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02: A Player's Guide to Roleplaying, Feat. the Anatomy of a Mythic Task

by Jonathan Walton
Jul 29,2004


Welcome to Push, a column by Jonathan Walton, which explores various attempts to rethink roleplaying from the ground up, using new insights and theories to actively pursue new possibilities in play and design.

Jonathan Walton is a recent graduate of Oberlin College, a 2004 Fulbright Fellow to China, the former columnist of The Fine Art of Roleplaying and head of 1001 Designs.

O2: A Player's Guide to Roleplaying,
Feat. the Anatomy of a Mythic Task

    Like many good-but-ultimately-fruitless ideas, this one started as a forum conversation:

      Pete Darby

        Goddamn, we need a new introduction to roleplaying...

      Jonathan Walton

        I've been thinking about this for a while. There really needs to be a book about roleplaying that talks about what it means to be a player and what it means to actually play. Most "player's guides" simply explain the rules and the setting, without much thought on instructing people how to achieve meaningful and enjoyable play.

    It's like this: we all play differently, very differently in many cases. Some of this is based on the demands and sympathies of a particular genre or system. Some of this is personal preference, developed from a long history of roleplaying experiences, leading us to decide what kinds of things we enjoy and where our individual strengths lie. However, almost as often, I imagine, the way we play is based on habit and ignorance. I honestly don't know how most people are roleplaying, because I only have experience with the 50-100 roleplayers that I've personally encountered and played with since I began in the Sixth Grade. So what do I do? I fall into habit. I've become very familiar and comfortable with certain ways of doing things, certain play styles, and am loathe to leave my comfort zone without a strong incentive and chance of success. Meanwhile, I often think it's sad that we often have no clue what other people are doing in other places, what roleplaying techniques have they have developed in their own groups, and how we might adapt them for our own purposes.

    Example time:

    From the day I first roleplayed up until I joined Michael Babbitt's Vampire game (senior year of high school), I was only familiar with two general styles of play, both of which, as far as I can tell, are fairly commonly practiced in the Anglo-American tabletop scene.

      Style #1: Illustrious Mandate of Heaven Style

      The Gamemaster plans everything in advance (or draws on a published adventure), and then runs the players through the predestined scenes and encounters. The GM and players have considerable leeway to deviate a bit from the pre-planned events, but everything follows the rough outline all the same, creating a story with many of the traits of heroic narratives and, if you play your cards right, a satisfying conclusion.

      Style #2: Unpredictable Running Monkey Style

      The GM just makes stuff up, off the top of his/her head, responding to player interests and actions to steer the characters and narrative on a madcap chase through the setting. There is no way to deal with issues such as pacing, plotting, subplots, foreshadowing, or any traditional storytelling techniques because there is no planning or forethought. The unstructured nature of play often means that there will be no satisfying conclusion. The game will simply end when the players get tired, the GM runs out of ideas, or when the narrative crawls off into a corner to die.

    However, when I joined Michael's game, I began learning a new style of play, one based not on a planned series of encounters or total improvisation, but a focus on creating interesting situations and hard choices for the characters. Michael would often be surprised by the complex ways in which the players would have their characters respond to a given situation, so the outcomes were hardly ever planned in advance. It was exciting to see how excited Michael got about the game. As a GM, running the pre-planned adventure, I was excited about letting my players enjoy the cool situations I planned for them, but I was never excited to see how they'd respond to them, because I basically knew the answer to that. Michael, on the other hand, was excited to find out the answers to the questions he was raising. Would Leo and Ron ever patch up their strained relationship? Would the characters ever decide what to do about that loser John?

    For me, this was a bolt from the blue, and it only came by playing with a different group of people. Yes, Michael and the other players were better roleplayers than I was used to playing with, if we're talking about acting ability, creating drama and tension, dealing with inter-character conflict, and dedication to the game. They were worlds better than me at that point. But, besides learning how to be a better roleplayer, the more important thing I learned from them was that there were many, many ways to roleplay, including many ways that I could barely even imagine.

    Another example:

    So there's this roleplaying technique that's been called "scene framing," explicitly described and built into the mechanics of indie games like Universalis and My Life With Master, though I'm sure it's existed, under other names, long before them. Basically, it involves doing a lot of "film editing" to your roleplaying, making it leaner, meaner, and more focused. Often times, roleplayers will walk through their characters lives day by day, trying to skip over the boring stuff with summaries such as, "You spend 2 nights in the hotel, get some reading done, swim a few laps in the pool, and catch up on your office work." However, aggressive scene framing lets you focus just on the events that matter to the story. If the 2 days in the hotel don't matter, you don't even mention them.

