Reframing the Game
EMILY CARE BOSS
In the United States, roleplaying games have historically placed many more tasks and responsibilities in the hands of a “Game Master” than in those of the other players. However, the rules of some “collaborative” games attempt to create a more even distribution. Games may be collaborative in part or in whole. The examples provided describe specific ways in which rules and mechanics can encourage increased collaboration among players.
Roleplaying is, by its very nature, a collaborative venture. Simultaneously a social activity and a creative exercise, roleplaying deals with bringing together the ideas and interests of a group of people. A story is told, an imaginary world is created, and people are entertained. To this end, each person brings their own personal experience – of fiction, of history, of life. Each person who plays contributes to the adventure unfolding and has the potential to bring as much to the table as anyone else involved.
However, the vast majority of roleplaying games in the United States have been designed with a very different starting point in mind. They have rules that down-play the cooperative aspects of play, making the lion’s share of responsibilities and creative tasks rest upon one person: the Game Master, or GM. The GM describes the world that the other players explore, keeps the action moving and, ideally, provides relentless yet impartial adversarial opposition. Few other options have been offered. However, in the past five years, game designers and play groups have begun to change the way we look at roleplaying by exploring what has been called “collaborative play” (Millington).
In “collaborative” games, rights and responsibilities formerly held solely by the GM have been extended to all the players. This may be done in select parts of a game, or incorporated throughout. Players may be given more input about the background and setting, play multiple characters, be responsible for creating situations, invoke rules, resolve outcomes and more. With these features, collaborative roleplaying games take advantage of the multiple viewpoints people bring to a game. Instead of primarily utilizing one person’s ideas – those of the GM – they find ways to intentionally weave together the many creative strands that are present. The historical GM/Player split is but one possibility along a continuum of collaboration, and new games that incorporate ways to make gaming more of a team effort capitalize on the inherent potential of gaming: the creativity of the entire play group.
A Legacy of Gaming
The division between GM and Player is deeply embedded in the history of the roleplaying game in the United States. The idea of having a GM arose simultaneously with the concept of recreational roleplaying. The 1973 publication of Dungeons & Dragons (Gygax & Arneson), brought roleplaying into popular consciousness. The success of this game made it a template for games that followed. The Dungeon Master, who created an adventure for the other players, has been born anew in countless guises, as the Game Master, Referee, Storyteller, Hollyhock God, and others. For thirty years, having players who are each responsible for a single character and a GM who supports the rest of the game environment & the rules has been the primary method of coordinating the many tasks necessary for gaming. So what, precisely, makes up this enduring institution? What does it mean to be a “GM”, what are the responsibilities of a “Player”?
How Deep the Divide
Being a Player or a GM has historically meant taking on responsibility for specific tasks associated with each role. These tasks are the avenues through which both Players and GMs provide their creative contributions (Banks), and it is the rules of a game, as they are put into play, that allocate these tasks. Despite wide variation in other aspects, games ranging from industry giants like the Storyteller systems of White Wolf (Rein-Hagan) to smaller press hits like Paranoia (Gelber, Costikyan, Goldberg) have had rules that distribute tasks in ways that are virtually indistinguishable from the Dungeons & Dragons template, the “traditional” Player/GM divide.
This traditional division of responsibility involves the “Players” (non-GMs) focusing on their proxies in the game world, the Player Characters or “PCs.” Each Player creates a history for the character, describes its physical appearance, its personality and mannerisms, and often creates a numerical representation: its “stats” (quantified representations of attributes such as Perception, Strength, etc.). During the course of play, the Player associated with a given PC will describe that character’s thoughts, words, & actions, also describing how it responds to the world around it and events that occur during the game. The Player may also roll dice or invoke stats on the part of the PC if a situation occurs which, according to established rules and guidelines, requires such actions.
