How to be a cooperative player

Addie Stardust on Twitter asked for tips on how to be a cooperative player, and it turns out that I have some thoughts about this.

Cooperation means working together to make the game better. This might mean working with the GM but it also means working with the other players around the table. An important starting point here is that WE are working TOGETHER. So it’s not just one person being a cooperative player and helping everyone else, it’s a collective effort, and you get to look after yourself as well as the others. Ok? Let’s go.

The first step in cooperation to make the game better is understanding what would make the game better, and that is mainly about understanding what the people around the table want. So this means three things:

  • Listening to what other people want;
  • Actively soliciting people to better communicate what they want; and
  • Being clear yourself on what you want and signalling it to the other players.

Obviously it will be hard for anyone to cooperate if they don’t understand what each other want. “What you want” means: what you’re interested in; what kind of story you want to tell; what kind of themes you want to address; what kind of things you want to do; what kind of character you want to play; and so on. Some games do a great job of helping to structure and codify these things, greasing the wheels of the conversation. But even if your particular game doesn’t do that, you can do it for yourself. One part of that is getting the information from the other players, by paying close attention and listening to what they’re saying and doing. If they’re not communicating or you’re not clear, or if you think there’s more to know, you ASK them.

The other half of this is playing your part by being clear about what you like. Don’t wait to be asked – the more you share of your preferences, the better other people can help you to enjoy the game. Plus you’re leading by example and likely encouraging others to reciprocate by telling you what they like.

Now that we understand what each other want, we can work to give each other the game we’re looking for. This means consciously and positively:

  • Engaging with the direction and themes of the story
  • Playing towards the role and image of the characters
  • Building connections and synergies with the rest of the group

Engaging with the direction and themes of the story is what, in a traditional GM’d game, would often mean “following the GM’s plot hooks”. In other words, the GM has prepared a story, therefore you engage with that story. You swim with the current rather than against it. But also, whether you’re in a GMless game or a GM’d game where the group are more closely involved in setting the direction, you follow the other player’s “plot hooks” too. If the players have said they want to engage with particular themes, then it’s just as important (maybe more so) to help them do that as it is to follow where the GM is pointing the story. If we’re all here interested in romantic rivalries, then we can have fun playing into that space by flirting, showing jealousy, opening up new relationships, and so on. And we might choose to ignore the GM’s plot hooks to do this, if it seems like that’s what the group are most interested in. In fact it’s just as much the GM’s role, as a cooperative player (the GM is a player too), to step back and take their foot off the gas, making space for us to address these themes.

Of course even better is if we can cleverly make the GM’s plot hooks and our desire for (in this example) romantic rivalries fit together. A really skilled GM will find out about this interest at the start of the game and build their plot hooks around it. And then we as a group will skilfully use the GM’s plot hooks to get the juicy romance plot we wanted. That is what cooperation looks like: everyone striving together towards the story they want.

Playing towards the role and image of the characters is what has been called elsewhere “playing to lift up”. It means having a clear idea of what each of the characters want to do, and how they want to be seen, and taking action to support that. A really basic approach to this is sharing and (where appropriate) ceding the spotlight so they can have their time in the sun. But you can be much more pro-active than that. For example, if another player describes their character as a leader, then that means they want to lead. A leader has to have people who look up to them, who listen to them, who follow them. As a cooperative player, you can help with that by portraying your character looking up to them, listening to them and following them. You might even at times step away from situations where you are naturally inclined to lead, to make space for them to do so. You might give them explicit encouragement when required, saying “these people need your leadership” to prompt the player to push the character into the role they wanted.

