Series Info...#13 This Blessed Plot, Part Two

by Shannon Appelcline

December 14, 2000 – We did it. The Winter Ball that is, five days gone now. By the sheer numbers, the event was a success. We had 59 players online simultaneously at the peak, blowing away our previous record of 47. Including StoryHosted characters we were running a bit over 60 folks jammed into one room at the height of the ball.

We hope everyone had fun, meeting some of the folks of the Inner Bailey, seeing the Queen's magic, and eating those shaped cookies which are the true sign of nobility and civility. It was a kick for us.

To no one's surprise we saw anew the problem of scroll. Jamming that many people into one locale just doesn't do good things for interaction. The Queen's hair dresser's brother-in-law's niece's seamstress walks into the room and you spend the next three-four minutes watching people bow. Ouch. Scroll has been a problem with text-dominant multiplayer games since there were text-dominant multiplayer games. It's no different for Castle Marrach.

Our TODO list includes a few things that'll hopefully help scroll. They could still be a year away, but we're thinking about them, and would love to here other suggestions. Here's what we've got brewing:

  • Sound Suppression. We would use our proxes to help control sound, so that you can only hear things if they're "close" to you, or if they're being created in a sound amplification output area like a podium or if you're standing in a sound amplification input area like a doorway. Problems: How do you make sure that rooms don't appear strangely quiet even when lots is going on? How do you do this intuitively so that people used to other prose games aren't confused?
  • Attention. You'd be more likely to see things done by people or in proxes that you're paying attention too. This could be related to our sound system but could also work for fidgeting. Problems: How do you measure attention? How do you make attention intuitive without having to have special attention verbs?
  • Action Grouping. If thirty people bow to the Queen within a set period of time, you see "Thirty people bow to the Queen" rather than each individual person doing so. Problems: How do you group commands over a time period without lagging all commands?
  • As you can see, we still have to put some philosophical thought into all of these ideas, but eventually we hope they'll at least reduce the spectre of scroll.

    Top-Down Plots

    A few aeons ago I wrote an article called This Blessed Plot, Part One. There I wrote about plot and its importance to our Grand Theatres and how that differed from MUDs. In my meandering path I eventually came upon the topic of bottom-up plots, which is to say plots created by players and supported by StoryTellers. But, they're only half the story. The other half is made up of top-down plots, which are those created by the StoryTellers.

    My first lesson this week can be simply stated: Host-driven and player-driven plots are equally important. Player-driven plots can help to really involve players in the game and also tend to take less work on the part of the StoryTellers, perhaps none at own. Host-driven plots are usually better coordinated with the overall vision on the complete game and are more likely to foreshadow events that may be months or years ahead and can thus provide real continuity.

    I talked through player plots a lot in that earlier article. Here I want to offer some advice on how StoryHosts can best use their time to entertain players.

    The central problem is one of numbers. The rule goes something like this: A StoryHost needs to entertain the maximum number of people. Any tabletop gamemaster will understand this rule. When you're running your favorite roleplaying game, you want to be sitting at the table interacting with all 3-10 of your players. If you wander off with 1 player and discuss his secret-history/backstabbing-machinations/embarrassing-body-odor then your other 2-9 players are going to be sitting around bored. Not good.

    The same rule applies to online games, but tenfold. When you might have a 1:5 gamemaster:player ratio in roleplaying games and a 1:10 ratio in LARPs, in an online roleplaying game, you might have a 1:20 ratio, or higher. Sitting around having a great time with one player ain't going to cut it with the other 19 folks.

    Our easiest solution to this problem has been to hold big events. Ignoring the spectre of scroll, this works pretty well. In corollary to our rule: When playing an NPC, StoryHosts should partake in large events.

    We had 12(!) people staffing on Winter Ball night, playing the Queen, the King, the Prince, the Jester, a couple of guards, a few Sirs, and a few Ladies. A 1:5 ratio, higher than we usually run, but quite appropriate for an event of that magnitude. I fondly remember other big events which we also staffed heavily, including the Martel-Victor duel and the Eduoard-Roland fight. I also remember some small events which we didn't staff heavily, but which drew lots of players. The first ceremony in the cupola sticks in my mind because I was amazed by the 20 or so people that joined in that night. Back then, 20 was our top number of simultaneous players and to have them all in one place was... amazing.

    So big events work pretty well and allow a few StoryHosts to entertain a lot of people. The big events have been some of my most memorable times in the castle... but they're not the be-all and end-all of StoryHost plots. They don't necessarily give players much opportunity to have a say in what happens; they're more likely to be idle observers watching a story unfold, and that's not what most people are looking for in an interactive fiction game.

    To entertain lots of people, StoryHosts need to do more than just sit in on scenes. Another corollary: When writing plots, StoryHosts must create situations that will entertain numerous people.

