A whole fuck-ton of my gaming experience has been on MUSHes. Exactly two of the people who read this blog have more than passing experience with that platform, so I thought I might elucidate a bit. This is where I'm coming from.
What is a MUSH?
A MUSH is an online platform that allows many different people to connect and chat via text. Apocryphally, MUSH stands for Multi-User Shared Hallucination, but it doesn't actually stand for anything -- the name was chosen for its elastic sound, as opposed to prior code bases like MUD (which actually does stand for Multi-User Dungeon, because the code base supported killing monsters and taking their stuff). In the platforms' heydey, there were very literally hundreds of different games ranging over all manner of crazy themes and worlds. I played on a lot of World of Darkness MUSHes, a line of books which (for reasons I'll get into later) suited the MUSH platform well. The other big genres and themes in the world of MUSH are Anne McCaffrey's Pern, Amber, generic fantasy, and -- shit you not -- Transformers.
This is how the MUSH platform works: you log into a Player-object -- think of it as a little car you drive around -- that has a description (blue hair, blonde eyes, et cetera) and may have game stats (strength, dexterity, basket-weaving). You can then drive your little Player around, through an often elaborate system of Rooms. In the Rooms are other Players as well as Objects. The Rooms are connected by Exits. You can see the historical dungeon influence, but a Room can be a pasture or an asteroid belt just as easily as a kitchen. The whole thing is often referred to as "the grid" since they're often streets laid out in orderly rows and columns. In any case, you can look at Rooms, Exits, Objects, and Players to see their description, and you can interact with them (in a relatively limited way, provided the thing is "coded" to allow it). More importantly, you can speak and pose -- writing out what you "do" in text -- and all the other Players in the Room will see what you do on their screens. This is the roleplaying part, in case you didn't notice. Additionally, there are channels that allow you to talk to other people on the channel no matter what Room you're in, and global information commands that allow you to access text files and bulletin boards no matter where you are on the grid.
However, that's just the mechanical bits. Properly speaking, a MUSH is a social system far more than it's some database on some server somewhere. The most compelling thing about MUSHes is the fact that you can log in any time of day and find people to interact with (providing the game has a large enough pool of players). Sound familiar? That's the oft-touted appeal of MMOs, but with one significant difference. I can open up many different windows, each connecting to different MUSHes, and play in multiple scenes and multiple worlds, all at the same time. Using the global channels and bulletin boards, I can coordinate meet-ups, scenes, and plotlines. If I log in at about the same time every day, I'll find a relatively consistent group of people with whom I can regularly roleplay and get to know (both in-character and out). Often a group of players who play related characters (or the player who has the leader character) will be given the power to create and maintain some of the Rooms that make up the grid; this usually comes with the expectation that they will "create roleplay" for other players, as well. And then there's the "MUSH Staff," the people who run the entire game, who dispense these priveleges and in some cases approve new characters and new Rooms for play. Think of them like LARP organizers.
MUSH Gone Wrong
So -- a persistent, easily accessible virtual space populated with a number of players who can interact and roleplay and are empowered to create the setting that they roleplay in. That's the ideal, which actual implementation generally shreds to pieces. Power politics, usually involving the MUSH Staff and the in-character leaders, tends to orbit around hording the power to change the grid and approve new characters -- in other words, to enforce their view of how the game "should be." All sorts of bullshit descends from there, from excluding people from scenes to undermining their private roleplay to lobbying the Staff to change the rules of the game to introducing entire plotlines to advantage or disadvantage one side over the other, et cetera. Combine such a milleu with the tendancy to clump up and form cliques -- remember that group of like-minded folks I happened to roleplay with and get to know? -- and the result is a factionalized player base endlessly bickering over minutiae.
This is why Vampire: the Masquerade, where you play one of the damned undead endlessly bickering over minutiae with your faction of like-minded leeches, was such a good match for the platform. The other books in the line, all of which were variations on the theme, followed shortly thereafter. I personally played a lot of Changeling: the Dreaming, and as a data point and example, most games divided up the grid into fiefdoms with freeholds and presiding nobles, who gathered together other players for their courts. Said courts would spend about two percent of their online time questing and fighting dragons and spend the rest of it bickering over which flavor of changeling politics was the best, playing dominance/loyalty games, and getting into and out of in-character relationships. Now, the text as published is already schizoid in its portrayal of five different games as if they were the same thing; you can only imagine what happened when you threw that sort of set up into a social milleu with little to no formal means of deciding between the various options. Mass fucking chaos.
System and Credibility in MUSH
System, The - the processes and procedures by which the players agree on the characteristics and development of fictional content. A system is always composed of rules but very rarely are all the rules of a system presented in one text — usually some rules are contributed by the social reality of the players.
I can easily look at the entirety of MUSHdom as a stellar example of games using systems that don't support actual play. World of Darkness and its Storyteller System is a poor match for tabletop to begin with, making promises about machiavellian politics and ideological battles and then giving players combat rules. Slap those rules into a game all about collaborative creation, and the dissonance can shatter windows. Example: on a Changeling MUSH, there's no reason to spend XP on anything besides magic powers, because that's all you ever roll; combat is time-consuming and avoided and all social interaction is "roleplayed out". Therefore just keep pumping your magic powers, because they give you more options to directly affect what is happening in the game. A MUSH plays out in a framework of Players, Objects, Rooms, and Exits, the Scenes that animate them, and the relationships that connect them, but the provided rules address absolutely none of that. The rules are as fictional as the stories that we tell in the game.
