In my experience, there are a few common questions that tend to get floated in discussion about staff policy. I’m going to limit my aimless rambling a bit, and attempt to address those here – but more than ever, the following post is written from my own very specific perspective, coloured by my own experiences as both a former member of staff, and a former player on various RPI MUDs.
Should staff be able to play PCs?
Years ago, Shadows of Isildur used to have a policy for new staff members: upon joining staff, you would be required to retire your current PC. You were not limited from playing new PCs once on staff, but there were some theoretical limitations regarding just how far in an organization that player-character could now climb, etc. Unlike players, staff on SOI were also not limited to playing only one PC. Instead, they were given unlimited player-character slots, and usually given as much RPP (roleplay points, a currency used by players to buy the ability to play different roles and restricted races) as they needed in order to create characters of their choice. By the time I was a staff member on Shadows of Isildur, this policy of retirement was largely gone. Instead, staff members were often as much hired to administrate, build, and run plots as to oversee the clans their own PCs had risen in the ranks of. For example, certain staff members, as players, had created player-run clans. These certain staff members, upon becoming administrators, turned these player-run clans into staff sanctioned organizations with a firm place in the lore of the game, and high levels of support, and made their own characters (who they still played, who still ran these same clans) often into the equivalents of barons, lord captains, or kings.
I believe Armageddon has a similar staff policy, and that new staff members are required to retire (or, in Armageddon terms, store) their current PC upon becoming staff members. As in Shadows of Isildur, Armageddon staff are not forbidden from playing PCs, only from playing PCs within the area they are currently staffing within (and I’m not even sure if that is a hard rule, or just rumor.)
So, should staff be able to play PCs?
In my opinion? No.
When staff members are allowed to play PCs, whether these be characters they created before or after becoming an admin, friction is introduced between that staff member and every other player-character that potentially interacts with their PC.
MUDs, RPI MUDs especially, are intentionally very intimate games. They encourage players to invest in their characters – to invest in them repeatedly, mentally and emotionally. And when these characters die, all that expended effort goes up in smoke: all that time is wasted, all the clever things you wanted that character to say are left unsaid, all their plans are undone, and all those emotional ties formed between that character – and yourself – and other characters are severed. Losing a PC can be, at best, a frustrating experience. At worst, it can be depressing and, for some, quite traumatic. Often years are put into a PC, and often the death of that PC is senseless. Players form close bonds with their characters. Sometimes, too, those bonds cause the line between OOC and IC to blur – people begin to identify too closely to their PC, and take fictional threats against their PC as legitimate offenses against their own self. Players become defensive, fostering a “me against the world” attitude. They become reactionary.
Staff members should never, at any point, be put into a position to develop and display this attitude. The role of an administrator on a RPI MUD is, in my opinion, that of a facilitator. When staff members are allowed PCs of their own, regardless of the situation, they develop attachments that bias them against other players and staff members. They may not intend for it to happen, but it is unavoidable. And reactionary staff members no longer facilitate for others.
Why do RPI MUDs allow their staff to play PCs if there is so much potential for harm, intentional or unintentional?
A MUD is a game, and games are supposed to be fun. Players have fun by playing their characters, by developing them – skilling them up, making friends, gathering good equipment, exploring strange lands, crafting new items, etc. By depriving staff members of their characters, there is the general belief that you are depriving staff members of fun. And let’s face it, staff members are volunteers. They aren’t getting paid for any of their hard, often tedious, thankless work. Shouldn’t they be allowed to have a little fun to preserve them from burn-out and frustration down the road?