You’re like a backing singer or supporting actor working to make the main character look good. This doesn’t have to mean “look good” in the sense of “look like a badass” – if the player wants their character to be comic relief, you can help them do that too. If the player wants tragedy and pain, you can be the one dishing it out. The point is to know what they’re after (again, if you aren’t clear, ask) and help to give it to them. This may mean you have to tweak your own idea of what your character would be like. Hold your ideas about your character loosely, making space to adjust them to be a better supporting act for other people. Perhaps you didn’t really envisage your character as someone’s follower. But take a moment to think – could they follow another person? Maybe they are a leader in some contexts and a follower in others? Try to keep your character malleable enough that they can fit in with what is going on at the gaming table.

As with the story themes, this is a job for everyone, including of course the GM. And it’s also important to say that you get to have your time in the sun too. Sometimes you’ll be stepping back to make space for someone else’s preferred role to play out, but sometimes you should claim your space in the spotlight.

You can be even more cooperative here by inviting others into your spotlight time: if you’re the leader, ask if anyone wants to be your follower right now. If you’re the protector, ask if anyone wants to be protected. This is where building connections and synergies begins to become important. Right at the start of the game, you can look for roles that are complimentary (leader/follower; mentor/student; unrequited lover/oblivious object of desire). You can also do this in real time during the game, identifying where your cool action in the spotlight could involve someone else. Invite others into what you’re doing. You can come up with any pretext you like: perhaps there’s a genuine logical reason why you’d want a wingman for this mission, or perhaps your character just feels like some company.

The reverse also applies. Don’t be shy in asking if you can get involved in what other people are doing. Having two people in the spotlight at a time means twice as many people are having fun, but also potentially they’re having fun in ways they couldn’t otherwise. Sure, the sneakthief could just go off and do a cool stealth mission on their own. But might it be even more fun for them if there’s another character (you) tagging along, permitting the action to be peppered with conversation, perhaps allowing them to rescue you from a tight spot.

Stepping into someone else’s spotlight is a bit risky, because it could feel like you’re hogging the spotlight or treading on their toes. This is a good time to take the conversation out of character and ask the player whether they would enjoy having you along rather than just having your character ask theirs. Once they’ve said yes you can continue to exercise your judgement about how best to support them and lift them up, enhancing their enjoyment rather than crowding them out.

You can weave the whole of this together into the most beautiful connections and synergies if you want to. The themes of the story can support the desired roles and relationships, and vice versa. That’s what a really tight design can do, by the way – some games dish out character archetypes, relationships and mechanics that are all mutually reinforcing. But you don’t necessarily need the game to do that for you if you are actively working together to do it yourselves. There’s probably such a thing as a too tightly-woven mesh of themes, roles and relationships; you may be going too far if you’re just pre-deciding everything that’s going to happen in the game. But definitely having awareness of what everyone around the table wants and consciously working to play into those things, will create a more cohesive and fulfilling game for everyone.

I personally think that cooperation is the apex skill for roleplayers. You can be an amazing character actor, a genius at deploying the game’s mechanics, an incredibly evocative narrator, a brilliant problem solver, and many more besides. These all can make a contribution to a great game. But if you’re taking those skills and pointing them at the other people at your table, positioning yourself to connect with them and support them in what they’re doing, you’re going to come off as a much better roleplayer, and get a much richer game to boot.

Lovecraftesque part three (episode 64)

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We continue our run of the new second edition of the classic indie horror game, Lovecraftesque.

Jonathan visits the Hotel’s resident doctor, whose curious questions – and the strange ambience – leave him feeling very uneasy.

A trip to the town’s sinister-seeming library reveals a strange piece of history.

If you are interested in Lovecraftesque you can find the first edition of the game here: https://blackarmada.com/product/lovecraftesque/

If you would like to be notified when the second edition crowdfunds, you can join the Black Armada mailing list here: https://blackarmada.com/black-armada-mailling-list/

Our players are:

  • Joshua Fox https://twitter.com/armadajosh or https://dice.camp/@armadajosh
  • Becky Annison https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison or https://dice.camp/@BeckyA
  • Eadwin Tomlinson
  • Nick Bate https://twitter.com/ickbat
  • Sue Elliott https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

Lovecraftesque part two (episode 63)

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We continue our run of the new second edition of the classic indie horror game, Lovecraftesque.

