Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Technique: It's All About Teamwork

Thanks to everyone that participated in the profiling thread. The results are great.

In particular, I was interested in the responses to the final question, "Name one thing your group does that you think could help others make their gaming better."

Many of you responded along the same lines: We communicate with each other, we listen to each other, we work together, etc.

To me, all of it boils down to the foundation of a good role-playing experience. My last Technique post discussed listening, which is the first part of the foundation. The remainder is teamwork.

Ron Edwards likens the act of role-playing to playing music in a band. And that's a very fit analogy, especially if we're talking about something like a jazz band, where we riff off one another and everyone gets the opportunity to solo and shine.

Maybe the idea of a role-playing group as a sports team speaks to you better. Regardless of which analogy we use, teamwork remains at the core.

Role-playing as we're talking about it here is not and cannot be a solo activity. In order to have the best experience we can, we need to interact with the other players. Further, we need them to buy into our contributions to the game.

There are a myriad of ways in which a group may decide which of our contributions it will buy into and which it will discard. In fact, that’s precisely what a role-playing system is: It’s a method for determining which contributions will be accepted by the group. But that’s outside the scope of what we’re here to talk about.

So the first step to playing a game together is really listening to what the fellow members of our group are contributing. And to be clear, I’m using the word listening, but it’s really all forms of communication: A combination of hearing, seeing and even intuiting the contributions of our fellows, depending on the cues available. And even more than that, it’s about recognizing when we are not clearly understanding the contributions of the other members of the group—when we don’t understand the intent behind an action or the reason they’re asking whether there’s a fire pit in the room—and then requesting clarification.

The better we get to know our fellow players, their styles and their techniques, the better we’ll be able to navigate the communication of contributions, to “get on the same wavelength.”

So far, this has all been a refresher on the listening post. But to really kick ass in play, cultivating effective communication is not enough. It’s just the first step. The next step is to use that information, to put it in action.

To describe how this works, I want to first briefly return to our analogy, using sports this time. In basketball, there’s a tactic called an offensive pick and roll, also known as a screen. A pick occurs when an offensive player attempts to block, or “screen,” a defensive player away from the man he is guarding, thereby freeing up the player who was being guarded for an open shot or pass. A similar tactic is used in ice hockey, where an offensive player will attempt to use his body and that of the defender guarding him to obstruct, or “screen” the view of the goalie, allowing a fellow player to take a shot the goalie can’t see. That’s teamwork. It’s creating opportunities for action on the court that would not be possible by a single player—no matter how talented—working alone.

So what’s the equivalent in role-playing games? It’s using your contributions to send the action of the game hurtling in the direction that a fellow player desires, allowing him or her to pick up the scene and run with it. It’s recognizing the potential for a conflict that a fellow player has clearly been aiming toward, using your contributions to push for that conflict, and then stepping back to let your fellow player take the leading role. It’s also recognizing when a fellow player is setting things up for you, and then stepping up to the action without fear. It’s recognizing when another player has been idling in the background and helping to shift the spotlight to that player’s character.

These are the sorts of things a good GM is often expected to do. But the fact is that everyone at the table needs to work at it to kick a game into overdrive.

Here’s an example from a recent game:
We’re playing a Burning Wheel game inspired by Earthsea. Drozdal is playing a wizard who is intent on learning the secrets and lore of the Tsaivar, a strange people that have been raiding our lands and helping to make our lives miserable. Luke, Alexander and I each have characters that are interested in protecting our people from the Tsaivar threat and the crushing tribute they exact from us, but have no interest in getting to know these people or travel to their lands. And yet, Dro’s character is all about that.

Recognizing this, we made a concerted effort to help Dro achieve this arc of his character’s story. Mayuran, as the GM, set a scene in which Alexander’s character had an opportunity to actually talk to a Tsaivar captain who had previously tried to kill us. And Alexander, recognizing the opportunity for Dro, stepped up. He confronted the captain in a Duel of Wits and together they generated a reason for us to make an incredibly dangerous journey to the Tsaivar lands. It was then up to Luke and I to find motivations for our characters to go along. We pulled together to make it happen.