    We've written many plots for the Castle. Some failed because we created plots that one person could solve (or derail). Other succeeded because they caused lots of people to get involved.

    Here were a few failures:

    • Love Note. On the first day of Castle Marrach, we dropped a love note in the Castle. We expected the discoverers to try and hunt down its author and/or its intended recipient. Someone pocketed the note and we never saw it again. Number of people involved: 1. Game Time: 1 minute.
    • Lost Brooch. Back in October we had Nadira lose a brooch and suggested people should start looking for it. We were still running through the rigamarole about the missing brooch when someone came into the room and said he'd found it. Number of people involved: 1 (plus a number of potential searchers). Game Time: 2-3 minutes.
    Here were a few successes:
    • Bent Key. Launfal dropped a bent key one day and soon it had been picked up by a group of players. After some initial arguments they began rampaging about the Castle, trying to figure out which door it opened. They eventually discovered that it unlocked the dining hall closet, which contained a lot of old furniture. The Watch sealed up the closet, but the plot still hasn't been played out, as the distribution of the furniture needs to be decided. Contests, duels, and other means have been suggested, which could multiply the number of players involved in this plot. Number of people involved initially: 12. Game Time initially: 2 hours. But both of these numbers will increase greatly as the final distribution of the furniture is determined, if that occurs.
    • Murder Investigation. On October 26 Roland was mysteriously slain during his duel with Eduoard (see Hosting on Your Toes). Duelists and Watchmen alike were involved with this murder investigation. It was the topic of discussion in the Castle, even among uninvolved characters. Eventually Sir Alrik began investigating and the players were involved again. Around November 20 we were finally wrapping things up, as anger between the duelists and the watchmen was slowly cooling. Number of people involved: Most of the castle. Game Time: 4 weeks (on and off).
    Even when we've used plots to create situations that involve lots of people, we tend to go pretty heavy on the StoryHosted NPCs. They tend to be at the center of the plots and thus are required for their continued development. It's definitely one method of creating plots and it can create very satisfying stories, so you'll keep seeing it.

    In addressing how StoryTellers can most effectively create plots to entertain lots of people, I'd like to suggest one last corollary: When writing plots, StoryHosts can entertain an increased number of players by creating conflict between them.

    We, to be honest, haven't done this much in Castle Marrach. It might be that it doesn't fit the style of the game we've created, or that it's not what Marrach's players or looking for, or just that we're not very good at it yet.

    However, in other venues this works great. Creating conflict among players is one of the core methods for creating a LARP (Live Action Role-Playing Games). When writing a LARP, an author tends to create a lot of characters and give those characters goals, and those goals are written in such a way as to cause inter-character conflict: you want the Frobozzinator that the Wizard with the Crooked Hat owns; you and the Warrior with 73 Tatoos of Palm Trees both want deed to the Lands of the Purple Swamps, and another character, the Iron-clawed Judiciary must decide who gets it; you must convince the maximum number of characters to follow your credo of being kind to bunnies.

    You, the StoryHost, create the conflict or the character interrelations and then sit back and watch the results.

    I expect that I'll eventually return to this topic as I think of other ways that either players or StoryTellers can be effective in creating plots in online games. In the meantime, I'd love to hear your feedback.

    Beta Tests

    I've often used this forum as a place to talk about the newest bugs we've encountered. It's been one of the most beloved features in this column, because I tend to make light of the bugs and treat them with humor. Naked cats, Jet Li moves in Castle Marrach, snooty couriers... I'm sure you'll remember some of the topics.

    In all seriousness, finding these bugs is one of the reasons that we're doing a beta... one of the reasons that we opened Castle Marrach 3 months ago rather than 3 months from now. We would never have hit many of the bugs that had been discovered without your extensive playing.

    This was made clearer than usual last Saturday at the Winter Ball. As we approached the Winter Ball, we StoryHosts were logging into the Castle, trying on our characters and making sure they fit OK and weren't missing any buttons, zippers, or clasps. And we were noticing the most terrible lag while we were doing this.

    On our private StoryHost line we kept sending out variations of the same message: "still lagging", "it took seven seconds to get a response from that command", "terrible lag", and "five-ten second lag". Here we were, a few hours from our biggest event ever and the system was failing under us.

    There was some panic: running in circles, screaming, that type of thing.

    Zell finally found the solution. There was lots of technical mumbo jumbo to the tune of "we're swapping out forty objects a minute" and "bulk is an O(n^2) algorithm and it's killing the system".

    There was some non-technical non-mumbo jumbo too, to the tune of "I fixed it." Things got better.

    This was the type of bug that we never would have hit if we hadn't had a huge mass of people milling around waiting for the Ball to start. It was the type of bug that would have involved much unhappiness if we were running a fully operational system. It was the type of bug that we could only find because you are willing to beta test our game.

    Thank you!

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