GMless Role-playing Games (PAX 2011, part 6)

The big finale! You thought we’d never make it. We’re continuing from part 5, but if you’re just arriving (because you’re seeing the last post first) you probably want to jump straight to part 1 and start there.

Indie 306

So… we’re just about done, unless people have questions?

One thing I want to point out before I say anything further is that: this is just a bunch of talk. And this is not how to learn about these games. The way to learn is to play them. Play them constantly. And in fact, if we were to drill a hole through this wall, and then another wall…

(unknown): There is a door there, you know?

Yeah but I want to drill. Can you imagine the look on their faces when we come in with our giant mole machine? In 306, four rooms down, is the room where these games are being played. And that is probably far more useful than being here listening to me. It’s crazy! 306. [sponsored by our beloved Gamma Ray Games] There’s a big sign outside and there are people sitting there Vanna White-style.

So my strategy (and in fact I argued to put this at the beginning of the weekend so people who heard about these games wouldn’t hear about them Sunday and then go home), if you want to learn about them you have to sit down and play them. That’s the only way to get your hand in. I highly recommend it.

Being A Good Antagonist

Morgan, you have a question?

Morgan: So in GMless games, how do I be a good antagonist?

Whole ‘nother topic. Whole ‘nother topic. But I’ll tell you what it is: Listen. Don’t do anything.

(unknown): Not like that Xander guy…

Xander: He’s a dick!

The best way to be an antagonist is to be a very sympathetic and caring person, as a player. Don’t do anything. Don’t steal the show. Listen. Listen to Xander talk. And wait. Wait until you know what he wants. You have to know what he wants.

Reid: Then deny it!

No! No. Let him have it… for a price. Attach a nice price tag on there! Like “hey, yeah, yeah, you can overthrow the government… if your wife dies.” Or “you can overthrow the government… if your best friend thinks you’re a hypocrite.” Or “you can overthrow the government… if the government you set up instead becomes a terrible jihad that is just as bad as the previous…” And he’s like “NOOOO! But I still want to overthrow the government…” Yeah, so that’s good antagonism. Never stop them. Always give them what they want and then just… yeah, we’ll avoid the profanity. But yeah, big price tag. But it’s about patience. You have to wait long enough to find out what it is they really want. You don’t rush in and try to make them want something.

What We Played

Any questions? I think we’re… we’re beyond good. Any last thoughts? [silence]

(unknown): Do you document the games?

Actually that’s a good question. Back to the document the games thing, think about it right, when you document the games as GM it’s because the players don’t care enough to do it. West Marches experiment, motivating players, one of the rules was I wouldn’t document anything. They had to. If they wanted documentation they had to do it. If you take that away from them you’re effectively just doing more of a “I’m running the game you’re just a .” In a GMless game there’s often someone at the table who is interested enough to write up something. Or not. If no one’s interested to write something up…

(unknown): I meant you personally.

I do sometimes. If there’s four players, I probably do it a quarter of the time. Other times I don’t want to. Other times I’m like “well that game was fine, but I don’t feel like writing anything about it.” And there are different motivations. Because it’s a one-shot game you don’t need documentation in the long-term, it’s more of a “let us share this experience with the internets” or so that other people who haven’t played this game will know whether they will like it. When we do Story Game Seattle, that’s our motivation for documenting games: to teach other people what game they could have played had they been there. And they can look at it and say “Oh, yeah. Pickets & Fences. That game… I don’t know if I’d play that. Didn’t feel like they had a great time.” We try to be [honest]… we try to make it a learning experience, not just about the fiction, but about how the rules of the game created the fiction. So it’s a little bit of a tutorial of what kind of game you’d get if you played it.

