ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Story Games Seattle FAQ

I put together a Frequently Asked Questions page for Story Games Seattle.

“But wait,” you ask, “you’ve been running the thing for three years? You’re just posted a FAQ now?” Yep. There have been assorted pages discussing what we do or don’t do but nothing quite as comprehensive as this.

Oh right, you were asking why I waited this long. Our process has been under constant evolution. Seriously. What I said two years ago and what I said a year ago about how and why we do things are different from what I would say now. Because, y’know: learning from experience.

Women in Gaming Communities (Norwescon 2013)

Women in Gaming Communities (Sat 6-7 pm)
Gender inequality among gamers continues to be a frequent topic. Women and girl gamers often feel unwelcome in the boys club, and gamers can be clueless or dismissive of gender inequality. What are some successful ways to get women into gaming? What are some things to avoid? How can event organizers and game designers make women that show up more comfortable?
Lillian Cohen-Moore, Ashley Cook, Ben Robbins, Gwen Yeh, Mickey Schulz

The description didn’t actually specify whether it was about face-to-face tabletop gaming or video games / online communities, which are very different topics, so the discussion jumps around a bit between those two themes.

(you can also download the mp3 directly instead of using the player)

“I have a secret agenda‚Ķ we only play the kind of games that allow everyone at the table to have strong and equal contributions”

I don’t talk a lot about why I set up Story Games Seattle the way I did. Why I intentionally focused on games with no GM and no prep, games that give each player the same creative authority. Games that might even require each person to speak up and participate.

This is why. Because women can come to our meetups and know their contribution is vital, that we want to hear what they have to say. Because anyone can come to our meetups and know that their contribution is vital because it really is. We’re not kidding when we say that without you the game will fail.

I get flak sometimes on the internets for being some kind of tyrant who apparently hates GM’ed games, which is doubtless pretty funny to anyone who has followed this blog and my gaming career. But really that’s my own fault for not explaining my reasons.

They’re seeing the negative, which is that they can’t play the particular game they want at our events (or more specifically, GM the game they want to GM). But they’re missing the positive, which is that people are coming and enjoying role-playing games who might be or have been turned off by that strange player-GM power hierarchy that we veteran gamers don’t even think about. They’re missing that we’re empowering droves of new folks to play and enjoy role-playing games and revel in their own creativity and the sheer fucking wonder of creating things with other people.

Yeah, there is some irony in being a tyrant who mandates equality. I’m okay with it.

Our Ground is Level and Our Table is Round

A lot of people have asked me to talk about how we do things at Story Games Seattle. We’ve had a lot of luck getting hordes of people to sit down, play games and have fun. What’s our recipe?

If you’re bringing new people into gaming you could say there are actually two phases. The first is the Invite, persuading them to actually sit down and try it. The second is the Experience, playing in a way that they enjoy and would want to do again. I’ve touched on the Invite in other places so this article is about the second part, the Experience.

The Kind of Games We Play

We get new people coming in nearly every week. Most of them have never played story games. Some have played “traditional” role-playing games like D&D or World of Darkness, but we get a lot of people who’ve never played any role-playing games. At all. Ever.

We also get an entirely different mix of people every week. All our games are one-shots, so people can come one week, miss a week or two if they’re busy, and come back later with no problem. In the last two years I don’t think we’ve ever gotten the exact same crew two weeks in a row.

At each session we welcome everybody, make introductions, explain a few things about how we’re going to play, and then ask people to pitch games so we can break into groups and play.

What kind of games do we play? There are two main guidelines:

1) No GM

2) No prepared games (meaning, no one comes to the table having already prepared what’s going to happen in the game — learning rules or printing stuff does not count)

These aren’t just personal preference. I made these rules to put everyone on an equal footing as soon as humanly possible. Our goal is not to provide entertainment. Our goal is to get everyone to recognize that their creative contribution–the crazy stuff that comes out of their mouth–is an essential ingredient to making the game awesome.

Why no GM? Our table is round.

If you’re reading this you’re probably an experienced gamer. But forget everything you know about role-playing games. Imagine you show up somewhere to try something new, to play a game with total strangers. Be creative, they say. But one person seems to be in charge and have final authority over what everyone else is allowed to do or make up.

Weird, right? That’s not a very normal social situation and it certainly isn’t going to make you feel like an equal participant. Because you’re not. But that’s what GMing looks like if you take a step back and squint.

