Shattered MU: beyond monsters and magic

ko-fi Written by Andruid
The Shattered MU runic symbol on a textured background.
The Shattered MU runic symbol on a textured background.

Tat, creator of Shattered MU, talks about the importance of community and shares her guidelines for game design.

Table of Contents

    Welcome back! Today’s post has been several weeks in the making. It’s an interview with Tat, creator of Shattered MU, a roleplaying game set in a post-apocalyptic world where magic is real – and comes with real consequences.

    Tat has been creating and running MUSH-style games for many years. In that time, she’s amassed a ton of experience, some of which she shares here along with nuggets of hard-earned wisdom and thoughtful advice.

    The game we’ll be talking about today, Shattered, runs on the AresMUSH platform.

    If you haven’t read the interview about AresMUSH, you might want to check it out first, as it provides some context for this post, especially in the discussions about Shattered’s magic system.

    Either way, I hope you enjoy today’s interview as much as I did!

    Meet Tat, former librarian and creator of Shattered MU*

    Quote by Tat, pulled from the body of the post.

    Tat lives in Ohio and spent 15 years as an academic librarian before she changed careers, a shift that was only possible due to her hobby of designing and running detailed games.

    “I learned to code in Ruby and Ember.js because I really wanted to run a game using FS3 (Faraday’s Simple Skills System), but also with magic, and I wanted to automate some stuff,” she told me.

    “‘Some stuff’ became ‘pretty much everything’ and those early attempts turned into Spirit Lake.”

    Spirit Lake was Tat’s first game on the AresMUSH platform, and it ran for just over three years before wrapping up.

    “Two years ago, while I was working on Shattered, I transitioned into a full-time software engineer job using the code I’d written for Spirit Lake as my resume,” said Tat.

    Outside of Shattered and work, she spends most of her time with her family, reading fantasy/sci-fi, or playing video games like Rimworld

    As for how she got into the MU* genre in the first place?

    “The internet came to my house when I was 17. It took me about 3 months to find forum RP based on ‘The Pretender’, my favorite show at the time,” she said.

    “I got curious about other places you could play pretend with other people, searched for Pern roleplay, made a character on Harper’s Tale, and never looked back.”

    In the years since then, she’s helped build and run 5 games and has met many of her best and longest friends on MU*s.

    “I have always enjoyed the community and meeting new people through play, and I love the creative outlet,” said Tat.

    “There’s nothing quite like the rush of a really great improv session where everyone in the scene is full of ‘yes, and’ and you have no idea where it’s going to end up.”

    Tat’s roles and priorities on Shattered

    Quote by Tat, pulled from the body of the post.

    “Technically, my title on Shattered is ‘admin’. That means that the buck stops with me. I handle player problems, most code, and head up ST and System Staff,” she said.

    If you look at Shattered’s Admins page, you’ll notice it has a fairly large staff for a game of its size. It includes not only storytellers but staff to handle applications and system staff, too.

    “I’m very team-oriented and cannot run a game without other people on board,” Tat explained.

    While she admitted that this is partly for practical reasons – her time is more limited than it used to be – the main reason is that she loves having a community of people with good ideas, feedback, and input.

    “I feel strongly that having ways for lots of people to have some ‘ownership’ over the game – whether they’re helping tell stories, approve apps, or make system tweaks – leads to a better game and a more invested community,” she said.

    “A diversity of voices is important to me, and having them has absolutely led me in directions I would never have considered alone.”

    For Tat, her most important job as admin is to build, encourage, steer, and protect that community. Not just the community of staff but the community of the game:

    You cannot tell good stories without a good community. You can have the best system in the world, and the best GMs, but if your playerbase doesn’t trust each other and like each other at least a little, it’ll fall flat.”

    Ultimately, Tat’s emphasis on teamwork and community has led to a remarkably strong culture of player-run scenes and events.

    “Folks often tell me it’s their first time running something, but then they come back for it again and again. Players do everything from run multi-week plots to one-shot bounties or social scenes with story impact, and it’s really, really fun to be able to tie the stuff players are doing into the larger overarching story.”

