Roleplaying over the internets

Today I ran Disaster Strikes! over Google Hangouts for Indie+. I have roleplayed over Skype/G+ before, but never with anything more than a very rudimentary set of mechanics, and only with people I knew quite well. So this was a new experience for me.

I was feeling pretty trepidatious; nobody had signed up in advance for my Indie+ event. Was this normal? Would there be a last-minute rush, or would I sit like a lemon for fifteen minutes and then give up? It turned out partway between the two. A couple of minutes before start time I got my first sign up. Woot! And then a second very shortly after. I started feeling quite excited – maybe this game would go ahead after all. But I think maybe my second signup had come in via whatever the google equivalent of chat roulette is, because he signed off as soon as we started talking about the game. At least he wasn’t confronted by an image of a penis, which I gather is the usual chat roulette experience.

Undeterred, we decided to go ahead with the game with just one player. I was quite unsure as to whether this would work – the game is really designed for 3-4 people. Well, the good news is that after a fairly tentative start things took off pretty well, with explosion and killer AIs aplenty. Indeed, we had one of the more satisfying DS! finales that I can recall, as our intrepid fire safety officer put the lives of innocent bystanders first, getting them off the oil rig and only jumping into the ocean at the last, on fire and with several broken limbs. We even had the cliffhanger ending as the killer AI seemed to escape to attack the hospital our hero was installed in for the epilogue.

Anyway, I digress slightly. We were using an app called anywhereboardgames, a free google hangout app which I can recommend. It provides you with a virtual tabletop upon which you can create various game objects – in this case, playing cards and tokens. The game comes with a bunch of pre-created ones but it’s reasonably easy to create your own; all you need do is create images for each of the faces of whatever it is you’re using (front and back for cards, presumably multiple sides if you want dice or whatever). It will let you stack and shuffle cards, and you can create a screen to hide your cards/tokens/etc behind. Once one person has set it up in a google hangout, everyone else automatically gets access to it. Basically it’s your ideal tool if you need something more than dice (for which I gather that catchyourhare is considered the place to go). My only complaint is that it doesn’t work with internet explorer, although I may be the last person on earth who still uses IE.

I had hoped to get a sense of how easy G+ roleplaying is with multiple people, which I obviously didn’t do in the event. The brief chat session I had with my mystery person who disappeared seemed to be working ok, but it was quite short and not the best test. We also briefly had a fourth person drop in, which revealed how badly the sound can go if you don’t all have headsets – we immediately started getting echoes from his speakers, which had previously not been a problem. So I would recommend getting headsets if you want to try this at home.

All in all though I was quite pleased with the experience. It was disappointing not to get a full set of players, but getting to roleplay with someone in Latvia more than made up for it, and the game was great fun. Will probably give indie+ a go again next year if I have the time.

Setting the scene

A lot of indie games break the action of the game into scenes. A scene is a slightly ephemeral concept, and generally not well explained in gaming texts (I can’t think of a single one that takes the time to set this out in print). Quite a few uninspiring roleplaying experiences have resulted from not having much of an idea on what a scene should look like. So here’s a short discussion of how scenes work, how to establish and resolve them.

One person, often the GM but sometimes a player, is the director for the scene. That person should have an idea for some kind of interesting situation that one or more of the protagonists could find themselves in.

Examples could include:
– She is having a row with her boyfriend because he slept with someone else.
– He is trying to repair a ventilation unit, which is about to catch fire.
– She hears screams from inside a crashed bus and goes to investigate.

Once that person has decided on a central focus for the scene, they should say where the scene is happening and who is present.

The scene can now begin. The players then play out the action, roleplaying their characters as appropriate. Conflicts may arise and be resolved, either through randomness (dice etc), through the dictation of the director at the start of the scene (“she is having a row with her boyfriend and during the scene they will break up with each other”), or through players making in-character decisions (“screw this, I’m dumping him”).

The scene ends when we have resolved the central issue – the row with the boyfriend, the response to the burning ventilation unit or the rescue or death of the children. The director is generally responsible for calling the end of the scene, but other players are free to indicate if they think the scene should end, or to object, for instance if there’s some loose end they’d like to see tied up. The director has the final call, however.

