How game design drives investment, stakes, and conflict in roleplay-intensive (RPI) MUDs

ko-fi Written by Andruid
Investment, stakes, and conflict in RPIs: Designing healthier games and communities
Investment, stakes, and conflict in RPIs: Designing healthier games and communities

Within the text-based gaming community, RPIs have a reputation for being toxic cesspools, but it doesn't have to be that way.

Table of Contents

    All it takes is a quick browse through r/MUD to discover that roleplay-intensive games (RPIs) don’t have the best reputation.

    Even so, there are players who prefer to play them over other types of games.

    Today, I’m going to talk about how RPI game design encourages investment, high stakes, and conflict, and how those things can lay a foundation ripe for cheating, distrust, and burnout.

    I’m also going to suggest some ways to make roleplay-intensive games fun and healthier for all.

    This post assumes that you have a basic understanding of common roleplaying concepts, such as the difference between in-character (IC) and out-of-character (OOC). If you don’t, I recommend checking out my Beginner’s guide to RP, first.

    What is an RPI game?

    Short for roleplay intensive, an RPI is a type of multiplayer, text-based game that focuses heavily on roleplaying.

    Players in an RPI are expected to stay in character at all times. Out-of-character communication is either discouraged; limited to specific channels, commands, or situations; or outright forbidden.

    Unlike in an RP-encouraged game, this separation of IC and OOC is compulsory in an RPI.

    Meaning, it’s against the rules to talk about real-life sports, politics, weather, or other topics as your character, and doing so can get you removed from the game.

    In an RPI, your character is supposed to be a separate entity from you: a person with their own thoughts, feelings, and motivations, who lives in a world separate from your own.

    What else makes an RPI “intensive”?

    In addition to strict roleplaying requirements, RPIs tend to require higher investment from players and feature higher stakes than other types of roleplaying games.

    Investment can take many forms and includes things like:

    • time and experience needed to progress to higher skill levels,
    • time and effort required to network with other characters and become an established figure in the game world,
    • creative and emotional energy required to write a deep and complex character with realistic flaws (not a Gary Sue or Mary Sue),
    • or real-life money spent to secure certain in-game perks or advantages.

    High stakes include things that can seriously affect your character without your consent, such as:

    • crippling injury,
    • debilitating illness or disease,
    • loss of expensive equipment or resources,
    • loss of social standing, such as one’s reputation or position of authority,
    • death, or even permanent death (loss of the character itself and all the time, effort, and energy you invested in it).

    This means that playing an RPI comes with risks and the stakes get higher the longer you play.

    Because the longer you play, the more you have to lose.

    If you’re interested in some proposed criteria of an RPI from 20 years ago, check out this thread on TopMUDSites. But be warned: about 6-7 pages in, the discussion becomes rather unproductive (putting it nicely).

    Why do people play roleplay-intensive games?

    There are many reasons why people play and enjoy roleplay-intensive games, but I think it comes down to this:

    RPIs are fun because they allow for deep roleplay immersion in a structured yet open world where much is possible.

    Over time, and through the course of their story, characters can acquire better skills and resources, allowing them to do new and interesting things to further that story.

    This sense of progress can feel very rewarding to the person at the keyboard.

    And if you ask a serious RPI player, they’ll likely tell you that the risks and higher stakes make everything more meaningful and exciting.

    In an RPI, you don’t know where your character’s story will take you – every interaction with another player character can change their fate.

    Worlds floating in the void, with a nebulous portal in the center.
    RPIs allow for deep, open-ended roleplay fueled by players’ creativity and imagination. The limits of what characters can do are defined by the game.

    Why do RPIs become toxic?

    Unfortunately, some of the things that make RPIs fun are also things that make them more prone to toxicity and drama.

    The combination of investment and high stakes is already a heady recipe for tense situations, but there’s a kicker:

    RPIs tend to feature settings that encourage conflict and antagonism between player characters.

