Literary Role-Play in Cyberspace
Multi-user dungeons are giving birth to a sophisticated new form of role-playing, where expressive language counts for more than combat skill. Phil Goetz explores the world of cyberspace werewolves.
Back in Inter*action #1, I wrote what I thought was a comprehensive article on interactive fiction and computers. Although I touched on the subject of MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) in my article, I implied that they were little more than multi-player versions of Zork.
So imagine my confusion when I logged into GarouMUSH for the first time. The game really has only two verbs: 'look' and 'pose . No 'attack', 'climb', 'drink', 'open', 'swim' or any of the other commands that one gets used to on more conventional text adventure games. In a conventional MUD. if you wanted to drink the water in Half Moon Pool, Pool, you would type:
drink poolOn GarouMUSH you would be more likely to type:
pose kneels on the mossy banks of the pool, scoops some of the cold water into his hands, and drinks.If you are the only character at the pool, you'd feel pretty stupid 'posing' this to yourself. Like most MUSHes it is a social environment where people gather and talk. But unlike many MUSHes, it is much more than a chat line.
What Makes the Difference
If you log into GarouMUSH, you will find distinct characters, moving about between the city and the forest purposefully: talking over recent events in St Claire or at the Caern, making friends and enemies, and living their lives. On most MUCKs, MUSHes, and MOOs even one such as LambdaMOO and FurryMUCK where people take the trouble to describe their characters and their homes you find people dropping in and out of character, sometimes making virtual plays at each other by basically just chatting. What makes the difference? I believe there are several reasons for GarouMUSH's success.
1: The simplest and most important new idea in GarouMUSH is that it distinguishes between IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) play. If you, the player, want to speak to another player, you use the command 'page':
page Anpwhotep=Will you be on tomorrow night?which sends a private message to Anpwhotep:
Blinks-at-Fire pages: Will you be on tomorrow night?The 'pose' or 'say' commands, on the other hand, print a message to everyone present, attributing the statement to your character. Even if you want to speak to all the players, you still use the 'page' command because GarouMUSH players are used to associating messages produced by 'page' with OOC information. (This means that you can play a deathly serious scene IC while cracking jokes about it OOC.) The word 'pages' in the message implies that the sender is using a computer interface, which reminds the recipients that it's the player talking, not the character. There is also an OOC 'room' where you can go if you just want to chat with other players. Otherwise, you are assumed to be IC.
Player characters are not allowed to make use of information gained OOC. If your character doesn't understand English, you may not respond to things said in English. If you check players' locations and see that a friend is alone in the Umbra with two dangerous Black Spiral Dancers, you may not rush to help without an IC excuse for wandering through that part of the world. And when it's time to go, you don't just disappear as if Scotty had beamed you up; you make some IC excuse for leaving or going to sleep.
2: The MUSH is set in a very well developed game-world, closely based on White Wolf's game Werewolf: The Apocalypse and set in the fictional city of St Claire which has been carefully planned by the creators of the MUSH. The werewolves, or Garou, have a cosmology; they have hierarchies at the levels of the tribe, the sept (like a town), and the pack; a system of challenges describing how these hierarchies change, and how to govern themselves. Each of the fourteen Garou tribes have stereotypical attitudes and modes of behaviour. GarouMUSH de-emphasises game mechanics, but if you need them, the Werewolf manual has guidelines for dealing with everything from being trapped underwater to jumping off a cliff.
3: Before a new player joins the game, their character has to be approved by the 'wizzes'-the people who administer the game. This helps at least three ways. First, it defuses arguments ('A wolf can't be an explosives expert!'). Wiz approval gives characters a stamp of authority; presumably if a character did not make sense or was too powerful, no wiz would approve it. The balance of power between characters is especially important in MUSHes, where most role-play is spontaneous, because your adversary is more likely to be another player than an NPC gauged to your level. Second, it keeps the cast of characters balanced (GarouMUSH gets a disroportionate number of applicants wanting to play angst-ridden adolescent characters!) and prevents new characters from interfering with major plotlines. Third, it keeps the 'wrong element' out. People who aren't willing to take the time to write up a good character, who are mainly interested in killing, or who don't write well, would clutter up the MUSH.