Bad Rewards vs Gaming As Art

Ben M: Just something I would like to throw out for everyone. Use it or not as you please. Something I’ve done coming from a very old school GMing background and trying to get people more creative. If you’re playing a game like Pathfinder / D&D / GURPS, whatever, give people mechanical bonuses to encourage their own creativity. Such as, if your character is a swordsman. Okay do you sell your swordsmen ship academy? Yes. Okay, make you a deal. I’m GM, I will give you an extra 500 EP (or whatever your system uses) if you write me up a usable to the other players description of the swordsmanship academy and some interesting NPCs there, that they can go muck around with.

Morgan: Kind of like spread out narrative control a little bit that way?

Ben M: Yeah

It is kind of late in the day, but I will point out one thing. This isn’t exactly what you’re talking about, but there are some games that reward you for playing the character you said you were going to play. Like you say “My character’s a joker!” Every time you make a joke, you check a checkbox, and that’s progress.

Think about that for a second. Think about how stupid that is.

Morgan: Waaah, I love that.

Think about it. Morgan said, “hey I wanted to play this certain guy.” But I don’t really trust Morgan, that he would just do that on his own. I feel Morgan needs a donut every time he plays his character correctly. I feel in some ways that might possibly be the most insulting thing to say to a player…

Morgan: But I need it…

It’s not quite exactly what you’re talking about… But, we’re playing because we enjoy the game. You picked that character because that’s the character you wanted to play. I trust that that’s what you want. You’re an adult. Why don’t you want to play the guy you made? WHYYYY? Why am I giving you donuts?!?

Morgan: I’m going to have to disagree with you. Morgan is not an upstanding knight. Morgan is a power gamer. [laughter] That’s why he plays role-playing games. But if you give Morgan a carrot, an advancement power gaming carrot…

I’m teaching you the wrong thing. I’m teaching you to want the carrot. In fact there are psychological studies…

Morgan: No, no, no, it’s like eventually… If you have a treat in your hand when you tell the dog to sit, it will sit, and then eventually it will sit on its own. [laughter]

And that’s the thing. I feel very strongly against the idea of treating the players like dogs. But more seriously, psych studies have been done (you can look them up) that say that basically if you have a pleasurable activity and you associate a reward with it and then you take away the reward the pleasurable activity stops being pleasurable. You can actually de-pleasurize things that initially the person liked, because their desire switches focus and becomes focused on the reward. In other words, you stop playing the joker character because you want to play the joker character, you start doing it because you want the “dings!” And that, I feel, subverts… it takes you down exactly the wrong path. Instead of teaching you to be a happy role-player, doing what you want to do, it teaches you to…

Morgan: I’d be interested in seeing the psychological studies and seeing if the reward is tangible or if it literally is checkboxes.

Checkboxes are very tangible.

Xander: Yeah, checkboxes are actually used in my job, which is Skinnerian psychology all the time because it’s a great to reinforce people without giving them a million cookies or something. But, the point is, you get to choose what your own rewards are, like FATE which is an example and in Shadow of Yesterday, or in AW [Apocalypse World] which also does that. You get some control over you want to have the focus on. I have a joker aspect. Every time I make a joke and it’s inappropriate, I get rewarded for it. But you can always be like…

Morgan: I’m sorry, you get rewarded with narrative control…

Xander: No, you receive a ding. The ding in some of these allows you to get more narrative control.

Eventually, you might get narrative control…

Xander: But the ding that you’re getting, you get to choose it. And you can always say, “Five games later, I haven’t used this joker aspect in a while, I’m clearly not feeling it, I’m going to switch it.”

If you look at it like two continuums… two roads you can go down. One… you said you were a power gamer and you wanted to stop, I don’t think this is going to help.