    For example:

    • opposing factions, such as the authorities vs. criminal underground
    • a class divide that pits the commonfolk against the upper crust
    • racial or other prejudice built into the game’s theme, such as dwarves vs. elves
    • limited seats of power
    • unbalanced power dynamics, where certain types of characters are at the mercy of others

    These divisions aren’t just stylistic choices meant to flavor the game or exist in the background.

    In an RPI, they’re rooted in characters’ backstories, shape their goals, and influence their allegiances. They form the very premise on which many stories are built.

    It’s often through these thematic conflicts that players encounter exciting risks and challenges that affect their character’s story arc.

    Thematic divisions are also sometimes enforced by staff or coded into the game, such that a character in Group A can only do certain things in Group B’s territory, for example.

    Distrust and burnout: a toxic cycle

    A neon green beaker labeled as TOXIC.

    You can imagine how these conditions – high investment, high stakes, and thematic conflict – might lead to exciting stories.

    Life or death situations. Unexpected twists and turns. Sacrifice and betrayal.

    Game of Thrones-level intrigue!

    Except we’re talking about an interactive, open-ended multiplayer game, not a novel or TV show.

    When players aren’t having fun, those same high-stakes conditions are conducive to fear, cheating, distrust, anxiety, frustration, and other unpleasantness, instead.

    Players start suspecting each other of collusion and metagaming or may even engage in collusion themselves as a means of defense against perceived risks and threats.

    As I argue in my article on metagaming, those perceptions are often just as damaging as actual instances of metagaming, because they breed more distrust and create more work for staff.

    And, unfortunately, even when players are cheating or breaking the rules, it can be difficult and time-consuming to prove.

    Graph showing that as investment and stakes get higher, players experience more stress, coping, and negativity.
    As the investment and stakes get higher, players experience more negative emotions, especially when bad things happen or seem like they might happen.

    How players and staff become jaded

    Staff members are usually volunteers, and they can get burnt out having to deal with player complaints, especially when emotions run high and players are less than polite.

    It’s unpleasant, emotionally taxing work that takes time away from the tasks staffers would much rather be doing, like building new areas, coding new systems, or running stories for other players.

    Over time, staff become jaded and apathetic, and they stop empathizing with players. They may themselves start being short or less than polite.

    Eventually, they end up taking a long break or only logging in to do light work without interacting with anyone.

    To fill the void, new staffers are raised from the playerbase.

    Because of their poor interactions with previous staffers, players themselves become jaded. They regard these new staff members with distrust and suspicion.

    Since they were raised from the playerbase, these new staffers had – and may still have – their own cliques, allegiances, and enemies.

    Players start to perceive unfairness and partiality even when there isn’t any, and they may even engage in cheating as a defense mechanism.

    "Trust is a very important resource that's difficult to raise and easily lost. ... When someone joins a new game, they almost always start with a negative trust level of staff. And it's my responsibility to help change that to a positive over time." - Jumpscare, Creator of Silent Heaven
    From Silent Heaven: A supernatural horror MU* (February 1, 2024).

    …and on and on the cycle goes.

    Players don’t trust staff; staff don’t trust players. Perceptions of cheating and unfairness run rampant, and staff get burnt out trying to address the complaints.

    All of this, of course, is said while giving both players and staff the benefit of the doubt.

    When you throw actual bad actors into the mix – players or staff who knowingly cheat, give their friends preferential treatment, or bully others – you truly get a recipe for a toxic game.

    Especially when those bad actors go unchecked for weeks, months, or years.

    Do players become too invested in their characters?

    With roleplay-intensive games, you’ll sometimes hear people blame the fact that players become too invested in their characters.

    Heck, I’m sure I’ve said something like this in the past.

    If only players weren’t so invested in their characters, they wouldn’t get as upset by loss or be as tempted to cheat.

    Heads would be cooler, fewer complaints would be raised with staff, and the whole game would be better for it, right?

    Well, probably, but I don’t think player investment is the root problem here. Nor is the solution to simply tell players, “Be less invested.”

