The blunt truth is that if you're playing with a group of people that you all mutually trust, you don't need an RPG system. You can probably just make things up as you go along, and everyone can roll with whatever happens.
There is a common perception that this kind of systemless play is more open and easier, but to be frank, that is only true if one is involved from the outset. As systemless play evolves, the group responsible for it establishes more assumptions, more history and more of a sense of what is the "right" way to play. All of these are unspoken, and should a new player arrive, they have no way to know what these things are, and if they are accepted by the group at all, it is only by assuming the role of supplicant in pursuit of indoctrination. In short, the less system a new player can reference, the easier it is for cliques and other exclusionary groups to form. Even when under friendlier sounding guises, like safe zones, this is pure poison for the game as a whole.
Realistically, there will always be cliques and other undesirable social interactions on a MUSH. We can work to make it a better place, but it's no Utopia. But the truth is that people are going to have to learn something to play, and the two options are either to learn a system, or to twist yourself to blend into an existing playgroup. The former is a level playing field, allowing equal opportunity for fun; the latter allows for a core elite to have a great time at the expense of everyone else.
Moreover, a problem arises if you want to play with people outside of the circle of folks that you know and trust — specifically, if you want to play conflict outside that circle. Without some way to develop trust (or at least establish a foundation for communication), you end up with what can be interesting interpersonal conflicts within playgroups, but few ways to create larger, cross-group, dramatic conflicts — and more often than not, without trust and/or clearly-articulated expectations, such IC conflicts break down into OOC anger and frustration.
It's insufficient to say that everyone ought to do what makes for good story, because individual tastes in "good story" can and do legitimately differ. Some people love pain. Some people want their characters to live happily ever after. Different people have different ideas about what "should" happen, either logically or dramatically.
What happens on many games is that people with similar roleplay styles cluster together, and after some painful attempts to do cross-group conflict, they get gunshy and stop wanting to play with anyone that they don't already know and trust. While this can be workable, it also divides a game into cliques, and it deeply limits the breadth and scope of stories possible.
We believe very strongly that without meaningful conflict, especially conflict between characters, a game eventually stagnates — people fall back to doing strictly interpersonal play, possibly between waiting for injections of story from the staff. We view that state of affairs as undesirable — people can still have enjoyable play in that environment, but it wastes a lot of the potential of the MUSH medium.
Consequently, the primary goal of our RPG system is to facilitate an environment in which it's "safe" to involve yourself in conflict with players that you don't know and/or trust.
This comes down to a couple of things:
- Being able to prove a claim, without having to get the staff involved.
- Establishing a formal chain of communication around a conflict.
- Establishing boundaries around a conflict.
- Clearly articulating the scope of consequences.
- Limiting the likelihood of unhappy consent (or denial of consent) situations.
The material below this point is a first draft with an initial handful of thoughts.
In the relatively free-form environment of a MUSH, it can sometimes be hard to figure out who did what when, particularly if something took place some time ago. It can also sometimes be hard to determine what exactly was agreed to, OOC, in particular situations. What's useful in this situation, therefore, is authenticated, timestamped messages, which can be traded around, shown to other people, and "signed" by other players. This is our token system.
We think it's important for people to be able to establish a timestamp for something, and to get other "signatures" on it, because it is the best way to demonstrate that one is telling the truth about a particular fact established in previous IC history — immutable timestamps and messages (that can have timestamped amendments attached) prove that you previously asserted something, or that you previously agreed to something. It's attempt to eliminate some of the "he said she said" out of disagreements, and it's part of the supporting infrastructure for communicating information in a formal manner.
Some of our formal systems for conflict negotiation explicitly include a "contract" element — something which spells out what was agreed to and keeps a record of it. We encourage players who don't have established trust relationships with their opponents to keep these kinds of records (if not already being done by the system) — writing it out ensures that everyone's on the same page. It's not insulting to write a token and ask for it to be signed, saying, "This is what I believe we agreed to, we'll both sign it to show that this is what we agreed to". Not only does that formally establish something between the two of you, but it's something that you can show others who might enter the conflict later and want to understand the lay of the land, conflict-wise.
