Friday, July 5, 2013

Collaborative Gaming: A Response

A couple of weeks ago I posted the video from the ConTessa panel I participated in, Collaborative World-Building and Gaming. In that post I also expanded on some of my ideas about those kinds of games- why you might use them. Last week the Black Vulmea (BV) posted a response on his blog Really Bad Eggs. His post, "Under the Microscope," takes the panel and my post to task for some failings. BV’s one of my favorite blogger- someone I slow down to read when it pops up in my feed. I started following him when I saw some of his posts on Social Networks and how he handles them in his games. His always offers readable and useful posts. If you’re at all interested in Swashbuckling or Pirate-style games, this is the blog you should be reading.

BV has several concerns and criticisms of the post & panel which I’m going to try to respond to. He has  legitimate grievances, but I think some arise from misreadings. The burden of that misreading, at least for the blog post, lies primarily with me for not being clearer and/or more precise. There’s some interesting discussion in the comments, but I’m admittedly restricting myself primarily to BV’s post. Note that I’m speaking for myself and not the other panelists. They’re smart and likely more plugged into this area than I am. I can only really talk as a GM who has found these tools useful in my games. I’ll also be paraphrasing/ summarizing some of BV’s comments- so I really encourage readers to go and read his full piece. I do want to address one comment. Matthew Milller makes the point "The only thing that irks me is when CWB fans adopt a condescending attitude toward trad RPG players, who are framed as "fearing the players," unwilling to leave their "comfort zone," etc. Grr.” I don’t believe that’s the tone of my piece.  

When everyone went over to d20, we were still playing many other things. But it was clearly something worth knowing about so I ran a campaign to see what I thought. I did the same thing with Savage Worlds, Gumshoe, Dying Earth, Fading Suns, and many other games that I ended up liking parts of, but not everything. I’d run Champions for years, but was willing to try other superhero games- eventually landing on Mutants & Masterminds as the one I tried and liked. But I also tried out Godlike, Silver Age Sentinels, and City of Heroes. I’ve explored other, more “indie” systems to see what they have to offer: Fiasco, Hollowpoint, Dread. People talked about OSR so I made sure I played and read some of that. Like every other GM, trying out other systems helps me see what I like about games I run regularly. Sometimes I find new ideas and techniques. I like how FATE describes the environment and I brought that back to the table. And I liked Microscope’s framework for collaborative world building. Has everything I’ve tried worked? No. I’ve learned things my group doesn’t like- things that other groups love: FATE Dice, Detailed Combat Mechanics and Timers from Scion, Abstract Combat Representation, Tag Lines from Dying Earth, Roll Under but High from Fading Suns, Modifier Heavy Systems, GUMSHOE’s standard action system, skill lists written to fit with the setting over clarity, etc.

I use collaborative techniques as another arrow in my GM’s quiver. I run mostly conventional campaigns- GM-created and crafted. You can see most of my campaigns are fairly classic style- here’s are two inventories of them from M&M to GURPS to Rolemaster to D&D to Homebrew to Exalted and so on (Fantasy World and Other). 

Black Vulmea talks about some areas of concern that I share: games which lack mystery and/or have a strongly shifting player/GM relation in the campaign play. But that’s not what’s going on with my sense and experience of collaborative world-building. I’m taking the long way around, but let me begin by distinguishing what I’m not talking about. I can really only speak to my own focus and interests (the panelists may be different).

