Assembling the Team: Easy to Improv, Hard to Plan

Hilario: It won’t be hard to find men here. Everyone wears a gun.

Chris: Sure. Same as they wear pants. That’s expected. But good men? That’s something else again.

It is the very first session of a delightful RPG campaign.  Everyone has their characters made, and the GM is ready to go.  To help tie everybody together, the GM told everybody “You have to make mercenaries, and you all work for the same company.”  Aside from that, the characters form a delightful and eccentric combination of nutty eccentrics.  Like all good bands of adventurers.

The GM says “You’ve all been called in by your boss.  They have a job for you.”  And everybody falls asleep, or maybe goes into a coma, because that is a very boring way to start a story.  Most of my players have told me that they just accept that my campaigns have a slow start, and that this comes with having a story and character focused style of play.  I do not accept that.  I think there is a way to open in a fun way while also holding the game to high standards of storytelling.

This article is about combining 2 different things: starting with a bang, and rapidly introducing the PCs to one another.

Starting With a Bang

Novels, TV shows, and movies all have a tendency to “start with a bang.”  I will not go into great detail: just watch a James Bond movie for the most straightforward example.  Each book in A Song and Ice of Fire begins with some disjointed horror story vignette to set the tone.  Most episodic action TV shows start this way: X-Files, Buffy, Miami Vice…

More Importantly. video games are now being designed with this kind of intro in mind.  Older video games would introduce the plot and characters with walls of text.  Newer games attempt to make it all more interactive and include play, with the main plot elements interspersed throughout.  Compare the beginning of Monkey Island with The Walking Dead: the former is a text overlay with picture, and the latter is a dialogue.  Almost the entirety of The Walking Dead’s play is making dialogue choices.  You could also compare the Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past with Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Link to the Past has pictures on what appears to be a sword fragment and endless streams of sentences to read.  Twilight Princess has an intro that includes exploration and some simple puzzles to solve to progress the narration, which is (once again) a big chunk of what the game is about.  Baldur’s Gate 2 starts with a recap of baldur’s gate 1 and a story about how you were kidnapped, all in text form with an accompanying narrator.  Mass Effect 2 starts with RPG action sequences while other characters remind you about your exploits in mass effect 1, and occasionally ask you character-defining questions.  I personally think Deus Ex: Human Revolution did a particularly good job at incorporating all the elements the player needed to know about the character, the setting, and the main plot into one playable scene at the very beginning of the game.  It’s a shame they didn’t spend as much time on the ending, but I highly recommend that game for its integration of story and play.  It’s very well done.

To begin with a bang the GM needs to:

  1. Identify what the bulk of play will be in the campaign.
  2. Incorporate that play immediately.  James Bond fights hard, drives fast, and seduces sleazily.  Link solves puzzles by picking up pots.
  3. Intersperse thematic and setting information immediately.
  4. Decide what plot information (if any) will be included at this time, but err on the side of introducing less.

Assembling the Team

Among the first things that needs to happen in an RPG is that the PCs all need to meet.  The game is about them and their team, after all.  It can also be difficult for a GM to tailor content for each PC until after they’ve seen the character played a bit.  That, more than anything else, is why I wait to introduce character-specific “side quests” until one or two sessions into the campaign.

Having all the characters meet is also often kind of boring.  Everyone meets in a bar, or a coffeeshop, or an office, and they introduce themselves with a quick blurb.  It’s kind of like speed dating.  It just strikes me as silly.

Look at movies like Ocean’s Eleven or Seven Samurai (or the Magnificent Seven).  Note how each character is given something cool to do as the team is assembled.  Note how video games with large casts of characters often do the same thing, by giving each character a theme level or mission.  I will thus add a fifth and sixth point to the list:

5.  Everyone needs something cool to do.

6.  Not everyone needs to be present at the beginning, but they must all be included quickly.

Social Interaction is Core to the Experience of Tabletop RPGS

Planning in advance for all this is quite difficult, because so much of it is tailored to the players.  However, instead of planning this out it can be played as a social, improvised game.  Starting the game this way will immediately result in the players being creatively empowered.  It will immediately send the message to the players that the reason to play this game is to enjoy being creative together, so Point 1 (identify the bulk of play) is half-way covered already.  Next comes directing that into a specific type of action: combat, role-playing, puzzles, chases, etc.  This is a choice that the GM should have made before they even started planning the campaign: will it be an action game, a puzzle game, etc?  In the event that the GM didn’t think about it all, odds are good the rules system will imply a choice.  Pathfinder is a game where the rules are mostly about fighting.  If the GM wants to run a Pathfinder Game, it makes sense to make it mostly about fighting.

