Faction-based MUSHes (Fenring)

Submitted by javelin on Sat, 2007-11-03 13:16

Introduction
An ongoing subproject of MU* development is experimentation with the faction-based environment. From my understanding of things, DuneMUSH was the first to really think long and hard about the nature of their mush at the most basic level. I tend to lump mushes into two general categories: pure RP mushes, and faction-based mushes. Of course, labels never sit neatly, and there is a lot of in-between. But I will try to elaborate somewhat on this distinction before moving on. A 'pure RP' mush is one in which characters enter and RP with very little structure surrounding them. Personal allegiances may form, but one is not confronted with an immediate _choice_ of allegiance. The various vampire mushes fall in this category. Though it is my understanding that people do form secret groups, etc, generally, a player is a person in a modern-day setting, without clear lines of allegiance. The emphasis is on interpersonal RP, generally with players serving their own agendas to a large extent. In the middle of pure RP and faction-based mushes are places like Gohs, Pandemonium and Amber, where people often do have titles and/or factional associations. But at the same time, these factions are only part of what's going on; the emphasis still seems to remain to a large extent on interpersonal RP. Finally, there are the purely faction-based mushes. Dune and Dune2MUSH fall in this category, as do the Star Wars mushes. In these, the focus is on the struggle between clearly defined units, groups, or factions. Individual RP is important, but is almost always focussed on the advancement of the goals of the faction, rather than the individual.

II. Why is this distinction important?
There are two major reasons. The first is, you should consciously choose which of the two types best fit the theme you want to bring to life. This is very, very important. To go to a ludicrous extreme, if you wanted to bring to life the NFL, in FootballMUSH, then the choice would clearly be faction- based. On the other hand, if you wanted to have a mush set in a small town in North Carolina where everyone played colorful people like a sheriff, a barber, a little boy, or a schoolteacher, then you would be tending towards a pure RP structure. This initial decision should basically effect all future decisions that you will make in developing your mush.

Secondly, once you have chosen the 'right' type of mush, you should now be clued into what sort of rules systems you need to develop. The importance of this may perhaps best be shown by negative example. Assume that FootballMUSH is in the development stage. The admins want to have a mush that recreates the thrill of a football season, with weekly games, playoffs, even a super bowl. They go to the various ftp sites and port in all sorts of coded systems, included combat, places code, and various other traditional systems, the kind most mushes have. They opt for a judged-RP system, and have several judges ready to go. Game day rolls around, and the players take the field. Then it occurs to the admins: 'how do we determine who wins'? There are judges, but how can they fairly determine this? Will it be based on how many players showed up? The quality of RP? A coin toss? The point is, if your mush is based on faction conflict, you _must_ have means to resolve conflicts between those factions. Otherwise, you will frustrate the whole purpose of your mush. The first step to solving this problem is thus being aware from the start whether or not you have a faction-based mush, and then preparing for the inevitable clashes between those factions.

III. Why bother with a faction-based mush?
This is a very good question. Building and maintaining a faction mush is a _lot_ of work. It is arguably the most difficult type of mush to run successfully. The argument has been made that it isn't worth it, and some experienced admins have backed off the faction concept for that very reason.

The primary reason that one should opt for a faction-based mush is that, if done properly, it is extremely rewarding and fun. At its best, a faction-based mush gives a level of RP that is supercharged and _real_, in that skilled players can tangibly alter the universe around them. In a sense, the perfect faction mush (which hasn't yet been seen, of course), is the pinnacle of RP. The Gamemaster is not a single individual choreographing events, but a rather a dynamic collective... your opponents are other players, scheming and carrying out plots in an attempt to triumph over you, even as you do the same to them. Pure RP mushes, on the other hand, tend to be fairly limited in their scope, and often scenes are choreographed, so that they might be considered 'acting' or 'co-authoring' rather than roleplaying. Now, RPing a good scene can be _extremely_ rewarding, but at a visceral level, the adreneline boost of teamwork and faction conflict has the potential, at least, to be more rip-roaring fun!

In sum, the net certainly has a place for all sorts of MU*'s. If Pure RP is your thing, so be it. But there will be those who always have an eye out for that new faction-based mush, to see if it has made any steps towards the ultimate, the perfect faction mush.