    Imagine your game as a movie. Scene 1: the audience gets introduced to the characters and the plot right off the bat. For instance, all the characters are gathering at their father's funeral and decide that they're going to find the man who murdered dad. Scene 2: Two family members meet in a secret location. They are the ones who killed dad and they're worried that the others will find out. Still, they agree to play along with the investigation into the murder. Scene 3: One of the killers and his sister are looking at evidence from the murder scene. The sister begins to put the pieces together, while the killer tries to obstruct her progress and lead her in other directions. Then you cut to Scene 4, with new characters and a new location

    In any case, scene framing allows you to jump around to the important bits, not worrying so much about linear progression or whether all the major characters are in the same place at the same time. You could run an epic like the later books of The Lord of the Rings, where major characters are sprinkled all over the continent. You could run a game backwards, like the movie Momento or the musical The Last Five Years, with each new scene happening earlier and ending where the previous scene started. You could run parallel stories at the same time, as in Sliding Doors.

    The point of this example is that scene framing is a powerful tool for telling stories that would be very difficult or impossible to do in other styles of roleplaying, but there is no commonly available source with information on scene framing, how it can be used, how to structure it, what it's good for, and the like. I wouldn't have even known it existed if I hadn't been hanging out on The Forge for two years. So, in conclusion, we need a book (a compendium, really) that gathers up the accumulated knowledge and experience of three decades of roleplaying. There are great techniques out there that I don't know exist. There are ones that I know exist, but I have no experience using myself. We can all gain from sharing this knowledge and teaching each other how to be better roleplayers.

    Something like this (WARNING: tenative outline):

A Handbook of Contemporary
Roleplaying Theory and Practice

Table of Contents
Authors List

I. Fundamentals/Foundations

What is Roleplaying?
Why Do We Roleplay?
The Development of Roleplaying
Contemporary Roleplaying
Recent Developments, Future Directions
Outreach and Public Relations

II. Techniques

A. Foundations

    Social Contract
    Power of Narration (GM & player, GM-less)
    Playing: The Basics
    Playing: Other Approaches
    Gamemastering: The Basics
    Gamemastering: Other Approaches
    Being Part of a Group

B. System Concerns

    What Does a System Do?
    Choosing or Building a System
    Freeform Systems
    Improvising System
    System Drift

C. Tools

    Fortune Mechanics
    Karma & Resource Mechanics
    Drama Mechanics
    Personality Mechanics
    Illusion & Railroading
    No Myth
    Scene Framing

D. Variations

    Non-Synchronous Play (PBM, PBeM, Wiki)
    Live Action
    Video Games

III. Issues & Problems

Being Part of a Group II
Avoiding Passivity
Other Social Contract Problems
Issues: Religion
Issues: Gender & Sexuality
Issues: Race, Ethnicity, & Culture
Common Misconceptions

IV. Theory

What is Roleplaying Theory?
Why Do We Theorize?
The Development of Theory
Threefold Model/Something by John Kim
GNS and the Big Model
Aesthetic Theories
Other Theoretical Directions
Theory in Practice


From Deam to Reality

      Jonathan Walton
        I'm imagining a book in the format of Grey Ghost's new edition of GM Secrets, with individual essays on specific themes related to roleplaying. I'm imagining articles that attempt to reach beyond the artificial GM-player divide or the details of specific systems and talk about what it means to be a participant in a roleplaying group.

        Honestly, I'd love for this to be something that people could donate articles to, resulting in a freely-distributed compilation that would be a kind of public service to the roleplaying community. In PDF form, it could even be continually updated if people later wanted to expand their submissions or write new ones.

        Obviously, the project would need some sort of editorial oversight, to bring everything together, to provide feedback for revisions of the articles, to do layout work, and solicit submissions. I'm not quite in the position to take on something like that yet, but once I graduate, that sounds like a very attractive opportunity

    It's all Chris Lehrich's fault, really. If he hadn't stepped forward and volunteered to co-edit this thing with me, it would never have gotten off the ground. Chris teaches writing at Boston University, a thankless job at a fine academic institution, and has significant experience with academic and commercial editing. He also personally knows Kenneth Hite, so that gave us serious industry credentials that we could call on, with Ken (who is really the only established and generally respected critic in the roleplaying community) having tentatively agreed to write the Preface.