Another example:
Luke’s character, from the same game, is a coward. But Luke has clearly been aiming for an arc in which his character becomes a fearsome warrior and leader of men. And yet, my character is the one who is taking that role at present. In our most recent session, we got into a fight with some eunuch cultists in a narrow tunnel. My character, being the brave hero, stepped to the front and attempted to fight the cultists one-on-one. Luke was very clear that his character was behind mine, hoping that my character would take care of the danger. Almost immediately, my character was stabbed and badly wounded. I failed a Steel test and had to Hesitate. I had a number of options, but knowing Luke’s character was behind mine, I decided to throw the ball to Luke by running and screaming. Now Luke had a choice: He could either have his cowardly character run after me, or he could step up to an incredibly dangerous situation and attempt to save my character’s life. He did step up, and thus took one of the first steps toward fulfilling his character’s arc.

Making this sort of thing work is not easy. It requires good listening, as well as a sense of drama, tension, narrative flow and pacing. Fortunately, they’re all skills. You can get better at them by working on it and practicing. In fact, that’s what these Technique posts are all about.

At the same time, it’s important to note that everyone has off days. Some nights, musicians and athletes aren’t at their best. The same is true of role-players. But the more we work at it, the more good nights we’ll have.

Here are a few core concepts to keep in mind:
  • Motivation. It’s always possible to find a reason that a character will go along, no matter what “my character would do.” If you’re having trouble, ask the rest of the group to help you, but find a way to play ball.
  • Spotlight. Who’s done the most talking, the most rolling, during the session and who’s done the least? Recognize it and find a way to put the spotlight on the player who’s done the least. There’s no bench warming in role-playing.
  • Pass. Is there another player whose character is more angled to take on the current conflict than yours? Be gracious and let them have a chance before you step up.
  • Shoot. Is the present conflict what your character is all about? Then don’t hide in your shell and don’t hang back. Step up and engage! Fear lost opportunities more than failure!

So tell me more about your group’s teamwork! Give me examples of which you’re proud! Also, if you have more core concepts to add to the list, please share! And questions and other comments are welcome too, of course.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Back from Alaska

Nothing role-playing related today. Just wanted to report that I've returned from my trip to Alaska. That's me above, with Denali (Mt. McKinley) in the background. I'm on the road to Talkeetna, and will shortly take a flight to Denali and land on one of its glaciers.

And that's the plane, of course. It was a truly incredible trip. And I now have a deep appreciation for what -30 degrees Fahrenheit (-34.4 degrees to you metric folks) feels like.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Technique: The Art of Listening

Role-playing games are social games. It is by talking to each othersharing our imagined contentthat we establish the environment of the game.

Anything that is not shared, obviously, does not become part of the collective experience of the game. That doesn't mean that things you keep to yourself aren't important, or that they don't contribute to how you portray or even feel about your character. But unless you share what your character is feeling or thinking, others in the group can't pick up on it and act upon it. Nor are they going to be able to fully appreciate your character's actions taken as a result of those feelings or thoughts.

All that is a roundabout way of getting to what I consider to be the most essential, foundational skill in role-playing: listening. And yes, you're right. That's not such a deep observation. But sometimes it's helpful to review the fundamentals. In fact, I'm bringing this subject up because I needed the review.

What gets your fellow players jazzed about their characters? What sorts of conflict or bits of setting or color get them excited? What sorts of situations get the GM to turn it up to 11? Also, what sorts of things make your fellow players tune out? Being aware of these things is the first step toward helping your group achieve amazing play consistently.

Whether you're a GM or one of the other players, do your best to focus on the other people at the table and what gets them excited. If you can keep a running tally in your head, great. If not, make a note of it. I find that I need to make notes if there are more than four players other than myself.

Use those notes as you play. When it's your turn to do something, try to ensure that your actions activate the interests of at least one other person in your notes (or your running mental tally). And, of course, do your best to avoid actions that will cause others to tune out.

Simple, right? If you've got any tips or tricks to aid this process, please share!

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

A Return to Action and Profiling

Welcome back. It’s been a while. With my life slightly less hectic now that my company’s office has moved—following a nearly 10-month acquisition and integration process—I’ve decided to revisit the Well and see if anyone’s still stopping by.

