Theater of the Mind: Parlay Issue – Bonus Content

Theater of the Mind Magazine and the Casting Shadows blog

I have been contributing to a new gaming magazine called Theater of the Mind for the past few months. The magazine, available in PDF and Print-on-Demand from DriveThru, grew out of the underlying community supporting the YouTube RPG Brigade. In keeping with the nature of that community, it focuses on reader submitted content. There have been five issues so far, each with its own theme (1. Premier Issue on Immersive Gaming, 2. Becoming Lost, 3. Unspeakable Horror, 4. Greed, 5. Parlay). You can take a look inside the print copies of Issues one through three >HERE<.

Issue 5: Parlay

This issue was initially intended to look at non-violent resolution of conflict in-game and around the table, but shifted by dint of contributor-bias, to focus almost completely on interactions out-of-game. I was pleased to be a part of a trio of contributors this month who took on a group project to look at those interactions in regard to responsibility and contribution to a roleplaying game. We divided these zones of control into three parts:

  1. the role of the player who will be the GM
  2. the role of the players who will not be the GM
  3. the overlapping areas between players and the GM

Brian Gregory handled the first article, Sameoldji (Jean-Francois St. Onge) handled the second, and I took on the third. This entry will provide some bonus content in the form of two examples of the three articles’ techniques in action.

Gaming in the Same Direction

The point of my article was suggested in its title, Gaming in the Same Direction. As one could expect when talking about negotiation and reaching peaceful accord between people, I felt the core idea to establish was that although RPGs allow each person to enjoy the experience in different ways than the other players without ruining that experience, there are areas of overlap where we all have to be pulling the same way in order to ensure that can happen.

The article itself is now available in the magazine, and in it you can read an overview of the ideas behind, and some specific suggestions for, getting everyone on the same page at the table.


An Example of Preparation: A Palaver of Purpose

Imagine that Gil has been running a Mage: the Ascension Chronicle for a few years and that it recently came to its dramatic conclusion. Gil asks for feedback on the game after it is over, and the group discusses the different game and campaign ideas which they have been thinking about as they approached the end of the Chronicle. As a group they have really been enjoying narrating their own magickal effects so they don’t want to give that up, but while everyone wants to try out a new game, some want to try a new genre as well. Their discussion leads them to Shadowrun, which they see as a compromise which lets them mix the genre interests they have expressed. Another thing that they all agree on is that they want to lighten up on the way they have been conducting in-character and out-of-character dialogue. For the last year they have been doing all IC talk in the first person, and all OoC talk in the third person. It has had its benefits, but no one in the group wants to be held to a strict rule anymore.

Gil has been the GM for a few years straight and usually introduces new games to the group, but he really wants to play, so he offers to be an alternate GM, or to share GMing duties, but he lets the group know that his preference this time is to play. Brad has been itching to get into Shadowrun for a while, so he offers to run the game. Paul is interested in trying the game, but he isn’t sure that it will be something he will want to do for the long-term, so he suggests that the game run for a trial period of a few months, and then the group could discuss if they want to continue or shift to something else. The parlay has begun in earnest.

The others in the group are fine with these suggestions so the group is ready to move on, and Doug turns the conversation to how the game will work. The group has a regular game night and location so, as there are no changes desired by anyone in regard to logistics, the discussion of what will be the group’s new, unwritten, social contract ends with the establishment of the responsibilities over narrative and system for each of them.

Brad hasn’t been the GM for a large group or a game like Shadowrun for a long time. He explains that the game is very deep with a lot of rich setting material and a variety of mechanical options for the different skills and abilities the characters might have. In order to have the game go smoothly, he requests that everyone be willing to learn the basic rules of the game before play starts, and that each player become well-acquainted with the rules and mechanics surrounding and supporting their character choice.

Doug and Gil want to do some playtests with the Matrix and Astral Projection rules before the campaign starts, but everyone agrees to understand their character abilities and the mechanics required for them by the time the trial period campaign starts. Gil offers to make cheat sheets for everyone which draws a few sighs of relief from the group.