But in a GMless game, no one’s sitting at the head of the table. We’re all equal. The table is round.

Even the perception of inequality can sabotage participation. Because we have lots of new people and lots of new games, we usually have facilitators, someone who has volunteered to teach everyone else the rules. And there is a danger of mistaking the facilitator for a GM (particularly among players accustomed to GM’ed games). We go out of our way to make it clear that this is not the case, that while they are there to teach and remind us of the rules the facilitator has no special authority beyond that. They’re playing the game like everyone else.

Why no Prep? Our ground is level.

People are generally pretty respectful of each other (and hey, would you want to game with anyone who wasn’t?). For example, we respect the time someone puts into something. And we should.

If you know someone at the table already spent X hours preparing material for the game (like writing an adventure) before you even sat down, by definition they have more stake in the game than you do. They put X hours into it and you’ve put in zero so far. You are likely to recognize (consciously or not) that in fairness they should have more say in what happens than you do. You know they have more investment and therefore more ownership. It’s “their” thing not “our” thing.

Again, baked-in inequality. Instead we play games that are designed so that decisions are made together by the people sitting at the table. Everyone starts off with equal creative contribution. We all start on level ground.

When we say “prep” we specifically mean decisions about the fiction, the creative stuff in the game. Reading the rules and and printing out blank character sheets is tremendously useful (and someone’s got to do it) but that doesn’t influence what we’ll make up when we play, so it isn’t an issue.

A lot of the games we play start off with a very blank slate (Shock, Microscope, Fiasco) but even if a game starts to create the world or framework for us (Mars Colony, A Penny for My Thoughts, Polaris) that’s okay because we players at the table are still equal contributors. It works even if the game builds a whole world and scenario for us brick-by-brick (Montsegur 1244).

Spoiler: We Have Lots of Fun

So our ground is level and our table is round. Does it work? Do people jump in and embrace their unexpected creative power?

I could tell you I fired up the UNIVAC-9000 and fed it punch cards to collate all the data and spit out a multivariate analysis of gamer satisfaction but I’d be lying. Can you even buy punch cards anymore? The only science I have is attendance, which has gone progressively through the roof in the two years since I took over the group and started doing things this way. Our biggest problem? Not enough chairs.

Anecdotally I can say that I’ve seen people’s faces light up in glee when they realize they are the creative engine that is making the bus go. There’s this “a ha!” moment when it dawns on them that everyone else at the table really, really wants to hear what they have to say.

People get to be creative (to some degree) in any role-playing game. With this recipe they get to be the ones making the magic, now. And that’s pretty cool.

We Are Here to Game

Next weekend is Fabricated Realities (the “I’m sorry, did you say gaming inside of artwork?” con) and the awesome folks putting it together asked me to say a few words for the zine. They’d heard tall tales of the welcome spiel from our Story Games Seattle open game nights, cunningly crafted to help people shake off the work day, get in the mood and bring their game.

I was supposed to keep it short. Oops. What can I say, some things were just too important to leave out. Take a peek.

Welcome to the Game

The time has come to game. Are you excited? Maybe a little anxious to see what the weekend will hold? Me too.

But hold on a minute. There are a few things you probably already know, but you may forget in your white-hot excitement to sit down and game. Just like I know not to lock my keys in the car, and yet there I am, standing in the parking lot, pounding on the window, screaming why god why. So let’s take a moment and chat.

Gaming With Strangers

First things first. Look around you. Probably a lot of unfamiliar faces. Guess what? You’re going to game with those people, a lot of whom are total strangers.

What we’re here to do–gaming–is actually kind of amazing. You’re going to try to make something creative, but instead of just making something you like, you’re going to collaborate with a bunch of other people and try to make something cool together. Now add in that you have no clue what those other people like and dislike, and they know as little about you.

It’s crazy. Even making conversation with someone you just met can be challenging. But forget that, you’re going to try to build and share something fascinating and exciting. You’re going to go way out on a limb, creatively, and hope–hope!–that these total strangers are on the same page as you. It’s really not a trivial thing. It’s actually insanely brave of you. Kudos, right off the bat.

There’s a flip-side too. Remember that everyone else at the table is going out on a limb just as much as you. Give them a hand. Try, really try, to understand what they’re trying to contribute. Making stuff up on the fly in a way that is clear and concise is really, really hard, so when someone is fumbling around trying to describe something and it isn’t making sense to you, or you don’t get why they’re bringing it up, don’t just shrug and move on. Stop and ask them to clarify. Help them get their idea across. Be genuinely interested in what they’re trying to do.