PCs are often seen as being analogous to protagonists in a novel, with the GM being responsible for the environment in which they exist (Padol). In the traditional Player/GM split, although the whole play group may have input in deciding which game texts will provide the foundation, it is the GM who chooses the specific elements of the imagined game world to describe and incorporate into play. Traditionally, the GM plays all additional characters, creates situations where PCs interact with other characters and events in the world, and is responsible for understanding, applying and interpreting the rules of the game. The GM may also be given other roles such as energy monitor or social arbiter, but only tasks directly affecting the in-game events will be considered in this essay.
This gives us the following break-down of standard tasks assigned to Players and the GM:
|Traditional Player & GM Tasks|
|Describe and quantify history of Player Character (PC).||Describe and quantify in-game world.|
|Describe appearance, words and actions of one character (PC).||Describe the appearance, words and actions of many characters (NPCs).|
|Describe response of PC to in-game events.||Create in-game situations and events.|
|Create stats for character. Use mechanics as they apply to Player Character.||Invoke rules, apply mechanics, & resolve conflict: for world, all events, and characters.|
Looking at these activities, much overlap between Player tasks and GM tasks can be seen. Both Player and GM must provide description, create background and setting, play character(s), deal with specific situations and interact with the rules of the game. The differences between the roles lie in the in the scope allotted to each. Players specialize in doing these tasks as they relate to their own Player Characters. The GM does them with respect to almost everything else.
These tasks correspond well to the five elements of roleplaying, as described by Ron Edwards (“GNS and Other Matters”) : Color (description and tone), Setting (background and history), Character, Situation (interaction between character and setting) and System (rules and mechanics governing all). These are common-sense categories which interpenetrate and overlap with one another: a given mechanic may affect Character, but be part of System. The tasks that comprise the roles of Player and GM fall within these areas. Taking a second look at Player/GM duties as they break down among the five elements of role-playing, a distribution can be discerned:
|Player/GM Tasks & the Elements of Roleplaying|
Descriptions of character.
|Describe world, events, characters, objects, etc. Set tone of game.|
|Setting||Character history.||Choose & describe world.|
|Character||Describe appearance, words and actions of one character (PC).||Describe the appearance, words and actions of many characters (NPCs).|
|Situation||Character actions.||Create in-game situations and events.|
|System||As affects character.||Invoke rules, apply mechanics, and resolve disputes: as applies to world, all events, and characters.|
|Text in grey boxes denotes area of substantial influence.|
This is the traditional GM/Player divide. Players have some responsibilities in each element, but always with respect to their character. Character is the only area where Players may contribute meaningfully and extensively. GMs, on the other hand, have significant tasks and responsibilities that span all the elements.
A Different Approach
But this is just one possibility, one way to distribute these tasks. Many other functional divisions are possible. A growing number of games give players much more responsibility in the other elements. In some games the tasks of roleplaying are distributed so uniformly among all participants that the GM’s unique role is abolished. In these games, all players essentially become co-GMs, equals among peers. In other games, certain players are given the ability to make critical contributions in one or two more areas, changing the dynamics of play drastically.
The best way to understand how games create such innovative distributions of tasks is to look at examples of their rules in action. To this end, the rest of this paper describes specific guidelines and mechanics which give all players equal opportunity to contribute meaningfully in all the elements of roleplaying. However, each play group may choose to implement rules differently than published texts describe. For the sake of discussion, it will be assumed that rules are applied as written, unless otherwise indicated. Also, of the five elements of roleplaying, Color is the most difficult to separate from the others. Most tasks have some element of Color, and few rules address Color and no other element. For this reason, these examples of different ways to divide tasks within the elements of roleplaying will focus on the following four of the five: Setting, Character, Situation, and System.
