Cosmology (and How to Make a GM Request)

This MUSH is intended to be lightly GM'd. In other words, the game's focus is on player-generated stories, but there are GMs so that it is possible to have some background secrets, a consistent view of the cosmology, and a way to help the jigsaw puzzle of character experiences fit together. The GMs here generally do not "run plots" per se, and there is no global "metaplot" for the MUSH.

What follows is an explanation of the logic of our cosmology, some guidance as to how to ask the GMs for stuff, and the notion of player authorship (which may be a new concept to many people who have not played "story game" RPGs that distribute story authority to players, rather than keeping it solely with the GM, as is classically true with tabletop RPGs).

Before making a cosmology request, you should probably read our guide to the Basic Truths of the Universe.

What the Game is About

If there is a central defining "story" of the game, it is this: This game is about the post-Oberon Amber. It is about deciding the future of Amber and the Golden Circle, and dealing with the challenges created when the things that Oberon held together start coming apart.

The staff has no particular outcome in mind. If players want to create a new Golden Age, great. If the players want to destroy the Pattern and bring about a grand new design, fine. If players want to cast the universe into doom and destruction, that's fine too. If the players want to ally with the forces of the Road and bring about a mighty cross-shadow empire of darkness, splendid.

Momentum is achieved by player initiative. Don't be afraid to think grand thoughts.

The Cosmology

We intentionally designed the game's cosmology to be very loose. We have a few lynchpins that are the basis of the logic of the game's universe, but we wanted to fill in as few initial details as possible so that it would be possible to accomodate player desires and ideas. Over time, as players explore pieces of the universe, the details get filled in and made solid — established by GM or propco responses, and the resulting play.

We also tried to keep the cosmology restricted to the ancient past (beyond living memory, i.e., pre-Benedict) and to the mystical elements of the universe. While there are some elements that push forward in time, we've tried to keep them tied to NPCs such as Oberon, Dworkin, and (previously, before he became a PC) Eric, so that they interfere minimally with player histories and props. We also have one universal element, which is the taint of the Black Road, which touches nearly all props in some way, and serves as a central framing device that motivates change and conflict.

Our cosmological core allows a virtually unlimited supply of villains and challenges that show up from the past — essentially, threats that Oberon dealt with, that with him gone, are now re-emerging. This allows the staff to generally respond with "yes" whenever a player requests a powerful NPC villain for plot reasons. The early months of the MUSH allowed the staff to seed a few key thematic villainous agendas, but in general, powerful NPCs do not show up on-screen — instead, an NPC represents an agenda that one or more characters is trying to carry out. When NPCs do show up, they generally do so in order to try to convince characters to do something, not to execute something themselves — i.e., we usually deliberately restrict the scope of NPCs so that they are forced to rely on characters to accomplish whatever their agenda is. Those players are in turn likely to morph those agendas to their own liking. This is staff-intended, as the machinations of players are really what drives a game.

Whenever we reveal cosmology, we tend to reveal it in somewhat vague ways — through the riddles and poems and stories that appear in lores, through fragmented discoveries made in searches of ancient places, and the like. This is because we intend this to engender IC discussion and debate, and to encourage people to think of ideas of their own, using what has been revealed as the seed of an idea.

Fundamentally, people who are trying to find cosmological revelations are essentially searching into the past. While we hope that this is interesting, it should be noted that learning about the past simply opens up questions about the present and future. You will not find answers to current dilemmas in the past; you will simply know what happened, and this may provide fodder for debate about what to do now.

The universe is fully destructible. While individual propcos may be protectionist about their props (which the staff frowns on, but does not explicitly forbid), staff-owned props and the pillars of the cosmology are all fair game. We simply ask that good play be created as a result.

Asking the GMs for Stuff

In general, whenever elements are introduced into the game by the GMs, it is at the request of a player. What the staff explicitly does not want to do is to "GM" in the traditional sense of the word — to pour out information or plot in response to a vague open-ended question. Usually, open-ended requests are likely to engender two questions:

  • What do you hope to accomplish?
  • What type of play to you expect to do from this?

