Understanding our players and their time.

edited May 2016 in Story Games
So there's been some talk of playtesting and game length and that got me thinking.

Unlike some of the examples in this Extra Credits episode (props to the Extra Credits team for their oft-applicable insights into design) which talks about how video games can offer differing lengths of satisfying play sessions depending on player needs, TTRPGs typically require 1.5 - 4 hours and involve coordinating real people to the table - even if that table is virtual - and, if you're playing a campaign, they'll probably want to meet at least once a month.

Given those requirements - and feel free to challenge those - how can we as designers encourage, reward and enable players to coordinate and come together to play?

I've seen lots of games trust to the GM to be the social keystone and game-activator but not give them much support. In an ideal world, how could a game encourage and enable you as a GM/player to gather your friends and keep them coming back week after week?

Comments

  • A very good question, that. I am very interested. I am also not having any ideas.

    The traditional - one might say fundamental - wisdom here is the D&D trick of making the game into a sort of a mystery cult (no relation to that other thread) where you get to gain "points" and "levels" by committing to the game long-term, and then you get to lord over the other players with your 3rd level character vs. their 1st level ones. That works to hook a certain sort of gamer, as we well know. (Old school D&D also has other, less mechanical developments that reward long-term patience and help stabilize an on-going campaign, as we well know; the xp grind thing is just a particularly mechanically blatant example.)

    Along the same lines of blatant bribery, I could see rewarding the GM or other game-operator. Didn't Whitewolf use to give out like titles and special perks for people who organized WoD larps, or am I imagining things? The right sort of person could be motivated by (or rather, their motivation would crystallize with the framework provided by) e.g. a website where you can register your group and boast about your adventures. Like, you could distribute achievements to local groups at a website like it was a video game. In fact, somebody should totally make that a thing, a site that gives out achievements for rpg feats to motivate the OCD crowd :D

    In reality, though, I feel that the core truth of the matter is more internal to the activity; you'd need to be able to support people in making their own transformation in their lives, to change it into a life with an active and rewarding culture of play. Perhaps a game could be designed such that it is particularly rewarding and easy to introduce it to new people, or so that it is particularly easy for the game to bring strangers together as new friends? Either effect would make it easier to build the kind of social capital that a successful rpg campaign requires.
  • Brainstorming:

    * Providing space for play might be a really big deal for some. For instance, perhaps a game company could rent a room in a game store, community centre, or library, and thereby indirectly encourage people to play the game by removing some of the challenges involved in scheduling a game.

    * More reliably fun gameplay (requiring less "prep work" from the participants) should, in theory, also increase the success of gaming enterprises.

    However, there's also a possibility that games which require increased demands (like prep, lengthy character creation, learning complex rules, etc) create increased investment, and therefore make people more likely to feel pride for playing the game and are less likely to stop (since it would mean losing their investment of effort and time).
  • One of the reasons shorter game sessions are less satisfying is that there are so many characters, and so they each need to do something. Games that have only one character, and only one story arc, are much easier to pick up and play. Since such games assume shared character ownership, they can also accommodate a variable number of players more easily, so that everyone doesn't have to show up in order to make satisfying progress.

    An episodic, shared-single-character game that can be played by any number of participants would address many of these challenges. If this seems difficult to conceive, just think of any number of literary/mythological/cultural examples: Coyote, Hercules, Nasruddin, Conan, Batman, etc. All characters who eventually became (or started out as) a sort of common property, whose stories collected in aggregate to form a coherent image.
  • Given those requirements - and feel free to challenge those - how can we as designers encourage, reward and enable players to coordinate and come together to play?
    My fundamental doubt is: "Should we? Why is this aspect completely absent in the rules of other games?"
    Rob
  • We should. Unless you feel the games we have a perfect as they are? Enabling players and play is a core pricipal of game design and I feel confident in calling out design that ignores this as misguided. If you're not working for the players, who are you working for?

    I think games with a coherent campaign structure (PTA rushes to mind) are a positive step - they let players know exactly how much time they're committing to reach a rewarding narrative arch.
  • edited May 2016
    If we look at the game master as someone that is a teacher or training coach, then I absolutely agree.

    When I was writing the first drafts of This is Pulp, I tried to tell the game master how to explain the game to the players. But instead of doing it in a pedagogical way - in a way that actually explains the process of the game - I described the game in chronological order. That only made the game hard to understand. I realized that I shouldn't focus on teaching how to teach the game, and instead leave that to the person that is explaining the game.

    I wonder if the same thing doesn't apply on actually forming a group. If you were talking about building a team spirit, then I would absolutely agree, but you shouldn't have to teach someone to organize a session and have people showing up. Leave that to the group to handle. If they can't then they shouldn't play in the first place.
  • It's a difficult problem. Like others have observed here, I've seen mechanics-based incentives. But those also tend to punish people who are busy, which doesn't seem optimal. As I get further and further into adulthood, punishing people who already busy but need the creative release of gameplay once in a while seems unfair.

