Monday, 3 May 2010


I felt I just had to get the first draft of creative roleplaying out of my system and down in electronics, and I think the writing suffered as a result. Originally it was just one post that grew into two, the first being rather dry and the second being rather passionate.

I saw "Where the wild things are" yesterday. Really nice, with relevance to this blog. It has life issues, the frustrations of growing up and not being able to articulate these frustrations yet, and portrayed in a way I could believe in. Furthermore, there is a lot, like a lot on expectations there, expectations for the future, on other people...

At one point, one of the wild things smashes up his work of love. When he returns to it, Max (the main character) has a left a little twig heart with his acronym in it. He raises his hand as if to smash that too, but he can't. It's just too strong and he gives in. I cried a little bit then. Okay, well, I choked up like a bitch. It was awesome. :D

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Impro and creative roleplaying

On impro theatre
You can read my introduction to impro theatre here.

Since impro is made in the moment, the actors have to remain in the moment, spontaneous and open to their own and others idea. If you get an idea, act on it; If you notice it feels right to tap your foot, then do just that, and then build on that. If you notice another player bringing an idea into the scene, accept it and then build on that.

In effect, you have to remain sensitive and open at all times. Never plan, never force the scene to become what you would like it to be. Impro is a collaborative effort, you need to get a feel for where you as a group are going right now, and go that direction.

Imagine that our story is a train, and that our ideas are it's fuel. Whenever someone brings an idea to the scene, they bring energy to the scene, moving it forward and energizing the other actors. You need to recognize energy when you see it, grab it and use it.

On blocking in improvisation theatre
Blocking, or rather avoiding it, is a central concept of improvisation theatre. When I introduce an idea and you reject it, that's blocking.

Let's say we're playing a scene about a burglary, and we're considering how to get through a security door. I say "I've got just the thing, I brought the dynamite!"

You could say...

"We'll have to find another way around!" which would be ignoring the idea. Perhaps you're not paying attention to the other actors because you're occupied with planning a window-break in-scene.

"No, this door is dynamite proof!" which would be cancelling the idea and making the last exchange pointless, not moving the story forward and thus dull. There is a tendency to add complications to stories in impro and roleplaying, to make them more exciting, but this is still blocking, putting a dead stop on the idea.

"You doofus, the door is wide open!" which would be sure to draw some quick laughs from the audience, but it would also be rejecting the idea.

All of these are blocking in some form. I've offered energy, but you've discarded it, pulling the brakes on our scene. That's bad. Energy and momentum is vital, our scene cannot live without it. Let's look at accepting:

"Great, let's do it!" Alright! You take my idea an add more energy. Let's go!

"The dynamite!? Whoa, that's dangerous! Can you handle it?" Here you take my idea and add a complication for more energy. Notice the difference between adding something to the idea and cancelling it. (The dynamite proof door-reply) The story is still moving forward! This is the proper way of adding complications.

So complications != blocking. Undoing other players contributions is blocking, and that can be both by providing roadblocks or solving their character's problems for them, if they were interested in exploring these problems.

Blocking in roleplaying games
What's funny is, while blocking is a deadly sin in impro theatre, traditional roleplaying games are built on blocking. The game master has complete control of the story and the players have complete control of their characters, what they do, etcetera. But consider this: If the control of the characters belong to the players, then all the numbers and dice rolls are a way for the game to say when they can't do whatever they like, effectively blocking them

So we're playing, and you say "I run across the roofs to escape, jumping from building to building, staggering on the slick roofing tiles in the moonlight" Cool! That's an idea that inspires me, it gives me energy, get's me engaged in the story and we're heading somewhere. Now the game master says "Roll for Athletics, difficulty 5", so you roll the dice, and they say... "No, you didn't".

And that's it! Talk about roadblock! All that investment and the game just throws it away.

Now, you could argue that it's up to the GM to keep the game moving even with failures, but the matter of fact is that games have traditionally been written so that;
1) If you want to act, you roll.
2) If you fail your roll, your action fails. The game doesn't give you tools or advice to keep the story moving from this point, at all. Hey, most players wouldn't provide the kind of creative input I quoted above, as it would be in vain anyway if your dice roll failed.
3) As a matter of fact, the game can punish you for failing. Injuries provide negative modifications to your stats, making future failure more likely.
As a matter of fact, I've seen GMs use dice checks with the purpose of blocking, so that the players doesn't stray from the pre-planned course or scenario, or to make sure the players doesn't get anything for free. I don't think these are rare cases, either.

