Plot overload

During a recent playtest I encountered some serious problems with plot overload. At the start of the game I threw too many things at the player group, causing them to become confused, and sucking up far too much time dealing with the chaos. By the end I was trying desperately to draw things back and get the game back under control, but it was pretty much too late and I ran out of time to fix the problem, leading to a damp squib ending.

Point is: it’s easy to assume that the more there is going on, the more enjoyable the game is likely to be. But there’s only so much stuff a group can handle at once. As a GM whether you’re running a planned storyline or a more spontaneous, low-prep game (this was the latter) you need to think about these issues. Figure a group can maybe handle a couple of things at once, in a long-term campaign, but in a one-off or introductory session, you probably don’t even want to make things that complex. One thing at a time is probably enough!

You might be worried about the players having enough to do, and that’s a fair point. Nobody said the problem couldn’t be multi-faceted. But don’t force the players to concentrate on too many threads at once or they’ll lose the plot entirely. At best they’ll be entertained but confused; at worse, you’ll lose their interest altogether.

A Little More Conversation…

What I most want out of role-playing is a really good conversation. A conversation which is meaningful, important and changes something, perhaps the relationship of the characters involved or the perceptions of my character or even the world in some way.

This aspect of gaming (which to me is fundamental) is rarely mentioned in the system books – Apocalypse World gives it more airtime than most, although it only really talks about having rules to regulate conversation, not about how to achieve a good conversation.

But even rarer is a system or piece of GM guidance which expressly supports and nurtures good conversations. Dogs in the Vineyard is arguably a system designed for social interaction/conflicts which should be about having interesting conversations. However I find DiTV ‘s dice mechanics so complicated and dice heavy that it largely sidelines the conversations it is supposed to be supporting.

The idea of mechanics being used to support conversation itself feel controversial to me and I’ll probably come back to it.

What I hadn’t realised is how much this desire to get amazing conversations happening influences my GMing style. It turns out my games are run primarily to encourage and support the interesting conversations between the PCs and NPCs. This manifests in a number of ways:

1. I rarely speed up a conversation to get to the action (in fact often the opposite).

2. I pitch my plots and information dissemination to inspire and sustain conversations.

3. I create NPCs with feelings, emotions and complex motivations, who are capable of sustaining good conversations.

4. I make the time for my NPCs to have serious those one-to-one conversations with the player characters to establish meaningful relationships with them.

5. I prefer to run my sessions one-to-one giving players the feeling they have the luxury of time to just talk.

I had my lightbulb moment in a recent Amber session I ran. The players thought that the focus of the session was the action based rescue of an NPC. The focus of the session for me was the conversations which would naturally occur once the NPC was recovered. I was lucky that this difference in expectation didn’t wreck the game and it could have easily been a disappointment. The actual rescue was quick and easy and took relatively little time. If the players were expecting to enjoy several hours of sneaking around, fighting guards and defeating an end-of-level boss they would have been very disappointed.

I have written many times about the importance of agreed expectations for successful gaming. I had no idea I was consistently breaking my own rules, – bad GM, no cookie.

I was lucky in that my players enjoyed the session regardless (down to my choice of players rather than anything else I expect!) I learned a good lesson though. I’ll be giving much more obvious signposts in future.

Metagaming intelligence

[Due to a cutty pasty error, this post made no sense whatsoever the first time I posted it. Hopefully it makes at least a modicum of sense now, but if not at least you know that’s how I intended it.]

My question for today is, should one attempt to roleplay the intelligence of one’s character? It has been often remarked that when playing a character with a low intelligence score (or whatever the stat is in your system au choix), one finds oneself encountering situations where you, the player, can see a clue/solve a puzzle/make a plan, but (perhaps) the character would not be able to. Some folks say that in this situation you should play dumb.

I’m not so sure. First, it’s relatively unusual for a game to contain a “problem solving” stat. The intellectual stats often include something around memory, academic ability etc. They do sometimes mention “reasoning”. But there are many ways to make an ommelete. Ok, bad analogy, there aren’t that many ways to make an ommelete. Forget the analogy. The point stands though: a character could come up with a brilliant plan because (a) they reasoned it out; (b) they made use of animal cunning/intuition/etc to come up with the plan; (c) they didn’t really know what they were saying and sort of stumbled across the plan; (d) they have some specialist skill which made it appropriate for them to come up with the plan; (e) they were having a moment of uncharacteristic genius… and so on.