    This isn't really a mechanical solution, but my groups sometimes will collaboratively write scenes between sessions. This has the effect of keeping excitement up between episodes, which helps when it's a long time between sessions, and also helps us get into the character headspace a little faster when we do sit down. It makes us more motivated when the next scheduled game comes up, too.
  • I've had success with that, too - and it encourages a very different level of character development!
  • Whatever the design can do to make players use social pages to build up expectations for the next session will definitely help a lot. I tried with a FB group to post the campaign material (maps and lore), teasers for the next session (images and short scenes depicting NPCs, places and monsters, music, etc) as well as have players comment about the previous session, filling players who couldn't come on the last events and leaving them space for offtopic. Worked really well.

    Also, whatever that can remove one form or another of frustration from the game will be perfect: less character creation time, less GM prep,

    Whenever there weren't enough players to start playing the ongoing campaign, we played flashback scenes with the characters of the players present, incorporating newcomers to the improvised adventure as they arrived. This way we kept ourselves entertained in a way that didn't punish those who came later, and also kept the session revolving on the same game.

    I'm working on a design that gives players extra dice from a common pool, to which every player present contributes with one dice. The less players present, the less bonus dice you get, which will probably just mean that players already there will call and hurry the rest to get them to come soon, or at least before they have to battle a boss. Despite this, I'm not much of a fan of rewarding player attendance, but of helping the GM tell an engaging story instead and take away any mechanics, procedures or requirements for playing that take away actual gametime.
  • edited May 2016
    What if there was a game that piggy-backed off of a weekly television series? Like, play an off-camera story after each episode of Game of Thrones.

    Or how about a game that uses news headlines or periodicals to generate content? Perhaps a travel magazine could provide inspiration for international spy settings or something.

    Just an off-the-wall idea related to getting players interested on a regular basis.
  • You could always remove the need for a whole bunch of people to coordinate schedules and meet together regularly.

    I'm thinking something that's still campaign play, but where play can progress whenever two or more players are together. Maybe even some "lonely play" can be done individually, and it all contributes to the game on on the same level as group session play.

    I even have a great example of a game that already works like this! And it predates RPGs!

    That game is Diplomacy. I've played in a few Diplomacy games that resolve one move every 24 hours, via a web portal. Throughout the day, players are calling and texting each other, pulling one another aside for quick chats, wheeling and dealing and forging alliances, making strategic projections or planning orders in small groups or alone.
  • Excellent example!

    It can also work "whenever everyone enters their orders", which is more flexible (you could all play a few turns in a row if everyone is available, for instance).
  • Loving some of the ideas in this thread! There's certainly a challenge in growing older, gaining more responsibility and having less regular leisure time to meet with other responsible adults on a weekly-monthly basis.

    Like you, Jeph, I also have a soft spot for the 24-hour turn remote Diplomacy. We even ran a game of it on S-G a while back. How would you translate that style of input into a story game?

    I suppose my ideal Play-by-Post experience would take into account that, yes, while a "turn" happens every 24 hours for example, it still wouldn't require reams and reams of writing on my part. I'd be very happy to drop a text every evening, but I'd not always have time to send 500 words of descriptive content. I suppose I'd want it to be satisfying even with minimal input.
  • Hm. To capture the essence of what makes 24-hour-per-turn Diplomacy work, play between any given pair (or larger grouping) of players must be:

    Desirable. Players need a reason to do it, else they won't. In Diplomacy, you want to gather information, arrange favorable joint operations, set up backstabs.

    Relevant. It must affect the other players, beyond those present. In Diplomacy, if me'n Jess are planning to invade you from both sides, you care about what me'n Jess are saying to each other in private.

    Valid. It can't be dismissed as not real play, or retconned, or wiped out in a merge conflict as multiple streams of side play are sorted out. In Diplomacy, if I promise to help you, I *promised*... if I later go back on that, I've stabbed you in the back. Here it's purely social (or rather performative) rather than mechanical, but still real.

    Independent. It can't be blocked by the need for input from absentees. In Diplomacy, this is handled through the web service that actually runs the game.

    Possible. Any given pair of players should be able to play. Not "Any given pair including Jess", or "Jess and Tom or Sally and Bill, but not Tom and Bill or Jess and Sally." In Diplomacy, it's always possible to try to strike up a secret alliance with someone, or bamboozle them into leaking a bit of intel, or run a false flag against them.

    Optional. Not everyone always has time for side play. In Diplomacy, I can always just fill out my orders without talking to anyone else. I'll probably get screwed, but it's an option.

    How to make a story game or RPG do that? Gotta think on it more.
  • That's a really interesting analysis, Jeph!

    I did some thinking about this myself a while back, although it didn't get too far in terms of design.

    Most games which have interesting dynamics - like Diplomacy, Mafia, the Resistance, and so forth - are, in my opinion too tightly designed to work for RP/story-gaming. The game itself takes over and pushes the roleplay out to the edges. But I still have a dream of building something functional by harnessing the power of some of those game and social dynamics for a story game. I've had some thoughts along those lines, but never enough for a complete design.
  • You could always remove the need for a whole bunch of people to coordinate schedules and meet together regularly.

