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The Fairgame Archive

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2007-10-06: Roundtable games
by Emily

Russell Bailey had an interesting question for me about what he calls...

...roundtable play: where players or characters compete without a ruling, personal authority. You've used a number of different mechanisms to get there: for example, trading poor rolls for tough breaks in Breaking the Ice, or the sort of Madlib/Donjon game in Sign in Stranger, where content is blocked out before it's refined. I know from the introduction that you've also played Shock:.

Could you talk a little bit about the differences between designing for roundtable, rather than directed, play? Do you feel that a game without GM-directed play needs more mechanical structure (if not actually heavier rules)?

The three big issues for me are accountability, adversity and conflict of interest. Structure helps with them all.

Accountability

The traditional role of gm is a handy-dandy little bookmark for a whole raft of tasks and skills that are needed to keep a role playing game going: running rules, helping people learn the game, pacing, plotting, describing the world, etc.  It's common knowledge these days that if you want to make a game that doesn't have one person as the gm, then other people have to pick up the slack.  So, when designing a game like this, you have to identify the roles and tasks that are going to be used in the game, and create accountability for who is going to do them.

One way is to create new roles that are subsets of a gm. The Guide/Player distinction in Breaking the Ice accomplishes that, and the protag/antag players in Shock:. In Polaris, the roles shift around the circle, with each person taking a different set of tasks for each character.

Another way that this is done is by taking the tasks themselves and making them available to everyone at all times. Universalis does this, with complications and purchasing of elements. Capes does this through the creation of conflicts that all have input on. Shock: also has shared characters and world element creation through the ephemera.

Structure in this case is about making explicit roles that (with a gm) are often implicit.

Adversity

One of the most important tasks that needs to be accounted for is applying adversity. It's the aspect of being a gm that almost defines the role.  Without it, we are all trapped playing the fluffy bunny game.

In breaking the ice and Capes, players are given incentives to create complications respectively for themselves and others. Tony cleverly has created in Capes a dynamic where what matters is what the player cares about, rather than simply what blocks the character. In Polaris, the role of the mistaken tells us who has to be the shit giver, and the Cosmos points that person toward what the Heart cares about.

As the Czege principal tells us, at any given time it is unsatisfying for players to have to give themselves adversity—although I short-circuit this in Breaking the Ice by having the overall success or failure be about the larger conflict rather than the moment to moment mess ups—but it needs to be clear who will apply the pressure, and that they are clear of other attachments which leads to the next item.

Structure in this case is about ensuring that the potential of our creative ideas are realized by subjecting each others' characters to tests and ordeals.

Conflict of Interest

It's not enough to say "you go kick the shit out of her". There are agreements that have to be made.

In some games the agreements are about the range of shit which can be kicked. Stats abilities and game balance are all about this. (I love the idea of a to-hit location table being a body-sized map of potential outcomes.) Other games determine this by allocating narration rights. "If you lose, you narrate how you get kicked." We give permission by agreeing to the system for some of these possibilities to be a reality.

In a directed game, one person has the job of being the kicker. Their job is to poke you, and they *should* not have an agenda, based on social issues or desire for advancement of a character they are invest into. That is part of what makes an npc distinct: no advancement path or chance of development, a set level from which they are expect to decline. Part of the contract of being a gm is accepting that your resources will be chipped away at, your lovely toys tarnished.  You are putting yourself out there, in fact, to be the one who in the end is kicked and finished.

Sometimes. Player characters do fail and die.

But moving to a circular or network model with decentralized gm authority (yes, roundtable is a much friendlier term :) opens up many cans of worms.  If everyone has a character which they are personally invested in, if the characters oppose one another, who must submit?  If in opposing another player/character you end up opposing goals of your own, how do you set aside your attachment to your own characters' objectives in order to oppose them?  If conflicts involve multiple characters how do you avoid having this happen? Sign in Stranger is bringing up all of these questions for me.

And finally, how do you inflict damage that could cross moral lines for players, safely?

There are several approaches I can see, and they all involve structure on one type or another. It's critical.

area responsibility - each person takes responsibility for adversity over the other players characters. this may be decided by portioning out the world, by divying up characters who are "heavy"s or what I call Plot Characters in SiS. Again, this is the answer in Polaris and Shock: Though interestingly in Shock: the parallel or separate nature of the stories helps cut through potential conflicts of interest.  When you are being the antagonist for someone else, your primary character is unlikely to be involved, freeing you to do what you need to do. Though, of course, this need not be the case.

With area responsibility, we try to partition our concerns to minimize having to actively work against ourselves when we oppose one another.

all against all - as in Capes, or Great Ork Gods, there is no need to worry about conflicts of interest since you are always acting against the others, either directly or indirectly, so your motivations are always nicely aligned against one another.  It is only when sometimes you may be on both sides of an issue, or deciding something about a different character of your own that you're likely to be torn by interest issues.  So, if all you're out to do is pummel each other, there is no conflict.

With competition we avoid conflicts of interest by avoiding alignment of interest with fellow players.

randomization - and of course, the function of fortune in games is (always?) to release individuals from full responsibility.

