Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Fiascos, Fights, and Ill-advised sex: Player Scene Generation as Player Buy-in

A couple of years ago on the drive back from the incomparable Ambercon NW, Mike and I had a discussion about a game I could possibly run the next year. That game was based on a previous game by mike and focused around the creation of true meaningful relationships created by the players. The idea way that to start off the game we would have the players break off into explicit couples and come up with scenes they wanted to play through between each other. These scenes had prompts. For the ACNW game they were: 1. A scene where you fight each other and it comes to blows, 2. A scene where you defend the other to a family member, and 3. a scene that results in ill-advised sex.

I ended up running this game both for a Sunday session last summer and for ACNW. Both of these games went very well, but I never got to the final part of the adventure. After the scenes were played out, the couples were supposed to face a great challenge, and hopefully overcome it as a couple. In both previous runs, I was unable to get the players to the conclusion in time. (In the sunday session we didn't have enough time to explain Amber to a new player and also get through everything, in the ACNW game, my players didn't seem interested in that part of the adventure, so I abandoned it). So, for the retreat I decided to run "Both Alike in Dignity" once again.

For the retreat version of this game I changed the scenes (since one person had already played with these scenes), and Keith and I were able to come up with: 1. A scene where you convince the other to love you despite their hatred, 2. A scene where someone dies, 3. A scene that results in ill-advised sex. We kept ill-advised sex because the relationship doesn't feel solid until you have it, in my opinion. These scenes worked great and the two couples (Mike and Evelyn, Jesse and Carl) I think got some really excellent roleplaying done in their scenes. Best of all this time I was able to get everyone to the conclusion!

This game has worked really well everytime I've run it. It was certainly the best GM'ing I did at the retreat last week, and it was the best Ambercon game I've run as well. In thinking about this I figure that one of the big reasons for this is that I'm asking for direct player involvement from moment one in creating these relationships. I think of how many times I have tried to get a love interest going in a game (normally with an NPC), and it normally takes one of two forms: 1. the player ignores my hints, and nothing happens 2. the player desperately latches on to the hints, and it feels awkward and unfinished. Maybe all of that is me, but I think the reason these relationships work is that the players are responsible for making it happen.

Player Scenes as a method of generating buy-in for adventure ideas I think might be really cool. I have another idea for generating intense relationships in a family that I think might be very cool, and that I want to try at some point. I also think this shares a lot with the "stunt your failure" concept that Nikita introduced to our stunting group. Basically Nikita was the first GM to say "this is too hard, you cannot succeed, please stunt your failure to kill the dragon". While a little wierd the first time (since people are used to just succeeding all the time in persona), it has really grown on us all. It is a great GM tool (to be used sparingly, of course), but it really gets the players' buy-in and lets them feel cool while still failing (and lets them fail on their own terms). In much the same way, I feel that these relationship building scenes generate player buy-in and involvement, and are definitely a valuable tool I am adding to my GM toolbox.

Tomorrow I'm going to try to write about the cool new GM fighting technique I tried out at the retreat that Mike came up with for his Georgia Amber crew.


Mike said...

Another thought we discussed in the retreat was to generate a "plot outline" using a broad-swath system like polaris and then fill in the details with a more regular game.

What I like about this idea is that it has the same buy-in Ben mentions, but gives more player control over exactly what happens initially.

Before I actually give this a try I might want to figure out a way to build a "polaris style" interaction with slightly less brutal tragedy. Might be a bit depressing running through a campaign arc, knowing that everything you know and love will be inevitably destroyed.

Mike said...
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Anonymous said...


I remember you telling me about this game before, where you have players break off and discuss scenes ahead of time. What I can't remember are some of the nitty gritty details. Were the three scenes the whole game? How did the different couples interact with one another (if at all)? Was this part of a larger Amber game, or something else. I'd love to hear some more about the system details, and how you used it. I'm very intrigued.

Ben said...

