Category Archives: MUSHes

[BOOKSTORE WINDOW] Eyes of the Stars #amwriting #storytelling

The result of my third #bookstorewindow fiction writing exercise, inspired by the late Harlan Ellison, based on writing prompts supplied by Colchek, entropymanor, and nickpalaz0123. Wrote it live on our Slack site in about an hour:

The discovery, like so many before and since, was an accident.

Every 87 years, the six moons in the sky above our world form a perfect alignment with each other. However, it turns out that once every 261 years, that alignment causes a total eclipse of our sun.

And, on that day, something truly wondrous happens.

It was 1,044 years ago that my great-great-great-something grandfather, Helefont Shawmel, left a goblet of clear liquid on a column in the Honor Temple, on the outskirts of what today is Fastheld’s Forest District. Long before the powerful mages of the Shadow Council raised the Aegis as a defense against the Wildlings.

Helefont passed out drunk, but awoke just in time to see the eclipse in progress – one moon sliding in front of another, and then the sun settling behind them all, blotted out and leaving bright coils of light like shining tears brimming.

He stared into the clear liquid of the goblet and it was then, legend holds, that he saw one of those moonshine droplets falling from the eclipsed star and into the drink. He swore to any who would listen that the surface of the drink actually rippled.

Helefont Shawmel then sipped once more from the goblet. What happened next, some say, was a descent into madness. Others called it the blessing of prophecy. Regardless, he went blind for six weeks and wouldn’t stop screaming about the Wildling threat.

So our family tradition was born.

Now, once again, the moons creep toward alignment: the blue moon called Herald, the crimson Dayhunter, the green moon Stormwatcher, the violet Serpent’s Eye, and the twin white-gray moons called the Torches. Once again, the time has come for a total multiple eclipse.

Normally, the honor of seeing with the Eyes of the Stars would fall to our father, Yancey Seamel. However, he died a few years ago in a duel with Jaswiv Zahir. In his stead, by right of succession, the goblet should pass to his eldest son. I, however, am untouched by the Gift.

So it falls to my younger brother, Emmot.

“I don’t want it,” he says, staring at the golden chalice on the squat column in the ruins of the same temple where Helefont took the first sip.

“The honor is great beyond all reckoning,” I tell him, but how can I convince him if I can scarcely convince myself?

“What if I see the end of all things?” Emmot asks.

“Then we prepare for the end and make the best of what time remains to us,” I say. Although what I do not say is that perhaps, if that is his vision, I should smother him with a pillow as he sleeps before panic tears across the realm.

“What harm is there in not doing a thing?” he asks. He gestures at the goblet. “Could we not just let the night pass without compliance with tradition? Can I not leave the drink untouched?”

Maybe we could, I think. But the Emperor has certain expectations, and his Hawk would arrive soon enough for the latest tidings of the stars.

“It falls to you, Emmot, and none other,” I say. “It must be done. It will be done. None in our line has refused it before.”

He frowns at the moons as they continue their relentless geometry toward the waiting sun. “I will go mad,” he says.

I do not disagree. “Certainly possible.”

“When we were children, you always swore you would protect me,” Emmot says.

“Yes.”

“Do so now!”

“Sometimes, I must protect you from yourself,” I say. “Watch the goblet. Await the moon teardrop. I will not leave your side.”

Unhappy about it, Emmot takes a step closer to the column with the cup resting upon it. He scowls at the reflection. “I wish father were here.” Not plaintive. Accusatory.

“Yes,” I say, softly. “But he’s not.”

The moons align, taking their place ahead of the sun for the first time in more than two centuries, and I watch the strange shadows and slivers of light dance on the stone floor.

Emmot waits. Waits. The moment of the brimming starlight tear comes, and he gasps in awestruck wonder. In his amazement, perhaps, he finds lost courage. He takes the goblet. He drinks.

“Brother,” he says.

I look to him. He gazes at me with eyes of void and nothingness. “Are you well, Emmot?”

“I see everything,” he says, his eyes now swirling with scattered stars. “What has come before. What is yet to come.”

I step toward him, placing a hand on his shoulder, and I ask: “What should I tell the Emperor’s Hawk?”

In his eyes, this time, I see twin stars, blazing red and plummeting through the sky. “The end comes,” Emmot says.

And in that moment, I realize, there’s no time to wait for a pillow and merciful slumber.

True confessions: The audacity of wanting something out of all this

Seventeen years ago, I got this idea to help raise awareness about OtherSpace – and to create a sort of keepsake for participants who helped shape the first few story arcs with their characters.

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And in the years since, this has been what some angry people point to as proof that 1) I’m greedy and 2) I’m stealing the work of other people and calling it mine.

Well, no to both those things.

