Assorted Thoughts on Gaming

Have an assortment of things that I’ve been mulling around regarding roleplaying games. Let’s see how many I get through, huh?


[Edited to correct my mis-phrased data/anecdote joke.]

Roleplaying as Something Done With Friends

I’ve been increasingly contemplating the interaction between my social circle and who I game with. When I was in high school, the people I played AD&D with were the people I hung out with outside of gaming. This was, essentially, my social circle. Starting in my early 20s, though, I increasingly had games I played where I would often play with people I had no connection to outside of the game. In extreme cases, it was sometimes flat out weird spending time with them outside of the game. Then when you get to the point where the bulk of your social activity involves roleplaying games, it can often feel like you have no connection to the people you are with.

As I’ve probably said a million times before, many of the people my age that I game with have spouses, children and other claims on their time. This makes getting a game together seems like a study in advanced logistics. And when someone drops the ball (cancels at the last minute, shows up over an hour late, whatever), it impacts everyone a little bit harder and you’re less likely to be forgiving about the whole thing because these aren’t necessarily your dearest closest friends. These are just the guys you game with. This isn’t to say I haven’t made friends through gaming. There just hasn’t been that sort of interwoven social group that I had in high school, where the people I gamed with were the people I went to movies with, asked to help me move, etc.

This has been on my mind lately because of a the small Nobilis game I’ve been running. There’s just me and three players. I’d cut and run on a couple other games I was involved in and we threw this together as something fun to do since we all have fun with each other outside of gaming. In theory we have a couple other people that are supposed to play, but they haven’t been able to join in.

A couple weeks ago the game faced a small set-back when one player had to bail in order to finish cleaning her apartment before new people moved in. So we were down to just two players and we decided we’d rather not play with that few players. We decided instead to watch Twin Peaks.

I’ve had games combust before where nearly everyone cancelled last minute and maybe one person actually showed up. As luck would have it the one person who showed up on one occasion was the one who had to drive the farthest and was the one I least wanted to spend time with socially.

But with this session it was no big deal. I would have been happy to spend time with them outside of the game, so I didn’t mind the loss of game. Now this isn’t to say there aren’t drawbacks. With such a casual attitude towards scheduling, it means that the game can rapidly lose momentum as time stretches out between games and it’s easily pre-empted by other stuff. The game may fade quietly to nothingness once one of the players moves to Japan unless the game gets re-approached.

I’m kinda curious how other people organize their games. I’ve heard a few people talk about the “dinner party” approach to organizing a game, where they have a larger pool of people they draw off of and invite people based off of who is mostly likely to enjoy what’s being offered. I can’t even imagine that. I don’t think I know that many people I’d want to game with. And there are other structures: The ongoing gaming group, the pick-up game, etc.

So how do you organize your games? How do the people you game with relate to the rest of your life?

Kids These Days

While many of my friends are fans of the “indie game revolution,” I’ve been a little bit more fascinated by the sorts of things being done by much younger players. When I started running for the kids, many of them had already been playing RPGs online. And I’m not talking Everquest or World of Warcraft. I’m talking online text-based roleplay. One of the earliest challenges in running for them, aside from the random violence, was getting them to use a subject in their sentences. They were just so used to roleplaying through a chat prompt.

“Looks through the door.”
“Pulls out her gun.”
“Climbs through the hatch.”
“Lawls.”

Snarky comments aside, there’s a crazy butt-ton of roleplaying in online forums. Most of the people I know who play in them tend to play in “multi-fandom” games like paradisa or milliways_bar, where you play fictional characters from other sources. Some people roll their eyes at these sorts of games. The writing isn’t exactly Hugo-award winning. Hell, it probably isn’t even Oprah Book of the Month Club. And there are trade-offs to playing a pre-existing character. But I find it fascinating the sort of ways that people in their teens and early 20s are melding roleplaying games and the evolving technology of the Internet.

Demographically, I should note that the people I know who are involved in these are kinda the opposite of the people I know who are involved in indie games. The indie game fans I know are predominately male and in their 30s and 40s, people who have been playing roleplaying games for well over a decade or two. The people I know who do the online stuff are predominately female and in their late teens and early 20s. I realize that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but I find it at least fascinating.

Similar to this is the use of Wikis in providing a collaborative creative environment. I’ve long been a fan of having a Web site for your campaigns, a conceit that’s come with playing a lot of Amber. (It comes with also having to have a cute and possibly pretentious name for your campaign.) person who these sites. I’ve often even been the person who builds and maintains these sites. (I often also build half-ass sites for one-shots run at at AmberCons. But being the person behind this often creates a bottleneck for the creative process. Everyone else is doing their trump art and character diaries or whatever. It all gets routed through you to post on the Web site. If you get busy, it might not ever see the light of day. This was the problem I ran into with the Web site I built for the kids’ game. I was able to prep for the game or update the Web site, but not really both. When we started a new game, one of the kids suggested a Wiki and made one for the new game.