Those two questions are closely tied together. Without a sense of what you desire out of the play that results from this thing that you're asking for, a GM doesn't have much guidance for what you're looking for. Because we have a loose cosmology, when you ask an open-ended question, chances are that there is no pre-existing answer — a GM is having to go through the effort of coming up from something entirely from scratch. Not only is this a lot of effort, but because it is a lot of effort and a creative exercise that practically occurs from blank paper, it takes a lot of time to come up with an interesting answer. Worse still, what the GM thinks of as a cool idea might not be anything like what you had in mind, and not what you really hoped to get, which means that not only is the effort wasted, but you are needlessly frustrated. Therefore, the clearer you are about what you hope to get out of play, the more easily a GM can help you.

In general, the best way to approach the GMs is to have a scene, set of scenes, plot idea, or the like in mind, and to ask for something specific. You may get exactly that, or you may get something augmented or additional if this sparks an idea for a cosmological tie.

The more specific you are about the scenes (or expected story arc) that you hope to do, and the more specific you are about what facts you think you need established in order for those scenes to be possible, the more likely you are to get back something that suits what you wanted. We can't emphasize this enough: Be specific about what elements of your submission are really important to you. We are not going to mind-read. Also, be honest about whether you're interested primarily in the journey or the end-result.

Here are a number of (fake) examples of bad and good ways to ask for something in the form of a GM submit.

Bad: My character Brand would like to destroy the Pattern. How do I do that?

Good: My character Brand would like to destroy the Pattern. His current theory is that by destroying a node of power in each of the Golden Circle shadows, he will weaken the foundation of the Pattern. I have talked to the Golden Circle propcos and worked out a node of power and scene with each of them, but need to discuss the staff-controlled shadows with the GMs. Once he has dealt with the nodes of power, he will spill the blood of Black Road-tainted creatures over the Pattern. What will happen if he tries this?

The first submission is vague and open-ended and essentially unanswerable. Yes, it is possible that a GM could put together a giant packet with a storyline for how Brand discovers the way to destroy the Pattern, but that is a phenomenal amount of work, particularly given that this is the kind of thing where player creativity should be the driving force. The end result of a canned storyline is frequently going to be much less cool than if it occurred organically. A request like that will get bounced back to a player with, "Please come up with something specific to try."

The second submission proposes actual play, with implicit consequences and a draw-in of other people. It asks narrowly-focused questions which have simple answers, and allow a GM to provide Brand with a result that gives him a hint as to how he might accomplish his goal, hopefully allowing him to formulate another plan.

Bad: My character Bleys is searching the Library of Pathi for information about Clarissa. What do I find?

Good: My character Bleys is searching the Library of Pathi for information about Clarissa. I'd like to find evidence that she was once tied to a rebel faction of Pathi archons in league with something that seems similar to the Black Road. I'm also looking for reasons why she might have married Oberon, because Bleys believes that she must have been tricked or forced into doing so.

The first submission is likely to get back a fairly generic response that amounts to, "You don't find anything special," unless some GM has a sudden brainchild for something interesting to say about Clarissa. It gives no hint as to what Bleys's player is trying to accomplish, and what he hopes to find or not find that would help him in achieving whatever play goal he's striving for.

The second submission suggests that the player has something specific in mind that he wants to do with that information. It gives the GMs something specific to answer, and some flexibility in the range of possible responses (the desired evidence may be fraudulent, for instance). It is possible that a request like this may simply be bounced to Pathi's propco; since this is a library, Pathi's propco can simply make things up without the books being actual factual Truth. But it's also possible that a GM might choose to answer and reveal something specific about the tie between Pathi and the Black Road, or at least provide some interesting nugget of something that Bleys's player can use to generate more play.

Bad: My character Fiona would like to figure out if she can make another Jewel of Judgment. She's searching old libraries and asking around, trying to learn as much as she can.

