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Friday 28 June 2019

How to roleplay

Paul Mason is famous in roleplaying circles as one of the uber-fans involved with Dragonlords and as the editor of the superb if infrequent imazine, in which he treated us to a stellar series of articles and reviews in his inimitably trenchant and thought-provoking style. He was also for many years one of my Tekumel players and has written Outlaws, a great but so far unpublished RPG of the heroes of Liangshan Po, which I used as the basis of my (also unpublished) Heian Japan roleplaying game, Kwaidan.

These days Paul is too busy with his academic career in Japan to do much roleplaying, but the last time he was over in Britain I asked if he wouldn’t mind me running some of his articles as guest posts, and he gave a kind of oblique permission. That is, he looked at me with an expression that was more 'are you serious?' than 'don’t you dare'.

This piece might strike you as very basic stuff if you’re a roleplayer – but hey, I’ve been roleplaying since the mid-70s and I found it useful. Remember that once you reach 10th Dan you go back to wearing a white belt. Nobody should ever think they’re anything but a novice. Take it away, Paul...

In a role-playing game the rules are details: they are the trees from which part of the wood is composed. So let’s consider a different approach to writing rules for role-playing games. Let’s try to look at the wood.

The purpose of this game is to take part in a story. The story isn’t told by anyone, but is built up from the improvised contributions of all the participants. See the sample for an idea of how this works.

how to play
The game creates a story. Participants in the game all play a part in creating the story, by making contributions. The goal of the game is to make it as easy as possible for participants to act or describe their improvised contributions to the game without spoiling the sense of immersion.

There are two basic types of participants in the game. Players are a little like actors. They will usually act the life of a single person: their character. The referee is more like a director. The referee describes sensory information in the story, and may occasionally act other characters in the story, as needed.

A participant who contributes to the game by acting does so by saying what their character is trying to do. So in the sample, Fred says: ‘I climb up the gantry to the deck above.’ If you like, when this action is speech, the participant can act the speech by actually speaking as the character. So later in the sample, when Fred says ‘Set it to stun!’ he’s actually saying what his character is saying. In some cases you might need to check which it is, but usually it will be obvious. Two or more participants can thus act the roles of their characters, conducting a conversation which forms part of the story.

Anything which is acted by a participant takes place as described, unless it is challenged by another participant (usually this is the job of the referee, but other players may also challenge if they like). A participant whose action has been challenged must prove that the character could succeed. To do this, they need to use an agreed game mechanic (such as Outlaws Light, presented in imazine #33). An example of a game mechanic is that you must roll 9 or less on two dice to hit with your phaser. Really skilled characters like Worf need an 11 or less. Other Klingons need 7 or less.

Some complex interactions, such as fights, often involve continual implied challenges, and therefore may require a lot of use of mechanics. Other actions, if they seem reasonable given the character and the story, can pass unchallenged.

A participant who contributes to the game by describing does so by talking about something accessible to the senses of characters in the game. This is usually the job of the referee, but players may also occasionally describe things connected with their characters. So in the sample, Sam describes what the players can see once they have climbed the gantry, and what they can feel.

Descriptions, like actions, can be challenged. They shouldn’t be contradicted outright, but senses can be mistaken! A player who describes a scene is speaking only for their character, and other players, or the referee, may perceive things differently. Note that the referee is privileged in description: because they speak for ‘everybody’ a player who challenges a referee’s description is simply describing what their own character perceives, and not what anyone else does.

Obviously, not everything needs to be described, and referees should beware of trying to act events in the story in the guise of description! For example, if Sam in the sample goes on to say ‘When you walk on to the transporter pad, there is an explosion’ this is wrong, because the players haven’t yet said that they are acting by walking on to the transporter pad. Remember, you’re not telling a story by crafting it authorially, you’re creating one by inhabiting it.

There are no fixed rules governing how and when you can contribute to a story, but there are some obvious guidelines that should be followed. The most important is: take your cues from the story. If you act something your character is doing tomorrow, then everyone else’s actions today will have to be done in flashbacks. This will be difficult, and may even cause a contradiction with what you acted about tomorrow. Challenging other player characters, or getting into conflicts with them, is fine, but blocking the story itself is generally bad form.

A typical sequence of contributions will be:
  • Referee describes the situation facing the player characters, and/or uses a character to act a stimulus.
  • Players respond by acting their character’s reaction. There’s no fixed order to this, but if a player feels that their character should be able to act first, they always have recourse to a challenge.
  • Participants respond to the actions. This may lead to further description—the referee, or a player, may describe the result of actions.
  • Out of all these contributions, a sequence of events will soon be evident. This is the story.
Even in your own mind, separate Action from Description. At first it’s tempting to think that your character could do absolutely anything, but soon you find that the limitations are what create drama. Maybe you can’t leap that chasm, maybe you’re not fast enough to outrun the fireball. Maybe the Ferengi saw you pick his pocket. Sometimes you should challenge yourself, not wait for other players to do it.

Time for the characters in the story does not pass at the same rate as it does for the players. At times, it will pass very slowly, if you’re working out something that doesn’t take long, but needs to be explained in detail. At other times, it will pass very quickly, as with a long journey in which nothing much happens. As with most things in the game, time can be skipped over, subject to challenge by any of the other participants.

