How to fix Dudes-in-a-Scene games?

edited September 2008 in Play Advice
Hi folks, "dudes-in-a-scene" is my shorthand for games like Sorcerer, Primetime Adventures, and With Great Power... where the expected style of play goes something like:

Player 1 gets a scene with the GM. Other players sit around.
Player 2 gets a scene with the GM. Other players sit around.
Player 3 gets in a scene with the GM, and player 2 is in the scene too. Other players sit around.
Player 1 gets into a huge fight scene that lasts a million years. Other players contemplate suicide to alleviate the boredom.

I would not include Capes or Polaris in this category, because even if the scene is focused on a single character, the other players are participants in the scene. But these games are also GM-less. (Which is cool, but sometimes it's nice to have a GM, and in some games, like With Great Power... the GM's role is hardcoded into the game structure.)

This is me saying: "Wow, I'm really tired of Dudes-in-a-Scene." As a player, I'm too selfish for the spotlight; as a GM, I'm real self-conscious that other players are growing bored. I've tried roping spectators in to play NPC's, or describe the setting or other color, or help brainstorm stakes. But these measures don't always work if you've got a lot of players sitting around.

Don't get me wrong: I think Dudes-in-a-Scene is a big conceptual improvement over Party-Party-Party games (like D&D where everyone's in the same party, or (arguably) Dogs in the Vineyard), because Dudes-in-a-Scene permits a lot more freedom in what can be attempted. But it does have some down sides, which I would like to minimize.

Designers of Story Games, how do you compensate for the downsides of GM-ful Dudes-in-a-Scene?

Comments

  • One thing I tried to do in Console Legends was to give the "inactive" players useful stuff to do. They can voice NPCs, activate character abilities, and steal control if they see something neat to do. It also has a strict turn-taking mechanic where everyone gets a turn (with limited time) and you only get skipped if you choose it. Other stuff about the game didn't work so well, but this seemed to be at least functional.
  • I don't really understand your question. I mean, you seem to have a clear idea of what replaces that: the "party", the "team", the "group", call it what you want. Design for that (or pitch for that in Primetime Adventures, I just finished a hilarious pilot at a mini-con in which I don't think there was more than 1 scene in the whole show where the whole group wasn't there) and you won't have a problem.

    It's not rocket science, if you don't want there to be a lot of one-character scenes, don't design campaigns where there will be a lot of one-character scenes.
  • edited September 2008
    JD, I understand that Party-Party-Party can replace Dudes-in-a-Scene. But I want a better Dudes-in-a-Scene. What Filip is suggesting is stuff I've tried doing in the past, which is partially but not entirely successful; I'd like to do better.

    (Also: presumably there are other replacements besides Party-Party-Party lurking out there in design-space. I'd be interested in knowing what they are, but they're not directly what I want. Consider this flagging a potentially fruitful area for later design.)
  • James, have you experienced the Audience rules for Shock:?
  • Chris, I haven't. As I understand it, they get to roll a 1d4 to modify a 1d10 roll, right? And in doing so, add details to the scene or the world?
  • edited September 2008
    Hi James,

    I have a feeling this stuff is already happening in your game, so it might not be of much value... but here goes. (I'll only be referencing Sorcerer and Primetime Adventures, as they're the only Dudes-in-a-Scene game you're mentioned that I've played. I've also played HeroQuest much the same way...)

    1) How many players is a bunch of players? I tend to cap all my games at three players. This keeps the rotation of attention at a faster tempo.

    2) In Sorcerer, I assume you're cutting scenes and fights at mid-point to keep things moving. As a general rule, when one of my Players in Sorcerer gets stuck on what to do or say, I use that as a cue to cut to the next player. (Watching someone think isn't interesting!) It gives the Player time to sort out what to do without that camera on -- and keeps things moving.

    3) Are your players at all interested in what other characters are doing in other scenes? The big revelation of Dudes-in-a-Scene play for me was that Players didn't only care about their scenes, but how the whole series of scenes was building something as a whole. The whole... you know, story thing... seemed to hold people's attention. But it sounds like that's not happening for your team. I don't know why that is, but I'd love to hear more about that.

