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.