Rhys has been quiet through most of this, but comes to life as the palaver turns to the last item which needs to be nailed down, narrative responsibilities. In Gil’s Mage game, the freedom to describe their spell effects, how they were being performed, and what the results looked like was a real highlight of play. It was hard for them at first, but as time passed, even the quieter players like Rhys had come to enjoy adding to the vibrancy of the world and establishing deeper roots for their characters in the imaginations of the others. He and Doug propose extending that narrative role to everything the characters do. The GM would set the scene and then the players would take it over and inhabit it. As new details are uncovered the GM (Brad) would weave them in for the players to use and explore.

Doug also adds that although Shadowrun has a lot of opportunity and mechanical support for action, that it would be nice to keep the strong dramatic elements of the last game in place, so that the sessions can focus as much on character development and motivations as it does on making tense runs against evil corporations.

The group talks a bit longer on how to handle things like mysteries, perception checks, and details which affect a character but are not known to them directly (such as slow poison, or malfunctioning cyberware) but on review, agree to the following:

  • Game night, time, and place do not change
  • If someone must be absent, their character will be shunted from play if realistic, or run by committee if not
  • New Game: Shadowrun, Brad as GM
  • Character creation complete in 2 weeks, campaign to start in 3 weeks
  • All players responsible for the rules and mechanics relating to their character within 1 month
  • Gil will make cheat sheets for everyone and deliver them in 3 weeks
  • The game will run for a trial period of 6 months, then be reviewed
  • Players will be responsible for all narration relating to what their characters think, feel, say, and do as well as the appearance of those things in action
  • Players will be responsible for some key NPC roles, such as the contacts and allies of another player
  • Narration in a mix of first and third person will be fine for this game
  • Out of game jokes and references are to be avoided
  • The GM will be responsible for all narration relating to the NPCs and the world at large
  • Runs are to focus on a mix of tempting but dangerous ‘for profit’ jobs, and runs against a specific Corp the group can love to hate.

While this seems like a long list of rules, the conversation itself and the only items which have long-lasting effect are the standard rules of politeness about the game’s logistics, and the agreement to expand the narrative space of the players to cover description of everything their characters do. Elapsed time? Less than an hour – including Brad’s pitch for Shadowrun.

One of the techniques clearly demonstrated in our articles, and in this example of a gaming group getting ready for their next game is referred to as ‘a social contract.’ As long-time readers of this blog may remember, I don’t think very highly of making formalized, written contracts – even among groups who do not know each other well. Instead, I hold to the idea of expecting adults to behave like adults in both explaining the culture of play the group has, and in adhering to it. Of course, for many, that is all a social contract is. I fully expect your mileage may vary on the issue of how to approach this idea of having clear guidelines for your games, and how to implement them. In this article, the term ‘social contract’ is used for the sake of brevity, not to indicate you and your group need to sit down with a legal pad and start in on line after line of rules and bylaws to legislate your fun.

An Example of Play: Narrating a Scene

Doug’s character has over-extended himself casting spells and is barely conscious. The group has gotten pinned down in an alley by Corp Security forces and their extraction team is late and not answering his commlink. Rhys’ character has never trusted the Rigger the group hired to handle their extractions. This is not the extraction point they intended to use, and they did not scout it when planning the mission.

Brad: “Smoke and tear gas is rolling toward you and suppression fire is tearing up the concrete and ceramic wall coverings of the buildings behind and to the sides of you. The dumpsters in the alley offer some protection from small arms fire, but the heavier weapons some of the CorpSec guys have will cut through them like a laser through tofu.”  [Brad does not specify what is in the alley exactly, nor how many dumpsters there are] As this is the start of a combat scene, the players all roll initiative without being asked and tell Brad their results one by one after his description ends. Brad makes notes on his dry erase board for everyone to see as the players take over the narration.

Rhys: “Drek! I knew that guy would let us down!”   I whisper just loud enough for the rest to hear me, and I try to pull Randall (Doug’s Shaman) to the left side of the alley, behind a middle dumpster with me. I really have to put my back into it because he is so much heavier than he used to be [referencing that Doug has sunk a lot of time and XP into Randall’s obsession with body building].