    4) Social interaction, judging and enjoying: In my Sorcerer games there's usually kibitzing as Players add details or laugh or recoil in horror. The Players will be like, "Oh, that's really good," when they get caught up in someone else's scene. They sometimes offers suggestions. They sometimes say, "Hey, GM -- that thing Eric said! That deserves Bonus Dice!" Same with Primetime Adventures, since Fan Mail only works if people are paying attention and enjoying the scene. They're paying attention because they are in the role of audience and fans -- and seem to enjoy that position. Also, in Primetime Adventures, Players can add Fan Mail to conflicts even if their PC is not in the scene, so they have every interest to pay attention, since they can have a say in which way a conflict will go. This is a non-starter for your crew?

    5) Story Stuff: I know you know this, but the function of the Relationship Map is to serve as a shared mystery for the Players to sort out. The clues that Player A finds out about the marriage of Bill and Lisa serves to inform what Player B needs to know about what Hartell has been up to. So the Players tends to lean forward in scenes not-their-own just to find out if there's anything they want to know about. Same with conflicts: If a sorcerer is fighting some bad-ass who just showed up, the other Players (in my experience) tend to lean forward because they're thinking, "I might have to fight this guy. Who is he? What can he do?" And in Primetime Adventures, new scenes mean new material about Issues, subplots, and characters in the series. So everyone pays attention because they'll looking for material to feed back into their scenes. Paying attention is the only way to do this. I'm assuming none of this is holding interest for your Players?

    6) Pure question: Fights don't last a million-years-in Primetime Adventures. They just can't. And every once in a while a Sorcerer fights can last half-a-million years, but again, I'll often cut at a highlight cliff-hanger moment to another scene to return later. But even then, hardly forever. The fights tend to be horribly fast and brutal. I'm assuming it's the other games (which I have not played) which are causing the lengthy combats?

    All that stuff above all interacts with all the other pieces... so no one thing is going to be the magic bullet.

    But my guess is you're already using all of it and it isn't working. I'm really fascinated. Can you write more about the sessions, games and Players?

    I'd love to know more.

    CK
  • I was going to respond but then I saw that Christopher said everything I was going to say. I have the same questions.

    Jesse
  • Chris, I'll post my most recent AP on the Forge in a couple hours. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Dudes-in-a-Scene is broken, it's just that I wish it could be better.

    Thank you for the suggestions: I usually try to do some/all of that, but it's good to see some of it spelled out.
  • Hi James,

    Oh, I know you're not saying Dude-in-a-Scene is broken. I didn't get that at all.

    I look forward to hearing more details!
  • edited September 2008
    Posted By: James_NostackChris, I haven't. As I understand it, they get to roll a 1d4 to modify a 1d10 roll, right? And in doing so, add details to the scene or the world?
    More or less, but the idea of having responsibilities and power when not in a scene was covered under Kubasik's point number four. Who's post is of such detail that I now wish I hadn't said anything at all.

    EDIT: When I say not in a scene, I of course mean not having a character in a scene. Technically speaking, if you're at the table, you're in the scene regardless of whether or not your character is.
  • The responses so far seem to fall into the two suggestions I'd give, which are: (a) give the audience players something to do, preferably something that is mechanically significant, and (b) make the story so effing gripping that they can't look away. Thing is, these two techniques support eachother, and work a hundred times better when they're both being used.

    Fan Mail is a great baseline for "something for the audience to do." It's clearly defined, obvious when engaged, and has mechanical consequences for the following fiction. Playing NPCs, by contrast, can be difficult. Some players simply can't jump into a character, assimilate motivations, and roleplay in a convincing or engaging manner. More problematic for me, pitching in with NPCs also suffers from a lack of direction — if players are just directed to "play this guy for a bit," that doesn't tell them what they are roleplaying that guy for, in terms of story. Are they serving as an antagonist, as a foil, as a dependent? Even if they have an idea what that role is, they don't have clear standards by which to judge if they've hit their target. As an example of an attempt to fix this problem, one of the games I'm working on, Agora, has players running NPCs get game currency whenever they can get the PCs to roll in certain stats — their goal is clear both narratively and mechanically, obvious when they fulfill it, and has mechanical consequences for later play.