Cues from Improvised Theater

The GM, having identified what the main kind of play will be, can now move on to the core thematic and/or setting elements they want to include.  Combining those with the main kind of play will yield enough for a setting or a conflict.

A gritty, violent, medieval fantasy world where the principle play is mostly about role-playing should be set somewhere where the consequences of violence are apparent (to make it gritty) that includes magic (to make it fantasy).  Examples that immediately come to mind are: a battlefield (before or after the battle), a hospital, a camp of monster hunters after a failed hunt.  Note that none of these are set during the actual violence, because that game is going to be about the role-playing.  I’m sure you can think of more settings.

Alternately, we can emphasize a conflict to drive a scene.  The conflict will need to be about the consequences of violence (because the theme is “gritty”) and include something magical (to make it fantastic).  Examples that come to mind are a dispute over the inheritance of some magic items (assuming the deceased died violently), civil unrest over a supposed curse, and the aftermath of a trial by combat with magical weaponry.

The GM only needs to think of the setting or the conflict, not both.  If the GM thought of the setting, turn to the players and say: “One of you is already there.  You came here to do something.  What did you come here for?”  Note that the question is phrased so that they already have an objective.  A causal explanation of how they came to be there does not answer the question correctly.  They are to provide an answer that contains an objective so that they provide the conflict to start the scene.

If the conflict was provided, instead ask “Where would something like that happen?  You are already there.”  The second sentence is important, as it ensures the player will provide a location that is suitable for their character (or, if they don’t, it’s at least not the GMs fault).

Next, ask “what are you doing?”

From there on in, use the following questions to bring more players in:

“How could your character help?” examples: “you’ll need a tracker,” “don’t worry; I’m a doctor.”

“Would any of you oppose this action?  What do you do?” examples: “A frontal assault is suicide,” “How dare you show such impertinence before your king!”

“You are within earshot.  Where are you, and what are you doing?” examples: the bar getting blasted, at work in the fields.  Follow this question up with “And what do you do?” if the player doesn’t join the scene.

“You were either here already and are currently waiting for something, or just arrived from doing something else.  What are you waiting for, or what were doing right before this?”  examples: waiting for hours for an audience with the judge, just got back from horseback riding.

“Your character currently holds something vital to this scene.  What is it?”  examples: the maps, a ceremonial mace, medicine.

“You just arrive, and already know someone here.  Who is it, and why?”  examples: we grew up together, we fought once in a duel to first blood, we are business associates, we met at a wedding years ago.

Ending the Scene

The goal of the scene is just to get everyone introduced to one another.  Once this is done, it’s fine to say something like “1 year later…” and have everyone be in a group together of some kind (professional adventuring party, mercenaries, crew on board a ship, etc).

However, you may wish to have a short combat or skill based challenge to end the scene.  It will need to be simple (unless you are very good at improvising these kind of things as a GM), and many of the important details will need to be drawn from player contributions.  Do your best to make the puzzle or combat make use of details that were added by the players, or were clearly inspired by a player’s contributions.  In such a way, it is clear that the combat or puzzle is the product of the social environment and group collaboration.  This may sound daunting.  It is actually very easy; it just can’t be planned in advance and therefore seems more difficult than it is.

However, for help improvising a puzzle look at this: https://creativegamemaster.wordpress.com/2013/04/28/visual-supports-and-creative-thinking/

Even without the use of visuals, it helps by providing a way for thinking about environments that helps create puzzles.

Introducing The Big Villain

If the campaign will have a big villain, the GM can have them be present.  This gives the GM an NPC to roleplay alongside the players.  This gives the GM a chance to lead by example, and a chance to have some fun with acting.  It also creates an interaction with the villain that can set up why the PCs should hate this person.  Look at the exciting openings to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Magnificent Seven, or Star Wars for examples of this.

Alternative types of Action

Action movies are cool! I like them a lot. Dungeon crawls and other action focused RPGs tend to bore me. At the start of a campaign, they play like board games. I like a lot of board games. Over time, the same board game over and over again tends to become predictable and a bit dull.

