Setting and Keeping Tone

edited May 2017 in Story Games
For tabletop one shots, but especially for con games, and especially especially for highly
collaborative and/or GMless games:

How do you set desired tone and content we want/don't want to see?
How do you keep that tone/content and correct back if it strays?

Two guidepoints:
1) Let's focus more on tone/content "I want the game to be full of idealism. I don't want the game to have sappy romances." and less on standard X-card "I don't want (horrifying thing/social taboo X)."
2) Let's also say that the option of "use the X-card for tone-checking" has already been considered. It's a reasonable option. But I want to hear other ideas.

Comments

  • edited May 2017

    For tabletop one shots, but especially for con games, and especially especially for highly
    collaborative and/or GMless games:

    How do you set desired tone and content we want/don't want to see?
    How do you keep that tone/content and correct back if it strays?

    Two guidepoints:
    1) Let's focus more on tone/content "I want the game to be full of idealism. I don't want the game to have sappy romances." and less on standard X-card "I don't want (horrifying thing/social taboo X)."
    2) Let's also say that the option of "use the X-card for tone-checking" has already been considered. It's a reasonable option. But I want to hear other ideas.

    A very important and very, very useful topic. When I have time to think thoroughly and write a thorough response regarding the topic, I will make sure to post my take on it. Hopefully, I'll have the time to do so in depth. Until then, I'm eager to hear others' ideas. Thank you for bringing this topic up James :smile:
  • For one, I recommend the Microscope Palette where you put together a positive and negative list for your game.

    As mentioned in the other post, I like setting story margins for the game I want to play with the group.
    image

    As for correcting back if it strays, some story games (I don't remember which ones) have a calling bullshit mechanic. Players are allowed and encouraged to point to inconsistencies in the narrative.
  • How do you keep that tone/content and correct back if it strays?
    Peer pressure is the surest option. Lighting and music likewise help.

  • 2) Let's also say that the option of "use the X-card for tone-checking" has already been considered. It's a reasonable option. But I want to hear other ideas.

    I would absolutely reserve the X for things that need to be removed/faded out on--never to police fiction/tone you don't find interesting.


    How do you keep that tone/content and correct back if it strays?

    When I'm playing and tone seems to be straying, I've found my best move is just to ask if it seems like whatever thing just happened is off-tone. People will almost always self-correct to get back to what we agreed on. And if they don't self-correct, then in all likelihood we really didn't agree when we set the tone in the first place. Then, like a good co-creator, I let go of feeling like I want to "correct" things and try to make both tones/a new tone work.
  • In con games, a good pitch helps. Outside of cons, I try to pick players who share preferences. When the game starts, though, I think there's surprisingly little you can do. To me, many players' default tone seems to be zany.

    The tone you use when you present the game helps. If you want to control the tone of the game, you have to control the tone of the communication from the beginning. Rituals help with this. However, this can get a bit oppressive.

    By the way, I think tone problems are usually about maintaining a serious, realistic and slow tone.
  • edited May 2017

    I would absolutely reserve the X for things that need to be removed/faded out on--never to police fiction/tone you don't find interesting.

    Absolutely this. Where we play, we tell people to X things that make them uncomfortable. It's a safe word to prevent personal harm, not a tool to edit out stuff you don't like.

    re setting tone, I've wrestled with this one a lot. I now think that a discussion to "set tone", while utterly logical, does not work by itself. But it definitely creates a failure condition, as in, "we said we were going to play a serious game about issues but we didn't, so boo." You may dislike a game you would have otherwise enjoyed precisely because you had a preconception of what it should have been, which isn't a good thing.

    First off, consider that setting a tone at the start is the opposite of "play to see what happens". Think about that.

    Second, there's always this bit that's glided over of whether the person who wants a particular tone really has any authority to decide that for the game. In most GMless games, one person does not get to set the agenda. Even if a few people want the same thing, it doesn't mean a person who wants something different is bad, they're just a minority. If someone gets excited for an idea and pushes too hard (about tone or setting or anything), other people may remain quiet and appear to tacitly agree even when they don't. We think we're all on the same page but we're not. Should they speak up? Sure, in an ideal world, but if the idea is pushed too hard it's easier to avoid disagreement and lay low. Then during play your conflicting visions creep out. I've made that mistake and been the "too excited" person myself.

    Third, when someone reverts to comedy or gonzo (the big offender) it may be because they genuinely want that, but more often I find it's because they're tapped out and because silly material is less socially risky than contributing something sincere. If you genuinely create and it's not well-received, you've risked yourself. Comedy is safe. As a corollary to that, everyone is not a poet, so sometimes someone describes something that sounds goofy or lame, but really they're just not good at phrasing their idea. If you listen charitably (or just ask) you may realize they're not making something silly after all.

    I find that to actually have a fighting chance to establish tone, you have to put it in the fiction, not merely have an agreement between players. Just saying "let's play a serious game" doesn't do much, but establishing serious facts about your setting and characters during setup does. So that discussion only works if it is *immediately* translated into fiction. If you don't put it in fiction, don't expect your agreement to have any effect on play an hour later. This approach is not foolproof (and yeah, pick that word apart), because=humans, but it's more effective.

    This also addresses the "silent holdout" described above, because when it's their turn to make fiction during setup (contribute to the setting, describe their character, etc.), if they make stuff that doesn't fit the tone you thought you agreed on you'll see it right away.
  • edited June 2017
    For those of you saying it is a bad idea, the original X-card document specifically calls out tone as something you might use it for. If you want to normalize using the card, that's a pretty low stakes thing to do. Not saying it isn't a bad idea, because it probably is!
    How do you set desired tone and content we want/don't want to see?
    How do you keep that tone/content and correct back if it strays?
    Something I address in settings where tone is important is trust. Weirdly, one really effective way to build trust with strangers at a convention table is to tell them that you trust them. Of course you have to mean it, but that's not hard. I don't know why this works but it totally does. I think what is actually happening is that you are telegraphing your seriousness, generosity and sincerity, which people naturally reciprocate. For two hours it is as good as trust. My theory, anyway!

