Building the Perfect MUSH

Tips and things to consider when creating a MUSH.
by Faraday

The Perfect MUSH

So what’s the ultimate solution for the ‘Perfect MUSH’? I don’t think it exists. In any game, there will always be tradeoffs - tradeoffs between reality and fun, between speed and complexity, etc. People like different things. One person will say, “This combat system is great! I don’t have to worry about all these minute details!”, while another person is carefully composing a list of the minute details you’ve “overlooked” which he hopes will be added in the near future. You can’t please everyone, but you can often shoot for compromises.

When creating a MUSH, there are a lot of things to consider. This document is meant to highlight certain issues/problems with MUSHes in general, and makes some recommendations on each. I’ll say one thing up front – these ideas won’t work for everybody and there are some cases where things mentioned here don’t fit at all. To each his own. But hopefully this document might allow you to see some alternate viewpoints so you can come up with YOUR own solutions for your own MUSH.

Man This Joint Is Jumping

It doesn’t really matter which theme you choose, as long as the plot is dynamic. Things have to HAPPEN in the mush, be it an invasion, plague, a band of outlaws raiding the town, a power outage, a food shortage, a natural disaster or what. The exact dynamic aspects are drawn from the theme of the game itself, but some themes find it easier to incorporate the dynamics than others. The key is having staff-guided TPs every once in a while to keep the game moving along.

One big TP every two or three months should be enough to appease the masses without getting carried away and swamping the staff with work.

In Love and War

You put a war into the game and you’ve got instant dynamics. In some settings the war is the focus (like on Star Wars), but it doesn’t have to be in order to create dynamics. The war back home is a significant issue; how it affects peoples’ lives as loved ones go off to fight in the conflict, or are killed, or are decorated for heroics, etc. Supply rationing, spies, propaganda, blackouts, bombing raids - all are sources of TPs or just general RP in a war-driven society.

If the war plays a main role, then opportunities for folks playing soldiers is a biggie to consider. Will they be able to actually RP out their jobs (be it commando raids or starfighter duels) or will they be doomed to forever idle in the command center?

We Don’t Need Another Hero

A vast majority of players on a MUSH wants to be the hero. They want the chance to affect the world in which their characters live, and not just sit back and watch the world go by. Playing an everyday person is rather boring. We all do it in our regular lives, and one shouldn’t be forced to do it on a MUSH as well. There are only so many times you can meet someone on the street and talk about the weather in the IC world before you’re about ready to scream. Yet many MUSHes force the characters to be average everyday folks, and just about all of them encourage it.

How can you avoid that, one might ask? After all, what kind of MUSH would it be if nobody were a normal person? It would be like a movie with no extras.

The trick is to create a MUSH where it makes sense for everybody to be a potential hero. Take Battlestar MUSH, for a brief example. There it actually makes sense for a vast majority of the players to be fighter pilots (or other warrior types), since that’s where the emphasis on the theme is. Other folks are secondary. If you were to do a B5 MUSH where the focus was on Earthforce, you could do the same thing. A World of Darkness MUSH might have its emphasis on the efforts of a police department and the media to investigate and expose the vampires.

It’s all a matter of focus. It’s impossible to please everybody entirely, but if you choose a focus that will allow the greatest majority of the people an opportunity to be someone “special” then you’re going to have much happier players.

But I Wanna Be a Pilot

Go to almost any MUSH and you’ll hear the same things: “All our pilot slots are filled.” “There can only be 4 Vampires in this clan and we’ve got four.” “We don’t need any more shadowrunners, sorry.”

This bothers me. The MUSH is there so that the players can have fun. The players should be able to decide what sort of focus they want the MUSH to have. If every single player who comes through the door wants to be a fighter pilot, then as long as it makes sense in the theme then let them be pilots!