So let’s change it up. I’m going to talk about how to turn a combat into a puzzle or acting/roleplaying scene. I’m also going to talk about action movies that use the threat of violence, as opposed to actual violence, to create the conflict that drives the story.

The Trump Puzzle:

A Trump Puzzle changes the way a combat works to make it more about open-ended, creative problem solving.

At the start of combat, the GM defines some of the enemies’ abilities that are dangerous to the PCs. The goal of the PCs is to find a way to trump the enemies’ special ability. Often, the PCs will only be able to impose their own threat in response. The idea is to create a back and forth as the PCs slowly accrue advantages and escalate the conflict, and the villains likewise attempt to regain the advantages they are losing.

The first rule is that no one gets to kill anyone else. Anything that would kill people instead forces a particular response. If the bad guys open up with machine gun fire, the PCs dive behind some crates and can’t get out again. These are called threats. A person subjected to a threat may immediately think of an action that allows them to avoid the threat, even if it’s not their turn. A player may not respond to a threat with a threat of their own; the goal of this puzzle is not to create a Mexican standoff.

The second rule is that no actions can be taken without somehow circumventing earlier threats. For example, if the PCs are pinned by machine gun fire, a PC might think of using stealth or acrobatics to reach a flanking position and thus force the other enemy to fall to a defensive position where they can’t impose cover fire.

The third rule is that failures result in disadvantages, not injury. A player has to make sure that their next action is consistent with the disadvantage imposed, or else they need to do something else. If the acrobatic character manages to get hit by a bullet while dodging and weaving to a flanking position, they don’t take damage to HP. They instead might have a wound to the leg, and now they cannot do flips, climb, or run fast.

Once a player or the GM is able to impose a threat in such a way that the other can’t think of a response, the combat is over and the threatening character won. This is when they’ve trumped their opponents threats.

This kind of action-puzzle will make substantial use of competitive skill checks. It would work in GURPS, for example, because of Quick Contest rules. It would make use of many opposed checks in a D20 game. A system that does not allow for this is not suitable.

For my favourite example of this in action, lets look at a classic type of fist fight in a movie: the mad scramble for a pistol.

It starts with an NPC drawing a pistol on a PC, which is a threat. The PC must respond, so they knock the gun to the floor with a quick karate chop. Lets say the PC fails their check. They manage to deflect the gun to the side, but suffer a disadvantage: a superficial gun wound to the shoulder that makes their left arm useless. The gun drops to the floor, and now they are in a fist fight. Neither has the initial threat (the gun), but if either get it could be a trump. The villain has another idea about a fight winning threat, though: he kicks the gun to the far right, so that when the player turns to grab it their shoulder wound is exposed. I wouldn’t require a roll to kick something across the floor. This action imposes a new threat on the player: if the player goes for the gun they get attacked at their weak point and lose the fight. The player responds by tackling the guy who kicked the gun, and succeeds at the check. The villain is now on the ground struggling while the PC starts trying to pin them. The villain tries to escape by bucking the PC off of them, but fails their check. The disadvantage is that they are now in a pin. The PC goes for a choke hold, and the villain can’t do anything to respond. Victory by submission.

Playing Status Instead of Fighting

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know about the theater concept of Status and how it can be used in an RPG through what I called “the status game.” Lets adjust this a bit so that it can be a replacement for combat.

First, lets talk about how status is used to resolve combat. The goal is to have an opponent go from high status to low status, so that they are now submissive to the PCs. If all the PCs are low status, they are forced to retreat or submit. When all the villains are low status, they will acquiesce to a demand to surrender.

High status characters can change other character’s status by interacting with them. They can make a low status character high status by behaving in an inspiring, supportive, or helpful way towards them. This will never require a check of some kind with most game systems. They can make an enemy high status character become low status by being intimidating, deceptive, or persuasive. This will require some kind of check.

Low status characters can use skills or checks that demonstrate that they are useful in combat (weapon skills, for example) to raise their status on their own, but only by targetting low status opponents. If they attempt to attack high status characters directly, the high status characters are simply able to defend themselves.

Any character may use any kind of skill that pertains to fighting to prevent a single low status character from becoming high status again. This is to make sure that the status game doesn’t go on forever.

A PC must roleplay every action they take. The goal is to replace tactical gameplay with acting.

