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Keeping them all together.

During one of my consulting sessions, I told Ron one of my major design concerns regarding my current project is the concept of interdependence: it's a game about a group of people fighting things that should be well beyond the possibilities of the common human being. How do they do this? I want one of the answers to be "together".

Now this is rather easy and possibly menial to reproduce in the dry practicality of combat situations; there may be some nuances in doing it well, but it's treaded ground. The question that naturally comes to me is however concerning the concept of adventuring parties at large, of shared goals and group ethos, and if and how we can implement or facilitate a sense of belonging, of camraderie and ultimately a shared sense of purpose in the player, on a design level. 

The fundamental tension I see is that roleplaying games that implement or require this notion of "adventuring party" also seem to be those who strongly hinge on the concept of personalism/protagonism: it's your character's story, it's about her past, her relationships, her goal, her nemesis, her revenge, her gold, her loot. And you have two, three, four other individuals at the table, all with their pretty backstories and interests and sets of skills they want to employ. How do we turn that immense centrifugal force into something that can be shared and partecipated? Is it even possible?

So naturally I started looking at how games I know and expecially those I like do it. I've made a small list that is probably in no way exaustive and definitely not scientific in approach, but I hope to get a clearer vision through the eventual discussion in the comments:
 

  • The most common answer is probably "through fiction". This encompasses a very wide range of situations, going from "The game doesn't really give you any guidance on this" to very specific prescriptions.
    The first case could be that of your average D&D game, but it applies to a very large range of games: beyond a basic presumption that players and DMs will reach some sort of agreement on how and why characters get and stick together, I don't really see anything prescriptive in this kind of approach. There are some very strong elements of interdependency in the combat mechanics (which I'll touch on later on) but they're strictly limited to characters needing each other to survive, and often in asymmetrical ways. 
    Other games use the fiction in a prescriptive way to enforce or at least facilitate that sense of belonging. Two of my most recent reads are such examples: in Band of Blades players are part of a mercenary company, and in fact that game has a very strong fictional premise in place: you're told the name of company, the stage of the war, and the specific battle (and defeat) you're walking away from. The fiction couldn't be most specific about it, and the players are assigned a role within the company: they're part of it, they're in for each other, and they are created with a shared goal in mind. 
    In Circle of Hands, the characters are uniquivocally circle knights, no buts or ifs. Now, my impression of CoH is that it's a game with some incredibly powerful prescriptions that go from fiction to play with exceptional strength (small digression: I entertain the idea that enforcing the fact that there's no inns or taverns and the way the rules of hospitality work would have a stronger effect on the average playing group than most of the hard-and-fast rules that involve dice and numbers, which is a testament to the strength of setting as a mechanic), but in this case the prescription is as strong as it's vague. You're not given goals or long bullet list codes or even a general idea of what's going on on a macro level: so while you're told what you are, you're left with a sensible amount of freedom in what to do, and I'd wager in how to do it. What's particularly interesting to me is that this extremely careful balance between extremely detailed prescriptions on a micro level with no real reflection on a macro one seems to play out in every stage of the game. When you start a venture, you do so in the there-and-now; much like in Blades in the Dark's heists, no time is wasted on explaining how we got there, what happened before, the current status of the war and so on. And while I'm guessing there's more important reasons for this approach, my honest impression is that this will play out as a major strength in creating a sense of belonging to the players' group. After all you don't start out with much to work with except the fact that you're there, together, with a common shared cause, and that strong yet blurred out motivation is something you're going to fill out in the process of playing. Which leads me to think that the virtue of this approach is that you combine what is a good principle in my book (creativity is born from limitations) with the impossibility to solve that riddle ("Why are we in this together?") before play start. And I've been arguing for a while that the more baggage you create before play start, the more difficult it is to give value to what actually happens at the table, so this is extremely convincing to me.
    Another and perhaps the most functional example would be superhero games: here the idea of the superhero team and the loyalties and shared identities that come with it is so ingrained in the players' imagination that probably no further guidance is needed. In fact, the struggle between larger than life, world-ending threats and personal struggles is something that is inbuilt in the fiction you're aiming at creating, which means that that struggle is accepted and validated in the social contract itself.
    Perhaps a step back here is necessary: as I write this, I'm thinking "can all this, not just this part but the entire discussion, dismissed as part of the social contract?". If I decide to sit down playing CoH or Marvel HR, haven't I already solved the issue by accepting to give up part of my freedom in creating and directing my character in order to play for a common goal? I have no good answer at the moment.
     