I’m hoping to get up a few things on some new topics in the next few days. In the meantime, assuming anyone is still stopping by, I’d like to do a little profiling to talk about what we’re playing and how our experiences are going.

Here are the questions:
  1. What’s your name?
  2. Where in the world are you?
  3. What have you played recently? With whom did you play and where?
  4. What’s been your best gaming experience recently? Why?
  5. What’s been your most problematic or least satisfying gaming experience recently? Why?
  6. What gaming are you looking forward to in the near future?
  7. Name one thing your group does that you think could help others make their gaming better.

And naturally, I’ll start.
1. What’s your name?
Thor Olavsrud

2. Where in the world are you?
New York City

3. What have you played recently? With whom did you play and where?
This is gonna be a long one! In the interest of some brevity, I’m going to leave out Dreamation last month, though I’ll note that I played in Judd’s 1st Quest wolves game, Mike Miller’s Mutant Academy scenario for his excellent game, With Great Power, a playtest of Kevin Allen jr.’s work-in-progress, Sweet Agatha, and John Wick’s Wilderness of Mirrors.

So here we go:
The Monday group has continued its extremely fun Burning THAC0 game, a Burning Wheel game that consciously seeks to embrace all the wonderful tropes of the original Dungeons & Dragons game. For nostalgia’s sake, the game is set in Mystara, in the Grand Duchy of Karameikos. Our characters have just returned from an expedition to the Isle of Dread, and I have managed to make the grandmaster of villainy, Bargle the Infamous, my wizard’s nemesis. All I can say is, “Die Bargle, Die!”

This group’s core consists of Anthony (the GM), Rich, Pete and myself. Luke has recently become a regular member, and Jared now makes cameos when he’s in town. We play in a conference room of our local Public Television affiliate, Thirteen, which Pete works for.

The Thursday group has been experimenting with Weapons of the Gods, which we’ve been quite excited about. We may get back to it in the near future, but we have some other games on the agenda first. We played a wonderful session of Dogs in the Vineyard last Thursday. It’s been more than a year since half of us played Vincent’s little gem, but it still produces consistently wonderful experiences. My Dog is perched on the precipice between being a force for good and becoming a cult leader and sorcerer himself.

This group’s core consists of John, Drozdal, Mayuran, Alexander and myself. Jon has made a cameo in the past and is more than welcome to return at anytime. Alexander has been out the past month or so dealing with visa issues, but that’s resolved now and he should be back soon. We play in the conference room of Nettwerk Music Group, which John works for.

The Sunday group has taken a break from its usual Earthsea-inspired Burning Wheel game (which Mayuran GMs) while Alexander has been out, so instead we’ve done a short Burning Wolves campaign, using the Great Wolves lifepaths from Burning Wheel’s Monster Burner. Our pack of Spirit Hunter wolves had to deal with the encroachment of the mad forest god as he sought to conquer the god of the mountain. We had numerous tussles with fox god, bear god, moose god, night god and fire god, as well as confrontations with other Great Wolf packs and ravens. Let me tell you, entering a Duel of Wits with a mountain is a scary proposition! This game came to a conclusion on Sunday, with four of the six player characters killed in the godswar. We all found ourselves interested in pursuing another game in the world.

This group’s core consists of Mayuran, Drozdal, Alexander, Luke and myself. With Alexander out, the roster for the Wolves game was actually Mayuran, Drozdal, Luke (as the GM), Danny, Chris, Rich and myself. We play at Game Headquarters, in Luke’s room.

4. What’s been your best gaming experience recently? Why?
It’s my poll, so I’ll cheat a little bit and list two.

First up is the entirety of the Burning THAC0 experience, rather than a specific thing. Burning THAC0 gaming has a lower intensity than most of my other gaming. It is intended to be a fun, casual romp, with lots of nostalgic references to old D&D experiences. We unabashedly game situations, make off-topic pop culture jokes, and kill things and take their stuff. Our teamwork is fun. There’s a lot to be said for the beer-and-pretzels experience.

