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Common Sense Guidelines for Group-Concensus Exploration...

Started by Emily Care, February 28, 2002, 09:31:33 AM

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Emily Care

Common Sense Guidelines to Group-Consensus Based Exploration of World, Setting, Character, System and Story

First, find some folks with whom you are capable of having an enjoyable and productive conversation, with whom you'd like to spend several hours of your time once or more a week.

Then, once you've all agreed that you would like to spend these hours doing what is commonly termed "role playing" (see definitions here: ), start figuring out what each of you brings to the game in terms of expectations and experience.

For example:

--Everybody write out or discuss what games they have played
--If the concepts are meaningful to the group, see where peoples' gaming experience falls on the GNS continuum
--Each person determine and share what they enjoyed most and least in their experiences.
--Find common ground. See what people are open to right now.

Next, set aside gaming for the time. Don't worry, we'll get there.

Find out what peoples' areas of interests are: who among them wrote their dissertation on primate behaviour, who is an expert on English Elizabethan dress, etc. What specialized information does everyone in the group have to add. What are their interests and what do they want to learn more about.  Your friends are intelligently engaged individuals, let them shine! It is from these seed that your game will grow.

Find a setting that all are sparked(ie interested in and engaged) by. Base it on an article you read the day before. Or research, research, research. If you've got an expert in the group already, you may wish to nominate them the czar of some aspects of world. But that's getting ahead of things--you may wait until later, when you determine each players' desired level of input on _all_ of the areas of exploration.

Determine what areas of exploration each person is interested in being an active participant in of World, Setting, Character, Story and System. Perhaps everyone will want to write world history and establish setting. Perhaps two people will be avidly interested in finding system mechanics that support dramatist narrativism. Explain the tenets of the various rpg theory available here on the Forge and at John Kim's site, make up your own, whatever, but finding out who loves deeply immersive character exploration (for example) will help you tailor the game to support the kind of play you're interested in.  If they don't know the lingo, you can make a questionnaire asking about their experiences and delineate it that way. You may decide you don't need such detailed information, but just a general gist of what people are most fulfilled by. These are tools to use, if they are helpful.

Determine the scale and timeframe:

Scale: can vary from three characters in a room (a la No Exit) to solar systems full of sentient beings whose lives hang in the balance. Scale may involve size of cast, size of territory covered, or reach of influence of played characters and/or plot.

Timeframe: what is the ratio between real time and in game time going to be? In order to make this so, what time period in game time will each session cover and how much time will elapse between sessions? Will this vary with the needs of the game? May be linked with scale. (If the play centers on the rise and fall of nation states the time scale may need to be in generations rather than days), and also may be affected by level of commitment players are able to make--a one shot game covering generations will have a radically different timeframe from an ongoing campaign.

Once you've agreed on these, determine, using the large body of information you've already generated:

--type or types of play (GNS) the group wants to use. Look at each area (W,S,C,S,S) especially story/plot with respect to GNS. See how many different desires of the players can be accomodated, and which may not work together.
--how the group wishes to divide responsiblity for creation of and playing of characters, world (history, topology, culture, technology, etc), specific setting or settings, and description of the above in play, as well as continuing story, and which mechanics (if any) will be used.

There are many different ways the latter can be accomplished: All players can take equalish share in each part. World building can be done jointly, the first several sessions would most likely be taken up with this. If thats what floats everybody's boat, this could be primary to play.  Plot can be arrived at jointly, using many techniques such as premise. Many narrativist mechanics and systems have been developed to  encourage sharing of narrative power in this way.  IME, simply allowing each participant to have equal say in the world has been more than adequate to encourage and allow all to generate plot.  Openness to group authorial stance and editing of events and plot substantially add to the groups ability to build strong story as a whole.