Whenever you're involved in a conflict, there are often certain people who should be kept in the loop as the situation evolves. However, there are two problems — first, you have to figure out who those people are, and second, you have to actually keep them in the loop. It's also useful to have some guidance as to who these people are, and what part of the situation they need to know about. Finally, even in a conflict between two people, there's a need to communicate in a structured way so that everyone's on the same page in terms of understanding and expectations. The better the two people know each other, the more informal communication will work fine, but the more serious the conflict or the less acquainted the people involved are, the greater the need for a more structured approach.
Expectations need to be clearly set at the beginning of conflicts. Everyone has different tastes and different approaches to play, and may also bring very different assumptions to the table. Points to negotiate include:
- How many people are going to end up getting involved in this conflict?
- How often, and in what context, will conflict-related scenes be played out?
- To what degree are things happening off-screen?
- How long will this conflict last?
- What is the pacing of the conflict?
- How much information will be communicated OOC?
- How much will be pre-negotiated?
- Is arbitration or a trusted third party needed?
These are negotiations, essentially, about the form that play takes. Some people may prefer to conduct certain types of conflict via +mail or bboard posts, while others expect everything to be scened. Some people may think that an ongoing plot conflict might have one major event each week, while others want to pursue daily play. Some people may consider the primary play to take place between the key people involved in the conflict, while others want to get a lot of other people involved. Some people want to draw in a lot of props, while others want to keep things more focused and/or avoid interfering with storylines that might be going on elsewhere. People also have different conflict resolution styles, and different levels of tolerance for surprises. These are all taste and practicality issues, and both sides need to discuss their desires and expectations up front, and come to agreements on these points.
Every conflict is about something. Even if it's purely interpersonal, there's always something on the line, even if it's something as abstract as hurt pride or a reputation. In the end, it comes down to the stakes — what's at risk, and what changes as a result of the conflict.
We believe that making the stakes explicit leads to more satisfying conflicts between people who don't have established trust relationships. It allows people to clearly articulate what, in the end, they want to get out of the conflict, and what they're willing to lose.
We also believe that most players want conflicts to have limited scope — they don't want a situation spiraling entirely out of control, derailing whatever other plans they might have had for their characters. Some players are more flexible than others in this regard (and some players absolutely love unpleasant surprises), but when there isn't established trust, and the players involved are sufficiently remote from one another that they feel limited social obligation to cooperate, and/or there are significant stylistic differences between what players want out of a situation, it's better to limit the scope of the conflict to something that everyone can live with.
Conflicts have fallout — consequences, things that change, things that are won and lost. We tend to express system things in terms of the types of consequences that can result, and the breadth of applicability, because we have an eye to how something affects the color of a scene, the possible consequences, and the actual likely consequences. Our systems strongly relate the idea of naming a fact with naming a consequence, and making those consequences into formally agreed-upon things.
We also push the intent of consequences — the player's desire for a play outcome — over the specifics of the consequences. Players generally want the outcome of a conflict to be meaningful in some way — that's the intent. Not allowing someone else's victory to be meaningful also means that your loss is not meaningful — you've robbed yourself and the other player of the potential drama of the story.
Consent issues generally do not begin at the point of resolution of the conflict. Rather, they tend to be tied to the set-up of the situation. Situations that essentially back a player into a corner, that imply that they need to consent to something in order to not be thought of as a twink — usually because the situational set-up is such that they don't have a logical escape route — are undesirable. They occur when players try to win, instead of going for drama.
One of the things that the staff is most cautious about is gifts that have a high likelihood of cornering other players and placing them in uncomfortable consent situations. In general, we won't approve gifts that are oriented towards surprise attack, sudden death, mind control, etc. However, we also depend upon players to recognize that they should not, in fact, be constructing airtight traps for one another — or if they insist on doing so, the consequences need to be clearly articulated up earlier in conflict negotiation, before it becomes an on-the-spot consent issue.
To be continued.