Those First Days

So you’ve submitted a character, and you’ve received an invitation to join a duty station. Congratulations! Your CO or XO will add your name to the Duty Station (DS) list server, and you will begin to receive emails from the game; possibly a LOT of emails, especially if your DS is large, or is involved in a complex story at the time.

I know, it’s like turning on a soap opera for the first time: you don’t know any of the characters – or the players, for that matter! – and you’ve come in halfway through the story. How do you EVER catch up?

Don’t Panic! You don’t need to know it all, not right away. Read all the posts for a day or two, to get a feel of what’s going on. Mostly, you’re catching the mood of the game, so that you can be more comfortable writing your first post.

Ooh, your first post. Scary stuff. What if you make a mistake? Everybody’s going to laugh at you, especially if you report in just as the guy you’re supposed to be talking to is in the middle of a duel to the death. OH NO! Well, relax.

It’s not going to happen, all right? I promise. Game timelines tend to be very fluid, very flexible. A single day on the ship/station can consume weeks of real time, and whole months can pass in the course of a single sentence. It’s almost impossible to make a mistake in these first days, and, even if you do, I can guarantee that half the players won’t notice, and the rest will bend over backwards to unmake it for you.

Think of your first post like starting a new job: you’re walking into a strange situation, but nobody is going to hit you, you know. The people who need to talk to you will find you, and the ones who don’t need you won’t get in your way. Somebody will undoubtedly tell you anything that you NEED to know (about the plot, whatever’s happening in your department, etc.), and anything you don’t immediately need, you’ll pick up eventually.

If your character is a member of Starfleet, then just write him reporting in to the CO or XO, or the head of his department. If he’s a civilian, have him opening his business, or moving into his quarters, or doing whatever this sort of character does. A typical post takes one of three forms: a solo post, a tagging post, or an answering post.

A solo post is just like a scene described in your average novel or short story. It simply tells the actions of a character or event, applying what description you would like, and ends at some logical place.

EXAMPLE OF A SOLO POST:

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As ensign Seville took over the night watch at tactical, the thoughts ran through his head once more. “Yet another long, boring night staring at the viewscreen wishing that things would happen” he said to himself.

He had been feeling this way for the last 3 months it seems…coming from his background of being a very capable fighter pilot while on the holodecks at the academy, the federation just did not offer the excitement he once craved. Locked in a forever mundane routine of staring at the viewscreen…that stupid viewscreen…at times he wondered if there was a purpose to all this flying around…doing nothing more than taking core samples from a newly discovered Class-M planet to taking energy readings from various nebulae…god it was boring. He would do anything for some real action again.

After the night watch ended he retired to his quarters for a quick nap before attending an officer’s meeting the next day…hm…officer’s meeting sounds awfully important…yet all they ever do is sit around discussing the latest mineral find or anomylous reading of the day…it was like a contest…everybody trying to one-up each other’s find of the day…it was sickening.

The Federation did have it’s good times once…but the captain of this ship is certainly no Kirk or Picard…what he wouldn’t give to have been there to experience some of the adventures that he read about in starfleet logbooks in the academy. It hurt him to even think about it anymore.

Perhaps somewhere, sometime soon, he would find a way out, a way to add the excitement in his life that he so muchly wanted and craved…

**********************

Solo posts can be a lot of fun. This is where you can show off your literary talents, or display sides of your character that they wouldn’t show to their co-workers/shipmates. It also can move action right along, depending on what the post depicts. Don’t feel like you can only write to the server if you have been tagged. Be bold! If you haven’t been tagged in a while, and you want to remind others that you are available, a solo post is the way to do it.

A tagging post is one where there is dialogue or action. Another player/character is expected to answer in a separate post. You write the scene just as you would write a solo post. But, instead of writing the other player’s answers for him – which is usually not polite – you leave a space – a Tag – for him to fill.

You may tag one other player in a post, or you may tag several other people (if, for example, you’re leading a conference and asking questions of the other participants.)