    On the "make the story gripping" front, there are a few specific techniques that you can employ. First, though, I'd rather touch on the thing you need to not do, and that's have individual scenes that are completely self-serving for the PCs in that scene. If one guy wants to do a thing that nobody else at the table cares about, it's not worthy of a scene (by itself). When you consider that the rest of the table is the audience, it's pretty clear — in any other medium, if something happens that the audience doesn't care about, it happens off camera, out of scene, off stage, or whatever.

    Now, that said, it's also pretty trivial to take a self-serving PC request and turn it into something everybody else cares about. Your primary tool here is reincorporation. If they're running off to the blacksmith's to get their superkewl +5 armor (to take a really banal example), you can make that scene interesting to everybody else by populating the blacksmith's with antagonists and foils from the rest of the story. Now that the PC is all on his own, the big bad can approach him to make a faustian deal, another PC's love interest can make a pass at him, or a questgiver type can give that PC a parallel-but-complicated objective that that PC must pursue without the other PCs' knowledge. Basically, take the stuff that the other PCs care about and inject it into the scene that they don't care about.

    Now, as I said above, these two strategies work much better when they're used concurrently. If something is happening that I care about and I'm empowered to have an effect on that thing, then I'm totally engaged. This even works perversely: hand me my character's lover and tell me to get the other PC into a compromising situation, and I will be all over it.
  • edited September 2008
    Posted By: Christopher Kubasik3) Are your players at all interested in what other characters are doing in other scenes?
    In my experience, this is crucial to "dudes-in-a-scene" (nice term!). To get a whole group's attention when only some of them are roleplaying, you need two things:

    1.) If you are in the scene, you need to be conscious of your audience - play to them and try to engage them.

    2.) Conversely, if you are not in the scene, you need to pay attention. If you don't give a toss about somebody else's scene, any mechanics or procedures that involve you will just seem like a hassle. You need to get into the mindset that, in addition to your own story, there will be other stories during the game that you should contribute to.

    Now, if you've got that commitment, you can add mechanics and procedures. And you can target either characters or players.

    If you are in a scene, you can target characters by:
    - creating opportunities to add another character to the scene, especially if their stories (character arcs) overlap
    - target another PC's story by introducing narration that effects his story, reintroducing his NPCs, etc. without introducing the actual PC

    If you are in a scene, you can target players by:
    - offering opportunities to add narration - the player can add stuff just for fun or in order to also affect his own story + later scenes
    - offering opportunities to alter die results (or cards, etc) in order to influence the randomness that determines conflict resolution

    If you are not in a scene, you can offer suggestions and narration, or offer to play NPCs, or cue the music, or draw pictures of the scene. But mostly, you just need to make it clear that you are willing to help the people in the scene make it even more awesome.


    Well, okay, that's not entirely true. It works best if you tie the stories together. I should have put that at the top of my post!
    (It's Christopher's #5 though, so y'all got it anyway.)

    So you have 4 dudes and 1 GM, right. Are they all on completely different storylines? That is teh suxx0r! They need to all deal with the same NPCs, the same setting locations, and you need to see stuff that is important to PC #1 in the scenes of the other PCs when PC #1 can do very, very little about it. If he can do something very small, like nudge a die by 1 or 2 numbers, he will end up watching for his chance to save his beloved McGuffin from ruination at the hands of PC #3!


    EDIT: Also, what Josh said! Eh, I think I will bold the part of my post that is not repeating those who beat me to post...
  • Cut quickly between scenes.

    Make your scenes interesting.

