Collaborative Roleplaying “Games”

August 9, 2006

I recently recieved the wonderful first volume of a journal about roleplaying entitled PUSH. The first article, entitled Collaborative Roleplaying: Refraiming the Game by Emily Care Boss, got me thinking quite a bit and I thought I’d put down some of my thoughts on the subject here.

First, I must say upfront, I’ve been identified by a friend and the editor of PUSH, Jonathan Walton, as a grognard. Old-school. 25+ years roleplaying But he has assured me in my case (I can’t speak for anyone else) that this is a good thing. I’m “quality” grognard. That said, I will sadly admit to a deficiency in playing many of the ‘cutting edge’ games that I continually read about in PUSH and in on-line forums. However, in my defense I did attempt to wrangle said editor and friend into running a game of Nobilis, but sadly it was not meant to be (it’s all your fault, Jonathan!)

Second, I was (and I guess still am) a professional actor. I have been involved in the craft of acting for longer than I’ve been roleplaying (DANG! That old, eh?) and have a Master of Fine Arts in the field. I’ve also done an extensive array of directing and in many ways feel my strengths are more grounded in this area of the craft of the theatre then acting.

All of that was not to toot my own horn (yeah, right!) but as an introduction to help give some credence to what I’m going to ellaborate on below. This way, you may think I’m a close-minded crackpot or just a crackpot but at least I’m speaking from experience (whether that experience is any more valid that anyone else is for another debate and I’ll be on the side that derides myself for such a claim.)

Now, on to the good stuff.

Boss’ article is well-written, clear and concise and, as I’ve already mentioned, a slap in the face to an old grognard who reads many of the names of these roleplaying games and says, “I’m so old.”

She mentions many very interesting tools that are available to folks to incorporate into games that in her words “empower player choice and creativity.” Many of these tools, I have found developed in my own games throughout the passing years. Tools such as a player’s ability to change and effect both setting and story are both intriguing, inviting and highly desirable. To throw out my own references, I’d say many of these aspects were developed long, long ago. Mayfair Games defunct DC Heroes RPG had two major aspects of which I have always incorporated into my games in one aspect or another. Hero Points were not only used for experience but they could also be used to affect the environment of the game in much the same way that Boss’ states games like Universalis or Soap do. Also, Subplots was an aspect of the game that players could fully intergrate their characters into, design and as they were run if the player that was the focus of the subplot ever became disinterested in the subplot or disliked its outcome or development could pull the plug. Granted these may not be the full blown ‘collaboration’ Boss infers in the other games but they certainly provided a start.

Boss’ main through line in the article seems to be that of collaboration. As an actor and director (as well as a roleplayer) I’m all for collaboration…to a certain extent. Over the years, having worked with a number of varying personalities I have seen one thing that overwhelming stands out on any artistic venture I’ve embarked: collaboration only works WELL with direction.

For example: many moons ago I worked with a group to form a ‘collaborative’ theatre. There would be no ‘boss’ per se, or leader. All would have an equal hand in what was developed, how things were chosen, responsiblity of time, everything was done to ‘by the committee’ (as I quickly started to call it.) The method lasted through two (and a half) productions. No one could agree. Things that shouldn’t take long took forever to get accomplished because it had to be ‘agreed upon.’ Bureaucracy took over and instead of the purpose being focused on the art and crafting of the play, the purpose tumbled into making sure it was ‘approved’ or ‘okay-ed.’ Also, even the end result (the two finished productions) were never good. They lacked, for a better word, direction.

In a roleplaying game scenario, I enjoy having my players not have to work to think in meta-gaming terms. For a player to be concerned with how the plot is unravelling or whether a scene is progressing as it should takes them ‘out of the moment’ (an acting term) and, to me, brings a falsification or dishonesty to their ‘in-character performance.’ I’m someone who doesn’t often even like to have dice involved (I have been known to run entire sessions where not a single dice was ever thrown.) However, I also understand that this is not theatre, this is a game. It’s not called a roleplaying theatre but roleplaying game. I leave the dice in because it does provide a great deal of chance that neither my players nor I can control.

That said, I also love my players to let their imaginations run. I have no qualms with them adding spice to a scene:

ME: You walk into a bar. It’s dark and smoky and the sounds of good business tumble out as you pull the door open.
PLAYER: I stop for a minute to enjoy the music that is happening in the back by the nearest fire pit. It’s melodic and nice and my character loves the flute.

Right there a player added depth and character to it. I’d love for all of my players to do that. But, and this is, again, where the issue of full collaboration without control leads, some players just don’t have that ability. Creativity can be developed to a certain extent but there is also an innate talent to it as well. Much like raw talent will only get you so far, lack of raw talent will also only get you so far. And this can cause some players to feel left out, set aside, or in some ways, deficient. By maintaining control as a gamemaster, I can temper the overzealously creative individual while encouraging (and here’s the important part) assisting the less gifted or developed player. In a perfect world it would be nice to think that even the players would help out in both instances but this leads back to my problem with metagaming and having the players think about the ‘game’ rather than the honest and truthful characterization of their respective characters.

Boss’ article is a terrific read. Very concise, very clear and structured wonderfully. She raises a number of interesting points and all should be experimented with in practice. Myself, though, I find that the moderate view (between total GM control and completely player control) to be the model that provides the most opportunity for everyone involved in a game.