    Shattered: much more than monsters and magic

    Shattered's homepage and art, which was designed by Blu.

    It was hard to come up with a heading for this section because Shattered combines so many familiar themes in new and intriguing ways.

    Tat is the first to admit that her game is hard to sum up in a sentence, but she does try.

    “I describe it to friends as a mash-up of Pern, Battlestar Galactica, and Dragon Age,” she said.

    “It has the giant-flying-telepathic-best-buddy aspect of Pern and the aerial dogfights and squad camaraderie of BSG.

    From Dragon Age, we borrowed the drama that comes from magic that harms as much as it hurts, the duty to protect those who don’t trust you, and the terrifying sacrifice you make for all of this at the end of your life, when your mind literally Shatters in response to all those years of magic.”

    So it’s got monsters, sure, and magic – but it’s definitely not your typical fantasy game.

    Names and descriptions of 6 types of mythics, including Dragon, Griffin, and Pegasus.
    Mythics in Shattered. The artwork was created and contributed by players @kez and @zz.

    Here’s the teaser from the game’s homepage:

    Seventy years ago, the barrier between our world and theirs shattered. Monsters and magic ravaged humanity, tearing it apart.

    But humanity will not go easily.

    Now, a thriving settlement of thousands has built a home in the valley of British Columbia, protected by the towering mountains and the Wardens who watch their passes. Mages who have bound themselves to the very monsters who seek to destroy us, the Wardens have vowed to use their magic and their bond to keep humanity safe – even if it means their own minds may shatter in the process.

    And from the game’s About Us page (emphasis mine):

    Shattered is a game that explores what it means to have massive power in a world that needs you, but does not want you. It touches on questions of identity, choice, and what it means to be person or monster.

    Characters are Wardens, mages who are irrevocably bound to one of the monsters who nearly destroyed the world fifty years ago. The Wardens have vowed to protect a hard-won bit of fertile farmland … called the Cradle.

    The Cradle needs the Wardens, but it does not trust them or the monsters they are bonded to.

    Actually, I highly recommend reading the entire About Us page, especially if you’re thinking about running your own game. It’s one of the best About Us pages I’ve seen for a MU* in recent years.

    Shattered clearly knows what it is and what it expects from players.

    Quote by Tat, pulled from the body of the post.

    An in-depth magic system in a MUSH?!

    In addition to the theme, something that sets Shattered apart from other AresMUSH games is its in-depth magic system.

    Shattered's tab-style spell list, showing spells "Breathless" and "Commune with Local Spirit."
    Spells on Shattered. Structured magic systems are fairly common among MUDs, which can have hundreds of uniquely named spells and spell effects, but they’re relatively rare in MUSHes.

    While AresMUSH does have some light structure in place for dice rolls and combat, Tat had to iterate on her own magic system for Shattered.

    One challenge was that it had to fit into the AresMUSH FS3 combat system, which was originally designed for modern warfare.

    Then, she needed to build in the depth and breadth necessary to enable players to make real choices about how their characters specialize and make use of their power.

    “Shattered’s magic system introduces a ton of new concepts that go beyond magical attacks and healing. You can buff allies and debuff enemies, apply magical effects to your weapons, stun enemies for multiple rounds, shield allies from attack, and more,” she explained.

    Spell casting and effects including Wind Wall and Flesh Wound.
    Spells and spell effects during a scene in Shattered. Note how some are offensive and others are defensive. Note, also, how Sam is starting to suffer from spell fatigue.

    “You also have to keep an eye on your mana, which depletes with every cast and causes physical effects (negative mods, in combat) the more exhausted you get. But no worries – allies can boost that, too. And if you don’t have any around, potions can do a lesser version of the same thing.”

    Not surprisingly, Tat gets a lot of compliments on the magic system, but for her, the real joy comes from seeing how players engage with it:

    “It’s really neat to see players and characters gravitate toward different options, and to sometimes see that shift in play. A cautious character might learn to be more aggressive over time, for example, and start to learn more offensive spells, or a reckless character might have a scary run-in and realize they need to learn some defensive spells or heals,” she said.

