#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Focus (day 10)

Role playing games need a focus. Maybe foci. I laugh when I hear myself say that because I have had discussions with friends who are more like choreographers in their approach to RPGs. In these discussions I am usually the one arguing for more freedom and less contrivance. They very well may be chuckling at me now.

Even so, I have had the experience of games which really lacked a cohesive focal point. Ones that felt like we were simply meandering in a quagmire of uncertainty. This is never fun and can be quite frustrating.

I have also had the experience of games which had a very strong focus around something. Maybe it was a theme, maybe it was an interest or vendetta. Other times it seemed to be more about the relationship between the characters and exploring who they were. Sometimes the focus was a very strong premise that had a lot of buy-in from everyone at the table. No matter what it was, or if there were two or more foci, these sessions or campaigns felt much more engaging and immersive than those without.

So where does this focus come from? Does it need to be spelled out beforehand? Does the game itself need to support that? Can it just emerge over time through the events of play? I don’t think that there is one definitive answer. However, it is my belief that all of the people at the table need to talk openly about it. Having an open line of communication and talking about the game experience with each other is one of those critical ways to support the focus of a game. This video by my pal Eloy is an excellent look at the importance of open communication in the spirit of constructive criticism. It probably should be required viewing by gamers.

Assuming that this communication exists, we still need to figure out where this focus actually comes from. Or do we? I have had the experience of a focal point or theme arising naturally, I had the experience of one being discussed beforehand, And I have had some experience of games which try to create this focus via procedures and mechanics. All of them have their advantages and drawbacks, it is a matter of bias and preference which method appeals the most to you. But I don’t think that you can argue with the idea that a focused play experience is a rewarding one.

What is this game going to be about? What is our experience going to be like? What are we going to be doing? How will we do it? ~ contrasted with talking after the game and realizing all of a sudden that this game has taken on a life of its own and no one could’ve seen the focal point coming before it showed up. Are these mutually incompatible? I don’t think so. But your mileage may vary.

In the same manner as the quality of the activities of play themselves, I have found that characters are most satisfying and engaging when they have a clear focus. Sometimes this gets developed during character creation, and sometimes it just emerges over the course of play. Just like the game itself, occasionally the focus of a character can change. Sometimes that shift can be just as surprising to the player as it is to the other players around the table.

I think it’s important to remember that the focus doesn’t need to be artificial. Not all characters have to have the same goals or need to be on the same page. That really depends upon the game and what you have agreed to do in the first place. The focus very well could be conflict and dissonance between the characters!

It could be different for you, but for me my favorite games are the ones that I can look back on them and can tell you what they were about. Sometimes it was obvious, and sometimes it was surprising, but it was always worth the time.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Critical (day 9)

Doing a Google search on critical thinking I found something rather amusing in the suggested questions in my mobile device. One of the drop down menus said “what are the seven critical thinking skills?” ~ The list provided was observation, analysis, interpretation, reflection, evaluation, inference, explanation, problem-solving, and decision-making.

I don’t know about you, but I counted nine. So much for critical thinking. Or maybe that was just a test to see if I could apply those skills to notice the discrepancy.

For a long time I have enjoyed taking Games apart. I like to see what makes them tick. I like to see how they work, what the mechanics actually do. I like to do this from a mathematical standpoint, but also in terms of how they interface with the fiction. What does it feel like when the mechanics are invoked? Is it easy to narrate from? What do they actually tell is happening in the game world? How much of a disconnect is there from an immersive experience when they are used? Does practice alleviate this?

I have also really come to enjoy looking at a new game and seeing what it is all about. But for me part of the enjoyment is not taking everything at face value. I like to apply some critical analysis to what I am seeing. What is the premise? What is the game supposed to do? What is it supposed to be about? Does it actually do that?

Part of this analysis is to actually play the game and then talk about the experience with the other players. What actually happened? How did it feel? Do we know why that happened? Were we playing the game correctly? Did the game feel natural or did it push us out of our comfort zone? Is there something we need to do differently? Does the game have problems? Is it confusing in actual play? ~ On the surface this sounds like it would be overthinking things but in practice it can be very rewarding and lead to a much richer experience.