Morgan: I didn’t say I wanted to stop… [laughter]

There are two options. One where I’m going to engage your reward cycle. Like WoW [World of Warcraft], which is a great, carefully, carefully sculpted reward cycle. All those video games. Carefully, carefully designed by psychologists. Perfectly designed. That’s great. And that keeps you chasing it. And then there’s a different way to do this. To say “Hey, let’s use our brains. Let’s engage in artistic activity, in which we are being creative people and making something cerebral that is touching… we’re artists.” And you say “I don’t need a ding if I’m trying to be like Mozart…”

Morgan: Okay. But on the other hand though, maybe Mozart needed to be bribed with a couple of cookies to pick up the violin the first time. That’s all I’m saying. Maybe if you gathered a bunch of artists together and just handed them paint, it might not go that well no matter how creative they are. The training wheels… [more and more laughter]

From play what I see… the reason I’m really against this is when I see it in play, the worst thing that happens is the people who are focused on the reward cycle (because they know they’re going to get a long-term benefit), they don’t play heads-up. They go “oh I made a joke! -check-check-“. Their brains — character sheets are the devil — they get back down here, because now they’re tracking an inward thing. They’re not sharing their character anymore. They’re not out here [with the rest of us]. They’re not paying attention to your character. They’re tracking their own little progress. They’re playing a solo video game at that point.

Reid: That’s the first thing that happened to me when I started playing Burning Wheel.

Heads down?

Reid: “I get things every time I do something! I’m gonna do something now, and then now…”

You remember Pendragon, from back in the day? If you go basket weave, you’re going to get a level-up. And this isn’t really true but it’s an old joke we used to make in the dawn of time. So people would be like “I’m hiding in my room and basket weaving for three days! -check-check-check-check-! Best basket weaver ever!” “You are a knight.” “Best basket weaver!” And mechanically it’s accurate, and mechanically it’s realistic, but…

(unknown): There’s a guy, I think he’s a game designer from Seattle, he wrote an essay on ethical game design. And a lot of it’s about the reward cycle in WoW… like you can make bad, unethical and addicting rewards…

Or it might even feel fun, it just might not be something that human beings should be doing.

(unknown): The guy from Spiderweb Software

Oh, Jeff Vogel. Jeff Vogel’s awesome. Love Jeff Vogel.

This is just me. I feel that as gamers and game designers I’d rather go up here (see me raising my hand). I’d rather go up to this higher level where we talk about… even abortion. We talk about real issues. We talk about deep stuff and we go away saying “I felt touched by that.” I’d rather go away saying “That was a moving, touching scene. That part where I made the king sleep with his daughter and we all freaked out. It was crazy!” But if I did that to get a ding… would that have happened?

(unknown): You would have leveled up!

I would have leveled up! It would have been awesome! [laughter] In a way I think it’s almost magically convenient that if you’re playing a one-shot game, a “story now” game, since there isn’t really a “later,” leveling up doesn’t exist. Most of these games have no character progression at all, because where would you have it? So you’re kind of saved from the reward cycle that would be incumbent in a lot of traditional long-term play games.

We’re really almost done, so whaddya got?

Xander: Well my response to that is, that the problem is that’s great to be on that level, but not necessarily everyone is there.

Not everyone even wants that! That’s cool!

Xander: I’m there on Thursdays [at Story Games Seattle] because I’m doing this on Saturdays. I’ve been doing this for years.

They’re different activities.

Xander: I have four people at the table with me, not necessarily all of them on the same page and if I can say “Look, you get a carrot…”

Sure. And it’s very important to not think they [role-playing games] are all the same. When I sit down to play fourth edition D&D, I know I’m not playing Shock. I don’t say “we should make this more Shock-like!” That would be… kind of rude. Like going to a movie, but saying “y’know I think I should LARP some of this movie! Wooo! Rocky Horror!” [laughter] I mean, it would be inappropriate and rude. But because we call them all role-playing games, we think it’s all the same thing, but in fact they’re a very broad… Be respectful.

Reid: I disagree [laughter]

And I respect your right to disagree!

Reid: Some RPGs are just better than other ones!

And I think with that… we’re done!

[applause, rioting, collapse]

Huge thanks to everyone who came and participated. It would have been a lot less fun without you. No really, a lot less fun. And thanks again to Jobe for thinking to record the workshop. Now stop listening to me and go play some games!

    Ben Robbins | September 27th, 2011 | , , , | show 2 comments