Let’s start with the second point first, which I feel is most critical. In 2001, when OtherSpace: Revolutions was published via iUniverse, the publication interface asked for an author and it would not accept “Wes Platt and Everyone Else on OtherSpace” as an answer. So that’s why my name is on the cover. In the acknowledgements, though, I made it clear this wasn’t a solo work:

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I didn’t want credit for anyone else’s work. If anything, I wanted to shine a spotlight on the collaborative storytelling that made us so successful at the time – and that wasn’t, by any stretch of imagination, something I could’ve done all by myself. Players brought their own vivid imaginations and storytelling styles to OtherSpace and added unique flavors to our literary gumbo. I just brought plots and a few characters to get into the mix once in a while.

By the time I got around to OtherSpace: Storm Warning in 2003, I went further to include a comment on the back cover to make it clear that although I had a part to play in the story, I wasn’t alone in bringing it to life:

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These books weren’t ever about me wanting strangers to mistake all those characters as my own. Nor were they about stuffing my pockets with cash, but we’ll get to that in a little bit.

I thought of these books first as souvenirs for players of their experiences on OtherSpace, because who knew how long the game or the website would last? And, honestly, the rate at which I tinkered with changing the website and forums could be wildly frustrating and leave libraries of logs incomplete or, worse, missing. The few folks who bought these books were participants in the stories. They knew how they ended, but wanted a record of it.

Second, I thought of the books as a public relations tool to spread the word about the game. OtherSpace: Revolutions was, at the time (as far as I know) the first published work of its kind. I don’t know of any other online collaborative roleplaying games that published a chronicle of their stories before 2001. If you know of one, tell me!

Now let’s get to the other issue: greed. Critics alleged at the time (and since – as recently as within the past few years, it turns out) that I was profiting off the backs of OtherSpace players, like some kind of virtual Gordon Gecko.

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I can’t remember the last time I got a royalty check from iUniverse. Pretty sure it was during my first marriage, which ended back in 2008. But when the checks came (I think it was quarterly), they weren’t ever for much more than $20 or so, as I recall. Not even enough to cover a month’s worth of server hosting. And that’s OK, because, as I said, the books weren’t much of a money-making venture for me. iUniverse offered a print-on-demand service. The books were really long. As a result, they were about $32 to purchase. Seriously, only the sort of thing someone who wanted the memento would get.

The point when I did start trying to make money – off virtual castles in an imaginary realm called Fastheld – came after I made the leap from journalism to full-time indie game design with Chiaroscuro. One could certainly argue with that project that I was chasing the almighty dollar. One would be right. I had bills to pay. I worked hard on my games, which cost money for me to run. I believed then and I believe now that creators deserve to be paid for their creations. That’s not greed. That’s common decency and respect for the effort.

But, ohmygod, the hassles that came with the castles. Most players were fine, but just a couple of vindictive primadonnas with overblown senses of entitlement could ruin my day. As a sole proprietor with a handful of volunteer admins helping out, it just wasn’t worth it in the long run.

And then World of Warcraft happened. It’s not really the fact that it sucked the virtual air out of the internet for online text-based games – although, honestly, it did. It’s more that it sucked me in. I became an MMORPG believer. Wanted to work for Blizzard, but jumped at the chance to join the crew at Icarus Studios to work on Fallen Earth. The text-based projects slid to the side for a while as I dedicated most of my attention and energy to helping bring to life the post-apocalyptic Grand Canyon Province.

I came back full-force to the text games in 2011 after Fallen Earth’s launch, but, of course, nothing’s ever come close to matching what we had on OtherSpace in 1999-2000. Probably, nothing ever will. I’m OK with that. I’ve got a full-time job. Kids. But I’m still going to remain as involved as I can with these games, for as long as I can – while my eyes can see, my brain can process words, and my fingers can type.

My detractors have argued that I’m in this for greed, and also insist that I’m a megalomaniac. Eh. I’ll own a mild narcissism with – at least in the early days of OtherSpace – a little too much taste for playing the bad cop when it came to dealing with immature players.

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Sometimes I wanted to be feared more than loved, depending on the person. Freely, I admit that. However, I like to think I’ve mellowed with age. And having children of my own is teaching me new lessons in patience every day.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a Hard Case browbeating – particularly when I dug my heels in and basically got all blunt with a “my way or the highway, wait, no, just hit the highway” attitude – I’m sorry.

Have I made mistakes in 20 years of running games here? God, yes.

Is trying to make back some of the money I’ve spent on them one of those mistakes? Hell, no.

Would I do some things differently? Yes, no question. But every chance I took taught me something, for good or ill. The steps I take going into the next 20 years should teach me plenty more.

Why not all the playgrounds?

