Friday, April 07, 2006


My number one hobby by far is roleplaying. That word means way too many things. Computer gamers have stolen it from roleplayers, now using it meaninglessly to apply to games that happen to have a first person perspective, something resembling a story, and/or an adventure element. But that's not like roleplaying any more than a Matchbox car is a Formula One racer.

(Of course, we stole the word from psychologists... but at least we had the dignity to add "game" to it, making a new phrase.)

In my roleplaying group, I do more than half of the GMing, well more than half. I don't mind GMing; it's in my blood, I would go nuts without it. But if I had my druthers, I'd do a bit more playing than I ever get to. Most notably, I'd do playing where I can play a character over a long enough part of his (or her) life that you can see some character development. That plot hooks you put in at the beginning pay off later. That the character's story expresses some theme or other.

But most of my too-few chances to be the player in our roleplaying games are for one-shots, or campaigns that don't last. So what's a boy to do?

Unfortunately, the best solution I've found is MUDs. The best MUD is a poor substitute for even mediocre roleplaying face-to-face with a GM, but it has some advantages. First, it's available, all the time. Second, you can see a character through a whole bunch of changes if you're patient. Third, you can get a wider pool of people to interact with.

I've had some bad experiences with a few MUDs, though.

My first MUD was Aetolia, which is a very large one. I did a lot there, but ultimately, it was too crippled by three things. The guy who ran it was a bigoted, clueless butthead with no sense of fairness; the world design itself was cobbled together and never made much sense; and it was perpetually infested by stalker-types whose sole joy in life is making other people fearful or miserable. After a while, and a lot of crap piling up, I left, for good. I think my exact words were something like, "they'd have to fire Varian before I'd come back". Intended rhetorically, since that seemed nigh-impossible.

To my surprise, months later they did fire him, and I came back and tried it out again for a few months. Had some great fun, largely on account of a few really great people. But I also ran into people whose only joy is in the misery of others, and a mythos that still made no sense. Worst of all, the administration still shows every sign of the poisoning left behind by the old Varian. There are attitudes shot all through the game that everyone there just takes for granted, to the extent that they ridicule any alternatives as stupid, but which anyone looking in from the outside with an unpoisoned perspective would consider absurd. So I left again, and again I say I'll never come back... only this time, I'm pretty sure that it's impossible-squared.

When I left the first time, I went to another MUD by the same company, Lusternia. This seemed to have everything Aetolia failed at. Sensible, smart administrators with a sense of fair play, a creative knack, and a go-do-it attitude that meant things were always happening. A background that was coherent, consistent, and downright beautiful. A player base that was one step more mature than Aetolia's on average, though it had its share of mouth-breathers. An innovative set of mechanisms to prevent "griefing", that pattern where players dedicate themselves to getting off on the misery of others. Always something to do.

You can sense the looming doom on the horizon, can't you? Yes, Lusternia turned out to be almost as bitter a disappointment as Aetolia was. In some ways more, because the potential in it was miles ahead of the best dream Aetolia had on its best day, so seeing that potential lost was painful. Lusternia died of two things.

First, an addiction to ever-escalating, poorly structured conflict. So many wonderful things you could be doing, so much chance to roleplay, except you had to spend every waking minute in one of a dozen absolutely vital battles that never end and had no methods in their structure to even ease off. If you complained about this, people threw around the mantra, "conflict drives roleplaying", which is true, but not the whole picture. In Lusternia, all that beautiful background and roleplay just existed to serve the creation and sustenance of conflict, while it should be the other way around. Conflict should be a means, and not the only means; roleplaying is the end. Lusternia got this backwards. The result was a sense of schadenfreude that left players actively wishing harm on other players and a concentration of spite, malice, and mean-spiritedness that would revolt any sensitive, right-thinking person.

Second, the administrators were very willing to listen to everyone's complaints and input and suggestions... but they underestimated the impact this would have on them. They quickly grew jaded, burnt out, and unwilling to listen. Naturally, 9 out of 10 comments were short-sighted, poorly thought out, biased, or simply dumb. They got so tired of that, very early on, that they stopped looking for that 10th one. They just threw them all into the same bucket and picked one at random now and then to listen to and implement. Then when whatever they'd done caused more complaints, they'd throw their hands up in frustration and storm out. You couldn't help feeling sorry for them. They were trying so hard and getting nothing but grief for it. But for as good as their intentions were, they were doing it wrong, and in just the right way that you couldn't tell them that they were doing it wrong, because they wouldn't listen to that, either.