  • the second possible approach is obviously through the game's own procedures and instructions. This is where I initially started looking and there's a surprisingly rich amount of games that attempt at this on different levels.
    Some of these mechanical efforts are fairly complicated; for example, FFG's own version of the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (3rd edition) asks the group to choose a "party sheet", that identifies them as something like "Brash Young Fools", "Gang of Thugs", "Swords for Hire" or "Servants of Justice". These sheets include slots where you can equip "feats" that apply to all members, some special property that the group shares (the Thugs get really good at breaking legs and intimidating people, the Mercenaries have good conditioning and similar things). You also get a shared pool of hero points that you refill by doing things that go along with your group concept. It's all pretty but it's just an extra layer of buttons to press, in my experience. More interesting is the party tension gauge: whenever the Narrator or the players feel it's appropriate (generally when people argue or struggle to work together), you add tension to a meter (generally going to 1 to 9); at fixed intervals bad things happen. So the mercenaries start to tire out when their teamwork isn't pitch perfect, and the thugs literally start beating each other, and so on. So in my experience the game kind of hammers you on the head for not getting along, and the consequences are never so fun that you may actually want to explore them (there's a lot of "everybody gains 2 stress and 2 fatigue then tension is resetted").
    The aforementioned Blades in the Dark/Band of Blades follow a fairly similar approach, giving you a full set of group-shared features and bonuses and things to fill up, but the big difference here is that your crew is part of the character creation process and changing it over the course of the game is more laborious. Your crew also informs your shared goals, the nature of your group's business and so on. So while the fiction tells you you're scoundrels and outlaws, your crew and the discending mechanics tell you what kind of criminal you are, your best skills and your field of competence, and generally what you're going to do.
    Then there's games like Greg Stolze's Reign that take this to a further level of complexity with the Company element. I'll admit that I never got to play Reign so I have no valuable feedback to give on the actual implementation, but I'll say that on paper it feels beefy enough to almost give me the impression that running your company is the entire point of the game. 
     
  • the third approach is something I struggle to consider a design feature but has been fairly prevalent in my experience, and it's something I could simply label as "we make it up as we go along". The most common example is one player listening to the others, guessing or simply picking up their interests and proceeding (though whichever authority they may have) to make those interests converge in the same place. 
    Curiously enough it's something I experienced mostly in very GM-led games and in masterful/masterless games. In both cases it feels like something the design points to: you play off what other players say, and build on that. I can't help but think it's a poisoned apple in GM-led games, however. For example, I'm currently running Pathfinder 2 for a group of friends, and of course they are a diverse bunch of characters all with different interests and origins. I decided to do nothing to bind them together at character creation because A) it's a group of extremely experienced players who are used to dealing with the problems and B) I wanted to use this chance to play a very traditional system to see how we would behave in complete absence of mechanics that guided the group to unity. The end result is predictable: I'm putting the arcane writings the wizard character is researching in the same ruins where the barbarians have dragged the prisoners they made in the ranger's village, which incidentally are part of the castle the monk has a claim to. It works simply because the players are willing to see through the implausibility of it all for the sake of entertainment and for my minimal skills in making it a bit less ridicolous than it sounds, but it's an experience that is reinforcing my resolve to figure out something better for my own game. If not better, at least easier on the players. I feel like this is the classic case where full freedom may come at a great cost.

 

I'm leaving out of the discussion all those games that either don't touch on the notion of adventuring party or that reject the notion completely. Interestingly enough, there's a lot of games that do this but still take the route of narrowing down player roles through fiction - as I said, it's something with far bigger implications than my own, very specific concern here. I'm thinking of Polaris, Trollbabe etc.

If I have to draw my own conclusions from this rather meandering analysis, and prefacing that these are my own personal preferences and desiderata, and not really a suggestion of what's right and what's wrong:
 

  1. That this concept of adventuring party/group/family is reflected at some level in the fiction is a necessity, even if it comes at a price in terms of freedom
  2. In order for this to happen, the necessary premise is a strong social contract and the will to play that kind of fiction (and game)
  3. In terms of procedures, the process should start at character creation: players need to know what they're getting into and it's highly desireable that it's them working on forming these bonds from the get-go, rather than them happening as an adjustement provided by the system or GM
  4. Dedicated mechanics that refresh these ties can be welcome but don't replace the above; excessively complicated and mechanical procedures risk reducing what should be people playing off each other to busywork.
     

What am I leaving out? Are there other ways to approach the matter? Is there good examples of games and procedures that facilitate this kind of dynamic in play, perhaps in less obvious and explicit ways?

Thanks for your patience navigating through this, and I'll be reading what others have to suggest on the matter with full interest.

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

This one will have to be a video, eventually.

As an introductory thought, I think you will never, ever get anywhere by thinking in terms of "well, if they don't really want to or don't have the habit, how can I make them want to, or get them to want to want to, or facilitate it, or encourage it, or incentivize it, or provide a framework for it."

Don't try to claim this is not a problem! Your post tried to avoid it but you kept returning to it throughout, especially with the meaningless term "freedom." If you can't discard this context for your question, then you will be trapped in circles, which is unfortuntaely slightly pleasant and addictive, unlike the thankless path of staying with the right question: when we do it, how do we do it?

And what is "it," anyway? Are you talking about characters with a shared social identity, or characters with a common goal (or ongoing sequential common goals), or characters who act mostly in physical proximity with one another? These are three very different things. I suggest, for example, that most superhero groups are far less cohesive across these three variables than you imply in your post.

