Saturday, December 5, 2009

OCS/Traditional Hybrid: Our First Session

A month ago, I posted about my conflicted relationship with traditional gaming, and how storyjamming eventually brought me full circle to try to find a way to bridge what we have learned back into the traditional gaming experience.

This Sunday, we put that goal into practice. I want to tell you a little bit about it from my perspective.

Karl, Jono, and I "gamemastered" collaboratively. This was a lot of fun; our extensive experience of Open Circle Story-jamming together really paid off. Throughout the evening, we created a much more immersive social world than any one of us could do alone. Player-characters frequently dealt with 2-3 NPCs at a time, many of whom were sometimes at odds with each other. I think that for the players, many of whom are still novices at this sort of thing, a large part of the experience was enjoying Karl, Jono, and my relaxed but well-practiced improvisation. Indeed, one of our goals going into this was further exploring OCS as an audience-participation performance art, wherein we nurture increasing involvement and confidence from participants over time.

We introduced this as an ancient Briton type story, something like a dirty Arthurian legend, but we made it clear that our vision was rough and that mostly we intended to respond to players' initiative in authoring the world. The story began at Lusk, the northernmost center of civilization in this place, a land in decline and under the threat of spreading fairy rings, mushroom circles.

Besides we three jammers, eight players and one observer attended. Experience varied greatly along both the trad. gamer and OCS-jammer axes. We had one 100% novice, some with decades of experience, and everything in between. This is a much larger group than traditional RPGs normally function with, and it was an interesting special challenge. We were somewhat prepared for this by Dramatis, the RPG system we chose to use: a system designed by Tyler Walls and myself, fine-tuned by Tyler over this last year, with some similarities to the prose descriptive quality (PDQ) system and more similarities to Ogre Whiteside's "Bridge System". This system streamlines many things while emphasizing dramatic, cinematic conflict, so seemed a perfect fit. A veteran storygamer can create a character in like 30 seconds using this system. It took us maybe an hour and a half to get rolling, which is longer than I hoped for pretty impressive given the size of the group and the fact that everything was created right there.

We were also prepared for this by some resources that we'd jammed up on notecards the day before the game. Each card bore an idea of a relationship to another character. Every player received two of these cards, even before they'd started character creation. They got to choose which of their two cards they placed on their left, and which on their right. The card on their left described something about their relationship with the character of the player to their left, etc. If we hadn't run out of cards, we may have given each player 3 cards so they could discard 1. As we handed the cards out, I advised players to talk about their cards with their neighbors as they chose which side to place them on, and to work out what kind of relationship that various arrangements implied, and by extension, what kind of characters they were. In this way, characters were created within the context of relationships.

Here's what the cards said:

1) Anything you can do, I can do better.
2) I can control you.
3) I need to help you succeed.
4) I must protect you.
5) You are my brother.
6) I fear you.
7) I see in you a part of myself that is painful.
8) I feel you control me.
9) I admire you.
10) You need my guidance, though you may resist it at first.
11) I owe you a big favor, even if you don't know it.
12) I know you are better than I.
13) You know something that I need to learn.
14) You have something that should be mine.
15) You serve the same master.
16) You are secretly family.

From that base, players started coming up with strong character concepts in collaboration with each other. After explaining the simple starting mechanics of Dramatis (choose 3 words or short phrases that describe strengths or skills of your character, basically), we GMs basically left the room to chat amongst ourselves while the players rocked out on characters. With such a large group, a player might not have a clue about the character of the person sitting across from them, but they were linked into the network via their neighbors.

Jono, Karl, and I agreed beforehand to somewhat differentiate our roles as GMs. Jono is taking point, being "in charge", filling what is normally thought of as the GM role in RPGs. He's hosting and arbitrating rules and setting up situations and playing NPCs. The heaviest weight is probably on him. But, he has Karl. Karl is jamming with Jono, creating and playing NPCs to enrich the story, playing around. Karl excels at humor, flavor, and disorganized inspiration, so he's great at this role. I'm taking a back seat in some ways, but my role is also very rewarding. My eye is always on the bigger picture, on character development, on the questions that are central to the story. I wrote a lot of notes to players, helping them ask interesting questions and guiding them towards interesting character interactions. I'm also heading up a lot of the subtle character adversity. I think that for all of three of us, this arrangement felt very natural and stress-free. Jono and I have both lamented about what we feel are the unfortunate stresses of GMing before, and it felt like a wonderful accomplishment to have such a fluid and enjoyable experience creating an exciting game for the players. I can only speak for myself, but I'm betting I had as much fun as any of the "players", and that's a first for me in the GM role (a role which I have often filled since I was eleven).

As characters continued to jam, I began circulating and talking to players about their characters. Mostly, I asked questions and helped them distill meaningful parts of their relationships and histories. Right now, I'm learning about socratic questioning and clinical assessment in my psychological training, and I've been thinking a lot about how that relates to this, but that's a story for another day.

I also took notes, to help myself understand how these characters were unique. In preparation for this game, Jono, Karl, and I had also jammed up some of the major archetypes that we expected to appear in this kind of story. Our reading of informed some of our conceptualizations of archetypes. We formulated the questions that we would expect to be raised in the narrative arc of each of these archetypes.