One of the most daunting things about hosting a 20-year-old collaborative space saga like OtherSpace is…well, it’s been around for two decades and a lot has happened. We’ve actually got a few participants whose characters have existed from the beginning, which means they’ve seen governments rise and fall, alien invasions, life aboard a Galactica-style colony ship, return to a dystopian nightmare future in the 31st Century, then evacuate the known worlds to live aboard a space whale before finally coming home to the year 2651.

It’s a lot to wrap your brain around. Scary, to some.

That abundance of history is its own barrier to entry that some wonderful roleplayers might never get over. Yet I want to do what I can to encourage more people to dive into this hobby of collaborative storytelling. I had similar plans back in the early 2000s, when we started Star Wars: Reach of the Empire. The idea was to attract folks with a familiar established theme and then, perhaps, they’d give OtherSpace a try.

It was a huge undertaking, really. Starting up a MUSH required space on a server, building grids for people to explore, devising coded systems, and then there was all the work of publicizing the game on sites like MUD Connector and Top MUD Sites.

So here we are, 20 years later, and I haven’t found more free time. In fact, it’s much diminished between job and family obligations. However, the overhead for setting up a Slack site is minimal. It’s possible, to my way of thinking, that a buffet of choices might provide a new generation of storytellers to join us. Why not a bunch of storytelling outlets? Why not ALL the playgrounds?

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It’s probably total madness on my part, but again, it costs nothing for me to start a Slack site. We have nothing to lose and so much to gain in the revitalization (I hope) of this community with new blood.

So, as of today, we’ve got the following sites at our disposal (with links to their Launchpass pages so anyone can sign up and help develop the sites as we go):

  • OtherSpace: The classic space opera set in the 27th Century.
  • Star Wars: Reach of the Empire: Our first spinoff game imagined a Star Wars universe in which Luke Skywalker died on Tatooine in a landspeeder accident. Not so this time, although the story does begin right around the era of A New Hope.
  • Necromundus: Another of our original spinoff games, in which characters have died in their realities and end up in the bizarre netherworld of connected realms known as Necromundus.
  • Star Trek TOS: It should be no secret that I grew up loving the original series era of Star Trek – I was born the same month and year the pilot aired on TV.
  • Game of Thrones: Intrigue, romance, betrayal, and the occasional gruesome death. This one takes place before Ned Stark loses his head.
  • Firefly: For those times when we aim to misbehave, in those years before Wash got impaled by the Reavers.
  • Tolkien Realms: Grew up reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, but I’ve never done much roleplaying in the realms of men or Mordor. Now could be my chance.
  • Babylon 5: The last, best hope for peace – back before the Shadow War.
  • Transformers: More than meets the eye, but hopefully better than the movies.
  • Marvel Heroes and Villains: What’s your superpower?
  • DC Heroes and Villains: Mine seems to be setting up Slack sites.

Some of these might go nowhere. More could be added over time. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not much investment of energy to create one of these. Of course, the effort to build, publicize, and maintain even one of these can be draining. So I hope you’ll all pick a pet project and join the saga!

What’s next for a 20-year-old interactive space saga?

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Originally, my online persona of Brody was inspired by the police chief in Jaws who warned “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

I was so much younger then. So energetic. All-night roleplaying marathons? All I needed was a two-liter of Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos to get me through the weekend.

And, over time, our little group of literary adventurers grew until we really did need a bigger boat.

That’s an era in the rear view mirror these days, though. We don’t actually have much of a who list left to break on any given night. Nowadays, I feel less like I relate to the resourceful police chief and more like I’m akin to the affable curator who gets lost in his own museum.

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On June 28, OtherSpace turns 20. It’s old enough to vote. Old enough to go to war. Not quite old enough to drink. It’s still living under my roof. And it’s not entirely sure what it plans to do with the rest of its life.

Our Slack site is a good way to touch base and stay in contact with old pals. It’s shinier, more accessible than the old-school MUSH. But, like the old-school MUSH, it’s only ever as active as its most visible contributors. And now, with kids and a full-time gig outside OtherSpace, I’m one of the least active contributors anymore. I used to pride myself on the ability to keep the adventure plates spinning on multiple worlds – pirates rampaging among the stars, a crisis on Sivad, menacing military leaders on Mars. Not so much now.

A lot happened on OtherSpace in the past two decades. I feel like we’ve got more stories to tell. However, the next evolutionary phase may take a cue from the 1999 “Sanctuary” story arc. Rather than offering so many options for worlds/channels in Slack, perhaps it’s time to narrow everything down to a single ship again – a rather large one, probably – with a crew made up of the friends who join the saga.

I’ll muse more about this in the coming days as the anniversary approaches.