Consider that: The players (the players, not their characters) want something, and it's your job as a GM to make sure they doesn't get it. Why should you do that? When the players want something, that's where their energy is, where their interest lie, that's how you get them fired up. You need to go there, give them what they want, add complications if you wish, but give them what they're interested in.

In traditional roleplaying, the GM has a pre-planned vision to lead the players along with. In a tradition were communication between participants is seen as distracting from immersion, the only way for players to realize their vision is to force it through the rules.

Trad gaming is soaked in this philosophy of influencing the game through force.

When trad games implement player influence, it is usually in the form of points with which to buy your influence. When trad gamers discuss shared storytelling, it is in terms of authority, rules for when you as a player may force your vision on others.

But force never leads to creativity. Trust does. Forcing is blocking.

No wonder the game master doesn't trust the players to muck up the story by forcing their influence on the story, because force is all they have.

But enough with the critizism.

To play with creativity
Improvise. Collaborate. Keith Johnstone says in his books on impro that everyone is creative, if they just trust theirselves. Trust your players. Provide a clear, shared vision, and create from it. Don't use force, use openness. Let your character and your ideas be vulnerable, allow them to change. Find the ideas in the shared imagination, not in what you have planned out for yourself.

Listen, like really listen, to each other. Communicate. Do what you feel is fun and gives good movement to the game. If you don't like something, say so. You needn't have anything happen to your character if you feel it is tedious, unpleasant or not fun for you as a player. There aren't winners and losers in roleplaying.

Don't block.

Rules should be written not as laws or maybe even mechanisms of rewards, but as something to relate to, to make the story more tangible and inspiring.

For now, I'll have to point you to further litterature rather than developing this theoretical body.

Graham Walmsley has written the book Play Unsafe on how to adapt Johnstones ideas of impro to tabletop roleplaying. The books, Impro and Impro for storytellers by Johnstone are just as relevant.

John Harper has written Lady Blackbird, a free quick-read game which is improvised, provides a clear and inspiring vision, minimalist rules, rules that inspire story-making a very non-blocking resolution system, and advice how to encourage collaborative creating. Harper is also working on the excellent game Danger Patrol, where a single scene is all the prep the GM does pre-game.

In Mouse Guard by Luke Crane, all actions are successes. If a roll fails, the GM either introduces a complication or gives the character a harmful condition - Sie gets what sie wants, but at a price. No blocking, just adding to the story. The condition mechanic is present in Lady Blackbird as well.

On traditional roleplaying games and indie games
As I critize the traditions of roleplaying, does that mean I wish to promote indie roleplaying games and devalue trad roleplaying?

No. Roleplaying as a hobby is just 30 years old. There is no money in roleplaying, and thus there are no professors of roleplaying and you can't go to roleplaying design college. Thus, the development of roleplaying games are happening right here, right now, and to me, challenging and analysing the assumptions of trad rpgs is how to develop trad rpgs.
Indie roleplaying is just 10 years old, and even moreso trying to find its form. Is creative roleplaying the same as indie roleplaying? Is it narrativism? Or is it something else? You tell me.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

An interplay model of roleplaying

My thoughts on roleplaying are influenced by my interest in impro theatre and client-centered therapy. Here, I intend to make a general model of roleplaying, and in the next post follow up the general with the specific, going into detail of "creative roleplaying", a style of play I am particulary interested in exploring.

In this model, I view roleplaying as movement, a process that is happening in the here and now of a group. Also note that one of my key concepts, flow, is said to require great experience - So perhaps my model is only accurate in capturing the process of experienced roleplayers?

In any case, In this post I make four statements on roleplaying in general:

1) Roleplaying is a group process
As a tradition, roleplaying games have been written as simulations. The books contain rules and the setting that together describe a world and its set of laws, and you are offered to bring your character to life within this world and experience it through that character.

But I believe that the act of roleplaying is not primarily a simulation, but a group process, an interplay between players. This is an aspect of roleplaying that just cannot be ignored, but historically it has been grossly neglected in the writing of roleplaying games. How often does a roleplaying book concern itself with how to take care of the other player's creativity, or how to settle on a social contract together? Oftentimes, writing roleplaying games seems to be lacking the assumptions that some people are actually going to play this. Perhaps the worst example of this is the following rules which where present in all (?) of roleplaying games released by the leading swedish roleplaying publisher in the 80s-90s:

1) The GM is always right
2) If, for some reason, the GM would not be right, see rule 1)

This is denying the interplay in roleplaying.

2) The ultimate goal of roleplaying is flow
Flow is the sensation of losing oneself in an activity, to be completely immersed and absorbed in concentration. All of your cognitive (thought) resources are in the game, so you don't have to consider what to do next - You just do it. You go with the flow, so to speak.

