Archive for the 'arg' Category


campaign branding: genre conventions

Genre conventions are a framework of elements that set a scene and provide an audience tools to help them imagine it and the wider story.  These conventions give a creator options and choices that make their story or game distinctive and help convey messages (thematic or otherwise) to the audience.

Aesthetic – The specific attributes of a story that helps define it.  The time, place, genre and basic premises of what is expected from the story.  Aesthetic conventions include oppressive regimes, armoured knights or isolated rustic colonies. These need to be outlined up front or the audience will be confused.

Ideological – A specific vision or sensory experience (a ‘look’ or ‘feel’) – if aesthetic is the substance, this is the style.  Here is the grit in your crime drama or the slick chrome in your science-fiction.  As over half of all communication is non-verbal, this is something ignored at your peril.

Rhetorical – Persuasive arguments employed by a story on it’s audience.  The social implications of those arguments may compel (compare The Handmaid’s Tale with Gattaca with Children of Men) an audience and contemporary issues can shape or alter the sensitivity of an audience to a story’s rhetoric.

Ritual – Behavioural actions associated with a particular genre, the traits characters display to comply with the above.  Action heroes are courageous, tough and rebel against authority.  Noir detectives are cynical romantics with internal monologues.  All of these (and more) are explored in one place

Aligning genre conventions can maximise story impact and speed setup.  The trick is to do it so the genre conventions are revealed in an original or innovative way.  Due to high exposure (how many TV shows and movies have you seen this year?) these are used and re-used to a point some call formulaic. 

Judicious blending or contrasting conventions can invigorate formulaic elements.  Robocop is cyberpunk but uses elements of the western and crime drama.  From Dusk Till Dawn is another example of blended genres.
Yet even blending can hit saturation.  The key then is to go back to the classics and work from there.

To give a story zip, it’s worth focussing on character and emotions powered by situations.  In order to provide characters, emotions and situations context, genre conventions provide a backdrop for the drama and help to wrangle thematic elements.


the push and pull paradox

I’ve been thinking on player-referee dynamics, how some games or stories engage an audience more than others and ways of handling different levels of involvement.  The resulting headache forced me to take a break – which led to my mind being blown by the concept of Crow (a game of Ted Hughes style slam poetry?!) and a discussion on push-pull communication and it got me thinking…

Here comes the terminology.

Push is where you tell an audience information.  This may be in the form of exposition, narrative or handouts to provide information to interpret in real-time. It must have intrinsic value to induce involvement and be paced to prevent information overload or boredom.  The audience can respond passively or actively, according to their perceived circle of influence or whim.  This is followed by more information – act and react.

Pull is where you elicit a response from your audience and then act on it.  An initial source of information is provided (so push elements exists in every pull) and offers (by soliciting input) a negotiation on the authority of that information. The audience must respond and this negotiation ends up creating collaborative scenes where participants are involved.  A passive response implies no opinion is needed or will matter to the audience.

A level of rapport or trust with any audience is implied.  Building trust is based on a three-step process of tell me, show me, involve me.  By words and actions, authority is built or diminished.  Key to building trust is a healthy dose of acceptance. Where authority and acceptance conflict, outcomes may be positive (willing suspension of disbelief) or negative experiences (You’re dead! No I’m not!) for the audience. 

Rhythm in communication is useful to build expectation, to maintain focus and prevent boredom. The salient question here is are the audience’s needs being met?  Is the horror story actually managing scary?  Where are the pay-offs in this moment – are they visceral? vicarious? voyeuristic?  A mixture of anticipation and frustration can build tension and lead to those pay-off moments, making the communication rewarding.

Note individual audience members may have different levels of trust and expectation of rhythm, knowing what is needed and then delivering it may be a process that needs investigation.  The teacher’s mantra of tell me, show me, involve me is mirrored in ARG and game design by it’s mantra of exposition, interaction, challenge. This too requires a combination of push and pull communication.

Enough theory.  Here’s a framework (borrowed from the US Armed Forces) for you to use.
Plan what you’re trying to get across.  What payoffs and value are there?  Fix the problems. When is it done?
Decide on your approach.  Push or pull?  What are your audience’s needs?  What are your strengths?
Execute with confidence.  Bring in your strengths and smooth out bumps.  Meet needs and make pay-offs.
Assess if it worked.  Check if clarification is needed or if further input is desirable.  Know when it’s done.


tyranny, self-entitlement & getting over it all

I want all of you boys to be able to look me straight in the eye one more time and say: “ARE WE HAVING FUN OR WHAT?” — Top Dollar, The Crow.

Ever get into one of those dialogues where you don’t want to say anything but know that you’ll have to? There’s been recent themes in my blogosphere of late. First – a so-called tyranny people submit to when they experience a game or story – an interesting point-of-view. Tyranny implies an arbitrary or brutal exercise of power, abuse of authority, severity and oppression.

When you hear this phrase being applied to concepts like fun, the role of an author/game master or participant then you consider what boundaries of trust or consensual play have been violated. The concept of social contract (discussed here) means participants need to be honest with each other – an honesty oft set aside in the name of compromise or social fallicies.

