Second Pass MUSH: the interview

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As I mentioned in the ad that I posted for Second Pass MUSH, my payment for this was to interview the three staff members of the game, to explain why in hell anyone should play Second Pass MUSH. The three staff members aka wizards in question are Schmitt aka Mrs. Kadomi, living in Germany, March who lives in England and Skywater who lives in the US. The game is hosted on a US server, and there are players from all over the world, including various US states, European countries and Australia.

It’s the year 2012. Why run a MUSH?

Schmitt: A MUSH is like the best parts of a book and an RPG combined. Together we create a world with interweaving stories told from many different viewpoints. It’s always fascinating to see what everyone is going to come up with next; I love the surprise element and reading scenes that happened when I wasn’t online.

March: Why write a story? Why play with other people? A MUSH doesn’t have graphics, but it does have the opportunity to develop your own character in depth, and to explore their reactions while jointly creating complex and interesting storylines. Also, the means of play is by writing, so what your character can do is only limited by the story and the theme of the game, not by the features a game developer has provided. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of communicating exactly what I want to say as well as possible, and making my character ‘live’, and I find that more satisfying than other types of game. A good MUSH is a friendly place to hang out. It’s also a collaborative environment: our characters may be in competition with each other, but playing the game isn’t about being competitive, and together, we can create an interesting and consistent world, and play with a theme that we enjoy. As for, ‘Why run ‘this’ MUSH?’ the three of us have played and staffed together before, and the idea of developing a theme I really liked with two such great people was hard to resist.

Skywater: The honest truth is that I grew up doing it, and like a bad penny, stuck around! MUSHing is a really immersive experience that provides an instant fix of real-time happy fun pretendy time like no other. They’re free to play and like a game you play at your kitchen table, you’re only limited by your imagination and the patience of the GM!

Some are surprised to learn that MUSHing still exists, but the antiquated nature of the technology is really a feature, not a bug. MUSHes are fast, stable and cheap to run. So long as you have a stable internet connection, you could run a MUSH for years on an off-the-shelf house server – or rent a hosting plan for about five bucks a month. The stuff you can make via MUSH code is limited only by your ability to describe it and as a game owner, your ability to code. And because they take really minimal bandwidth and have no graphics, you can log in from even the crappiest smartphone.

Do you believe MUSHes are accessible to new players?

Schmitt: Some people take to MUSHing like a fish to water, especially if they have someone experienced to guide them. For others it’s a learning curve. For me, the basic characteristics of a promising player are: they can write decently (spelling, grammar), they’ve got common sense, and they are willing to learn.

March: There are several aspects to that. One is actually using the MUSH, the commands. There is a learning curve there, but you don’t need to know much to get started – it’s no harder than learning the controls for another kind of online game, and there’s plenty of help available. The rest, you can pick up over time, if and when you need it. There are conventions about how to roleplay; when I was a new player, I found that the best way to learn those was to see what other people did, so reading some logs before plunging in at the deep end can be helpful. Then there’s the theme. You do need to know a certain amount about that. At Second Pass, many of our players have read the books or played other Pern games, but we find that complete newcomers settle in very quickly, if they’re willing to read some news files and ask questions.

Skywater: I’ve taught newbies the basics in under 20 minutes, often people who have never entered a command line in their life! However, very few people on the internet would think to go to a MUSH to get their RP fix because it’s a technology from before the era of a graphical internet… and hence, before the internet became big. It’s outside the frame of reference for 90% of today’s internet users. It’s not difficult, just obscure.

What resources would you recommend to a completely new player?

Schmitt: First: read some logs from the game you’re interested in, look around their website. See if the theme and the current plots grab your interest. Second: Log in at a time you’d usually want to play at. See if there are people on. See if they’re friendly. Read through their starter newsfiles. Some good questions to ask are:

  • I’m completely new to MUSHing, will that be a problem?
  • What are your main RP activity times? What timezones are the majority of your players in?
  • Are you open to players suggesting or running their own plots?
  • What’s your character generation process like?