    Play with people who are interested in what happens beyond what's immediately happening to them.
  • What I'm taking from this amounts to two things:

    * Allow spectators mechanical effects during resolution, if not outright participation in the scene.
    * Increase emotional buy-in among spectators for the scene.

    Does any system allow spectators to do Scene-Framing for the Dude-in-Scene and the GM? This likely isn't enough by itself, but it might be fruitful. The audience goes, "Man, I wonder what happens with this scene?" and then the folks have to play it out, sort of like taking suggestions for improv...
  • Hey James, here's an idea: give an audience member control of the camera. Wonder how that'd play...
  • Another mechanic is likely system dependant, I think of Universalis, where even if you are not interested in that particular scene, there are "components" being created that you can use later in your own scenes ~ this gives you a reason to keep track of what's going on in a scene. You're not into the spy infiltrating the security of the spaceport, but now that the spaceport has been created it's cheaper for you to bring it into a scene to use for what you want. You may intervene in the scene to add something just for your own purposes in a different scene later.

    What I like about this is that it encourages re-incorporation/continuity. The danger of this sort of play is that things "fly away from the centre" and don't "come together". A good GM and good Players will bring things together, but a system that tilts them in that direction helps.

    Rob
  • Posted By: James_Nostack
    Designers of Story Games, how do you compensate for the downsides of GM-ful Dudes-in-a-Scene?
    It's not just a designer thing, you as a GM/player can compensate for this, too.

    First off, in With Great Power, it tells you specifically that if a player's "character" is not in the scene, to have them take on the roleplaying of other characters, including major NPCs.

    In my WGP game, I regularly did things like this: Introduce a major NPC (like "The Big Antagonist" or "The Boss of the Protagonists") in character as I was the GM. Then, from the next scene and onwards, I had them played by the other players. That meant that in any scene only one person max would not be involved (in most cases all players were involved, with the other players playing major NPCs in the scene, and me as the GM playing *nothing* at times, just watching how things go and issuing challenges as they happen.

    We just finished a game of Legend of the Five Rings, a totally trad-trad-trad game, which we played just like we did With Great Power or Primetime Adventures: Heavy scene-setting, etc. In most scenes the other players were playing major or minor NPCs.

    At one point, one character split from the others for a few sessions. Soon, though, he was joined himself by two NPC companions, which soon were played by the other two players. The other two players would often be in scenes together, and that third player would often play whatever major NPC happened to be in the room.

    Most games (I'm talking trad games, I remember this advice in AD&D2E as well as Cyberpunk, etc) offer this kind of side advice: "Hey, if the player isn't in the scene, have them play a background NPC like a shopkeep or random stranger."

    I turned that up to "11", taking cues from WGP: I have the players play MAJOR NPCs as well as the "little guys". Even if I have "GM Secrets" that involve those major characters, I'll let the players play out the character, and adjust the story/secrets as appropriate. I've had nothing but awesome results with this. Now, it's pretty much how I roll with all my games, from D&D to L5R to PTA to whatever.

    If it comes to the point where the player's minor NPC needs to roll for something... well, they don't often have to roll, but when you do, most games are set up so that the GM can just tell them what to roll. "Oh, the mayor has an Influence of 5D, roll that" etc.

    It's awesome, and again it can be applied to all games, not just hippie ones.

    -Andy
  • Posted By: Josh RobyOn the "make the story gripping" front, there are a few specific techniques that you can employ. First, though, I'd rather touch on the thing you need to not do, and that's have individual scenes that are completely self-serving for the PCs in that scene. If one guy wants to do a thing that nobody else at the table cares about, it's not worthy of a scene (by itself). When you consider that the rest of the table is the audience, it's pretty clear — in any other medium, if something happens that the audience doesn't care about, it happens off camera, out of scene, off stage, or whatever.
    And if you want this to happen without having to consciously think about it: Make every character have a vested interest in how every other character thinks.