Image by ~d-lindzee

Ok, fine. But say your character is in a game where there are stats for animal cunning, intuition and so forth, you don’t have a relevant specialist skill, and you’ve had so many great ideas recently that you’re pushing your “moment of uncharacteristic genius” quota for the year. What then? Well, I still think there’s nothing inherently wrong with saying, out of character, “it would be a really great idea if we did X… my character would never come up with that plan of course”. The other players are then free to decide on the basis of their character’s wonderful stats that they came up with the idea instead. Or if none of you can come up with an excuse to have such a plan in character, then you can all enjoy the delightful piquancy of the moment as you stumble into disaster yet again. Heh.

Some people will say that this is meta-gaming, or that it means you’re a bad roleplayer. Whatever. Unless you’re playing some super-immersive game, we’re all here to have fun, and it’s reasonable to look for excuses to come up with an awesome plan rather than find reasons not to. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like it when people break character at inappropriate moments, moments of tension or high drama, but the rest of the time, screw it.

Of course, the trouble is, while the above makes perfect sense, I’m playing this hardcore immersive roleplayer, so I just have to keep quiet. Sigh.

Designer Diary: When the Dark is Gone – Play Test Alpha

Recently I was lucky to run my new game, When the Dark is Gone, with four of the very finest Role-Players I know.

 

It was a short session but was incredibly good in a number of ways…

– Exceptional Role-Playing from all the Players…check

– Successful Proof of Concept for my two goals….check

– Great feedback which was both ego-boosting and helped clarify the game immensely…check..check…check

 

We got through character creation fairly smoothly although as the Therapist I ensured it took no longer than an hour.  I decided that the purely reflective nature of the Therapist doesn’t extend to the pre-game prepping and so took an active role in suggesting ideas and twists for the problems and relationships of the party.

 

We established some clear out of character ground rules.  Firstly a list of subjects to be avoided (one of the players had a phobia we didn’t want to trigger).  Secondly that if anyone felt the game was too intense they could get up and leave the room at any time – but by stating “I need to take a break” it meant that they were going out of character and did not want anyone to follow them IC.  With these house rules in mind the session began.

 

Very soon I encountered the first major challenge of the Therapist role.

 

Less is more.

 

In traditional games the GM monitors pacing and when awkward silences happen it is their job to fill the gap with noise.  In WTDIG the opposite is true.  The Therapist’s role is to say the minimum necessary to help the players draw out the story.  Sometimes this means allowing awkward silences to continue.  When I hit the first awkward silence I made a decision – I would allow the silence to continue for 10 beats longer than I was comfortable with.  This is when the magic happened.  Firstly awkward silences are quite normal in real therapy sessions.  This lent a sense of realism which helped the immersion aspect.  Secondly by allowing an awkward silence to continue, eventually one of the players couldn’t take it any more and started talking.  By this point the pressure had been increased nicely so that whatever they blurted out was usually more interesting and led to better stories and conversations.

 

Still it was a completely new way of GMing and very difficult. It required me to relearn the norms of GMing for this particular game.  In fact I am going to create a new term to describe this style – it is not GMIng it is GFing – Game Facilitator.

 

The other big difference I noticed was in attempting to end the game.  Unlike most games with WTDIG there is no planned end-of-level boss, no deliberate climatic scene you are moving towards.  The rhythm of WTDIG is totally different and it is likely you will find no obvious end point. Instead of trying to force a conclusion I simply used time.  I had a player needing to leave at midnight and so I wrapped up at 11.50pm.  In Character I announced that the Therapy session was nearly over and could we just take five minutes to go round the room and have everyone tell the group one thing which they learned today which was helpful.

 

This last question was to give everyone a small sense of closure and was, I think, vital.

