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January 4th, 2007

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10:17 pm - Focus and Cooperation, and Beyond
Regarding the mainstream possibilities for RPGs, ewilen wrote this post on a thread on theRPGsite. In it, he talked about dealing with the required focus and cooperation of tabletop RPGs, which I thought was interesting. He wrote:
I had a thought why RPGs are just never going to become the sort of thing you break out at a party--or at least the obstacle they'd have to overcome to achieve that status. It's this:

RPGs require focus and cooperation by all participants, or they suck for everyone. A participant who can't be bothered to try to understand what's going on, or who acts randomly, is highly disruptive. And RPGs lack an in-game method of "punishing" bad players in a socially-useful fashion.

Consider for example a game of Hearts. If one person fucks up, it's their loss, everyone else's gain. (Sure, one player may benefit more than the others, but the screwup is generally hurt at least as badly as everyone else.) If you play Hearts with your friends and you tire of losing, then you either put in more effort or you stop playing. But in the meantime, the others don't really mind beating you.

In an RPG (and I might add, especially in a "story-game" that gives players lots of responsibility & unstructured authority), it's easy for a player to do something dumb in the game that kills the fun for the whole group.

This is an excellent point. However, I think that this dynamic is very relevant to the design of non-role-playing games -- particularly for long multiplayer boardgames, but also card games and multiplayer games in general. A common issue is that in many games, if someone is losing, they can take down other people with them. One of the worst aspects of such games is that someone gets into a losing position, but is stuck playing through the rest of the game. Bored, they play for things other than winning and mess up everything else. Because of issues like this, dealing with the behavior of losing players is critical to the design of games.

There are several ways of dealing with it -- many of which were integral to the rise in popularity of boardgames in the last decade, centering on the German/European game invasion. One is carefully balancing so that people at least seem like they are capable of winning throughout the game. Thus, once it's clear that you're going to win (or lose), the game ends for you or ends overall.

Another boardgame solution is limiting player interaction. In Diplomacy or Illuminati, if everyone turns against you, they can take you out of the game. Moreover, one person who is losing can sacrifice themselves to take someone else out down. In Settlers of Catan, however, you can go on to win even if everyone is trying to stop you. More recent games have improved further on this aspect.

ewilen continues:
Same with a player who's sort-of bored and just "going through the motions". Can you punish these players short of tossing them out? Sure, but all the methods I've seen proposed amount to this: voting on each other's creative talent. That's not a comfortable thing. The temptation is to give everyone a "Perfect 10", but that doesn't work, since it just means the screwups are going to keep messing the game up for everyone else.

To become "mainstream", RPGs need to find a way to accommodate players who don't cooperate (or don't know how to)--and I might add, it's not a solution to read players a bunch of pages of color text about "getting into the spirit of the game". Or they need to find a way to contain the damage from players who screw up, without engendering bad feelings and a sense of being judged.

Well, other mainstream games still have negative reinforcement of players who screw up. However, it is very different being out-maneuvered by someone who is objectively better at a tactical game compared to being told by other players (directly or indirectly) that your creative ideas are no good. The latter seems much more likely to engender bad feelings, though its still true that if you keep beating someone else, they often will stop playing with you.

One way to contain the damage is to enforce narrow norms during public play where everyone is active, but to also give players more private space. That is, each player (or player character) can have some off-screen stuff which is going on that isn't overtly a part of everything else. For example, Aaron Allston's technique of "blue-booking" is an example of this -- where each player has a permanent journal shared with the GM that they jot actions or stuff in during times when they're not active in play. This off-screen stuff could be where the player opens up more with stuff that they might not be comfortable playing out in front of the group.

Of course, larps and online games (such as MUDs and MUSHes) already have more private spaces simply by being alone with only one or two other players. It is trickier to arrange this for this in tabletop.

The distinction of public and private space was something I've pondered about in my essay Story and Narrative Paradigms in RPGs (which was followed up by my immersive story technique essay in Push: Volume 1). So, the theory here is that in the model of immersive story, each player sees his own PC as the protagonist. This suggests that the stuff to keep secret is what is important to only one PC that doesn't involve the other PCs. So if your PC has some inner struggle with his alcoholism, you want to play out scenes where other PCs touch on that story -- but as a player, you're not trying to use public time to display that struggle. Instead, you want to support other stories while others support yours.

So a hypothetical example of this in practice... Suppose Greg is a shy, passive player. He isn't comfortable with what the more violent preferences of the other players. So the GM secretly exchanges emails with him to set something up. He comes up that his is the long-lost son of the late Duke, who is keeping his identity a secret from everyone until he can appease the king, claim his birthright. Greg wouldn't be comfortable if this were open, since some of the other players might be liable to mock it for being too mushy or too cliche. However, it can be put in and add to the game for Greg without being pushed on the other players. To the other PCs, he mostly seems to be fortune-seeking and trying for glory -- and the GM drops in background which connect into this story, but which only Greg will really recognize. Greg's PC doesn't constantly go off and do secret things during game time, so it doesn't adversely affect the other players.

This isn't a new technique, but I think it is interesting to note it's role in the group dynamic. Namely, that it allows in material which some players might otherwise be uncomfortable bringing into public judgement by the group.

(4 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:January 5th, 2007 08:22 am (UTC)
I am okay with having players who don't engage as heavily or obviously as others. I tune out myself sometimes a bit over a 6 hour game. And that has turned out okay in the long run, in my experience. Outgoing players might assume that a more quiet-seeming or flakey player isn't paying attention or isn't really playing; but from their point of view they might be fully engaged in the game and thinking a lot about their character.

For example, I've been in some episodes where my character didn't do jack shit, but I still felt affected by what happened in play, sometimes just by 5 minutes of an important conversation between two other characters that made many things fall into place or become clear! And for me it has been important to detach from the feeling that my character has to be super active, has to have the spotlight, or come up with something clever, in every game, or I'm not a good player (or am somehow not holding up my weight socially or am disappointing other people). Actually I feel now like a good player in good games even during those seeming "down" times.

[User Picture]
Date:January 5th, 2007 08:26 am (UTC)
I would also add to that, it's part of the job of the GM *and* the other players if a person is really not engaging with the game or interested, to help figure out what is interesting to them, which concept I'm sure has some elaborate forgean name with Capital Letters... ;-)

But part of that job is to cut that player some slack and don't set up the game to make their role, leadership, cleverness, crucial -- don't push them, if they want to drink a beer, listen, and think, and once in a while have Ogg the Barbarian lend a hand while everyone else deconstructs the meaning of the universe.

It has been helpful for me to be able to say to a GM, "I'm having an off week/night and please don't put me on the spot in the game" and to have that respected!

(Deleted comment)
[User Picture]
Date:January 5th, 2007 06:54 pm (UTC)
But if you're going to start having email exchanges about the game, you're moving away from the casual play of a round of Monopoly and toward much more involvement, and I think that kind of commitment is one of the barriers for more wide-spread play.

It seems to me that in order for the game to be able to come out at a party, as Elliot said, it needs to require less commitment and work. It also needs to take off the pressure of coming up with great things on the fly and being put on the spot. The same thing that makes RPGs so great--the wide open arena for creativity--also creates an environment that doesn't lend itself to casual play.

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