Your time is important. It’s non-renewable. Getting an invitation to ‘Titanic‘ to discover you’ve arrived in ‘Mega-Shark vs. Giant Octopus‘ will annoy. Communication and effective feedback is essential. Keep with what you like and acknowledge when it doesn’t inspire. Speak up – you’re with friends (or people with a common hobby) so why suffer in silence?

That said, who wants to be an ass? Consider how you’d respond if your statements were made to you. Think about the words you’re using before going as a friend of mine puts it ‘all bardic vomit’. Give respect and you’ll get it back. It’s really that simple. Tactful suggestions on how it might go better can help steer people towards greatness.

Secondly is the opinion tabletop RPGs are doomed. This particular saw has been played since the 1990s by people who fear their hobby will fold in the face of large-scale collector games or computer-based gaming. The latest view is customers are so cheap that when they can find free alternatives, they do so, rather than spend money on merchandise that can be hard to find.

This pessimism is taking the industry further away from it’s audience. It implies a basic lack of respect about the product and it’s seller. So is complaining about how hard it is to make it in the hobby today, about which version is best, or how it doesn’t fit your vision of the ideal game even though they make blog content. You might have to move on. You might have to get smart.

Choose carefully – remember your time is important. And if you think your audience or peers are petty, self-entitled whiners you may be in the wrong business or peer group. I’d rather be with a bunch of discerning, creative enthusiasts. I know they’re out there. So do they – and I don’t have to insult or litigate against them to get them to listen. Does that count for something?

You might even want to look at how people who are making it in the environment are going on. In closing – a video of a presentation by Mike Masnick of on a case study featuring Trent Reznor, Jonathan Coulton and others who have realised that it’s now about the patronage of the customer. It’s a bit lengthy – start from 02:30 if your time is short – but worth it.

P.S. By the way…
Have you?


it’s nice when people listen…

Wizards have put a quick-start set, Keep on the Shadowfell and the first three levels of Character Builder up for free online. I can’t help but get the feeling the blogosphere contributed in it’s own way to this sudden shift in WotC policy. Before you all get too excited, it looks like the current policy on PDF publishing won’t reverse any time soon. Props to Points of Light for this.

The rest of this post is inspired by a post on Robertson Games about the radio theatre style entertainment that tabletop RPGs can provide. Talk about a bolt from the blue! As I’m late to the party, it would suddenly explain why those podcasts of gaming sessions are popular among some of us – they’re tapping into about *cough* sixty to eighty years of oral tradition!

Sound effects can add considerably to atmosphere – for free sound effects, take a look at The Freesound Project, University of Texas Electronic Music Studio, PacDV, Stonewashed and Ljudo. Some of these have Creative Commons tags so use accordingly. There are some very useful downloads to be found at including this.

Finally, courtesy of HeroPress – notification of a fantasy radio drama on BBC Radio 4 called ElvenQuest starring assorted comedy performers (Alastair McGowan, Stephen Mangan) about a novelist and his dog who is drawn into a world with elves, dwarves and monsters to fight Lord Darkness. The dog of course is the prophesied hero. Starts tonight! Will be iPlayered.


entering the matrix

I’ve previously discussed plots in terms of railways and museums, however there is another route for plotting which may be useful in terms of interactive environments and that is to use a matrix.

This differs from the previous routes as follows:

  • A matrix is not a railway because all the stations are linked to each other; you don’t need to go A-B-C-D, you can go A-D-B-C or any other combination if you start from A – which is entirely up to you. Starting somewhere is useful, even in media res.
  • A matrix is not a museum because there are no guided tours. People can still wander around like in a museum but there is nothing steering you. You can walk, swim, fly or tunnel wherever you like. Any sense of sequence arises from game play or narrative.

There is a similarity in the sense that everyone starts somewhere and can end up somewhere; the advantages of using a matrix is as follows:

  • Increased versimilitude – You know how easy/difficult it can be to get a Japanese samurai into a European medieval setting? So you can say yes/no with confidence or even maybe if you feel so inclined. Everything hangs together, you know your neighbours.
  • Players get to determine their own damn route – this is the holy grail if you’re ready for delays in achieving consensus or bad decisions based on whimsy, player boredom or trust games (if I go to a dragon, will you sic it on me?) for you.
  • Wherever you go, you’re prepared. So your players want to go see the mountain witch to get the river-dragon’s curse removed? No problem. You know what’s on the way, where they have to go and how much trauma they will experience.

There are risks in using a matrix.

  • Game balance and discretion – if your dragon lives in that particular area and the 1st-level party want to start a fight then it’s going to be short-lived. Signposting is helpful but to some gung-ho types, this is a red flag situation and they need to be educated.
  • Short-cuts for linear plots – will occur. Linear plots can be entirely circumvented or surgically truncated in a matrix setting. Derailed plots usually end up in chaos, sometimes lovely, sometimes a mess. Your mileage and improvisational skills may vary.
  • There is more work involved. Not just the preparation of each border but also possible directions the player can travel and the overall intention of the game. You can get by with sketchy areas in a railway or museum plot but white space in matrix plots is bad.