In my introduction to roleplaying I mentioned three aspects of roleplaying: Game, immersion and story. I believe flow can be achieved in all three.

I have experienced flow sensations in story-focused games when going on a creative spree with my fellow storytellers. To immerse completely in your character is the equivalent of immersive play. I haven't encountered flow in game-focused roleplaying, but since the sensation of flow is common to most task-oriented human activity it should definitively be possible when trying to best an in-game challenge, such as tactically mastering a combat scene.

Now, achieving this flow state should be understood as exactly an ultimate goal. Casual roleplaying can have the goal of meeting and relaxing with friends, but I believe that working with the assumptions that leads towards flow also work towards easier achieve casual roleplaying. Working towards flow is making the game smoother, simply put.

It might also be prudent to point out that constant flow is not necessarily a good goal for roleplaying - In most stories, we switch tempo between energy-filled intense scenes, and refreshing and slow ones. In any case, I wish to make the point that a good game is one that moves forward, one that has energy.

3) Blocks are counterflow
So the game needs to go somewhere. It needs to move forward to be interesting and captivating, and anything that breaks this energy is counter to flow and enjoyment of the game. As these elements are blocking the game, let's call them "blocks". They are the phenomena that block the games movement, disrupts and distracts players when they are in the game.

Imagine that you know what do next in the game, you have a vision (I'll return to this) in your head, you just need to verbalise it to bring it into our shared imagined world. If you're interrupted in that process, you have been blocked. Your movement loses its momentum, and thus the game loses momentum.

What counts as blocks depends on what you're concentrated on, of course. A player immersing in hir character and the fantasy world is blocked by out of character-discussions between players, or the game master breaking out the rulebook.
A player focused on creating story is blocked and disrupted if elements that run counter to the storys established mood is introduced.
Most everyone is blocked by long discussions on how to interpret game rules during game time.

 4) You need to share the same expectations on the game
When doing roleplaying, I believe that shared expectations on the game is the very foundation without which rewarding interplay between the players are impossible. The greater extent of shared expectations, the better the game works.

Expectations can be social expectations, such as "We all show up at Daniel's place at six o'clock" and "We don't make fun of each other's characters". Let's call these the social contract.

They can also be expectations on the game world, such as "My character is a real upstanding hero, I expect others to view that way too" or "I expect those vines would be a perfect to climb that wall". Let's call this vision, how we see the game world.

We can use expectations to construct three levels of how well the game is going. I will use a graphical representation of the interactions between four light-beige coloured people around a gaming table. Pardon the eurocentricity. :)

4.1) The expectations aren't shared

If this is the case, you have a problem. If the players have different ideas of how to conduct themselves, what goes for this group, which mood is appropriate in the game, and how events should resolve in the game ("I hit you, you're dead!" "No I'm not, you missed!" to quote a classic line from children's play) you get frustration and conflict among the players.

Players might resort to try to enforce their vision on the others rather than working collaboratively.  "Okay, your character is making mine look bad, but I expect him to look cool, so I'll have to kill your character" or development along such lines is one way of reaching your personal vision by force. This means constant blocking of each other.

4.2) The expectations are shared

If this is the case, the vision of the game in each players head are matching. When you verbalise your vision, it doesn't block anyone elses vision, but rather works in concert with them, creating a shared, sustained fantasy. The game gathers momentum and it goes somewhere.

4.3) Flow

Without blocking, the players can get into the flow together so to speak, and their visions are not only matching anymore, they become a communal vision shared by all, almost tangible. The players can scoop story ideas, in-character lines, et cetera from this shared vision without hesitation, just creating and creating together. Each contributition builds on the previous, moves the game forward and energizes the other players.

This should be understood as a continuum. There are always some amout of blocks appearing in all games, and a flow or sensations of flow can be achieved without being completely immersed in the game.

You can draw a parallell to my model of mental health, at the bottom we have defensive-aggressive, in the middle communal and at the top creative. When roleplaying, just as when living our life, we need a sense of security. A sense that my contributions works, that they are worth something, that they won't be blocked, and that I won't have to justify myself.

No matter your creative agenda (Game, immersion, story), roleplaying is a group process. As a player and a game designer, you have a responsiblity to take care of other players creative input - Probably most relevant to immersion and simulation games, where it is easy to hide behind in-game logic. "But that's what my character would do!"
Games should be designed for clarity above all things, as confusion will lead to blocks of the game. Clarity builds a sense of security of which the players can work creatively from.
Games should be designed to provide energy to the group, not to drain energy.