Encouraging Player Involvement Outside ‘Their Turn’

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JB:
Some comments from the ‘Making the Transition from Mission Based Play” thread:

Eero:
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To be more useful, I think that the party and mission are a big obstacle to dramatic play, just like you said. As a practical point one of the first things to do here is to get rid of the party - once you don't have a party you'll find that even if you still have missions, they tend to be rather more cross-purposes with each other, and therefore not real missions. So get rid of the party and assume that all characters have independent concerns and their own scenes, that'll get you 70% there.

Of course the big issue with not having a party is that players will have to sit around watching as others play. This is the big methodological shift in play, not because the GM has to do something difficult, but because it requires the players to adjust their attitudes to play. All players will have to learn how to be audience to each other and how to appreciate the scenes of play in which their own characters are not present. It also means that the entire group will have to learn to be economic about time - you can't forget yourself and waste an hour going through a dialogue with the shopkeeper when you have scene allotments to consider and other players sitting on their thumbs.

Frank T:
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I once read an article by Wolfgang Kramer, renowned German board game designer, in which he explains how players must not wait too long for their turn, but an important factor of how long you can let them wait is whether they have a chance to participate while it’s not their turn.

... you should encourage players to engage in scenes where their characters are not present. This may be limited to listening and commenting here and there, but you could also (for instance) hand an NPC to one of the other players. Some games also explicitly use mechanics that let other players participate, the simplest being “Bennies” of some sort that you may spend on rolls other than your own, and/or may award to other players (popular example: “Fan Mail” in Primetime Adventure).

All this seems perfectly sensible and correct to me.  (I hadn’t picked up on that function of fanmail in PTA, but now that it’s been pointed out, it’s obvious and tightly integrated into the in-game economic cycle.)  So do people have ideas and/or examples of how to facilitate this kind of ‘player involvement when it’s not their turn’ in a game that doesn’t have a mechanism for it in the RAW?

legion329:
I took a page from Nobilis and started letting players not directly active in a given scene play NPCs. Similarly, in Ars Magica they have the henchmen system (I can't recall it's exact name) where one player gets to be the Wizard and take the focus of a session, and others play the supporting cast. I import this into my 4th Edition D&D game all the time -- sometimes going so far as to let players control the members of the opposition.

At one point a player thought it would be fun to be captured by the enemy and encourage a search and rescue mission by the rest of the PCs. I let him control and act for the main antagonist -- an elder White Dragon. This could have gone HORRIBLY wrong, but my group was pretty comfortable with each other and everyone had an excellent time (and the completely improv'd death monologue delivered by the PC for the dying dragon was amazingly touching/funny/moving/etc).

When I was trying to figure out how to run Dogs in the Vineyard for eight people, I considered splitting the group into two and letting the inactive players roll and act for NPCs. I'm not quite sure how that would have worked, and as long as we're on the topic I'd love to hear feedback from others on that matter.

Adam Dray:
My feeling is that play that does not involve all players at once should be engaging to everyone at the table. If it isn't, why not? Why is a person sitting at the table and not engaged with someone's story? If it isn't interesting to the "audience," then it probably should be left out of the game, or it should be made more interesting. One way to do this is to have it impact other characters. Another way to do this is to make sure all players care about what happens to all characters.

Eero Tuovinen:
You don't have to have rules for player involvement - most games that expect players to stay involved don't. I'd say that the typical way of doing this sort of thing is to have a slightly smaller group of players than is traditional (4-5 players instead of 5-6, say) and having the players be more aesthetically involved with each other's characters than is traditional. Also, the stories of characters are assumed to cross often, which makes every scene passingly relevant for a player. Thus: less players equals less downtime, more involvement equals more interest in what happens to other characters, more crossing equals more relevance even for scenes you are not in as context and backstory for your own character's scenes.

All of the above is not enough to make a group that is practiced in ignoring play not involving their character into one that is "on" all the time; many traditional gaming methods I've seen encourage being uncaring of anything your character is not involved with by having the down-times be very long and by having "good roleplaying" mean not reacting to OOC knowledge in any was as a person. In that sort of environment it's actually a virtue if you can compartmentalize and read comic books or whatever without getting bored while others play their own scenes. Game systems are involved in this as well - one typical feature of a traditional game is that player characters are not actually inherently interesting; the character sheets are full of means and devoid of goals, which means that the other players don't even generally know why your character is interesting. If anybody knows, it's you, but because nothing is written down or spoken aloud, the other players have difficult appreciating the greatness that is your character.

When it comes to introducing appropriate audience roles to players, I've found that explicit game mechanics are merely mediocre; they are not sufficient alone, although I have found that they are mildly helpful. The much more crucial thing is the attitude the GM brings to the game; I've found that by being an unrestrained audience member myself I also encourage the other players to keep attention, enjoy events that happen in other people's scenes and foremost, have opinions on what happens in the game. I suggest things to the players that their characters should do, I laught at excellent stuff when they make it up, and I approve of similar audience participation from everybody else. (I should note that this will make me annoying to anybody trying to play a different type of game when I'm in the room - I'll be throwing stupid commentary on the game all the time just out of habit, because that's what I do when I'm actually playing.)

Mechanics-wise, I'd say that games that work best for audience roles are the ones that make people be explicit about what is awesome in their characters. Primetime Adventures is good in that everybody sees you create your character and pick his Issue; everybody will also be able to reflect on the Issue against whatever scenes your character has. Thus they have the context for appreciating the creative work you do in your scenes. Games that do not make this sort of thing explicit are not as interesting for audience.

I should note here that I pretty intentionally and explicitly made the PTA fan mail thing a mechanical center-piece for Zombie Cinema because I wanted to take the single mechanic that most exemplifies the proper relationship audience players have to the game: the audience players are always in position to judge the events of the story, and it's their sympathies that influence the direction more than anything else.

help im a bug:
I recently finished running an Unknown Armies campaign for six players. The PCs were all very much interested in their own goals, which intersected somewhat, but there was almost constant party-splitting. In one early session, two PCs were interviewing a junkie, and the other four were elsewhere. The players whose characters weren't present, after a minute or two, began their own in-character scene, off to the side. I normally would have tried to curtail that response, but, for whatever reason, I went with it, and focused on the two PCs and their interview.

And everything went fine. The two players were happy with their scene, and the other four were happy with theirs. The interviewers informed the other four about the events, later, in character, and there was none of the continuity damage I feared would take place from having some players not pay attention to what I was saying at the time.

This sort of thing happened a couple more times throughout the campaign, with little deleterious effect. All this is just to say that, perhaps, if circumstances align, it's acceptable or even beneficial to have offscreen PCs do their own thing without GM supervision.

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