Half of the PCs start with high status, and half of their opponents start with high status. The PCs can decide who gets high status themselves, and the GM decides which of the opponents start with high status. First each of the high status characters go, then all the low status characters go, and then the cycle repeats. Roll initiative if necessary, but since this is supposed to emphasize acting skills hopefully players will take the initiative when it is appropriate.

Here’s a good example of this kind of action scene: a western standoff.

The PCs are bounty hunters facing off against 2 gun-toting bandits. They are all staring each other down. One PC and one NPC can’t hack it, and avert their gaze. They begin with low status. One PC and one NPC retain high status, and continue to stare each other down. The high status player says to their ally “keep your hands steady, pilgrim. These fellows aren’t any different than any other bandits we’ve fought.” The low status PC now has their status raised to high status.

“We’re a little different… We have a third man in the hills, and he’s as good a shot as they come.” the NPC bluffs. He succeeds on his check, and the PC is reduced to low status again.

The low status PC points his gun at the low status bandit. “I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to…” he swallows nervously, then thinks he sees the bandit’s finger twitch and shoots at him in a fit of panick! He succeeds on the roll, the NPC bandit falls to the ground with a minor arm wound, and can’t gain high status.

The low status character says “You son of a gun! I’m bleeding all over.” and shoots in response. He succeeds at his check also, so the low status PC also has a superficial wound and may not be raised to high status for the fight. But then a Player interjects and says “But Mr. GM, the bandits statement doesn’t sound low status.” The GM says “Oh shoot, you’re right. I should have said “Oh god, oh no, I don’t want to die!” but instead I acted in a high status fashion.” The Bandit fails the check, on account of poor roleplaying.

The first PC says “get yourself together.” This brings the low status PC into high status. The high status bandit says “Die, you lily livered law man scum! I’m surprised you could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight. Then again, I’m surprised I could stop sucking at your momma’s tit long enough to come fight.” and shoots at the first PC. However, because he is high status his check is for the taunt, not the shooting. The insult stings as bad as the bullets, so even though the shots narrowly miss the PC’s head he is now low status.

The second PC now has a chance to go, and uses their high status to get the bandit to admit defeat. “There’s two of us and only one of you. Surrender, and we’ll make sure you get a fair trial. Your chances are better with the jury than with us.” The second PC succeeds on their check, and the remaining bandit drops to low status.

Now that he must act in a low status fashion, the bandits most obvious course of action is to surrender.

The Threat of Violence

In a bunch of action movies, the threat of violence is used to create tension. Some great films that do this are High Noon, Shane, and taxi driver. In the modern day, some people might not even think of these films as action movies, because of how little action is in them. In these films, the threat forces the players to prepare in some way for an imminent violent confrontation, or forces them to work very hard to find peaceful resolutions that delay the violent confrontation.

This has a notable characterization advantage: if the PCs are trying to find a peaceful solution to a problem then they are almost certainly the good guys. It doesn’t matter if their raiders, warlocks, or con-men; they are on the side of peace.

However, it means that each scene can’t be a combat scene. It means the PCs will go through a series of roleplaying/acting challenges and open-ended puzzles in the hopes of delaying violence or gaining allies. The longer they delay the violence, or the more help they win, the easier the battle is in the end.

This means that the players need to understand that the confrontation is not one they are all expected to walk away from. It may also be a good idea to tie bonus XP to the encounter for each PC that survives the battle, if the PCs are trying to get into a fight as soon as possible.

Most systems are not designed with providing incentives for delaying combat. However, it is not hard to do.

Mutants and Masterminds has a few built in methods to delay a final confrontation with the super-villain. The villains will almost always threaten innocent lives when they’re staging their crime and escaping. The PCs gain Hero Points for when they save innocent lives, even if it’s at the expense of a criminal saving. This means the villain will keep on getting away, while the PCs roleplay and solve puzzles to save innocent lives. When the PCs have enough hero points, they’ll be able to use the hero points to rapidly defeat the villain next time they present themselves.

All you need is any expendable resource that can be given for delaying the fight for a bit. This could be “bonus uses” of good luck or serendipity in GURPS. It could be Action Points in D&D. It could be willpower in a white wolf game (although quintessence, rage, conviction, or blood would probably be more motivating).