IV. The Difficulties of Arranging For Faction Conflict
As in developing any system to resolve disputes that occur in an imaginary context, the primary difficulty is developing a system that is both playable (easy to understand and use) and that is also realistic. Generally, the simpler in real life that the process you are attempting to approximate is, the better the rules to approximate it online will be, too. To continue with using ludicrous examples, consider the following. In FootballMUSH, an integral part of the game is the coin toss by the referee. So, the admins set out to make sure that their coin toss system is the best it can be! They code a global which uses a 50/50 probability, and whenever someone types '+toss', 'heads' or 'tails' is emitted to the room, along with a few poses showing that someone tossed the coin in the air, and it landed. This system is basically unassailable, because it is easy to use and approximates almost identically the actual tossing of a coin. The reason it is so easy is that the thing itself being imitated is so simple and basic.

Now, a very nettlesome and more difficult area is that of individual combat. This is an area most admins dread, because it is so highly charged, and virtually every player has their own opinion on it (and a good many of them tell you that opinion, whether you want to hear it or not). Finally, it is important because often the life or death of a beloved character hinges on the use of the system. The reason combat is so devilish is because of the fact that in RL, there are many, many variables, far more than can be realistically approximated online. The debate goes back and forth on this one: should combat be judged only; should it be coded; should it go round by round; should it be resolved by one roll; should it be purely cooperative; etc. Yet, individual combat is far less complicated than is arranging for faction conflict.

The reason for this is that on a large scale, there are many, many more variables than there are in a single combat. Considering an example from DuneMUSH II, the conflict between two Great Houses of the Landsraad, in a war of assassins. This conflict generally takes the form of a War of Assassins. The war can take place on many, many levels. There is straight military conflict; assassination attempts and covert operations; economic warfare; terror campaigns; political warfare in the Landsraad; political warfare in the Imperial Court; and a public relations war as well. A system that arranges for conflict such has this is going to be a relatively complicated one.

V. How do I deal with these difficulties?
I give the following advice: define clear areas of conflict, develop a system, and don't be afraid to say that things that don't fall into your system are out of the scope of the system, and simply have no RP effect. Then, devise a comprehensive system _before_ you open, and prepare to be flexible about fixing holes. Finally, look at the systems people have already made. Don't reinvent the wheel if you don't have to. Ask the creators if you can borrow their ideas.

More specific advice: clearly define the legs of power which support a faction. Once defined, develop a system of measuring that power. Then, develop systems that enable that power to be increased and decreased. Sound confusing? It isn't, well, at least not in theory. :)

The legs of power, as I call them, are the things which give a faction its ability to do things. They are, in essence, the "statistics" of a faction. To use the Landsraad House example, a list of the legs would include hoarded wealth; ability to generate new wealth; size and skill of military; votes in the landsraad; and the skills of its leaders. Note that the last one refers to people who are most likely going to be player characters, which leads to a later point I'll make, about weaving players into the faction structure.

Once you see the areas which define a faction's ability to interact, you need to then figure out systems that allow for these to interact with each other and with those 'legs' of other factions. For example, an economy is very important to develop, in order for factions to gain an economic advantage over another. A warfare system is also important, for that day when one faction takes the field against another. A political and legal structure is also important... it's crucial that RP occur on the same level playing field, and the laws and politics are a great way to balance that out. More importantly, weave these systems together: success in war should be tied in part to economic strength and political strength. Allow a party to expend political capital to gain wealth. And so on.

VI. Where do I draw the line when designing systems?
This is a _very_ difficult decision. My basic advice is theoretical, and it's clear to me, though I can't always convey it properly. But the gist of it is: look at your theme and decide which areas of it are static and generally even. Then, DON'T make a system for them... just let them rest in the background. But areas where distinctions are dynamic and changing, DO make systems to account for these areas. And one thing I cannot emphasize enough... whenever you make a system, make it cyclical. Make it so that every faction has some sort of role, something to contribute to it. If you don't do that, power will inevitably reside in the faction which has something to offer but doesn't have an need. This will occur no matter how well or badly they RP.

All this theory could use some examples, so I'll try to illustrate it, using DuneMUSH II at first. When developing the economy and warfare system, I looked at the theme, and determined that some things are just not factors. For example: there was no evidence of any major food shortages in the economy. Therefore, there was no real need to factor in food consumption in the economy. It is just assumed that people can eat. Similary, in warfare, the basic presumption is that most Houses have a small armed force for planetary defense, and that most Houses have no problem affording it. Therefore, a basic, default military status is available to each House at no charge. This is a background cost, since it is in effect even among the Houses. However, an _enhanced_military, either in training level or size, _is_ an advantage and unusual, so it costs IC money to maintain the level above the default. So much for the "background costs" theory.