The director should have some idea of what the central issue is before you start, and therefore what might trigger the end of the scene. If you don’t, there’s a good chance that the scene will wander aimlessly. You might not specify what that issue is at the start, though it’s a pretty good idea to do so if you want the other players to act appropriately. Even though you’ve got a good idea what the scene is focused on, remain flexible as the action may change your view of what the scene is “about”. If so, you may change your mind about when to end the scene.

The location of the characters may change during a single scene – it’s still the same scene as long as the central issue remains the same. (Though it might be that a scene ends when it becomes obvious that the characters are not in fact going to address the issue – don’t just keep following them around until they do!)

In general, when a scene has ended it’s time to think about what the next scene might be. Again, don’t just follow the characters around 24/7 – you want to be there when interesting stuff is happening, just like in a book or movie.

So there we go, that’s my attempt at explaining what scenes are all about. Does that make sense to you? Do you have different ideas? Let me know what you think!

Paranoia and paralysis

It is a perennial problem in games I’ve run and played in that players (myself included) are prone to sudden bouts of paranoia, leading to the inability to take decisions. I call it player paralysis.

Player paralysis can waste hours of game play. I say waste: if you enjoy watching while the players second-guess themselves, it isn’t a waste at all. Many games rely on paranoia for their appeal, and the odd session of this kind can be enjoyable. But for the typical gaming group, pressed for time, probably only able to play once a fortnight or less, provided everyone’s free, etc etc – it’s a pain in the ass if nothing happens because paralysis has set in.

The primary type of player paralysis I’d like to discuss today is the kind that is generated by the perception that the enemy has the group outgunned or outflanked. There are other types of player paralysis, such as too-difficult puzzle paralysis or over-planned mission paralysis, but I’ll save those for another day.

As a player, it’s a good idea to be watchful for player paralysis, and prepared to occasionally take action despite your misgivings. But of course, some times paranoia is justified. Maybe the bad guys really are that bad-ass, and maybe it’s better not to take them on. In that case, don’t just sit there worrying about it – take alternative action. Running away is an option, as are trying to find ways around the baddies that don’t involve fighting them. Presumably that’s what the GM had in mind when s/he set you up against such a challenging adversary. If in doubt, it’s reasonable to ask the GM: are you expecting us to fight this? You might not get an answer, but you’ll probably at least get a hint of some kind as to whether your foe is beatable or not.

As a GM you have more opportunities to tackle the problem. You have a lot of tools at your disposal here:

– Rumours and reputation. You can prompt paralysis by bigging up an NPC’s reputation as a bad-ass killer who is immune to conventional weaponry, and you can help to puncture it by allowing the group to hear of the NPC’s defeat, or some mistake he has made, or a weakness.

– Reinforcements, resupply. If your players are quaking in their boots, you can give them some back-up. Maybe the local militia offer to help, or they acquire a better weapon, or some other boost to their capabilities to improve their confidence.

– Reduce the threat. Maybe the bad-ass NPC has to send some of his minions somewhere else, or perhaps he turns out to be vulnerable to kryptonite.

– Prompt alternative action. Either through an NPC, or prompted Intelligence checks, or straightforward GM hint, you can help the players to spot alternative ways to solve the problem. Is there a way the players could avoid confrontation with this overwhelming foe? Perhaps there’s some source of information they haven’t consulted. Find a way to let the party know.

– Take the heat off. If the group is feeling under pressure to the point where they can’t think straight, give them some breathing space.

– Put the heat on! It’s difficult to stay paralysed when you’re in a plummeting elevator. Have something happens which forces the issue, and maybe the group won’t procrastinate so much next time they get a little breathing space.

You have to be very careful with all of the above. It’s natural for groups to want to spend some time planning and discussing – it only becomes paralysis if it goes on for too long and it’s clear the group are jumping at shadows. Similarly, the group may become frustrated and apathetic if they feel like every time the going gets tough you’ll bail them out with some reinforcements or a heavy-handed hint. If you are patient at first, and use a mix of the above tactics when it’s clear the group really is suffering from paralysis, then you shouldn’t go too far wrong.