    To get the project off the ground, Chris and I began co-drafting an outline of what we expected the book to look like. I felt strongly that I didn't want the book to be filled with Forge-specific jargon and detailed theory discussions, instead wanting a document that would be accessible to newbie roleplayers and old-timers alike, both casual players and hardcore theorists. Chris brought his expertise to bear on creating a structure for the book and tried to workout a reasonable timeline of when we could expect to begin pulling things together. I drafted a basic website and put the outline on it, shopping it around on to get responses and suggestions for things we might have missed. Then graduation happened, I got swamped with other things to do, moved out to the alpaca ranch, and found myself with less and less time. Chris was likewise inundated, so progress screeched to a halt for a little while. However, I've been gradually collecting a long list of names and email addresses, trying to come up with a widely ranging list of people, from the mainstream and indie communities, who might be willing to share their own knowledge and experience. "A" is for Adkinson, Achilli, and Arntson; "B" is for Baker, Baugh, Ben-Ezra, Blair, Borgstrom, Brooks, and Burns; "C" is for

    What I need to finish now is the formal proposal and writeup for the project. If I'm going to be able to get the attention of half of the amazing and very busy writers on my list, I'm going to need to tell them what they're getting into, with the schedule and exact details spelled out from the beginning. For something like this to actually happen, you can't have a lackadaisical, chummy approach to things. I'm going to be asking some of roleplaying's brightest minds to donate some of their valuable time and energy, which is a big deal. They need to know that Chris and I are serious and committed to making this happen. They need to know what our expectations are, what the editorial process will be like, and what the future of their donated articles will be.

    The PDF will remain free forever, but what happens if a small game publisher (Grey Ghost, for instance), a major game publisher (SJGames), or an academic or commercial press (Berkeley, maybe, or Norton) wants to print it? Also, can Chris and I decide to sell Print-On-Demand copies at cost? Are we asking them to donate just the electronic rights to their articles, or do we need to spell out something more complex? Do we even need sole electronic rights, since the authors might also like to publish the articles on their websites or in Pyramid or even in print? Is the "product" the unique content or the compilation of all these sources together, with professional editing and layout? I need to find the time to sit down, think about these issues, and put everything down in writing. One of the biggest issues is going to be trying to fit everyone's diverse ideas together. We have an outline, yes, but if the point is learning from each other, Chris and I need to be flexible in accommodating the interests and experiences that individual authors bring with them.

    At this point, some of you may be wondering what you can do to help. Well, we still welcome suggestions on the online itself, though it's probably not going to undergo radical readjustment at this point. But if you think that some major issues are missing or that some sections are unnecessarily redundant, we'd appreciate hearing from you. Additionally, once we actually send out the proposal to the names on my list and give them the chance to respond, we may find that there are some articles without authors attached to them. At that point, we'll probably begin searching for people who are interested and capable of covering the remaining topics, and you could very well be one of those people. More information on that will come later.

And Now For Something Completely Different...

    Moving on to the continuing re-design of Argonauts (begun last week), I'd like to thank everyone who responded to last week's article: Breklor, Piers Brown, Emily Care, Clint, Chris Geisel, John Harper, Tony Irwin, Karro, John Kim, Neel Krishnaswami, Sergio Mascarenhas, markus, Mike Pohjola, Preston Poulter, Shreyas Sampat, and Eero Tuovinen. You folks are great. On to the design!

    Last week I wrote:

      Do heroes fail Mythic Deeds? No. They best them or they are destroyed. There are no chances for the hero to attempt a Deed, fail, and move on to another Deed. That's just not how these things work. Hercules didn't skip the harder trials and then come back to them later. It's not a standardized test; these are "do or die" situations.

    Then, responding to Neel Krishnaswami on 20by20room, I wrote:

      I would think that, most of the time, you don't really want to make it impossible for characters to avoid resolving conflicts. You just need enough pressure so that avoiding the issue creates interesting situations, as characters try to weasel out of an obvious confrontation. There should always be several ways out; it's just that none of them are without cost.