Doug: “I’m going to be sick… don’t move me!” [Imagining the effects Drain might have, such as dizziness]

Gil: I reach out and grab Randall’s feet to help Rhys [Gil always forgets character names] roll him behind the dumpster.

Brad: [Rolls dice and smiles and looks at Gil] The pavement cracks as a bullet hole digs itself straight down next to Randall’s left foot. You snatch your hands awa…. Sorry – go on [forgetting for a second that Gil is responsible for narration about his character]

Gil: “Whoa! Sniper!” I roll to the right, behind the dumpster there, forgetting about the shaman. [As Brad did not describe the sound of the shot and the trajectory was from above, Gil feels free to draw conclusions that there is a sniper in an elevated position from the information given. He also inserts the detail that as there are multiple dumpsters known to be in the alley, they are lined up on both sides – as is reasonable.]

Doug: Cannot help himself and makes a joking response to Gil. [breaks into song] ‘Don’t you… forget about me,’ then remembers that they had agreed to stay in-character as much as possible and shifts to saying, “I do my best to roll to my left, when I feel hands pulling me. I cannot do much else and my face shows my disorientation and nausea. The heavy sound of my long, armored coat dragging across the grit and filth on the pavement is almost lost in the bursts of gunfire echoing all around us.”

Brad: “Suddenly, the smoke and grit in the alley are whipped into a frenzy as the shadow of the Rigger’s Hughes Stallion darkens your position as the rotorcraft slows to a stop just above the jagged edges of the buildings. The sound of small arms fire pauses for a second as it roars into view, and the suppression fire stutters to a halt.

Rhys: “I don’t believe it.” I try to keep myself from gawking at the sky like those CorpSec idiots and instead, take out my last grenade to toss at them.

Gil: Squatting behind the dumpster, I am looking up, scanning the windows for any sign of the sniper. “He’s going to get himself killed!” I hiss to myself as I think about flaming bits of copter raining down on us any second now.

Doug: “Help me up!” I groan as I roll up against the wall and feel around inside my coat for my holster.

Brad: Your commlink beeps and the pain-filled voice of Addison [the rigger] grits between clenched teeth, “You coming?!”

Rhys: “What are we supposed to do, Addison?! Fly?” I snap into my commlink as I toss the grenade at the CorpSec position. [rolls dice and shares the results]

[No mention of a way to go from ground level to the rooftop where they might be able to enter the rotorcraft has been introduced by the GM or yet assumed by the players. As it is reasonable to assume the GM would mention the lowering of a chain ladder or some other copter-borne climbing aid, the absence of description can safely be interpreted as meaning there is no such aid being lowered. Rhys, by asking a question his character would in such a situation, has introduced the concept of searching for a way up without having to drop into an OoC question to the GM. As Rhys’ character is occupied tossing a grenade it falls to one of the other characters (including the GM) to offer a suggestion, or to introduce an element into the scene, such as the outline of a fire-escape just visible in all the smoke.]

It can be very difficult to talk about narration, particularly when the gaming experience and backgrounds of those having the discussion differ radically. This example was provided to clarify what interactions between the different zones of narrative control might involve during a scene, and how to put the concept into actual practice. While at first, any new technique may be awkward for a period of time, it is good to remember that all new things take time to learn. Whether that be a new system, a new edition, a new gaming style, or an attempt to alter the way you speak around the table, time will be needed to turn that from conscious effort to simple action. There is no harm in trying something new; we can always revert to the tried and true. I would like to close with the idea that our first roleplaying games and the experiences we had in those early days were, for most long-term gamers, magical ones. We were learning something entirely new then, and we were not good at it. We stuck to it, and we got better and better.

This is no different.

If you have not yet checked out Theater of the Mind, I hope you will consider doing so, not just as a reader, but as a contributor. Ideally, the magazine will embody the principles discussed in this issue and become a meeting place for discussion and sharing of its readership’s interests and techniques, so that we might all enjoy better and better gaming.

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