Good: My character Fiona is trying to create another Jewel of Judgment. She's going to try to find similar items of power in shadow, and then try to attune them to the Pattern. Finding the items will involve scenes of dangerous exploration in far shadow. To attune the "Jewels", she'll take them repeatedly across the Patterns, and try to expose them to other sources of power. I'd like to establish that shadows of the Jewel of Judgment can be found, and that items can be temporarily imbued with weak (non-consequential) Pattern abilities in this manner. This is the first step in a long-term effort, and what's important to me is that it shows enough success that it makes sense for Fiona to keep trying.

The first submission is likely to cause the GMs to have to restrain themselves from responding, "If the answers were findable in books, someone would probably have tried this already." By and large, characters don't find answers in libraries, unless it's part of some larger packet, a propco's plot, or there's some form of library-related adventure. Looking things up in books doesn't usually drive play, and play is ultimately what we're all after. Broadly, the process of discovering information ought to be as interesting as the information itself.

The second submission makes it clear what Fiona's play intent is, and what she's ultimately trying to accomplish with this proposal. It makes it clear what cosmological facts Fiona is seeking to establish. Even if the GMs believe that these facts won't work with what has been previous established, Fiona's indication of intent allows the GMs to know what sort of alternative proposal can be made.

Bad: My character Dalt would like to strengthen his claim on the throne of Lyonesse, and plans to rally the refugees of New Lyonesse to his cause. How well does that work?

Good: My character Dalt would like to strengthen his claim on the throne of Lyonesse. I would like to go to the sunken ruins in Lyonesse and recover the equivalent of Excalibur. Then, I plan to go to the New Lyonesse slums and use it to publicly proclaim myself as the next High King. I would like the sword to be cursed in some way, however, so that Dalt also has to deal with the consequences of having stolen it. What can I obtain?

The first submission is vague and likely to obtain the response, "You're welcome to try. Gossip is the appropriate way to represent manipulating NPCs." It's not likely to be the response that Dalt's player wants, but his request has also given the GMs nothing to work with; it doesn't ask a question specific enough for an answer to be provided.

The second submission is specific and clearly indicates the kind of play that is going to occur. The likely GM answer is to provide a token for the sword, and possibly ask Dalt more about the curse so that a suitable one can be written if Dalt's player does not actually come up with a specific curse that he wants. It's also possible that the GMs will ask Dalt to get Rebma's propco involved, as there may be a conflict over the retrieval of the sword, since Rebma has an interest in sunken Lyonesse. Dalt will still be told that gossip is the appropriate medium for NPC manipulation, but the kind of thing that Dalt is talking about is loud and interesting enough that it should bring other players into the mix pretty readily.

Bad: My character Deirdre is trying to figure out how Oberon bound the original "River God", and is enlisting the help of House Karm to go through their records for an appropriate spell. What will they find?

Good: My character Deirdre is trying to figure out how Oberon bound the original "River God", and is enlisting the help of House Karm. I'd like them to be able to locate a fragment of a record and ritual that seems to indicate the binding of an ancient being, and then be able to go into shadow and try this ritual out on a shadow being of power. What can we discover that we might be able to use against the River God?

The first request is open-ended, and may, like other open-ended requests, obtain a GM request with some explanation, but again, such things are vague and difficult to work with. It is likely to receive a response that someone with Karm magics should ask a more specific question, or that Deirdre's player should work with Karm's propco to come up with something more specific.

The second request is specific in the nature of the play being sought and done. While locating the fragment and ritual can simply be declared as true by Karm's propco, and does not require GM assistance, propco permission simply allows whatever is permissible via the Karm gifts and prop charter. It's also entirely permissible to simply run that whole story as within the purview of Karm's propco and any person with a shadow-walking ability — there's no need for GM permission. However, by making this a GM request, Deirdre's player is implicitly asking for there to be some deeper tie to the cosmology, so the GMs can reply with an explanation of how their efforts may lead to a useful discovery.

Bad: I'd like UP-Mystical/6 for my character Llewella. How do I get it?