You can probably guess my next point, which is, please consider and describe some instance of play in which the kind of group cohesion you care about most actually occurred. I don't care if it was completely pre-ordained during the setup for play, or developed wholly organically, or was something in-between - the point is that it was a real thing during play. What was the game? What was the "togetherness?"

I have worked up some thoughts about your comparison among games and the processes of play, but we need to get through some of these basic points first.

LorenzoC's picture

As an introductory thought, I think you will never, ever get anywhere by thinking in terms of "well, if they don't really want to or don't have the habit, how can I make them want to, or get them to want to want to, or facilitate it, or encourage it, or incentivize it, or provide a framework for it."

Don't try to claim this is not a problem!
 

I wouldn't dare, because it absolutely is. I think I agree with you, if I'm getting you right, and I think it's what I was trying to say when I said "Wait, step back, isn't this all just part of the social contract?" bit. I realize the use of the word "freedom" become frustrating in that instance, because freedom happened when you decided you wanted to do this, so you're really not giving up on anything later.

What I mean is that if the point is that there's no mechanical way to "force" people to like these processes unless they've chosen them, then I completely agree. The goal, to me, isn't to say "people don't want their characters to stick together and grow together, but I'll force them to do it, and I'll make them like it", but rather to provide interesting/functional mechanics to those who do like it and want it, much in the same way as I would (attempt to) provide interesting investigative mechanics to people interest in investigation. 

This goes hand in hand with the idea (that probably doesn't need mentioning) that none of this has any absolute qualitative value. Having this kind of feel to the game doesn't make the game any better, unless you choose it. Easy example: I was reading the Sword & Sorcery actual play post - three people playing together, characters haven't met yet from what I can see. There's lots of ways of playing together while your characters (provided you even have one) go in ten different directions. 

the thankless path of staying with the right question: when we do it, how do we do it?

Yes! This is what I'd love to explore. Let's say we're at the stage where people said "we want to play this band of characters, and due to however many reasons, we want them to work together, to be a team, to share experiences, to care for each other". Keeping in mind that the "problem" I've experienced is that very often people sit down with this attitude and agreement in mind, and 15 hours later they realize that they're playing a lizard-thing obsessed with mutagenic alchemy, the baroness of faux-Wallachia and a taciturn swordsman that wants to avenge the death of his cousin, and struggle to see that intention working out in play in a pleasant or even just meaningful manner.  That's why I say that those instrumentations that serve as elaborate way to distribute a "congratulations, you're a team" stickers, now matter how mechanically intricate, ultimately fail for me. My impression is that it needs to happen in some form at the character creation stage, in order to make sure that that sense of common direction isn't in (constant) conflict with the individual character. How do I do this, is the question.

And what is "it," anyway?

My own incredibly personal interest lies in B and C. A (the social identity element) seems very prevalent in many games, but I never felt it did what I'm trying to wrap my mind around here.
B (common goals that refresh themselves) feels like the objective of the process, while C is the premise, at least in my own selfishly focused and momentary interests. Obviously if we consider this in general game design terms you could have all, some or none of those things at various degrees, I guess. 

It's a discussion that spirals very easily into so many different things and I'm trying to stay focused (which is why for example I didn't touch on the forced character rotation when discussing CoH, despite feeling it's a huge thing in this context) so answering your question, and trying to be succint, I can think of a Primetime Adventures run (and this is probably the most surprising one to me) that involved space exploration and some light horror. I guess the strong premise and the way tension racketed up naturally made us feel like a real crew, despite the entire fiction-within-fiction premise of the game, to the point that by the third or fourth session that feeling had almost taken over to the point we were, I'm rather sure, playing the game wrong.
Another example would be an old GURPS game. Hard-sci fi space exploration, we crash land on a planet that is your standard dark ages plus magic setting, and we try to stay alive and find a way home. I guess something about spaceships speaks to me, but again I think the determining factor was the us being part of something together was a fundamental premise of the fiction.
A very banal but perhaps the strongest example would be a 3.5 D&D game. It was a 6 players plus table, there was plenty of inter-character strife and confict (my second character was murdered in his sleep by a fellow player, that kind of thing). Characters came and went and were created without particular consideration of them working together well, except for some very general tie with the point the story was at. Yet it was the strongest feeling of family we remember in a game, and - absurd as it may be - I think it all started when at some point one of the players, a very enthusiastic guy who was really taken by his character, decided to celebrate some early success of the group by giving it a name. We became the "Sons of the Wind" (don't laugh) and that was it. The name, the identity was rather soon acknowledged in the fiction and very soon it became a living thing. 

And if you're going to tell me that all these 3 examples are probably useless in terms of having anything discussible in terms of design, and that after saying I don't care for social identity the most effective example I cite is entirely about social identity, my only defense will be that I opened this post in hopes of clearing up some of the mess in my head.

So to narrow it down: we're thinking of people who choose to play that way, of having a team of characters that are physically together most of the time and that can find common motivations that constantly refresh/update themselves. There's a lot of very good design processes to stimulate personal motivations; I'm wondering if we can do the same for games where people being a "team" is a thing.

Ron Edwards's picture

Let’s lay out some variables for comparing the games you mentioned.

