Thursday, 10 January 2013

What's In A Name? (Part Three)

American Nightmare was just the beginning of HTHD. It showed me that some of my ideas about what kinds of stories might be possible at the table were workable, with the right group, and gave me some ideas about what we might try next. Over the next several years, my regular group has pushed the style further and added a bunch of new tricks to our gaming toolkit.

My friend Rob introduced us to the world of indie RPGs, and ran us through a great Primetime Adventures superhero (actually, supervillain) campaign -- T.H.E.M.! Primetime Adventures introduced us to the idea of the GM sharing narrative control with the players; in PTA it's standard operating procedure for the GM and players to take turns calling for scenes, and when a conflict exists in a scene the game mechanics not only decide how it is resolved, but who gets to narrate the resolution. So, in a PTA game it's possible for a player to lose a conflict, not get what they want, but still be able to narrate the resolution in a way that helps them save face or otherwise change the tenor of that outcome. Pretty nifty stuff.

My initial stabs at drama-intensive roleplaying pretty much demanded that the players come to the table with a lot of the material which would help build drama -- because their characters were at the core of everything that happened -- but PTA helped us take it to a new level. Not only could the players build those important foundations for drama, they could take a hand in saying what scenes happened and how they played out! Genius.

Another important element that's become a signature of our play style now is shared campaign creation. We learned about it from the Dresden Files RPG, and my friend Colin was the first to make use of it to build his postapocalyptic game The Core. Shared campaign creation is terrific because it allows players to set up locations and characters that they want to be part of their stories. Like the Aspects that are so important to the Fate system, shared campaign creation lets the players telegraph what's important to them to the GM in very explicit terms. And it also helps establish common assumptions / shared knowledge about the game world which makes it much easier for everyone to participate in storybuilding.

I mentioned before that the idea of players as both actors and audience in the drama was important to our playstyle, and I'd like to elaborate about that a little more. The traditional style of RPG play tends to emphasize players almost always sticking together and operating as a team. They might be a crew of dungeon delvers searching for treasure, or a team of shadowrunners breaking into a high-tech research facility, or investigators struggling against the dire deeds of sinister cults... but the default assumption is that the players will mostly work together.

Since dramatic play doesn't work this way -- drama tends to function at its most intense and satisfying during scenes between a small group of characters -- it is a necessary element of HTHD that players must often take the part of audience for scenes that feature other PCs. This flies in the face of traditional RPG play, and conventional wisdom would suggest this is an easy way to lead to bored players fiddling with their cell phones. What we have found is that, for the most part, that isn't actually true -- if the scenes being played out are dramatic enough, they aren't a boring burden for players that aren't involved -- they're intense and involving, just the way a good TV show is. Players are perfectly able to "shift gears" and follow another PC's storyline for a scene in exactly the same way a TV show or film manages to juggle multiple storylines.

Furthermore, Colin also realized that it was perfectly plausible to get players to participate in other PCs' stories by sharing out the roles of supporting characters. With a little prompting from the GM, a player could take the part of what would traditionally be an "NPC" and bring it to life as part of the supporting cast. Some games refer to this as "troupe" play.

Since players in this model are intimately involved with the details of other PCs' lives, it's an important fact of HTHD play that there can be no secrets at the table between players. For players to be able to enjoy the adventures of the other PCs as audience, they need to understand what those PCs are struggling against. Again, the traditional RPG logic is that this breaks immersion, but in practice we have found that open secrets between the players means that everyone gets a better perspective on the overall story unfolding. It's very little fun for a player to have an awesome subplot involving their character if the details all play out in surreptitious notes passed back and forth with the GM or whispered scenes outside the kitchen.

Moreover, if the other players are aware of what's happening with a given character, they can help set up dramatic moments for that character -- exactly as the GM does.

To be concluded...

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