In improvisational theater, the beginning of a new scene normally needs to introduce a setting, the characters, and any important props or objects. This is referred to as the platform, as it is what the scene is “built on top of.” In most RPGs, the GM has control over the platform, and the players have control over how the scene plays out. With this post, I will discuss how everyone at the table can participate in building the platform instead.
Adding to a platform is done by “offering.” When a player offers, they take an action or say something that implicitely creates something in the setting. Consider the following exchange:
GM: you enter the tavern. there’s a shady character in the corner.
Bilbosh the Baritone Bard: I push my way through the swarm of patrons, climb on top of the room-long banquet tables, and use my impeccable singing voice to get everyone’s attention.
Fred the Flirty Fighter: I meander through the bar looking for chicks (preferably gnome chicks) but I cannot overcome the mystery around the shady figure in the corner. I watch her closely (while being careful to not look like I’m watching her closely), and am glad to find that she is only about half my size and carrying books.
The GM offered that there is a tavern. Bilbosh accepted the offer, and offered more of his own: that there is now a crowd, and that the tavern a classy kind of tavern that has banquets. Fred acknowledged and took part in Bilbosh’s more detailed bar, and then added some details about the shady figure in the corner. Now they have a much more detailed platform to build a scene off of.
For players, platform building can make it so that the various abilities that are only useful under certain circumstances come up more often. I any game that uses a grid, the shape of the room and what fills it can be altered during roleplaying, before the GM has to draw what a room looks like. This can adjust what kind of area of effects are useful, the benefits of mobility, and the benefits of range. It can also adjust the kind of skills or powers that increase mobility. By being able to add details to NPCs also, situations where the players benefit from things like smite evil or favoured enemy are partially under the player’s control. This introduces a new balance concern: a player who is skilled at improvisation will benefit more from playing characters whose abilities are balanced by their usefulness being limited by the frequency of how often they can be used. For example, a player who is a very strong improviser would benefit more from being a ranger than a fighter, due to favoured enemy and favoured terrain. Before, the responsibility to balance these was entirely on the GM. In GURPS, this problem is made much more severe by Frequency of Appearance rules for advantages, and the similarity in effects between skilled improvisation and the serendipity advantage. In GURPS games where I allowed players to build the platform, I used the guidelines in the GURPS: Action series of books for how to use serendipity-like effects.
For GMs the burden of creativity and scene construction is actually made much more difficult. However, the amount of time spent preparing a session is greatly reduced. Only a rough sketch of the most important details of every place and person needs to be created. Any more will cut into the player’s contribution, and any less will make developing plots and settings impossible. How much is the “bare minimum” is a matter of preference; I personally tend to use lots of minor details for settings, and have only a small number of very heavy handed details about NPCs. Keep in mind that the players are limited to details that build the platform for the current scene only, so that the plot for the campaign as a whole and the sweeping, setting-wide themes are still under the GMs control.
Playing out the scene after the platform has been made is actually where most of the fun is. Players are likely to be more invested in each scene, since they’ve added details that interest them. It is not relevant to improvising a platform whether the scene becomes a roleplaying scene, a combat scene, some kind of skill-related obstacle, or a puzzle. However, the platform that everyone builds together will often imply a particular way to play it out.
Platform building needs to end at some point, and adding some formal structure makes this much easier. If players add platform details late in a scene, it will normally seem arbitrary or like a deus ex machina. GMs tend to be a bit more aware of what constitutes an unfair surprise as opposed to a fun surprise, just because they are used to taking on the responsibility that comes with authority. As such, limiting introducing more details is normally limited to the players.
I suggest that the platform phase ends after a period of time equal to 1 minute/player + 1 minute. Since players are usually used to having time to think, this will often be a substantial time crunch for them. To encourage full participation, I suggest using a reward mechanic where the reward is larger the more people participate. For example, if 1 person participates the XP Pool could be 100, but if two people participate they get an XP pool of 220 XP (110 XP each), and if 3 people participate it’s 360 XP (120 XP each). This means that players are more likely to try and include the other players, both with out of character banter and by doing things in-game to prompt a response (such as in character dialogue). Alternatives to XP for rewards exist, but I’m not going to talk about them here. There are issues with XP based reward systems, and the set of alternatives warrants lots of discussion.
Of course, participation can be made mandatory by using a turn taking system, much like combat rounds. In such a case, I suggest the person who goes first gets to go twice, so that they have to do something that acknowledges the contribution of other players. Personally, I don’t like turn taking here because it discourages spontaneity.
A common problem with platform building is that players can become very silly. There is nothing wrong with a funny scene, but when the platform of a scene contains a joke the result is sketch comedy. Sketch comedy does not lend itself to longer plots or character development. Some players are fine with this, some are not. It really interferes with my enjoyment of the game as a GM or as a player, since I appreciate very detailed settings and plotlines. In my games, I make it a rule that any platform detail added because it’s mere existence is funny is “erased.” Players interested in being funny ought to use the platform to set up jokes and humorous situations when building a platform, but not deliver any punchlines until the scene is being played out. This is consistent with guidelines for improvisational comedy. The kind of comedy to aim for is more like in Cheers or Arrested Development, less like Monty Python or Benny Hill. That being said, I think I may want to switch to some kind of reward system for players who are funny in the way I want them to be, instead of punishing the players who are funny in a way that I find disruptive. I’ll need to think about that more to flesh something out.
Integrating platform building into game mechanics is relatively easy. Quite implicitly, the control it gives players helps them control what mechanical abilities will be relevant when playing out a scene. If a GM wants, however, they can require checks prior to adding details. The way I do this is to make it so that successful knowledge, perception, or sense motive checks allow a person to add details about the subject of their knowledge or observation. This works better in GURPS, in my opinion, just because of the much more expansive skill list. Since doing this introduces a barrier to full participation from all players, I don’t like it very much, but if players are used to platform building it can help integrate the details they add with their character concept. This is particularly good for any semi-realistic science fiction roleplaying, as it forces players to narrate platform building through the eyes of their character’s own professional expertise.
When I next get a chance, I’m going to use my ideas from earlier post “Round Replacement” as a way to fill in what happens after building a platform. As a personal challenge, I want to have a game that has everything that’s not combat be so much fun that players avoid combat solely to increase how much fun they are having. Even the players who thrive on imposed objectives, structured gameplay, and “winning” the RPG.
- Round Replacement (creativegamemaster.wordpress.com)