Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Player Making Stuff Up (Thought Eater)

Here's some more entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

If you don't know about the contest, it's like this: these two essays are not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG writers who were both assigned to write about: Players Making Stuff Up for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MAKEUP1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

All players are inherently creative, by virtue of being human beings you are not afraid to sit down at a table with. The trick is getting this inherent creativity past their internal barriers, and any social barriers the group or game may have put in place.

It's important to ask yourself just what you want your players to invent, and how much control you want to give them: in a hyperdetailed location-focused game like D&D it's usually discouraged for players to try to add detail or interactivity to the environment, while encouraged for them to try combining aspects of their character with the environment in unexpected ways. Moving farther along the arc of creative freedom, you have something like Feng Shui, which has explicit rules for players spending Fortune Points to add (plausible) items they need or want to the scene that they're in. Past that, and you have something like Nobilis or Amber, where the narrative and setting are an ongoing negotiation between the players and GM, and then on to purely troupe-style games. Similar tricks are going to work for players in all these games, but knowing where you are trying to encourage creativity and to what extent can help you to be consistent and help your group to understand expectations.

The most interesting thing about RPGs, as a player or a GM, is that the options available are limitless. Experienced players already know this, but if you have new ones, or if your old ones haven't been playing with GMs who encourage creativity, the basics of encouraging creative play are: model the kind of behavior you want to see from your players; don't discourage them in their early efforts; give them forms and structures that they can replicate and tinker with; and keep them aware of how the possibility space of the game has expanded by being as clear and consistent with rulings and writing down or otherwise noting house-rules.

Modeling can be done using your GM-voice or through NPCs--if your PCs are always performing basic attack actions, put them up against NPCs who use the environment in more complex ways. If you want them to introduce backstory elements during play, consider initiating flashbacks during play. If you want them to narrate the beauty of their martial arts attacks, or to come up with insane stunts, throw some verbiage or breakneck daring of your own at them. They'll pick up on it quickly, if the game you're trying to run is a good fit for your players.

Encouraging creative efforts from players doesn't mean they always have to succeed, just that they have to feel like they could succeed if they come up with the right ideas. If their idea is awesome and impractical, make it clear you at least think it's awesome. Most of this is straight out of basic improv theater: saying "Yes, and" and making your partner look good. The goal is to make sure that people keep trying things to see what sticks, even when it doesn't always work. When you can't agree that something is possible, try to offer a "No, but" instead of a flat no, maybe using it as an excuse to layer in a few more concrete details to the scene--the more details are in play, the more likely someone is to use one of them.

Making an attack using some aspect of an environment, weapon, or character in a way that is not innately governed by the rules in the book on the table is a form that players can understand and will grab on to quickly. Every game has places that creativity can be layered in, and finding new ones is part of the fun. Some are pretty obvious and the players will find them on their own sooner or later. Others, like if it's possible to add to your backstory during play, or to create certain kinds of detail in a way that is not directly linked to the capabilities of an individual player character, should definitely be explicitly spelled out, with clear examples whenever possible.

Keeping a clear and ongoing understanding of rulings and house rules between players and GM can be challenging. It doesn't necessarily need to be written down, but the more sessions you play the more likely parts of it are to be lost. Having the rulings be clear to everyone keeps the players on an even footing and lets them use previous ruling to attempt new invention; if no one knows them, or the rulings keep changing, it can result in confusion and wasted effort, which can in turn be discouraging of further invention.

Just as the scope of invention available to the players can vary, so too can the purposes of those inventions. Sometimes, when faced with a difficult problem, players rack their brains to invent something to save their character's skins. At other times, they might be inventing things purely for tone, or to amuse the other players, or because they think it sounds cool. What kinds of inventions work best is going to depend on your group, and the game you're playing, and figuring it out always takes trial and error. It might even be necessary to switch games some times, or try running for different people, but the things that you and your players can come up with will surprise you. Just like inventions in the real world, trials and errors are what it's all about; and in a role-playing game, no one actually gets set on fire.


Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "MAKEUP2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Getting players to add things to your game -- whether it's just minor details or major elements of the game world -- is fun and time-saving. Like the best random game elements, it produces results you wouldn't have thought of, which is desirable. But it isn't necessarily easy. If you're running a game, chances are you're the person there who's most comfortable just creating stuff out of the blue with four other people watching you. Some players balk at this kind of thing, especially when they feel like they're put on the spot. 

Fortunately, role-playing games are *already* a tool for getting people to contribute things to the game. Getting players to contribute stuff outside the usual role is just a matter of looking at what the game already does and applying it to a slightly different type of situation. 

Choices and restrictions

Some games have character creation systems that advertise themselves as "be whatever you want to be; anything at all!" But most successful ones provide some kind of restriction on what the player creates, either in the form of random generation or in the form of a menu of options. You can encourage players to invent stuff, especially early on, by presenting opportunities as choices -- "should Zylphia's dad be the local lord, or do you think he's just some guy?" Don't let menus be exhaustive. If the player says "what if he were a pirate," go with it. 

You never need to worry about choices constraining players who *don't* need encouragement to contribute. Those guys will always add stuff -- sometimes whether you want them to or not. 

Posing questions like this also helps you get around two of the three major pitfalls in this kind of situation: first, that some players will use the practice to make their characters the most important. You avoid this by limiting the scope of the question. The second pitfall is that players may like the element of surprise, and many (although not all) will feel that there's not much point to exploring if they know what's out there.

Have choices matter

My players like it -- or at least they have the good grace to pretend -- when something they created turns up in the game. An extended riff about one character's competitive relationship with his overachieving sister turned into a fully-fledged NPC, for instance, and I think she's more valued because she came from the players' conversation. But it all depends on how the new addition is used in the game. If you ask the players to explain why the sheriff decided to join the outlaws, but the sheriff is just some guy they're supposed to beat up, it's not as good as if the thing they're creating matters to what they're doing.. This is the third pitfall. 

Of course, sometimes things won't go the way you expect and something a player created gets left on the shelf. C'est la vie, but in general, try to show the players that the stuff they create for the gameworld is relevant. 

You know how some players are always embellishing their characters in kind of pointless ways (pointless for the other players, anyway)? My familiar is a sugar glider, my uncle's eyes are hazel, I went to Bumbleton University, that sort of thing? I tend to think that those are players who would like to make stuff that is important in the game world but sort of think it's bad manners to ask or aren't sure whether it's OK. When an old pal from Bumbleton University shows up, I think they find it very rewarding and hopefully it will encourage them to do it more in future. 

Don't only do it at the table

One thing that can be really handy is to have some kind of other space in which players can add creative stuff. Aaron Allston wrote about this stuff already, although they didn't have wikis back then. But basically, if you encourage players to create stuff during the downtime between games, you might get better results on both ends -- players can take their time to think about things and not feel put on the spot, and you can be warned about what they're going to introduce. I have historically used wikis for this stuff, but it could be anything as long as people can get access to it. I'm sure there are new cool online collaborative tools, but it can also just be talking over lunch. 

Begin at the beginning

Look at the development of early fantasy settings and you can see that they were often collaborative efforts, but in a very divided way -- this is Steve's kingdom, this is Laura's kingdom, this is Percival's island, etc. Presumably this was originally to do with the way setting-creation occurred in wargames and Diplomacy variants. But it's a good way to make sure that contributing players don't step on one another's toes; give distinct areas of responsibility. The easiest way to do this is to do it before the campaign starts; that's easier if you tend to run many short games rather than a single long campaign. There are even games such as Microscope or Lexicon that make little mini-games out of creating a campaign setting or its history. 

So there you go: some tips for encouraging and using player contributions. Exactly how you do this depends on how into it your players are; some of my players really enjoy it, while others are more reticent. But assuming you're stopping short of full-on distributed-GM play, these are good ways to coax stuff out of players without losing control. 

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