  • I’m not talking about GM-less games- like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Committee of Exploration of Mysteries, Durance, Capes, or any of countless others. I appreciate games like Fiasco and Our Last Best Hope. They’re cool- and I’d recommend everyone, especially GMs, try one once. It might not be your cup of tea, but you might find something interesting you can bring back to your other games. I like these games, but generally they’re one-shot experiments or goofs on a free evening or between campaigns. They function like a board game for me.
  • I’m also not talking about more abstract games which do have a “GM” but effectively have a negotiated resolution. I believe Murderous Ghosts, mentioned in the panel, falls into this category. In a sense these are randomizer-less- something I’ve not really been able to wrap my head around. These are more storytelling games- again a great and fun thing- but a little bit away from my interests in campaigns and rpgs. They’re cool for a one-shot.*I’m also not talking about games which give the players large-scale control over the narrative in play. By this I mean where they explicitly set the plot or adversaries along with the GM. I’ve heard about games like this but I can’t really point to any. I’m not plugged in enough to the indie scene to know what’s out there in this category. Perhaps My Life with Master. I own that but haven’t played it. My sense again is that these kinds of games are more one-shot than on-going campaign, but that may be my bias (i.e. I have a hard time seeing how that would sustain itself). If someone can give me some examples, that would be helpful.
  • I am talking about mechanical systems or rules which help structure that process. In this case I am talking about some GM-less games, like Microscope or Dawn of Worlds. I’ve played Microscope as a stand-alone game and it was fun. But mostly I’ve used it as a tool to build a setting for a conventional campaign (I’ll come back to some examples later). Some standard rpgs have similar mechanical systems for doing shared creation- Diaspora mentioned in the video for one. Another would be The Dresden Files city creation mechanics. Ars Magica’s another early one- where the players create the Covenant and the GM role passes between players from story to story.
  • Shared character creation: Various flavor of FATE offer a collaborative process used to tie the party together and create aspects. So a segment of the PC’s creation can be influenced by the group. The couple of times I’ve used this, I’ve been surprised by the positive response. It obviously wouldn’t work in all games, but FATE’s system of aspects makes it easy to use.
  • Player Narrative Control: Generally I’m pretty open about players introducing details to a scene- provided they fit the context and ‘ground rules.’ As I mentioned in the video- I encourage players to flesh things out, like describing that there’s a something at hand or in their pocket. Some games, like FATE, make this a mechanical device- allowing players to spend resources to create an impact on the scene. I’m OK with that. But in most of these cases that’s a pretty modest impact- with more significant ones requiring an action, a roll and/or the spending of resources. That’s more a GM technique, I think, then a question of collaborative gaming. I try to be pretty open about things- aiming for a more “Say Yes” approach. If there’s a question, we go to a roll. But I’ll say no if it doesn’t fit or represents a misunderstanding of the scene. I had a player for years who simply couldn’t process scene descriptions. I’d set the stage at the top of each round and even restate things before his actions and he’d still bizarrely misunderstand positions, set ups, details, etc- even with miniatures. I said “No” and “No, But…” with him many, many times.

So what am I talking about- i.e how have I actually used collaborative world-building and gaming?

One of Black Vulmea’s key concerns is that the panel doesn’t strongly enough address or deal with the objections gamers might have to a collaborative approach. We do consider some of it in the panel, but not strongly or in depth enough. I think that’s a fair concern. However I’d say that the panel’s really about presenting perspectives on a tool which gamers can bring to the table. Yes, it is an advocacy panel in that regard. I think given the constraints of the format and the number of participants that’s the likely result. His point is a fair one and if I’m on panels like this in future I’ll give more space to why whatever technique I’m talking about won’t work for everyone.

BV has a bigger concern, “as a player, I want to explore the game-world, not build it. The "world of mystery" isn't something I want to get past; it's one of the most important features of roleplaying games for me” (emphasis his). 

I agree- I want to explore my worlds and I want my players to explore them. That’s the point of my section “Room to Build” from my original post- and really shows that I needed to be more explicit and precise about that. Bottom line: the collaborative approach I’ve used shifts the “GM/player dyad” for a short time before the campaign begins. It then returns it to a conventional “GM/player dyad” during the course of the actual campaign. And in my experience, that’s provided benefits, including increased engagement and excitement.

When I’ve run player involvement with world-building hasn’t detracted from the joy of exploration or the sense of mystery surrounding the world. Let me point to a couple of examples. Here’s the rundown of the collaborative session for the creation of The Last Fleet campaign. It sets up the world background and the history leading up to the present day. That’s what the players know- from that they went away and created characters. Based on that background and those characters I’ve run a 2+ years campaign.

And the game’s been all about exploration and surprise. Voyaging to new places and dealing with the bizarre challenges, while at the same time considering the weight of their own history. They’re the last of their people and they know what they’ve lost. I always hope for an ‘out-of-the-park’ campaign, and this one has delivered. Here’s the thing- the players at the start know as much about the setting as I do. That changes very quickly as I fill in details, add twists, and use the room they’ve given me to add depth. There’s no more lack of mystery than there would be if you were running an established campaign setting players know: Forgotten Realms, Star Wars, or even historical Europe. Here the players have definitely “read the background material” and have an additional connection, a sense of ownership and investment.