Collaboratively Creating Setting
2, 3, or even 4 Heads are Better than One
Setting is perhaps the easiest of the elements of roleplaying to make collaborative. It certainly has the most immediate payoff: players who create their own setting are much more likely to become invested in it than those required to read 200+ pages of background material before they can meaningfully contribute to a game. The challenges are in creating a seamless whole out of what could be wildly disparate ideas, and in keeping track of all that may arise. Let’s look at how various game systems structure collaboration to help players overcome these obstacles:
Jenn, Charles and Phil are playing Primetime Adventures (Wilson). Their campaign will be in the style of a television series, and together they are choosing the type of show they want to play. Phil suggests a gritty police drama like NYPD Blue. Jenn says she’d like to set it in New Orleans, LA in the early ‘90s – call it Murder City, USA – against a backdrop of Mardi Gras Carnival and dark Voodoo rituals. Charles objects that it would be easy to demonize Creole traditions and to avoid this, suggests that the main character be a police detective whose mother is a Mambo, a Voodoo priestess. The detective is torn between the rational world of the precinct, and her family’s religious heritage…
These players are using the guidelines in Primetime Adventures to cooperatively create a setting. This game does have a GM, called “the Producer,” but the GM is on equal footing with the players with respect to initial setting development. Neither Jenn, nor Charles, nor Phil has the final say in this example. Together, the players and the Producer must brainstorm and negotiate the type of show they want their game to resemble until they find something agreeable to all. With standard setting development only one of these ideas might have been put into play. With this more collaborative process, the setting of each campaign will be wholly unique since it incorporates the interests of the particular people playing the game at each place and time.
Players of Primetime Adventures benefit greatly from the use of its underlying metaphor, the television program. The shared cultural references of television make it very accessible to those with similar experiences. Players can describe what kinds of stories they want to tell, what kinds of characters they want to play, and what kind of world they want to create, by referring to favorite TV shows. This creates a common terminology which helps the play group coordinate their choices. Each person gets to have input up-front about what kind of world they’d like to have their game take place in, and, because all the players are involved, they have the opportunity to give feedback about elements they are less interested in exploring, or even those they find offensive, such as Charles’ objection to the possible stereotyping of Vodoun. The television show motif helps the Setting gain relevance to the players by supporting their integral involved in its development.
In addition to creating the overall background, players of Primetime Adventures create specific locations and describe their characters’ surroundings during scenes. Locations are created as “personal sets” associated with the player’s character. This place – like Fonzi’s “office” in Happy Days or Hawkeye Pierce’s tent, “the Swamp,” in M.A.S.H. – gives insight into the character while simultaneously creating a place for action to take place. When events occur within these sets, and other locations created by the GM, players are encouraged to describe sequences in visual terms. Scenes are framed as if they were cinematic shots, invoking the images of television. Throughout Primetime Adventures, the broad powers given to players to describe setting are facilitated by the television metaphor.
Other games use different principles to organize setting development among the players. The game Sorcerer (Edwards) uses an approach similar to Primetime Adventures, but the role of the GM is to synthesize the players’ suggestions. In My Life with Master (Czege) the creation of the Master, the primary villain of the piece, is up to the group. This character’s home and environs determine most of the setting of the game. Universalis (Mazza & Holmes), the quintessential collaborative game, begins the game with a round of “tenet” creation. Tenets are base assumptions about the game that guide the rest of the play experience. And throughout the game, all the players of Universalis can create objects or places as new “components.” Dogs in the Vineyard (Baker) uses two concepts called “dials” and “switches” to allow players to determine the level of supernatural they are interested in experiencing in the game. A switch determines whether something is present or not, while a dial gives a scale of effect or intensity.
For groups that desire more intensive setting development, the multiple GM approach found in Ars Magica’s (Tweet & Rein-Hagan) “troupe style” play may be of use. Players may take turns having all the powers of a standard GM, allowing each person who wishes to have input in turn. Or, as has been done in play groups I’ve been involved with, areas of the world can be divvied up by geographical or cultural divisions and different people be given full authority to create setting in their area. Creating “turf” like this can help players coordinate their efforts with out reduplicating or conflicting with one another. The principles for world development to be found in Aria (Moore & Seyler) would be an amazing resource for anyone interested in fleshing out a roleplaying game world as a group. Aspects of the societies are quantified and mechanics are provided that enable different players to “act out” the interactions between cultures and groups. For any group, use of maps and written materials can greatly enhance the communication of what each individual has created. Wikis and other online information organizing resources have been used for games such as Age of Paranoia (Genest et al), a variant of Shadows in the Fog (Lehrich), and free-form games (see Ingason).