    To read some actual roleplay with plenty of magic in action, check out this scene suggested by Tat.

    Inspiration and motivation for Shattered

    Quote by Tat, pulled from the body of the post.

    Tat knew even before Spirit Lake closed that she wanted to run another game.

    “I really enjoy it most of the time, and Spirit Lake closed not because I was tired, but because the story really felt like it’d come to a good closing point,” she said.

    But Shattered didn’t come together right away.

    “It took me many months of throwing lots of random ideas at some friends to find something that really felt like it stuck.

    I really wanted to re-use the magic system I’d spent four years building, so that limited me somewhat. I considered adapting it to something sci-fi (what’s that quote about sufficiently advanced technology and magic?), but nothing felt quite right.”

    She considered a Battlestar Galactica game, a Dragon Age game, and several other options.

    “We ended up with an original theme partly because a friend told me they absolutely needed texting in their game. I kind of agreed, so I massaged a lot of ideas together until something that felt possible fell out.”

    But a game isn’t just a collection of fun ideas. It only comes together with hard work and effort. And for Tat, it’s the people and community that ultimately keep her going:

    “I’m motivated by a lot of things – the desire to tell stories, the desire to create, the desire to see people enjoy the stuff I’ve built – but I think the biggest one is that when I’m not in a M* community, I miss the people.

    Once we started building the Shattered world, my build team (shout out to @yeti, @cidward, @thesuntsar, @ninaws, @zzbb, and @blu) kept me motivated. The energy when lots of people get excited about the same thing is a huge part of what makes this hobby amazing.”

    You can find some of Tat’s contributed code (such her compliments system and text messaging system) on the AresCentral website, under Plugins.

    Lessons learned over the years

    Quote by Tat pulled from the body of the post.

    Tat shared some of her lessons learned, not just from Shattered and Spirit Lake, but from the decades she’s been creating and contributing to text-based games.

    If you’re thinking about building your own MU*, her stories and advice may be helpful to you during your journey.

    Granted, depending on the type of MU you want to run, you may want to do things a little differently, but in my view, she offers a good starting point for thinking critically about game design (and management).

    You don’t have to follow all of Tat’s rules; the important part is understanding the potential effects of your design decisions on the game and its players.

    Let’s dive in:

    Guidelines for game-building

    Tat provided a short list of rules that she follows when building a new game. These are:

    1. The game needs to be limited to one area and have something that throws characters together.
    2. All characters must be able to come up with a reason to interact with each other even when they don’t like each other or are fighting.
    3. It should be clear what characters do in their day-to-day, on and off screen
    4. It should be easy for all characters to take part in any plot. 

    She admitted that while these rules can seem really limiting at first, they’re actually quite freeing.

    And I get it. Limiting the game to one area might seem like a deal-breaker, but it makes a lot of sense for some games.

    Players always want a larger scope: more territories, more planets, a bigger universe, more roles. But time and time again, I’ve seen how that just doesn’t work out, especially on smaller games. Either the playerbase is spread too thin, or the game loses its focus.

    “For me, it means I mostly run single-faction games where the characters share a purpose or even a job,” said Tat. “Because I really prefer to run and play on smaller games, it makes it much easier to get everyone involved and to enable RP in the downtime between plots.”

    For example, Shattered has a rich lore, and there are dozens of character types that would be interesting to play, but all characters are Wardens.

    “That’s where we’re focusing our plot and story, and the narrow scope allows Storytellers to dig deeper and be richer in what we flesh out,” she explained.

    Dealing with problem behavior

    “Another big lesson that I’ve learned over the years is to address problem behavior much earlier in its lifecycle, and to accept that not every game fits every player,” said Tat.

    “My definition of ‘problem behavior’ has broadened considerably. Things like passive-aggressive comments on channel, snide meta in poses, constant complaints, etc. can kill a game’s vibe as fast as more dramatically manipulative behavior.”

    Tat went on to explain:

    “Dealing with these things doesn’t always mean showing a player a door, but it does mean setting clear boundaries – and setting those boundaries with the smaller unpleasant things sends a clear message about the larger unpleasant things, which makes them less likely to appear.