    Then they are interested in an inevitable subject of the scene: The Dude in it. If he's wandering around, trying to find the lowest price on firm tofu (no, SOFT will not do!) and that activity is incredibly boring to the audience, they can still be fascinated by wondering what on earth this character is thinking. What does it mean for free-wheeling Julie that Rick, the boy she wants to go steady with, is so anal that he'll try to save ten cents on firm tofu? Can it ever work out? Does she even know that he's like this? And if she doesn't, why not? Does he pretend to be different when he's with her? Is he lying to her about what kind of person he is?

    At the point where you're considering having one of Julie's friends accidentally observe the shopping expedition, and report back to Julie, you've probably achieved the right level of interest in the character, such that it generates interest in anything (no matter how dead boring) that they could possibly do.

    Your mileage may vary.
  • James, when I was putting together my TSOY/BSG game, I had the same thoughts you did, and tried to solve it by giving everyone more characters to play. Before I try to elaborate, I'll say up front that while it has had some value, I'm not sure I'd do it again.

    I have six players, so I asked each of them to come up with a primary character and two other characters who are important in the primary character's life. Some choices were obvious, like the Commander and the XO, or a Raptor pilot and his EWO. Others were a lot more interesting, like the Priestess and her college boyfriend who joined the Marines. I then made up some new currency and auctioned off the rights to play the supporting characters. As it happened we could have skipped the auction. The players had a really simple time figuring out who wanted to play which characters.

    To make my life simple, I warned people up front that I wasn't going to be putting any effort into finding bangs for secondary characters - they exist explicitly to make sure that as many people as possible have some investment in each scene. That sounded like an easy line to draw, but it's gotten a little hard to maintain. At least one player has mentioned that right now he's more interested in what's going on with one of his secondary characters.

    Anyway, my biggest challenge in all this has been that now 18 of the most important people in the fleet are spoken for. Sometimes it feels great that I can lie back and watch the players go; other times it makes it really hard to put plot ideas in motion. It's especially hard for the junior officers, because I let so many senior officers become player characters that I can only throw bangs at them by proxy. I've ended up handing notes to the players of the Commander, XO, or CAG asking them to give orders to try to deliver bangs to the two pilot characters. If we only had six PCs, more of the officers would be NPCs, and I've have a freer hand.
  • Here's my attempt (built into the Pentasystem, but you could do it with other games):

    1. Before you start, find out what everyone wants to see in the game with a big brainstorm.

    Have people vote for their favourite elements - each person gets several votes. When one of those elements is introduced into a scene, it gives as many resource points as there are votes for it.

    Resource points can be used by the player who introduced them to add extra stuff to the scene, so a scene which hits a lot of the elements that interest people is a big scene, and a scene with few interesting elements is a little scene and quickly dealt with.

    2. Build NPCs in three complementary ways.

    Firstly, you need some NPCs that in some way represent the elements that you built in step 1. More important elements get more powerful, and fleshed-out, NPCs who may have minions and so forth.

    Secondly, each NPC has at least one important driver so that you can give them to someone to play and they know what the NPC wants, and hence have some idea what he or she will do.

    Thirdly, link the NPCs to the PCs on an R-map.

    3. Kill the GM, take his stuff, and distribute it among the players.
  • Posted By: Magical Bunny FilipNow, in practice we still had a Producer for each scene, but the function has been rotating from scene to scene.
    James, you might want to have a look at Montsegur 1244 and Geiger Counter. Both rotate scene framing duties around the table and grant the scene framer strong gamemaster powers. I played both at GPNW with five or six other players and was never ever bored. I liked being able to do a little facestabbing and party destabilization without having to be entirely responsible for being the antagonist.

    Additionally, both feature rosters of secondary characters for people to grab and jam on in scenes. In Montsegur, they're assigned at the beginning of the game, and in Geiger they're assigned to players by the scene framer.

    (Tho, I've not actually read the rules for those games, only had them explained to me at the con, and neither were in their final form, so they might have transformed since then. Jonathan? Frederick? Anything to add?)
  • I can't help but wonder (and this is not a knock to these sorts of games in general, they rock) if by doing what Andy had in the L5R game, and bringing in the cool NPCs for the other players to play when the lone PC was on his own, we aren't just recreating the party-party-party play and trying not to notice?