There are no rules to cover winning. Players can decide on their own ideas of what constitutes winning. However, they may find that other players don’t agree with them. So how do you win? Well, how does a character win in a story?

The game takes place in game sessions. A game session is when the participants get together to play the game. It can end at any time that is convenient for the participants. The end of a game session doesn’t mean the end of a story. The story can continue in the next session. A story only ends when everyone agrees that it’s finished, and you start a new one, or when you stop playing the game entirely!

Thanks to Dave Morris for providing comments and useful examples based on Star Trek. In writing this, I’ve been particularly inspired by all those games which have started with some vague waffle about how role-playing is like improvisational radio theatre, have followed it with a sample dialogue, without any explanation as to how and why people said what they did, and then plunged straight into tables of character generation. I’m also indebted to my own players, half of whom were complete beginners.

- Paul Mason

Wednesday 26 June 2019

Anybody out there?

Sam needs the help of a good friend. You are Sam's guide and only contact outside the evacuated area. Without you, Sam will not survive the next few days.
A character-driven, chat-based, story-rich text adventure game in which trust is as important as problem-solving? Of course I'm going to like Everbyte's Dead City. I'm sometimes asked what the future of gamebooks will look like. Like this.

And while poking around Everbyte's site I also found they've made an audio adventure -- something I was harping on about twenty years ago, and still am. The future of gamebooks is finally here.

But wait, there's more. Storyfix Media have just released Christopher Webster's interactive adventure The Pulse. This is another one that breaks with the old second-person narrative style in favour of building a relationship with a character. You make the decisions, they take the risks. Immediately there's the potential there for conflict, suspicion, unreliability, trust. If you've played my Frankenstein interactive story you'll know it's a development in the genre that I think is ripe for experimentation. To the castle..!

Friday 14 June 2019

Midnight on the Day of Judgement

"Don't talk to me about spoilers. Winter has been coming for -- "

Oh, well maybe I shouldn't go quoting the Axis of Awesome. Not on a family blog, eh? The point is that after thirty-one years The Walls of Spyte, fifth and final book in the Blood Sword series, is back in print thanks to two hundred and fifty stalwart Kickstarter backers. (You know who you are, and thank you.)

A by-blow of the campaign was the Blood Sword Battle Boards, a large-format book collecting all the combat encounters from the series. Fat? It makes Jamie look like Ebony Maw. (By the way don't you think that sounds like the name of a '70s Motown singer? Not Jamie, I mean. The other one.)

All those unstintingly beneficent backers whose pledges funded the re-editing of the book have now got their exclusive, full-colour, hardcover, collector's-edition copies of The Walls of Spyte, but if you missed the campaign don't go pledging your soul to the nethermost darkness just yet. A paperback edition is available and it's every bit as good as the hardcover except for little details like colour, durability, signatures, things like that. But you do still get Russ's matchlessly brilliant art and the opportunity to complete the epic Blood Sword quest there in the steaming, sulphurous heart of the Cauldron on the last day of Creation.

Friday 7 June 2019

Like an egg stain on your chin

Recently I’ve been reminiscing about our roleplaying days of yore. Not in order to wallow in nostalgia, but for the sake of some interviews and podcasts I was doing. I talked about the saturnine loner who achieved enlightenment and saved the people he realized were not lackeys but friends. The civil war that split our party when each player-character came to different conclusions about the right and honorable course. The subtle ways that characters within a legion, even at different ranks, could push their disagreements as far as military rules allowed.

I’m forced to the conclusion that the roleplaying was better back then – more immersive, more nuanced, more surprising – when we just took a Tirikelu character and developed them by playing. Now we mostly use GURPS, which encourages you to plot out every preposterous detail of the character before you start playing. It’s not a springboard for the imagination. More often it’s just a straitjacket.

And by the way, I'm just singling out GURPS because it's the game I've played most in the last ten years. Plenty of so-called narrative systems are just as bad, with their nannying insistence on each player writing down which other character they like, which one they have a grudge against, and so on. It's like being at infant school and being made to write about your weekend. The point of playing is to discover these things, not scribble the backstory to a bad novel.

I much prefer the approach taken by Stephen Dove for his Jewelspider Chronicles campaign. There you begin with a short "mission statement" for the character, clarifying some background details but leaving plenty of room for future development. As an example, here's my initial description of the character I played in Tim Harford's Company of Bronze campaign.

I already talked about why GURPS’s mental disadvantages don’t work but there’s a problem with character disadvantages in general. Say you cap disadvantages at -20 points. All the players will immediately take the maximum allowed. What's wrong with this picture? Simply that if the disadvantages were properly priced, you'd expect to see some players not bother with them at all.

“Ah, but character diamonds.” No, giving extra points for disadvantages is the junk food version of interesting characterisation. A lame epileptic drug-addicted albino with the regulation five quirks is not the slightest bit interesting. What makes a character compelling is in the gap between desire and duty, wants and needs, feelings and experience. And better by far if those internal conflicts are drawn with a subtle brush, not the cartoonish personality traits offered by the GURPS rules.

So I'd allow players one disadvantage. Just one. That's it. Not a mental one, either, because they're all anathema to good roleplaying. If you take the disadvantage, you can spend the points on an advantage. Again, just the one.

How are you going to get that interesting characterization? Do what good roleplayers manage without any of the personality-by-numbers stuff. As Laurence Olivier said: dear boy, just try acting.