Above all, learn from your mistakes. If the group becomes paralysed, take some time after the session to think about what prompted it and what you could have done differently. As much as anything this is about understanding the personalities of the people who make up your group. Perhaps they don’t react too well to a particular type of situation, or maybe it’s one individual you need to keep an eye on; it may even be that an OOC chat is called for if one person keeps locking things down.

Player paralysis isn’t something you can entirely banish. If you adopt a flexible approach and get to know your group, you can keep it to a minimum.

Wimping: the black hole of GMless games

I’ve been playing a lot of GMless games lately, and because of the absence of a pre-written plot, these games have a lot in common with improv. In improv, there is a term called “wimping”, which is when one of the actors – without explicitly blocking what another actor says – effectively reflects it back at them without adding anything to the conversation.

There’s an excellent example given here, which I cannot add anything to and so shall quote wholesale:

JEFF: Oh my gosh that thing is big!
MEL: Yeah! It’s really huge!
JEFF: It’s getting bigger!
MEL: It sure is!
JEFF: My goodness, it’s eating the dog!
MEL: The poor dog.

See how Jeff is making all the running in that exchange? Every new element is created by him and merely restated by Mel.

Now, in GMless roleplaying there is typically shared responsibility for creating plot and background elements, so what we have is essentially improv. Each player can add new elements at will, and when someone else adds an element they can either accept it but not do anything with it (wimping) or take it and run with it in an interesting way. It’s not exactly news that the latter is a better way to go, and if you’ve played GMless games you’ll probably be familiar with the situation where someone is throwing out interesting material and it is essentially being either ignored or, at any rate, not added to by others.

There’s a more pernicious form of wimping, where nobody is really creating new material. This becomes an empty conversation, like those awkward exchanges where you just talk about the weather because you don’t want to risk putting anything more interesting into the pot. I’m not sure there’s a term for this: I’ll call it the double-wimp.

This doesn’t happen much in roleplaying because, after all, you’ve usually got some helpful mechanisms and a shared agenda of creating drama, which push you to create stuff. But roleplayers have their own special kind of double-wimp. Many of us have grown up on GM-created mysteries – the black box containing the plot which, as players, you struggle to uncover. The GM knows what’s in the box, but the players don’t. The interest for the players is discovering what the GM has invented.

Now think about GMless games. I’ve more than once seen a player create a black box in a GMless game. It could be a mysterious object (in a recent game there was a literal box with something in it … but nobody knew what it was, even the person who introduced the box), or it could be a vague reference to something that sounds intriguing but which is left undefined. What they’ve done is effectively wimped on their own narration. They’ve supplied what should be an interesting plot element, but left a blank where the interest should be. They’re hoping someone else will fill that blank, but all too often no-one does. In the absence of a GM who knows what the mystery really is, it becomes vacuous, a cipher.

Moreover, roleplayers are used to the concept of ownership. My character is my character – you don’t narrate his actions. Likewise, in more traditional roleplaying the person who introduces a plot element owns it, so others refrain from acting on it. When someone introduces an undefined mystery element, this compounds that natural unwillingness to mess with “their” plot, because nobody is quite sure what it is in the first place.

What you’re left with in this situation is a black hole. By its nature it is intriguing and makes the characters want to interact with it, thus sucking the story into its gravity well. But there’s nothing there to interact with. To overextend the metaphor slightly, the plot is crushed to death with agonising slowness as the flow of time itself is distorted around it. At least, that’s how it can feel at times.

If you’re playing GMless games, my advice is to avoid this phenomenon like the plague. Do not introduce mysterious elements if you can help it. If you must, don’t throw in a mysterious element unless you know what you’re doing with it. You shouldn’t be so committed to your idea of what the “truth” behind the mystery is that nobody else can come in and change it, but don’t just throw it in and hope someone else will run with it – be ready to run with it yourself. And take the earliest opportunity possible to reveal what the mystery is so that others can more easily play off it. It may even be worth telling the other players out of character what the mystery really is, even though their characters don’t know, just to avoid the black hole effect.

Managing campaign endings

I was reading this article on Gnome Stew about keeping your campaign alive during the inevitable breaks you’ll be taking when holidays, life events and other momentum-breaking occurrences happen.