Match peoples strengths and interests to what can be explored.  She who loves mechanics can support everyone else in their use. She who writes historical fiction in her spare time can come up with the lavish cultural backdrop for the game. Remember, though, that everyone has things to contribute. Everyone has their own unique experience and view of all aspects of play. Many permutations are possible. Everyone, or two or three players, can take responsibility for a single area. If nobody wants it, then you'll have to figure out how to play without it, which may be challenging if it's something like setting. Delineate, as clearly as you need to, how much input each individual gets. Everyone has to be comfortable with all agreements made.  

The concept of "proprietorship" (basically, ownership of elements of play) from Scattershot may give helpful terminology for  setting bounds on each person's authority in each area.  Each area (World, Setting, Character, Story, System) can both be co-created by any number of players, and at the same time each person can have both distinct and overlapping areas of proprietorship, or control.  Just as in traditional play, each player is the proprietor over their character, when broadening narrative sharing to include other aspects of exploration, each player can be proprietor over  subsets of world, system etc. In our current game this is accomplished by saying, "This spooky part of the forest is my area. If you go in there or think you know anything that affects it, let me know."

Each area of exploration will be affected by what your emphases and approaches are(GNS). If you take a gamist approach to world-building. What specific details you work out will be far different from if you take a simulationist.  The gamist might be more concerned with making sure that the neigboring kingdom presents a suitably challenging but not overwhelming adversary for that of our heros, rather than the simulationist who might be extremely concerned with how the mountainous kingdom has access to adequate grain. These are both vital and interesting questions, as long as your group _wants_ to know the answer!

You may also opt for one player having primary responsibility for many of the areas. A traditional apportionment has been to alot a single character to each player and have one player take responsibility for system, world, setting, story and color.  Different strokes.

Once you've figured all of this out, you're ready to determine what system would suit your game best.  Or to determine what types of mechanics will be suited to the GNS approaches you want.  Look over each of the areas of exploration and see for each what mechanics, if any, you need. If there is one over all game system that will be adequate to support your approach(es) to play, use it, by all means. If not, find mechanics from various games that will serve your functions and steal them ruthlessly. (By which, I of course mean, use them for your game, give credit where credit is due and absolutely do not plagarize them for profit.)  

Feel free to experiment with them and change as needed.  Assess each mechanic's success in supporting your style of play and encouraging the engagement of your players. If it's not working, that doesn't mean it's broken, but if it doesn't help you play, let it go and try something else. Determining what systems and mechanics to use should be as open to concensus as setting, story and any other area of exploration.

Keep in mind that not all players may have the same insight into systems and mechanics from reading them.  However, everyone will have reactions about how they work in play--be open to continuing input.  Everyone will be happier.

Finally, agree specifically on group contract concerns such as relative character script immunity, and tone of play (solemn and serious to wacky, ironic or tongue in cheek etc). Metagame concerns such as where to meet and how to deal with food can also be nailed down at this time.

You should be ready to play. If not, keep talking until you are.

Have fun!

--Emily Care
Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games


I'd like to come out of the closet about something here on the Forge, something Emily here reminded me of.

Every time I've attempted something more formal than just "what do you guys wanna play" "how about this", it has been an unmitigated disaster. Talking about desires in detail killed a World of Darkness game, pretty much set up a big OOC conflict before a somewhat unfortunate Hell on Earth campaign, and didn't successfully allow me to evaluate player desires in an Amber game I ran, resulting in unprecedented player dropout. And this was the case with more than one group; I'm talking two completely different sets of people here. (I've moved around the country a bit in my time...)

Now, admittedly, all of this happened before I found the Forge, but I remain skeptical of the usefulness of these sorts of discussions. I think they often cause more problems than they solve. To use the popular "rolplaying group as a rock and roll band" metaphore, once you start talking about "the direction of the band", other than to generally determine you can tolerate your bandmates, the band is headed for its Yoko Ono moment, i.e. things are not good.