My Secret Motive

With luck, this broadening of how combat can be played can make action stories a bit more flexible.  I have a secret goal for these also.  I want ways to resolve combats that can fit better with dramatic structures, or could be used when a party is split.  I think these will work.  I think with only one PC, a Trump combat will take 5 minutes at most.  I think 5 minutes/PC seems fair if the PCs are split up.  I’ll need to test this hypothesis, mind you, and make sure I can keep it moving that fast.

Regardless of how well it addresses my secret motive, it seems to work okay for my first set of objectives.

Radio Plays and RPGs: establishing the setting

Most scenes in a radio play do not begin with a narrator describing the setting.  Instead, they rely on dialogue and background noise to create a sense of the time and place. Realistically, this is not something a GM can do on their own. It requires at least 3 people: two for the dialogue and one for background noise.

Creating the setting for a scene using 3 people is a type of improvisation.  The goal is to build a “platform,” an improvisational concept I discussed in a previous article (and linked below).  At least two characters (probably 2 PCs, but maybe a PC and an NPC) will be engaged in a discussion of some kind, and at least one person (player or GM) is attempting to make background noises.  A few initial lines of dialogue and background noise will create a vivid setting, and establish who is present.  Once this is done, the platform building is over.  It is time to introduce a conflict of some kind to initiate action and drive the plot forward, which is a different kind of improvisation.

Who

Establishing who is in a scene needs to be the first part of a platform when modeling a scene after radio plays. Two of the three people who can create platform details will be doing so by participating in a dialogue. The characters need to be introduced if they are to do this.

When talking about who is in the scene, it is important for the dialogue to imply a person’s role. This is accomplished most quickly by including it in greetings. For example, “excuse me, doctor.” when getting a Doctor’s attention. This is harder for positions where a person doesn’t normally refer to someone by their title. For example, no one gets the attention of a plumber by saying “hello, plumber.” In this case, it can be included in a greeting by saying “hello, I need some plumbing done and I hear you’re the best in the business.” or something similar.

Alternately, a speaker could set someone up to fill in the details about their role by asking a question. “How are you?” is an open ended question that could easily lead into a person mentioning their job, or other relevant features about one of their social roles, such as being young, elderly, or membership in a particular ethnicity. Any open ended question will work.

If any of these details can be shared by voice acting, it is better to include it in voice acting. This conveys more information, quicker and with greater subtlety. That being said, I don’t suggest mimicking accents if anyone nearby might be offended by the accent. It’s best to be polite, since RPGs are social games.

Background noises are used to describe the other people in the area. Examples include crowd noises, muffled dialogue, the sound of a policeman saying “save it for the judge, scum.” in the background… Noises from the environment can also imply things about the people who are there: trying to recreate beach noises imply that families or surfers might be around, and throwing in some snippets of overheard dialogue can clarify whether it is one, the other, or both. For example, the background person could say “Hurry up Dad,” “totally gnarly, man,” or “Hurry up, dad; the waves are tubular.”

What

Establishing what is in the scene is done by background noise, characters commenting on things in the scene, and character saying they’ll do things. Lets suppose we want to put a table in a room. The background noise person could make noises that imply an event that requires a table, such as a dinner party. One characters could simply say something to the effect of “look at that table.” The other character can respond with something about why the table is remarkable, hopefully making the remark seem a bit less silly. The most natural way to include a table is to simply say something like “let’s sit down.” and following it with the background noise person making a clunking noise representing the chairs moving as the characters sit down.

Where

For the characters, dialogue that establishes the people and objects in a scene will usually imply a location, as well. However, it is important to think about what is implied, and then do things to either confirm the likely implication or imply an alternative.

The same techniques for describing What can be used to describe Where, if appropriate. This is for when the people in the dialogue would prefer to describe where they are before describing What is there.  In such a case, the location will imply who and what is present.  Once again, players ought to use dialogue to confirm or alter any relevant implications.

For a background noise person, Where will often be easier than anything else. By creating background noises for a place or an event that normally occurs at a particular place, they set themselves up for making sound effects for who and what. Usually a background noise person will be limited to options that imply both where and who, or where and what, at the same time. Those options were covered above.

Sounds that only imply locations, on the other hand, are a classic way to begin a scene in a radio play. For example, the sound of seagulls to make a beach, without implying who is there. It leaves a lot open to be filled by the characters involved in a dialogue. It’s nice to leave a lot open to others sometimes, but it’s probably best to usually add as much detail in as little time as one’s skill allows.