I absolutely love it. I love the potential for collaboration. I’ve made one for every game I’ve played in or run since then. It’s not necessarily as pretty. Getting players to actually contribute is a challenge. But the potential it offers is damn exciting. I think the absolute best example I’ve seen is one maintained by a friend of mine. The amount of collaborations the players in that group pour into it is staggering. I’m frankly jealous.

I’ve done MUSHes and PBEMs and, hell, I think I even had GM access to “noppa” back when I hung out on channel #ad&d in my IRC days (“Why, young fella, I reckon it was way back in 1993!”). But I feel increasingly disconnected from the flow of technology, especially in how it impacts culture and, through that, roleplaying games. I don’t know that I’m going to dive into all of these options, but I’m fascinated that they exist. While some of the theories behind game design are very interesting and I poach them sporadically for my own purposes, I think there’s a lot to be said for that younger edge of people who are playing these games with no preconceived notions of what the roleplaying experience should be like.

I think some places have tried to tap into this on a financial level, but I’m not certain how lucrative it may necessarily be. I mean, I don’t know how prominent Gaia Online is as a roleplaying venue and Gleemax will apparently be shutting down. I guess it’s hard to anticipate what the “next big thing” will be and be an early adopter for it. Apparently Gleemax wasn’t it. =P

Narrative Control

I’ve heard some people describe roll-for-narrative control systems the way to ensure that your character is exactly the badass you intend him or her to be. Since sparklypoo GMing and sticky roleplaying are things I mull around a lot, this obviously touches on things I have an interest in. I’ve played in a few different games that revolve around narrative control (sometimes even competitve storytelling) and it just hasn’t felt sparklypoo. I honestly don’t feel like I’m playing a badass hero. Instead, I find myself focused on “what would make a good story?” (Or at the very least not looking like a lameass who only has his character win all the time.) nuadha_prime and I infrequently referred to sparklypoo GMing as “giving good hand jobs.” Sadly, there’s a different term for when you give yourself a hand job.

You could toss in counter-arguments for this, I’m sure. There are some downsides to seeking validation outside yourself, and for those who feel like conventional player/GM roles feel too much like glorified “Mother May I,” then they probably feel little value in having that “Mother May I” tailored to their tastes. And not all narrative control games involve making your character teh awesome. (Primetime Adventures, for example, has a different mechanic for who narrates the result than it has for who wins their stake.) But I’ve always enjoyed having story share worked into the story for me by someone else, and have it balanced against the other players as well.

Nourishment for the Soul

Had a long chat about roleplaying games with evilandi this weekend. A frequent topic that came up was my general burnout as a GM. The two recurring themes were my lack of confidence in my GMing and my growing misanthropy. (“I’m tired of screwing up/tired of going down/Tired of myself/tired of this town.”) I couldn’t argue with his general summary of my games: My ideas for games are often appealing, but my follow-through is lacking. Going through why I fall into that rut is probably a post all to itself.

The conclusion we kept coming back to was that I really needed to play more and GM less. And I am slowly working towards that. Well, at least GMing less. I dropped out of the one group I’ve gotten to play with recently which means I’m playing… nothing. I emailed a friend, and he’s offered to let me play in a D&D 4 game he’s trying to get together. Under most circumstances, I’d tell someone running D&D 4 “thanks but no thanks.” But the one-shot he did a few months ago of it was awesome and he seems to embrace many of the same roleplaying values as I do. So I think I’m gonna give it a shot. I’m… cautious excited.

Oh, crap. I need to buy a Player’s Handbook, don’t I?

Something to Consider Later

While I had a lackluster experience playing a demo of Burning Wheel, evilandi mentioned some things that appealed to him that gave me at least something to consider. What it really emphasized for me, honestly, was the strength of the phases in Spirit of the Century where you base most of your choices in Aspects off of interaction with other characters. Building that sense of history between characters is always a challenge in any heavily character-driven game. I’m primarily thinking of Amber in this regard. In theory a character quiz and communication before the game is supposed to solve this. This assumes that the players are willing to take the time to do this work.

I always like simple mechanics that aikido throw players into thinking more about their characters, but even making a character quiz “mandatory” doesn’t mean that players will necessarily do it. (Seriously, if someone shows up for your game the first session without doing the quiz, what exaclty do you do? Send them driving back home?)

Doing character creation in phases and requiring players to interact in this regard could be powerful. But I’m not sure how to adequately impliment this outside of Spirit of the Century. Mainly because (a) I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with using Aspects in the games I’ve tried to use them in, (b) I want to retain the transparent rule structure of the Amber system without saddling myself with a bunch of behind-the-scenes bookkeeping. But without some sort of “resource” that has genuine value in the game, how do I make such a system viable and appealing?