Now for the "cyclical system" theory. Basically, the key here is to make sure that at some stage of the cycle, each faction has something to offer and to take away. Even if the theme has stronger and weaker factions, they should be able to take part in systems proportionate to their strength and weakness. A negative example of this is a now-defunct mush which shall remain nameless. Its economy consisted of a single commodity: weapons. A very few players were "smiths" and created weapons which were combat- capable. What happened was, players who performed other functions that would inevitably be needed, such as tavern owners who provided drinks and food, and clothesmakers, etc., had no IC ability to garner payment for their wares, since the system didn't force people to go to them IC to get drinks, food, clothes, etc. So, in essence, "smiths" were the king of this economy, and could exact huge prices for something as simple as a sword. Since there was no other IC commodity, this price was inevitable a "favor" or an IC deed. Therefore, major, major power was clustered in a tiny group of players, for no discernable IC reason, but merely because the economy was undeveloped, and non-cyclical. DISCLAIMER: if you know what MUSH this is, and/or were responsible for this system, don't take offense. I know that the focus of this place wasn't on the economy. But it's the best example of this phenomenon I could think of, and it's true to boot.

VII. Integrating player skills into the systems
Traditionally, the statistics attached to players have been to resolve direct conflict between them and other players. Most of the time, this relates to individual combat. Other times, it applies to magic systems and the like. However, in a faction mush, you have something else to take into account: the ability of highly trained players to influence the fates of the faction itself.

Note: some areas are very hard to code a system, and are best left to RP. An example of this is diplomacy. To code a system by which a skilled diplomat can influence other players to do things a certain way is simply unrealistic and illogical. Let diplomats RP their job, and succeed or fail that way.

However, an area where a system _does_ make sense is that of mass conflict. It is basically impossible to RP a war where 50000 or more people meet on the battlefield and fight. Also, very few MUSHers have the RL abilities that would enable them to RP commanding such a group effectively. Therefore, a system is clearly in order. Whatever mechanics you decide upon, consider including as a factor the skill of your head soldier (in DuneMUSH II, the House Warmaster). The more skilled in strategy a Warmaster is, the better his House's chance for triumph is. Of course, other factors such as the number and skill of soldiers is taken into account. But a good warmaster can genuinely make the difference in a close battle. And because of that, that Warmaster is also an important figure in the House, valuable and prized for the ability to help win wars. But if you didn't account for that, the Warmaster would essentially be one more individual combat badass, wandering around looking to pick fights with individuals. This cheapens RP for everyone when a situation like that occurs.

VIII. Fine Tuning
Once you have decided what systems are needed to monitor conflict at various levels between factions, be prepared to tweak and refine your systems once play starts. Nothing exists in a vacuum, except of course an RP system before people start playing in it. You will find that players will find the holes in your rules faster than you could have imagined. They will probably reopen discussions you had with your admin team about how to handle a specific problem.

The key to dealing with this is finding a way to gather information without going crazy. Don't let every little complaint bother you. But at the same time, recognize that sometimes, a player can and will not only find a genuine problem in your system, but will also propose a perfect solution. Have an open mind, and remember that the perfect MUSH hasn't been created, and never will be. The best you can do is to try to make constant improvements.

IX. Selecting the perfect theme for a faction mush (or any mush, really)
The perfect theme, in my opinion, would be one in which there were clearly-defined factions which were smallish and centrally located geographically. The actions of individuals could further the status of the faction directly, and frequent fluctuations in power would be acceptable and thematic.

Sound familiar? This is because most mushes, intended or not, follow this pattern. People tend to cluster in a few places no matter how spread out geographically the mush is. Factions tend to have 5-15 members, since anything bigger gets unwieldy. People try to advance their status and that of their faction, and often succeed. Quite often, the whole fact of a faction is tied to the actions of one or two folks. Wars, assassinations, coups and the like occur at an alarming frequency. Why? Because these are exciting, and who MUSHes to be bored? Also, faction heads lose access or quit playing, and so they stop showing up, and their characters meet a violent IC fate as a result.

Therefore, why not go ahead and make a theme that fits these criteria, and others I may have missed? Then, the systems on the mush would perfectly align the theme you are trying to portray. The problem is, I haven't thought of such a theme yet. Have you? :)

X. RPing conflict
Some notes on RPing conflict on a large or small scale: (Note: this essay is directed at Dune2MUSH, but can apply to other mushes at well, particularly faction-oriented ones).