A central gathering place is crucial to a MUSH. Spontaneous role-play is much more likely when you have a reasonably large number of characters in one place. On GarouMUSH, the Caern is the centre of Garou life. It is a large, circular grassy area consisting of nine locations, from any one of which you can see what people are doing in the others. It's better than a park or bar, because people can meet there any time of day or night, and because there aren't as many restrictions on accepted behaviour and topics of conversations in a caern.
Three elements, specific to Werewolf strike me as the key to the game's success. First, the characters have a common cause (to defend Gaia and fight the Wyrm) which unites them all in some way. Second, they can barely stand each other. As in any religion, different sects disagree on their purpose and methods. Thirdly, there is a constant undercurrent of violence and anger running through the Garou community. The strict dominance hierarchy and the Old West-style respect for violence as final arbiter creates constant tension. On one hand, this causes frustration an anger, and tempts the players to create combat monsters. On the other, it encourages people to stay in character, and it's a great source of stories. If you can't resist making a joke at the expense of the wrong person, you will pay the price.
The creators of GarouMUSH went further to create the kind of role-playing environment they wanted. They recruited a core group of about thirty players, by invitation, and took a few months of practice role-play to iron out difficulties before opening it to the public. The theory was that, before letting in J. Random User, the MUSH would already have a role-playing standard with momentum behind it. Players who didn't like that kind of role-playing would leave through social pressure before they could form a stable clique. Newcomers who liked what they saw could take the core players as role models, and eventually become high-calibre players themselves.
MUSHing Along With Your Faceless Friends
Given these factors, some good players, and luck, you can find rewarding role-playing in a MUSH. But you aren't merely playing a tabletop game via e-mail or IRC (inter-relay chat). The resulting style of play is quite different from an ordinary role-playing session - even if you ran that session without dice and communicated only via written notes.
The first difference is that, most of the time, no one is in charge. It up to players to find something to do. What they find usually isn't a heroic quest, but character interaction - visit someone's pups, ask if they think the rumours about the pack-leader are true, teach a wolf-born werewolf how to use a telephone. It may take characters longer to show their true colours, but they end up more fully developed. Alex of GarouMUSH says, 'This place is fun because you can play your character in more depth. Everyday stuff. Real life games are more involved with major highlights of a character's life. Not the average days.'
Because there is no referee, the purpose of players changes. Instead of taking what the referee gives them and choosing an optimal respon, they see themselves as co-authors, with a more global concern not just for their character, but for the entire story.
Perhaps the most important difference is the strange social environment. The oddities of of MUSH oot-of-character social life would fill an entire article, but here is the central point: you never see the faces of the people you talk to. This can be an advantage. Therru says, 'I am much more free to become my character. No one can see what I actually look like - gender, age, appearance, and demeanour are all incredibly flexible. Though in theory this is possible in face-to-face role-playing as well, it is much more difficult to pull off' But intonation and body language are lost over the net. It's hard to know when you've offended someone, and harder to know when you've been forgiven. Players have to go to great lengths to convey their feelings in text. For example:
Face-to-face Player: [Glares at another player, and speaks in a slow, Clint Eastwood rasp]: 'You oughtn't have come.'These two factors, co-authorship and the use of text for body language, change the flavour of the game. Sometimes I feel like all that is happening is that my character, who doesn't exist, is making friends with other characters who don't exist, while I and the other players remain strangers. In tabletop role-playing, I enjoy the company of the other players while my character does his thing; my character and I have a co-operative relationship. But on the MUSH, I get the eerie feeling that this other entity, my character, is living off me parasitically; he lives, while I merely sit and type.
