AresMUSH
A New Breed of MUSH Server

Battlestar Pacifica - Lessons Learned

A retrospective on running a game based on the Battlestar Galactica theme.
by Linda Naughton ('Faraday')

A little over a year ago, I saw a post by Zarquon seeking out staff for a Battlestar Galactica game he was building. I love BSG, and Zarquon had some really cool ideas for the game. I was very excited, and signed on to be their coder. Eventually, Zarquon’s RL reared its head and he stepped down, leaving me as headwiz.

On the whole, I think Battlestar Pacifica is a pretty cool game. We have a bunch of great players, a TON of plots (some of which are rocking cool, in my terribly biased opinion), and I have a lot of fun there.

That said, it is not without its problems. There are a number of things that I would do differently if I had the chance. I figured I’d jot some of them down in the hopes that these ‘lessons learned’ might be useful to somebody somewhere.

Have a Vision

On BSP, we didn’t have a clear vision from the start. Was it a gritty realistic game or a science-fantasy drama? The show itself tends to alternate between both of those extremes from week to week depending on the whims of the writers. That’s all well and good for a TV show. Fans will shake their fists at the TV screen and laugh about all the continuity errors and plot holes, but they’ll keep on watching. To some extent MUSH players will do the same, but on the whole they seem to have higher expectations.

So I think it’s important to agree on a vision for the theme. Are you doing Little House on the Prairie or Deadwood? They’re both Westerns, but they’re vastly different visions of the Old West. When you’ve got half the game playing one and the other half playing the other, you’re going to have problems. It’s even worse when you’ve got half the STAFF pushing one and the other half pushing the other. Agree on a vision from the start, and stick to it.

Give Some Direction… But Not Too Much

This one’s a toughie, because you can easily go to extremes. I’ll liken it to a tabletop RPG:

Extreme #1 - GM says: “It’s an ordinary Tuesday. You wake up. What do you do?”

Extreme #2 - GM says: “You wake up chained to a radiator in an unfamiliar room, with no clue how you got there.”

Extreme #1 leaves everything entirely up to the players. That’s great if you have players that will make their own plots and run with ideas, but not all players are self-starters like that. Many will just sit around and twiddle their thumbs waiting for “something to happen”.

Extreme #2 takes all control out of the players’ hands. They had no choice about getting kidnapped; it happened because it was important to the plot. It’s an interesting setup and can create lots of drama, but it can also frustrate the hell out of the players who want control over their own destinies.

We’ve done both extremes on BSP and neither worked. We started out leaving everything up to the players, and the fleet wandered aimlessly and nearly starved to death because nobody thought to worry about: “Hey, how are we going to eat?” (except one lone engineer). Then we did a few plots that were heavily scripted, and people got frustrated (even angry, in some cases) because they couldn’t affect the outcome. Now we try to find a happy middle ground - have some things ‘scripted’ to create situations for the players to react to, but also give them the ability to influence the direction overall. Sometimes it works better than others.

Military Themes Suck

Players on military games, in my experience, fall on two sides of the river. On the one side, you’ve got the folks wanting a “realistic” military. They’re obsessed with protocol, organization, uniforms, and other bits of military life. On the other side, you’ve got the folks wanting a “Hollywood” military. They want to have drunken brawls in the mess hall, hotshot pilots with no regards for the rules, arguments with their superior officers, etc.

These two groups will NEVER get along. The realistic group gets pissed off any time the Hollywood group “gets away with something”. The Hollywood group gets pissed off any time the realistic folks “try to keep them from having fun”. Which leads me to my final conclusion… military themes suck.

Sure, you’ve got the action. It’s fun to fly fighter planes and shoot Cylons. But a military environment is so constrictive. Officer versus Enlisted, rules, regulations, protocols, chain of command, squads, departments… these things, IMHO, actively HURT RP. They separate players rather than bringing them together.

Also, on a somewhat unhappy note, giving characters such authority over others tends to bring out the powergamer in some. They want to be a higher rank just so they can order other people around OOCly and get away with it. Or they abuse their authority.

I’m not saying a military theme can never work. You can do some things to compensate, like making everybody a grunt, or shoving them all into the same department, or whatever. But I think on the whole they’re more trouble than they’re worth.

There’s not much to be done about this with BSP - the Battlestar is by nature a military environment. But if I had it to do over I would probably have picked a more paramilitary setting (like the Greatest Generation’s Finnish Guerillas) or something where there were military people but it wasn’t quite as strict of an environment (like Babylon 5).

Isolated Themes Are Hard

BSP focuses on a fleet of ships out in the middle of nowhere. This makes it really hard for new players to get integrated. It’s not like they can RP being the “new guy in town”. The fleet’s only so big - where did they come from? When players idle out, as inevitably happens on MUSHes, where do they go? Sure, we can kill them off - but that just gets a bit silly after awhile. One of our players made a post summarizing the horrible fates that had befallen most of the Battlestar’s senior officers. It just looks odd. Pregenned characters is a possible solution, but I’m not a big fan of pregens in general.

Apart from the coming and going problem, it’s also tough for new players to jump into the theme. There’s so much information that their character would know because the fleet is such a small community. They’d have to live under a rock to not know this stuff. We try to compensate by having accessible theme files and such, but it’s just plain hard.

Even for the existing players, it can be tough. We have a lot of plots, and it’s hard to keep up with them. We try to do a lot with bbposts and whatnot to keep everyone informed so they can RP appropriately, but it takes a lot of work.