When other players say things, no matter how random it seems, they probably have a reason. They’re trying to get a point across or introduce some idea. Listen. Ask questions. You’re all in it together. If you understand where they’re coming from, your game will be infinitely better.

Say Hello & Name Your Games

Want to know a really simple thing that will help a ton, but you’re going to forget to do? Introduce yourself. Yep. Everyone’s going to be excited to start playing, but do yourselves a huge favor and take five minutes to introduce yourselves and (even more critically) list the games you’ve played before. Knowing what kind of games everyone’s played will make it much easier to get what they’re thinking (or not understanding) about the game you’re playing right now. And nothing will improve your game, nothing in the world, like understanding the other players better.

Oh, and if this is your very first time playing a role-playing game? Don’t hang your head in shame–that’s awesome! Every player at the table will be _stoked_ to have you there. Seriously, wait and see.

The Veil

And that brings us to that most mysterious and crucial part of hardcore gaming, The Veil. Games about real and serious things can delve into some real and serious issues. It may be more than you bargained for. You may be confronted with subject matter you just aren’t comfortable with.

Here’s the thing: no matter what the issue is, or why you aren’t comfortable, you don’t have to explain or justify. Just tell the other people that you’d like to “draw a veil” over that issue and >boom< we'll skip it.

Particularly with strangers, everyone at the table should know they have the right to draw the Veil, whenever and however they want. Explain it at the start of every game, without fail. You don't have to go into specifics of what issues may come up, because frankly you never know what will come up or what will offend particular people, but make it very, very clear that the Veil is always welcome, never questioned.

If you see someone else at the table making weird faces and you think they are having a bad reaction to the content but they don't feel comfortable speaking up, don't put that person on the spot. Ask the other players if the material should be Veiled, like you just thought it up. Once it's on the table you may get the weak nod that means "oh yes please for the love of god let's not do that part anymore." You may also find that the person you thought was in distress isn't bothered by what you thought at all. It costs nothing to find out this way.

Bring The Fun

Last but not least, bring the fun. Don’t wait to be entertained. Gaming is not passive media, it’s a team sport. Bringing your best game will make the game fun for you and everyone else. The other players will do the same for you. Or to put it another way, “Ask not what the game can do for you. Ask what you can do for the game…”

See you in Olympia…

Lottery & The Pickup Donut (part 2)

We did the Pickup Donut for just about every slot of Go Play NW 2010. But for one slot, we tried something even more experimental…

The Lottery

Unlike the Pickup Donut, which had been part of our plan to handle the large volume of pickup games for months, the Lottery was a last minute idea. Literally, the night before the event. I’m not sure anyone has done anything like it before in the history of role-playing game events. Someone holler if they know.

The idea is simple: instead of making an intelligent, careful, decision about what you play and who you play with, throw caution to the wind and let the fates decide for you.

The procedure is exactly what it sounds like. Everybody gets together and throws their event badges into a basket. We randomly draw four at a time, read the names (and return the badges) and those people go off and game. What they play is totally up to them.

You may play with people you would have never otherwise gamed with. All the normal social pressures that affect who you decide to play with go straight out the window. And you may try games you would never have otherwise tried, because you happen to be in a group with other people who know about and want to play that game. Or even if you play something familiar, maybe someone else in your group is being exposed to something they would never have considered playing. It’s all in the hands of fate.

Roll the dice, take your chances

We did the Lottery in a Saturday afternoon slot (rather than a Sunday slot) so that people would meet new people early enough in the weekend that they could play with them again if they wanted to. Making a bunch of new friends right when the con ends isn’t as jolly.

Because it’s totally up to chance, I suspect people are a lot less critical about the games they wind up in. Much like Run Club, everyone recognizes that it’s an experiment from the start, a lark. I think that puts people in a more receptive, open frame of mind. You certainly can’t kick yourself for picking the wrong group to play with, because you didn’t choose at all. You’re off the hook, so you can just relax and see what happens. Even disasters can be entertaining when you don’t feel like they’re your fault.

The Lottery is not without its risks. Because it’s completely random, you could wind up with a group where no one felt comfortable facilitating a game. You could adjust the system somehow to stack the deck and make sure there was a facilitator in each group, but personally I like it this way. There were cases at Go Play NW 2010 where people who wouldn’t have otherwise facilitated stepped up because there was no one else in the group who would. On the other hand, I know there was at least one group that didn’t: they all decided to play a board game instead. Which I think is a perfect snapshot of the entire Go Play NW “bring the fun” ethos.