Jonathan sets out on a relaxing fishing trip to the nearby abandoned lighthouse, ably assisted by Davey, the local guide. But his restorative excursion quickly takes an unpleasant turn as the two men uncover something deeply disturbing in the old building.

If you are interested in Lovecraftesque you can find the first edition of the game here: https://blackarmada.com/product/lovecraftesque/

If you would like to be notified when the second edition crowdfunds, you can join the Black Armada mailing list here: https://blackarmada.com/black-armada-mailling-list/

Our players are:

  • Joshua Fox https://twitter.com/armadajosh
  • Becky Annison https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison
  • Eadwin Tomlinson
  • Nick Bate https://twitter.com/ickbat
  • Sue Elliott https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

Lovecraftesque part one (episode 62)

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We continue our run of the new second edition of the classic indie horror game, Lovecraftesque.

Jonathan sets out on a relaxing fishing trip to the nearby abandoned lighthouse, ably assisted by Davey, the local guide. But his restorative excursion quickly takes an unpleasant turn as the two men uncover something deeply disturbing in the old building.

If you are interested in Lovecraftesque you can find the first edition of the game here: https://blackarmada.com/product/lovecraftesque/

If you would like to be notified when the second edition crowdfunds, you can join the Black Armada mailing list here: https://blackarmada.com/black-armada-mailling-list/

Our players are:

  • Joshua Fox https://twitter.com/armadajosh
  • Becky Annison https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison
  • Eadwin Tomlinson
  • Nick Bate https://twitter.com/ickbat
  • Sue Elliott https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

Lovecraftesque session zero (episode 61)

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We start our run of the new second edition of the classic indie horror game, Lovecraftesque.

This is the game setup, where we decide on our setting, the English seaside town on Whitby; our main character, the disgraced dilettante Jonathan Cochrane; and create the locations and NPCs that will feature in our story.

If you are interested in Lovecraftesque you can find the first edition of the game here: https://blackarmada.com/product/lovecraftesque/

If you would like to be notified when the second edition crowdfunds, you can join the Black Armada mailing list here: https://blackarmada.com/black-armada-mailling-list/

Our players are:

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

Lies, damned lies and TTRPG art – our experience with a dishonest “artist”

We have been working on the second edition of our storytelling horror card game, Lovecraftesque, for quite a while and have begun to reach out to artists to illustrate the game. During this process we had a bad experience with an “artist” who we think was trying to scam us out of money, or who at the very least was dishonest, and we wanted to share what we’d learned as a warning to others.

We solicited artists for the game through a google form that we circulated on social media, requesting details, availability and a portfolio. Our intention was to review the portfolios submitted, alongside other artists we were potentially interested in working with, and then draw up a shortlist to ask for quotes from. This is a new idea for us – we usually identify artists we like and approach them directly, but we wanted to cast our net a bit wider this time, avoid just going to the usual suspects, and potentially open up the field to lesser known artists. Little did we realise that we were inviting in someone with less positive motives.

We got a good response and we shortlisted five artists whose work we liked. We reached out to them by email with a detailed specification, asking for a quote, and having got these, we narrowed the field to two artists whose work we liked. One was an artist we had used before and whose work and professionalism we were confident of. The other was someone we had not worked with before, who had an eclectic portfolio of gorgeous images, albeit submitted as a Google drive folder of images, which was a little unusual. It was this second person who very nearly tricked us into hiring them on false premises.

Having narrowed the field, we arranged a meeting with each artist and talked through the project a bit more, clarifying details and trying to ensure we got the most accurate estimate of both the cost and the time to do the work. Our new artist, who said they were based in Texas, turned up a little late for the call and when they arrived they did not turn their video camera on. We thought nothing of it at the time. We talked through the project and they offered refined quotes with a discount based on the volume of work we were suggesting, but saying they would give a final “package” price once we confirmed exactly what we were hiring them to do. They asked for a 50% deposit on each piece before starting work, something we’ve done before with other artists. At this point no alarm bells rang.

