Pick-up Party Play

My snazzy topic here comes directly from a reader comment here. Captain Poco wants to know how I’m doing with a constantly shifting player base in my Alder Gate campaign, especially as I haz girz in the group, too. So let’s look into those issues, then – there’s a lot of other things I could write about here (including a Story Games discussion I need to write backgrounds for, related to my experiences here).

Click for the whole episode

Click for the whole episode

After our campaign had spent a couple of sessions in the Roots of the Blood Alders, the third session turned towards the City itself, giving me an opportunity to expand upon the set-up and the strategic background of what the characters should be doing in the longer term. I’d originally envisioned the Alder Gate as something a group of concerted players could discover and deal with in 2-4 sessions, but after the third session it was obvious that with most of the players a bit green, and with the players changing a lot, we’d be doing this stuff a while longer. No problem as long as it’s interesting, and we will certainly be entertained for a while by the basic set-up described in the Grief of the Merchant Prince.

Pick-up Party

Our campaign is a bit special in that there is no permanent party of characters, per se. There even isn’t a party of players! I’ve tried to make this D&D campaign easy to play by making a point of enabling people to jump in or be left out on a session-by-session basis. Campaign continuity is still a major point of interest, though, so the game needs to be set up with strong, continuous development in more than just character statistics.

What makes this set-up possible in a D&D-like fantasy adventure game is the explicit decision to play have each “adventure” or expedition into danger explicitly last only one session. We simply play until the party has returned from the dungeon or wherever they’re adventuring, and end the session after that. We’ve yet to encounter a situation where this’d lead to a too long session, so I haven’t had to deal with what to do if an adventure is left unfinished. I would probably do some heavy-duty scene framing and continue play from the closest safe and free position, perhaps with surprising results. For example, if play were stopped in the middle of an expedition to the Blue Star Keep out in the wastes, the next session well might start with the characters as guests of the Blue Star wizards of the keep, with a short GM narration to explain how the characters ended up in this situation. After that we could do the normal set-up phases of our play routine.

Set-up? Our sessions generally speaking have three explicit phases:

  • The set-up phase is when each player chooses the character he plays this time and the players form a party for this session, and choose an adventure. These necessary tasks are played in-character with some lax GM scene framing. There’s a lot of freedom at this stage for simply making the retroactive choices that make forming a party most natural – player characters can bumb to each other by accident, they can buy each other from slavers if necessary, whatever is needed to prepare the party.
  • Adventure phase begins when we have a party and we know what they’re trying to do. This is the bulk of play, and has lots of GM interference in what the characters can do easily and what is more difficult.
  • After we wrap up the session’s adventure, there is a short consequences phase during which we make some character sheet upkeep and give the characters their rewards and punishments, or whatever consequences they’ve accrued during play. For example, I might state that a character who came out of the Wheel of Time start raving mad proves to be so permanently, which will require another adventure to cure him, or the character needs to be retired. Or the characters might get a reward from somebody, and perhaps even spend it somewhere.

So that’s basically simple, except for the set-up phase, which is pretty interesting: traditionally party-forming scenes in fantasy adventure games can be really awkward, so one might ask why we insist on doing that at the beginning of each session. I could just narrate how whoever the characters are, they’ve now all agreed to go to this dungeon together and start play from the entrance. This wouldn’t work for the Alder Gate campaign, however, as I want players to have a certain sort of in-fiction context for why their characters are doing whatever it is that they are doing: this character hired that character by promising him lots of money, this character owes his life to that one, this one has been poisoned and needs to work for this guy or die, this one has heard rumours of great arcane treasure here and want to find it… the set-up phase gives us all sorts of simple snippets that are crucial later, when the players have to make life-and-death decisions about what their characters are willing to risk. It would be pretty bland to make those decisions without a context for them.

The reason for why our party set-up is not clumsy, protracted and unnatural is that we only roleplay the minutiae to whatever degree they’re found interesting. In the last session, for example, we did spend an entire scene wherein the putative leader of the group talked a priest of Enkidu from a small chapel to join his venture, because we hadn’t had any cleric-type characters in the game before and were interested in giving the church some more color. Whenever players forget the common goal, which is to set the characters in motion as a party, I can just remind them to wrap the roleplaying and make some sort of deal. If the characters end up arguing about something substantive, such as who’s going to lead the venture, we can just resolve that with a simple ability check and continue the set-up.

The set-up phase also includes equipping the party and researching the target venture, so it’s not all free roleplaying between the players. These parts are basically all ability checks based on which the GM tells the players what sort of equipment or information they manage to uncover. Some strategy is evident now and then, but usually the tricky part is knowing what to ask for, rather than knowing how to procure it. If something crucial is not immediately available, then that’s an adventure in its own right.

(In practice our players have been pretty humble about equipment so far, mind. I think the only things we’ve had to roll for equipment-wise have been some rare herbs and such specialized equipment that might be difficult to find. Everything else has been a matter of course with the sort of patron they’ve been working for.)

Incidentally, one of the few ways the characters can gain experience points in my campaign is to take initiative in setting forth on adventure. In the party context this means that the leader of the party gets experience when the party goes into the dungeon. This straightforward reward for being active and useful in the set-up phase has been pretty good at getting the players moving, and sometimes even slightly competing, for the privilege of establishing an interesting enough adventure that the players can all agree to go to it.