First, a word on what I will call 'MUSH distortion.' What I am talking about is the inherent problems in the medium in which our game takes place. There are many differences between a simulated environment such as ours, and the hypothetical 'real world' that we are simulating. These differences create a hazy area which can be exploited by unscrupulous mushers. What are some of these differences?

1. people not being online at the same time, even though their characters _are_ in the hypothetical world, doing _something_ :)
2. the impersonality and relative slowness of interaction in the medium
3. differing visions of theme, of the incident, even of the room that RP occurs in.
4. picturing OOC friends and enemies in a purely IC light

A good example of how this distortion can be exploited is this: a Househead is on vacation for two weeks. That House's mortal enemy engineers a major smear campaign against the House in that two weeks. The victim House cannot fight back. Now, this is simply unrealistic and unfair. Just because the House head's player is on vacation, doesn't mean that his House would not be well-led in the interim, and that a counteroffensive wouldn't be mounted. Clearly, OOC cooperation could avoid this sort of thing.

The major key to 'conquering' the ill effects of MUSH distortion is to realize that it is out there. Once it is defined, it can then be worked around via cooperation. There are reasons other than pure gamesmanship to do this. First and foremost, cooperation to avoid MUSH distortion focuses the conflict between factions on a higher plane. If you know that you aren't going to get blindsided by any dirty tricks, then you can throw yourself into the meat of the conflict, which is RP. Almost all conflict involves coalition building and politics. _That's_ where you should concentrate your energies, and, coincidentally, that's also where all the fun is!

To this end, the following is suggested as a means to keep conflict between factions where it should be: IC. Whenever a major faction conflict is brewing, the heads of that faction should get together for a 'parley.' Ask for an admin or some other neutral party to sit down with you if you want. Talk out your vision of things as they stand, and perhaps some possible outcomes. Try to agree on the crux of your conflict: is this a battle of who can win the support of the Landsraad? Of who can get the Emperor's support? An all-out treachery campaign, where anything goes? The focus should be on ironing out what your characters would know. Don't give away legitimate secrets, but give as much information as you can in order to help the other side understand how things stand.

Here is an example of a Parley between the heads of House A and B, who have had several clashes in the landsraad, and who are bitter trade rivals. Recently, House A tried to lure away several close trading partners of House B, who found out about the maneuver, and is planning to retaliate with an offensive to scare House A off. B @mails A telling her that he (B) is planning some faction-level conflict, and that he'd like to talk.

A: What's up?
B: Well, I think that the course of our RP has progessed to the point
where I am going to try to commence some hostilities against you.
For starters, I want you to know that it isn't personal, and I want
to get some great RP out of this.
A: Hmmmm. What kind of hostilities?
B: Well, I'm not going to tell you exactly what I'm planning, but I'd
like to go over a few things and maybe answer some of your questions
before I actually do it. First off, do you have any problems with me
taking action against you?
A: No, in fact, I'm surprised it's taken this long. I'm still nervous
though, I've never been in a nasty conflict before.
B: Yeah, me too. Well, I'm glad you understand the why. Now, I'd like
to propose some ground rules. First off, I'm going to do my best to tell
you things that I think you'd know, and I'd like you to do the same for
me. For example, your character would know that I'm considered fairly
trustworthy. Also, it's no secret that my diplomats have been rallying
support for me. They haven't done so in back rooms.
A: Oh, I think I see what you mean. Well, as you probably know by
now, my character is very sneaky. Right now, what you see is what
you get. You already know about the attempt to steal your DU suppliers.
B: Okay, now, another thing. I'm not saying that I'm planning this, but
if it comes to the point where the conflict moves to the military aspect,
I suggest we meet together with the RP Admin in charge, and when
he does the combat numbers, we work together to 'co-author' what
happened, and how.
A: I don't know about that...

And so on. This is just an example, there are many many ways that faction conflict can be coordinated. Be creative. Set your own chances of success or failure if you want. Ultimately, the reward will be higher quality RP, and conflict that you can be proud of.

XI. Final notes
Comments on this should be directed to Fenring@DuneMUSH II, currently located at mindport.net 4201. We have frequent RP seminars where we try to tackle topics that relate to faction conflict, and means of creating and improving RP in mushes in general. If you want to discuss this, feel free to come and get a hold of me there.