Stating that you’re new to MUSHing right off the bat /should/ give the game a heads-up that you’ll need some support and friendly guidance to get used to the unstated rules once you start RPing. MUSHing will die someday without new players, and any game that is rude or condescending to new players should have a long think about that. Likewise, a game’s greatest resource is its players, and keeping them involved through plots that they create should be a high priority. Of course they’ll want to make sure the plot makes sense for their theme – but they shouldn’t be shooting ideas down just because they aren’t staff-created.

A complicated character generation process can be off-putting to a new player, and you should be sure you like the game and the atmosphere before spending your time going through it. But done right, the staff will use this process to introduce you to the theme and help you build a believable character, as well as get you primed to enter plots as soon as you start playing. I definitely recommend talking to other players to arrange friendships or family relationships with existing characters.

March: For Second Pass, I’d suggest our own website and news files, and the information in the character generation area. Then for more information about the setting and events before our particular story starts, I’d suggest Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsdawn, which tells how the Pern colony started.

For any MUSH, it’s useful to have MUSH client, such as SimpleMU. This isn’t strictly essential, but it’s a lot easier than using raw Telnet.

Skywater: The Mud Connector has a Flash-based client that will let you try a MU* without getting a client installed, which they’ve also ported to smartphone. They also have the most detailed list of what games are available. MUDs are the parent technology of MUSHes and the ancestor of the MMO – expect more dungeon crawling and leveling in a MUD than MUSH, which is really geared more for games with heavy focus on cooperative storytelling over combat.

If you decide you want to try it – Get a client! They’re free! SimpleMU for Windows is aging, but standard, whereas Atlantis for Mac is very modern. The best way to learn about MUSHes you would like to play is to log in to a MUSH and check it out. All MUSHes will have some form of newsfiles (usually accessed by typing in ‘news’) and helpfiles (usually +help) that detail their game policies and themes. Almost all games also have a built-in BBS for players to share current information about plots they’re running – and most games with a BBS also include an advertisement section for players to share ads for other games, if you decide you don’t like the one you’re on or just feel like something new.

Why did you choose Pern as a game setting, what’s appealing about it?

Schmitt: Pern’s central theme as I see it is defending humanity against a mindless enemy (called Thread). People have to pull themselves together to cooperate and defeat it. Because people are people, this offers an endless scope for interpersonal conflict and political plots. There are also big fire-breathing dragons which bond to individuals, and one of our big themes is what this bond means. Dragons are bred to fight Thread, and this biological imperative overrules their bond’s right to a normal human life – or does it?

March: The three of us that started Second Pass are all familiar with Pern both from reading the books and from previous games; once we decided to run another game, I don’t think we seriously considered any other setting. It’s a world that has some very appealing aspects. There’s the concept of a lifetime mental bond with a benevolent fire-breathing dragon, and a body of dedicated (but certainly not perfect) dragonriders who fight a mindless and deadly natural threat to life on the planet – Thread. More interesting to me, there’s also the idea of a society that loses a high level of technology, undergoes massive social change and develops a social structure that meets its needs, and eventually (in the books) rediscovers technology and starts to change again. We put Second Pass at a critical stage in that change process.

Skywater: Anne McCaffrey recently passed, and there were any number of nicely written tributes to her work, but the author who I thought was most insightful about what makes it a continually fascinating setting for me was David Brin. He’s one of the few to have correctly pinned what makes the Pern series science fiction and not fantasy, despite the dragons: the Pernese are yearning and striving for technological solutions to their problems.

They believe in progress, they believe in civil rights: they just have the unfortunate luck to live on a colony world where mere survival is putting the things we take for granted out of their reach.

We chose the Second Pass for two reasons: it’s detailed in one of her better late-period books, and because it’s a far more explicitly science fiction book than later-Pern, it had been mostly unexamined by other games who have a tendency to prefer the classic feudal Pern of the main series. Our characters know that there’s a bigger universe out there, they learn about democracy in books and use ancient computers brought by the original colonists – and they want those things for themselves. It seemed like a such rich, unused storytelling opportunity.

Plus: giant telepathic dragons who save the world. Did I mention the giant telepathic dragons?

What makes Second Pass different from any other Pern game out there?