When you sit down at the keyboard, something happens. Maybe it's the need to convey that extra-textual information, maybe it's vanity, but suddenly ordinary telegraphic communication just isn't good enough. Whatever you type is going to zoom across the world, onto others' screens, and into their permanent log files.
So you sit there, watching the cursor blink while you figure out what to say, and how to say it. You type a line, but before you press return, the urge to edit takes over. And before you know it, you're not just playing, you're writing. The resulting role-play is a lot slower - it may take as much as five times as long as a conventional game - but it has a descriptive depth rarely found in face-to-face play. Here's a verbatim transcript of session I played in.
Umbra FarmyardThe place-descriptions set the tone for the game. The authors can put more time into place-descriptions on a MUSH than they could in a face-to-face game, because they will use each place over and over, because no one author has to write all the descriptions and because they know players are going to read the whole thing. If you tried such poetic language in a face-ta-face game, it would probably fall flat.
Su stops to make certain everyone's all right in the dark farmyard. Her voice is hushed by the gloom. 'Let us move into the forest. It too is dark, but not as much so.' She turns to move into the forest, and her huge light wings reflect the moonlight. She flutters them slightly to fold them out of the way.Paradoxically, when you must substitute text for real body language, it has wider scope - how would you communicate the exchange above in a face-to-face game sans wings? It is also more precise - would Su know what Therru was staring at? Would we misinterpret Therru's looking away as distraction or distaste? Most importantly, the players use it more.
You tread carefully into the Umbral forest.I wanted to express my character (Blinks)'s fear of spirits, so I privately nudged Sepdet (via page) to give me a line to work off of. This type of co-authoring happens all the time on a MUSH, while in a face-to-face game it's considered bad form to prompt other players out of character. It might be because of the privacy of paging, and it might bejust that I'm breaking convention without knowing it, but I believe that it shows that the players are thinking like writers, planning ahead instead of reacting.
Rholeen cocks her head to the side, and tries to make sense of it. Oddly enough the harder she tries to concentrate on meaning, the less she seems to understand it.This might seem like cheating - could you really tell all that from watching Rholeen? Yet it's an accepted convention to signal with text thoughts and feelings that would be ambiguous in real life. Authors do this too. They may use the omniscient viewpoint, in which they tell you what everyone feels and thinks. But this can flood and confuse the reader, and removing the mystery of motivations. More commonly, authors have a viewpoint character. But rarely will they take the objective viewpoint and report only observable events. It's hard to generate story that way.
On a MUSH, you can't choose one viewpoint character. You end up with the next best thing: a kind of restricted omniscience. You hear some of what every character is thinking, scratching the surfaces of their thoughts little more deeply than mere body language.
Sepdet gestures gently. 'Come. Follow. There are places where you can breathe easy, and I want you to show you those first.' She touches the tree and keeps her hand there for a moment, then steps away and begins to thread an easy slow path in the shadowed forest.Note the frequent use of unnecessary, non-goal-oriented, and delightful descriptive language. It would be irnpossible in a face-to-face RPG to say 'I lope happily through the spirit world', or 'My bare feet make slight rustling sounds on the forest floor'.
Therru wanders down the lakeside to see if she can taste the umbral water.Look at Sepdet's speech. Admittedly, few people can write such material in real time, but on-line editing makes it possible. Almost no one can speak impromptu with such care for the language.
It's also noteworthy that Sepdet managed to get the whole thing out! On a MUSH, no one can interrupt you before you press ENTER. Monologues are allowed.
Therru looks over at Sepdet, water dripping from her muzzle, then places an experimental foot on the moonlight in the water. It goes through, but slowly and with effort. Fascinated, she continues to dabble. Sepdet says 'It's safer with the moon's light - she's our sun, here, and the Enemy shuns her. But by day its creatures walk freer, dare to come closer. And there's things that aren't our enemies that are still too powerful to be properly safe. Wyld storms, and spirits that tread on leaves and make you want to hang in the branches forever, and dirt that pulls you down to your knees to press close against the earth.'Note here that Therru didn't say, 'I walk on the moonbridge and try to push my paw through. What happens?' As co-author, she decided herself what would happen. Every player is part referee. If your action involves someone else, you page them to work out what happens. but if it doesn't and you aren't in a refereed scene, you get to make it up yourself.