    It also builds a measure of trust with your players, which is important, because a lot of this stuff happens behind closed doors or in private, and I’m reliant on their trust and reports.”

    Fortunately, if you’re running an AresMUSH game, it’s really easy to report conversations and RP, and in fact, Tat encourages players to report even borderline behavior.

    “Much of it never results in anything but going into a file. But sometimes that file gets big enough that there’s a clear pattern, and I work really hard to address those patterns clearly when it feels like it’s risen to a point that it’s a detriment to the game culture,” she said.

    Designing a magic system

    Tat admitted that she learned a lot about game design while crafting the magic system on Spirit Lake. 

    “One major lesson that I did not expect is that some spells that were really, really fun in some circumstances turned into story-killers in others,” she said.

    For example, spells that could solve common GMing challenges, like traveling great distances or communicating with lost team members, were great when discovered for the first time. But after that, they continued to be part of the game and made it hard to create tension in the story.

    “We’re much more careful now about accidentally removing points of conflict, because while the win feels good, it can also really destroy a compelling story.”

    Another problem with magic on Spirit Lake was that older characters had spells with a lot of firepower – and no reason not to use them constantly.

    “Newer characters couldn’t compete,” said Tat. “It made it very difficult to have combat scenes with enemies leveled appropriately for all characters, which violates one of the rules on my list.”

    So on Shattered, she did a few things to address the above problems: 

    • Made a list of magical effects that would not be allowed in the system because they made storytelling and tension difficult. 
    • Narrowed the firepower gap between spells, so the steps up are smaller. 
    • Introduced mana, which gives those powerful spells a cost and forces characters to make real choices about when to use them.

    “We’ve tweaked the numbers since opening, but I think we all feel pretty good about how they’re shaking out, and seeing someone hit severe or total spell fatigue can be really dynamic and fun in combat, almost up there with leaving combat with awful wounds,” said Tat.

    Even now, she and her team are constantly paying attention to how the system is balanced. They run occasional surveys to get player input, as well.

    “The system will probably never be ‘finished’ – it’s always evolving as the game’s needs evolve,” she said.

    Every game is different – you can’t ever take anything for granted. You always have to be willing to adjust, and like the spell system, no game is ever truly ‘finished’ until it closes its doors.”

    What’s next for Tat and Shattered

    Shattered seems to be in full swing, with plenty of exciting content and plot reveals planned for the future.

    “We have a couple of big events we’re working out details on that are heavily inspired by some very favorite Battlestar Galactica episodes, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that one of them is something I have been waiting 20 years to get to do in RP,” said Tat.

    And of course, as someone who deeply appreciates having a community, she didn’t get this far alone:

    “Neither Spirit Lake nor Shattered could exist as they do without Faraday’s tireless assistance as I fumbled my way through code.

    I have had an amazing staff team on both games, all of whom I appreciate greatly. In particular, my ST team (Ammit, Hydra, Selkie, Mothman, and Kappa all at various times) keeps me sane and pointed in the right direction and does a lot of work that many people probably don’t even realize is happening. 

    I also have an amazing playerbase full of people who are eager to run social events and write IC operas and dig into the lore and venture into combat and create wild and wonderful plots for their fellow players.

    As an admin who loves to play their own game, this is super special, because it means I get to play without knowing all the twists and turns sometimes.”

    A great big thank you to Tat for taking the time to tell me about her experiences building games and the important communities that surround them!

    Looking back, her statement that “not every game fits every player” intrigues me. If you’ve kept up with this blog, you’ve probably heard me say “not every player is a good fit for every game.”

    It’s such a slight change in word order, but by placing the emphasis on the game, I think Tat is thinking about and taking responsibility for the game design – how it attracts, affects, and engages players. And I think that’s a good thing, especially when it comes to setting expectations for players and keeping a staff team in alignment.

    If you enjoyed this post, stay tuned – an upcoming interview will feature Blu and her partner Roadspike. You may remember Blu from my interview with the Excelsior team. She not only designed the website for Excelsior but for Shattered and many other games, as well.

    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.”