Second up is the setting we created for the Burning Wolves game. When we sat down to burn our characters, Luke grabbed an Ilocano-English dictionary to use. We named our characters from it. We also named our relationships and our territories from it. When new NPCs (usually gods) were brought in with Circles, we named them with it. Luke drew a little map of our territories with all the names on it. Horut the Mountain towered over our territory, Daga. Balat the Forest sent his trees and grasses to war against Daga. Karayan the River brought us water to quench our thirst, and was in turn the child of Horut and Yelo the Ice. Aguma the Maker, with his lantern and axe, was allied with Balat, or was he? Agradam the Night made us shiver with terror, while Soro the Fox tricked us over and over and Manaketa the Bear gave us no end of trouble. Bukig the Moose bade us hide from our troubles. Our pups, Uken, Bato and Tiniteg gave us hope. Fellow great wolves Immalsa, Nasaglat, Cayanga, Abaken, Bison, etc., were our rivals and mates.

As these names grew around the things we created, the world really took shape in our imaginations. These places and characters grew organically over the course of the six sessions of the game and really gave the place a unique flavor and character.

5. What’s been your most problematic or least satisfying gaming experience recently? Why?
Interestingly enough, the Burning Wolves game is also my answer for this one and I’ve been struggling to answer why for several weeks. I think it comes down to this: I really cared about the subject of the game. I’m fascinated by wolves: their biology and physiology, their behavior, their pack structure and hierarchy, their hunting strategies, their ability to communicate with each other, etc.

I think it all stems from an account in Barry Lopez’s book, Of Wolves and Men, in which he relates how the pack he followed fed an elderly female that was no longer capable of hunting. Lopez noted the possibility that she had some sort of knowledge that was useful to the pack, and which justified their efforts to feed her. That always resonated with me.

I really wanted to see that stuff take shape in a game, and I pushed for this game. But gaming is a cooperative endeavor, and it’s not realistic to assume that everyone in your group is going to care about the things that you care about to the same degree. I wanted a game that really focused on stuff like pack mentality, pack community, and the communal effort to survive and raise pups. I noted that I wasn’t interested in seeing the game turn into “Man vs. Nature,” with “good” wolves trying to defend pristine Nature against “evil” men. I wasn’t interested in anthropomorphizing these creatures; I wanted them to feel like real wolves.

But there were six other people at the table with me, and they all had their own ideas. That’s fine. In fact, that’s how it should be. But because I really cared about that stuff, I was unwilling to give very much ground in those areas during play, even when it became clear that the rest of the players didn’t really care.

Gaming will never be satisfying if you’re not willing to give ground and allow other people to change your vision. In the end, the problem with the game and the reason it was unsatisfying was me. I was too attached to the subject matter.

6. What gaming are you looking forward to in the near future?
I’m looking forward to a number of games. Starting Wednesday, our friend Bob comes to town for a week from Boston. Between Wednesday and Sunday, we are going to burn a world and characters in Burning Empires and play through an entire phase. We’ll World Burn and Character Burn on Wednesday, play sessions Thursday night and Friday night, and marathon sessions on Saturday and Sunday. I expect it will be grueling! But also fun!

On Friday, the Gotham Gaming Guild returns, and we’ll set the stage for a 6-session run of a Burning Wheel game about Ronin from Hell. I hope to play a Yamabushi spirit-binder aiming to send the demons back where they came from. It should be a blast.

After I return from a trip to Alaska next week, the Thursday group is going to take Ralph Mazza’s work-in-progress, Robots & Rapiers, out for a spin!

7. Name one thing your group does that you think could help others make their gaming better.
It’s all about naming. See my answer to question 4, as well as Technique: The Magic of Yevaud’s Name.

Ok. That’s me. What about you?

Friday, September 22, 2006

Technique: The Magic of Yevaud's Name

"You are a very young wizard," the dragon said, "I did not know men came so young into their power." He spoke, as did Ged, in the Old Speech, for that is the tongue of dragons still. Although the use of the Old Speech binds a man to truth, this is not so with dragons. It is their own language, and they can lie in it, twisting the true words to false ends. . . "Is it to ask my help that you have come here, little wizard?"

"No dragon."

"Yet I could help you. You will need help soon, against that which hunts you in the dark . . . What is it that hunts you? Name it to me."

"If I could name it -- " Ged stopped himself. . . .