 

The players enjoyed the short play test and the session was just as emotional and as intense as I hoped.  I felt very invested in their personal stories as the Therapist which was unexpected but awesome.  I got some great feedback which has mostly gone into WTDIG version 2 (already published here) and now have many other play tests being planned to further develop  the game.

 

There was one aspect of the session which was completely unexpected for me – this is easily a prep-less campaign setting.  All the players felt they could have done more sessions and I could see how the sessions would build up on each other to create more tension and more pressure.  Next time I test this game I’ll be doing it as a 6 session campaign…and if I can run an emotional, immersive yet prep-less campaign I’ll be a very happy Admiral.

 

Top tip – mood music during character creation was great (Depeche Mode and Portishead) but I made a point of turning it off when we timed in.  This made the contrast with the awkward silences more apparent and was much better for it!

Choose your own adventurer

A long time ago (for verily I am a long way behind on my podcasts), Happy Jack’s were discussing the idea of creating pregenerated characters for one-offs but providing a list of disadvantages to choose from for each character. You get a pre-genned character but you can give it a bit of customisation. This got me thinking – why even stop there? You can give each character options for powers, skills, whatever. You could even give them options for backgrounds. Choose between a rival who is trying to kill you, a secret you can never speak of, or a long-lost sibling believed dead. The GM could then hand you an index card with more detail about your chosen option. It would mean the GM couldn’t rely on any individual background detail coming up, but it gives you a bit more ownership over your character. And the unused backgrounds could easily be saved for the next one-off, so you aren’t wasting too much effort.

One-offs can very easily be just railroaded experiences, you’re handed a character and away you go. I’ve got nothing against that – but this seems to be a really simple way to replicate some of the fun of character gen without sucking up so much time that you no longer have time to play the game.

Since drafting this article, I gave the idea a try as part of a one-off Dogs In the Vineyard game I ran for a con. Dogs traditionally lets you gen your own characters, but given that I didn’t have a lot of time, I decided to just create the characters in advance. But I didn’t want people to be stuck with whatever I gave them so each character had two alternate sets of traits, which I chose to illustrate possible backgrounds for those characters. (For example one of the characters could either be the guy who grew up in the big bad city and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, or the guy whose parents expected too much of him and he rebelled and went off to do something different from what they wanted.)

It worked pretty well, and I’d definitely do it again. It hardly added any time to my prep, and equally it added almost no time to the game compared to just handing out fixed characters.

Johari’s window

Ok, apologies in advance to management experts, because I am about to abuse a well-loved management metaphor until it is hardly recognisable anymore.

Johari’s window is a neat metaphor for learning and feedback. Picture a window divided into four quadrants. The top-left quadrant is things that I know about me, that you also know – public knowledge about me. The bottom left is stuff  I know about myself that you don’t know – my secrets, things I could reveal to you in future. The top right quadrant covers information about me that you know but that I am unaware of – this is important for management theory because it’s the space in which feedback can happen. The bottom right isn’t seen as especially important for management theory and it isn’t important for this post either. It’s the domain of things about me that nobody knows. Maybe there some great insight that can be gleaned there, but if there is, I (rather appropriately) don’t know what it is.


Image by Brent O'Connor

Incidentally, I have no idea who Johari is either. Whatever. [Edit: Googling around, because I just *had* to know, I see it’s actually called “A Johari Window”, so probably Johari is some kind of acronym and not a person at all. I shall persist in imagining I never discovered this.]

So, what does all this have to do with gaming? The answer is that you can use it for character generation. When you create your character, draw a window and write stuff in each quandrant.

The  bottom-left and top-right corners are for unresolved questions about your character. Who was that masked man? Who killed your father? What is the meaning of your birthmark? Why can’t you remember anything from the night of the 21st, and what happened on that night? Are you going to save humanity, or destroy it? But which quadrant you put each question in tells you whether this is a Dark Secret type of question – one you’re handing to the GM to answer, which might have an answer that you don’t like (top right quadrant), or one you’re going to answer yourself, at a dramatically appropriate time (bottom left quadrant). I suggest that by using Johari’s window, we can signal to the GM what questions are for her to answer, and which questions we want to keep for ourselves. Maybe you could even put some questions in the bottom right – these would be open to anyone to try and answer.

