Apr 26, 2012

Roleplaying: Beyond Talking

I was participating in a discussion about some really interesting stuff over at Gaming as Women, but I was asked not to sidetrack stuff, so I'll talk about it here instead.

One of the most useful high-level insights I ever had as a DM and as a player was to realise that roleplaying is about more than just talking, and that engagement and interest in the game is not measured solely by how frequently and loudly someone speaks at the table. While this is one measurement, it's not the only one, and I think games are diminished insofar as the group playing them tries to restrict its activity to just this.

I came to this realisation a few years back, when I started playing in Economy of Force, a WFRP game Jude Hornborg of Liber Fanatica has been running off and on. In it, I play Siegfried Hausmann, a physician from Kemperbad, and one of the two class A shareholders of the Steiner-Hausmann Trading Consortium, a subsidiary of the Hofbauer-Bodlestein Trading Guild's Wurtbad subsidiary. One of the amusing recurring pieces of game play is that Siegfried maintains the company's accounts and is the only person who ever knows exactly how much gold is in our coffers (to the occasional consternation of the non-voting class B shareholders aka the other PCs, who are required to pool their funds into it).

I spend a fair bit of time keeping our money supply straight using double entry book-keeping. The effort only rarely comes up in-character, but when it does, all the quiet poring over columns pays off. People hurl accusations of embezzlement, characters go wild with the abrupt realisation that we are extremely rich, or the party becomes frantic with approaching penury. All of this drives interactions, schemes, etc., despite much of it deriving precisely from not talking a lot about how much money we have at any given point.

This kind of thing actually crops up a lot in Traveller and any campaign that features economic interactions that are tracked precisely, but there are plenty of other kinds of activity like it that are not economic. Mapping, keeping track of supplies and schedules, and choosing spell lists are three obvious ones, and others are created by the system or the style of the group's play. I think that rather than deprioritising these and treating them as unpleasant, subsidiary effects of talking and "playing" that have to be pawned off due to simple necessity, that we ought to approach them as ways of enriching the game, assign them to players who find them interesting, and use them to keep PCs occupied when other characters are in the spotlight.

While the activities I prefer are ones that derive from a very detailed engagement with the environment and the challenges it poses, this kind of activity can go far beyond that. In a game with narrative-driven mechanics like the FATE 3.0 family, PCs might be encouraged and rewarded for creating brief descriptions of features of the world that can occur later. For example, in Diaspora, PCs could be encouraged to write short descriptions of 30-50 words of some feature of the world with say, 3-5 related aspects. This might be a character, an astronomical feature, a piece of technology, etc. After creating it, they would be allowed to call on one of the aspects once whenever plausible, and then to hand it off to another player, who can in turn call on one of the unused aspects once before handing it to another player, etc. until all the written aspects are used up, whereupon the item becomes the common property of everyone to draw on as relevant.

In Emern, I tried to do this by assigning the PCs roles, including surveyors, quartermasters, guards, the leader, etc. Each one had an assigned duty that really didn't require a ton of interaction with other PCs (though others could be drawn into it), but that had them make rolls and meaningful choices (whenever possible, the Emern game isn't perfect on this, though it's something I shall strive for in future games). Incentivising this with XP, both individual and collective, encourages people to engage in these activities, though I recommend low values so that they don't overwhelm the value of treasure, monster slaying and progressing through the story.

Players come in many different types, almost all of which can contribute value to the game even if they are not the most social types. I think that limiting or prioritising player engagement through one particular mode (talking in character) excludes and drives away plenty of players who could really help create a fun game, and it could even give more social players a respite for nights when they're feeling off or out of it for some reason.