    Investment as a product of game design

    The problem is that roleplay-intensive games are designed in such a way as to encourage heavy investment in one’s character.

    Just to get started, you often have to invest time and creative energy into a character’s backstory and description. As time goes on, players become more and more emotionally invested, too.

    In other words: player investment is a product of game design.

    If a game encourages or even requires heavy investment to progress, you can’t turn around and tell players they’re too invested. They’re just playing the game as it was designed to be played.

    At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that some investment is both necessary and enjoyable for players in roleplay-intensive games.

    If they’re not invested, they’re not going to make a genuine effort to roleplay or create fun and compelling stories.

    I suspect there’s a healthy amount of investment, and the challenge is guiding players toward that amount.

    Creating a healthier, less toxic game

    Treasure chest full of pearls and cute kittens.

    Now that we understand some of the reasons why RPIs become toxic, what can we do about it?

    Well, I won’t have all the answers (and there’s SO much more to RPIs than I can cover here), but I can provide some food for thought.

    If we assume that investment, stakes, and conflict are levers we can adjust through game design, that’s a starting point.

    Some of the ideas below may make sense for your game, some may not. I’ll leave it for you to decide.

    1. Reduce player investment

    If it takes real-life months or years for characters to get to a point where they can have an impact on the game, that’s a pretty high level of investment required.

    You can lower that investment by removing barriers to progress, introducing ways for characters to get involved and contribute sooner, and reducing the amount of time it takes for players to get started.

    However, as time goes on, they’ll still increase their investment in their characters.

    So another option is to give all characters an expiration date, so to speak.

    You can do this by dividing the game into discrete “seasons” or “timelines,” where everyone finishes at the same time, after some culminating event.

    You can also do it by requiring players to “wrap up” and retire their characters after they reach X total hours of roleplay or X amount of experience.

    While putting a limit on characters may not appeal to everyone or make sense for every game, it does mean that players will go into the roleplay knowing that they’re not going to be playing that character forever.

    This can help them form less of an emotional attachment and make wiser choices about how they spend their time.

    If a forced limit seems like too much, there’s alway the option of rewarding players who willingly choose to retire their maxed-out characters to make way for new leaders and fresh stories.

    Either way, players should never have to grind through weeks and months of unfun, hoping to build up their character enough to get to the fun moments where they’ll actually be included and can do things.

    And if you’re a player playing a game like that right now: don’t. Really. I promise you’ll regret it later. Life is too short to waste your time on a game that isn’t bringing you joy when you play it.

    2. Lower the stakes

    If the stakes are too high, you can lower them by making them opt-in or by-consent-only.

    For example, you could make it so that the player’s consent is required for their character to contract a serious disease or be inovlved in certain kinds of roleplay, such as torture scenes or anything that might be triggering.

    You could also make permadeath optional, so that if a player is up for it, they can end their character’s story in an epic or meaningful way, but they don’t have to worry about the story ending prematurely in a meaningless way.

    The fear of meaningless loss – loss that doesn’t take the player’s feelings or their character’s story into account – is one of the ways roleplaying games become stressful and unfun for players.

    Lowering the stakes also has the benefit of making the game less appealing to players who primarily play to win (as opposed to players who play to create a fun story for everyone involved).

    Getting consent defeats the purpose for those players, so they’re more likely to spend their time elsewhere.

    If you’re not sure about lowering the stakes permanently, you could try it out for a few months and see how it goes. Or try applying opt-in policies to specific situations, like staff-mediated plots.

    3. Adjust the sources of thematic conflict

    A line of medieval soldiers ready for battle.

    Finally, you can take a good, hard look at the types of thematic conflict your game promotes.

    For example, if conflict between groups is primarily based on IC prejudice, you might consider moving away from that or adding more variety.

    Prejudice might seem like a realistic, gritty source of conflict – good to have in a game full of danger and intrigue – but it comes with some ugly side effects.

    Focusing on prejudice can inadvertently promote real-life stereotypes and the act of stereotyping itself, especially when it becomes normalized by the community.