I really enjoy the fact that this hobby provides many ways to engage with it and can be very enjoyable even when you are not actually playing the game. One of those ways that is very satisfying and engaging for me is to apply some critical thinking to the games themselves and to the experiences they help create.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Obscure (day 8)

I have a sense of humor that a lot of people don’t get. Not only is it a little bit quirky, but I often make rather obscure references to things that not a lot of other people know about. Even when I’m not joking around many of the things a reference can baffle other people.

I don’t know if you can relate to that, but very often when people like me start playing role-playing games we discover other people that get those obscure references. We start to realize that we are not alone in our interests and are areas of knowledge. We find a place where it is OK to be a nerd, in fact it’s cool.

I’ll be honest, these days I like a more serious game and prefer to keep things as in character or focused on the fiction as possible. I’m not a fan of constant joking around and constant references to geek pop culture. That said, with some discretion and flair a well-timed reference can be a thing of beauty. Subtlety is important, and the best obscure references are those that may or may not get caught. When they are, it is pure magic. I’ll give you one of my favorite examples that happened just recently.

In our Mythos Mythras PBEM game we are on our second set of characters, this time in 2020. The scene begins with our intrepid investigators held in a classroom with an entire building on lockdown after a grisly murder. Anthony’s post sets the stage, and near the tail end of the long and detailed e-mail is this gem of NPC dialogue overheard by our characters.

“I will speak to the ones in 322 next. Look lively now, officer. You need to bring them to me one at a time, without discussing anything with them, and without letting them interact with anyone on the way to and the way from the interview room. Understood? Officer Gates will coordinate this with you. He will give you the signal to bring the first suspect and he will take them to the post-interview waiting area. Now: repeat what I just told you.”

I’m not sure that was the most obscure reference possible, but I grinned as soon as I saw Anthony’s post, because of course it was a veiled reference to the “don’t let him leave the room” scene from Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Subtle, in the background, but hysterical nevertheless. A well executed tip of the hat to classic gamer humor.

Little things like that in game or even in out of game conversations go a long way towards building camaraderie and adding another layer of fun to the experience. Just as long as you don’t go overboard. Like spice, a little goes a long way

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Familiar (day 7)

This had me stumped for a little bit. What was I going to talk about? Find familiar? Sometimes you get a raven, if you’re really unlucky you might get a frog. That didn’t seem very exciting or positive.

If anything during the past few years I have ventured far outside of my comfort zone and left the familiar behind. I have found that this has greatly expanded my appreciation of the RPG Hobby and has offered me many new and rewarding experiences.

Like my friend Eloy says, Even if you end up going back & returning to the familiar you have a better understanding of why you like it and you can import some things you have learned elsewhere into your old way of playing. However, sometimes I have found that when I return to the familiar that it no longer feels like home. Travel has changed me. That reminds me that I need to play Broken Rooms. It is still on my shelf of hope.

All of that said, I have found that when you hold on to something that is familiar that it helps you explore other facets of the hobby. It’s not just that humans find a great deal of comfort in the familiar, but also that if you are very experienced with one part of the game experience you don’t need to think about it all that much. You can concentrate your attention and efforts on the new parts of the experience.

So maybe you play that familiar system or in that familiar setting. Maybe you play with that same game group, or play that same character or type of character. Perhaps you play a familiar trope or you play a familiar role. I don’t just mean role in the party, but Maybe you remain a player if that is your usual seat, or are you remain a game master if that is more of your thing. Then you are free to concentrate on the new ideas that you are exploring. ~ just consider that it’s worth rotating what parts you keep familiar and what parts you change and explore.

In my own experience one of the things that benefits greatly from familiarity is the setting itself. But not in the way you might think. In the past I generally did not play in this world, in reality. However, I have come around to the idea that “this world with a twist” is a very powerful setting to play in. My experience has backed this up, even lately. When all of the players have this level of familiarity with the world it seems more real and they tend to act with much more confidence and freedom. Even if we are playing in a different era it’s not that hard to imagine what it was like and to find references for it. ~ Add a twist, whatever that might be, and all the sudden this familiar world becomes strange and exciting, perhaps even unsettling. Likewise, because it’s the only thing that’s different it sticks out like a sore thumb. It also hits very close to home because the feeling that something is wrong or different is experienced in a much more visceral manner by all of the players at the table.

Sometimes the most powerful thing we can do is to take the familiar and screw with it.