#1: “They’re a group.” This has two very different and independent components.

  • The “reader-view” fictional orientation, which is to say, the real-world purveyor (and creators, in our case) know that these characters face things together, or when threatened or separated, they will come back together either on purpose or because they have to or because coincidence ruthlessly decrees it.
  • The known, relatively formal agreement or existing relationship among the characters, with various trappings like a name, a headquarters, a uniform, a boss, et cetera.

I stress that to satisfy this variable, you can have either of these without the other, and that any blend of the two is viable. If you have the first entirely without the second, you have a lot of “fire-forged friends or allies” setups, even repeatedly. If you have the second entirely without the first, then the “team-ness” is merely nominal and possibly involuntary, against which the characters’ internal conflicts flare, and although you may not have considered that in your ideals of play, it is very common in team-group fiction.  

At the risk of a serious rabbit hole, you can see a snapshot of my thoughts about superhero groups in Doctor Venn’s circle strike, although I think my comments afterward are better than the starting post.

#2: When does it happen in terms of rules and procedures? This concept is pretty easy but it’s a long, graded spectrum with a lot of difficulties in implementation, because no matter when it’s fictionally stated or even agreed upon, the characters’ “group” (very broadly defined) doesn’t actually happen as a reality in play until the players themselves are running their characters accordingly and intuitively. But roughly:

  • Before play, especially in terms of hitting either component of variable #1 pretty hard. Sometimes that can feel forced, which is why, for the second component, you may get a carefully constructed team before play that instantly explodes into individualized, even mutually-hostile scatter. Or even more forced, for the first component, e.g., “We start with all of you shackled and blindfolded in the back of a van,” or, “you all wake up in some kind of futuristic incomprehensible trap,” which (just like anything else) can work for emergent group construction but are not ever guaranteed to do it, and when it doesn’t, it’s spectacularly bad.
  • In the first arc or events, in which it is presumed or hoped that some combination of the components in variable #1 emerge, basically, “the players start to care.” Here is the risk that you stated explicitly, though, which is so common in role-playing as almost to be expected: no such combination emerges, so the hapless organizer of play is forced into repeating the setup over and over, hoping that it does, and the players usually phone it in just to stop the coincidences, and never actually “bring it” in play.

I should also point out something I saw a lot in playtesting Champions Now, that modern superhero fans are not at all familiar with the comics and are obsessed with “how we got our powers” and “how we met,” to the point that they can’t really understand playing anything that happens afterwards.

#3: What does “in a group” mean for practical and literal situations? Briefly, consider three different things: being in the same spot, acting in a coordinated fashion, and individually seeking the same goal. As you can probably see coming, “being in a group” actually does not presuppose or expect all three of these at once, or any one of them most of the time.

In game terms, that means that trying to force or establish any or all of these three things actually isn’t going to make “a group.” Such attempts are legion throughout role-playing texts and play, and I’m sure you can list them as well as anyone.

Doing any of them will at most require the players to construct a tactical squad, but isn’t that what you’re trying to avoid – a mere tactical squad with no identity or purpose or authentic togetherness?

None of these attempts’ details are necessarily bad things, and they certainly can be picked up and enjoyed as plain old plot and situational framing, but again, they will not ipso facto succeed in “bringing the characters together as a group,” which is the overwhelmingly-present assumption, to the point where it’s easily parodied as in Paranoia. If the players do indeed buy into the group-ness in the sense you’re talking about, then they’ll incorporate such plot elements to be sure, but the causality is definitely one-way.

#4: How may game mechanics be involved? Easy answer: however you want, all the way from “none” to “lots.” You’ve already stated it best, that we’re talking about wanting to do this anyway, so mechanics implementation is simply a matter of how we want to celebrate it.

It’s true that mechanics may also play a framing and defining role, which is what “system does matter” is all about, but they cannot dictate or make goals, especially not on a one-for-one basis. So people who mis-read “system does matter” as “use technique X to ensure that effect/enjoyment Y must occur” are bound to be disappointed.

Anyway, you’ve mentioned some things already. I would point not only to the group powers and headquarters mechanics in The Whispering Vault, but especially to the insightful rules feature that they are only established through earned experience points, not through starting builds. This matches my points above, that you do it when you already mean it, not the other way around. It is also a textual version of existing practices from playing Champions, by which The Whispering Vault is obviously influenced.

As an exercise to consider: why does Circle of Hands not include any such “group powers,” when at first glance the game would seem to cry out for them. I love them in the two games mentioned above; why didn’t I use them here? I suggest not answering directly as you haven’t played the game, but to keep it in mind as a long-term topic.