Expanding the Role of Characters
More Complex, Not More Confusing
Players are accustomed to using characters as their primary creative vehicle. As such, this is a natural avenue to expand upon, allowing players to have greater impact on the game world and broadening their experience of it by allowing them to play more than one character. This may intimidate players, due to pragmatics – such as what to do when your characters have to talk with one another – or fears that those with more characters may get more time and attention. However, with a clear structure and a common understanding, these challenges may be easily resolved.
Meg, Vincent and Emily are playing an Ars Magica-derived game using an improvised system. In the game, an emergency Tribunal, a gathering of wizards, has been called to address the recent fiery destruction of a wizard’s Covenant, or keep. During the Tribunal, the players will be responsible for a dozen or more characters each, many of which they are encountering the first time. In order to learn more about the wizards in the Tribunal and what kind of political machinations they may be up to, the players decide to run a session at each involved Covenant prior to the Tribunal, fleshing out each group of mages in turn…
This example is from one of my own play group’s campaigns. For many years, we played using free-form negotiation instead of an established set of mechanics. There are many other groups who use free-form negotiation to establish much of their play. Since free-form techniques are rarely published, techniques developed often stay localized to individual groups and discussion of them is lacking in public discourse about roleplaying. Individual groups’ play styles are likely to vary greatly. This description is meant to reflect a small part of the rich and varied field of free-form play, not to represent usage of free-form techniques as a whole.
Ars Magica remains one of the few games that gives guidelines for playing more than one character. Each player is encouraged to make two or three characters, one each of various types of characters that occupy different levels of the society in the game: mages, the primary characters of the game, their companions, and their servants, or “grogs.” These differing levels have two effects: they allow each player to have one character to send into a given situation, minimizing how much a player has to act out their own characters interaction, and it also balances the screen time and influence each player is likely to enjoy. If one person played all mages, and another plays all grogs, their impact on the story would be likely to be uneven.
The campaign from which the example above was taken was inspired by Ars Magica. However, influenced by other play groups, our three-player group took Ars Magica’s responsibility distribution guidelines to their natural conclusion. This meant not only playing multiple characters and taking turns being GM, but equally sharing responsibility for all game tasks. As an outgrowth of the fact that all players simultaneously fulfilled the tasks of a GM, there was no cap on the number of mages or characters played. In large part, this entailed playing out the members of our home Covenant, as well as neighboring mages and normal folk. In order to create more opportunities for inter-player interaction, we found it useful to play the dependents of each others’ characters: the mage’s apprentices, their masters and so on. If two characters controlled by one person have to interact, it was easier to simply paraphrase what went on, rather than trying to carry on the conversation. But once the destruction of a neighboring Covenant made a Tribunal imminent, this brought us to the point of having to play a large number of the other mages in the region. In order to figure out how to handle so many characters at one time, we had to take stock and figure out a strategic approach.
This challenging situation turned out to be an opportunity for further development of the game. Taking time to play a session at each individual Covenant allowed us to flesh out the other mages of the region, of whom we had known very little before. The number of characters to be played at each Covenant was manageable: ranging from three to seven. These preparatory sessions for the wizard’s Tribunal gave us clear ideas about many of the characters, as well as more events to propel the plot. Once we reached the Tribunal itself, we used visual aids, maps and counters for the characters, to help us keep track of who was present and what they did. Most scenes had a small subset of the whole complement of dozens of mages and other characters present, and in ones where all or most were present (meals, Councils), we focused on our primary characters or others who were central to action going on. In the end, we were able to follow many interconnecting threads which helped us create new tangles of plot to grapple with and enjoy.
