This week I found a very interesting short article on a story games site, in a list of tips on how to add more story gaming to your roleplay game (I’m still not sure on the difference they see between the two, but let’s leave that aside for now):
A tradition borrowed from improvisational theater, one of the central tenets to playing an ad-libbed scene is it is your core responsibility to make your fellow actors look good. If you are getting more laughs than they are, you are doing it wrong. If you are actively looking for ways to snub the other performers to make yourself look even better, then you’re doing it very wrong. Your efforts have to be about supporting the production as a whole, not just making yourself look good. It reduces the pressure of performing a lot if everyone knows they’ve got support, that they can rely on their fellow actors to catch any dumb-ass moves they make, turn it around, and make them into something fantastic instead.
So far, so good. When you play a roleplay game, you’re primarily focused on, well, playing your character, both actively and in response to the world, the npc’s and the other players. You’re definitely trying to keep the story going, but you’re not actively trying to make the other characters look good, cause that’s their job. Right?
But maybe it’s more fun if you do, and more fun if other people do it for you, as well. You may want to portray how your character’s mystical ramblings confuse people to no end, you may want to portray how your character is always there for a friend in need or you may want to portray your character as comic relief who always end up on the short side of a joke. It’d be pretty awesome if you could get a setup to show the things you as a player enjoy showing and could do the same for others.
Also, it puts the focus more coöperation. Say one player enjoys her character having strict moral values. If you actively work together to create a scene where her character catches your character doing something unlawful, you can (potentially) give exposition to both characters (‘you’ll totally get to explain why the law is so important’, ‘and you’ll totally get to express why your character is stealing in the first place’) and resolve it in the same spirit. Not reporting your fellow character to the cops might then just be a nice scene resolution instead of a grave character modification.
The article tries to set this mechanic up in a way that I don’t really like:
So engage in a round of I’m Gonna Make You Awesome before beginning play at your next tabletop roleplaying session. Go around the table and tell every player – including the GM, if there is one – what you, as a player, are going to do to make them awesome that evening. And then follow through. Maybe you are going to relentlessly hit their Flags and Keys. Maybe you are going to back up their plays like a lunatic henchman. Maybe you are going to realize an amazing moment for their character. I really have no idea what constitutes awesomeness to you and your friends, but you do, so make your commitment to them explicit and up front. As an added bonus this ought to get everyone both really excited about playing and in the mood for agreement and mutual support.
I don’t like it because it feels pretty contrived. That’s not the kind of thing that’s going to generate spontaneous cooperation. The principle is sound, but it need a better implementation. It can just be something everyone keeps in the forefront of their mind during play. But the additional problem is that I dont always know what other players are looking for specifically. In story games, maybe everyone’s traits and weaknesses are on the table, but they aren’t in a long-running campaign where character exposition is done slowly.
One solution might be to create play notes to your character for the other players. Those might convey out-of-character hints to the things you’re interested in exploring in this playthrough with this character. What could be in your play notes?
1. What’s your story?
Roleplay characters evolve during the story, both in skill and character. Some players decide what their story will be when they make their character, others only discover their story during play. When people know what story you are going for, they can contribute to it in various ways.
If my character’s story is ‘A person with a disability discovers she can be a hero’, that tells the other players their characters can, for instance, be dismissive of my character in the first part, make use of her in the second part, and acknowledge her abilities in the last part. Or they can be part of what makes this change, by seeing her abilities in the first act when others can’t and fostering that growth. Or they can stay dismissive right up to the end. They can all contribute to telling that story instead of staying neutral to it.
My story is that of a distrusting woman learning to trust in people again.
My story is that of a coward learning to fight for what is right
My story is a coming-of-age story of a girl slowly taking on adult responsabilites
2. Which of your characteristics do you want to show?
A lot of character traits you can portray actively. Still, it can be far more establishing if other characters actively notice them, point them, or perhaps contrast them with their own traits. Other traits are harder to portray, say a character who’s stoic. His stoicism will only stand out in extreme situations, and even then it’s usually the job of the DM to point it out.
Dm: The cold weather has you all shivering and chattering your teeth, only John the Barbarian seems unaffected.
Players: We’re getting out of the damm cold
Jake the Rogue: Damm, I’m freezing my balls off here, and you don’t even have your cloak on. Are you made of stone or what?
John the Barbarian: This cold is nothing compared to the things I endured during my training as a young boy.
Jake the Rogue: Really?
John the Barbarian: I clearly remember the first time we crossed the blizzard of..
The second seems more fun, right? Not only does the DM have a gazillion things to track and is usually to busy to remember your stoic superpowers, it’s also a lot more fun when your players interact with you.
It also gives player permission to remark on those things. Perhaps women make your character uneasy, but you are succesfully working hard to keep this hidden. It’ll be glaring if other characters bring it up. Even if you don’t mind, players might not bring it up unless they have a go-ahead sign. If you write it down and share it, they know they can bring it up.
I would like to portray my character’s stoicism, my positive thinking under duress, my negativity, my traditional values, my oldfashionedness, my agorafobia, my ocd, my emotional outbursts, my mysticism etc.
3. What scenes do you like to play?
Certain scenes might set your heart on fire more than others, you may need some scenes to reach the evolution needed for your story. Some scenes might just be a lot of fun. Is there any harm in letting your fellow players know what you like to play? Especially if you as a player like different things than your character does, or if you enjoy playing your character in not so flattering circumstances. Perhaps you are looking for opportunities you wouldn’t normally get.
If you let it be known you want a few scenes where your character can show how caring anf friendly she is, perhaps another player will let you bump into their character when they’re clearly in need of a shoulder to cry on. Something they wouldn’t do if you hadn’t made it clear what you were looking for. If you like to play your character as comic relief, other players might feel more free to do that when they explicitly know you enjoy it.
I enjoy scenes where my character can confound people with my mysterious one-liners
I enjoy scenes where my character can build trust with other characters
I enjoy scenes where my character can show he has a temper
I enjoy scenes where my character’s compulsive lying is found out
I enjoy scenes where my character can resolve a fight
I enjoy scenes where my character can indulge his flirtateous nature
I don’t know, I think guidelines like these might make a difference in trust and enjoyment while playing. Under the right circumstances they could (paradoxically) promote both character flexibility (‘eventhough my character is too polite to ask questions, in this scene I’ll ask about the mysterious background this player wants to talk about) and character depth.
I can also see it going wrong very badly (“I’ve already given you three opportunities to showcase your kind nature and you haven’t remarked upon my stoicism even once!”), or can see people feeling it’s too contrived and such things should happen spontaneously or just flow out of play. But i’m kind of curious what a game would be like if it was at the forefront of every game, if every thing in the game became a tool to make another character awesome.