When

This is done best in the greeting and response from the greeting, due to the limited number of background noises that can imply a time. “good day,” “good evening,” and “good morning” are very quick and easy. Alternately, a response to a question like “how are you?” could be “Good. My lunch is delicious. Want to try a bite?” Sound effects are largely limited to bells sounding out the time of day, radio disk jockeys announcing that “this is for your ride home,” crickets at night, and birds during the morning. Often, When is implied by the Who, What, and Where. If the characters can’t find a seat in a crowded bar, it’s probably night time. Much like how Where is implied by Who and What, it is best if someone takes it upon themselves to confirm an implied time somehow.

Improvisation Concepts that Matter to Radio Drama Style Platforms

There are two important improvisational concepts that are being used here very clearly:

1. Offering: Offering is when a person introduces something new to a scene by saying something about it. They are called offers because they invite a response from the other participants. “look at that cat!” is an offer. Responses to that will likely add some detail about the cat. Responses to an offer can be offers themselves. Offering is trickier when doing background sounds. Instead of the characters directly responding to the background sounds, they might just ignore them for a bit. That’s okay, so long as the characters don’t contradict a background sound. For example, if the background noise person is making sea gull noises, a character shouldn’t say “there are no seagulls on this beach… Maybe the water is poisonous!” The characters acknowledge the background noise mostly by acting appropriately for the implications of where they are, what is happening around them, and when that is. It is incorrect for a background noise person or a character to use an offer that forces an immediate response from everyone. For example, a sudden gunshot in a crowded room is not appropriate. Events like that signal the end of platform building, as they are an initiating event for a conflict. These kind of offers should only be used to end platform building and initiate action.

2. Endowing: Just because an item has been placed in a room, does not mean we know anything about it. Endowing are actions that attribute properties to things. Saying “good afternoon” tells everyone it’s the afternoon. Saying “gee, it’s a hot one.” in response is endowing the afternoon with a property: that it is a hot afternoon. Endowing is a way to interact with a background sound person’s offers, and is also one of the better ways for a background sound person to respond to a character’s offers. If the background sound is a loud party, the characters can say something about how crowded it is, for example. If the characters sit down at a table, the background noise person could make a solid thud or a creaky wobbling noise, implying something about the table.

Confirming Implications vs. Leaving it Open

Since initially no one is saying precisely who or what is present, and no one is saying precisely where or when the scene is taking place, these details will initially just be implied. It is important for the participants to take actions to confirm or alter the implied details of the scene. However, they may prefer to deliberately leave details unconfirmed. So long as no one contradicts anything already said, this is not a problem. In fact, it can be fun once in a while if details are left unconfirmed. Until an implied detail has been confirmed, remember that someone might change it. This could make for some very amusing changes if done late in a scene.

Remember, however, that whole sets of new objects cannot be added to a scene once Platform Building is finished. This is to avoid an unsatisfactory deus ex machina.

Benefit of Using Radio Play Style Platform Building

The radio play style sounds like a lot of work, and requires one person dedicated to making background noises and sound effects. This work comes with a notable benefit, however: creating the scene is all done by roleplaying, sounds, and acting. There is a minimal amount of time spent on out-of-character descriptions, narrations, or expositions. Often, none will be required! The scene will feel more “alive.”  Most importantly, this is a crucial part to learning to emulate a radio play.  Radio, as a form of media, is a closer approximation of how tabletop players can share a story than film or novels.  Learning to do radio play style Platform Building sets us up for radio play style action.

My next post on radio play style RPGs will be about the action that occurs during a scene, whether it’s a fistfight, a chase on horseback, an argument between lovers, a ticking time-bomb, a business negotiation, or whatever else you can think of. When everyone learns to voice-act their character’s actions instead of describing the actions, the game will suddenly become very fluid. All actions will be well integrated into roleplaying. I hope you are looking forward to it!

Improvisation in RPGs: Status

In improvised theater, some characters are high status and some are low status. Understanding the relationship is necessary for understanding how the actors choose to contribute to the scene. The main benefit of using status is creating a natural growth and resolution to interpersonal conflict. This concept can be used to add structure and gaming elements to roleplaying scenes. I think it could work as a way to change the party’s decision making into a game of some sort. This will be especially valuable in a game where PCs regularly become deadlocked, without an easy way to resolve the conflict in-character even if there is a satisfactory option for everyone out-of-character.

