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Email Simming (Advanced)

Thoughts on Some Guidelines for Interactive Storytelling by Email (and for simming generally)

September 4, 1995

Interactive storytelling by email is like a collaborative novel... but not quite. When collaborating with others on a novel, everyone confers and agrees upon the overall characters, content and resolution of the tale. Where we differ from these novelists as a storytelling group is in two specific ways. First, the story which we're writing is open-ended. It's full of surprises because we don't know what's around the next bend. It may never have a conclusion as more threads are added, others dropped, and the players come and go over time. Second, within each given scenario about which we are certain, we don't collaborate in the normal sense. We derive particular enjoyment from seeing what the other player will come up with next.

Both of these deviations from a collaborative novel involve the element of surprise - but a central theme of this set of guidelines is that too much surprise - i.e. too little cooperation - can be a bad thing. I'll try to specify what's good, what's bad, and why they're so-rated within the interactive storytelling genre as performed through email. Of course, this set of guidelines isn't intended as the be-all and end-all. Rather, it should be a basis for further discussion, improvement and amplification. Most of all, it's a reminder for me when I write! LOL.

1) Always stay abreast of what others have written before posting an entry, and make sure that you understand the scenario.

Although each player has individual characters with individual motivations, the player is also part of a storytelling "team." The player relies upon others to give her/him a storytelling framework with life and dimension. The player's characters must respond to conditions within that framework in order for everyone to feel that a level of consistency or reality exists. If player A has managed to have their character escape from a dangerous situation in some heroic or clever fashion, after a perhaps lengthy, laborious and time-consuming process, they don't want to sign on later and read that player B has arrived from nowhere, wiped out the antagonists, and saved player A! Likewise, player A doesn't want to find that player B has somehow rewritten motivations or responses for player A's character.

By the way, it may be a good idea, after having written your entry, to check email one more time and make sure that there haven't been changes in the storyline while you were writing - changes that will require an update before mailing.

2) Leave openings for other players.

The example in (1) had one player's character saving another's. Of course, there are often times when the first player wants to be saved or to have her/his story given fuller dimension by the special involvement of another. Player A, in such a case, has left at least one opening which player B can take advantage of. Good collaboration leaves plenty of holes for others to fill if they so choose. That's what makes it interactive. Cutting large swaths of territory for yourself while allowing little for others is bad.

Leaving openings can also mean giving other players a chance to react to your situations before advancing the story even further. Patience is a virtue when part of a storytelling group.

3) Don't interfere where you aren't wanted.

If another player is dealing with a certain situation and hasn't left a clear opening for you, then good manners dictates that you either wait for a clear signal, approach cautiously, and/or involve yourself in a non-invasive way.

*** Illustration: Dr. Kris Lyn was once on Orcane V, ministering to the needs of the Orcanians. This was a thread she developed on her own and had full rights to until she allowed another player to become involved. The Starfleet vessel which took her there, the "Chameleon" commanded by Captain Raymond Bishop, had disappeared in a temporal vortex. The disappearance caught the attention of Angel Swan, who arrived at Orcane V with Ael t'Wily and Wesley (Dread Pirate) Roberts. While there, they investigated the phenomenon and were ready to provide Kris with any assistance she asked for. Angel also realized that Kris' presence might attract StarWulff and his Wolverines, whom she sees as a potential threat to the Orcanians and a challenge to her sense of obligation to the principle formalized as the Prime Directive. The result is interesting new developments while still respecting and not intruding upon another player.

4) Avoid super-status.

Nothing kills a story like super powers. In a futuristic setting like ours, three centuries from the present day, all kinds of wonderful technologies and bioengineered or exotic life forms can be imagined. But the challenge of the story, and the source of drama, lies in weaknesses. For characters, add errors of judgment, personality flaws, the Achilles heel that makes them vulnerable. For technologies, don't go overboard. Sure you need a spaceship, and there are some common and accepted capabilities for spacecraft within the framework of the game... but don't use technology or character attributes to such excess that it gives unfair advantage, suffocates the story, stifles other characters and excludes dramatic possibilities. Challenge yourself to get out of the most difficult situations with the least gadgetry and with the greatest mortal limitations. Your readers will be more sympathetic and may yawn less at your entries. ;)

Related to this is the "miraculous accident" of being in a certain place at a certain time when, in fact, the likelihood of being so fortunate is small indeed. It happens, but, to be believed and beloved, avoid it if possible. Instead, contrive a plausible path to the desired destination. The story, after all, is in the journey; and the skill of storytelling is in making your journeys entertaining.

Something that's always been an issue to me has been courtesy to Star Trek itself - the recognized, *official* Star Trek. You might know that we have a few people playing official Star Trek characters! Although playing an official Star Trek character shows a clear lack of integrity and little respect for the rest of us, I have no serious problem with it if three things are strictly observed: (1) the player is true to the history and personality of the character, (2) the character is not abusive to others and (3) the character is not abused. I have more to say about all of these, naturally.:D

[1] Although it's very difficult to catch the essence of an "official Star Trek character" (I call them "Category I Supercharacters" just to sound technical :D), it can be done. Nonetheless, every time that character is used the possibility of abuse exists and I always shy away from them. I don't trust them. I won't give the person that much influence over my character and I won't set an example of respect which others might emulate.