    I'm thinking something that's still campaign play, but where play can progress whenever two or more players are together. Maybe even some "lonely play" can be done individually, and it all contributes to the game on on the same level as group session play.

    I even have a great example of a game that already works like this! And it predates RPGs!

    That game is Diplomacy. I've played in a few Diplomacy games that resolve one move every 24 hours, via a web portal. Throughout the day, players are calling and texting each other, pulling one another aside for quick chats, wheeling and dealing and forging alliances, making strategic projections or planning orders in small groups or alone.
    In this vein, I have had success with play by forum D&D. It's slow, but quite enjoyable. I've been playing in one campaign now for close to 8 years (and coincidentally, our oldest PC just made 8th level). I've been running a campaign for just shy of 3 years, it runs a bit slower, we just recently had a PC hit 2nd level.

    Frank
  • Y'know, I've never had luck with forum games. Their attrition rate is just so damn high—every time I've tried, half the players, or the GM, have dropped off the face of the earth within a few months of starting. I think part of it is that there's no cost to pulling a fade-out, since these aren't your real friends you're letting down, just some strangers on the net. And part of it is the high commitment required, reading and writing so much text so regularly. And, of course, part of it is that the games people use for PbP just aren't designed for it, too much back and forth baked into the rules in a situation where every exchange is elongated by hours.

    It can work, but it just seems to fail so often. There've got to be lessons in the PbP forum game model—what makes most games fail, what makes the chosen few survive?

    What made yours survive, Frank?
  • I think part of it is that we have several players who are really committed to playing with OD&D as close to how we might have played it back in the 70s with a better idea of what an RPG was. We have definitely had slow points, and player attrition. Partly because of the play style, eventually we just move on if a player is unresponsive. Sometimes the player comes out of hibernation, and sometimes after months of no response, we just drop the character.

    I would definitely love to have a better understanding of why it works. 8 years is a long lifetime for any campaign, let alone one that could so easily fall prey to unresponsive players.
  • A solution could be to limit PbP games to a specific time period or number of turns.

    F'example: Everyone knows, going in, that the game is only going to last a month or for 30 turns - whichever comes first. Knowing that you're committing only a certain time, or there are certain win/conclusion conditions to meet would probably be effective against attrition.

    Indefinite play in the OD&D style just isn't really feasible or compelling.
    And, of course, part of it is that the games people use for PbP just aren't designed for it, too much back and forth baked into the rules in a situation where every exchange is elongated by hours.
    Jeph - or anyone interested - can you suggest games or mechanics that cut down on the back-and-forth exchanges?

    Better PbP games, I suppose, would consolidate play hinged on only a few meaningful points of consent?
  • A solution could be to limit PbP games to a specific time period or number of turns.

    F'example: Everyone knows, going in, that the game is only going to last a month or for 30 turns - whichever comes first. Knowing that you're committing only a certain time, or there are certain win/conclusion conditions to meet would probably be effective against attrition.

    Indefinite play in the OD&D style just isn't really feasible or compelling.


    I beg to differ...

    On On the ODD77 Board There are 9 active PbP games, one that has been running for 8.5 years, two about 3 years, two 2-2.5 years, two for 1 year, and two recently started ones. Additionally, there is a 10th campaign that started there 6 years ago and moved to it's own board 3 years ago. The one that has been running 8.5 years now has 4 active groups exploring the world.

    I don't remotely consider those statistics to suggest anything other than long term open ended D&D play by post is not only feasible but compelling.


    And, of course, part of it is that the games people use for PbP just aren't designed for it, too much back and forth baked into the rules in a situation where every exchange is elongated by hours.
    Jeph - or anyone interested - can you suggest games or mechanics that cut down on the back-and-forth exchanges?

    Better PbP games, I suppose, would consolidate play hinged on only a few meaningful points of consent?

    The games I mentioned are all using original D&D or Holmes Basic or a similar retro-clone. The game I play in and the game I run have deliberately kept things more simple (d6 damage all around, mostly no multiple attacks) and simple initiative (all pcs go all monsters go, or visa versa). The GMs will autopilot combat as much as possible. I will often run several rounds of combat before hitting something that really warrants a response. Once i went too far and we had to re-wind. The games are slow, but the investment to play is minor. Sometimes it's frustrating that nothing really happens for a week or two, but then people get back in sync and a flurry of activity moves things along.

    In the game I play in, one of the groups is slowly overthrowing the world order. One of the PCs on gaining a dancing sword years ago started rumors that the wielder of the dancing sword was the true king, he is now bringing that plan to fruition (after having been idle for a bit of time - see the medium even supports players dropping out and then re-entering the game).

    Another trick I use is that if a PC dies, I immediately roll up a new PC (the game I play in and my game both have the GM make all the die rolls including character generation). If the player ends up dropping out, it's no big loss.

    Now sure, we could design a game that would be more specifically tailored to play by post, and there is certainly a point to games with a defined duration, but I'm personally more interested in how to have these compelling long running games be a more repeatable thing.

    Frank
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