    It can also create emotional distress for players and create a hostile, exclusionary atmosphere. Not great if the goal is to promote and encourage RP between diverse characters.

    Lastly, prejudice makes for a convenient excuse for players who play to win. Their actions become easily justified if all they need to do is point to thematic prejudice as the reason for their behavior.

    So what can you focus on instead? Competing goals or worldviews make for good sources of conflict that aren’t necessarily rooted in prejudice.

    You can also introduce external sources of danger, such as environmental disasters, invasions, outbreaks, and other problems that encourage characters to work through, or temporarily set aside, their differences for a greater good.

    These kinds of external forces can act as pressure valves to release the sometimes exhausting tension that comes from constant competition and struggle between characters.

    Dark or gritty settings can be especially taxing for many players, so it’s important to give them the occasional breather or fresh plotline to focus on.

    Building a culture of trust and inclusiveness

    Once the adjustable levers are at levels you’re happy with, what else can you do? You probably don’t want to remove the investment, stakes, and conflict entirely, after all.

    Your next step is to find ways to mitigate the negative effects of what remains.

    For example, to break the cycle of distrust, you’ll need to focus on things that RPIs historically are not very good at, such as communication, transparency, and building a healthier and more inclusive player community.

    I recommend reading the interview with Jumpscare first, as she offers some practical tips and concrete examples, such as the consent checklist.

    Some other ideas and suggestions:

    • Identify and remove bad actors swiftly and judiciously, and inform players of the who, what, where, and why. Be as transparent as possible, but avoid putting victims at risk. Bad actors, whether players or staff, will rot your game from the inside out by chasing away good players and poisoning the community. And if you’re a player in a game where bad actors are allowed to go unchecked: save yourself the disappointment and vote with your feet. Don’t continue to invest your time in a game that may never get better.
    • Remove unnecessary obfuscation where it gives established, long-time players (and staffers, and their friends) an advantage over others. For example: secret knowledge, known only by staffers, about which weapons have better dice against certain defenses. Those who play to win will abuse this knowledge, using it to put down newer, less experienced players. It’s a great way to drive newcomers away while promoting the status quo, which can stagnate your game.
    • Reward and acknowledge players who host events and run stories that bring diverse characters together for fun or meaningful roleplay. These players are keeping your game afloat. They clearly love your game enough to spend extra time on it; make sure they feel the love back.
    • Establish clear rules for the kinds of behavior you do NOT want to see in your game. Make sure those rules are visible (not just buried in helpfiles), and post them in your Discord server, too. Refer to them every time an issue arises. Also, have a clear and transparent process for what happens when someone does something they shouldn’t.
    • Provide players with a blueprint for the kind of behavior you DO want to see. Together, these are the rules and guidelines you want your community to live by, so be sure to revisit them once or twice a year, keep them relevant, and ensure that both players AND staff are on the same page about why those things matter. Make sure players feel empowered to speak out when something seems out of alignment.

    I also recommend checking out my guide to improving player retention, as well as Petal’s suggestions for welcoming new players.

    Both articles contain great tips and advice for surrounding your game with a positive community.

    Reexamining priorities: what’s most important

    Last but not least, you might want to take a look at your priorities and how your game is either supporting those priorities or undermining them.

    For example:

    • Does your game promote player health and having fun, or does it facilitate roleplaying at the expense of others’ enjoyment? What’s more important to you?
    • Does your game reward and encourage players who play to win, or does it reward and encourage players who create engaging stories and fun events? Which is the higher priority?

    Depending on what you find, you may decide you need to go back to the drawing board and reiterate through your game’s design and the resources you make available to players.

    At the end of the day, RPIs can provide incredibly rich and exciting roleplay, but they’re only as strong as the communities – the dedicated players and staff – that support them.

    My thanks to K Ran and sintax terror, whose comments in the Evennia Discord prompted me to put my thoughts into words and inspired me to write this post. My thanks to Jumpscare as well; her thoughtful consideration of game design got me thinking about it again.

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    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.”