when I took over as Lead StoryPlotter in Marrach: Decide where you want the game to go and take it there. In other words, have your vision of what you want the game to be clear in your mind's eye and do what it takes to get it there. Sometimes this can mean drastic actions that unsettle the players, like the huge number of promotions we did in last fall's Estrella Festival, but in the end everyone was happier for it, and the game was better.
At the same time, you cannot be so focused on that vision that you ignore the vision of other staff and players. When someone becomes attached to a game world, they want to feel that they can contribute to the way it is shaped. And that's a good thing, because even though it means you must surrender a degree of "authorship" in the game, letting others help means you'll end up with a lot less to do yourself. Build a staff of creative people around you: the more people you have, the more your game will grow. I can't begin to describe the positive changes in Marrach when our StoryPlotter staff leapt from three people to eight.
Beyond staff, utilize the players' desire to contribute to your advantage. Let them write up a character background for the NPC they are going to play, or figure out what the rules for a new in-game group will be, or help decide how a new feature should be implemented. By breaking up tasks among staff and players, not only do you get a lot more done, but you foster a feeling of ownership among players which will help secure their loyalty to the game.
Lastly, remember that you can't please everyone. It doesn't matter what you do, there will always be someone who isn't happy. There will be people who complain that the game is on the verge of total breakdown, that the staff is corrupt, that things were better "before"... While you should listen to their complaints and evaluate them to see if their is any truth in what they say, try not to take such detractors personally. It may not be easy to listen to people criticize what you have devoted so much time to, but remember that the truth is in the numbers, not in the words of one or two squeaky wheels. So long as your player base remains strong, you can rest assured that you are doing your job well.
Sometimes you need to out-of-character spoil the surprise for some players so that their characters do the right thing in a scene.
Players like to win, but even more they like to feel that they almost lost but survived by the skin on their teeth due to their actions.
A few of us have also put collected wisdom on What Makes a Good Plot on the Marrach forums.
StoryPlotter Reveur (Redux)
Burning the Bridges. Over the course of my stay in Marrach, the hardest thing for me as a player has been watching those around me climb the ladder of success,
and watching my own character continue to burn the bridges to the Inner Bailey or other successful avenues within the Castle. However, the plus side of maintaining my character's established mold has been the reward of the enriched role play I have enjoyed with other players and their characters.
Sometimes the reward of "failure" can be much more enriching than the reward of succeeding at your intended goals. Yes it is hard to play a strict and stringent code of ethics for a character and watch other players achieve their goals, but I assure you that over the last two years of my own involvement with Castle Marrach, it is the "burning of bridges" as I call it that has made the game that more immensely enjoyable for me. It has been hard to turn away from solving a mystery or fixing something I know my character could fix, if I bent the character mold just so, but I find more enjoyment when another player actually comes to me and asks for the "story" or the point of view the character maintains. Not only do I get to feel as if I was somehow involved in fixing things, but I have watched others climb the ladder of success, and have been able to say, "it was my story that got them there".
All too often of late, I see many players only want to achieve the end goal and not build a story to the reason their character should have that position. I am not certain where the blame could lie, but perhaps it is those hack and slash games we buy off the computer store's shelf that has sudden implanted in our minds that in order to succeed, you must obtain a position of power or object of interest; i.e. the coolest looking dagger, or niftiest unique item in Master Ali's Tent.
Some of the best stories I have seen presented or been involved in are actually simple things. A simple ring with an engraving of a elephant or dog that has a strange and unique story behind it. Or perhaps the background that someone has made for their character and the specific portrayal of that "story" they have maintained. Or perhaps it is achieving a reversed goal of burning yet another bridge just to successfully bring about an earth, err, Marrach shattering event.
This, my dear role player, is what Marrach is about: socializing, storytelling, and occasionally burning those bridges to positions of rank and social status. Success comes in various forms. Sometimes taking two steps backwards is actually more rewarding that taking that single step forward.
Lead StoryGuide Marath
Always remember to let people know if they're expected and needed at an event. And give people as much lead time as possible. 12 hours' notice for an event they have to be at isn't nice.
People have real lives, but the story must go on.
Too many eggs in one basket (or player) is just asking for trouble.
You'll spend 80% of your time on a few trouble people. Don't let that jade you to the other players.
Share the wealth. Delegate delegate delegate. And simply step aside and move out of the way. Characters are more interesting if they don't do a dozen things, and frustrate other players less.
Once you delegate, let the other person do it. Don't always be looking over their shoulders.
Always be thinking of ways to reuse what you do as a staff person. And how to enable a player, in the future, to do what you're doing. Players are the ultimate force multiplier.
Chill, and panic not. But don't assume that other people have perfect
There's something that I've always thought is the biggest and most important aspect of a team, and teamwork, and that is to deal with things in a straightforward fashion and not litter the scene, so to speak. If you have a grudge with a fellow staffer, either spew it over him or leave it in the oozing pile where it belongs and let it lie, head on. If negative stuff exists, your work will suffer.
Lead StoryPlotter Xios
As the third generation Lead StoryPlotter, I've two bits of advice I've collected over the last year.
You don't want to take on too much at once. Perhaps this means delegation for some. Or it just means that big plot you want to run needs to be held off for a bit longer. These both need to be balanced though. Some plots for Castle Marrach have been on hold for too long because there is just so much that needs to be done. And with a good team you can delegate some things out and really get some fantastic things rolling. That's the short-term advice. It's what will keep you from burning out too quickly.
You do need to think long-term as well. And that means documentation. From common mannerisms of the NPCs you play to the small little plots which might not mean much to you, but can mean a lot to some players. And like a pack of rabid Trek fans, the players will catch inconsistencies and make sure you hear about them. Which short term you don't need to worry about. You know your plots and characters. But a year down the line as you bring in players to be StoryPlotters, they might not have heard about some of the plots you've run. They certainly don't know where that plot was headed. And two or three years down the road, as you try to step more and more into the background, the new people will have barely a clue about the past. But that past will return. Most especially if you've promised a player something and just didn't have time to fill that order. A large percentage of the initial time of the second set of Plotters was spent finishing up plots started by previous Plotters or Hosts. And no matter how much better we are getting at it, some plots slip through our radar and come back to haunt us. TWiki and tools like it can help to not only increase communication but to save knowledge for the Plotters who will come after you and keep that sense of continuity for your players.
As the last word, I'd like to offer one piece of advice which I think is obvious from everything I've collected together here today:
Empower your players, then empower them some more, and your game will be better for it. From day one Marrach had a brilliant spark of creativity that entranced players and drew them into the game, but I don't think it became a truly great game until the many player StoryPlotters and StoryCoders began to appear. By empowering them we gave Castle Marrach the possibility to reach its full creative potential.
Under the guidance of over a dozen wonderful people, it's still stretching toward that lofty goal every day.