Because it would be awkward to play every conversation or scene just one line or action at a time while you wait for the other player’s response, you will often find it necessary to try to guess how he might respond and continue the conversation or action after each tag. The tagging post is often used to lead a conversation in a certain way, or to precipitate some action. For example, you want your character and Joe Blow to get into a discussion about how terrible the Romulans are, or to argue bitterly about the girl/guy of your dreams. You can set this up with the tag. For example:

“I think that Cmdr. Smith is a real bitch, sometimes.”

<< JOE >>

“Oh, Joe. You’re blinded by the fact that she has huge blue eyes and a ‘come-hither’ smile.”

<< JOE >>

“What about that time she busted Jones for no good reason?”

<< JOE >>

And so forth. This can be tricky, however. Only on rare occasions should you actually “speak” for another player’s character. A possible but not necessary exception is when his answer is obvious and brief, as in an inferior officer saying “Yes, sir” to an order. You must also avoid “trapping” another player into responding in a way he may think his character would not respond. If you have any doubt whatsoever about how another player’s character would react, stop your post at the uncertain point and give him time to answer.

Another option would be to backchannel the player first if you want to do something drastic or something he might not see his character doing (fistfight, kissing, express some radical opinion, whatever). For example: “Hello, Scott. I was thinking that Ellen and Joe could get into a big argument about Cmdr. Smith, with Ellen knocking her and Joe supporting her. Do you think this is how such a conversation would go?”

EXAMPLE OF A TAGGING POST:

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“Cmdr Phaeal?”

<< Phaeal >>

“We’ve had a break in the Brig. The prisoners are all dead except for Hampton. He’s missing.” Third scanned the room while Sabine called Sickbay to send a team up. “I don’t know how they got in or out but there is no sign of forced entry.”

<< Phaeal >>

“Aye. I’ll keep you updated.” Arm’Katrn walked up to Neal’s lifeless body, “I guess this nullifies our discussion awhile ago.”

<< Sabine >>

*********************

The answering post is exactly what it sounds like. It takes a tagging post, like you see above, and plugs in the answers, filling out the dialogue and action. There are two usual ways to do this. The most common is to simply copy the tagging post to your email, and then fill in the gaps where your name is. This has the benefits of being quick and simple.

NOTE: If a tagging post tags other characters besides yours, it saves time for you and subsequent readers if you copy and answer ONLY the section you’re involved in, not the whole tagging post.

The other way is to completely rewrite the scene, this time telling it from the point of view of your answering character. You may not rewrite other characters dialogue or overt action; it’s rude to change the stuff they worked so hard to write (there are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare and specific; do not try it until you are more experienced). But your character may perceive things any way he likes. This takes a bit more effort to write, but is generally much more rewarding, and is better at illustrating your character.

ANOTHER NOTE: Even if you don’t rewrite a whole tagging post to show your character’s point of view (POV), you should try to remove from your answering post anything that your character wouldn’t know, that is, the thoughts of the other character. Not to do so creates a disconcerting mix of POVs that many fiction readers find distracting. For example, here is a short tagging post:

**************

Ellen thought that Joe was too good looking for someone like Smith. His pecs alone were magnificent works of art. “Smith is a bitch,” she remarked.

<< Joe >>

*************

An answering post that changed the tagging post to Joe’s POV could come out something like this:

*************

Joe noticed that Ellen was staring at his chest. What was up with that? “Smith is a bitch,” Ellen said suddenly. “Oh, she’s not that bad,” Joe replied.

************

Here’s a simpler answering post, which at least removes Ellen’s thoughts from Joe’s POV:

***********

“Smith is a bitch,” Ellen said.

“Oh, she’s not that bad,” Joe responded.

***********

It is important that you try to answer every time you receive an email that tags you. That player is saying that your input is needed, your character is in the scene, and you need to speak up. Don’t worry that you’re going to end up writing a dozen answering posts every day. Unless there are extreme circumstances – a battle, for example – you’ll probably get tagged once every other day or so. And even in those extreme circumstances, it is perfectly acceptable to combine several answers into one post, either by putting in a scene change, or by some other, more fluid transition.

EXAMPLE OF AN ANSWERING POST (Maheyla is answering Catori’s earlier tagging post):

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Catori blushed and smiled. “I’m sorry, I didn’t. Would you be so kind as to step inside for a moment?”