No. No, because staff members that require a character to enjoy themselves are the wrong sort of staff to be hiring on in the first place. There are a variety of gamers out there – not all of them get their rocks off on that emotional bond that forms between themselves and their character, and their character and other characters. There are plenty of people who do not need to play a character to enjoy themselves, and those are the sorts of people who thrive best in administrative roles on MUDs. These people derive enough enjoyment out of world building and the creation of stories, and the reactions of player-characters to their stories, to make playing a PC pointless. But they aren’t often the people who end up on staff. The people who tend to end up on staff usually have had staff watching them for ages before being approached, or accepted – and they’re being watched in the first place because of the quality of their character, and the intensity of character-to-character interactions. And anyone defined by their character, first and foremost, is likely the sort of person to truly miss not playing a PC. Depriving them of a character will make them miserable, and they will not be a good staff member for it. Not depriving them of their character, and allowing them to administrate on a MUD, will encourage them to lash out preemptively against any threats to their PC. They will feather their own nest at the expense of others.
In Shadows of Isildur, there was a player who joined staff. They identified strongly with their character – and had a history of doing so with their characters. Their character happened to be in a moderately powerful position, and was moderately long-lived by the time they joined staff. They were chosen to join staff because their character was long-lived, and had proven successful in their leadership position. (Leadership qualities, the ability to create roleplay for others, were highly prized in staffing applications.) In addition, they proved through the successful, multi-faceted persona of their PC that they could create deep, enjoyable characters. After joining staff, they were not required to retire their PC. Their character’s organization became a mini-sphere within their area of the game, and they were put in charge of it directly. Their character became the equivalent of a duke, with unparalleled power – though they were still beneath NPCs, in theory, there were no PCs above them. They could execute any PC at their leisure, for any reason (or no reason.) And, besides, the NPCs above them were directly animated by them.
This staff member began to religiously snoop the rivals of their character. They began to build custom weapons, armor and clothing for their character, and the friends of their character. These weapons and armor were some of the best in the game. Rooms were added onto the game to house this staff member’s clan. An entire mini-sphere was constructed, just for their character’s groupies. They built NPCs that were wildly unbalanced, to serve as their character’s personal bodyguards, and, if any other members of staff commented on it, became rabid and aggressive against them. They began to ignore other portions of their assigned sphere, prompting another call for new staff members to pick up the slack, and instead began to focus exclusively on their own character’s monkey sphere.
One day, a PC, after offending that staff member’s character, was arrested by NPC guards animated by that staff member, and thrown into a prison that staff member had built exclusively for their character’s organization to utilize. That player, complaining of bias, logged off after being told by that staff member OOCly that they were going to be executed – after a long rant at the PC by the staff member, berating them for their “unfounded accusations” against their character. The staff member, incensed, removed all RPP from that player’s account, retired their PC for them, and then created a NPC clone of that player’s PC. They then, multi-boxing to play both their staff avatar and their own PC at roughly* the same time, brought the NPC prisoner, the NPC guards, and their own PC to a public square. They announced across the zone that a mini-RPT was in progress. When people arrived to see what was going on, they staged an elaborate execution of the NPC of that player’s PC, in (likely) one of the most confusing and neurotically smug events in the mad history of that section of the game. They roleplayed that the NPC had pissed themselves in fear, had blubbered and begged for their life, and sobbed like a baby during the affair.
When the player logged into their account at a later date, attempted to log into their PC, and questioned why they couldn’t, they were informed their PC had been executed and they were now banned for a week because of their own poor attitude. The player logged back out, and never made another PC on Shadows of Isildur – despite, prior to this event, having had an exemplary track record, a history of mid-level leadership in clans, and an investment in roleplay.
Thus – staff members should not be allowed to play PCs during their tenure on staff, regardless of the situation. Staff members should instead be hired who derive their enjoyment of the game through world-building, the creation and successful implementation of plots, and through the observation of the interweaving stories of the characters in game. If staff members truly miss those interactions with player-characters so much, let them either animate NPCs for brief periods at a time, furthering their own enjoyable plots for the sake of others – or let them resign and return to being a player.
(*On SOI, you couldn’t log into two characters at once from the same computer. It was possible, however, to force one character to go “link-dead” without quitting the game legitimately, by crashing the client or resetting your internet connection, leaving them in the game, and then log on afterwards as your staff avatar.)