    I mean if the NPCs are played by players then they are PCs, right? And that means you have an all PC party again. Sure they may not play the *same* party in every scene, they may not even like each other, but you are really just swapping one party for another. Now sure, that can be a great improvement on the logical knots you have to tie yourself in when you are determined to just keep the one party together, but it's not really helping when what you want to do is spotlight one character, or that character wants to be actually *alone*. i.e. what do you do when the dude's scene really isn't one the other players should be participating in?

    There are answers above, of course. Skip the scene if it doesn't interest everyone. Or have it but cut it short. But I'm not sure that seems wholly satisfying to me. In the past I've gotten around that as a GM by basically making someone else GM for that bit and then having the two things run in parallel in different rooms, which is a real juggling act ... i.e. it often goes wrong but sometimes works well.
  • Posted By: HituroSure they may not play the *same* party in every scene, they may not even like each other, but you are really just swapping one party for another.
    Not really. The thing about Party Play is that you have to go through great stretches of logic to keep all the players together *in their assigned characters* in every scene they have. They don't split up. They go everywhere together, or mostly together. When the cleric has an audience with the King, the fighter, thief and warlock are always in tow as well. When the fighter wants to go off and explore a tower, the players and GM use all sorts of twisted logic to have the other players follow (including the GM indicating that it's a death trap to go at it alone; or the other characters coming up with reasons why they would naturally all go together).

    As soon as you split up the party, you no longer have that mode of Party Play. Period.

    However, as the OP notes, if you do the traditional "player plays her character, the GM plays ALL the NPCs and Major NPCs" thing, then the other players sit around being bored (or *can be bored*, at any rate).

    Giving them an NPC character to gnaw on isn't "party play". The party is the characters, not the players.
  • But in your example you had the NPCs turn into PCs, in that the lone PC went away on his own, picked up some NPCs and then the players took those NPCs on as PCs, which is what I was getting at, the specific case rather than the general.

    Also yes, I understand that the party is the characters not the players, but I guess I am musing about whether it's constricting to be always involving all the players too? Like the example above "Now that the PC is all on his own, the big bad can approach him to make a faustian deal, another PC's love interest can make a pass at him, or a questgiver type can give that PC a parallel-but-complicated objective that that PC must pursue without the other PCs' knowledge", what happens when it's cooler if the other players don't know the information either?
  • Posted By: James_NostackDoes any system allow spectators to do Scene-Framing for the Dude-in-Scene and the GM? This likely isn't enough by itself, but it might be fruitful. The audience goes, "Man, I wonder what happens with this scene?" and then the folks have to play it out, sort of like taking suggestions for improv...
    Spione, sort of. Scene framing goes around the table, but not all players have characters, and there is no trad GM, but players who don't have a character will frame a scene for another PC, and if they do have a PC, they can still choose to frame a scene for somebody else's PC. You can watch some AP here.

    You could easily adapt this procedure to another game.
  • David,

    though it doesn't fully address your points about the players being involved, a further consideration that keeps it from being party play when the players take on NPC roles is that the roles they take on aren't protagonists, they're supporting characters. The PC in the scene is still the main character, and even if the NPCs being played by the other players are important in the story, they're there to showcase the PC, not to be played as characters in their own right.

    As for players not knowing about things, that's a whole other can of worms unto itself. I'm all for secrets among players, because players as audience can get enjoyment out of being surprised, or out of figuring out that there's a secret, and what it is, entirely apart from the characters. Other people don't like secrets among the players, and believe that sort of thing should be kept to the characters. My non-scientific observation says that traditional players tend to prefer player-secrets, and indie/story game types tend to prefer open collaboration without secrets.

    Either way, it's still a good player skill to cultivate to properly use player knowledge separately from character knowledge. Which is drifting into another topic entirely.
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