Maheyla smiled benignly, and said “Certainly.” Then she accessed the special language files in the translation matrix, so she would be prepared. When she had Catori’s attention, she gave it a try, saying her initial greeting. “Hello, I am Maheyla, could we please speak for a moment?”

Catori blinked , then smiled again. She put her pet animal down, and answered, in the same gestural language. “I am very happy to meet you, Maheyla. I am Catori Alo, the new station counselor. Do you mind my asking, what race are you? And how did you learn my language?”

Maheyla smiled, immensely pleased with herself. It was becoming easier and easier to fake organics. She signed “I am the station Artificial Intelligence, designated Maheyla, created by Chief Engineer Lt.Cmdr John Cormack. ” Because there was no particular word for ‘John Cormack’, Maheyla brought up a 2-D holo of Cormack from his service jacket, displaying it in the air between them. She continued signing “I learned this particular method of communication by accessing the translation matrices for gestural communications.”

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Do’s, Don’ts, Troubleshooting, and other Puzzlements

DO try to post at least three times a week (more is always welcome!), unless you have some real life obligation that interferes. It keeps your character in the action, and doesn’t leave other players hanging for days, waiting for you to answer. If you must be absent from the game, be sure to write an email to your CO and XO, letting them know when you expect to be back. If your character is involved in an important plot movement, you could ask another player or players to move him along. You would then tell this “substitute” player how you’d like your character to react to probable turns of events.

DON’T ever kill somebody else’s character, or do anything that would be life altering to him/her. Remember this version of the Golden Rule: Don’t do anything to somebody’s character that you would not want done to your own. If you’re not sure, backchannel your Command Staff and the player in question, talk to them, and see what you can come up with.

DON’T ever be afraid to ask questions. If you find that a scene took a turn that bothers you, you don’t know what to do next, or you’re just plain lost, backchannel your CO or XO, or another player you trust. The Command Staff is there to help you and to answer your questions. Better that you should ask than to flounder, which isn’t fun for anybody, including you.

Sometimes you will see something like this: << Phaeal, anybody >> at the end of what looks to be a normal solo post. Sometimes this tag may have your name in it. No, you’ve probably not missed something. This is an invitation from the writer: “Do you want to come interact with me?” You do not NEED to answer such a tag, unless you want. However, the writer usually doesn’t put that at the bottom of his post unless he thinks an interaction would be fun, so don’t dismiss it out of hand. In your early days, it is good to go and meet any character that so invites you; he or she may have ideas that could be fun. If the tag just says or something similar, that’s a general invitation, saying “I’m here; does anybody want to encounter my character as he is doing this?” Answer, if you feel comfortable, but there’s no requirement to.

Sometimes at the top or bottom of a post (rarely, in the middle, in brackets), you will see the letters: NRPG or NRP. This means Non-Role-Playing (Game). If a player has something to say – maybe he’s saying hi to new players (like you!), maybe he’s going to be out of town until Monday, maybe he has a question or information about the game or some research, whatever – he puts it here, to separate it from the actual activities of his character. When the letters RPG or RP come up (usually right after), that means the writer is back in the game again.

Very long posts are hard to read. If you find that a post you are writing is going to run more than, say, a page or so, break it up. It’s perfectly acceptable to post both halves as “Joe Blow’s Dinner with the Klingons Part I” and “Part II”

There are a lot of people on your game, anywhere from 5 to 30 players, all writing every day or so; some players are writing four or five characters, both PC’s and NPC’s. So the subject heading of your email is important, so that everybody can keep the day’s posts straight in their minds, both now, and in the future (becoming a reference by which a post can be separated from all the others on the list server). The accepted form for your subject heading is thus: 2400.11.23.01 Moire “A Meeting of the Minds”

2400 is the year of the story (400 years in the future); 11 is the month for today. 23 is the day today. 01 (this is optional) says that this is my first post of the day (the second post would be .02, etc.). Moire is the POV character, the one “writing” the post. “A Meeting of Minds”is a descriptive title for the post.

It is often a good idea to include the names of other characters in the title of a post, so that their players will immediately see that they are included in it and will need to respond. For example: 2400.11.23.01 Moire “With Lill’vahe and Shrek; A Meeting of Minds”

Subplots

You’ve been here a while (or maybe not so long!), and you’ve settled in a little. You will have noticed a few things by now. First, there are story arcs , or plots, going on almost all the time. Most of the time – though not always – the Command staff, your CO and XO, are de facto moderators of those large plots that involve all players Somebody has to be aware of what’s going on and to make sure everybody gets involved and has fun.