Loss of campaign momentum is a perennial problem. It is typically the result of one or more of the group losing interest in, and energy for, that campaign. If it’s a player, they start becoming harder and harder to schedule in, they stop paying attention in session, and they generally start to make the whole experience feel like a drag. If it’s the GM (and it often is!) they find it harder and harder to motivate themselves to prep and to book the sessions. This invariably gets transmitted to the players, who can tell the GM’s heart isn’t in it. The result is a zombie campaign that nobody is enjoying. To mix my metaphors, such campaigns often suffer death by asphyxiation – without the oxygen of the group’s interest they just wither, and one day nobody books the next session.

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Image by ChaosRampantKaryn

The Stew article presents some great ideas for avoiding momentum loss during a hiatus, chiefly to do with stirring the pot during the break and avoiding shiny distractions that divert you from the campaign. But to some extent this relies on the group still having momentum; nobody will be bothered to take part in between-sessions activity if they aren’t feeling the love.

For me, the way you avoid losing the big Mo is by keeping the campaign within defined boundaries. Nothing can go on forever; we see this in all walks of life, not just gaming. How many times has a TV series overstayed its welcome by one or two seasons, leaving the whole thing feeling tarnished? Well, unlike the TV networks we aren’t in this to make money so there’s no point in keeping going past the point that we’re having fun.

So here’s my suggestion. Plan your campaign in self-contained chunks. 8 weeks seems to be a good number, but YMMV. Choose a period of time where everyone can largely commit to attending sessions, and in which a decent arc of the campaign can be played through. (You may find that things don’t quite go as you expected, and you need a session or two more – that’s fine! Better to exceed your budget slightly than to not have one at all.) Now everyone knows there’s a defined end-point, and everyone is working to reach a satisfactory conclusion in that time-frame. You’ll be more disciplined about your play, focusing on the stuff that really gets you going.

When you get to the end of a campaign chunk, you can pause for reflection. How are we all feeling about the campaign? Is there something else we’d rather be playing right now? Are we keen to continue, and if so what do we want to do in the next chunk? Is there anything we could change to keep the campaign fresh? My group has developed a tradition of going out for dinner once in a while for campaign reflection, and this would be a lovely way to mark the end of each campaign chunk.

Moreover, the end of a chunk gives you the chance to manage transitions and endings more effectively. Does anyone need to step out of the campaign for a bit – maybe someone has had a baby or is going through a busy patch at work? If so, this change will be less likely to break your momentum. Are people looking to try something different? Because you’ve built in a break-point, you’re managing the tendency for campaigns to peter out, and if/when the campaign finally does end it’s more likely to be a nice, satisfying ending that avoids a zombie campaign or death by asphyxiation.

That guy is up to something

When you’re playing a game where there’s no GM throwing plot at you (e.g. Fiasco) or where there is, but they are leaving you, the players, to decide what to focus on (e.g. Apocalypse World) or indeed, where there is but they aren’t creating plot per se at all (any sandbox game), the role of players is different to your traditional GM-as-plot-provider game. And you have to do different things to make those games fun. Things which might even be considered antisocial in another game.

What I’m talking about is having an (in character) agenda. Your character should be up to something. They have at least one thing that they want, and not just in an abstract “fleshing out my character” way, but in a concrete “this is what I’m going to do right now to get it” way.

Fiasco is a perfect example because the entire drama comes from your stupid, short-sighted, out-of-control characters pursuing your goals. The game even forces at least one of you to have a game-generated Need! But it still needs the oomph from the players, the drive that makes the game tick. You can’t be sitting back and fading into the background in a game of Fiasco! Or rather, you can, but you (and the other players) may not have as great a game as a result.

Now I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should be constantly pushing your character’s agenda Out Of Character. When it feels like you can’t turn around for character X getting up in your face trying to do their thing, that isn’t fun. Your character is up to something, yes. You, on the other hand, are up to something else – trying to make sure everyone has fun, hopefully.

Fiasco and other “GMless” (or GM-light) games throw the spotlight onto the players in a way that can be a lot of fun. If you’re pushing your character into action to get what they want, while leaving space for the other players to do that for their characters, you’ll get a lot out of these games.

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!