October 29, 2007

For a long time now, I’ve seen this basic idea in a lot of places, and believed it myself:

“Even if the group decides to compromise on nothing about the content of a scene, they will still have to compromise, since everyone wants spotlight time.  There’s only so much spotlight time to go around, so they’ll need to compromise by sharing it.”

Here’s the problem I see: there ISN’T only so much spotlight time to go around.  It’s true that there is a limited amount of time in the session, but subject to that constraint, there is no limit on how much time a player can have regardless of how much time the others get.  The reason for this is simple: each minute of game time might constitute spotlight time for more than one player.  So the “make the pie bigger” solution is to play more scenes that involve multiple characters.

If it seems like there isn’t enough spotlight time, try sharing it a bit more.  Where along the scale between “one character per scene” and “everyone in every scene” is right for your group is for them to decide.



October 28, 2007

Ah, the tropes of computer rpgs.  How many of these slip over into pen and paper?  Only a few, but it’s still worth a read (and a laugh!)

Random Character Death

October 28, 2007

At a gathering to watch some football last night, roleplaying came up as it inevitably does with this group. It’s the most significant shared experience we have.

One way or another (which is to say, I probably did it but I don’t remember how), we got on the topic of D&D and random character death. And I posed the question “Is random character death ever fun?” I have never seen a circumstance where dice were rolled and a character died that the group was satisfied with. In fact, I’ve seen this occurrence torpedo more than one campaign. We argued about it a lot, and the main contention against removing random character death was that, in order for succeeding to be fun, there needed to be the possibility of failure. This might be true, but I don’t see that failure and death are always connected in either direction. Another problem people had was that they always assume any combat is deadly and so the don’t fight unless they’re willing to die. I hypothesize that this makes more sense in, say, L5R than it does in D&D. Rarely can a fighting problem be resolved by talking in D&D, much more rarely than in L5R. Yet another issue was that sometimes people truly are willing to have their character die in order to accomplish something, and this should be possible.

In any case, this brings me to a bit of technology to deal with making character death happen at appropriate times in the story. Initially I thought that a good way to manage this would be to simply ask before a combat – “Raise your hand if you’re OK dying during this fight.” Someone pointed out that this would totally break their immersion, and would not be acceptable. So, my idea is to give everyone a signaling device that they can set in two positions to indicate whether they are OK with lethality. This could be a poker chip with different colors on each side, a miniature that could be standing or laying down, whatever. The key to it is that the GM needs to be able to see it from across the table so they don’t have to ask and interrupt the game. Some players will never change their answer; they need only set it once per game and leave it there. Other players will be OK with dying if it’s sufficiently epic; these players may switch back and forth.

There might even be consequences of having your signal in both positions. Perhaps if you’re in “non-lethal mode,” you’re responsible for suggesting an appropriate complication other than death, but you get bonuses to social skills. And if you’re in “lethal mode,” you get bonuses to combat, but are responsible for something else. The exact effects of both modes will probably depend on what game you’re playing.

A story from our game last week

October 23, 2007

From a group email:

As roleplayers, we attend games each week, hoping that the GM has cooked up something that will inspire us to care, to get involved, to investigate, to test what our characters are made of. And, nearly every week, we leave disappointed in some way. Let’s look at a time that wasn’t disappointing, and ask: What happy accidents happened to bring this about – and how can we become more accident prone?

Consider the strange case of Lance Bruce, gay linebacker. In our recent game of The Roach, I played Max Born, a gay psychology professor. In one of the first scenes, I was faced with the task of crafting a conflict that would involve someone else’s character. Since The Roach does not feature extensive character backgrounds, I had very little information to work with. Luckily, Steve had drawn the card “Expose,” which required him to publicize indiscretions related to another character, and his character already hated mine.

So, I outlined my vision for the scene: Max Born was attending convocation with his lover. Before the speeches, the faculty was chatting with the university administration, including the Chancellor. Professor Feebs, having come across evidence of Max’s sexuality, would seek to expose Max’s intimate relationship with his convocation guest in front of the assembled dignitaries. Max’s lover would help him keep their relationship secret. I asked Chris to play the Chancellor, Bruce to play Max’s lover who we named him Lance Bruce after a Simpson’s quote, and we started the scene.

The scene opened with “Good to meet you. Lance Bruce, linebacker, Ohio State University” and we were surprised. This macho, alpha male was exactly the opposite of what we had expected. “Get me a drink, woman…I mean, professor.” We all laughed. The scene built smoothly to a conflict – would the Chancellor believe Prof. Feebs’ accusations, despite Lance Bruce’s manly personality? Each of the characters involved in the scene, PC and NPC alike, had motivation for their actions, and when the dice were rolled, the result had a real impact on the outcome of the story for all of us. Without this scene, almost none of the future conflicts would have worked: Lance Bruce would not have been strip searched for microfiche at a football game, we wouldn’t have elected a new (kilt wearing schizophrenic) Faculty Senate Chair, and there wouldn’t have been a Lance Bruce Ass. Hall of Acoustics/Judgement. In short, our game wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable or filled with laughter.

The players were so immensely satisfied with this scene that you’ve heard several renditions of it by now. For those of us who were there, it’s a gaming memory that we’ll never forget. So what went right? I knew that Steve needed to expose someone. Steve knew what to expose. Bruce knew that he somehow needed to help me keep my identity under wraps. Chris knew to keep the chancellor reasonably neutral until we reached the conflict. We all knew our functions in the scene, because we’d communicated beforehand what was expected. Notice though that the results were still surprising, engaging, and also more fun than usual.

So how can we become more prone to happy accidents in our scenes, plot lines, and sessions? This story suggests that, in order to accomplish this, we should talk Before Rather Than After.