But there are other plots going on, too, aren’t there? Little stories, that usually involve only one or two players, maybe one or two NPC’s, that have little or no bearing on the main plot. These subplots are usually used for character development, or just as experimentation with situations: Romances, mysteries, long-standing arguments, technical research, and general mischief.

You may want to try this yourself (or you may be approached by another player, to take part in his subplot). Congratulations! This is going to be fun! Do you have an idea? Maybe your character is going to have a tragic romance, either with a PC, or with an NPC. Maybe he’s going to discover the cure for some dread disease, or come up with a new bit of gadgetry that will revolutionize the world.

Step One: Write it out. It doesn’t have to be a formal outline, but you should at least write up a synopsis of who’s involved, what actions are going to take place, and what the final outcome will be (if you know already). Also specify if you see this as a short-term or long-running subplot. For example: “Joe Blow is going to start work on a thingamabob modulator; he’ll seek help from Ellen and Tim on this. They hope to increase the energy output of the warp engines. The subplot will probably take a month or so to play out.”

Step Two: Show it to the Command Team. They may have suggestions, ideas, or changes they want to make, depending on whether your subplot will interfere with any major plots going on or coming up. Now, generally, for a simple romance or research story, one that doesn’t involve a lot of PC’s, you don’t really NEED Command approval. But it’s better to have it in hand, than to get into a subplot and have Command cut it off because of some factor you didn’t know anything about.

Step Three: The fun bit. Play it out. Get other players involved if you can (playing NPC’s, maybe), and have a good time exploring your character.

Plotline Moderation

Running a plotline for your duty station can be a exciting and frightening prospect. You’re no longer in charge of only one or two characters’ actions: you’re an overworked puppeteer, influencing the actions of every player on your duty station and any NPC’s you may need for the story to work. DON’T PANIC! It can be done, and should prove to be one of your most rewarding efforts in your game. These guidelines have been written to help you through your first efforts.

THE OUTLINE:

Congratulations! You have a great idea, one that will thrill your fellow players, torture their minds and endanger their bodies. Wonderful. I guarantee your CO/XO are going to love you for this. They love the help with plot-writing, and your fellow players will love the change of pace and perspective.

Write an outline. Do it now; I’ll wait.

It doesn’t have to be a formal outline (like the one you learned in English class), though those work, too. But you should at least have a written list of events, in chronological order, possible side-trips characters may make, and a conclusion. Stick in all the sneaky bits that you plan to surprise players with, and perhaps guesses as to where those surprises might lead. Any necessary information descriptions of new races or technology, biographies or backgrounds of NPC’s should also be included.

If you think of something, either from a GM’s perspective, or a possible development that might work but can’t fit cleanly into the outline, make a note of it. WRITE EVERYTHING DOWN. Better to write too much and have to cut than to rack your brain for that cool idea that escaped.

When you have the outline, save a copy and look at it often. You WILL need it. Now, submit a copy to your CO and XO. They must approve any plot, so they have to see it all, even the sneaky bits. You can surprise your players, but you can’t surprise Command; they have to know what’s going on. Your CO and XO may have suggestions or changes. These are never malicious; they only want the game to be enjoyable for all the players. You should work with them to find compromises suitable to everybody.

When the outline is approved, your CO and XO may ask you, “How long will this plot run?” If they don’t ask, then you should ask them. This question is very difficult to answer, since it depends not only on your efforts but on surprise turns the plot may take and the speed of other players’ responses, which can be wildly variable. Rather than try to come up with a number, ask the Command Team how much time they want to allot to the plot. Then make your best effort to develop an outline of events likely to fill two weeks or two months or whatever the allotment is. Do NOT — I repeat, DO NOT — start running your plot until this step has been taken, and a (relatively) firm deadline is in place.

