Excelsior: new stories in a unique Marvel universe

ko-fi Written by Andruid
A superhero mask and the title: "Excelsior! A roster-only Marvel superhero MU*"

Manu (Power) and Lae (Mind) share their experiences running Excelsior: a roster-only MUSH set in a unique Marvel universe.

Table of Contents

    If you’re a fan of superhero themes, today’s post is for you. It’s an interview with Manu and Lae: two head staffers behind the game Excelsior!

    Excelsior is a collaborative writing and roleplaying MU* set in a Marvel Universe. But not just any Marvel Universe. As we’ll soon discover, Excelsior stands out from typical comic book games in several interesting ways.

    I learned about Excelsior from Clockwork, whom I interviewed previously about The Network. Like The Network and Concordia, Excelsior runs on the AresMUSH framework, which helps players and staff focus on collaborative storytelling via asynchronous and real-time play.

    Let’s jump in, meet the team, and find out what sets Excelsior apart!

    Meet Manu and Lae of the Excelsior team

    I should first point out that on the game, Manu and Lae are known by the monikers Power and Mind, respectively.

    Marvel comic book fans would recognize these as the names of two of the six Infinity Gems/Stones. The other four – Soul, Space, Reality, and Time – are also used by game staff.

    For simplicity’s sake, and because they may later go on to run other games, I’ll be using the names Manu and Lae throughout this post.

    Here’s a little bit about each of them and how they came to be part of the MU community:

    Manu is a writer, roleplayer, and hat-and-cat enthusiast from Buenos Aires, Argentina. In addition to his regular day job, he works part-time as head narrative designer for the Argentine video game studio Undead Sea Fruits. In his free time, he writes stories (you can find his latest published story here), consumes story-based media, and runs Excelsior.

    When I asked him how he got started playing MUs, Manu described a path that led him from tabletop roleplaying in high school to MSN chatrooms, mIRC, and finally LiveJournal RP.

    “Eventually, on one of those LJ games, some MUers found me, bonked me on the head, and dragged me to MUdom,” he said.

    Lae is a cat mom and caretaker who works from home. Unlike Manu and some of the other Excelsior staff, she arrived on the MUSH scene a bit later, in 2018. She was initially drawn to the free-to-play aspect of MUs, but it was the people she met that inspired her to stay.

    Roles and responsibilities on Excelsior

    Quote by Manu, pulled from the main text.

    Together, Manu and Lae help make up a diverse staffing team, with each member contributing their respective skills and strengths to ensure a successful game.

    Here’s what they consider their most important roles on Excelsior:

    “I am the head storyteller and one of three head staffers on Excelsior,” said Manu. “My main job is writing up the rosters and telling the big, overarching, world-changing stories.”

    Manu admitted that while he enjoys telling the smaller stories, too, he feels a responsibility toward involving everyone he possibly can in those epic, larger-than-life stories that draw people toward superhero media.

    “We tell big stories on Excelsior, and I want to make sure everyone’s having fun and feeling a part of the story,” he said.

    As for Lae, she considers herself more of the administrative staffer of the group.

    “I keep things moving forward and make sure jobs are handled, rosters are transferred to the wiki, and make sure to prepare the game for upcoming plots,” she explained.

    In MUSHes and similar games, rosters are curated characters designed for the game’s specific theme and setting. Rosters typically come with pre-defined backstories, RP hooks, descriptions, portraits, skills, strengths, and even weaknesses.

    Players “pick up” a roster character, usually through an application process, and can then begin playing that character according to those pre-defined traits.

    Excelsior: immerse yourself in a unique Marvel universe

    Screenshot of Excelsior's homepage, including intro and links to important wiki pages.
    Excelsior’s website is designed and supervised by Blu (Soul), a member of the staff team who enjoys lending her skills to the MUSH community.

    Now that we’ve met some of the team behind Excelsior, let’s take a closer look at the game they put so much hard work into.

    “Excelsior is a roster-only MU set in the comic book world of Marvel Comics, within a continuity heavily written out and curated by us and our staff,” described Manu. “You pick a character and inhabit them, from their powers to their relationships and their roles in a team.”