    So which is it? I talked myself into a corner, as several responders pointed out to me in emails. Is it really that interesting to have characters become trapped into completing deeds? Isn't it part of the nature of Mythic Tasks that they are voluntary and that nobody really wants to do them in the first place? If the heroes are forced into following through, where's the glory? Shouldn't they be allowed and even encouraged to quit, making their triumph that more potent?

    John Harper wrote:

      If failure is never an option, then a given character is guaranteed to be "stuck" on a deed until they either die or succeed. I think it's in keeping with the genre for a hero to attempt a task and fail miserably (thus probably moving them closer to their Fate). The deed is lost and cannot be attempted again, but the hero can pick himself up and move on to another deed. Think of the journey of Odysseus. How many of his trials were "won"? Several of them could be considered a draw, at best. Yet he still continued on his journey and ultimately met his Fate when he made it home. He didn't' get stuck on one island until he either had victory or death.

    Piers Brown wrote:

      I'm not sure about the "can't back out" thing. What happens if the players can't beat the monster, but they can't leave until they do? Rather than that, maybe it would better to define them in terms of (a) an adversary, and (b) what's at risk. They don't have to defeat the adversary. They can move on, but they lose the thing at risk: Andromeda is eaten by the monster; the city is destroyed; etc.

    Damn straight. What I wrote last time was overly simplistic: any attempt at accomplishing a Mythic Task is guided by something to triumph over (challenge), something to gain for oneself or others (reward), and the price paid by oneself or others (cost). This is a much more interesting setup than the type of do-or-die situation I described earlier. Previously, I gave an example "invocation," showing how the GM would normally begin play:

      Sing, muse, of the dread lion of Nemea! Large as an elephant it was, with teeth like spears and a roar that could strike men dead with fear. Tell us how, for five long years it ravaged the people of that place, eating and killing with an appetite that nothing could sate. Sing, too, of how the King of Nemea beseeched the gods, sacrificing entire herds of oxen at the temples of Zeus and Apollo, yet his prayers went unanswered

    What' do we know here, of the three elements mentioned above? Well, it seems pretty clear that the characters need to triumph over the Nemean Lion (challenge) and their reward would be saving the people of Nemea, whose king would probably be very grateful, and gaining glory and renown. The costs would potentially include pain/injury/death for the heroes, as well as the continued destruction of Nemea if they fail. But wait a minute. Surely the Nemean Lion won't be the only challenge the heroes will face along the way. If so, that would make for a very boring story. Once they get there, perhaps they'll discover that the lion's hide is impenetrable, or that the goddess Hera, who wishes to punish the people of Nema, protects it. Additionally, neither the rewards or the costs are cut and dry, remaining very uncertain until the situation actually resolves itself. The beast has teeth like spears and a roar that can strike men dead, so the cost is potentially very high, but they won't know until they try. Also, Hercules might come along next week and kill the lion, even if you don't. Additionally, who knows how grateful the King of Nemea will be? Maybe he'll try to marry you off to his witch daughter, who'll lead to your ruin. Maybe he'll be jealous of the people's adoration of you and seek your destruction.

    So, even with an invocation like that, there's still quite a bit of information that will need to be determined. What the invocation gives you, then, is a frame for the entire session. It says "this is what the game will be about, mainly" and then lets the players and GM fill in the exact details over the course of play. Note too that there could be different kinds of invocations that described Tasks with clear costs ("And Atheus declared that whomever would feed his hand to the great serpent, mastering it"), clear gains ("could marry his daughter and become king after him), or even unclear enemies ("And so it was that ships began disappearing off the rocky shores of Crete"). Whatever the situation, the invocation needs to provide some hint all three of the framing elements - challenge, reward, and cost - enough for the players to start the game.

Heeding the Call (Or Not)

    Once the call has been given, the players need to decide how their characters are going to respond. The GM gives the invocation, the players know that the people of Nemea are suffering, and it's time for the characters to enter into the story. Right now, I'm imagining a kind of negotiated introductory section, where player #1 might say, "Perhaps the goddess Athena, my patron, has decided that Arithea needs to best the monster, since the people of Nemea have long been faithful to her." Player #2 might decide that his hero will accompany Arithea on her journey, since they recently escaped from King Minos' prison together. And player #3 might decide that his hero is tired of adventuring and, having recently married King Minos' daughter, plans to enjoy a life of luxury until the wanderlust strikes again.