The Pvaric WheelSo you're probably thinking MUDs sound like a bad idea. But I have found one that is just plain great. If you're used to things like Aetolia or Lusternia, it'd be a big adjustment. But it's just plain good. The MUD I mean is Harshlands, and let me tell you a little of what's so great about it.

  • It's set in the world of H├órn, which is easily the most detailed, complete, and coherent fantasy world ever created, bar none. It's been in publication for 25 years now. It's got magic, gods, sorcery, etc., but for all that, it's very medieval realistic; most people will never even see any hint of those things, and may not even believe in some of them.

  • The player base is ten notches more mature on average than in other MUDs. There's virtually no malice or meanness at all. Everyone's so friendly and helpful, even the people whose characters are decidedly not friendly or helpful.

  • The administrators don't keep a big distance between you and them. They're normal folk. They're more than happy to make arrangements for your ideas for roleplay, animate NPCs, etc.

  • Everyone roleplays, all the time. Sometimes my habits from other MUDs make me lag behind others in roleplaying, and I'm one of the best roleplayers I know, with over 25 years experience. It's not like you do roleplay sometimes and highlight it; roleplay is the game.

  • Everything is very realistic. Your character isn't a superhero without a cape; he's a person. Death is permanent. People aren't "balanced" -- a nobleman will have far more money, and a higher status in the law, than any common-born, for instance. Since you're there to roleplay, not "win", this doesn't come off as "unfair", it comes off as a realistic, interesting simulation of a medieval society. Stuff makes sense.

  • There is conflict, but it's always, always, always in service of roleplay, not the other way around. There's enough to do, but not so much that you end up doing things because you have to instead of because you want to.

If there's a downside, it's that there's times when there are only a few other people around. You might have to pass some time waiting in the inn, or foraging and fishing and trapping rabbits, because there's no one around to do something else with, once in a while. Though lately, since the new codebase got put in, there's been a lot more people, so even that minor downside is melting away.

Along the same lines, there's not always something to do unless you're ready to make something to do yourself. I like that sometimes I can be there and not have to be doing something, but some people get bored. They just need to take the steering wheel; the admins aren't always pushing events down at us, but they're nearly always ready to help if you pull an event down on yourself. (That's a hard adjustment for many folk, who are used to games where they just react to things, and couldn't initiate an event even if they wanted to.)

I have barely scratched the surface of what Harshlands can offer me, and even so I am having a blast. Great people and a great game; I can't say enough good about it.


HawthornThistleberry said...

Incidentally, you can see the Wiki for the realspace game set in the same world as Harshlands, which my wife runs, here.

Anonymous said...

Harshlands is something that you can grow addicted to very easily. The people are very friendly there, there is no newbie stigma if you know what I mean. People want you to play there, they want to interact with you, and they make it easy to.

litlfrog said...

There's something about online roleplaying that brings out the worst in people even more often than usual on the internet. This isn't a reference to Harshlands, which I've never played, but to my observations of some of the worst I've seen and heard of on Everquest and World of Warcraft.

We just got the single-player CRPG Oblivion. The game NPCs have much more personality than I've seen in previous computer games. The open-ended play is the biggest plus: you can follow the main plot, join a guild and help solve their problems, take on quests from others, or just wander around killing and looting shit. :) Plus, it's all purdy and stuff. It's become Suri's favorite ever computer game in less than two days.

HawthornThistleberry said...

For as well as I think of Harshlands, I have to point out the other side.

"A willowy, brass-plaited girl returns to silence. Her hopes, submerged in desecration, strive to claim the sundered fragments of her mortified appearance, which maintains a shadow of serenity regardless of her plight."

She probably writes poems about blood and roses. All her characters are like this. She often posts five-line emotes that describe in detail the movements of one of her hands, usually defying the laws of physics. Sometimes I look at the words she chose and I can guess at some other, not even vaguely related, words that maybe would have made sense.

No one should use more complicated words than necessary. But people who don't understand words should be even more careful not to use them willy-nilly.

Submerged in desecration...