[2] An official Star Trek character has inordinate influence and mustn't use that un-earned standing (shamelessly unearned, I might add!) to abuse other players. If you want to abuse someone, do it fairly. :D

[3] The possibility also exists that an official character will be made a part of situations which change the storyline or nature of the original character. This is OUT OF BOUNDS and the surest way to have Angel Swan seething! How dare *anyone* other than official Star Trek take such liberties with one of the icons of our little group? You might have noticed that my character has, on several occasions, interacted with official Star Trek characters - but I always leave them as I found them, I never change them or give them motivations or reactions which haven't already been expressed officially in the official media. Conceivably, I could kill Picard (Darn! They already got Kirk!) in one of my stories - but by the end of the story I'd better have a good reason why he's alive again and has absolutely no memory of having been killed by me - with no puzzling inconsistencies which affect his storyline, either! Never commit any action with an official character which would change that character.

5) Make your characters special.

"Special" is a tricky word. As stated in (4), you want to avoid super-status. But a character also has to be interesting - someone who engages the attention of the reader.

*** Illustrating both (4) and (5), Angel Swan was raised by immortals with strange powers - the Watchers. But she's mortal, she doesn't understand them, and although she was trained and sent into humanoid space to observe for them, she has no grasp of what they ultimately want from her or from the knowledge she might gain. Sometimes we see the technology of the Watchers come into play, but only when necessary and to a minimal extent. Angel died once and was brought back to life by Watcher technology. She was also zipped out of a lethal situation by that technology. But both cases were plausibly presented and weren't used to the disadvantage of any other character. It might be that she's not capable of staying dead - but she can't assume that. And Angel knows next-to-nothing about how to use the Watcher technology, (not to mention how it might function). Because she was isolated from humanoids for the first 20 years of her life, she has a lot of learning to do for her own sake. Her greatest assets are her intelligence, charisma and grit. She's strong-willed and opinionated. Yet she'll make many mistakes and attempt to do things that any sensible person growing up in the society of others would avoid. Although having occasional insights into the motivations of others, her understanding of humanoid nature and social taboos can be glaringly naive at times. Stemming from her insecurity is a tendency to be judgmental, which can both infuriate others and propel her into situations "where angels dare to tread." :D All of these factors - mortality, the struggle to understand and deal effectively with others, fitting in, and applying her unique psychological makeup to challenges of other sorts - make her an engaging character - at least for her creator. ;) (And this is the best psychological profile of the character you're gonna get, so I hope you paid attention. ::grin::)

6) Be liberal with your character exposition.

This is close to a subtopic of (5). We want to know what's going on in the character's life. We want depth and motivation. Naturally, you don't want to tell all - keep the reader wondering about the subtleties, and where the story will go. But a character who doesn't share their personality - particularly their weaknesses - with the reader can't be identified with.

7) Don't take advantage of another player's character exposition.

Naturally, as a reader you may know things that your character couldn't possibly know. Keep the two separate and avoid employing exceptional means to have your character learn something they shouldn't or to empower the character in some way detrimental to the group. It's unfair to give your character the advantage of insights they might not otherwise have, but for talking with their "god" (you). Doing so could amount to super-status. Abuses of this sort can and *should* be met by rejection from the other players.

8) Avoid Undue Complexity

This can be loosely stated as "If someone asks for the time, don't explain how to build a watch." ;) If they want a technical discussion, they can turn to a textbook. If they want to learn a second language, there are separate options for that too. We deal, ultimately, in tales of human beings. The setting is mean to enhance the humanity and not to serve as a distraction from it.

9) Write clearly and legibly.

Separate your paragraphs. Don't run ideas together. Stay on a event long enough to make it comprehensible. Use a spell-checker. Use a thesaurus (carefully) to add variety to your writing without losing precisely what you mean to convey. Borrow methods from others. Look at how your favorite writers present their stories and try to emulate their style. Don't rush. And, most important, have a clear idea of your objective within the entry and focus on achieving it.

10) Don't be uncertain.

If you have questions, or are uncertain about what another player's actions mean, ask someone. Nobody's got a master plan for the email sim (and nobody should be trying to guide events outside of their own character and territory anyway), but questions of conduct with relation to others are appropriate.

11) Respect.

This is what the other ten guidelines boil down to - respect for other players, acknowledgement of their characters and, succinctly, respect for the game. Cooperation is a must! The story takes precedence. Nurture it, feed it, protect it. If your ultimate concern is with the welfare of the group project, then you can't go far wrong.

~ By: Angel Swan

We thank Angel Swan for the use of this simulation guide.