You can see another example, our Relic Hunters aka The Hunts Begin campaign, here. Look at the possibilities. They’re delicious and I made the most of them. That detail about the Blazing Sun became the centerpoint of the campaign, with the players trying to figure out how to put a stop to that. In the process the learned secrets about who had manipulated that to happen, what had been the reason for the purges of the assassin clans, and who the real threat to the world was. The players had to uncover the backstory for the Bells of Pelic, mentioned in the history, revealing more tragedies and terrors facing the world. They got to go to many of the places mentioned and actually see in play some of the figures- in their full complexity. By nature, this collaborative approach can only sketch the outlines- the GM still fills in the details. This can even apply to players creating their city - as in Grey Reign which offers more things for me to explore and twist at the table than I’ll ever get through. Or where the players create their family or clan, as in the Legend of the Five Rings campaign I’m running.

Collaborative worldbuilding doesn’t negate exploration. In the games I’ve used it, it made it richer. Mind you if players don't want to build the world, that's a fair personal preference. But not wanting to build it because then there won't be any mystery misunderstands the process. 

BV has some other concerns, “In Lowell Francis' blogpost, it goes rather beyond simply ignoring other positions to exaggerating a fringe argument, that referees who don't embrace collaborative world building may do so because they 'fear the players,' instead.” I don’t know if I’m exaggerating a fringe argument in my post- I hope I’m not. As I said I’ve seen that response pop up in a number of forum thread- on blog posts, on RPG Geek, and on Reddit. I’ve also talked with several GMs who expressed the same sentiment. That’s anecdotal- but I’ve seen it enough I wanted to address it. IMHO it hasn’t been a fringe argument, but a legitimate concern I’ve seen multiple times. So in my post, I’ve tried to answer that- if that’s your particular worry, I don’t think you need to be afraid. You may have other reasons for not trying it, but if you’re afraid of autonomy loss to the players with these methods, I don’t think you need to be.

Let me give a related example. When I decided I wanted to try out Microscope to build a campaign, I had a couple of my long-time players (25 years+ and 18 years+) express some real fears before we got started. They worried about “the other players getting it wrong.” Mind you, everyone else they’d also played with for years. They trusted me to do campaign and world creation, but they weren’t sure about everyone else at the table. Afterwards, both talked about their worries and how working through the process had completely changed their minds. That experience has made me more aware that players and GMs might have concerns along those lines- so I’ve tried to address those. I’m not saying you’re a coward if you don’t try these techniques- that would be stupid.

The last point Black Vulmea makes is, “the difference isn't between the players collaborating in world building or not -it's between collaborating in world building in-character or out-of-character.” (emphasis his).

We can have both. We can collaboratively build the world and then do everything BV mentions as a play activity within the rules of the game, whether that game’s Flashing Blades, Rolemaster, FATE, or whatever. At least as I’ve used them, these two segments exist independently. We get together as a group and build a world. Then I, as GM, go away and put together some character creation mechanics to fit the world and the system we’re using. Then the players make up characters and play within that world they’ve created as you would with a conventional campaign. In Last Fleet they’ve made alliances, they’ve founded a new homeland, they’ve developed romantic plots, they’ve risen in ranks and status- all in classic gameplay. They continue to change and shape that game world from within. They continue to explore and learn about that world from within. But the players aren't OOC building the world during play. Instead they're playing in that world. 

This isn’t something Black Vulmea specifically mentions, but I want to be clear. Collaborative gaming is a tool and a technique. As I mentioned above I strive to try out new things to see if they add to my games. Many times they don’t and I set those aside. The positive reaction I got from players had encouraged me to do more with shared world-building and collaboration. Will I use it for everything? No. It doesn’t fit for some things I want to run. Collaborative character building, for example, won’t necessarily work where I want the PCs to begin as strangers or unconnected. Like every playstyle- it has a place and may not fit with every group or GM.

But for me it has been a success. I think that it is worth trying at least once to see if it works for you or if there’s something there you can steal for other games. In my case, and again this is anecdotal, it added to the players’ excitement; the groups (sixteen players in six distinct groups) spoke about how much they enjoyed it; the challenge pushed me to develop great new material; quiet players ended up being able to show what they wanted (where they usually didn’t articulate it when asked directly); and most of all it has been super fun. 

I want to thank Black Vulmea for his excellent blog (Really Bad Eggs) and for taking the time to watch the panel and read through my post. I hope I've addressed at least some of your concerns with this.