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Organized Roleplaying Events

by Alan Schwartz

Ongoing roleplaying is the raison d'etre of many muds, and for good reason. Becoming immersed in a character who grows and changes over time through her interactions with others, influencing the course of far-reaching events, and collaboratively constructing an open-ended story can be incredibly engaging. It also requires a lot of time.

One-shot roleplaying events are different. A one-shot is close-ended in both time and characters - it lasts for a defined period and involves a defined group of characters. It's run synchronously, with all the characters present in real time, and often managed by a game master (GM). If you've played a murder mystery party game or participated in a live-action roleplaying game (LARP), you've done a one-shot.
Mary Celeste

Engraving of the Mary Celeste.

Why run a one-shot role playing event? An ongoing role playing mud can use a one-shot as a special event -- a truly synchronous adjunct that impacts the ongoing storyline. Or a one-shot can be a chance to blow off steam and mix it up, letting players interact for a while using new characters in a new genre. On muds that don't focus on role playing, a one-shot event can let the players who enjoy role playing play together without all of the work that an ongoing role playing mud requires.

As God of M*U*S*H, a social mud that until recently didn't include any ongoing role playing, I've had the pleasure of serving as gamemaster for two one-shot role playing events. Below I'll share some of the important issues in running one.

Planning the Event

What's the Game?

First, of course, you must have a game to play. Many scenarios can be written or adapted for muds: murder mystery games, historical events, dungeon adventures, etc. I've joined the Interactive Literature Foundation, an organization devoted to LARPs, because I've found many similarities between LARPs and mud role playing events, and the benefits of ILF membership (an excellent quarterly magazine and access to their game bank of free-for-non-commercial-use LARP events) are a steal at $15 a year.

I've recently run two games from the ILF Game Bank, both written by James and Kelly MacDougal: The Final Voyage of the Mary Celeste, and The Marin New Age Society Cocktail Party. The former casts players as passengers and crew of the mysteriously ill-fated Mary Celeste; the latter, as members and hangers-on of a kooky group of California psychics who are gradually being killed off.

When, Where, and Who?

The next step in planning is to decide how much time the event should take, where it will take place, and how many players and GMs you need.

One-shot role playing events always seem to take more time than you think, but running an all-day event greatly limits the number of players who can participate. The two games I ran were each scheduled for about 4 hours on a week night (from 7 - 11 pm Central time); in retrospect, a fifth hour would have been helpful. When considering time, remember that your players will need some time to digest their character material (emailing this a day ahead can really help), plenty of time to play, and some time at the end for a post mortem of the game and a chance to laugh at all the great quotes.

If your one-shot is an adjunct to an ongoing role playing mud, you've already got a play area. Otherwise, you'll have to designate or build a place for the game to occur. I've usually spent about a month custom-building the game area (my mud didn't have a 19th century ship or a California beach house locale) and filling it with game items. In fact, I usually pre-create the characters themselves, so I can equip them with their game items. This can be particularly important if you need game mechanics -- a custom-written combat system, a special set of locked containers (sea chests!), etc.

Murder mystery games are often designed for 6 or 8 players; LARPs usually range from around 12 players to 60 or more. The size of your mud will help determine how many players you can reasonably expect. It's a very good idea to think about what you'll do if a couple of players don't show up at game time (I've had good luck quickly yelling out for volunteers.)

A small one-shot can probably be managed by a single GM. But when you begin to have more players spread out over more locations, having a second or third GM can really keep the game flowing. That means those GMs need a way to communicate and keep track of each other. During the Marin New Age game, I managed this by having every room in game area monitored by a GM room, so the GMs could hear everything and speak to one another privately. Or GMs could just mill about with the characters, but 'page' or 'tell' to each other frequently.

Running the Event

Now you're just about ready to run the event - you need only assign characters to players, and get them started.


If there's substantial material that the characters must know before they begin to interact, you'll have to cast the characters ahead of time. This can be a good thing: you provide the players with more time to prepare, and you can see which characters still need to be filled. But inevitably someone doesn't show up when the game starts, and you're forced to do at least some of your casting 'on-the-fly'.

The most important considerations in casting are to give more important characters to players who you can rely on to show up, and trying to match character personality with player personality. Players don't have to match their characters, but if you have to cast someone as 'the crazed President of the U.S. whose finger is poised on the button because he loves to scare people, but who's just sane enough not to push it', you'd better pick a player who you can trust to stay in character.

Game Time

At game time, the GMs should gather the characters together, outline any rules that haven't been provided ahead of time, and explain how players can get GM help. Then the GMs can sit back and watch the fun begin! If everyone's been well-prepared, these events often run themselves, taking on lives of their own. The GMs may get requests for help when players need to do something special ('I use my sense auras spell - what color is Doval's aura?'), but players often do very well on their own. Some games, particularly murder mysteries, are organized into rounds -- the GM must determine when a round should end and another begin.

After the Game

When the game's over, it's nice to take a half hour and have each character and their player introduce themselves, and reveal anything that didn't come out during the game. If you've got a way to log the whole event (and I recommend this highly), let the players know how they can get copies of the logs for themselves. (You can read the logs of Mary Celeste, if you don't mind spoilers, from the M*U*S*H homepage.

Alan Schwartz ("Javelin") is the maintainer of the PennMUSH server and God of M*U*S*H ( 4201).