    Teams include the Avengers, Defenders, Fantastic Four, X-Men, and SHIELD, and each team possesses its own structure and dynamics.

    Through interactions (scenes) with others, players immerse themselves in a superhero’s life and tell their unique story.

    However, Excelsior differs from most traditional superhero MUs in some notable ways.

    For one thing, most superhero games allow original characters (OCs), which are characters the players design themselves from scratch. Most games also give players the option to modify the backgrounds, powers, or abilities of roster characters before playing.

    “Excelsior is not like that,” said Manu. “We write the characters, which gives us greater control to make sure they are balanced but also interconnected to each other, as well as keeping with continuity.”

    T'Challa in profile next to basic information, such as his height, build, alias, and team.
    Example roster character: T’Challa. Clicking the Background and Advantages tabs reveals detailed information about the character’s history leading up to the present story, as well as the skills, tech, and resources at his disposal.

    Thus, players cannot create original characters in Excelsior, and the only characters available for play are those in the Marvel Comics universe.

    Why play in a more curated world?

    Now, if you’ve never played a MUSH before, these rules might seem a little extreme to you. You might even be turned off by the seeming lack of flexibility.

    “What?! I can’t even make changes to my own character?!”

    But you’d be surprised how many people are willing and eager to create stories in a more curated and intentional setting.

    In fact, Excelsior’s design offers several advantages for players, including:

    • clearer expectations and fewer disputes or uncertainties about what’s realistic or thematically appropriate (thanks to well-defined rosters and a handy power classes guide)
    • a more approachable and easier-to-follow timeline (thanks to a Marvel-only universe with a carefully curated metaplot)
    • early opportunities for player engagement (thanks to established roster relationships and backstories, which encourage RP)

    Even Lae admitted that keeping it Marvel-only was her hill to die on. “I didn’t want a crossover MUSH because I love the separation,” she said.

    Roster-only games with well-defined themes are nothing new to the MUSH community, and many players enjoy the ability to jump right in and start telling engaging stories without all the work that typically comes with creating a character from scratch.

    I’ll be the first to admit that the idea of rosters never appealed to me, but once I gave them a chance, I completely changed my tune.

    And if you happen to be one of those players who likes to break the mold, Manu assured me that Excelsior offers plenty of obscure and heavily modified rosters, too!

    Inspiration and motivation for the project

    I asked Manu what inspired him to create Excelsior as a roster-only game for Marvel fans.

    “Back in 2021, someone started a game called X-Men: Divergence on AresMUSH. It was roster-only. They had written up the backgrounds and powers to fit a continuity, and changed some of them, and it was a really novel approach to the genre, and it was only Marvel mutants,” he said.

    “My friends and I played there for a while, and we found it pretty enjoyable, though there were some things we thought we could improve on.

    Later on, talking with the other current head staffers Lae (Mind) and Space, we sort of pitched the idea back and forth between us of doing a version of the game but with the entire Marvel universe at our disposal, not just mutants.”

    And thus the idea for Excelsior was born!

    But as the team knows well: it takes more than ideas to run a game. It also takes a lot of motivation, patience, and teamwork.

    “Whew, lemme tell ya, I burn out every once in a while,” admitted Manu, who works multiple jobs and maintains a collection of creative side projects.

    “It’s difficult. But we have a VERY friendly player base, who are understanding, patient, and helpful. I know that if none of us are around, a player will 100% either be able to answer a guest’s question or will encourage them to come back when we are.”

    Recently, Excelsior recruited several player storytellers to help out, as well.

    “It has helped a BUNCH when it comes to feeling like we’re falling behind running stories because we can share the plot and storytelling responsibilities with people who want to help,” Manu said.

    Overcoming challenges unique to Excelsior and its playerbase

    Quote by Manu pulled from the main text.

    Bringing on more storytellers has been an important step for keeping the game active and players engaged, especially when RL gets busy for Manu and his team.

    But they’ve had to find ways to overcome other challenges, as well.