I don't mean to pick on Emily here in particular, she just reminded me of something I was thinking about. But I have to notice the threads I've seen where people say things like: "Since coming here to the Forge, I've become unsatisfied with my group..." "I can't play Vampire anymore..." etc. I have to wonder that while theory is useful for, say, game design, that for actual play there isn't a danger of what I experienced as an English major: Analyzing the poem destroys the enjoyment of it.
love * Eris * RPGs  * Anime * Magick * Carroll * techno * hats * cats * Dada
Kirt "Loki" Dankmyer -- Dance, damn you, dance! -- UNSUNG IS OUT

Ron Edwards


My view on this matter might surprise some people, but I tend more toward xiombarg's position. Yet many aspects of Emily's post are valid as well. How to reconcile? Here's my solution.

I distinguish very strongly between these three activities:

1. Reassuring - in which dialogue prior to the act may be thought of as "blanketing" or "denying" what may or may not be involved in the act. "Sure I like story! It's my top priority in role-playing," is a fine example.

2. Discussing - in which dialogue prior to the act clarifies the expectations of each partner, without replacing or determining specific parts of the act. It relies on a degree of self-reflection.

3. Processing - in which dialogue prior to the act replaces the act, because the self-reflection has become an end in itself (it tends to do this, once aired).

In my experience, #1 and #3 are not particularly high-yield, in terms of  preparing successful role-playing. #2 is very powerful, especially when it is kept to a necessary minimum.

I do not consider #3 to be a terrible thing - some Forge members have benefited greatly from processing both here and by private email and by "long dark nights of the soul." However, that activity is directed toward a different purpose, asking oneself, Who am I and What do I Want - it is not about socially organizing or literally preparing for a given instance of play. Much to the consternation of people in the early stages of therapy of one form or another, other people are (bluntly) not very interested.

I also want to call attention to the astounding power of #1 - people are perfectly capable of believing themselves and one another under circumstances that make absolutely no sense to an observer. "La la la la" is a perfectly reasonable thing to say (using whatever vocabulary works best to convey it, like "love" or "story" or "commitment" or "motivation" or whatever) when one is not sure what the other person is up to, and discussions of role-playing can wander in the maze of #1 for years, literally.

Developing a functional form of #2 such that the actual play is facilitated both (1) to occur at all and (2) to be so fun that people adopt the activity as a routine part of their lives, is a necessary skill. Please don't mistake the #3 emphasis of many discussions at the Forge as something you should be bringing to your attempts at #2.


P.S. Oh yes. Loki (xiombarg), you are confounding a couple of very different types of statements - some of them are negative statements of dissatisfaction and others are not. The maxim of "no sex is better than bad sex," as applied to role-playing, seems to be a pretty common point-of-view among people here - if all they are describing is "realizing it's bad, and getting out of it," then it's not an undesirable outcome.

Emily Care

Indeed, analysis can become an obstacle to play. Certainly only use it if it helps.

To clarify a bit:

I am defining exploration as the basic activity of what we call "roleplaying". Areas to explore in game are World, Setting, Character, System and Story.  Thank you, Ron for these terms.

This is but one way to look at roleplaying.  It happens to be useful as a structure to support concensus based and multi-gm'd play.  

Each participant (player) can begin with an equal say in each of these areas.  Given differences in taste and inclination, each person may wish to choose to take part more or less in the development of each.   Discussing personal interests, education, hobbies may help determine what areas each participant wants to work on. Discussing one's past gaming experience can help one get ideas about what kind of play you'd like to repeat or avoid.

Using the GNS or GDS or another such theoretical framework allows for a certain line of inquiry:

For each area of exploration (W,S,C,S,S)
Given my/the group's desired approach(es) (GNS etc)

divisions of creative tasks
systems or mechanics
...may be useful to support those priorities?

Assessment before, during and after play can be useful--if it does not become an impediment--in order to gain more information about what you want to do, and how to do it.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Ron Edwards


What guidelines might you suggest to prevent useful discussion - specifically about the topics you describe - from becoming non-useful processing?