For play groups interested in simpler ways to play multiple characters, other games have mechanics that can be to facilitate this. In Universalis, characters are created as “components” purchased using the currency of the game, called “coins.” All elements of the game world are created this way, and Traits may be added to them at the cost of one coin each. The more coins invested in a character component the more difficult it is for someone else to change or destroy it, but it may switch hands and be controlled by someone else. The only limit to the number of components a player may create is the number of coins a player accumulates to invest in them. Multiple characters can be created very easily, and can be utilized by many players, not just the one who created a given character.
Players concerned about how much time is devoted to different characters might be interested in a rule from Primetime Adventures that deals specifically with this issue: “screen presence.” Returning to the television metaphor, each campaign is thought of as a “season” of shows. Each character will have one episode that is their spotlight episode, in which their issues are highlighted and their character will most likely take center stage. In other episodes, the characters may have supporting parts, and in some they will play merely a token role. Representing this, each player will assign two 1s, two 2s and one 3 to the episodes. The episode with 3 is where their character will have their highest screen presence for the season, and so on down. This allows everyone to know that their character will be assured of having time in the sun, and clear the way for everyone to collaborate to help one another explore the issues of particular importance to each character. Although players of Primetime Adventures are intended to control just one character, this principle could be usefully adapted to other games in which multiple characters are controlled by a single player. Recent games such as Polaris, Capes, and Breaking the Ice offer new ways to expand the role of character in play.
Setting the Scene Together
Making the Invisible Visible
Situation is probably the least discussed aspect of roleplaying, even though it may well be the most important. Situation is where conflict lies, where struggle arises, and where we prove ourselves as players. In the overwhelming majority of roleplaying games, Situation is the sole province of the GM and, furthermore, few guidelines are given beyond suggestions for modules and scenarios. Details of how to begin and end scenes are omitted, and practical principles of pacing and providing adversity are left for the GM to learn by trial and error. However, many game designers have found that very simple rules and guidelines can empower players to more productively frame action and create conflict:
Barry, Matt and Kim are playing Soap (Bazelmans). Kim begins a scene where her character Valencia, the super-villain seductress of the piece, plans to reveal that she is carrying the love-child of Barry’s very-married, upstanding head-surgeon character, Dr. Bradley Underkopfler. Since Kim initiated the scene, she becomes the “Author” of it. She decides whether other players will have to pay her a coin to enter the scene. She invites Barry to have Dr. Brad enter for free, but wants to “ban” Matt’s character, Dr. Brad’s wife Patience, from the scene. Matt wants Patience to enter so he bids 3 Coins to pay for her entry. Kim does not have enough Coins to match the bid, so Patience storms onto the set…
Soap, another collaborative game, does an admirable job of outlining clear guidelines for the two major aspects of Situation: scene framing and adversity. Scene framing, describing when and where action takes place in a game, is an activity that has gotten little attention in traditional games. The point in the story at which a transition is made from one scene to another can have great impact on story and plot. Beginning the scene described above with Dr. Brad knocking at the door, would set quite a different tone from starting play with him in Valencia’s arms. Who makes decision such as this, and on what basis, can shape the whole game. Designers have only recently begun to publish guidelines or mechanics for establishing this fundamental aspect of play.
In Soap, rules for creating a scene are also cleverly combined with determining who has responsibility for maintaining it. As in the example above, the initiating player becomes the author of the scene. Thus, Kim would be the person who describes elements of the setting and may influence who else takes part. In this example, Kim uses this power to ban Matt’s character from the scene, trying to create space for her character to spread mischief uninterrupted. This process in turn creates an opportunity for adversity, or conflict, to be provided. When Matt’s character, Patience, was banned from the scene, he bid to allow her to enter, using coins similar to the currency used in Universalis. This process clearly demarcates the bounds of a scene, and since anyone can initiate, it makes ability to set a scene available to all players equally.