Once the plot is underway, keep an eye on the deadline. If you’re lagging, speed things up or subtract unnecessary plot elements. If you’re ahead of schedule, add new plot elements or develop interesting angles that have become evident during play. Flexibility is essential — remember that the outline is not the Ten Commandments, but a fluid guide. Change it as needed or desired, with the approval of the Command Team.

Remember, too, that the deadline is probably flexible. If players are excited about a plot, it would be foolish for you or the Command Team to cut it off too soon. On the other hand, some players will inevitably feel your plot is dragging on. One commander remarks that she has never yet seen a plot that pleased everyone — such a miraculous beast probably doesn’t exist! This doesn’t mean your plot has to end. Command may suggest ways to move it along. But it’s the challenge of command to find ways to draw all players in to the main plot or, alternatively, to allow uninvolved players sideplots that complement the main plot, or that at least don’t intefere with it.

PLAYING THE PLOT:

This is the fun bit. Everybody in the game is hanging on every word you type. Scary, no? Don’t be intimidated. It’s not as hard as it sounds.

If your duty station is a starbase, you undoubtedly have civilian characters or NPC’s in the game. You must make an effort to include them, and usually they’re more than willing to take your lead and run with it. Let the villain take a whack at them (always for a logical reason), or let one of the civilians be the hero of a scene or two. Remember that nonmilitary characters have this advantage: they don’t have to always obey Starfleet regs, and can get creative in their problem solving.

This same is true of certain groups of Starfleet personnel, and you should hold them in mind when you write your outline and begin playing. Engineering and Science personnel don’t usually get involved in shoot-em-ups or command decisions. They can get left out. Make provisions for them in your story, and, again, they’ll be glad to meet you halfway.

FAIR WARNING: Your CO and XO are plotting against you. Okay, I’m just teasing. But they have two responsibilities. First, they must make sure that all players are involved and that the pace is neither too fast (confusing) nor too slow (boring). Second, they should be throwing surprises into your plot from time to time, so the game is exciting for YOU, too. Think of them as the wild cards in the game.

There. I’ve blown their secret. Oh, well. Expect it, be ready for it, and have FUN with it! But don’t let command surprises get away from you; in a complicated game, they can take on a life of their own. If they get complicated, pencil them into your original outline, give them shape, and don’t let them take over (unless they’re really fun!). Communicate with the Command Team, especially if you’re confused about turns they have given the plot or if you disagree with the route into which their additions will send the action. Both sides must be open-minded and tough-skinned here. The plot designer has the right, once his plot has been approved, not to have it gratuitously tampered with. The Command Team has the responsibility to keep the game, as a whole, running smoothly, with fun for all.

Second FAIR WARNING: no matter how dramatic a scene it would make, you may NEVER kill off somebody else’s character without his/her permission. Also, if you’re planning to have something life-altering, humiliating, or sensitive happen to a character (pregnancy, rape, maiming, personality change, possession by an alien), you MUST discuss it with that character’s player BEFOREHAND! He is as attached to his character as you are to yours, and he may not want that character so altered, possibly made unplayable in his mind. If he says, “No, I don’t want that to happen to my character,” you say thank you, and you move on to somebody else.

Or set up an NPC to be the required victim or turncoat or whatever. Note that some NPCs are strongly associated with one player. She may have created that NPC or may play it frequently, even exclusively. All the above warnings apply to such “dedicated” NPCs. NPC’s CREATED SPECIFICALLY FOR THE PLOT, SUCH AS VILLAINS

I know: you want to have absolute control over your villain and every other special NPC in your plot; you are God AND Mammon. But unless you’re prepared to conduct a symphony with your hands tied behind you, this is a bad idea. You will have more than enough to do with your own character and the plot. Keep control of the head bad guy, if you must. But don’t be afraid to hand off NPC’s to other players. They WANT to take part, and writing another character can be fun for them, too. Not only does this take some of the burden off you, it gives you a few new surprises to enjoy.

Backchannel a prospective helper, and ask them if they want to run an NPC for you. If they say no, say thank you, and move on. If they say yes, you need to send them all the details they will need, even the entire outline. Be prepared to do a lot of backchanneling with your new helper; they will want input from you, and you will want to advise, request or question various activities.