    In fact, I'm even imagining situations where all the heroes might ignore the call, at least initially. Since one player put significant time and creative energy into creating the Task, it's important for the group to ultimately validate that, but there's nothing wrong about having the characters attempt other deeds, while the problem problem continues to fester, growing worse, gaining in Myth Levels, until it demands their immediate attention. In fact, it may be that while slaying the Minotaur may not seem that interesting initially, that a more properly aged Task (sprouting labyrinths, mad inventors, mechanical bulls, and the like) would seem more worthwhile later.

    Some of the people who responded last week were worried about the problem of making groups of Greek superheroes work, since they're typically a loner crowd. That's not a problem anymore, since the heroes can decide to go in different directions or just chill out for a while. However, there are some issues that need to be dealt with here. What happens if some - or just one - of the heroes decides to tackle the Task while the others go elsewhere? Can you tell a story where only some of the players are protagonists? This is where we go off the deep end into vaguely charted territory.

    Possible solutions:

      1. Let's Split Up! Like a Scooby-Doo episode, the players can go off in pairs or small groups, hang out in different corners of the room, and run Tasks for each other. Last time, we talked about trying to split up GM duties among more players, and this seems like an obvious place to continue that trend. You would get to know another player and their interests more in a one-on-one or small group session, heroes would have the opportunity for solo adventures, and you could even pause the individual games at key moments so the entire group could pay attention to an important moment in one person or group's tangent adventure. Of course, the group would reunite later on or split into different groups or play in other sessions with other players, so the collective story would keep shifting between various large and small groups that would share different threads and plotlines between them.

      2. Secondary PCs and Short-Term Protagonists: Think about Hermes in the story of Perseus, who brings gifts to the prince, guides him to the dangers, offers advice and companionship, teaches him how to fly, and is ultimately a central figure in Perseus overcoming the gorgon Medusa. For the length of a single Task, then, Hermes could be a PC, played by a player, but with the knowledge that the role would only last for a short period of time. Additionally, there could be reoccurring roles in the game that would not be those of heroes: characters lovers, husbands and wives, siblings, parents, children, lords, servants, friends, enemies, and others. It might even be possible for the GM to recruit a player to take on the role of the Task itself, especially if it is another Mythic individual (but you could even play the Nemean Lion or the World's Dirtiest Sables, I suppose). Making these roles as worthwhile and rewarding as that of the hero could be one of the challenges that Argonauts (and the players that play it) takes on.

      3. Ephemeral Characters: Traditionally, the GM has played all ephemeral characters, the bartenders, salesmen, crowd members, jokers, sailors, and courtesans of the game world. However, it would be possible to let non-protagonist players (whose hero character is currently reveling in luxury, for instance) to play a jack-of-all-roles, stepping in at any moment to add a bit of life and personality to the joe or jane on the street. Now, you probably wouldn't want to do this for more than one Task in a row, since most everyone wants the spotlight from time to time, but there are certainly things to enjoy about taking a back seat and assisting in a story that's focused on someone else.

    All three of these solutions are very player-dependent. Personally, I think all of them are feasible and quite interesting, but I know that many people would find them very uncomfortable, confusing, or simply not what they want to do. Additionally, I can imagine situations and groups that would make it unappealing for me to pursue these varieties of play. If the GM really wanted to keep a tight lease on the Secondary PCs and "Guest Star" characters, playing one might not be great fun. If there weren't going to be many opportunities for ephemeral characters to show up, option #3 might be less than great. Are there ways to structure the game that can make it more likely that people will be able to pull things off successfully? Maybe, but that's a question we can start addressing next time, as I begin to pull the mechanics and story structuring elements of Argonauts together, and we try to make sense of it all. Suggestions and comments in the meantime are most welcome.

Next Time, Gadget! Next Time!

    More Argonauts design stuff, of course. Probably an update on the handbook project, assuming its moved along at all. I'll also try to talk a bit about the design work I'm doing for Phil Reed's vs. Monsters Anthology, a fun little setting piece where you play gangsters in Colonial-Era China, trying to hunt down the Western monsters that have slipped off the ships along ith the British opium. And, if I have any space left, I want to talk about restructuring the traditional gaming studio, taking advantage of the ground broken by indie, PDF, and open-source designers, and a little dream I have called Hundred Flowers.

    See you in the forums, or feel free to email me.

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What do you think?

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