I seem to recall Pit of Vipers has something along these lines. Maybe I need to check that out.

A Nugget of Game Philosophy

I infrequently consider writing an RPG manifesto. Usually the raw amount of hubris required to compose some all encompassing philosophy statement is a bit farther than I’m willing to go. Despite some evidence to the contrary, I’m trying to be a nicer, more patient sort of person. Which may ultimately prove to my undoing when dealing with some of the challenges of roleplaying games and interacting with some types of players.

But one bit I have been rolling around, which I’ve mentioned in part in the past and finally sort of gelled in my head today is this:

Some roleplaying games are like your weekly poker night, where you just show up and play. It doesn’t matter if you were there last week. It doesn’t matter if you’re there next week. All that matters is that you have fun while you’re there and don’t harsh other people’s fun.

Other games are like community theater or recreational league sports, where commitment and reliability are important things to the development of your fun and the fun of others.

If you treat the “poker” style games like community theater or recreational league sports, your reliability will be appreciated by others. If you treat your “community theater” type games like you would a poker game, you just come off like a jerk.

Or, perhaps more succinctly:

Each roleplaying game has a basic level of commitment expected from it’s players. Sometimes it’s casual, sometimes it’s not. If you go beyond the minimum, the game only benefits. If you do less than the minimum, you do more harm than good.

And from the GMing end, it’s good to know what sort of games work best in each of those structures.

17 thoughts on “Assorted Thoughts on Gaming

  1. idemandjustice

    With the exception of LARPs, the people we role-play with are close friends. Who we met at other games, but we play well together and get along well, share similar views on role-playing as well as general other things (politics, what movies are awesome, liking broadway musicals, etc). I haven’t really seen many table-top games that don’t suffer when a player can’t make it, though. People are good about at least notifying everyone in advance if there’s some reason they can’t make it, though.

    As far as LARPs go, I don’t even begin to know how the person running it manages to get so many people on board. And while I’ve made great friends through them, there are also a large number of people who generally suck, too. Who show up drunk, don’t have good hygiene, act like jerks, role-play REALLY badly in a way that detracts from other people’s enjoyment… sometimes all of the above. With LARP’s it’s also usually more acceptable to drift in and out and it doesn’t screw up the story, because there are enough people to carry it along or just shift the focus elsewhere. That said, I enjoy table-top games far more than LARPs. I find it easier to immerse myself in them, and I think it has a lot to do with the smaller scale, which allows for more individual focus. Of course, I even play solo regularly with my husband. Only downside to that is that if I’m the only player, and I get stumped (and who doesn’t get stumped from time to time?), there’s no one else player-wise for me to try to get advice from. (I solved that sort of with our current game by playing a priest character that casts divination when she’s at a loss for what to do. When in doubt, ask my deity.) On the other hand, there’s never any bickering like you get in larger games or just with players who aren’t very compatible.

    Sorry for the rambling, I know not all of it was exactly on topic. :)

  2. nuadha_prime

    I’m a big fan of limited narrative control. By that, I mean systems that allow players to take occassional bits of narrative control for actions their characters take. For example, in my Dreaming City game, one of the things that players can use Drama Points for is to succeed instantly at a skill and (the part that folks don’t always understand) describe the success. So, you could describe your character succeeding in an ultra-cool way, a “I just barely made it” way, or even in a way that they succeed with the help of the other players. Since the chance to do that is a limited resource, players only use it occassionally, but can tend to use it when they do to get that “shining moment of Sparklypoo.”

  3. colomon

    Yeah, while I’m still trying to figure out the subtleties of making it work properly in my Star Wars game, I’ve become a big fan of this idea.

    Hey, crazy random spur-of-the-moment thought. I just remembered that Mutants and Masterminds has some sort of mechanism where big GM fiat calls (“Whoops! Through a completely improbable coincidence, the villain escapes your perfect trap!”) award all the players a Hero Point each. It seems like this might be a worthwhile addition to the Drama Points mechanism, too….

  4. colomon

    How is the pbwiki thing working out? I’d love to have a wiki for the Star Wars game, but hadn’t really looked into how to set one up…

  5. arrefmak

    Hmmmm.

    Yes, ‘play’ can re-fuel a GM’s inspiration. Recommended as a cure for burn-out, especially if you can match with someone high on your personal ‘fun scale’.

    Do you get more value from the smaller games that have better match of your fun? I do.

  6. admin Post author

    Rambling is utterly fine. Not like this is a talk show that needs to keep things lively in order to make our corporate overlords happy. ;)

    Though I must say: You are totally not selling me on LARPs.

  7. admin Post author

    I like the idea limited narrative control as well, but I’ve never been good at implimenting it. I have enough trouble feeling like I adjudicate things fairly. Having a system like drama points in Amber… I never know just how well I’m doing.