The top-left corner of the window has a use, too. Put things in there that are known at the start of the game. (Known to you as players, that is – maybe not to your characters.) By putting stuff in there you’re saying to the GM “this stuff is off limits”. If I say that my character is the son of a noble jedi knight, and put that in the top left corner, then the GM should not reveal partway in that the knight in question is actually Darth Vader. That would have been a cool plotline, but by putting my heritage in the top left I’m telling the GM to stay away from it. Break the top-left window pane at your peril.

The Trouble with Rose (a walkthrough)

The Trouble with Rose is a GMless, prepless, indie roleplaying game by Todd Zircher. It is in the style of a parlour game and falls in a similar category as Fiasco and Durance as games which divide the control of the narratives between all the players.

I first found it via the Story Games Forum and found the idea and Shakesperian flavour very hard to resist.  As I said, it is a similar style game to Fiasco but without the explicit car crash atmosphere, and so is better suited to my tastes.

The premise is short and sweet.  There is a person called Rose, they are in trouble.  You are playing their friends and family and your job is to build up a story about Rose; why s/he/it is in trouble and what happens next.   The simplicity of the scenario means it is easily adaptable to different genres and styles (there are a large number of playsets supporting the basic system). Rose could be a Fairy Princess, an AI deep in the Net, a schoolgirl, a pirate ship or as Todd suggests, Plutonium Rose, a rock star on the run from his groupies and the Mob.

 

The system is fairly simple, once a scenario has been agreed the players choose a character each, writing down six character attributes, 2 of which are in some way negative.  Some of our attributes were “own’s most of MadeUpShire” and the servant girl’s “total belief in the class system” but you might want to go for something simpler like “crack shot” or “very agile”. You then randomly choose 5 dominoes.  Each domino has 2 sides with 2 numbers on it (blank – 6), you take it in turns to direct a scene with your character in and choose a domino to represent the character attributes you will be displaying in the scene.  Blanks are wildcards and automatic failures, a double blank is played in the last round and always means that character will be removed completely from the action e.g. death.   You go round the table directing scenes 5 times. Lastly everyone draws a playing card which represents your character’s hidden agenda.

Things that worked well

The dominoes provided a good amount of story scaffolding and we made good use of a reflection period after each directed scene to tie up loose ends, discuss where the story was going and evaluate our progress.  Because of this there weren’t too many awkward moments where people go dry and the flow of the narrative fails.

 

Things that worked less well

We all felt a little pressured to bring in large amounts of other characters and NPCs into each scene.  This was to ensure we were giving each other enough to do.  However this meant we occasionally tied the plot in knots and strained the story. In future I would make more use of cut scenes, short flashbacks and internal monologues to flesh out characters and individual relationships, rather than making sure each person is talking in each scene.

Things we did differently

In the original game there is a means to judge each other’s role-playing prowess and award points on how well you brought your character attributes into the scene.  The person with the most points got to narrate the Epilogue. We agreed at the start that we didn’t feel this added anything to the game and that there were better ways to encourage and reward the same behaviour.  We ditched this aspect and I felt that was the right decision.

Secondly, whilst the game was GMless I feel (in all these types of game) that someone must take mental responsibility for managing the game and making sure things happen.  I made sure we had dominoes and copies of the system.  I guided everyone through character generation and actively facilitated the session, providing suggesting and prompts and encouraging others to do the same.  I’ll write more on managing GMless games later though – that is a whole topic on its own.

 

You may be wondering who our Rose was…she was the Scarlet Primrose, rakish hero to the French Aristocracy having rescued many of them from the Guillotine in the years after the French Revolution.  Half our characters were her family who believed her to be a ditzy dilletante, the other half were from her network of undercover contacts – much amusement and drama ensued when her two worlds collided.

I really enjoyed this game, it was great fun and we created a story which was engaging and interesting.  I still love the idea of entirely prepless games and GMless games and I think the Trouble with Rose is more the style of GMless game I want to play.  Best of all it has inspired me to write my own version of a GMless game.  So a big thank you and thumbs up to Todd Z.

Oh, I didn’t mention the best bit…it is free…go here to get your copy.