Full disclosure: I play with Emily Care.

It pays to do a fair amount of preplay setup when what you're trying to accomplish is genuine and explicit group-consensus play.  Group-consensus play (as opposed to governing-at-the-consent-of-the-governed play) is really quite fringey (I keep waiting to say "I thought my group was the only one," but I haven't had the chance yet) but it's worth the effort.

I agree that Ron's #2 is the key, but what I see in most of the world is the players agreeing to a game system and a GM instead.  Let me say in all caps: SOMETIMES THAT'S JUST RIGHT.  It's hard to know and articulate what we're looking for.  Saying that Rolemaster or Sorcerer or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is good enough is a much easier thing.  Often, it is good enough.  But trusting a game design (and a GM) isn't the same as taking full ownership of your game.

So yeah, getting good at effective discussion is crucial.  So is being willing to revisit the discussion at any point that anybody feels like it.  "You know, I thought that I really wanted this one thing, but it's not working out for me.  Maybe this other thing instead..."


Edited in: Yikes! I was so busy writing I fell behind the conversation!


I definitely agree with Ron that focusing on functional pre-play development is key so long as it helps roll directly into actual play.  I tried the whole, 'Let's everyone air their feelings about role-playing' and it just didn't work.  People aren't very good at articulating things and in general they don't want to take the time to learn how to articulate those things.  "They don't know much about Theory but they know what they like when they see it." so to speak.  Theory really is only useful for the very personal kind of soul searching that I went through.

As for focusing functional discussion I personally believe that it has to start somewhere and that probably the simplest place to begin is with the Game Master.  What I've learned to do as a player even when there is no pregame discussion is to look at the GM and study how their running of the game.  I then adjust my attitudes, expectations and behaviors to align with the GM's style.

Sometimes it can be a very simple a brief discussion.  When I switched my GMing style for my Deadlands game from primarily Simulationist techniques to primarily Narrativist techniques, I simply told my group that I had decided to alter my GMing style slightly.  I told them that the focus was going to be less on solving mysteries and more on dealing with personal conflicts.  I told them that there were no right or wrong responses to morally grey situations and that they were free to act as they please and not to try and second guess me or figure out what I wanted them to do.  I then asked if there were any questions.  And proceeded to play right from there.  That simple speech seemed to be enough not to totally blindside them without strange and alien.

In future I plan to open new games and character creation sessions with a detailed handout explaining what I think of the current game on the table.  Highlighting interesting questions that I think the game is well suited to exploring, what parts of the setting I find particularly evocative, for games like Sorcerer I'd provide an initial definition Humanity and so on.

All of this would then of course be up for revision and commentary by the players but it all has to start somewhere.  And I think that if the GM takes on the responsibility of at least providing a foundational base as a focus that goes a long way to promoting functional discussion so that all the players at least get on the same page prior to play.


Emily Care

Quote from: Ron Edwards
What guidelines might you suggest to prevent useful discussion - specifically about the topics you describe - from becoming non-useful processing?

Discussion: high-yield reflection that allows one to increase the quality of meaningful activity.

Processing: high-drain, self-replicating behaviour that can be divisive and yields little in terms of useful information.

Do my definitions essentially match yours?

Everyone knows how to complain. Very few people are engaged in analyzing patterns and styles of play in the rpg world.  Makes it hard to have an informed conversation, leaving mostly processing.  

The question becomes how understandable is the GNS framework, and how concretely applicable is it?

I'd say, very to both.

In the scenario I'm outlining, begin with the 5 areas of exploration I'm positing [a note: I just went back and read the thread "Narrativism vs. Simulationism" and see that I'm going out on a limb by classing story with the others, but to each her own:)].

Adopting each modes of play (GNS), different question arise about each of the areas of exploration. For example:

--What sort of world/setting will support the pursuit of interesting objectives including competition with my fellow players?
--What kinds of characters will enable me to interact in a satisfying manner with the challenges and objectives?
--What kind of story will actively support my encountering and (it is to be hoped) overcoming challenges?
--What systems or mechanics will provide me with satisfying and balanced ways to interact with challenges?

