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Activating Players

Posted by mashugenah on 2013.11.18 at 16:50
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I am a huge fan of EPOCH, Dale Elvy's game of survival horror. In particular, I am a fan of his idea of "Player Activation" - the idea that the total game environment, from system to presentation, needs to foster an interesting and collaborative experience. Dale's advice in the rulebook itself can hardly be faulted, and much of that advice can be found free on either the EPOCH or his own blog. However, despite my respect and love, I find myself taking a slightly contrary view about this matter from time to time, and a recent exposition seems like a great focus for explaining why.

Dale advises GMs to Pimp Your Game. As Dale explains:
In EPOCH I argue there are no ‘bad’ players. Only players that are not ‘activated’ and that it is possible for a GM to activate almost every player using a variety of techniques. However, by far the most important technique is to ensure the players of the game are aligned with the style, an objective of the game that the GM wishes to run.
This is indisputably useful perspective on the game, but I think there is a conceptual pitfall that I worry about falling into: while this is expressed in terms of empowering players, what it can do is put more pressure on the GM to perform. There are no 'bad' players, only 'bad' GMs that fail to 'activate' their 'not-bad' players.

Dale's advice is excellent - up to a point. I like to think about this in terms of a critical minimum energy level. I've run several games, and played several games under Dale, where swift and incisive GM action has switched a player on, and kept the game running. However, when I think about the games that were great, instead of merely adequate, I can't think of an example where any kind of player activation was needed. So, even if we rule out 'bad' players that doesn't mean we should rule out 'good' ones.

But, actually, let's not rule out 'bad' players just yet. Instead, let's take a quick look at the types of trouble players identified in Greg Stolze's "How To Play Roleplaying Games." He identifies three main types, "The Overactor", "The Powergamer" and "Mr Lazybones". EPOCH's "player activation" is designed to remove the tools of the Powergamer - the system cannot easily be gamed in the way familiar to the master of a D&D3.5 feat tree. Similarly, Mr Lazybones will soon find himself out of outcome cards - but Dale's advice is broader than that, structured around eliminating this type of player.

The trade-off, however, is that EPOCH struggles to deal with the Overactor. Stolze outlines the key to rehabilitating these players:
Players like this need to understand that they don't call the shots, that the group isn't there to serve their pleasure at the expense of their own, and that it's okay for selfish, odd-duck characters to grow and change so that they work better with the rest of the party.
The problem is the EPOCH actually runs completely counter to this solution. Survival is based on "interesting" characters, and flashbacks are designed to put the rest of the game on hold while the character is explored. The voting mechanism may mean that a specific group rejects a specific over-actor's character, but I have just as frequently seen the reverse, where someone is rewarded for their bad behaviour at the expense of the scenario as a whole. Structurally, EPOCH is at best neutral in terms of helping a GM to contain an overactor - the GM must still exercise the usual array of psychological tricks and tools to keep things on track. That still puts it far ahead of the curve, however. Most games are susceptible in equal measure to all three of Stolze's trouble types.

Dealing with "Overactor" players in EPOCH scenarios is almost entirely in the hands of the group, but the GM can help in a few ways. The most important thing the GM can do is help redirect the player flashback toward the story of the game. It is all too easy for a player to become invested in some completely arbitrary back-story that lead to the character's formation, but which does not connect specifically to the situations that the characters are encountering. Perversely, the way to do this is to extend the flashback sequence, asking leading questions explicitly connecting the flashback to the nominally triggering event. Secondly, you can encourage other players to either join in or piggyback with their own cards. I think that a key way of getting flashbacks to work for the group is to frame them in such a way that joining on or piggybacking feels natural, and that inclusivity ameliorates the worst parts of the Overactor's usual behaviour.

The framework of the discussion so far has been about players, but the reality is that roleplaying is a group activity. If we accept that there are no 'bad' players, are there nevertheless, bad groups? I've had the experience a few times where one or two players was doing everything right, in terms of the system demands, and yet they were out of sync with the group, which meant that the games didn't work that well, but you couldn't point to any one character as being a problem by themselves. I've now seen this with both veteran EPOCH groups and neophytes, and I suspect that it is driven by the implicit competition for "interest". In the most extreme case, one played opted out of using a flashback when prompted by the GM because they felt unable to compete with the gonzo flashbacks of a couple of other characters. In some ways, the challenge for the GM in that came was de-activiting players on overdrive.

One of the great things about EPOCH's tools, especially in voting and in the details of the flashback cards, is that the onus for doing these things is shared by the group. Other players can take a role in activating their other players. In amongst the excellent advice for GMing in EPOCH and elsewhere, it is entirely too easy to overlook that the players outnumber the GM in most games, and so have the potential to have an even bigger impact than even the most adroit game manager.

I have often advocated EPOCH even to friends who are not particularly interested in horror, because I belive that the concept of "player activation" is transferrable to other games. This is always something that I look for when buying or playing a new game. Most of the forgettable, or memorable for bad reasons, games that I've played or run were that way because of players who were unengaged. Similarly, most of the really amazing experiences I've had have been in groups as a whole who really took the game and ran with it. This post has been intended to just point out one fly in the ointment, and suggest a way of fishing it out.


total-party-kill.blogspot.co.nz at 2013-11-19 08:15 (UTC) (Link)
Great post Mash.
To put in my 2c from the design perspective, In addition to the flashback, which you've illustrated well, there is a dual mechanism in EPOCH to deal with the 'Overactor' - the game (as written) suggest that the severity of injury or mental trauma played should reduce the 'spotlight time' of the character in a proportionate, in fact let me quote:

"In addition, the more severe the card played, the greater the impact it should have on the characters ability to develop their character during the subsequent Tension Phase, thereby limiting the players ability to make their character the most interesting, or interact with the scenario"

To that end suggestions about how the appropriateness of the severity of the injury are included in the Appendix. What this means is that each player should be forced to have their character play a lesser role during the round where they play a 'serious' card, and a reduced role during the round where they play a 'moderate' card. Ideally this should mean that in phases after the first, each character has a phase where they have maximum spotlight time, and phases where they have reduced spotlight time - ideally creating a degree of balance and allowing characters to choose their phase to shine and attempt to win the ballot.

At least that's how I intended it to work - paired with a complication deck to provide suggestions for players who are struggling to think of ways to compete with 'Overactor' characters.

However, the catch is that if the 'Overactor' has won the ballot several times (despite not receiving flashbacks), then their character will have additional cards, which means they have the potential to play more 'light' cards in subsequent phases. In this case, all I can say is that if the group has collectively found that character to be most interesting on several occasions, then the people have spoken - and that seems far fairer than putting the load of deciding whether an Overactor is dominating the game at the expense of others, or enhancing a game, on the GM alone.

grandexperiment at 2013-11-19 21:07 (UTC) (Link)
Interesting post. I am fan of mechanics that allow players to directly reward other players as a means of increasing the overall player focus and encouraging people to stay on the same page. The tricky part is ensuring that its not too heavy handy in the negative.
mashugenah at 2013-11-20 10:14 (UTC) (Link)
Have you played EPOCH yet?
grandexperiment at 2013-11-20 17:42 (UTC) (Link)
Not yet :) I had a couple of opportunities recently but they both fell through. Doesn't look like I will be able to at Kapcon either given my schedule.
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