The matrix model is a popular option for campaign-style play as it’s possible to build large and then start from various points within the same location, ensuring playability and re-use if you have a relatively small playerbase or even a large one. The amount of work involved however is significant which is why most matrix games (or campaigns) are collaborative efforts.


synergistic storytelling and random encounters

The concept of using more than one kind of media to tell a story (cross-media or transmedia) stories has blossomed. An icon of modern synergistic storytelling was The Matrix/Animatrix/Matrix Reloaded where a narrative arc was split between three movies and characters appear in the movie narrative as a result of the plot of the Enter the Matrix computer game.

Unless you were a complete Matrix-head, you may not have realised and have even thought that Niobe’s sudden appearance in Matrix Reloaded was a deus ex machina rather than a bold experiment in synergistic storytelling.

The what, where, how, why and when has been summarised nicely by Christy Dena.

Yet there’s the idea that events or decisions taken at the beginning of the story have an impact on the story or the information provided. Like the Fighting Fantasy books where choices made early in the narrative provide options (or equally deny them) later on. A variation on this was trialled by IBM researchers in research on interactive cinema how actions early on in the story cause impacts later on in the story environment and has repercussions for Internet browsing.

So can such deep wisdom be applied to tabletop gaming? Of course it can.

The diagram opposite posits an interesting viewpoint, that story authoring systems can increase interaction in an environment with time-bound story events. By story authoring systems we mean players, games masters/referees and in some cases even AI systems dealing with characters or environment. Which brings me onto random tables – used by all of them. Some of the finer points of these are explored by lumpley games’ In A Wicked Age and the resulting Abulafia oracles as well as cards in Ravenloft to provide situational modifiers.

It was observed that the use of random encounters is something peculiar (though not unique) to D&D in it’s various incarnations. As prototypical story authoring systems, these tables have led to significant impacts on games – not always to the positive. An anecdotal tale (which I recall being from Michael Stackpole) about how a sci-fi RPG game died in the first 10 minutes when the DM rolled an asteroid collision despite a pilot’s awesome ‘avoiding asteroid’ roll and all the players bar one just nodded their acceptance and then put the game away for the evening.

The anecdote illustrates these systems are best applied judiciously.

Some older grognards may claim this is unfair to the ‘roll it and see’ playstyle. I personally think that if you are going to create a space opera, you don’t finish 10 minutes after the start because the director thought it’d be gritty to have a big rock kill you all. Personally, it’s a bit unsatisfying and it closes the story too early. In this instance, I follow the Rule of Cool over the Rule of C4 and yes, this is really a cosmic case of “Rock Falls, Everyone Dies” rather than a strict use of the Rule of C4.

Going back to cross-media, how would you feel about games that marketed itself by different media – not in a D&D Insider or Dungeon-A-Day manner (which provides content as the be-all and end-all) but to provide clues to a setting or story arcs or snackies for DMs?


railroads and museums

A little musing on plot types. If you’re working out an interactive plot (say in an alternate reality or role-playing game) you have two clear options.

  1. A linear plot with individual stations where protagonists can do things. The plot can continue when the protagonists decide to get back on the train and travel to the next station. Events at each station provide incentives to continue the journey from beginning to end. Let’s call this plot structure a railroad. ARG authors may see stations as breadcrumbs but the principle is the same. Just don’t invite Pac-Man.

    Railroads are great because you get from point A to point B to point C in a linear framework. Sometimes, the journey is a rollercoaster ride, other times it’s a sedate journey where you get to take in the scenery along the way. Everyone is on the journey and you travel in the same direction (possibly at different speeds and different classes of carriage) aimed for the same ultimate destination.

    Railroads may challenge participants since they are clearly on a journey and the structure is mostly linear. What happens between the stops may not be quite as thrilling as what happens when you get to a station and you may have to insert a random element to maintain excitement or a scripted element to induce momentum. Writers do this all the time and people don’t get indignant unless it’s an interactive plot.

  2. An open structure with showcased areas of interest which can attract the attention of protagonists. There may be guides to steer people into following particular tours or to direct focus away from storage rooms or backstage spaces (dusty places with stuff that may interest or broken pottery). Let’s call this plot structure a museum; some may see a matrix or bead collection in parataxis. Just don’t invite Adam Sandler over for the night.

    Museums are great because you get to wander around, taking in things that interest you. Some exhibits may be interesting to a number of protagonists, others to a select few. The option to be guided along particular directions is available as is the option to split up and wander off and pursue what interests you. This latter seems to draw people to it like moths to a flyzapper.

    Museums may challenge participants since not everyone is interested in the same thing. Social cohesion of a group can be eroded by individual agendas and break the shared space that participants inhabit. If people have to wait their turn then the pacing needs to be really good or items of interest need to link into an overall framework (Time to break out the cable ties again!) to retain their interest.

Some prefer to compromise, to create a museum with a mesh of railroads with museums at key points in the mesh to ensure plot arcs aren’t derailed. Of course this last option means a lot of work for the organiser/writer/game master and it helps to have a clear road map of what is wanted and where the protagonists need to be to connect the disparate plot elements.

Let me know if you prefer railroads, museums or the compromise. Also, how easy or hard do you find it to use these?