The System actually in use on most MUSHes is hugely social, informal, and in many cases obfuscated by those in power. Often the stats on character sheets are reduced to no more than color -- what really determines what happens is the reception of your writing ability by the other players, especially faction leaders and staffers, your loyalty to the same, and a network of personal favors ranging from moral support and encouragement all the way up to gifts sent through the mail (hence the obfuscation). To whit: you are only given a character after you have proven you can write well enough to meet the game's standards; with this character you can basically participate in other people's stories, have in-character relationships, and maybe a little cybersex. If you want more, you need to display more writing ability. If you want to own and maintain a corner of the grid, you must write the descriptions and have them approved (a parallel and secondary requirement might require you to have the in-character resources on your character sheet to afford it; these resources are gained by writing well). If you want to start your own stories and plotlines, you need an in-character position of power, which you get by writing even better and convincing the staff that you are reliably online and not creating problems for them. If you want to take the reins and become a staffer, it's entirely a question of loyalty and sympathy with whoever is "hiring" you into staff. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, on those games which employ XP, it is most often dispensed by means of player votes -- which means, again, the players who write the best and maintain a strong network of friendships will receive the lion's share of the reinforcement reward.
The Climbers, the Abdicators
Make no mistake, you can spend a lot of time and even enjoy a large portion of scaling that social pyramid, and a number of MUSH players have scaled pyramid after pyramid. There was only ever about two hundred regular Changeling players in all of MUSHdom, playing on multiple games simultaneously, and a handful of them became famous (and infamous) for their pyramid-climbing feats. I don't doubt for a moment that they found that sort of thing to be terribly rewarding -- especially considering that they did it so many times over. Other folks, however, finding the pyramid-climbing to be uninteresting, retreated into their own heads, enjoying immersion and abdicating most if not all power to change the progress of the game. You can imagine how much the pyramid-climbers liked having the abdicators around to climb on top of. And then the MMOs came along, and whisked the abdicators away into a realm of graphical goodness that let them have all that in-my-head immersion without ever expecting them to do anything that wasn't pretty clearly telegraphed by the cues on the screen. The pyramid-climbers only had each other to climb on.
When MUSHing is good, it's very very good -- compelling, engaging plots and character development stretching over weeks and months, with easy access to elaborate and add to the continuing story on a daily basis. It is basically immersive collaborative writing, and can produce "logs" which are still entertaining to read years after. When MUSHing is bad, it's very very (very) bad -- bitter, mean-spirited, cynical power plays using the characters as a mask for years-long player grudges. When I quit MUSHing, the MUSH community was hemmoraging players, losing new players to World of Warcraft and other alternatives that offered the good parts -- log in anytime, meet friends, do stuff -- while removing or reducing large parts of the bad -- power plays, arguing over minutiae, et cetera. The players who were leaving weren't the good players or the bad players, they were the masses of people in the middle, which left the dedicated, cooperative, helpful people opposite the spiteful, manipulative, assholish people. We held on for a while, but one by one, the tide of mean-spiritedness overwhelmed our capacity for being constructive, and the good players started leaving, too. There are still some good, honest, well-meaning folks left playing, but many have retreated to private "Online Tabletop" formats where they can't be bothered by the raving loonies.
Revival or just Revulsion?
MUSHes are closing all the hell over the place, which isn't anything new. What's new is that there are fewer and fewer new MUSHes to take their places. The playerbase is shrinking. Common wisdom says that MUSH is "in decline" and, for most of the reasons I outlined above, most days I'm not too upset about that. The thing of it is, I do miss a lot of what MUSHing used to give me. I miss being able to log in at all hours to interact with dozens of like-minded people and create neat stuff together. I miss the collaborative creative nature of the MUSH medium that MMOs simply cannot supply. And inexorably, I consider what a MUSH might look like if it had a system that actually facilitated the real meat of play, rather than obscured the real power relationships that were going on behind the scenes.
If collaborative creation is what we're after, we need to reinforce that behavior. We give everybody a budget of resources that they use to build and create -- Rooms and Objects as well as Scenes (summoning an autologger). We then make the appreciation and use of others' work reward the creators with more resources -- roleplaying in a Room nets the builder resources, and reading the logs of Scenes nets the participants resources. Maybe supplement that with a basic allowance so people who run out without netting an audience aren't completely unable to participate. Stuff in the database that isn't used gets phased out over time (or if it gets bashed, does it disappear faster?). Lastly, transform Staff -- they maintain the operation of this resource economy and nothing else, and do not do not do not make things happen in-game (they can participate, not lead, with alts -- another player-object). Throw in some unremarkable resolution system for player-versus-player disagreements (hell, flip a coin), and let 'er rip.
What would a game look like if you started with a small medieval hamlet (to go bog-standard fantasy) and let the players set the course from there? They can build a spooky forest and some monsters to fight, then start a scene where they fight them. The spooky forest stays there and the scene gets logged. If people read the log (and give it a rating?), the participants get more resources to do more scenes. Other groups of players can tumble into the forest and do up their own scenes doing different stuff, and get resources when their scenes get read and rated. If somebody tries to monkeywrench things, making a spaceship filled with Smurfs, and nobody reads or rates the scene highly and nobody ever roleplays in the spaceship, that quietly fades out of the game.
Would such a system give rise to players well-known as "directors" and others who were sought-after "actors?" Would they organize themselves into "troupes?" Would they serialize their adventures to increase their "sales" and the resources they get back? If the disbursement of resources gained by read logs could be tinkered with, would they have disputes over their cut? Would they make that forest, and then make the cave beyond the forest, and then the ancient ruined city deep in the cave, and then the tunnels leading back up to some other land beyond that? Interestingly, would the center of population shift from the starting hamlet off into the more interesting stuff that people made afterwards? Would they create elaborate histories of the origin of humanity, complete with pantheons of gods? Would another troupe create a different history? Could their pantheons of gods then throw down?
Most importantly, though, would people log in regularly and collaborate to create cool stuff? Cause I'd totally be there.