--What world/setting/characters/story/systems would support the kind of drama or specific premise I wish to explore?

--Given a World/Setting and Characters that are sufficiently interesting to warrant attention, what would follow?
-What story would naturally arise from these beginning parameters and the interactions and outcomes of their elements?
--What systems best reflect and emulate what is being explored?

By examining the ways that the 5 areas of exploration have been approached in play, and by looking at what questions are of interest to the players, one can understand better the underlying assumptions of play. And, perhaps, broaden the choices you now see available to you.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games


I agree with Jesse that it's the GM's responsibility to initiate and direct discussion, if you have a GM.  It only makes sense.  A GM's purpose in any game is to be an authority to which the other players submit (an enlightened, flexible, and reasonable authority, maybe, hopefully, but an authority nonetheless).  The individual players give up some of their power over the game, and ask the GM to exercise it for them -- it's only appropriate that she do so.

It's tricky to figure out how to do it without a GM, though.  

Something I've found broadly effective is our longstanding rule of if it hasn't happened in play, it's just conjecture.  I'm sure you can see how it limits those circular and ineffective speculations about world and character -- at any point, anybody in the conversation can shrug and say "we'll see," and that's sort of all there is to say.

But it seems to me that it's also helped to focus our metagame conversations, too.  The game is the place where game-things happen.  If I'm dissatisfied with (say) how magic is working, I say so, and we talk about it, but I know that nothing is going to change until actual play changes.  So I'm motivated to be clear and concise and then get back into the game where I can find out if I've been understood.  Otherwise, all we can do is speculate that I've been understood.

So I dunno.  I can't speak for Emily, obviously, but my answer to Ron's question is:  Don't try to answer the questions before you start playing.  Open the topic, and then try to answer the questions as you play.  

If the topic is 'how do we divide up the creative tasks,' have your characters run around and do things, and when you come to a creative task that needs assigning, wait for a lull in the game and then say (e.g.) "Hey!  I need to know about gender roles among the ancient inhabitants of Derik High.  Who'll take it?"

I've found that most of the answers will emerge naturally from the game's first few sessions, if you're willing to take the time and put up with the inevitable stumbles.  It requires a mutual commitment, of course.

But I think I may be contradicting Emily, and I'm quite curious to see what she has to say.

(The dynamic tension between our different approaches -- my more develop-in-play and her more develop-at-start, for instance -- has probably contributed a lot to our game, forcing us both to innovate to meet the other, and of course Meguey into the mix too.  Topic for conversation, maybe.)


Edited in: Again with me being behind!

Emily Care

Well, Vincent. Yes, I agree that developing in play is probably where most things would come up, but you've got to _start_ somewhere...

Quote from: lumpley
 Saying that Rolemaster or Sorcerer or The World, the Flesh, and the Devil is good enough is a much easier thing.  Often, it is good enough.  But trusting a game design (and a GM) isn't the same as taking full ownership of your game.

This seems to be the most common chain of events:

Person decides they want to GM.
They pick a SYSTEM.
The system most times includes both mechanics and WORLD.
They choose a SETTING.
They may choose a PLOT they hope will happen or a premise they wish to explore.
They probably write up some CHARACTERs.
They ask some friends to play.
The friends are told about some portion of setting and system, and even plot.
Friends are asked to make CHARACTERs.
Play commences.

I'm noticing a couple things, rather obvious:

--All of the five areas of exploration become agreed upon, but the choice is mostly allocated to the GM.

--This means that the mode of play (GNS) is chosen by the GM either in choice of system or in its application. But it does get chosen.

A different point:
--Most GM's choose System before everything else, and that comes pre-packaged with all but specific characters. The choices are mostly in the hands of the game designers.