There are two things players need to understand to roleplay status effectively: how to act out high and low status, and the effects of changing status. A high status character takes initiative, will often be decisive, and is generally assertive (and sometimes downright aggressive). Low status characters are often passive, deffer to other people’s opinions, and seek out others’ approval before taking any action.

Two high status characters interacting will rapidly escalate most conflicts. When a high status character becomes a low status character the conflict is resolved (at least temporarily).

In a roleplaying scene, players with high status end up being able to decide the party’s actions. Low status characters could, of course, refuse to cooperate, and they can (politely, nervously, or subtly) suggest alternatives. The actual decision stays with the high status character(s).

It is worth clarifying that a character’s status would change from scene to scene, and this concept of status is distinct from socials status. Social status might refer to nobility, rank, or people otherwise possessing privileges beyond the norm. Theater status is a way for a person to act in relation to another person, to create a relationship that is dynamic and adjusts to the dramatic conflict in a scene. It is worth it for players and NPCs to think of how different character traits and emotions are acted out at the different status levels. A high status way of acting out anger is very different from acting out a low status anger.

It is also worth noting that this provides a useful “out” for players who find themselves forced to choose between what is the most consistent choice for their character and what is the best choice for the game as a whole. A player may both act in character and make the choice that is inconsistent with their character by either soliciting the input of low status characters and indulging them, or becoming low status.

I can think of two ways to use status: one is as a “status game,” and the other is as part of a reward mechanic.

The Status Game

Part 1: Establish the Conflict. This might occur very naturally and be already implied, such as if the PCs are trying to convince an NPC to do something not in the NPC’s best interest. It might be provided by the players, such as if they are deciding between multiple tactical options. It might be created by an NPC, or require some severe GM intervention to create the conflict.

Part 2: Assign Starting Status. This may use game mechanics, such as “everyone rolls charisma. Highest 2 results begin with high status.” It may also be decided by which characters have the most at-stake in the conversation, and they can all be given high status.

Part 3a: Everyone roleplays their assigned Status. Players who are naturally loud will need to force themselves to be quiet if they are low status, and naturally quiet players with high status should feel encouraged to interrupt low status characters. High status players ought to take the lead, and if they are unsure what to do next they should ask the low status characters for input. Low status characters, in turn, need to try and contribute as best they can without ever contradicting a high status character.

Everyone, at this stage, gets a chance to speak. High status characters may speak first, if they wish, but no one may speak a second time until everyone has gone.

Part 3b: Change Status. Anyone may speak to anyone, and anyone addressed directly must be granted a chance to respond. If a player addressed another person directly, and that person responded, the first person ought to wait to allow a third person to interject. These rules will usually be sufficient to allow all players to participate. A high status player may become low status if they wish. A low status character may become high status once.

Part 4: Resolve Conflict and Earn Rewards. The conflict is resolved when there is only one high status player, and everyone has at least had a chance to change their status. The conflict is also resolved if all the high status characters agree. If no one is becoming high status, then there is no one to contradict the current high status character.

Optional Additional Rules:

  1. Skill checks for raising one’s own status.

  2. Skill checks for lowering someone else’s status.

  3. Low status characters may not take high status.

Reward Mechanics

Status can be used as a condition for a reward, or can be a reward on its own.

Status as a Condtion: To design the game to have more melodramatic flair, assign characters a status at the beginning of either a scene or for a whole session. If they roleplay the status effectively, they get a reward. If two players are roleplaying their statuses effectively, are in open disagreement, and one of them changes status to either increase or decrease the conflict, then the reward is greater.

This can even be used in combat scenes. In such a case, roleplaying high status might afford aggressive bonuses, low status might afford defensive bonuses. A player’s choice to change will reflect how well they are doing in the combat, and hopefully make players “feel” an escalation of the conflict and its resolution.

Reward to grant additional narrative power: Players may earn high status. This is a fairly natural way to give them more control during party decisions. If using it as a reward, it is best to also use optional rule #3 for status games, and to use status games when the party needs to make a collective decision.

At first, status might seem confusing.  I’ve used it in two games, though, and it works out great.  The players had a lot of fun, and I enjoyed it also.  Sometimes I tried to force more status games into the adventure than there should have been, which ended up just being comical.  The players still had tons of fun with it.  I encourage you to try it in your games.

Improvisation in RPGs: Building the Platform

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.