    As a player… I tend to only use such things to increase my chances of success. In the heavy narrative control games, I always flounder a bit. I just can’t balance out narrative control vs staying in character. Too disrupting.

  8. admin Post author

    In general… good. The kids are the most proactive in playing with the Wiki. They all maintain backups of their character sheets there, they add to their “Scorecards” (a concept I introduced to them with the last site I had for them), put up quotes, art, whatever. Other groups… less involved. The main mixed blessing is that PB Wiki only really allows people who gain permission from the administrator of the wiki to edit it. So, if I start a Wiki, I can invite people to be editors of it. People can request my permission to edit it. But random people cannot just come along and tamper with it. Which makes it good for small things like games. Not so good for large Wikipedia-style collaborations. wants to move the kids game wiki to… I want to say Scratch Pad Wiki, because it’s a bit more of a robust wiki. I don’t know if she’s actually done that or not.

    It’s crazy easy to start a wiki, though. Crazy easy.

  9. admin Post author

    Do you get more value from the smaller games that have better match of your fun?

    I’m not entirely sure I understand this question. Um… yes? I prefer smaller games? I don’t know what you mean by “better match of your fun.”

  10. idemandjustice

    Yeah, I guess I’m not selling them very well, am I? Though I have to give them some credit, since there are so many great people I wouldn’t have met if I shunned them. Including most of the people I role-play with in anything, as well as my husband. I have participated in some good ones; they just seem much harder to find.

  11. arrefmak

    I think what I meant was, smaller games are more fun, but do you see the fact that it is smaller group as being not as good a game?

    Is the fun not as meaningful because there was only one or two other folks in game?

  12. admin Post author

    Ah…

    I mean: It’s not just as fun. With just two players, I feel that there isn’t as good of a dynamic. And having a good dynamic helps cover up some of my shortcomings as a GM. ;)

  13. losrpg

    “What it really emphasized for me, honestly, was the strength of the phases in Spirit of the Century where you base most of your choices in Aspects off of interaction with other characters. Building that sense of history between characters is always a challenge in any heavily character-driven game. I’m primarily thinking of Amber in this regard. In theory a character quiz and communication before the game is supposed to solve this.”

    Says who?

    I don’t mean to be snarky, but if you want the players to build interconnected characters, IME, you need real face-to-face communication. Preferably a whole session devoted to it.

    But a character generation session doesn’t guarantee connected characters. F’rex, in your Amber game this spring, we had a communal character generation session…where each of the players sat down and did their own thing without involving the other players. A couple of times I tried to make suggestions like “we should all share an Aspect”…but they pretty much fell on deaf ears. I finally got the message and just gave up. So the character generation session for that game was pretty much “Jeremy goes over the rules and everyone goes off in a corner and generates their character.”

    There are a number of cute mechanics you can use during chargen to make the PCs tied into each other. The key is to get player buy-in and the make the mechanic you use fun. If the players think of it as homework, you may win the battle but you’ve already lost the war. You’ve got to find something that’s fun for your players, and that won’t be the same from group to group.

  14. admin Post author

    Says who?

    Says me! =)

    When I did my straight up SotC one-shot to play with the rules, it emphasized an important aspect of character creation that I lacked with the Amber game. I had just glommed onto the idea of Aspects but didn’t see how they implimented them. I think it would have been a very different feel if 6 of the aspects had to be tied into other PCs based off of shared background.

    Getting player buy-in is also important, and something that’s always a challenge. What do you do when you tell people what you want, and they agree without actually paying attnetion? =P

  15. losrpg

    “Says who” was referring to the “In theory a character quiz and communication before the game is supposed to solve this.”

    Sorry that wasn’t clear.

    As for inattentive buy-in…that’s when I would introduce an actual mechanic at chargen time. Something like “name a nasty thing you did to one of the other PCs, and how it cost them 5 points in a stat — and name a good thing you did to one of the other PCs, and how it gave them 5 points in a stat” Or the SotC rule with Aspects. Or something like that…there’s a bunch of things that can work here. IME, players pretty quickly pick up on the value of this kind of stuff once they’ve seen it in action.

    That’s not a cure for all cases of inattentive buy-in, though — just this one. Sometimes inattentive buy-in is a clue that this player isn’t really right for this game. Sometimes they just don’t realize how important that element is to you. Usually a few questions can figure that out. The real problem is distinguishing between those who are cool with your goals once they understand them and those who will proceed with marginal compliance.

  16. admin Post author

    All very true. “Pit of Vipers” has a mechanic much like the “you did this nasty thing to someone else,” except they work it in with the auction. That would be truly awesome if I liked the auction mechanic.

    I don’t know… I’m resisting the urge to offer something new up and try to tinker any more. My frustrations with RPGs goes beyond mechanics.

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