A few other interesting things ... in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying, a superhero’s “core dice” are assigned to Solo, Buddy, and Team, and you have to choose which is best, middle, and worst for this character. You use only one of them at a time, depending on what you’re doing. Perhaps counter-intuitively, some of the best in-team characters, in story terms, have their worst die in Team ... but I submit that is a critical point relative to my variable #1 above. In HeroQuest, formerly Hero Wars, the core concept for playing is the “hero band.” This sounds like an up-front tactical team concept, but it’s not. Whatever circumstances brought the characters together – and those range all the way from being close family members in the same tribe and cult to being an utterly diverse thrown-together whacked salad – their magical and social purpose must emerge from play and indeed, is typically subversive or transcendent regarding the prior (textual) framework for magic and social action. Once in play, the mechanics reinforcing the hero band’s identity and abilities are explicit and heavily fictionally-defined. And in one of the most interesting games for “the group,” Khaotic, all of the player-characters are projected mentally into the body of a single monster, so you can’t get more “together” than that in fictional terms – but the essence of play is about how they disagree, not about how they unite.

LorenzoC's picture

Well, this feels so exaustive that now I kind of worry we won't get a video, and that would be a shame.

I'll tackle a couple things briefly:
 

#1: “They’re a group.” This has two very different and independent components.

In no particular order:

- I did take a small trip in the rabbit hole and yes, a lot of those reflections are usable in the context of what I have in mind. In fact, I think that a lot of that conflict - going from individual characters to team without overprogramming - is my same conflict. But I do think that a certain degree of that conflict is even desireable. I think whatever instrumentation you introduce in the game, or even whatever group dynamic that emerges spontaneously truly pays off when the choice between team interests and individual priority isn't easy but still feels natural. What I'm trying to say is that I would probably take the Suicide Squad (provided that there's a moment when people goes from "we have to do this together" to "we want to do this together") over the peachy perfection of the F4's ideal family. My hunch is that the correct direction to pursue, for my game, isn't group identity but group goals.

- I've honestly never seen the first aspect fail to provide unity - meaning, once people agreed that the group was a group at the table, outside the fiction, I've never seen a group betray this expectation. People would stick together even when it wasn't fun or consistent to do so, and I don't need to explain why it's a problem. If a player has to constantly stop and ask himself "Why is my character doing this?" and has to constantly refer to non-diegetic answers, there's a problem.
Oddly enough, yesterday in a group chat someone made a joke about an old character that is kind of relevant to this context. We were playing a Savage Worlds/Hellfrost game, and the group started out with both components in place at full strength - they wanted to play a group and they wanted them to be close in-fiction, to the point they created characters who were actually family. You had the son of the Jarl of a small quasi-viking village, his brother, the adoptive brother, the bodyguard, the old mentor, the childhood girlfriend. As it happens, at one point one character dies and is replaced - we can't really replicate that dynamic so we get an infamous mercenary that joins the group out of convenience. A few sessions in the group gets into a very tough fight and the mercenary, seeing things are going south, decides to loot what he can and flee. Another character dies immediately after, and of course it's the son of the jarl, the guy everyone has a relationship with. If there's no way to refresh that identity through shared goals, then I guess you risk this happening (and to this day, despite the fact that that decision probably was the tombstone on that game, I can't blame the player for deciding not to pretend his character would risk his life for a group of substantial strangers).

Point #2 covers all I would have to say on the matter. I do think your example about how the GM/DM/Narrator has to go through a constant process of "making the characters start to care" is possibly the aggression point for me as a designer. Assume people want to care, and want this care to be something that emerges and refreshes through play, is it possible to facilitate that in the rules through the creation/reinforcement of common goals?

Again, you got me perfectly right on #3. Forcing people to work together in situations of danger is rather easy. I'd wager that there's a very long tradition of GMs that saw that work and decided it was a smart idea to try and use that same sense of urgency as superglue for group dynamics, which explain why so many games seem to start on the premise that the Dark Lord is awakening again and you need to stick together at level 1 because you're going to fight him at level 20 (spoilers: you're never going to get to level 20 or actually see the Dark Lord in action). 

I want to think about all this some more, but mulling briefly on the last part of your message, I think that within the boundaries of what we've discussed what I want to try to implement is mechanics that, aside from celebrating that intent (and hopefully being fun for the sake of fun), "remind" the players of that initial commitment by letting them refresh or renew whatever they used to kick off their relationship, in fiction. I could say that this is going to play in how I'm working on those damned lifepaths (that remain the joy/bane of my designing effort) and I could mention that in my urge of explaining every unnecessary detail, I did grossly misunderstand the purpose of your "when does it end?" question during our consulting session. This all plays in the actually meaningful answer to that question, but it's not relevant to the current discussion.

More important, I did play CoH! 2 sessions (a very brief session zero to overview rules and create the Circle, and a first venture) which isn't nearly enough to form any sort of thoughts aside from the fact that it seems like a blast to GM, that I need some more time on ordering (and one thing about magic that I can't remember right now) while players are still slightly confused about what they're supposed to do and that confusion played out in very interesting ways, which would lead me to draw premature conclusions and I won't.

 

robowist's picture

Plenty of food for thought here. Let me start with some actual play experiences:

In Powered by the Apocalypse games, there is often an “Hx” (histories) or “Bond” trait that is part of character creation. When filling out your playbook, you work around the table and establish some relationships (which can be positive or negative) with other characters before play starts. You then are supposed to keep track of histories and bonds, and they can come into play mechanically both in terms of conflict resolution and in terms of advancement. 