After interviewing each player about their character for a few minutes, and offering narrative guidance here and there (I gave a player an extra trait for adding the fact that he was a legion deserter, etc), I retreated to chat with Jono and Karl for a few minutes about the various characters and how they fell or didn't fall into the kinds of narrative archetypes that we'd drummed up. Below are the archetypes we had before we started playing. Obviously, things began to shift dramatically once we "went live", especially when we discovered that our group did not have a strongly indicated "Paladin/Hero" or "Lancer" (the two most important figures in the classic hero's band, whose lack we will have to think about some more as faciliators), but these resources were nevertheless invaluable to us at GMs, in terms of having quick starting points about what kinds of challenges were character-appropriate to throw at many various PCs. Over the next week, I (especially) need to spend some more time with my notes on characters and these archetypes, to generate a clearer vision of the questions that we should be asking characters through play.

Not all of these archetypes were meant for the PCs, of course. They only need to fill some of the roles. One of the big advantages of conceptualizing with such archetypes is that it can help us guide less experienced players to find a niche in the narrative that really belongs to them. It can be difficult or contrived for players when they feel they have to compete over narrative niches, or don't really have any idea where they belong in the story.

If you're playing in this game, you may want to exercise caution in reading the next section. There's no "spoilers", per se, but this kind of analysis of play can sometimes feel like it slightly diminishes dramatic oomph.

The archetypes we jammed up:

The Paladin (the Hero)
1) Seeks to right the wrong that is being directly or indirectly committed by the villains.
2) Maybe seeks to avenge the death of his old master, secretly killed by his current master.

1) Set up rivalry or clash of needs with leader.

1) Can he reconcile his superior ability with his lowly status? (So GM should put character down but give him opportunities to shine).

Big Guy
1) Vulnerable to powerful NPC that outclasses him and has it out for him. For once, he needs help from others.

The Guile Hero
1) Can you spiritually guide the group even though you're not ready?
2) Can you grow enough yourself to overcome the Mastermind?

1) Can he find/create the key before it's too late?
2) How will he cope with the mumbo jumbo?

1) Can she take care of herself, or does she always need others?
2) Will she choose her comrades or the other forces that vie for her attention?

Barbarian/Noble Tribal
1) Can he accept the new way of things?
2) Will he add his strength to his allies?

1) Find a bit of security and peace (probably through righting a personal wrong, getting justice). So GM's job is to make his life insecure, hectic, chaotic, and poor.

1) Innocence + Faith vs Magician's tool... martyr... the only one who can save us.
2) Will the Mastermind be surprised and destroyed by him?

1) Explore the relationship between inner/outer balance. As GM's we draw attention to inner or outer, opposite what the player is focusing on.

1) mostly silent... beyond conflict... only speaks when he can echo a character perfectly back on itself.

1) Can he fill in for the King who was destined to be (though he was meant to be a Lancer and free)? Should he? Will someone relieve him?

The Beast
1) Can it regain its place in the natural world? Can it be healed?
2) Can it tamed (to become the Blackguard)?

The Dragon
1) Why is it here?
2) Why must it be dealt with?

1) Can they transform the world?
2) Why are they trying?

The Mastermind
1) How will he turn the protagonists in on themselves?
2) How will he neutralize the Guile Hero and through him the Magician?
3) Why is he blind to the danger posed by the Priest?
4) What gives him the power to tame the beast?

Overall, I think almost every one of us (that's TWELVE of us, in the first session) walked away feeling satisfied, creatively energized, and excited for more. It was a subtle beginning; no huge payoffs yet, but I think that may be the best thing with such a large, mixed group. There are things I need to work on and think about before next week (Why does character monogamy seem to be paired with explicit character questions and goals? How can we further help some players continue to transition from audience to full participants?) , but all in all, I'd say our first experiment with OCS-gamemastership was a success beyond what we could've hoped for.


  1. You know, I was just musing in my Story by the Throat! thread on Character Advocacy, that rather than DE-coupling specific story-roles from specific participants, it would be cool to see more games apportion MORE roles specifically, above the standard GMing and player-character paradigm. Strikes me that you've broken some marvelous new ground here!

  2. Joel, neat that you pulled this into that conversation! I hadn't quite thought of it that way.

    This topic has blossomed into a whole world of ideas through recent conversations with folks, and I am both excited and a little nervous to try to get some of them written down.

    Here's one of my thoughts: roles, like leading and following, are absolutely going to occur within a group, and can absolutely be helpful to the group experience. In my design and play, what I work to actualize are roles that invite participants to engage at the level that they are ready and want to engage at, rather than that trap them at a less-empowered level or try to force them into a role that requires skills which they have not yet picked up. That's the purpose of my pedagogy: to be a rope ladder that participants can climb through play, to the level of engagement that they are ready for and want today.

  3. Yeah, the correspondence just jumped out at me! Actually the whole concept of apportioning roles more variously and subtly just sort of emerged from the previous conversation. I was delighted to see a connection here!