Playing with Gurlz

Now, the other topic dear Captain wanted to hear about was playing with girls. One of my original reasons for choosing a challengeful fantasy adventure to play with the teenagers was that I figured it to be so simple that it’d be fine for everybody – and after I’d learned more about the preferences of the players we could choose games based on more than a guess.

In my earlier gaming experience I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t mechanics-wise when playing with beginners, which is one reason for my primitive D&D being such a sleek, simple model. Things like having to choose feats from a list are a complete no-no for the majority of newbie girls and many boys as well I’ve played with. So that part is well in hand, here – the rules-system I’m using provides simple instructions and, most significantly, immediate gratification at each step it requires.

I have quite a bit of experience in playing different rpgs with different sorts of people, but most of that has naturally been with roleplayers of one sort or another. Here I’m playing with teenagers who come from different backgrounds – the boys mostly have years of miniature games, computer games or MtG under their belts, while the girls have experience with different sorts of hobbies – music, comics, sports and such.

I’m not trying to sound sexist here, but my experience at this point is that, perhaps due to these differences in background, the boys are responding better to the sort of game environment we’re fostering in D&D here. This has to do with the performance-intensive nature of our play: while D&D allows players to marginalize themselves by being quiet and not doing anything, any sort of participation generally speaking will put the player to the spot, and all the more so because that’s basically my job in the game, to provide difficult conundrums of tactics and strategy for the players to mull over. So basically any time a player dares to be active, he or she is bashed with some choices to make and other attention – if she’s not enjoying that, it can be pretty stressful to play.

I emphasize that our enjoyment problems here are not caused by communication difficulties or misunderstanding of the rules – I think that we have that stuff well in hand. It’s just that the girls don’t seem to be enjoying the constant need to perform as much as the boys do. This isn’t even an outright problem with Creative Agenda – we’ve played several sessions of Zombie Cinema during this time as well, and while it’s perhaps more enjoyed than D&D due to how it’s clearer in it how the players are supposed to participate, it’s still basically a performance-based game that requires players to put up or shut up. The boys (me included) like that sort of thing, but perhaps it’s some sort of cultural gender thing that the girls don’t seem to prosper in this sort of environment.

(I’m writing a lot here about what the girls in the loose circle of teenagers I play with think and what they like – most of this is based on observation, but I did talk about this a couple of weeks ago with one of them after a pretty difficult session of Zombie Cinema.)

Overall my sense of play is that the girls are enjoying the imaginative aspects, the color and events of play when they unfold. It’s just that the way we participate in the game is intimidating, and I’m not entirely certain how this could be fixed – it’s pretty certain that it can’t be within the D&D framework, but even outside that, I have some trouble imagining a game that I’d like but which would also provide this no-pressure participation environment the girls would probably enjoy. This is clearly an interesting design challenge, to be sure – I’m sort of motivated to experiment on things for social reasons, as these girls clearly enjoy having a sensible social environment for interacting with their peers, and they clearly have vivid imaginations that will benefit from training and confidence if we can only figure out an environment where they enjoy play. It’s pretty heartbreaking that the girls find something like Zombie Cinema to be high-pressure as they worry about what others will think of their contribution and harbor other such concerns having to do with self-image and artistic experience.

Meanwhile, the boys are loving D&D and would play it every time we get together, so I have a bit of a conundrum in my hands here. Perhaps I’ll experiment with some games that frame player choices into easy and immersive interaction, such as Dread (the Jenga one… man, are we stuck differentiating between the two for the rest of eternity?) or Dead of Night. Or Best Friends, why not. Perhaps I’ll need to play some games with a girls-only set-up to give them more opportunities for taking the lead and developing their play skills without the boys getting in the way, too.


2 Responses to “Pick-up Party Play”

  1. Josh W Says:

    In our old Shadowrun campaign that initial setup was gold, apart from one person trying to assume narrative control over someone else’s character. Shadowrun, like D&D, is really suited to challenge based play, and fluid parties, but you generally have to do a little background wangling to get character motivations to line up.

    So how on earth do you do this while keeping everything in character? In our games the players switch back to their intonation and start talking to me, and say something like “How about I’m a friend of his brothers” and I relay it back, acting as some weird kind of switchboard to allow them to stay in character in their relationships with each other. Really random stuff! Especially if it starts re-contextualising the scene, which (never has) but perhaps could lead to retcon oscillations, but I tend to find we cancel them out by people vaguely stating that they’d prefer a different version.

    Performance anxiety is a tricky one. I’m not sure how to avoid it in a creative context; some people were scared by spore because the simplicity of creating stuff may highlight their “deficiencies”. I have one simple partial solution: Treat em like gold! When people feel valued anyway they have less to prove, and so loosen up, and can then provide all kinds of juicy stuff. There’s also stuff about body language, inviting vs confrontational, but how do you study it in a blog!?

  2. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Our solution to this coordination stuff has been to encourage players to take responsibility for themselves. I often say stuff like “I don’t care how you coordinate, let me know why this particular guy is the one you hire to go to the dungeon with you.” We don’t have immersion-related overhead in our play (that is, people immerse or not effortlessly and without making a big point of it), so players can just suggest stuff like familial relationships directly to each other as a part of the negotiation of situation set-up.

    As for performance anxiety, I am aware of the principle of acceptance, although I’m a bit bad now and then with following through on it. In general I try hard to accept the people, but I might get judgmental on their ideas and actions when I feel like it. I don’t think that this particularly bothers the players, who I have a pretty good working relationship with, but who knows.

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