This problem is not unique to BSP. On Greatest Generation, everyone’s in a one-room cabin in the middle of the Finnish wilderness in the dead of winter. You log in and have to explain where your character’s been all day. It’s tough. And you’re constantly like: “Harvey got shot? When did that happen?”

So while isolated themes can be interesting in various ways, I think they cause a lot of headaches, too.

Don’t Spread out the Players

BSP suffered from spreading the players out too much. We had two factions (civilian and military) and several organizations in each. The player base simply wasn’t there to support that many groups. We ended up with 1 or 2 active (and frustrated) players in each one. I think we would have benefitted greatly from focusing on just a couple orgs and steering people into those. We also would have benefitted by having everyone concentrated on one ship instead of two or three (especially when one is a military vessel where the civilian characters can’t go!).

Again, this isn’t a problem unique to BSP. I played on one Star Wars game that had RP on three planets. While that might be interesting in some ways, it led to only a handful of players on each. Imagine how much MORE RP there would have been for everyone if they were all on the same planet.

We’ve tried to patch things up by having some IC things happen that condensed some organizations and removed others. We’ve also tried actively steering people into key orgs rather than just being all: “Eh, pick whatever one you want.”

Random but related tangent: Someone once criticized us in a bbpost for “letting” people be support orgs when there was “nothing for them to do”. I don’t buy into that. If you really want to be a Cook, or a Bridge Crew person, more power to you. I don’t think you should PREVENT people from doing those things, because sometimes those are very interesting characters. But at the same time, if you ARE a cook - I don’t know how you can reasonably expect a lot of action and excitement. To me it’s no different than RPing a farmer on a Wild West game or a teacher on a WoD game. Your job is a background thing, and mostly you RP your free time.

PvP Sucks

Player versus Player is all well and good on a MMORPG, but on a MUSH? I’m convinced it’s a terrible idea. On BSP, we decided we didn’t want the conflict to be All About Fighting Cylons. We wanted human conflict as well. So one of the things we pushed was a divide between the civilians and the military. And boy did we get it! It eventually got to the point where many of the military PCs wouldn’t even go onto the civilian ship for shore leave, because they wanted to avoid the pesky civilians. That just about killed RP for the civilians since so many characters were military.

Now, there was a lot of RP generated, so it wasn’t ENTIRELY bad. But most of the RP was people at each others’ throats, and that unfortunately spilled over into OOC conflict as well. So on the whole, I would say it caused more harm than good.

I think the same problem occurs with faction vs. faction (like Rebels versus Imperials on a Star Wars game) or even good guys vs bad guys (like allowing people to play both cops and criminals). Players want to “win”, and often times those on the losing side will become unplayable (due to being dead, or in jail, or whatever). Some players may like that. I don’t.

So while I think it’s important to have some conflict, I would never again want to have players in direct opposition to each other to the extent that we did.

Plot Holes: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How

I swear, we have the most inquisitive players EVER. That’s both a good and bad thing. Good, because they get involved and think things through. Bad, because they sometimes analyze everything to the Nth degree and search for meaning that’s not there.

Cylons get on board, they want to know how they knew where the hull was weak, where they were going, why were they there… when at the end of the day the staff was just: “Hey, let’s have some action. How about some Cylons boarding the ship?”

I’ll admit that some of our plots were sloppy, particularly early on. I think we’ve gotten a lot better about it, but some days are better at others. Plot holes are frustrating to players trying to piece things together. Also it’s frustrating for us, as staff, to constantly have to reverse-engineer how and why things happened AFTER they happened. So now we think through the HOWs and the WHYs a lot more, and I think that makes our plots a lot tighter and cooler on the whole. But they definitely require more work.

BSP first started out with a +nom system which we called +cookie. You got XP based on how many cookies you got every week. I never really liked that. Just because your PLAYER RPs a lot (or more specifically - RPs with a lot of people who happen to use +cookie habitually) - that doesn’t mean your CHARACTER should somehow be better than everyone else. XP should not be based on a popularity contest, IMHO.

Now, I do feel that RP should be rewarded. So what we ended up doing was making XP totally IC. You got a certain amount every week just for being alive, and bonus points if you RPed training or practice. For the OOC rewards, we created a different system: Luck Points. Players can use luck points to fudge die rolls, take less damage in combat, or just generally get lucky breaks in plots. It’s all horribly subjective, but it seems to be working out pretty well so far.

Wikis Rock

Lastly, to end on a sort of high note - BSP makes extensive use of a game wiki, and it works beautifully. It’s much easier to search and find things than anything on the game itself (we have only the bare basics on our +news files). It’s a central repository for character profiles, RP logs, theme and policy information - pretty much everything you need to know about the game. Our players love it.

Now, you do have to be careful. When anyone can submit and edit things, you have to keep an eye to make sure they’re not putting in stuff that conflicts with your theme. But many wikis have a way to mark pages as “policed” so you can tell that they’ve been approved. You also have to be careful how things are organized, so people aren’t dumping crap everywhere. Categories and organization are important.

But on the whole, wikis rock, and I would never again run a game without one.

Conclusion

Like I said, in spite of all these problems I still think BSP is a pretty great game, and we’re always trying to make it better. I know I’ve learned a lot of things to help next time, and hopefully maybe someone else will too.



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