    Game momentum and async play

    “One challenge is that a lot of our play is async, and that can be hard to maintain the momentum on, said Manu.

    “Scenes sometimes go too long, people’s schedules become erratic and mismatched, etc. It happens, and everyone is understanding. But this thing where we want as many people involved as possible means we have to work async heavily into our storytelling, and that can be difficult.”

    To address this, the Excelsior team tries to find the best resolution for each scene on a case-by-case basis. They also chat frequently with players to keep them excited and in the loop about upcoming plots.

    “This helps maintain general game momentum, even if the scenes are async,” Manu said.

    Game Status: 27 characters online, 34 scenes in progress. (Followed by a summary of recent events.)
    Example “Message of the Day” in the Game Status panel. Excelsior uses this area to recap recent events and keep players in the loop.

    Asynchronous play is when players contribute to a scene over a period of time as they’re able. Unlike real-time or live play, async RP does not require the player to be at the keyboard at the same time as everyone else.

    Async scenes usually have a more relaxed pose order to prevent the roleplay from being held up by any one player.

    Characters and story continuity

    Another challenge Manu shared is that many guests (and some eventual players) arrive with preconceived ideas about the characters, timeline, or universe of Excelsior.

    For example, they may be disappointed that their favorite Marvel character has an altered backstory, is an NPC, or is dead.

    This likely comes with the territory, but the Excelsior team does its best to answer visitors’ questions and set expectations early, as demonstrated by their FAQ, Theme, and Timeline pages, all featured on the game’s homepage.

    Similarly, players may be unused to the way Manu and his team drive story continuity.

    “One of our players says they like to challenge what they call my ‘Sacred Timeline,’ though I think they are under the impression it’s far less malleable than it really is when it comes to the stories I want to tell,” said Manu.

    “We do have a firmer grip on the stories told, and where they go; there’s a little more direction when it comes to how they play out than most people might be used to, but the people who stick around are those who enjoy it, I think.”

    Lessons learned from running Excelsior and other games

    Quote by Lea, pulled from the main text.

    With their varied backgrounds and experiences, Manu and Lae had good advice to share with anyone who might be thinking of running a MUSH.

    Build a good rapport with players

    “I’ve been running games for close to twenty years now. I’ve opened a few, and staffed on many more. I’ve got a pretty good grasp of what it takes to run something, but it always surprises me anyway,” said Manu.

    “With Excelsior, I’ve learned that one of the most important things you can do is make sure you’ve got a good rapport with your player base.

    If they respect you and have no doubt that you’re trying your best, a lot of your failings, your burnout, and your stumbles will go by almost unnoticed or uncommented upon because they know you’re doing the best you can and it isn’t a job, but a passion.”

    Foster positive interactions between players and staff

    Manu also brought up something that was mentioned by Jumpscare in her interview on Silent Heaven:

    Players’ negative experiences with staffers on one game can affect their interactions with staff on all the games they play thereafter.

    “I’ve (re)learned that so many people are traumatized by past staffers,” said Manu. “Many many players are unwilling or unable to reach out to staffers for fear of getting a sharp and cutting retort or pissing the staffer off just because they need help or have a question.

    Trying to untangle our players out of that trauma has been one of the great efforts for Lae and I over this past year and a half.”

    Know what kind of game you want to run and set clear expectations

    Something that I think this staff in particular is good at is having those tough conversations with players while not souring relationships in the process.

    Blu (Soul), Storyteller and Site Supervisor for Excelsior

    At the same time, you don’t want you and your staff team to walk on eggshells, either. First-time game runners often have trouble saying ‘No’ to players, because they want everyone to enjoy and be part of the game.

    Lae reminds us that it’s okay if your game isn’t a good fit for everyone.

    “One of the things that I have learned since we opened is that people are not going to agree with the story you have in mind. People will join, and they’ll find out that our game is not their cup of tea. That’s okay,” she said.

    “Not every game is going to be for everyone. And finding the core group of players that we’ve gathered in the last year has been a delight. I wouldn’t change any route we’ve taken in the last year and a half.”

