Experiments in Low Pressure
by Karrin Jackson
One of the many things that bothers me about MU* is that there is an expectation that a player will give X number of hours a week to the game or lose the character. While this usually applies to special characters, it isnít uncommon that even the standard ones get idle-dested after a month or so of inactivity. The this irks me is that it smacks of taking the whole thing too seriously. This is my hobby, not my lifestyle. If I don't feel like playing, why should I force myself to do so when I could spend that time engaging in an activity I'll actually enjoy? Sure, the payoff is that I get to keep my character, but why have a system in place that jeopardizes the character at all?
Recently, Iíve been playing on a game that has an official no-pressure policy. No one is obligated to log in unless they feel like it. Even the wizards can disappear for months at a time and, since they're the ones who instituted the rule, they aren't exactly going to get penalized for doing so. It's great to play in a relaxed atmosphere where I know I can take a break and, when I feel like returning, still have a character in the setting. The problem is that when people just up and leave, it causes other players to become stranded. When there are a dozen plots drawn to a screeching halt, more and more people will start taking breaks and forgetting to come back because RP dead-ends become no fun real fast, and players are a fickle bunch; they'll go where the entertainment is.
That doesn't mean that a game has to observe a strict no-idle policy in order to keep players around. Ideally, people will log in voluntarily because they enjoy the game. If you have to pressure them into staying, maybe the problem isn't them. Then again, sometimes a player's interests shift, life away from the computer becomes busy, and there are compelling reasons for staying away that have nothing to do with the quality of the game. Taking a break isn't a bad thing, but if this recent experiment in low-pressure play has taught me anything, itís that you can't just disappear. It's something you should put some thought into as a courtesy to your fellow players. Even if youíre burnt out and busy, it doesn't take long to fire off a +mail and give the people youíre leaving behind some clue as to how to proceed without you.
Have a Plan
When you're in the process of creating the character, think about reasons he or she would have to disappear and build them into the character's background. If you know you're the sort of player who burns out and needs to take breaks, you have no excuse for playing a homebody who would never leave town under any circumstances. This is where a player needs to have a healthy dose of self-awareness. Think about your playing patterns and compensate for them during character creation.
If you know you're going to get bored in a few months and wander off to try something new, consider making a character whose presence is temporary. Maybe she's in the area on business. Maybe he's touring the area as part of an extended holiday. Enter the game, have your fun, and when youíre done with the character, it's time for him or her to go home. Then you can start another character who is passing through, and you can do it all over again, if that's what you're into.
If you know youíre going to get bored in a few months and you'll want to take a break without quitting the character, design a character who travels, who has obligations elsewhere that may take him or her away at a moment's notice. Give the character an extended, needy family that is always calling on him or her to help out with their petty little dramas. It could be something that comes up in role-play when the character returns with stories to tell, like how he was helping his great aunt get back on her feet again after his great-uncle hawked all their belongings and ran off to Florida with some cheerleader.
If you're the kind of player who never gets tired of a character or setting and knows for a fact that you will log in every day of your life barring illness or lost computer access, then you don't have to worry about removing your character from the game. However, you will have to realize that, in a low-pressure setting, your character may have to develop the kind of independence and social skills that will allow him or her to get to know a good number of people who seem to come and go. Don't latch on to someone who is just going to disappear for months, then get depressed because you've lost your playmate. Remember, if your fun starts to hinge on someone else's presence, you're setting yourself up for a huge disappointment. Get out there, make connections, keep your play base wide and varied. You'll need it when your crush du jour goes AWOL. Again.
In any case, have a plan. This s a creative medium. We are creative people. I don't buy the idea that your character can only leave town so many times before you run out of feasible reasons. If it starts to seem ridiculous OOC, make it seem ridiculous IC. Your character's great aunt is okay, but now your cousin has two broken legs and isn't speaking to anyone else in the family, so he needs you to come take care of him for two months? Yeah, that is pretty lame. So treat that way IC and let your character rack up those frequent flyer miles. Life is a funny thing, and a lot of stuff happens to people that is entirely outside their control. Work with that.
Do yourself and everyone on the game a favor; if youíre not going to log in for the next few months, take your characters out of the game. Let them fly to Tahiti, go on a dig in Egypt, have their private plane go down in the jungles of South America; whatever you like, just go away. You're not doing anyone any favors by hanging around like a cardboard cutout, getting in the way and contributing nothing.
Sometimes, someone who is planning on being absent from role-play will tell the people he or she plays with that the character is busy on some project but would still be around off screen, so that it's okay to RP having seen the character and interacted with him or her. For an absence of a week or two, that's fine. When the absence stretches on for months, it's a hassle.
Here's the deal, while youíre taking a break, the game is moving along without you. That is how games survive; they change, new players come, old players go, and the stories evolve, conclude, and start again. It isn't fair to expect a game to remain in a holding pattern until you feel like logging in again. When you prop your character up somewhere in the background and leave, you're assuming the game is going to be the same when you return, that all the old relationships will still be intact, and that nothing has happened in the intervening time to which your character might have some response. The crazy thing is other players buy into this. How many people have reached a point in play where they've had to stop because someone isn't there and they really should have a chance to respond? If it's a situation where the scene is put off for a few days, thatís fine, but when it would have to be put off for weeks? Months?
Don't do that to your fellow players. If youíre not going to be there OOC, then find somewhere else to be IC until youíre ready to come back. Your character might lose touch with friends, and IC relationships may have to be reestablished or concluded. That's life. Actually, it's not even life it's a game. You'll get over it.
Too Important to Leave?
But wait! Your character is the mayor? The president? The godking? My advice is this: don't take on a character to which you can't commit. You can't have it all. You can't play the most important character in the game and only log in when you feel like it. I believe that if youíre going to have a low-pressure idle policy on your game, you should make a point of not creating a situation where there are characters without which the game cannot function.
Does a game need the grand poobah to be a player character? Is the game about fleshing out a census, or is it about the characters and their stories? Most characters in positions of extreme power wouldn't realistically be on the grid rubbing elbows with PCs anyway. The politics of power is the subject for an entirely separate article, but on the topic of players becoming scarce, I will simply say that if a player can't keep up with the job of playing a particular type of character, the player shouldn't be playing it. Period.
The Only Obligation is Courtesy
It is possible to have games where there is no obligation to log in, but the policy has to fit the setting, the characters, and the players' abilities to deal with frequent disappearances. When there are no expectations whatsoever, it is too easy for the players who do show up to get burned by the absence of those who don't.
The easiest guideline to remember is one of courtesy. Take the time to think about what your absence will mean, not only to the players with whom you regularly play, but also to new players who might show up later down the road and end up trying to react to someone who isn't even there. So get out of town. Give those youíre leaving behind a clean slate. Let their stories can go on. It'll give you new and interesting things to RP about when you return, and your fellow players won't resent the inconvenience of having to second-guess what your character may or may not have done.
If you're staff, tie up plot ends. Split your duties with staff members who are active. No one likes to be left high and dry, so give a thought to your players before you go incommunicado.
Lastly, for the love of all that's holy, don't just up and disappear. At least have the courtesy to +mail people and let them know you won't be around. You can spare the thirty seconds it takes to do that much.
Other than that? Hey, no pressure.