In actual practice, I’ve usually found that players forget Histories and Bonds during play. In Dungeon World (which uses the Apocalypse engine) Flags have sometimes been used as a replacement. With a Flag, you give your character some statements (such as “Believe and act on a lie I’ve told you”), and these have met with far more success. You get an extra experience point for hitting another player’s flag, and while they often seem artificial, their more limited focus and their immediate roleplaying potential gives them added force. Hx and Bonds are more meaty and substantive, but players are often at a loss to make them the focus of play. Flags are more superficial, but they indicate a specific action to shoot for, so players can wrap their heads around them more effectively. If one is fortunate, some of the Flags can be sparks that lead to more profound relationship development. One hits someone else’s flag as part of an artificial XP grab, but this might in turn lay the seed for something more profound to develop between the characters. But I’m not convinced that Flags is an ideal solution to the problem: They seem to be children of necessity, a result of the fact that play groups are short lived with limited attention spans.

One of the more satisfying PBTA games I have been involved in was a playtest of Robert Bohl’s Demihumans. The game stipulates that the characters be different demihumans (with initially separate mindsets and goals) who are relegated to life within an enclave. Over the course of many sessions, human antipathy against the enclave increases, which means that the demihuman characters have increased incentive to bond together in the face of cruel, malevolent external force. The success of the game relied both on the set-up of the world but also on my players’ willingness to buy into the spirit.

The degree of group interdependence has largely been a matter of the dynamics of the players at the table. Key components of the equation are the number of sessions in a campaign, the number of players in the group, and the “play ethic” of the group. Over the past couple years, I’ve played a number of short series (4-5 sessions) of various games. In the “short series” time frame, the room for relationship building is limited and there is a more forced expectation that the characters work together. Instead of relationships developing organically over time, they are assumed from the start: In practice, this means that the players are sometimes straining to weave their characters together. This has been achieved with varying levels of success, but even in situations where we feel like we’ve done a good job, I’ve had a sense that things have been jury-rigged.

I find the long, ongoing campaign far more appealing from the point of view of relationship building. Partly, this is because “long form” can allow the individual characters more freedom to pursue individual objectives, which then makes their decision to work as part of a group even more satisfying. But I fear that the climate of indie games in particular is making the long form game an endangered species. Not only will such games be made less and less, but those that are made will not sustain the attention of players actually to be played in the long form.

An analogy I’ve been thinking of: The issue of character interdependence in roleplaying is akin to harmonics in music.

 What this means in practice:

  • Duration is a vital component of understanding and appreciating harmony: A rich chord can only be studied if those notes are sustained so that that their tones can interact. Similarly, character group interdependence can only occur if those relationships are allowed to develop through time.
  • Harmony is enriched by notes which have individual clarity even as they contribute to the ensemble. Similarly, a rich group interdependence will be fostered in games that allow for a level of independence among the characters.
  • Harmony is enriched by dissonances, unusual intervals, retunings, development, and exploration. In the RPG arena, this means that the group ideally should not have their relationships considered ahead of time, but should be open to having those relationships grow at the table. 

One technique I’ve been using with in the Sorcerer and Sword game I’ve started up which seems to be working: I’m using the standard 4-quadrant diagram provided in Sorcerer (the one that puts elements of the Price, Kicker, Lore, and Cover/Past in different sections). But I’m also looking for opportunities to play with and/or introduce elements that exist simultaneously in multiple character diagrams. For example, Character A has one Kicker element that exists in Character B’s Lore, but Character B’s Past contains an element which is part of Character A’s Price, etc.

So the characters have different kickers which are propelling them forward, but those “cross-hatched” elements increase the odds that the characters will deal with each other. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Staying clear of the tautological whirlpool is tough: “it must be good for them to be all together + they all must be together for it to be good.” The issue is not how to find the subtlest and least obviously pushy way to make them be together. We’re not even actually talking about solving a problem.

Robbie, I’m glad you brought up examples of exactly that: fostering group-itude which turn out to be either clean misses or quick-compliance fakes. It’s not just a GM problem, it’s everyone. Players are horribly trapped in that tautology too. It’s as if they “know” they’re supposed to “be together,” but have convinced themselves that it has to happen “naturally.”

Inevitably, everone falls back on “act natural” in the fakest way imaginable. The GM provides coincidences. The players say, with fixed smiles, “What a surprise!” and shift into the stereotypical genre character-type behaviors because they create a faux network of relationships that they can relax into without having to explain or otherwise consider them. The grumpy dwarf snarks at everyone and we all know it means he’s unfailingly loyal.

It’s like those horrible TV and movie plots in which the characters are all brought together in an action sequence through complete coincidences (one per character), then one of them saves one of the others out of sheer impulse, and then, when the fight’s over, we cut to them all sitting in a restaurant or somewhere like it, trading quips and life stories, or planning how to strike back at whatever they just realized they were fighting together.

