How to OP Your Thread Effectively



Running and leading a roleplay thread is hard. You have to:

  • Attract active players
  • Help new players enter the thread constructively
  • Regulate contributions
  • Help other players stay up-to-date
  • Facilitate OOC communication
  • Keep the story interesting
And a lot more.

Your exact workload might look a little different, but whatever it looks like, OPing is definitely work and it requires skill.

Luckily, this skill is completely learnable and, better yet, it manifests itself in various ways. There is always room to do things your own way and still succeed. The following is based on my own experiencing OPing threads like A Passion Play, Titanomachy, and Imperial Recrudescence. I’ve developed a ‘way of doing things’, a general framework, based on my successes and failures in those threads, and on what I’ve learned from them. It’s also led me to implement some relatively “unconventional [uncommon] ideas” for NS RP — like dice rolling — that have, so far, brought me interesting and positive results.

There are many ways of doing things. If you prefer your own methods, more power to you. There are many good OPers on NationStates, no doubt.

The OP as a Constitution

In The Calculus of Consent, economist James Buchanan presents a model of democracy in which it faces two fundamental problems:

  • The less people who are included in the decision-making process, the greater the external costs of democracy. That is, for example, the more laws that are imposed without the implicit consent of the governed.
  • The more people who are included in the decision-making process, the more costly that decision is to make because the more difficult it is to gain consensus.

He says there is a way to resolve this paradox: a constitution.

How can we approximate a voluntary government via democratic institutions if, apparently, the more democratic our government is the less effective it becomes? Simple, says, Buchanan. A society realizes the conundrum and come to terms with the fact that they not all may be able to directly participate. It accepts that democracy will not be able to internalize all costs, there are no corner solutions (as an economist would say). There are external costs to all governments, though, and democracies tend to follow authoritarian governments for a reason. Even if not all decisions in a democracy are fully voluntary, in the sense that someone is facing an external cost because of them, the process itself can be agreed on by consensus. The constitution, then, serves to define these meta-rules that guide and constrain a representative democracy. As long as society supports the meta-rules, the constitution, the lower-level democratic decisions are legitimate.

How does this apply to OPing?

In a roleplay, generally speaking, “OP is God.” It’s true that in reality that ‘rule’ can be gray, in that some OPs are more meta-democratic than others. In fact, it’s more complicated than that, because OPs can be more meta-democratic in certain domains and less-so in others. Regardless, the phrase “OP is God” exists and is widely cited for a reason. At the end of the day, if that’s the way the OP wants to swing, that’s the OP’s right.

Not all autocratic OPs result in large externalized costs. For example, if the OP’s decisions all run pretty standard to the rest of the players’ opinions, then there won’t be much cause for disagreement. All the same, some externalized costs are inevitable. The greater the external costs the OP’s decisions, the less other players are going to want to let you OP the threads they invest their time in.

At the same time, there’s a reason why it’s traditional for there to be an OP — to lower decision-making costs. A single OP is often a more effective, and a faster, arbitration system than a democracy.

Neither are there corner solutions. No system of arbitration is going to be perfect.

Are all roleplays therefore condemned to disputes?

Not if there is a constitution.

A constitution, a framework of meta-rules that constrain and guide the OP, can help to distribute the externalized costs of OPing in a way that is agreed to by consensus. That is why D&D has core rulebooks, for example. That way the OP can’t invent random damage for weapons, or punish some players in favor of others by manipulating these weapon stats. On NS, we don’t even have this core rulebooks. We have no idea how much damage our tanks do, except the values that we assign to them ourselves. That’s why so many players opted for “hard MT” after “NS MT” went haywire.

During the height of “NS MT”, disparate and opposed OOC objectives reduced the incentive for consensus on even as basic as issues as weapon damage. These differences in OOC visions were not resolved in a meaningful sense in large part because the fundamental rule of voluntary association was not observed. It was common to bully players in OOC conversations into accepting narrative decisions, and it made the victims unhappy and more likely to revolt. Bad blood emerged in other ways, including between leaders of different communities, sacrificing communication and collaboration. A manifestation of this bad blood was the sequence of permabans suffered by many well-known and widely respected players; players who let a situation get out of control and paid the ultimate price for it. A revolt did finally happen. “Hard MT” represents some of the fruits of that revolt. The fracturing of II and the creation of closed worlds, even among RPers who had previously operated in an open world environment, is another result of that revolt. It was a widespread campaign of disassociation caused by a situation that was allowed to blow-up, rather than handled in a constructive way from the get-go.