Mike: As I mentioned at the retreat, I think this idea has a lot of merit. I think it is an extension of that technique you tried in the one jesus vs. devil cyberpunk game you ran were you explicitly asked us were we wanted the plot to go. Like you, I fear a system as antagonistic as polaris, since some people aren't as ready to go for their goals quite so hard.

I'm not sure that we need a really strong system to do this, maybe you could approach it as a simple brainstorming session either before the campaign or before each session.

Tim: In the full run of the game the scenes are not the entirity of the game, this is because I was very much looking for the couples to struggling against challenges together. That being said, my ACNW players were very content to just run through their scenes, which they had elaborately planned out ahead of time. I added various scenes sprinkled out through the game to break up their scenes, but nothing too large or intrusive.

Once the scenes are done, however, we moved back into a more standard GM-players setup. The richness of the relationship we had just created helped get everyone in the right mindset for the rest of the session. Also I was careful to continually test and reaffirm the relationship through the choices they made during combat and the other scenes (more on those techniques tonight, hopefully).

Anonymous said...


You say that the players had elaborately planned out their scenes ahead of time. Did that include conflict and conflict outcomes? If so, how did they engage with the game mechanics during play, if at all?

Anonymous said...


Mechanics-wise, it seems pretty free-form, and that's cool. Forget about my mechanics question.

The heart of my question is actually this: I'm having trouble differentiating what you're describing from full out pre-scripting (like in a movie or a play). I don't mean this as a criticism; I'm just having trouble reconciling what you're saying. On the one hand, you say that "the scene has been generated just minutes beforehand" -- which also seems to include some predetermined events and reactions (e.g., "I'll be really mad at you"). On the other, you say, "The scene isn't elaborately planned out." That makes my head tilt to the side and I say, "Huh?"

I've played with you before, and I know you like scenes to unfold as we go. So why would you want to pre-script the action? Perhaps this is where my disconnect is happening. I have a feeling I'm missing something.

Anonymous said...

Just to be clear, by the way, I think the general idea of player-generated scenes is a great one. As you say, it really drives up the investment by everyone.

Unknown said...

Hmm... So while the scene is planned, it definitely isn't scripted. The reason I say this is at least with these scenes, I normally encourage people to have plan for what is going to happen, but we actually roleplay out the scenes, and what gets said get said, and if the characters decide not to follow through with the plan due t the roleplaying in the scene that is fine. To give an example, several times during the ACNW version of this game one of the couples wouldn't complete the scene as intended. In that particular game, everyone was very much in character at all times, and after the scene we would say something like "But why didn't the plan happen?" and the players would be like "It didn't feel like my character would do that this time". And that was fine, great even, for that crew (I think a different iteration of this game might not be so receiptive, but that group was really into the thoughts/feelings of their characters). And even in the sessions that weren't so intensive, The players had a plan for what was to happen, but I as the GM and the other players (who would take on other NPC roles in these scenes) wouldn't necessarily know the plan, so we might have to adjust it on the fly.

It is true that we were pre-planned almost as much as possible without acutally scripting out the scene, that I would agree with you about :).

I think the reason this isn't a problem (for me at least) is the fact that you are still scrambling to come up with character actions and dialogue. Even though you know the general shape of the scene, you still have work to do to actually do the scene. So while the outcome is predetermined, there is still a lot of characterization to get into the play through of the scene. Additionally since the players are responsible for the implementation of the scene, it feels like they have agency at every level (I think, at least, keeping in mind that I've never played this style of game, only GMed).

Does that make more sense? (*crosses fingers that he hasn't confused the situation more!* :) )

Anonymous said...


That makes a lot of sense to me. It's sort of a weird concept, but it makes sense -- I understand how it worked.

I find the whole technique fascinating because I've gotten into a couple of debates concerning scene-framing and how much is too much planning. I'm very much in the camp that people should set the scene and then play out the action as it unfold (no "pre-narration"). People on the other side the debate feel more comfortable, or perhaps more engaged, when they plan it all out ahead of time and then sort of roleplay through the action. Your comment about how things can change during the roleplaying step, in spite of the plan, sort of opens my eyes as to how this sort of thing might work without resorting to a script.