It’s a good idea to leave as much of the NPC design to your new helper as you can. Tell him what you need, and let him do the rest. He’s the one who has to actually crawl inside this character’s head, after all. Let him name him, figure out what he looks like, his motivations and interior life. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, I guarantee it.

TROUBLESHOOTING:

While running your plot, be prepared to write as many or more backchannel emails as actual posts. You will want to remain in communication with your Command Team and any helpers. They will want to ask questions, make suggestions, and be kept posted on what’s coming next. Bear in mind that, if there are any problems or complaints from the players in general, they are going to go to your Command Team, not to you; you’ll want to be able to address them immediately.

It’s a good idea to write an update periodically and to forward it to everybody involved in running your plot. It doesn’t have to be terribly involved; just a “Hi, the game feels like it’s working, is everybody having a good time, this is what’s happening next, does anybody have questions or problems or ideas?” And be prepared to accept the answers you get.

And sometimes, those answers are not going to be happy. Not everybody is as enthused about your plot as you are. Not everybody understands, and not everybody has seen your outline. You are going to get complaints. They’re NOT a criticism of you (though some may sound that way), and, though they may be worded undiplomatically (some people don’t think before they type), the writers are not trying to hurt you.

Go ahead and curse your computer, and throw a few dishtowels, get your mad spell out. Go on, we’ll wait.

Feel better? Good. Now, address those concerns. If Joe Blow says your plot is boring, find out why. Maybe his character is not as involved in events as he would like. Talk to your CO/XO (do NOT write to the player, particularly if you’re upset), see if you can’t work Joe’s character in somewhere. Maybe he is impatient to get to the end so he can run his own plot. Then perhaps you should move up your deadline, or let him begin his plot early (so the two are running simultaneously). Your Command Team will have ideas and suggestions. Listen and try to accommodate them. This is supposed to be fun for everybody.

However, you shouldn’t have to accept mere rudeness or impatience. And this is where the commanders earn their “pay” — it should be THEIR job to mediate, not yours. Communicate with them whenever you have a problem or a question. That’s what they’re there for. If they are forced to make a ruling — even against you — you must abide by that ruling. They do have final call on any disputes, and, in the end, they want what you want: for the game to be fun.

That’s it. If you try to remember these suggestions, your moderating experience should be fun for you, and for everybody else. You will be a hero, the great purveyor of plots, and everybody will be waiting with bated breath for you to do it again. Which I have no doubt you will do.

Glossary of Common Terms

Answering Post: a post wherein a player has been tagged, and has written his response. It usually takes one of two forms: simply plugging in answers where the tag was, and completely rewriting the scene from the answering character’s point of view.

Backchannel: an email that is sent to another player, but is not sent to the list server.
CO: commanding officer: the (usually) most senior player in the game, his character is the commanding officer of the duty station. He and the XO are usually the de facto moderators of major plots, and is the players’ liaison with the Leadership Council, and mediator of disputes and questions.
DS/Duty Station: The large setting of the story, and the place where the characters live and interact. Each ship or space station is a duty station.
List Server: The central hub of the posting. Each player sends his posts to the list server (like Yahoogroups), which logs that post, and then forwards it to all other players. All posts going to the server are automatically public knowledge to all other players, and can be accessed from the server’s files.
NPC: Non player character. A character that is a part-time or limited figure in the game. Some NPC’s are ‘dedicated,’ played only by their originator/owner. Others are up for grabs, and anybody may write for him.
NRPG (NRP):Non Role Playing Game: usually appears at the top or bottom of a post, and is used to indicate that the writing thereby is out of character. Is used to ask questions, give information, or make announcements. Can also stand alone as a post, or can appear in the middle of a post, bracketed (in-the-middle posts are usually VERY brief)
PC: Player character: Any character that is written only by the owner, and is considered a viewpoint or primary character for that player.
RPG (RP): Role Playing Game. This closes an NRPG announcement, and indicates that what follows is part of the game again.
Solo Post: A post where a player describes a scene, performs actions, etc. without tagging anybody else. Does not require an answer.
Tagging Post: A post where a player leaves a place for one or more characters to answer his words and actions. Will be answered in an answering post.
XO: executive officer: second in command. Usually the second most senior player in the game, the XO is in partnership with the CO, and helps him fulfill the duties of moderator, liaison, etc.