OPers can create their own meta-(core) rules and that way give players expectations as to the standards that are being followed, so they can trust in the safety of the time and labor they’re going to invest in your thread. This helps address the issues that cause revolts, retcons, and other OOC issues that can completely derail your thread and even hurt the roleplaying community as a whole.

How exactly are these constitution voluntary? It comes back to voluntary association.

Again, there are many, many philosophies and approaches. A group of players could agree to a set of meta-rules, and in fact many communities do this. There are regions that have set up institutions that legislate these roleplaying meta-rules into a living constitutional document. There are players who do it on a more limited, even thread-by-thread scope. There’s nothing wrong with any of the positions along the spectrum, it’s subjective and a function of your goals as an RPer and writer. I am very often authoritarian on some issues, less so on others.

As long as there are meta-rules, no matter who decided them, all active, relevant players implicitly support them.

How can this be?

In 1956, economist Charles Tiebout published “A Pure Theory of Local Expenditures,” and in it he developed a model of competition and change between governments. Suppose there are Governments A and B, the externalized costs of A being greater than those of B. If there is freedom of movement, people under Government A will vote with their feet and migrate to Government B, therefore weakening Government A’s tax revenues and forcing them to adjust policy to attract more citizens to increase tax revenues.

NationStates roleplay is built on the principle of voluntary association.

As long as there is voluntary association, any meta-rule framework is legitimate. The question simply is which meta-rule framework is most likely to attract other players. The OP is constrained by their inability to force participants to accept their decisions. These participants can simply leave if they don’t like it.

Your goal as OP should be to find a set of meta-rules that fulfills your goals as a writer in a way that is agreeable to people. Enough people, at least, that you can fulfill your goals as a cooperative storyteller (even if you are “competing,” you are cooperating at a higher-level sense — there are meta-rules). How do you find the right balance? Trial and error, you must do it through experience.

By the way, more often than not, meta-rules will be informal. In Law, Legislation, and Liberty, economist Friedrich Hayek wrote that formal rules and laws always follow only when the informal rule is understood well enough to formalize. Meaning, most of the rules and laws we follow were at some point already in place, just in a less formal way. It’s the same principle behind, for example, language. Most of us learn the rules of our language informally, not formally. This is shown by the number of English-speakers who can speak and write, but don’t know the formal rules of grammar.

How Dice Fit In
In the lower-level decision-making process, I often prefer the more competitive approach. Every roleplay, of course, is different.

Titanomachy is less competitive because we preferred to focus on different elements of the war without having to worry about the military aspect. Scandinvans could write on his world, introduce it to a wider audience, and talk about the socio-political transformation of his society and government as a result of the invasion. I wanted to focus more on the effects of the war on my own soldiers and how they coped with it, and the effects of the war on the society of my world. It was simply a question of focus. As a consequence, the meta-rules are more strict against relatively competitive roleplayers who don’t agree to the vision behind the meta-rules.

By way of comparison, The Thin Blade is more competitive, with more focus on the combat and the outcomes at each individual step of the battle. I decided to experiment with a very, very primitive dice system. There are no damage stats or anything like that, so I consolidated it to one roll per decision. I then discussed with Potthan the different possible outcomes and we agreed to a general distribution of probability.

For example, a soldier fires at an enemy, the bullet(s) can either miss (30%), hit and kill (20%), hit and critically maim (20%), or hit and lightly wound (30%). The numbers are completely random, it’s just an example.

We decide on an appropriate dice. D10 is nice because the fractions are easy. Different probabilities will require different dice (you can’t do 33% with a d10, you’d need a d12). Let’s go with a d10 for this example. Now we match our probability distribution to specific ranges of dice roll outcomes. 1-3 for example can be a miss, 4-5 hit and kill, 6-7 maim, and 8-10 lightly wound. You roll and wherever it lands is what happens. You can even mix it up and give the other players some power over the roll. For example, you could ask them “high or low,” where high corresponds to the above ranges and low corresponds to 10-8, 7-6, 5-4, and 3-1 respectively.

I’m sure there are other ways to do this. Better ways, even.