"If you could name it you could master it, maybe, little wizard . . . Would you like to know its name?". . . .

"But I did not come here to play, or to be played with. I came to strike a bargain with you."

Like a sword in sharpness but five times the length of any sword, the point of the dragon's tail arched up scorpion-wise over his mailed back, above the tower. Dryly, he spoke: "I strike no bargains. I take. What have you to offer that I cannot take from you when I like?"

"Safety. Your safety. Swear that you will never fly eastward of Pendor, and I will swear to leave you unharmed. . .

A grating sound came from the dragon's throat . . . "You offer me safety! You threaten me! With what?"

"With your name, Yevaud."

Ged's voice shook as he spoke the name, yet he spoke it clear and loud. At the sound of it, the old dragon held still, utterly still.

[Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea]

Ms. Le Guin is a very wise lady. Names ARE magical. And they are potent, potent tools in the hands of role-playing gamers.

When you name something in a role-playing game, whether a character, a house or inn, a city, or a sword, you make it just a little more real, more substantial, to everyone else. A sword found in a tomb? Big deal. The Sword of Seven Shadows found in the tomb of Aras-Ekbar? That's something special.

When you introduce something new to the shared fiction you are creating with your group, name it! It will create a connection between the others at the table (and yourself!) and the fictional element.

You can do some pretty neat tricks if you get creative with your naming. For instance, you can assign different earthly languages to cultures in a fantasy game. One group that I'm currently playing in keeps a Mongolian to English dictionary at the table. Any time we need a name for a character or a ship or an island, we dive into the dictionary and pull one out.

Assigning different cultures to different languages creates auditory differentiation between the two cultures in a recognizable but pleasingly subtle way.

Or I go to Chris Pound's Name Generation page, or the super cool Random Name Generator (which uses US Census data), to generate pages of names that I bring to the game table. Whenever a name is needed, I grab it off the list, making a quick note next to the game about who or what is getting named.

When you have a list of named characters generated from the technique, you can perform a version of a more advanced technique that the Durham 3 have been talking about quite a bit lately: reincorporation.

When you want to bring in a character, run down your list and see if anyone of the characters you've previously introduced would suit the role. If so, bring the character back and reincorporate it into the fiction. The other players will love you for it!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Technique: The Language of Gesture

A core strength of our hobby is the fact that we sit face to face with each other and can interact on that primal human level (I apologize for leaving out those of you who play online, but this technique is purely for face-to-face play). That simple fact opens a whole range of rich communication options that are not available to us otherwise. I mean, of course, kinesics, or body language.

You can give your play a little extra punch and color by using body language selectively to emphasize a feeling at the table and add spice to interactions between characters, particularly if your play style tends toward first person, "in character" portrayal. The technique is a bit less useful for players who tend to guide their characters' actions and interactions in the third person, though it can still be used to great effect in certain instances. You can get by with just a handful of simple gestures and postures, though players who are really interested in portrayal may want to do more. But really, the most important thing is to make an effort to stay more aware of your own body language and that of the other players in the room with you.

So what can you do with body language? I suggest selecting a gesture/posture or two that corresponds to a particular character, based on the role the character is playing. It will make the character stand out and provide cues to everyone else about the character. Choose the number of gestures/postures based on how important the character is. Simple walk-ons should only have one. Important antagonists will probably have a few postures and gestures that stand out, while the protagonists will probably use many. If you play multiple characters in the course of a session, a list of gestures/postures and the attitudes they convey could be a handy resource.

For instance, you can signal your character's respect and liking for another character through the use of Angular Distance. In general, people square up, address and aim their upper bodies at people they like, admire and agree with. Conversely, people tend to angle their torsos away from people they dislike or disagree with.

Angular distance can be used to reinforce a message of animosity when a character is dealing with an enemy. You can also use it more subtly. For instance, perhaps you are portraying a character that is supposedly friendly or an ally, but is in reality working to betray a character with whom he is interacting. Angular distance can be used to telegraph the coming betrayal.