Well, that is a whole lot of bile I’ve just disgorged, and I’ve overlooked about a hundred examples of how well real play has yielded strong bonds and enjoyable team or group effects. That’s because all those good examples teach the same lesson: let’s not try to solve the problem, because there is no problem. Specifically, there’s no imperative for player-characters to be physically in proximity, acting in concert, caring about one another, or identifying with some socially-defined or named construct.

The question then is, when we do in fact want to play with any of those in place, how do we not screw it up? My thought #1 is cautionary: that if we treat it as a problem and try to fix it, i.e., to fall back into the imperative mode of thought, that all of fandom (of those selfsame horrible plots) and all of gamerdom (“don’t split the party!”) are there to wallow there with us, to revel in the same old fakery.

My thought #2 comes from exactly what you brought up about Weaves (from Sex &Sorcery). It is the opposite of determining stuff on the characters’ sheets to be the same things in order to make the characters “get together” or “deal with each other.” Instead, it is simply to recognize whatever is already manifestly the same in-setting phenomenon across two or more sheets, in other words, it would be stupid if it weren’t. You don’t have to find any such thing. And contrary to what you’re saying, there is no desired outcome for doing so – it’s not like you Weave, then the players “don’t respond right,” so you Weave again. You Weave because now it’s Woven, the “it” being the in-setting phenomenon, thus now the whole situation is less stupid than it was threatening to be. It’s not anything to do with how the characters are supposed to feel about it or to act about it.

I’m often complimented on how cleverly and seamlessly and smoothly I “bring the PCs together” when playing Sorcerer. It is impossible to convince the person that I don’t, not in the impassive stage-magician way that the person thinks. Either I Wove stuff in order for my material (what I have authority over as GM) not to be stupid, because I hate working with stupid material; or I bit the bullet, took responsibility for it, and for my own enjoyment (not “for them” or “for the group”) decreed a pure coincidence, e.g., the time I had two player-characters who were simultaneously hurrying through the city streets to round the corner straight into one another. In other words, if it’s a coincidence, admit it – make it a real friggin’ coincidence. Happens in fiction all the time. You have that authority as GM in Sorcerer and in most games; because, basically, someone always has that authority in any role-playing game. And just as with Weaves, without the intention or expectation of a team-up to result.

Why do players (to my aggravation) think of this as GM-magicianship? Because I don’t have that intention or expectation. Therefore when they don’t “team up,” I don’t circle back around and make ninja hand signals to remind them that they should, and when they do hook up (in any one of the various ways, which, remember, are independent), it’s because they wanted to. So all that idealized naturalness is actually non-idealistically possible – it wasn’t a problem, so we didn’t try to solve it, and OMG, look, it’s not a problem. Such a magician!

Thought #3 is that whatever type of “group” variable you really want to be fixed, fix it in place from the outset, so the other have no choice but to accept it, case closed, hands down, and their real choice is whether they want to play this. And again (again again), these group thingies are distinct from one another and can’t be expected to foster one another automatically.

In Circle of Hands, every player-character is part of the Circle – period. It’s supposed to mean something to each character, but exactly what it means per character emerges and is realized by the way that character is played over time. And crucially, that membership doesn’t mean anything about shared goals on a venture, about caring for one another, about teamwork, or anything else. Those things are brought in as “discovered” (a way of feeling, combining desire and aesthetics), or just as legitimately, they’re not brought in at all.

Lorenzo, I am willing to bet that when you say “the players were confused about what to do,” that it means they were seeking some meaning to being in the Circle that the rules and setup very deliberately withheld from them. They were looking for a designated goal as for a black-ops mission, or for a shared ideal or set of emotions. They did not understand that they were not given any such thing, nor were they supposed to stress and force it into play, or even to want to.

In Sorcerer, every player-character is in the same area – period. Having those Kickers and other concepts in play in the same area very often results in many details being stupid unless they’re the same things, so make them the same things via Weaving, to the minimum necessary to make it un-stupid and no further. (Don’t forget Crosses and Bobs too, for things to do with content that aren’t Weaves, because it’s equally stupid to Weave everything.) From that point forward, whatever interactions arise and whatever team-ups occur, or outright confrontations perhaps, is all good, including whatever of those things don’t occur.

Thought #4 is that available mechanics for these things come in two categories, which you can easily see in the previous thoughts.

  1. They’re together in some designated, no-negotiations way, as fundamental to this particular game experience as the fact that we have characters at all. In which case, a game mechanic that corresponds to this exact group thing (and not other things) is perfectly fine from the outset – although certain experiences do suggest holding such mechanics in abeyance for later development, as the exact mechanics option is often best decided via in-play defining moments.
  2. They’re together via choice and necessity, in fictional terms, due very much to enthusiasm on the players’ parts; basically, it’s more fun now with one or another “group thing” as an understood part of the fiction. In which case, look for emergent properties of the existing game mechanics, like the cross-cutting abilities I’m always blithering about for D&D 4E, or the interactive details of black-and-white magic in Circle of Hands. Or since you have relationships as mechanics with someone in many games (go all the way back to Albedo, or see HeroQuest or Trollbabe), let it be available to construct them with each other as a form of character development, again, available, not required or expected.
LorenzoC's picture

Lorenzo, I am willing to bet that when you say “the players were confused about what to do,” that it means they were seeking some meaning to being in the Circle that the rules and setup very deliberately withheld from them. They were looking for a designated goal as for a black-ops mission, or for a shared ideal or set of emotions. They did not understand that they were not given any such thing, nor were they supposed to stress and force it into play, or even to want to.