The Babylon 5 station has well over a few hundred folks employed by station security. The SW Rebel Alliance has hundreds of fighter jocks. Is it really that big of a deal if most of them are represented by PCs instead of NPCs? It might change the focus of the MUSH from what the staff originally intended, but is that such a big problem?

Instead of focusing on the lives of the everyday folks, this theoretical MUSH would revolve around the pilots. Let some of the pilots be on an enemy side, so they can kill each other off. Some will get bored and want to play something else. When everyone can be a fighter pilot, it just loses its draw. Most players don’t just want the action - they want the prestige. In a world where everyone can be a pilot, or a security officer, or whatever, you lose that aspect of it and it’s no longer the biggest draw.

There is one caveat on this section. I have no objection to limiting player positions on the basis of theme. If there are only 12 fighter pilots on the MUSH’s main cruiser, or if there are only 10 Vampires in a given clan (with no possible room for expansion) then it’s ok to limit the number of positions. The main point is to look at whether you’re limiting the positions because it makes sense in the theme, or because you just don’t want the players to change the focus of the MUSH by having too many of one type of character.

Faster Than a Speeding Bullet

While I believe in giving players the freedom to choose their occupation without so many limits (see “But I wanna be a pilot” above), not everyone is a super-genius super-leader super-strong master-of-all-trades hero type. If there are 500 pilots in the theme, then it doesn’t make sense to restrict players so that only 12 players can RP pilots. On the other hand, if there are only 10 people in the universe with “ExtremelyHigh” Charisma, you don’t want to allow everybody to have it.

I believe in a rough chargen system. While I like number-crunching as much as anyone, I think that it really detracts from roleplaying the main purpose of creating a character. So I strongly support some kind of descriptive system. After all if you’ve ever been a newbie-helper then you know the first thing anyone asks when going through chargen is “What level is average and what’s really good?” That is what people think about when they create their characters, so why confuse things with arbitrary numbers?

A skills/stats system in my mind has three main purposes.

  • To help you round out your character by forcing you to at least vaguely define what he’s good at, and what all he knows.
  • To assist in conflict situations. Does your character pick up on the conversation going on in the back room? Do you know that spitting to the left will mortally offend an orc? Can you successfully jump that annoying little chasm or do you plummet to your doom? Most of the time, players will use skill checks to mediate amongst themselves.. but in the event that a judge is called, stats can also help them determine outcomes fairly.
  • To give a comparison for things such as employment.
  • Obviously all of these three items could be simulated through role-play and arbitrary decisions. But with a system, it incorporates an extra element of fairness that you could never get through simple people interaction.

Folks take it better if the judge says “Ok.. make an athletics check to see if you fall off the cliff” and the numbers say “Joe is VeryUnsuccessful on his Athletics Check!”, instead of the judge just deciding arbitrarily.

Ashes to Ashes

Which brings me incidentally to another point: Character death. People die. Especially in times of war, or conflict, or if you go and do something stupid like getting caught for committing a capitol crime. But it truly, truly sucks to see a character who you’ve put so much time and effort into (and who, for some players, is their own alter-ego) get killed. So for that reason, I think that it’s important to treat character death very carefully.

I don’t mean to imply that PCs shouldn’t be killed off. If you do make a stupid mistake like getting caught and convicted of treason, you should be gone. A common saying is “IC Actions = IC Consequences” but sometimes I think this gets carried to an extreme.

There are situations where character death cannot logically be avoided, but there are also cases where it can. Whenever possible, give the player a break. So they just fell off something really high? Maybe there’s a convenient antenna or something for them to grab onto (hey, it worked for Luke Skywalker in Empire Strikes Back) to give them a temporary reprieve. Are they on trial for murder, and guilty as sin? Maybe their lawyer gets them off on a technicality.

One idea I’ve always liked is from the Top Secret: SI game system. Characters were given “Luck Points” which they could spend to save their butt. A similar idea to Force Points in the Star Wars RPG, but more powerful. When spent, they’d give your character an ‘out’ of some sort. It doesn’t have to be something that gets them off the hook completely, but when dealing with character death (which includes pseudo forms of death like life imprisonment or brainwashing) - it’s usually best to show some compassion.