If you wish to communicate that a character expresses dominance, superiority, confidence or haughtiness, you can use Antigravity Signs. Use palm-down gestures when speaking to signal authority, and square your shoulders, lift your face and chin, and otherwise raise yourself up to indicate that you mean business. Tilting your head back by lifting your chin and leaning backward to look down your nose is an example of an antigravity sign that can be used to signal superiority, arrogance and disdain.

Crossed Arms can indicate a number of things. If you hold your arms and elbows close to your body, it can indicate nervousness and defensiveness. On the other hand, if you hold your arms and elbows less tightly to your body, with the elbows slightly elevated and pointing outward, it can indicate a guard-like stance, suggesting arrogance, dislike or disagreement.

A Hand Behind the Head, including grasping or scratching the ear, or touching the side of the face or neck, can indicate uncertainty, conflict, disagreement, frustration, anger, or dislike. It can also telegraph unresolved issues that need to be verbalized and explored. In fact, the hand behind the head gesture is an example of a Probing Point. Other examples include pursing your lips, shrugging your shoulders, clearing your throat or bobbing your adam's apple (assuming you have one, of course). Probing points signal that a word or phrase has touched a nerve, and represent a strategic opportunity to search between spoken comments. If you want to telegraph that a character has unvoiced agendas, unrevealed attitudes or hidden uncertainties, a probing point can do the trick.

A Gaze Down, either by looking downward with the eyes or tilting the whole head downward, can be used to convey defeat, guilt, shame or submissiveness, while a Head Tilt to the Side can be used to indicate friendliness, rapport, coyness (as in courtship), or submission.

There are obviously many other signs as well. The Non-Verbal Dictionary can serve as a quick and ready source, and you can find other examples here.

Use this technique sparingly, like a spice, and don't get too caught up in it. Afterall, paying attention to the others at the table and what they're saying should be your number one priority. But a little non-verbal communication can really help everyone get into the mood of what's happening at the table.

This technique was inspired by Keith Sen(k)owski, creator of the role-playing games Conspiracy of Shadows and untitled.

If you have an idea for a technique you'd like me to share, write me at

Friday, September 15, 2006

Technique: Jared's Rule of Three

In Jared A. Sorensen's award-winning game octaNe: premium uNleaded, the psychotronic game of post-modern trash-culture america, there is a gem of technique hidden among the sprawling mass of sheer coolness that comprises the game.

Jared calls it 'Detailing.' I call it Jared's Rule of Three. In octaNe, Jared writes:

When describing how your character looks, here's a trick: only write down three details. Nobody really cares about your character's exact height and weight or the color of his eyes. C'mon, really. What you should describe are the things that really stand out:
  • Wears a raggedy tuxedo and horn-rimmed glasses. Carries a fender guitar.

  • Dresses in dusty leathers and wears a jury-rigged brace on his leg. Has a sawed-off shotgun slung on his back.

  • Huge dude wearing wrestling boots and a red leather mask decorated with orange and yellow flames.

  • Has a tattoo of dice on his neck that says "Born to Lose." Wears a cowboy hat and a big gold chain.

  • Small monkey wearing an orange sash and carrying a small stick.

  • Hot chick with spiked heels. She's wearing a tight black cat suit that's unzipped to her navel.

  • Bipedal gila monster. He's wearing off-the-shoulder overalls, and he's chewing a toothpick.

So here's an official rule: You can only describe three distinct details about your character's appearance.

Extrapolating a bit, Jared's Rule of Three can be a powerful tool in our arsenal for bringing more color into our games. And a comforting one too. You don't need long descriptions laden with carefully-selected adjectives to inject a serious dose of color into your games. In fact, that would be counterproductive, in my experience. The more someone drones on and on about details, the more likely others are to tune out and grow bored.

Details are like salt. A touch releases flavor. Too much makes the entire dish unpalatable or even inedible.

Instead, take some inspiration from Jared's Rule of Three. But don't confine it to characters. If you have the opportunity to describe something, give it one to three short, succinct details that make it stand out. Use the technique for characters, locations, objects, or anything else that you want to introduce into the narrative fiction that you and your friends are creating. Have trouble coming up with details on the fly? Keep a list of cool adjectives/descriptors on a notepad, and cross them off when you've used them.

Try it. Your game will start dripping with cool.

If you have an idea for a technique you'd like me to share, write me at