Ever met one of those people who with one sentence changes the whole way you conceptualize something? Today I want to tell you about a couple of times that’s happened to me and what resulted from those shifts in mindset.
An Ingenious Plan.
I’ve told y’all that I used to admin on MUDs, which are the text predecessors of MMORPG video games like World of Warcraft. One of the things that I was really good at was identifying where the real problems in a game were, and one reason for that is a conversation I had with an admin on one of the very first MUDs I ever played.
Leaf was telling me with considerable glee about this one time she’d caught a guy cheating ingame. This was a strict roleplaying game with permadeath, which means that all actions taken in the game had to be appropriate for the character being played and that if someone died ingame, that character was gone forever. This cheater had discovered that some particular NPC (non-player characters) guards had been put into play with 1 hit point, which meant that he could one-shot them dead. They didn’t recognize their own clan members, either, so they’d stand around and let him kill them one after the other till they were all dead. Every time the game rebooted, which happened every few days for various reasons, the NPCs would reload and he could go do it all again.
The game didn’t use levels so experience points mattered as little as the points on Whose Line is It Anyway? — but these guard NPCs had some really expensive armor and gear, which he was looting to the point of barely being able to walk for all the weight he was carrying and then staggering off to sell it to NPC shopkeepers for tons of money. He was at it for some time before one of the admins–Leaf–noticed how rich he was, wondered why, and pulled logs to check it out.
“What’d you do?” I asked Leaf, my eyes wide. “Did you ban him?”
“No,” she said with obvious disdain for that idea. “I just went along and quietly set the hit points of the guard NPCs to where they should have been and flagged their clan affiliations correctly. The next time he logged in, he scampered off to kill them for money and got turned into an instant goo spot by the first one he hit, and then all the guard’s buddies charged in to whale on him.” The memory still made her laugh.
“Did he get mad?”
“Oh yeah, of course he got mad, but what was he going to say about it? ‘You took away my cheating method without telling me!’?”
And my whole world changed. I suddenly saw cheaters as people who were taking advantage of a flawed system. The system was really the problem; the individual cheaters themselves could be anybody really. It’s even possible that he wasn’t the only player taking advantage of the flaws the game’s builders had accidentally put into play. Players like him were taking advantage of blind spots, that’s all. Fix those, and the cheaters will get taken care of alongside the blind spots.
Leaf didn’t penalize the cheater because he’d shown her a blind spot in the game, and she figured that he’d get his penalty in due time. She didn’t like making tons of rules about how to play the game because she figured that if the blind spots were found and addressed, then rules about specific gameplay would become largely superfluous. Money was hard to get in that game, so she couldn’t really blame someone for taking advantage of an easy way to get money, even if that way violated the spirit of the game’s roleplay requirement.
Some years later when I was actually the admin on another game with a similar roleplay philosophy, I got a complaint from one of the players in the game. Carrie played a baker and she was getting very tired of her shop being burglarized every few days by enterprising thieves. Whoever was doing it was robbing her blind–down to the candles in her kitchen and all her firewood. She would enter the game to find her house completely, totally empty. This had happened three or four times already and she had had enough. She wanted this predation to end or she was going to take her gaming elsewhere. Worst of all, I couldn’t even say that she was the only person facing this problem. She was just the one who spoke up about it.
The impulse was to tell her that she was being a bit of a baby and of course sometimes she’d see criminal activity in any game, but then I began to think about things a little deeper. I didn’t really want to lose Carrie–she was a fine roleplayer who involved a lot of other players in her day-to-day activities–and it didn’t seem fair to demand she put up with a game that irritated and upset her all the time. It didn’t take long for me to realize that what I was seeing here was a balance issue: a blind spot.
How many people do you imagine are actively doing criminal acts like robbing houses in a given population in the real world? One out of a thousand? One out of ten thousand?
Well, on most roleplaying games it looks more like one out of ten or one out of a few dozen. And on this game somehow that balance had gotten even worse.
My fellow admins and I were directly responsible for that imbalance. How many character applications had we approved for people playing Batman-style ninjas? The jewelers’ apprentices with the dark pasts who secretly moonlighted as demon-worshiping assassins or long-fingered thieves who giggled at any mention of someone else’s suffering? I had set these people loose on my playerbase without even wondering just who they were going to kill or rob blind.
In the real world, sometimes someone will just live somewhere that’s prone to strikes–on a street corner in a bad neighborhood, perhaps. But most people won’t see repeated break-ins from different sources on their homes. In this game, most characters didn’t own houses; the few who did were generally very wealthy, and their homes were like Bat-signals to the evildoers in the game. Carrie–and her homeowning peers–were nothing more than a herd of resources to these ingame thieves and murderers. They regarded preying upon players like her as their due. Even had there just been one housethief in the mix, though, that housethief would have been circulating around what, ten houses owned by players? (Non-owned houses didn’t tend to have anything in them, so anybody wanting to rob a house had to rob PC-owned houses.)
That’s a lot of strikes. And these thieves didn’t care about how in-character it was to rob a house repeatedly or to steal everything not nailed down. They cared about the money it got them. And some of ’em got their jollies from making people like Carrie upset, as well.
Worst of all, the game was set in a very white-hat type of city that really shouldn’t have had that much crime anyway–if I told you what it was based on, you’d be shocked to learn that so many baddies were wandering around it, trust me. But somehow a whole “guild” of thieves had emerged there with the blessings of some departed admins who just really loved that idea (which is already something of a sore spot for me; I could spend a whole post deconstructing why every single roleplaying game out there seems to acquire a “thieves’ guild” no matter what its canon says about the plausibility of that idea). And Carrie and most of these other homeowning PCs had bought houses in the very tony, posh, rich section of a town that was already supposed to be very law-abiding.