It’s Only a Flesh Wound!

Related to the topic of character death is character injury. I have no qualms about hurting a character, and no qualms about forcing someone to spend a week laid up in Medlab. As long as they’ll get over it, they’re fair game. But in my experience, players are rarely going to hurt their characters seriously, and when they do, they’re often going to skimp on recovery times.

Anyone who doesn’t believe me is welcome to conduct a consent-based combat test, with players who don’t go into it with the idea “Hey I want my character to die here”. See how many of them pose getting shot in the lung, or stomach (or some other life-threatening injury), and compare it to how many of them pose getting shot in the shoulder, or leg, or some other kind of “flesh wound.”

Then put all those characters in the hospital and see the average time before they get bored and decide they’re well enough to walk out of there. If your players are anything like the average ones I’ve met on MUSHes everywhere, you’ll see what I mean rather quickly.

So the point of all this is that you have to have some way to tell the character fairly that “No, you’re not ready to leave Medlab yet” or “Sorry.. you’ve just been stabbed in the chest. You’re not going to be running after the criminal!” Sure, a judge can just arbitrarily make such decisions, but as I mentioned back a few pages, characters are much less likely take a coded combat/damage system personally than they would be a judge’s arbitrary ruling, however impartial and impersonal it may be.

The Art of War

… Which brings me to my little ramble on combat. No combat system short of one with artificial intelligence is going to be able to realistically model and take into account all the variables one might run into in a combat situation. The easy solution to this: leave the details up to the humans behind the monitors and just give them guidelines.

For example, the combat code emits something like: “Joe has just taken a serious wound.” Let Joe decide if it’s a bullet to the shoulder that nicked an artery or a nerve, or if it’s a shot to his lung. That way you don’t have the code saying something silly like, “Joe was just hit in the leg” when he’s buried up to his neck in sand.

Similarly, there’s no way to account ahead of time for everything someone might try to use as a weapon. Sure you can take care of the obvious ones: bullet, laser, knife - even commonly improvised ones like “chair” or “broken bottle”. But what do you do when the character picks up the back cover of a porcelain toilet and smacks the bad guy upside the head? And what do you do when Joe slips and falls out a 4th story window? There has to be a way of accounting for damage incurred by events other than just using the coded weapon objects.

One rather easy way to do this is to have two completely separate commands. +attack and +damage (or some such). +attack just needs to know the type of weapon (blunt, firearms, edged, etc.) being used and any modifiers. The attack command doesn’t care if you’re rolling the “armed combat” skill for the toilet bowl cover or the ancient samurai sword. The result is the same.

By the same token, +damage just needs to know the weapon being used and any modifiers. +It doesn’t care if Joe is taking Class IV damage from falling out a window or being sliced and diced by the aforementioned samurai sword. This allows a great deal of flexibility in a combat system.

Incidentally, I personally believe that killing a character should never happen as a random result of the combat code - the worst should be “critically injured and unconscious”. This goes back to the previous section’s ideas on “give the player a break”. It’s tough to give them a break if the combat system code already says they’re dead.

I’ve heard a lot of people knock an automated combat system by saying that power players will take advantage of it and go around attacking people for no reason. Here’s my response to that point of view:

“Umm.. where’s the problem?”

Let’s take an example: El-Bozo has just gotten his spiffy new Heavy Blaster Pistol from the gun store. He promptly walks out and blasts poor Joe, who was having a civil conversation with his buddy in the square. Joe is understandably indignant about this, but it’s a rather simple fix when he pages someone (staff member, judge, whomever) to arbitrate the disagreement. The solutions are numerous. Here are just a few ideas.