It was only later when we sent them the final details of what we wanted that they came back with a different price from what they’d discussed with us – a higher price, even though the specification hadn’t changed. They also asked for 50% of the total package as an up-front payment, which was a big change and would mean giving them a lot of money without any work having been done. They’d also given a New York address which, having said they were in Texas, seemed at the very least a little strange.

Something felt wrong and, acting on instinct, I Googled their name. I’d done this before of course, but hadn’t really worried when I didn’t find any information about them. Looking back this should have been a warning sign. I still felt a nagging concern and so I went back to their portfolio and downloaded the images, before performing a reverse Google image search on them. And that is when I realised that we were being lied to.

The reverse image search revealed that most of the images were lightly edited copies of images in the online portfolios of several different artists, none of whom shared the name of the “artist” that we’d come so close to hiring. I put “artist” in quote marks there since, at this point, it has to be doubtful whether the person we had spoken to was an artist at all. Perhaps unsurprisingly they were quite prepared to continue lying once confronted, claiming they shared the portfolio with other friends of theirs, and continuing to state that they are a “legit artist” even when I informed them I had contacted the artists whose work they had used and none of them had heard of them.

The fact is that we were extremely close to giving this person money to produce art for Lovecraftesque. If they had played their game a little bit better, and not attempted to change the price and terms they offered us, we would have handed over hundreds of dollars to them. I think it likely that they would have simply taken that money and disappeared. At the very least we’d have been unlikely to get art that was up to the standard we wanted. Of course, if we hadn’t got suspicious it’s possible we could have ended up giving them even more money.

Two images of an angel-like creature, appearing as a dark-skinned woman with two pairs of feathered wings, and wearing white and gold clothing and a gold headdress. 

They look essentially identical except that the one on the left has been colorised with a purple filter, mirrored, and its aspect ratio slightly altered.
One of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Kang Sojin, used with permission (right). Find Kang Sojin’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/L9oK5

It was a surprise to me that anyone would bother to target a small creator like us in this way. Obviously we’re aware of internet scammers, you couldn’t move for Nigerian bankers looking to give their money away in the 1990s, but the idea that someone would fill out a Google form for a tabletop game art project with the aim of tricking them out of money never occurred to us.

My lessons from this experience are:

  • Google your artist. You want to know you’re not hiring someone disreputable, and if they have no internet footprint at all then that should at least prompt you to investigate further.
  • Consider asking around – has anyone worked with this artist before? Of course with this you should be careful that you aren’t discriminating against newcomers.
  • Reverse Google image search their portfolio images, and make sure the names match.
  • As with all scammy stuff, trust your instincts – if something feels wrong, pause and look again. Don’t hire someone that’s setting off your inner alarm bell.

Similar considerations apply to hiring freelancers of all kinds, I fear. If you don’t know them or have good references, you need to do your homework.

Two near-identical images, each showing what appears to be a boat atop a pile of moss-covered stones, in the shadow of which is another ship, and the whole of which is surrounded by azure water. Rocky crags loom in the background.

The left-hand image has a brighter, more saturated palette and is mirrored compared to the one on the right.
Another of the images submitted in the “artist’s” portfolio (left) and an original illustration by Andrew Porter, used with permission (right). Find Andrew Porter’s work here: https://www.artstation.com/artwork/w88qg

In the age of AI, this is going to get harder. Some of the art of our “artist” did not show up on reverse image search, and looking at the images that it did throw up made us suspect that these might have been AI-produced. Of course you might ask why that’s a problem, if you liked the art? Personally I find AI art to be ethically dubious, as it essentially remixes the work of other artists without credit or permission. But even if you’re comfortable with it, you probably wouldn’t want to pay the same price to such a person as you would for an original illustration by a skilled artist. You might also think that there was a risk that a person who had simply produced their portfolio using AI might be doing as we suspect our “artist” was, and luring you into giving them money for nothing.