I'll be completely honest: it took me more time than it should have to zero in on the problem because I was having too much fun with my own stuff, expecially the Charm rolls. I don't want to overanalyze such a brief amount of actual play, but I think this was specular to what they were experiencing: in my GM seat, the idea that there's a situation, there's a cast, but moving from that anything can happen and the dice will tell me which way and my fun will be in reacting to all that felt extremely natural. And part of that is probably rooted in the fact that there's no prior attachment to any of those actors. They simply exist until they start living, in play.
Shift to the players, and it probably takes a moment more to realize you're not supposed to have any attachment or goal to the characters (you're going to rotate them anyway) before something starts happening to them. I suppose it's something that will really click in from the second venture, when they change characters and realize how "in the now" the game is supposed to be. 

One of the players at the end of the session said (poorly translated from italian) "This is one of those games where you feel like the rules are like another player sitting at the table". This would open up a very long digression but I'll just say I really appreciated how it felt like everyone was addressing the rules directly and not me after a while.

Moving to the more general reflections, I second the frustration about players wanting to see GM-magics where there are none. Recently I've received several messages about a particular moment of play that legitimately was pretty special in terms of atmosphere, and I struggled to explain how it was something that simply happened. In fact, one of the players was responsible, more than me: he saw a situation, he looked for a solution, he worked really hard to see it work in play, and all I did was to play with that and create things that would make that intention play out in spectacular (even if unpredictable) ways. But the moment the game started, I had no idea that this thing was real: what was supposed to be a small pack of ghouls became an infestation of hundreds of ghouls and now it's the focus of the "story" and none of this would exist if a certain player didn't decide to do something he felt would be smart and cool. Yet it's hard to sell the idea I hadn't prepared such a complex thing, and that there's no illusionism at work. But enough of that.

I'd like to move on from your conclusions to a practical example: I think the kind of overprogramming Robert was speaking of is what I definitely want to avoid. As I said, I don't feel like those games that ask you to write on your sheet something that will have to happen some time along the way reproduce the bonds and sense of togetherness we were discussing. It's probably just my mentality or approach, but making a barbaric example, it's a bit like relationships in Blades in the Dark (I'm going to write on my sheet that these people exist and have this relationship with me and this will have to come up in play) and relationships in Trollbabe (this and this happened, so now I can claim this as a relationship). Proactive vs reactive, if you will, and I prefer the latter.

So if you cannot program those moments and you can't put them on a schedule, what can you do, in terms of instrumentations and mechanics? Again, starting from the premise that players have subscribed to this, that them working together is a thing in fiction, and that it's justified (in and out of fiction) by the fact that what they're doing/facing requires a collective effort (which doesn't imply there shouldn't be conflict inside the group).

I'm thinking of two things:

1. celebrate the thing. 

2. facilitate the opportunity for those moments to happen, without requiring that the thing actually happens.

How we do that is probably a giant topic in itself. As you say, a good example of group-bonding through very hard mechanics is in 4E. Simply moving from "everyone is doing their turn" to "I'm doing this so then you can do that, but I'll require her to do this after or I'm screwed" is something that in repetition not only will invite people to keep thinking as a group, but also to develop those bonds that every now and then will produce "a moment".

I'll try to commit a bit to this with a personal example of what I'm doing. In structure, my game has something temptatively called "Hunts". I used to think of them as BitD's heists, but they're far less structured and with a larger zoom so they're probably close to CoH's ventures (take this as framing, not appeal to authority or anything - I just want some context without having to describe things that would bore everyone).
The most structured element, the thing that is somewhat required of the game as a moment, is the Rest scenes. Generally this will be your campfire moment, but it may happen anywhere. People need this to recover energy but also to use a very fiction-specific set of abilities. They've probably learned what they're faced with, and they get to sharpen blades, prepare poisons, traps, possibly even "equip" abilities. 
They do this on a budget (they only have so much time each, and each thing has a cost) and a lot of these things play off each other. Originally this was a monstruosity made of phases and steps (people had to discuss the events of the day and the traumas accumulated, and it got more horrible) but it was stripped down over and over in testing and what I noticed is that the part were people had to decide how and what to invest in the coming day mixed well with them discussing plans, and as a consequence discussing past deeds, and their interactions, and what I was trying to force on them would simply emerge if I let them do their thing.

So now what I'm seeing is that people discuss if it's better to put poison on the arrows of one guy or the dagger of the other one, and this leads to discuss what they know about the enemies, and how it worked in the past, and who did what and when and more often than not, nothing really happens, but every one and then this will lead to them going to the places I wanted (ineffectively) to drag them to. 

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