As ever, dice cure all.

permissions through narration allocation - a friend just wrote a system that uses cross-character fiat to give permission for people to do terrible things to each other's characters. By which I mean that players narrate things that the opposing character does. Since this will define the nature of the hurt brought on to one's own character, it creates a powerful buffer of permissions and self-responsibility. This is an interesting (and I think more functional*) spin on the common no-god-moding rule in narrative rps (ie "your narration ends at the tip of my nose").Conflicts that might arise at bringing on brutal levels of hurt are short-circuited by arranging pre-determined levels of consent.

And in the absence of any resolution mechanics, clear responsibility for your own boundaries creates permission to do what would be flinched from otherwise.

Structure in these cases is about clarifying and untangling player motivations.

I am sure there are many more ways work the issue than these. There is still a lot of territory to map. Which is exactly what makes it interesting. :)

*Because incentives still exist for there to be strong adversity given and received.


2007-10-08 04:38:58 Emily

There have now been three instances of actual play for the Fluffy Bunny game.  It goes to show that one can never really know what will come of a post online.


2007-10-09 15:16:18 ScottM

I like your list and thorough laying out of what and why above.  Thanks!


2007-10-09 18:10:11 Jonathan Walton

Em, what about the implicit GM-less play that happens in a lot of freeform, where the player roles aren't specifically laid out but everything is negotiated on the social contract level?  I realize that doesn't really work for designing a game around, but people seem to do it easily enough.

Also, I think it's important to mention "Yes, But..." mechanics (like Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan and Polaris and compelling Aspects in Spirit of the Century) and "Say Yes or Roll the Dice" when talking about conflicts of interest.  These make sure that most things fly and only the really important things are negotiated.


2007-10-09 19:00:13 Emily

Good points, Jonathan. The accountability can be a lot more loosey goosey and still happen, but I think it matters that the rules make it explicit that it has to get done by *someone*.  You and I may disagree about this :)

In the tabletop freeform we did at GenCon, it was clear that in each scene we had to work through some kind of issue or conflict. Who actually did it could shift, or be shared by everyone, but we knew it had to happen. This also entered in a bit with the Spione game I played: the narration shifted in minute fragments of scene which opened up what happened to everyone—but we all knew we were building to flash point, so it didn't necessarily matter who did it.

I didn't say this in the post, but it occurred to me that not every game needs every possible task accounted for. Some just won't come up in a given game. But there may be some which are core requirements.

Also, I think it's important to mention "Yes, But..." mechanics (like Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan and Polaris and compelling Aspects in Spirit of the Century) and "Say Yes or Roll the Dice" when talking about conflicts of interest. These make sure that most things fly and only the really important things are negotiated.

A neat thing about "Yes and", as well as "Yes, but" and "Yes + mechanics" is that they make the player decide what they are more invested in. And when you do care, you have to put your own ideas on the block too. They are also explicit agreements to accept each other's offers, which is really helpful in general in creative collaboration.


2007-10-14 13:54:18 Jonathan Walton

Em, I think we fell into the "push towards conflict resolution" mode because that's the shared background we have and because the act of moving pieces implies that something changes or gets resolved in the course of each scene.  In a different set up, I wonder if play would have developed in a rather different way.

I do think that it's sometimes helpful to indicate the tasks at hand without indicating how you should handle them.  Like "Choose one player to fulfill X function."  How do the players choose one of themselves to do that thing?  Up to them.  TSOY does this a lot, to the point whether the game (in at least one draft) never mentions whether there is a GM or not :)

Then again, I tend to think that all tasks not specifically mentioned in the rules will be taken on by someone.  Like, on the extreme end, consider the new setting-only pirates book that Green Ronin put out.  Since there are no rules in the book, players have to come up with their own system, their own method of resolving things, everything.

Specifying who-does-what or what-there-is-to-be-done just makes all of the groups that are playing the game more likely to look a bit more similar.  And that may or may not be a design goal, you know?  What if one of the things you want from your game is a diversity of different kinds of play experiences or for groups to play the game in a sty;e in which they are super comfortable?  Than, perhaps, being vague about some things could be part of fulfilling your design goal, no?


2007-11-01 12:36:01 Russell

Emily, because of the huge load of work at my new job, I haven't been able to respond to this properly, but it's given me an awful lot to think about; thanks.


2007-11-01 18:59:00 Emily

Cool, Russell. Thanks for asking. It was good to think about these things.

JW wrote:

Specifying who-does-what or what-there-is-to-be-done just makes all of the groups that are playing the game more likely to look a bit more similar. And that may or may not be a design goal, you know? What if one of the things you want from your game is a diversity of different kinds of play experiences or for groups to play the game in a sty;e in which they are super comfortable?

This reminds me of what Vincent said in his review of your game Transtiago, Jonathan. That he could see how Meg, or I or Joshua and Julia might play, but that each would be different.

Inconsistency as a design goal! Now that's nicely heretical, isn't it. ;)


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