    So instead of fretting over the players who aren’t a good fit, focus on building the game you want to run – for the players who want to be part of it.

    By communicating your vision with players and setting clear expectations upfront, you can help ensure everyone’s on the same page. This can also save a lot of time for everyone involved.

    Recommended resources

    AresMUSH really helped us stay in the MUSH world thanks to its flexibility and scenes system. It makes it really easy for me to stay active with a busy life!

    Blu (Soul), Storyteller and Site Supervisor for Excelsior

    If you’re thinking of running your own collaborative storytelling game, the Excelsior team had positive things to say about AresMUSH.

    The AresMUSH platform comes with built-in notifications, as well as options for asynchronous roleplay and playing via the web (though you can also play using an installed MUD client). These features are helpful for players with active RL schedules or who live in different time zones.

    Manu and Lae also had a few less technical pieces of advice to offer future MUSH admins:

    Know what you want out of your game,” said Manu. “If it’s a superhero game, know where the limits of what you’re willing to allow are, and what you’re not.

    Be knowledgeable, especially if it’s your job to write up the characters; don’t just copy-paste backgrounds, read them and then write them yourself.

    And never, ever do this alone. I couldn’t run Excelsior on my own, not even if it was my full-time job and I was independently wealthy.”

    “Have an abundance of patience,” advised Lae. “People honestly think that they can create a game with Ares and it will be ready immediately.

    There is a lot of work behind the scenes [to set up the rosters and flesh out the world], and if you’re working with other admins, you all have to have similar goals.

    If you’re opening up with friends, make sure they’re good friends, because running a game like this will test relationships, and the last thing you want to do is lose a friendship over a game.”

    What’s next for Excelsior and the team

    Looking to the future, I asked Manu and Lae what they’re excited about next.

    “We’ve got some big story events coming (Ragnarok, cosmic plots are opening, and we’re going to drop in some younger PCs from other realities with connections to already-present characters),” said Manu.

    “We’re always writing up new rosters, adding them to our growing list, and coming up with tons of plots. I can’t wait to keep building a Marvel universe that’s unique.”

    For Lae, Excelsior’s future holds endless possibilities.

    “Because we’re an early years game, we have a lot of stuff that we can do, and I don’t think we’ll ever run out of stories to tell or unique ways to tell them,” she said.

    “One of the joys that I have right now is listening to Manu come up with wild ways to change stories, characters, and events so that nearly everyone can take part in any plot we decide to try.”

    Upcoming Events scheduled for May, including both Live and Async scenes.
    A quick glance at the Upcoming Events panel reveals no shortage of ways to get involved, including both live and async event options.

    Bringing things to a close, the pair reiterated the value of teamwork and expressed their gratitude for the individuals who have helped make Excelsior a success.

    “Lae (Mind) is my rock when it comes to running this game. Blu (Soul) made our FANTASTIC wiki. Space pays the bills. Nyx (Reality) helps by writing fantastic rosters. Clockwork helped a lot with the setup. And the players… I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t have great players,” said Manu.

    Lae added, “I don’t think we were really prepared with how much work this would be, and if we didn’t have all those people to help, we would probably not still be open.

    Special shout out to Manu, though, because most of this game was born in his head, and he never fails to surprise me with the things that he comes up with.”

    A big thank you to Manu, Lae, and Blu for sharing their experiences working on Excelsior! (And for their patience while I put this together amid RL distractions.)

    As of the time of this writing, Excelsior has over a dozen characters available for play, including T’Challa (Black Panther) and Maya Lopez (Echo). There are also some lesser-known heroes and mutants with interesting abilities (and quirks) just waiting to be brought to life by adventurous players.

    Lastly, this post marks the third interview with creators of AresMUSH games. If you’re interested in learning more about the history and purpose of the AresMUSH engine, and person behind it all, stay tuned, because we’ll be hearing from Faraday, next!

    Smiling blonde woman wearing glasses.
    About the author

    Andruid is a writer, roleplayer, storyteller, and nerd who tries to live by Bill and Ted wisdom, i.e. “Be excellent to each other.”