Luckily, we did spot the fake artist’s lies, and we’re now working with an excellent artist to make Lovecraftesque as beautiful and haunting as it deserves to be. But we will certainly be a bit more wary of unknown applicants, and check their credentials carefully as standard in future.

The Great British Snake Off Pt 2 CORRECTED VERSION (Episode 60)

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***CORRECTED VERSION OF EPISODE 60 – due to an editing error we originally posted a version which was mostly the same as episode 59.***

Our final episode before Christmas.

It’s The Great British Snake Off! The reptile kingdom’s premier baking contest. Our three contestants will duke it out to see who is the best at baking – or, if they can’t be the best, then who is the sneakiest.

In this session the bakers make a birthday cake for Greg’s birthday, and produce a school dinner for some hungry pupils. What could possibly go wrong? We are about to find out.

You can find The Great British Snake Off here: https://blackarmada.itch.io/the-great-british-snake-off

Our players are:

  • Joshua Fox (GM) https://twitter.com/armadajosh
  • Becky Annison as Penelope Pit Viper. https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison
  • Elizabeth Lovegrove as Hercule the Slow Worm. https://twitter.com/ejlovegrove
  • Sue Elliott as Steven Tightly, the boa constrictor. https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

The Great British Snake Off (Episode 59)

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One last short game before we break for Christmas. It’s The Great British Snake Off! The reptile kingdom’s premier baking contest. Our three contestants will duke it out to see who is the best at baking – or, if they can’t be the best, then who is the sneakiest.

In this session we create our characters and the judges, and we find out who has what it takes to win the technical bake.

You can find The Great British Snake Off here: https://blackarmada.itch.io/the-great-british-snake-off

Our players are:

  • Joshua Fox (GM) https://twitter.com/armadajosh
  • Becky Annison https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison
  • Elizabeth Lovegrove https://twitter.com/ejlovegrove
  • Sue Elliott https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

After The War Part 13 (Episode 58)

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Final episode of our After The War campaign. In this episode:

  • The team busts their people out of the Daedalus settlement, but at what cost?
  • We explore the future of the Boneyard and our characters.

After The War is a science fiction RPG of memetic horror by Jason Pitre and Alasdair Stuart. You can find it here: https://genesisoflegend.com/product/after-the-war/

Our players are:

Becky Annison (GM) https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison
Elizabeth Lovegrove (Lisna Ojebawa) https://twitter.com/ejlovegrove
Joshua Fox (Major Grallani) https://twitter.com/armadajosh
Nick Bate (Odd Alvarez) https://twitter.com/ickbat
Sue Elliott (Novak The Bull) https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.

After The War Part 12 (Episode 57)

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In this episode:

  • Odd, Damanso and Krevalya are all set to blow up Daedalus’s secret weapon. But now they have a tough decision to make.
  • A moment of discovery for Odd.

After The War is a science fiction RPG of memetic horror by Jason Pitre and Alasdair Stuart. You can find it here: https://genesisoflegend.com/product/after-the-war/

Our players are:

Becky Annison (GM) https://twitter.com/BeckyAnnison
Elizabeth Lovegrove (Lisna Ojebawa) https://twitter.com/ejlovegrove
Joshua Fox (Major Grallani) https://twitter.com/armadajosh
Nick Bate (Odd Alvarez) https://twitter.com/ickbat
Sue Elliott (Novak The Bull) https://twitter.com/SuefaceTM

Black Armada create and publish TTRPGs here: https://blackarmada.com/

Nick creates and publishes TTRPGs as Ickbat here: https://ickbat.itch.io/

The music is Orange Button by Esther Garcia.