Like I said, I’m not sure any other role-playing game event has done a Lottery, but I think every single one should, at least for one slot. It’s an excellent change of pace.


(and no, I’m not a Go Play NW organizer this year, but fear not, it’s in good hands. Come to think of it you should probably register soon if you want to go)

Lottery & The Pickup Donut

One of the big challenges of running events like Go Play NW (or even small events like the weekly Story Games Seattle) is actually getting people sitting down and playing.

It’s not that people don’t want to play. Quite the opposite. They’re there to play. But everybody is a little picky. They actually want to play in good games. Games they’ll enjoy. Crazy, I know.

Faced with a world of choices, and with more opportunities lurking in every corner, hesitation becomes an optimum strategy. The excited gamer thinks “but if I decide to play in this game, maybe another game will pop up in five minutes that I’d rather play in!”

The easy solution is just to schedule all games in advance. Put up a big grid and have everyone sign up before they even set foot in the door. The downside is that you lose the opportunity to make connections and experience unexpected things. If you’ve got every slot scheduled, you can’t decide to play that game that someone just told you about which sounds really awesome, or play with those cool folks you just met at the Friday Night Feast. You can’t go with your own personal flow, because you’re booked.

Last year, Go Play NW swung a lot more towards pickup instead of scheduling, both by popular demand and as an intentional policy to encourage people to mix it up and embrace the unknown. But that also meant a lot more people milling around, so we came up with some new and experimental methods to get folks into games quickly.

The Pickup Donut

When it gets down to pickup games, you’ve got basically two sets of people: people who want to play in something but don’t know what, and people who want to run/facilitate particular games and are looking for people to play (you could add to that a third category, people who want someone else to facilitate a particular game they want to play, but for our purposes that doesn’t make a difference).

At Go Play NW 2009, during the pickup huddle (aka the group hug) each person who wanted to facilitate a game pitched it to everyone who was free. With a small group that works, but for some slots at Go Play NW 2010 there would easily be 50+ people looking for games. With the old huddle, that’s chaos in the making.

The idea of the Pickup Donut (né Power Donut) is pretty simple: divide one large group into several smaller groups so it’s easier for people to pick a game. The trick is that you want to make sure that the ratio of facilitators to players stays about even. If you don’t, if you just divide your 60 would-be gamers into four groups of 15, you have no guarantee there will be enough facilitators.

The method is fast and simple. Assemble the entire mob in one room, everybody who wants to play or facilitate. Everybody forms a rough circle around the organizer, who stands in the center of the room.

Next, the organizer asks everyone who wants to facilitate a game to step forward toward the middle, forming a second circle inside the first. Now you’ve got your donut, players as the outer ring, facilitators as the inner ring. The organizer is still in the center. The people in each ring should make sure they’re evenly distributed (i.e. no part of a ring has people bunched up or spread out). Organizer, you should spin around once or twice to double-check.

Now you slice the donut. Organizer, close your eyes. Rotate a bit so you don’t know where you’re facing, then point your arms straight out left and right. Where you’re pointing cuts the donut in half. Open your eyes and rotate another 90 degrees, then slice the donut again. Now it’s in quarters.

You’ve now got four separate groups, each with roughly the same number of players of facilitators. Each group huddles, makes pitches and decides how they want to break up into groups and play. By drastically reducing the number of pitches and the number of people, it’s much easier for people to get settled into games.

Know Your Donut

Slicing into quarters is usually good, but with 30 or less you might only cut in half. With a lot more people, you might slice even more. You want about 10-15 people in each resulting group.

If you want to really mix things up, after you close your eyes have the ring of facilitators rotate a bit before you slice. That means no one can predict what facilitators they’ll be paired up with.

Oh, and organizer, don’t forget to leave room for yourself. Pick a spot in whichever ring you want and tell someone to leave a phantom space that you’ll jump in. Otherwise you’ll wind up standing in the middle looking like an idiot. True story. I said these things were experimental.

The general complaint against the Pickup Donut is that someone only has the games in group A to choose from, but the game they _really_ wanted was in group C. In fact, that has nothing to do with the donut, it’s true of all gaming events, everywhere: You will miss that really cool game.

next: we up the ante even more with The Lottery