Other games have specific mechanics for framing scenes. In Universalis, the players bid coins to see who will be able to frame a scene. Coins bid are then used to pay for narrating and creating elements of the scene. Primetime Adventures also has a specific mechanic for making scene framing explicit and collaborative: players take turns requesting scenes, stating the location, the type (character- or plot-focused) and the “agenda,” what they want to occur. In the improvised play of my group, we sometimes systematically frame situations that will occur each session over long arcs of the story. The example of play given for collaborative character elements also serves as an example of this kind of framing. For several months, each session focused on a council meeting in a different Covenant, preparing for the Tribunal of wizards. Other examples might include beginning each session when a visitor came to the Covenant or having several play sessions which describe a dragon-hunting party’s encounters with successive dragon-spawn and then with the dragon itself. Long-term frameworks like this provide a skeleton of plot which provides guidance for the players, but one that can be fleshed out in a different way each time.
To return to the issue of adversity, how may it be provided and what, precisely, is meant by it? Adversity refers to conflict or struggle experienced by characters in the game world which forces the players to respond. This provides the players with an opportunity to step up to the plate and overcome the in-game obstacle. Adversity is one of the key elements of roleplaying, where a lot of the fun comes from, and a game that does a bad job of providing it is likely to be a boring game. One of the primary tasks of a GM in the standard contract of play (see Kim) is to introduce villains and challenging events that test the mettle of both players and characters. Not having a GM means that someone else has to take on this pivotal role. If the game is to be wholly collaborative, rules must be crafted that assign these tasks to participants. In Soap, players provide adversity to one another by contesting “sentences,” the bits of narration that have been contributed by other players. This creates a structure where players are able to thwart each other and a clear process by which adversity may be provided.
Adversity can be made the pumping heart of a game, or be simply the outer edge of collaboration. In Universalis, along with the process, a strong incentive is given for players to provide in game adversity to one another. When someone initiates a “complication” with another player, a contest is initiated that will result in the ideas of one person or the other being accepted in to play, and the winner gaining a large number of coins. This creates an atmosphere where players are drawn to place obstacles in each other’s paths, providing needed tension and drama in play. Another extremely collaborative system, the one used by Engle Matrix Games (Engle), takes a very different approach: an extremely attenuated form of the GM is employed whose primary purpose to arbitrate adversity. The players may establish whatever they wish with respect to all the elements of roleplaying by making “statements.” The role of the GM is to determine whether statements made by players about the game world are in conflict. If they are, the GM then assigns relative strengths to arguments made to support these statements. In contrast to Universalis, Engle Matrix Games put little emphasis on creating conflict. Adversity only arises when ideas about what is being created diverge too greatly. This can create a very different dynamic between the players. Different decisions about how adversity is handled can create great differences in the overall experience of a game.
Both aspects of Situation can arise from the other elements of roleplaying. In free-form roleplaying or games using improvised system, Setting is a great source for potential conflict. Everyone can give suggestions for what might go wrong or collaborate through discussion about what aspects of a situation would give rise to further complications in the characters’ lives. From conflicts between organizations or cultures to natural disasters and disease, many story elements can be used to create tricky situations which make players scratch their heads. The “kicker” in Sorcerer provides an excellent example of a mechanic that both sets the scene for action and gives players input about adversity. This aspect of Character is chosen by each player during the final step of character creation. The kicker must be some situation or event that has just occurred as play begins, something that impels their character into action. This sets the scene for how the character enters play, as well as providing the seed for future events in the character’s life and continuing challenges to be faced.