Rholeen says, 'Is it really a mirror world? Right is left?'Some face-to-face role-players may be surprised to find we have come to the end of the log without any fighting, sleuthing, or confrontation. Character development and interaction replace the adrenalin rush from one plot point to the next.
After reading that log, you should see why I referrred to 'literary role-play' in the title of this article. Well-turned phrases are a joy in and of themselves. (Perhaps MUSHers redirect energy that would have gone to problem-solving into writing. I often find my writing skill deteriorates as the plot heats up.)
If you're considering joining GarouMUSH, you might find the quality of the writing intimidating. I know I do. When I'm with a group that's on a roll, spinning out a well-written story, and I blurt out some bare, mechanical action, I feel like a bug that just crawled across their fresh canvas. Other new players have told me they feel the same way. I've noticed that players' descriptive writing skills are generally proportional to how long they've played on GarouMUSH. I'm not sure whether this is cause or effect, but all of the players I've asked think GarouMUSH has improved their writing skills.
Characters and Moods
remember when Therru said she can immerse herself in her charactee more when no one can see her face? This applies to moods as well as characters. Look at the following log from a Gathering for the Departed (a Garou filneral). It's a short excerpt from the original log, and the players maintained the same solemn tone throughout. Could your face-to-face group do as well, before someone became too self-conscious and broke the mood? Note that, though only Desert speaks for most of the log, he doesn't take over; everyone can describe their reactions and posture without interrupting him. Their silent reflections set the sombre mood; less than a sixth of the original log is dialogue.
Desert leads along a faint trail down from the hilltop, and up onto another hill, and another. Before long, the mourning party is ascending into the mountains, where the stillness of the Umbral day is undisturbed by your passing. Few Garou have been here since the world was young. Every tree and every rock seems to watch as you pass, though you continue to move in near silence. Soon, the way leads to a small plateau overlooking the world.
Much of my article on computers and interactive fiction in the first issue of this magazine was a search for the way out of the puzzle-solving, goal-directed, genre-based rut that interactive fiction seems to have fallen into. On MUSHes, I've found the way out. People stop acting like puzzle-solvers when they start acting like authors, and they start acting like authors when they have a good medium and an audience. The problem of freedom versus drama (that player-freedom is at odds with authorial-direction), and the worries I expressed under the heading 'Multi-reader interactive fiction' (that people would not be able to view all parts of the plot, or get key items for puzzles), were stated under the assumption that some author-on-high was handing one plot down to the readers. They disappear when the readers are also the writers.
In that same article, I drooled over the introduction of virtual reality to interactive fiction at some point in the near future. But the flashy graphic interface will kill the world of carefully crafted prose. Instead of writing, players will have a graphical emotion interface - click here for a grin, there for a glower. They will be that much less authors, creating one out of an infinite number of possible actions, and more merely players, choosing from a menu.
It may be that these are the glory days of the literate MUSH, which will soon join Infocom in that great bit-bucket in the sky. Virtual reality MUSH players will not slide back into self-centred puzzle-solving. They will still be responsible for their own stories. It may be that, further down the line, VR will allow fine muscular control over virtual puppets, opening up the world of acting and a new kind of creativity. But for now, you might want to log in to a good text mush before they disappear.
GarouMUSH is at cesium.clock.org
(18.104.22.168), port 7000. It is not currently accepting new players, but you can
"connect guest guest" for a look around.
Phil Goetz is a doctoral student of computer science at the University of Buffalo,
specializing in artificial intelligence. He has played and written role-playing and
adventure games for most of his life.
Phil Goetz is a doctoral student of computer science at the University of Buffalo, specializing in artificial intelligence. He has played and written role-playing and adventure games for most of his life.
16th June 2000: ifan295.htm