Regardless, what I found is that there was an incredibly refreshing increase in randomness, challenge, and surprise. It helped keep the story interesting. In the first encounter, I rolled whether the first vehicle of my convoy sets up an IED. It doesn’t. But neither does anybody notice any possible hint of it. I roll for the second vehicle and it’s hit. It starts a battle that I never planned on fighting, totally changing the trajectory of the RP right at the very start. It was a very cool experience and one that has persuaded me to try and use this method in other threads.

Dealing With Meta-Rule Breakers

Some people aren’t going to get it. Sometimes people are going to be angry with a decision and they might deal with it in the wrong way.

I must again add the caveat that there are different approaches.

I have always found more success in severing the problem quickly. There’s a tipping point between a healthy debate and an argument with little chance of a positive outcome. That point is typically where the debate is at an impassé because the OP, or the other player, won’t budge. You start seeing things like quote trees, as players write line-by-line rebuttals. An RP might be able to survive this, but at some point the OP needs to make a judgment call because these types of arguments can end up derailing the entire thread and discredit both sides. It’s the point where there’s a risk of bad blood.

For the sake of personal health, I am an advocate of avoiding these types of situations entirely, so I endeavor to end them as quickly as possible. It’s not about fairness, it’s about our emotional wellbeing. Sometimes I do this less successfully than others, but the process should approach a standard.

This includes disputes against an OP.

If you find yourself to be unhappy in an RP I firmly believe that you are under no obligation to continue it or to accept any consequences to your canon. I agree that it can suck fo the other parties involved. I myself would dislike it, but we all dislike it when things don’t work out. Ultimately, a player’s canon belongs to the player. If that person’s decisions make you unhappy, I recommend not associating with the player or associating on a more limited scale. It’s not because this is a fair or ethical system, it’s because it’s better for your mental health. A game shouldn’t make you feel mad, so if elements of it do then cut them out.

It’s the same principle that guides many RPers attitude toward gameplay (GP) ), because GP’s war system can lead to outcomes that RPers dislike (their region being invaded and overtaken, the RMB tagged and members booted — all externalized costs under a meta-rule framework that they don’t consent to). This isn’t meant as a judgment on GP, which I personally enjoy quite a bit, just an explanation for a common behavioral pattern. It’s why regional passwords exist, to allow some communities to completely disassociate themselves from others except those of their own choosing.

When I say “sever” the problem, I say it as a rule of thumb.

Everything in life is obviously within the gray. Very, very few things, if anything, are black and white. There’s virtue in flexibility.

Regardless, I rather have only a little sour rather than a whole lot of sour.

As a side note, I absolutely oppose all forms of bullying. It doesn’t matter if the reasons for it are good, bad, or neither. Players ought to respect each other, and if you lose that respect for someone the best thing to do is disengage. If someone isn’t RPing to your liking and they aren’t receptive to constructive criticism, and you simply can’t operate under these conditions, the last thing you should do is gather up your clique and cajole the target player into a favorable decision. Just set your terms and, if they’re not met, disengage.

Facilitating OOC Communication

I’ve found that staying in communication is vital for the success of my RPs. By doing so, I make sure everyone is on the same page, there are no unwanted surprises, and that everyone feels good about the RP. I also communicate the meta-rule framework, sometimes aggressively, to make sure all players know to operate under it. Finally, I can help players who are struggling, even players who are unhappy, and find agreeable compromises in the decision-making.

For me, communication must go both ways. The player must show interest in knowing the meta-rules, which in my case includes an interest in the world and in learning the world’s “public knowledge.” It’s a sign of respect, and maturity as a roleplayer, when I am approached with questions on the world that defines my roleplays because it shows that the player is genuinely interested in contributing to it versus disrupting it. This action oftentimes is what makes the difference in taking part in my threads and not. Likewise, it should be expected of me to do the same when I am not the OP, and generally-speaking I do exactly that. In Morrdh’s The Frontier I put in a lot of effort asking him questions to learn about the world and how my characters should operate in it, because ultimately I am contributing to his canon. Not shaping it, not determining it, just contributing to it, and it’s his decision what effects those contributions have.

This is true no matter where on the competitive-cooperative spectrum the thread is at.

Anyway, let’s focus on the types of communication an OP should have with involved players.

I put a lot of emphasis on making sure players are happy. This doesn’t mean I do whatever it takes to make them happy, only that I know their status and we can resolve issues before they blow up — these resolutions include “this RP is not right for you.” But they also may include compromises that can improve the RP. For example, in Titanomachy I put a lot of effort into working with Scand’s OOC goals for his canon as a writer and worldbuilder. My goal isn’t to disrupt his plans, just to contribute to them. The same is true the other way around. Scand and I, despite RPing a war and being IC enemies, get along very well OOCly. Communication is the largest part of positive rapport because it allows us to be constantly aware of what the other player is feeling.