The more I looked at the situation, the less understandable these constant thefts became.
Rather than tell Carrie that she’d need to find some way ingame to address these constant thefts, therefore, since they were by no means really realistic situations she should have had to address ingame, I put a few decisions into play to ensure that the few noncombatants I had in the game weren’t at constant risk of predation. I set a few coding flags on the street around these PCs’ homes to indicate that it was a very lawful area (which meant that the presence of guards was assumed, and that criminal acts would get seen in most circumstances, and criminals would be flagged by the game’s code, which meant they’d be arrested if caught in public), gave the higher-end of these PCs some NPC guards for their own homes who’d hang around and come running if anybody unauthorized came in, and set the door-locks to her house to be a little more powerful–not totally 100% unbreakable, but it’d take a lot longer for someone really competent to pick them or break them.
Carrie–and really all of the noncombatants–were happy with those relatively minor changes, and I set into play a plot that would get her most of her stuff back. I also interfaced with the baddies ingame, told them what I’d done, and suggested weekly events where I could set up play for them to case NPC-owned homes, break in, and find stuff I’d put into play for them. This led to a lot of fun roleplay for everybody–and sometimes I’d put a MacGuffin into play that way and end up involving half the playerbase in what had initially seemed like a very small event.
The few baddies who were just in it to grief noncombatants got filtered out very quickly after those changes were put into play; when deprived of the opportunity to upset other players like Carrie, they left for greener pastures. I can’t say my game suffered for their loss.
No More Batman Ninjas.
Then I put a moratorium on Batman ninjas and kept their numbers in balance with the playerbase; I think I went with one ninja per hundred active, playing-at-least-three-times-weekly PCs–it was a big game, so that worked out to about ten ninjas at any given time. I didn’t approve anybody who applied for such a concept if we were at the limit.
If someone wanted to work at a shop as cover for their nocturnal activities, fine, but their employers would notice if they were always tired and clumsy from being out on rooftops all night long and my staff would be watching for that kind of thing. If someone wanted to be an assassin, as in to actually murder people for money ingame, then asking the wrong person about it would possibly land that character in trouble depending on the situation.
(One time, a brand-new, just-approved PC sauntered into the tavern, looked at all the assembled clearly-labeled knights and paladins, and asked where he had to go to become an assassin. To their credit, they all realized this was his first day ingame, decided on the spot to ignore what they’d heard, and one took the newbie in hand privately to explain things; folks, lemme tell you this: there isn’t much that’s more fun than watching a tribe of good roleplayers handle their scenes.)
In addition to keeping baddies/goodies to a more sane ratio, I also made sure that the existing bad guys realized that I wasn’t going to take kindly to their robbing people blind and would be checking logs to ensure they were handling any spontaneous break-ins appropriately.
It’s not that I didn’t want thieves or assassins in the game, but it’s that I had come to recognize that when there are too many of them around, they tend to pick on the same targets–and demanding those targets stand there and put up with victimization was not going to work. This game was not their job; they didn’t have to put up with constant break-ins and losses. In a real city, these thieves would have all sorts of other targets to prey upon, but in the game, they had only the same rotating ten or so homeowners. And that wasn’t the system I wanted to admin.
An Eternal Argument.
Later on, I’d see arguments on another game about PvP vs. PvE and notice the same things–that the people who wanted PvP were angrily saying that players who didn’t want it were being pansies and babies who couldn’t handle a little poking. (PvP means Player vs. Player and PvE means Player vs. Environment; in the former, players can attack and kill each other, while in PvE they cannot.)
That was a vicious mischaracterization of the anti-PvP crowd, who recognized that if they entered game and were not totally gung-ho about combat, they’d quickly become like sheep for the slaughter to the wolves among them.
That wasn’t the gaming experience they wanted. They wanted to play gold miners and bakers and seamstresses and nightclub owners. They didn’t want to worry about combat and self-defense. If they wanted that, there were other games they could and would play. Over time it became clear that the loudest defenders of PvP seemed most upset about not having easy prey close to hand. I’ve come to recognize that in a game that allows and says it wants to have noncombatant characters, there have to be protections for those characters or else the game will become a constant nightmare for their players. And that nightmare will be due to a flawed system, not to the particular sins of particular players.
If you’re noticing a few parallels between what I’m talking about today and some of the stuff we’ve been discussing lately, then you’ve got a good eye.
The Game Good People Want to Play.
If protections are not given to those who need protecting, and those folks make us aware of this problem and we don’t do anything about it, then what we’re really saying is that this is the system we want to admin. We’re saying that we want a certain group of people to be victims and that we’re totally okay with them being victimized. When something isn’t hard-coded into the system as being off-limits, then someone’s going to find the blind spot and exploit it–and cold rationality won’t stop that person, nor will Jesus.
We can criticize the victims of those exploits for being babies or whiners or thin-skinned or whatever the hell else Richard Dawkins or Mark Driscoll are saying now about the people criticizing their latest douchetastic comments, we can drill down on what a wonderful system it really is and say that any problems people have with it are their own, we can disavow any griefers and say that they’re just doing everything wrong, or we can fix the damned guards’ hit points and set the houses’ flags correctly and make sure the exploits just can’t happen.
What we can’t do–and still think of ourselves as being fair, anyway–is insist that people should just put up with being victimized over and over again because that’s just how the game works. The game works the way its admins tell it to work. We’re not talking about magic here. Nobody has the right to tell another person to just put up with victimization or expose themselves to potential predation. This might be the only life we have to live, and if it is, then I don’t want to be the person telling others to just suck it up and drive on when their bakery gets burgled for the tenth time, not if I have any power to change the system.
I know what system it is I want to admin and play in, and I won’t tolerate anything less.
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This post was very slightly updated for readability on July 6, 2020.