System and mechanics are harder for most people to understand and have an opinion on than the other areas.  

If you are actively engaged in sharing narrative power among mulitple people, I wouldn't start with system.  I would start with something that is more easily "ownable".  Character is a possible entry, since most everyone who has role-played has at least written on character. However, since character needs to be placed in world and setting, I'd start with world.  

World allows the players to express their interest in historical period, genre, culture, geography, genetics, you name it.  Not that any other aspect of play is really less important, but World has the most hooks for any person to connect with. And if you are dealing with reasonable people, you will be able to find a universe and setting within it that will be of interest.  

From there, character flows fairly naturally.  As, in my opinion, does story, but I am really a dyed in the polarfleece simulationist who is but lately learning the wonder of narrativism.  

Then you get to system. Mechanics affect your experience of world, character, story, setting, the whole shebang.  Choose wisely. Choose in an informed fashion.  

And, of course, choose the order that works best for you and your group. Premise, could easily beget world, etc.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Emily Care

Quote from: lumpley
So I dunno.  I can't speak for Emily, obviously, but my answer to Ron's question is:  Don't try to answer the questions before you start playing.  Open the topic, and then try to answer the questions as you play.  

I think that's the best answer I've heard yet.  

GNS can give direction to the framing of a game. And if you begin the game by giving people a theoretical framework with which to describe and analyze their experiences, then when things come up in play, you'll be able to deal with them and respond accordingly, by innovating.  

However, since to most people it would simply be abstract mumbo-jumbo until they encounter examples after it's been explained to them. Allowing questions to arise may be more productive.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games

Ron Edwards


If I'm not mistaken, points raised by xiombarg and Emily have now come to a practical accord. I'll presume to use the numbers/terms I introduced as a way to express this.

It would go ... In preparing, get beyond Reassurance. Enter into enough Discussion to generate interest and focus on the game, then begin play. Continue the Discussion as play progresses. Keep Processing to the level of "debriefing" and "reflection," without it becoming an end in itself relative to the actual play.

It won't surprise anyone that I think the content of my essay is a pretty good basis for the Discussion - with the proviso that no one should be waving it as a manifesto or forcing people to memorize huge chunks of jargon as some "new way" to play.

How does that sound? Emily, xiombarg?


Emily Care

Very reasonable suggestion, Ron.  Sound useful, Xiombarg?

And, going back to Xiombarg's original post, and also Jesse's, when one member of a gaming group wants to get beyond the "what do you guys want" stage of discussion, how is that accomplished?

Jesse's solution is for the gm to introduce the change, simply and clearly. What happens when you won't have a single gm?

If someone wants to change the parameters of play as radically as including EVERY player into powers of gm  (actually, that's just short hand for what will be changed), how do you get that across clearly to the group?  And how does one encourage an atmosphere that allows this situation to be fruitful?

Is this something other people even want to do?

That's what I'm trying to get to.

Koti ei ole koti ilman saunaa.

Black & Green Games


(The bit I'm finding most useful right now is contrasting group-consensus play with governing-by-consent play.  Co-GMing is almost accidental.  Games like Soap and Universalis are co-GMed, but still govern by consent -- the players agree to limit their power in the game to what the game mechanics give them.  How do you set up a game without those limits?)


Paul Czege

Hey Vincent,

[With] governing-by-consent play....the players agree to limit their power in the game to what the game mechanics give them. How do you set up a game without those limits?

The question of group-consensus-play strikes me as very much the same as asking, "How do I have a strong marriage?" The answer is to spend a great deal of time forming deep personal relationships. Work to earn each other's trust. Demonstrate care in the proximity of each other's fears. Prioritize each other's wants and needs.

Aren't game rules a recognition that consensus-play isn't really an option very often, because people just can't activate trust for each other like it's a light-switch?

My Life with Master knows codependence.
And if you're doing anything with your Acts of Evil ashcan license, of course I'm curious and would love to hear about your plans