All Hands on System
Easy Ways to Make Mechanics Accessible
System is the piece de la résistance of all GMing. It is the Gordian knot that many free-form collaborativists simply cut through to release the bonds of restricted player creativity. However, mechanics and guidelines are tools that can help any group collaborate more effectively. It is the rules used in play that determines whether play is collaborative or not. On the other hand, players being introduced to collaborative play may balk at being asked to understand and apply the rules of the game. It may be intimidating to be expected to know what may seem an arcane science which GMs are employed to make clear. However, there are many ways to create mechanics and rules that are inclusive and easy for anyone to use. For example:
Sarah, Tony and Kip are playing Universalis. During her turn, Sarah pays one coin and narrates how her character, Lexy, a spy for the United Federation of Inner Planets, flees Jupiter by spacecraft with information he stole from the Jovian capital building. Kip goes next and pays a coin to introduce a new rule, or “gimmick.” This particular gimmick defines differences in the maneuverability of ships types in the 400-mile-an-hour winds of the Jovian cloud bands. On his turn, Tony pays one coin to initiate a “complication,” and two coins to introduce new world elements, called “components”: narrating that, as Lexy’s skimmer dives through the thick ammonia clouds of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, two Royal Guard fliers come screaming through the airstream, hot on his tail…
As this example shows, Universalis establishes powerful and flexible ways for all players to contribute via System and actively implement the rules and mechanics of the game. First and foremost, all of the mechanics of Universalis may be invoked by any player. There is no specific set of tasks that one player is responsible for. Instead, every player has equal access. To facilitate this, the rules of Universalis are clear and simple enough to be easily applied by anyone. Mechanics like the coin currency provide a universal process for doing things: most tasks, such as narrating an event or creating an object, cost one coin.
The rules of Universalis address all four main types of System tasks: invoking rules, applying them, resolving outcomes, and creating new rules. All of these, except resolution, occur in the example above. As the players take their turns, they both invoke and apply rules by paying coins to take actions. In this example, Kip creates a new rule governing atmospheric flight that can be used throughout the rest of the game. Contrast this with many games in which the only time a Player deals with the rules and mechanics might be when they are told to roll some dice by a GM.
Universalis has three rules that deal with conflict and its resolution: “complications,” as seen above, “challenges,” and “fines.” Complications are used when a player wants to affect a component they do not control. In the example above, Tony is trying to affect Lexy’s skimmer, a component Sarah is controlling. Complications are resolved by rolling dice allocated to each side of the conflict. All players who take part in a complication gain coins from doing so, with the most going to the winner. Challenges are used to resolve differences of opinion between players. For example, if Tony had felt that Kip’s rule gave Sarah too much advantage in the atmosphere of Jupiter, Tony could have initiated a challenge to remove the gimmick, the new rule. Challenges are resolved by negotiation, or by bidding coins. Fines may be suggested by a player to censure another. However, all the players vote on the issue, and if the vote goes against the person who originally suggested the fine, they have to pay it instead. These rules allow every player to resolve in-game as well as meta-game, social conflicts and also give every player the same base ability to affect disputed outcomes. Individual players may gain advantages based on skillful use of all the rules, but everyone begins in the same place and has the same opportunity to acquire a similar level of ability and power.
Few other games give players the full gamut of abilities to be found in Universalis, but many games utilize specific mechanics that encourage player participation. Even simple guidelines can facilitate a larger amount of player input: in Sorcerer, any player may call for a roll, giving everyone the power to invoke mechanics as a GM traditionally does. In Donjon (Nixon) certain aspects of System are customizable; for instance, players choose what size dice are used for resolution, and what process they use to create their character. The central thematic mechanic in Sorcerer, “humanity,” is also customizable. The player group determines what it means for sorcerer characters to gain or lose humanity, causing reverberations throughout the Setting and entire course of the game.
Other mechanics give players a way to comment on each others’ actions. “Fanmail” in Primetime Adventures and “trust” in The Mountain Witch (Kleinert) are mechanics that allow players to help or hinder other players’ characters during conflicts. In both games, this creates dynamics between the players that greatly enhance play. Fanmail allows players to give each other “high five”-like positive feedback. Trust creates a shifting atmosphere of loyalty to and fear of one another that helps the players enact the fates that have been dealt to their characters. Great Ork Gods (Aidley) gives each player the ability to determine the difficulty of certain character actions. For example, the player who controls the God of War, “Slashings and Slayings,” must be consulted whenever anyone else’s character takes a warlike action. This feeds into the free-for-all, out-for-yourself competitive atmosphere of Great Ork Gods, tapping the players to provide adversity for one another.