  • El-Bozo really did have a valid reason for shooting Joe. He comes up with sufficient justification for his character to have gone on a shooting spree, and the staffer rules that it really did happen. Sorry Joe, hope you enjoy medlab for a few days (remember that my combat system will never outright kill a character). Meanwhile, El-Bozo is probably gunned down by the security officers and any armed PCs in the area. If by some miracle he survives, he’s off to jail for assault with a deadly weapon/ attempted murder. No real harm done, aside from Joe being sent to the hospital for a little while.
  • El-Bozo can’t come up with any better reason than “Cause I wanted to…” so the judge rules that the action was unwarranted (and stupid) and never happened. El is given a warning, and if it ever happens again refer to the previous bulleted option.
  • Somehow El-Bozo’s action could be worked into a bigger plot. Maybe someone is after Joe and tried to kill him. You can take a bad situation and turn it into something positive. This works real well if El-Bozo dies tragically at the hands of the police (so he’s not around to contradict any guesses about why this happened) or if he’s just misguided (rather than a jerk) and is eager for a chance to mend his ways.

Space: The Final Frontier

Here’s a topic that seems to start a flame-war every time it’s brought up. The coders are all trying to out-do each other by coming up with a newer and cooler space system than the last one. Meanwhile the non-coding staff is sitting back saying, “Why space? All it does is attract code-hungry jerks!” - an argument which seems to be supported by the endless line of folks on any sci-fi MUSH lining up clambering, “I want to be a fighter pilot!” or “I want my own ship like Han Solo!” Face it, space pilots on MUSHes seem to inherently get a bad rap, and it’s not something we’re all making up.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Not everyone who wants an indie freighter in StarWars is simply out for the money or to hotrod about the galaxy. Some of them just want a ship so they won’t have to be stuck on Shesharile because there’s no public transportation system there (not that that’s ever happened to me, ahem). Not every fighter pilot is a jerk who just wants to fly around and shoot things, or brag about his exploits. Some are really well-rounded characters who just happen to also be pilots.

But the fact remains that if you have a coded space system to play with, you’re going to attract the combat players. So you either try to screen them out (a difficult proposition at best.. impossible at worst), just accept that they’re going to be there and try to minimize the damage they can cause, or you avoid having a coded space system.

I’m personally of the opinion that there’s no need for a space system in any MUSH. Does it really matter whether you type ‘bearing 20’ or pose “Joe adjusts the ship’s heading to head towards Babylon 5”?? Not really. If you want to play a flight sim, go play Wing Commander or something. MUSHes are meant for roleplay.

Now, space combat is different from space travel. While it’s arguable whether or not a dogfight adds to “RP”, the fact remains that if you’re going to have space combat at all, you need some form of guidelines aside from a judge just sitting back and running the show. It’s the same as regular combat, discussed a few sections back.

A few misc thoughts on space travel:

  • Except for fighters, which usually fly in squadrons anyway, all ships should be crewed by a couple of PCs, not just by one pilot running the whole show. This encourages RP rather than stifling it.
  • One must be careful about travel times. While I’m all for realism, to be stuck alone on a ship for hours on end truly SUCKS! Especially if you’re limited in connect time.
  • Never, ever, make it so a player could get stuck on a world and not be able to get off. Whether this means a coded starliner system of some sort that makes regular jaunts, or simply a policy that a PC could RP with a staffer instead of another PC pilot to arrange for passage off-planet; it doesn’t matter.. just so long as there’s some way out of that trap.

Where Did Everybody Go?

Too many MUSHes seem to fall into the trap of: “Let’s try to please everybody” and wind up with their players scattered all over creation. Planets that have nobody on them; station sectors that are never visited; various neighborhoods sprawled out all over the city - it doesn’t matter what the theme is, I’ve seen the same phenomena. In an effort to appease those handful of folks who might want to play on Mars the whole planet is @dug.

What you usually end up with is that same handful of players bored to tears because there are so few of them, and most of them will get bored and quit anyway. Then you’re left with a bunch of rooms taking up DB space for no reason, and - worse - a false hope of Mars-based RP that only discourages those players who might otherwise have happily found a place somewhere else.