Schmitt: We work to keep our game low-stress, so that players can fit MUSHing in around their lives. I want our players to WANT to log in; too many MUSHes have player drama, or require time commitments that lead to burnout. Our official policy is that we don’t care how often you play, or if you play one character, many characters, or flit back and forth between characters – we’re just thrilled that you do play. The following bit will only make sense to those who have played Pern games before: Search is open. There are no committees, no secrets, and no drama.

Our character generation is fairly detailed and asks the player to consider not just the character’s background, but also their goals and their secrets, so that we can weave the new characters into plots. We also have a relaxed XP system for character goals and milestones, which is quite rare in the genre. XP can also be used to bid on rare items, special roles in plots, or GMed scenes. A couple months ago we introduced the GMed scene concept “Oh Shit Life Happened” where something terrible happens to your character. It’s hilariously popular and so far we’ve had a kitchen fire and a poisonous snakebite scene complete with hallucinations.

Our XP system also allows players to suggest big, game-altering changes and save up XP as a group. When they’ve reached their target, it’s up to the staff to make the change happen in a realistic yet totally amazing way. Currently the players are saving up for granting dragonriders their civil rights back… but also for creating a brewer’s guild and rediscovering cigarettes. Priorities!

March: We’ve picked a theme that’s much earlier in Pern’s history than most other games, with an alternative history that branches off from the books only a few years after the planet was settled. Our events are 250 years later. It’s an interesting time because there’s a lot of change going on, and because it’s not the typical mediaeval-type setting of the later Pern books – there are still computers and factories, though technology is being lost at an ever-increasing rate. Our main setting is in a town, which is unknown in the Pern of the books, and provides the opportunity to have all sorts of characters – dragonriders, professional people, students, and a range of others – even an influx of people who have been evacuated from their land.

For the players, we aim to provide lots of opportunities to participate. We like to think we’re a sane group of staff who listen to our players and find ways for players to influence the way the game develops. We have an XP system that lets people work towards individual goals or save towards game-wide targets that can have a major effect on plots: at the moment, there are targets about the overthrow of two very unpopular laws that have uprooted many people from their homes. We run auctions for in-game goodies such as GM’d scenes with the wizards – always very memorable! And most important, we have a great group of players, who are fun to be around, and we like to keep the drama strictly in front of the cameras.

Skywater: A ridiculous level of experience from the staff and total commitment to storytelling – personal and the wider story of Pern during the Second Pass. We think about the design of the MUSH in terms of fostering more RP, not less. You earn XP from playing with other players, and then you can redeem it to continue the development of your character: either through some kind of adventure (maybe you spend it on an +auctioned scene where we surprise you with an adventure) or maybe you want your character to be the person to reinvent the printing press. Maybe you just need us to provide NPCs for a scene! Or maybe you and a group of friends want to save XP to change a fundamental aspect of the setting: more democracy! More booze!

Dragons and their riders are always going to be a main focus, but because we set our story in a town, it’s easy for people who don’t want to play those characters to join in as civilians and townspeople, something that isn’t true of all Pern games. We try and balance the storylines out so that the dragons never completely overbalance the world – what’s happening to the average Pernese who doesn’t have a dragon is just as important (and maybe more interesting!) to me.

Because the storytelling is the most important part, it’s very rare we let a weekend go by without scheduling some kind of scene to advance the story a little bit further, and everyone’s welcome to join in.

A thing that will differentiate us in the future is our absolute commitment to making Threadfall work, both thematically and in combat scenes. It’s the grim, relentless fact of life that shapes everything about the way the Pernese live, but no game has ever managed to make it work in a satisfying way. I want us to absolutely nail it down.

What kind of plots are you guys running?

Schmitt: Our big theme at the moment is what role dragonriders have in society. In the later Pern books, dragonriders live removed from “normal” people and are very closed communities. In our setting, some dragonriders have been living in town, having jobs, careers, studying, marrying – and they’ve just been all ordered to leave and concentrate on preparing to fight Thread. Their constitutionally guaranteed rights have slowly been stripped away, and this is the latest indignity. When will they break? Or will they revolt? That’s up to our players.

A long-running and slow-burning theme is the decay of technology. Things keep irreparably breaking – important things like the last databases from Earth – and the players’ reactions guide the development of replacement, lower-level technologies. Our players’ characters have, for example, re-created the printing press and found a replacement for syringe needles.