But, far and away, the most prolific types of mechanics that encourage player involvement in System have to do with resolution. Resolution refers to determining the outcome of a conflict or a disputed event. A ground-breaking game in this respect is The Pool (West). When a player has a successful resolution outcome in The Pool, they may achieve a “monologue of victory.” When this occurs, the player, rather than the GM, narrates what in-game events constitute the success. Following in this vein, many games give players similar latitude. In Trollbabe (Edwards), players narrate what occurs when they have a failing outcome. The resolution mechanics in Trollbabe incorporate many options for players after a first failure. They may call upon other characters, items or other things to give them the possibility of succeeding after all, but at the cost of risking the character or item, and at increased risk to the trollbabe character herself.
Dogs in the Vineyard is another game that makes resolution collaborative. Despite placing setting development and adversity in the hands of the GM, the resolution mechanics put the players and GM on equal footing. Each player has a pool of dice they roll and then put forward as they narrate actions and responses during the interplay of a conflict. When dice are used up, each side has the option to escalate, continuing the conflict and calling upon character traits to provide more dice. This, along with a guideline requiring the GM to “say yes [to the players] or roll dice,” removes a large part of the GM’s de facto privilege to override player contributions.
A final, very innovative approach to opening up resolution to players may be found in Shadows (Arntson). This simple and extremely collaborative game asks players to describe two possible outcomes for any given conflict, before the conflict has been resolved. Two dice are rolled to determine outcome: one die represents what the character wants to happen, one die represents what their shadow wants to happen: a negative outcome or one in opposition to what the character wants. If the shadow’s die has the higher result, what the shadow wanted occurs. This mechanic, reminiscent of a similar “shadow” concept in Wraith: The Oblivion (Rein-Hagan, Chupp, Heartshorn), cleverly drafts the players into providing adversity for themselves, while allowing them to take part in resolution.
The Collaborative Revolution
The collaborative potential of roleplaying is finally being realized. There are many ways – be they simple or comprehensive – to increase collaboration among all the players by tapping into the creativity of everyone involved. Games such as Sorcerer, My Life with Master, and Dogs in the Vineyard utilize collaborative techniques in one or two areas, especially System and Setting. They retain most of the usual powers of a GM while greatly enhancing the collaborative nature of play. Other games – such as Donjon, Engle Matrix, Shadows, and Primetime Adventures – change the experience of roleplaying radically by opening up several other elements to player input. A final group – including Universalis, Soap, and the experiences of various free-form play groups – has done away with the idea that any player should have more or less access to contributing in any of the elements. Many independent games such as Capes (Lower-Basch), Scarlet Wake (O’Neal), Polaris (Lehman) and others, build upon these ideas and develop them in new ways. These ideas are reaching a wider audience through the broad powers of world creation given to players of Nobilis (Borgstrom) , and mechanics like “conviction” in Blue Rose (Kenson et al). There is a veritable flood of collaborative innovation in roleplaying game design going on right now.
This influx of collaborative techniques gives gaming groups a wide variety of new tools and choices. Whether a group picks up a new system with collaborative elements, selects some useful techniques to use in their existing play, or chooses time-honored divisions of gaming tasks, the options available have greatly increased. These techniques comprise of a wealth of ways to empower player choice and creativity, the true heart of collaborative play. At every level it is possible to empower everyone, distributing the tasks that make up a roleplaying game. Whether as players or designers, a whole new set of techniques for collaborative play is available to us right now. These are tools that have been added to the already rich palette of roleplaying. The horizons of roleplaying games have been expanded, and this is just the beginning.
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