    If you have trust, tools like Archipelago's "Try A Different Way" or its casual social equivalent become great tone enforcers. Absent that trust, not so much.
  • edited June 2017
    Very good points. I agree about sincerity and trust.

    I think comedy can be a social risk as well. If I'm joking in a serious game and nobody laughs, it's even more humiliating than having my tragic romance scene ridiculed in a more lightweight game.

    I think one problem is that a defined tone is fragile and needs protection from everyone at the table, while gonzo only needs one player behind it.

    As Ben mentioned, elements aren't universally goofy. Lack of focus, rapidly escalating stakes and fast tempo are worse offenders to me than humor, actually. The funniest Fiasco game I've been in was ridiculous in a good way, but it was focused and controlled. Just slowing down may help the game find its footing without retcons.
  • It depends on the game, I guess.
    I usually rely on system provided tools... giving extra points to games that actually cover and handle well this part of the play experience.

    What I noticed is that usually the things people SAY they want at the beginning, usually turn out to be more or less bullshit (not for malicious intent, just because the same words often express very different ideas for different people, and it doesn't show until we face some issue in the active game) and thus the important thing is a "steering" mechanism we can use during active play to re-sync our expectations.

    In Touched by Evil most of the game mechanics specifically guide both tone and fictional contributions. And being a gmLess game with a single Protagonist that is played in turn, the structure itself further helps the Players to find a common middle point.

    In FateLess there are more direct and visible. You have a very SetUp phase to clearly set things such as tone, themes and expectations.
    Then during the Active phase of the game you have ritual words to easily and decisively make course corrections as need be.
    Plus the gmLess structure and the way the scene framing works help, again, the whole group of Players to find a middle ground.

    I've seen similar results in Archipelago.
    Or in games that REALLY have no competitive elements, such as The Fall of Magic.
  • I agree, people know what they want when they want something, but otherwise won't know until then. On the same deal, people know what they dislike when they see it, but won't think about that until they see it.

    Yet, if you give anyone a starting point to envision things, people will immediately be able to tell if they like it and what kind of things they are envisioning, what are they expecting to see or happen when they heard about this theme or elements and what are they afraid of seeing/happening that would ruin the moment for them.

    Player groups often know each other enough (or share enough cultural background) to predict what kind of things each other will expect and what they will hate, but they could still get surprised by some of their answers if they asked.

    So asking before the game starts what do they want or not without giving the players a starting point will only give this mix of blank-page syndrome, "I'll be okay with whatever you like" and a few responses some of which will strike true and others that not and perhaps ignite some actual and very needed discussion about the subject. Basically, it may work but it's not as effective as it may sound. At least until players learn to go to the point and communicate better after hearing this question, turning it into a ritual.

    I'd try asking players "What comes to your mind when we talk about X theme?" and "when you talk about X theme, what do you hate other people to come up with or relate it to?" to start the setting conversation and make sure everyone is on the same page.
  • A great topic, and lots of nice advice here. I especially appreciated Jason and Ben's comments, above.

    I think it's an important challenge for collaborative games, and worth addressing in different ways.

    Simply putting evocative vocabulary, imagery, and fictional detail can go a long way. Consider, as examples, Apocalypse World's evocative prompts and playbooks and the way Polaris leans on a very specific kind of language. These naturally draw players into a different mindset and creative space.

    Same goes for mechanics which pull strongly towards a concrete theme (e.g. Kagematsu or Dog Eat Dog).

    The presence of a GM-figure in a game is a very easy and strong way to maintain theme, since most contributions, at some level, "pass through" the filter of the GM, allowing the group a way to move towards a coherent tone and maintain it. I agree that this is one of the main draws involved in playing GMed games!

    About ten years ago, when I started experimenting with GMless collaborative games, I posted about this topic and we had an interesting thread:

    Please Stop the Virgins Laughing!

    Since then, I've played the same games with the same rules and different people, and seen very different results.

    Some of it makes sense; some of it is pure alchemy.
  • I'm cracking up that one of my points is pretty much verbatim what Ralph Mazza said nine years ago. Some things do not change…
    Valamir said:

    When your creativity is on display and being judged...and you're not sure you're any good with the activity in question...the safest place to be is silly-land. Going dramatic and having people laugh or think its not good, hurts. Being silly and having people laugh is the point...and even if it doesn't work, it doesn't hurt nearly as much because you weren't really trying, you were just being silly.

  • That's beautiful.
  • How do you set desired tone and content we want/don't want to see?
    If "you" are the GM, you have the social authority to explain the storytelling targets in advance and the rules-given authority to reject deviations during play.
    The question becomes interesting when the authority of setting the tone is shared between equal players.
    In many cases the tone is simply explained in the rulebook (e.g. Don't Walk in Winter Wood has about 50 pages of stories which are very close to play examples) and/or emergent from the rules (e.g. the decision making in Kingdom isn't going to work well with random decisions about silly problems).
    Otherwise, each player can try to pull the fiction towards a certain tone by offering an example.
    How violent, stupid and foul-mouthed should be your gangster characters? About as much as mine. Should your fanatic character execute war prisoners? I don't want too much cruelty, so I cleverly introduce superior officers and Red Cross personnel in the scene to restrain you.
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