We are slowly building up to the return of Thread at the end of the year. My thoughts when we created the game in July 2010 were of a dark, broody, uncertainty-filled Pern – a bit WWII England air raid style, if that makes sense. Things aren’t pretty in the game – there are refugees and food shortages already, and it just keeps spiraling downhill. We have plans to run Threadfall scenes in a way no Pern MUSH ever has before, and we on the staff are so crazy excited about it.

March: Our over-arching themes are the return of Thread and the loss of technology, with the changes that both of those bring. Within that framework, the game’s stories include politics and protests, exploration and new discoveries, crime and punishment, corruption in high places and even a couple of murders. The first major plotline concerned the evacuation of much of the rural population to the larger centres, and the effect of that relocation on the lives of the evacuees. Our current main story concerns the recall of town-based dragonriders to the Weyr – the home of most dragons and riders – and their efforts to be allowed to return to the town. And if all that seems rather gritty, we also have sporting events and great parties!

Skywater: Currently, we split the game into two by having the riders recalled to their Weyr and tossing it to the players to decide how they get back. This is coinciding with one of our Search cycles – aka, the period when there are dragon eggs on the sands and the Weyr is taking in new recruits to try to Impress a baby dragon.

Back in town, the townies are dealing with adjusting to a life without dragons. Without aircraft, the Pernese are reliant on dragons for fast transportation of people and goods, and now they’re gone. The College is struggling to attract paying students with a corrupt Principal at the head, and the Colonial Council is meeting to make another set of sweeping decisions about the government. Food’s expensive, there are still too few dragons to fight Thread, and there are a lot of unemployed refugees. A player is running an expedition to find something the players can smoke, and we have some cops and robbers shenanigans being run.

Oh, and Thread’s coming.

What roles are you looking to have filled?

Schmitt: We always say, play what really makes you want to play and we’ll figure out the rest. That said, I’d love to have more characters in positions of authority around. College professors, Head Magistrate, Captain of the Police, successful business owners, high-profile doctors – anything strike your fancy?

March: There are a lot of possibilities. Unlike some games, we aim to make it as easy and as interesting to play a town character as a dragonrider, and we’re open to characters of all ages from about 16 upwards. We’d particularly like to see some more older characters, such as senior College staff and experienced professionals and craftspeople. At the moment, we’re in the run-up to the hatching of a clutch of dragon eggs, so there’s an opportunity to play through the whole process of becoming a dragonrider.

Skywater: We’re always looking for older characters, but for people brand new to Pern, it’s hard to beat making a teenager and playing them through the experience of Impression.

How do you help new players with getting settled in?

Schmitt: When a new player starts creating their character, they’re usually on the Public chat channel and we get to know them a bit – and they certainly get to know us. Nobody could ever say we are a quiet bunch. All our players have been great with helping to answer questions even when staff’s not around.

It’s not uncommon for a new character to have to change a few things before they’re approved. We often have to remind players to consider their character’s flaws, for example, or correct a bit of theme info which isn’t quite right.

Once a player hits the approved list, they should have an idea which characters their character would already know, and often someone will offer to RP right away. If the player is new to MUSHing, the staff will keep an eye out and offer help and advice privately if there’s any need for it.

The most important advice I have for players is: be willing to compromise and be a nice person. If you are friendly and take constructive criticism well, we will bend over backward to find a way for you to meet your character’s goals.

March: When a new player arrives, they’ll find that someone welcomes them and offers any help they need. Staff are willing to take time answering questions, suggesting character concepts and discussing ideas that they have. Our chargen process is quite in-depth, so all new characters end up with enough back-story to give a sense of who they are, a set of goals to work towards and some secrets that can later be used in RP or to influence how the character behaves. We work with new players to create characters that will fit into what’s going on, and try to find ways in which they can hook into current plots. I often find that I’m introducing a new player to other people whose characters would have shared interests or other connections that could spark roleplay.