As OP, I also tend to act like the coach of a team. Communication between players is important too and not always there. I find ways of fomenting it, including creating common chat channels or even acting as a medium between them. Through these methods I’ve managed, sometimes resolving, sometimes not, conflicts between players who believe themselves to be diametrically opposed OOCly. Communication is the artery of resolution, so if players in an RP aren’t communicating then the OP should have ways of relieving the situation. An OP should be a communication evangelist. It’s why I can be aggressive with communicating the meta-rules, which mine include stipulations on willingness to communicate.

Coaching goes beyond communication of problems. As human beings with different goals and means, we are experts in different things. Not all of us know about military history, tactics, strategy, and armaments. Not all of us know about economics, politics, or whatever it may be that you are an expert in. Some players use this knowledge disparity as a way of gaining an advantage. I’m not here to label any approach as “wrong.” However, I am partisan to the idea that collaborative writing should be used as an opportunity to help others in areas where they are weaker. Military walkovers happen in real-life, and they happen on NS, but they shouldn’t happen because of a knowledge disparity. Military walkovers should have a purpose in the narrative. In A Wolf in the Jungle, when UWO invaded North Panooly, I helped him exploit weaknesses in my IC strategy and tactics, and I even set up an encirclement of one of my armored brigades — it helped build a more interesting, multi-dimensional narrative.

Finally, to help guide players in their IC decisions, I put a lot of effort in educating them on the status of the RP and the world around it. This links back to my previous comment on requiring other players to ask me questions, but beneath the understanding that it’s a two-way street and that much of the onus for education is on me. To some extent, this particular element of my philosophy is based on my own personal OCD. I am a very detail-oriented person and players who want to participate in my threads need to accept that, and we can build a meta-rule framework that makes this trait of mine bearable. Part of this is my own evangelism when it comes to keeping everybody on the same page.

Ultimately, all of this works to keep individual contributions to the roleplay constructive.

Whatever the merits and demerits of my approach, I’ve found that players who participate in my threads tend to come back to future threads I OP. That must mean that I’m doing something right, and I am convinced that my approach to communication is the most important element in my OPing framework.

A Great Leader is a Great Follower

We all have our unique twists to our approaches. This individual-by-individual change is good for us because it’s the wellspring of new ideas, change, and evolution. To get new ideas, you should work beneath those who can give them to you and that will always be other OPs.

Besides, giving back and being a good roleplayer, not just a good OPer, will help build better relationships with other players. You will get to know their canon and involve yourselves in new ways, ways that could possibly lead to a future flowering of mutual narratives. You’ll also get a better feel for how they operate and what kind of meta-rule framework they prefer, helping you build more agreeable frameworks for your own roleplays. By extension, you’ll also learn how to better communicate and how to read between the lines, providing better service as an OP.

Ultimately, being a good OP is more about your process than your decisions at any moment in time. We all make mistakes, we all do stupid things, we all do great things. I have also seen OPs with totally opposed styles to mine do very well in that role. What matters is that we pursue experience, learn from experience, and implement changes to always improve ourselves. At the end of the day, my advice is to do what feels right, do you, and follow your path of progress. I simply wanted to give you insight on my experiences in hope that it would prove somehow useful.


TNP Nation
Thanks for this, Mac. It's a very thorough piece and something that I think we will use as a reference for new RPers.

Out of curiosity have you perused any of our threads yet to see what the OP is like? I'd be curious to know what your thoughts are on how far we are from the goal posts at this point.


Sorry for the late response!

I probably miss out on 95% of the OOC backroom discussions for your guys' RPs, which is where most of the "magic" happens (at least, in my experience -- I might be wrong about yours'). However, reading the RPs that I have on this forums, they tend to be active and hold traction so something right you guys must be doing.

There are a few that didn't get much activity. I saw one that had two posts, from the OP, and it was a closed thread. Like I said, I don't know the backroom stuff and I don't know the OP's intentions, but in that kind of situation if the OP isn't recruiting in the backend then the closed-thread policy without more explicit instructions on how to join may have contributed to a lack of activity.

Communication does really come down almost entirely to the OP.