To me the biggest consideration is to limit the geographic/faction scope of the MUSH. Choose a focus, and try to make sure that most folks will not be at a loss for RP. I suppose it would be possible to go overboard in the other direction and have people constantly packed into rooms like cattle, but I’ve never seen that happen. (Addendum: OK, I did eventually see that happen on TGG, where the entire playerbase was living in a single one-room cabin during the Finnish Winter War :) But even that had its advantages… you were never at a loss for RP.)

The Buck Stops Here

Most MUSH economy systems SUCK! They tend to suffer from one of these inherent drawbacks:

  • The only things to buy are weapons and transportation. If you don’t need either of these things, you wind up with boatloads of money and nothing to spend it on. Similarly, if you do use these things, you’re usually broke or scraping for cash all the time.
  • The sources of money either make no sense, or are limited to only a few select folks, or somehow don’t get distributed to the rest of the population.
  • It’s usually hard to actually find your character a job. There are only so many PC employers, and most of them are either small business owners (“Joe’s General Store” or “Frank’s Restaurant”) or IC faction/organization leaders (the station commandant, the lead fighter pilot, etc.) Most MUSHes don’t do a terribly good job taking into account NPC employers.
  • I think an important consideration in any econ system is: “What RP will this generate”. Usually the answer is “None”. MOST characters will never RP their jobs. They’re dockworkers, or store clerks, or detectives, or whatever. Most of their time is spent RPing when they’re not at work.

There are exceptions to this rule: security officers, doctors, leaders, and some shopkeepers actually WILL get a chance to RP their jobs. But the majority won’t, and you have to wonder how detailed of an econ system you really need, when most economic-based RP happens off-camera.

Also, many MUSHes seem to forget about normal every-day facets of economy like bank loans, credit cards, investments, and things like that. Not to mention that even if your private eye isn’t hired by PCs, there will likely be NPCs who patronize his business.

I’ve always thought that a good compromise on an econ system is one with a generic “Lifestyle” rating that you choose for your character. Give the players guidelines as to what items they can afford with their lifestyle, and leave it at that. It’s simple, and in my opinion far better than a half-baked econ system that bears no resemblance to your in-game reality.

It’s My MUSH and I’ll Cry if I Want To

My basic philosophy in MUSHes is that if you give the players a set of guidelines to go by and then leave them to their own devices, that most of the time, things will sort themselves out. The staff’s job on a MUSH, in my mind, is to provide an environment where the players can have fun, and then step in as needed to help out, police the theme or settle disputes as needed.

If on the other hand, your view of the staff is that it determines the focus and direction of the MUSH, regardless of the wishes of the players, then that’s fine. I respect that position even though I don’t share it. But that needs to be made absolutely clear to the players.. from the moment they set foot on the MUSH, they should be made aware that this is the staff’s MUSH, and not the players’.

MUSHes like these tend to have strict application processes for everything the staff deems out of the ordinary, background approval required for all characters, strict limits on what sort of TPs a player is allowed to run without approval or supervision, and things like that. In short the staff controls the MUSH based on their interests, judgments on theme, and decisions.

Invariably that sort of place becomes a sort of “clique” MUSH. If you know the staffers, and they know you’re not a power player, you can get away with a lot more and can get special approval that they’d NEVER in a million years give to someone off the street who just applied for it. And while I don’t care if people want to run their MUSH this way, it just doesn’t seem very fair to me. I tend to not like playing on places like these, personally.

Pretendy Fun-Time Games

Whatever kind of MUSH you decide to make, I hope that this document helped you think a little about the possible pitfalls, and perhaps gave some ideas you hadn’t previously thought of. The most important thing, I think, is to always remember that it’s just a game. Ultimately the purpose is to have fun, and every decision you make about the MUSH should keep that in mind.

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