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Ancient (day 6)

The word ancient carries a heavy weight. It puts us in our place. We are not ancient, we are brief flashes in cosmic time. When we encounter the truly ancient we are reminded of how small and insignificant we are. But the ancient also beckons us, promising to reveal its mysteries to those who dare to seek them out.

One of the biggest drawbacks to living in the modern age is that there simply aren’t that many mysteries left to solve. There aren’t very many ancient ruins to explore for the first time. There is virtually no hope of finding an ancient civilization surviving in the deepest jungle. Although we have more to learn, the vast majority of history has been revealed to us as much as it can.

In RPGs this unfortunate limitation is removed. We are free to encounter that derelict that has been floating in space for God knows how long. We can discover that hideous idol of awesome, vast, and incalculable age. We can seek out the mysteries of lost civilizations that walked the earth before man climbed down from the trees, or even before the fish that were his ancestors crawled out of the sea. We can explore ancient ruins long hidden from prying eyes. We can discover cults thought long dead to be existing in some remote corner of the world, practicing the same profane rituals that they have for thousands of years.

There is something about all of these ancient things which can fill us with wonder and dread. In the dimension of time, they are so much larger than us. And we can only touch and see a small portion of the much larger whole. This is part of the magic of RPGs. They can allow us to freedom to discover and explore and experience the ancient first hand. We don’t need to read about it in a book, we can be there ~ if we dare.

The YouTube video

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Space (Day 5)

I don’t know, but today’s blog post may be very similar to The YouTube video. Then again maybe not.

What I do know is that space is very important. This is a hobby that is built upon imagination. It’s not a passive spectator sport. At least in my experience a large amount of the phenomenon occurs within our own heads. But unlike daydreaming its not private. We share some of the products of our imagination with each other. The fiction that emerges before our very eyes is a mixture of our own imaginings and the elements inserted by the other players at the table.

That said, if we were all able to project what we imagine things to look like so that the other players can see them, we would find that we are all imagining something slightly different. This isn’t necessarily a problem as long as we all agree upon certain key or salient points. After all, it is possible that we may be having an experience stepping into the shoes of our own individual character, or of the nonplayer characters we may be running, and so of course we would see things differently.

However, this can only happen if we leave each other space. Space to fill in the gaps with our imagination. Spaces in our descriptions and narrations. By presenting just enough detail in the right places, and letting each other color in between the lines with our own imaginations.

Likewise, it’s important to leave each other space as the game goes on. It’s natural at first to feel as if we must fill in all of the available space as a game master. This is something we learn to let go of over time. But just like the spaces between the notes are just as important as the notes themselves in music, leaving pauses when we speak to allow others to talk, to act, to jump in and play! This is just as crucial to the RPG experience.

By allowing each other space we set the stage for amazing things to happen. After all, isn’t that what we are here for?

#RPGaDAY2019 ~ Share (day 4)

Sometimes we have a lot to share with each other. Today is one of those days where The video and the blog post will end up being completely different. Video synopsis: there are so many other content providers and RPG enthusiasts participating in RPGaDAY to share with each other. I picked one that really stood out to me this year. But I could have shared many more. However, as Tim Harper said, “I loved RPG story time with François!” JdrD30 does RPGaDAY

Anyhow, this blog post isn’t about that…

Instead I’ll talk about something that really took some adjustment to be comfortable with. At least the idea took some getting used to, and to be honest I had to experience it to appreciate it.

I had always played games with a single game master. However, when we assembled a group to play All For One, Anthony introduced the concept of a rotating game master chair to me. Each person plays from the GM chair for a session or two, and then hands over the reins to the next person. I have to say I was really taken aback at first. There were too many logistical things that didn’t seem possible. I won’t take the time to list them all but you could probably figure them out.

I found out when one had a good group that was willing to communicate, that sharing the time spent in the GM’s chair and as players has worked just fine, and this rotation has also presented new opportunities and experiences. I won’t call it sharing the burden because it really doesn’t feel like that. Instead I would call it sharing the opportunity to be the game master and sharing the opportunity to be a player. Put another way, it really isn’t about sharing responsibilities so much as it is about sharing the opportunity to have different experiences.

Since that initial experiment I have had the opportunity to play in other games with a rotating game master chair and they have always been fun. I have also had the good fortune to be in a small group of gamers online who all have cool ideas and are willing to take a turn running a game. It’s a bit different than the rotating game master chair, but in a very similar way we share the opportunity to have experiences playing in different roles.