Skywater: If I think the player is brand new to MU*ing all together, I often pop in and give them a quick tutorial in how to use a MUSH confidently. Most new players do come from a MU* background, even if it’s been a while, and so most of helping them get settled is in answering questions about the theme or our policies. MUSHing is geared for the long term player, sometimes with arcs as complex as any season-long arc on a TV show, so a lot of the things we require in chargen – flaws and secrets and goals, are really about helping a new player make a character that’s going to still be interesting to them in three months, or potentially three years.

We definitely encourage existing players to play a scene with the new folk, to try and get them out onto the game and involved in plots as soon as possible. When a person first logs on, players and staff are ready and willing to talk to them about what sort of character that player might enjoy having – and what the game could really use in terms of expanding our abilities to plot. They’re not always the same thing, and what clicks with one player isn’t what clicks with another player.


And that’s it. Did they sell their game to you? I have to say that I personally think they did a great job answering my questions. In a way, it’s a sucky time to run a MUSH, mostly because it’s such a forgotten technology. I know people are in RP guilds in World of Warcraft, e.g. and I know there are great guilds and events out there, but it’s just not the same amount of cooperative storytelling as a good MUSH can be. If you are interested in checking the game out, have a look at their website, read some logs, and RP away. I play there as well, my character being Detective Rose of the Xanadu Police Department. Occasionally, Schmitt ropes me into playing an NPC called Ariabella who is the local hussy and party bimbo, and always manages to wreck any social event. ;-)

7 Comments

  1. So, I got burned out on MUSHing after experiences on Firan and the Star Wars mush I ran just got the better of me. It felt like I was encountering the same handful of about 40-60 players, and of them, only about 20% were really good people I enjoyed playing with. I felt like I had to put up with a lot of BS to get a few nuggets of really awesome storytelling. Part of me has considered a private MUSH, a small place where I can keep tight controls on who comes and goes, and how they are part of the story. Part of me wonders if it’s worth the work.

    • After Firan I was so burnt out on MUSHing that I didn’t touch any of them with a ten-foot pole, until last year. I think the circle of potential MUSHers is just that small that your assessment of the player pool is probably accurate. One of the reasons I posted this interview and her ad is that the genre could use fresh blood. If I have encouraged only one or two people to look into it, it’s a gain.

      But when it works, it really does work for me, and the folks on Second Pass are a great testimony for that. Cinna can probably weigh in better if it’s worth the effort or not, but I think she’s really happy that she went with it when she started missing roleplay.

    • Yeah, the player pool is REALLY small, especially when you consider that Pern players mostly play Pern, WoD players mostly play WoD… When I advert the game, I try and reach out to other circles of MU*ers with occasional forays into LJ adverts and forum adverts. I think it has had mixed success – we’re probably (by amount of RP) the busiest of the Pern games and we do get players joining who either gave up on Pern as a theme, or who never tried it. They’re not the majority by any means, but they’re a strong minority.

    • I took a couple years’ break too. After I closed down Settlers I never thought I’d ever play again. But someone pinged me out of the blue one day and said, I miss Settlers – and that planted the seed. With Settlers I knew from the beginning that it would probably be a game with a couple year’s run and not more, but that was OK. With Second Pass, we wanted to build something that will be around for a long time.

      We have been so amazingly lucky with great players – there have only been a couple real whoppers who made it past CG (and they hissyfitted off eventually as well). And having two like-minded wizards in it with me is the best thing that ever happened. It makes the staffing of the game sustainable – if one of us is busy, the other two step up, and I have none of the guilt and stress I had with Settlers (or even on Firan).

  2. Pingback: [Links] Guild size, MoP and warriors, D3, The Secret World, Bad Kickstarters « Welcome to Spinksville!

  3. Haven’t MU*-thingied in ages, so never heard of SimpleMU.

    To give you an idea of how long ago – Rapscallion for Mac had just died T_T when I stopped MU*ing.

    How does it compare to ZMUD, and is ZMUD still alive and kicking?

  4. Honestly, never heard of ZMUD and SimpleMU is probably dying tech. (It’s no longer supported, and because each successive generation of Windows removes telnet implementation more and more, it requires fiddling to run on anything past Vista.)

    Mac has a decent and fairly contemporary app called Atlantis and I have a reasonably tolerable app for my iPad.

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