Good: My character Llewella currently has UP-Mystical/5. I've been roleplaying her delving into ancient mysteries, and I'd like to be able to buy into UP-Mystical/6. After discussion with Rebma's propco, I'd like to propose that Llewella discovers an ancient Rebman magic, whose practitioners were eventually hunted down and destroyed by the mirror mages. Her path to discovery will involve worlds discovered through her mirror gift, tomes glimpsed in ancient mirrors that she will send others to collect for her, and eventually bargaining with the Leviathan for these lost secrets of magic. Would this be possible?

The first request is going to get back a generic response: Ask people for training or discover an existing path to the lore.

The second request proposes what is effectively a plot, and a series of specific steps. It's clear that it is going to create play for other people. It requires the agreement of Rebma's propco, as it establishes Rebman history. Importantly, it provides the GMs with a clear path that can be turned into an open-ended packet that allows Llewella and others that she draws into her adventures to pursue the next level of the lore.

In short: Be specific about what you are doing from a play perspective. If the GMs know what you are trying to do, you will get back a much more useful response.

Player Authorship and Declarative World-Building

Implicit in all of the "good example" requests in the previous section is the notion of player authorship. In a submit, you can essentially ask for a particular cosmological detail to be true. If it does not contradict something that has already been established, there is a very high probability that the GMs will decide that it is true, or at least agree that there is evidence that it is true.

In other words, you can effectively try to bring a play element into existence via declaration that it is so, subject to any relevant propco control, or staff control over cosmology. In general, if you come to someone (whether a propco or a GM) with a specific idea that you want to bring into the mix and what you want to come out of instantiating that idea in play, people are generally pretty open to bringing that element into the mix. Note that you can't simply pose such elements as existing, of course; you do need to run them by the relevant propco and/or a GM submit to make sure that it's reasonable and that consistency is not violated.

This bears special mention and focus, because it is diametrically opposite to the way that most MUSHes (and most non-story-game tabletop RPGs) operate. In most roleplaying environments, players go to the GM and ask open-ended questions, expecting the GM to spin the answer out of their head. But on our MUSH (and in an increasing number of "story game" tabletop RPGs), players have declarative ability — to say that they want a particular element, with specific characteristics, introduced for some specific purpose.

This is, essentially, how one takes authorial control. You should not be waiting for GM-provided solutions to challenges posed by the environment or by other players; you should be inventing solutions and trying them out, coming up with an agenda and thinking of play-generating things to support it, and otherwise making this world your own.

These bits of invention can come piecemeal. Indeed, to a significant extent, we encourage leaving things open-ended, much the same way that the staff has left the core cosmology open-ended. Ask to introduce elements as they are needed for play, while trying to keep in mind what the long-term future of those play elements could be. You don't need to come up with something grand; you just need the, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could have some scenes about this thing?" idea. Start with a seed and let it develop, so you can roll with interesting developments in play.

This is not, however, free candy. Implicit in these declarations of useful discovery must be the willingness to overcome challenge and conflict in order to obtain one's goal, and even to fail at doing so. The core of experimentation, in particular, is a succession of failures that result in bits of information being gleaned, which can eventually be assembled into something useful. Introducing play elements that have the potential to spin out into lots of scenes and impact a broader array of people is much preferable to anything that is narrowly focused on a single character or single scene.

About Packets and Other GM Revelations

If you've put a GM through the effort of writing an answer, especially if the answer comes in the form of an extensive packet, it is obviously courteous to actually go use that in play.

However, there is no particular urgency to doing so. Do not feel like you have to rush through a packet in any particular time interval. Also, the packet is not somehow instantly more important than anything that you already have on your character's agenda, or that other players are doing. A packet supports play efforts and may help give you information or provide some structure for scenes, but in the end, they are player-spawned (and in some cases directly player-generated). Use them or don't use them in your play as suits you.

In other words: We hope that GM-produced fodder for play is interesting. But you should be pursuing your own agenda, particularly since GM-produced fodder is typically produced as a result of some other player's agenda.

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