Actual play recordings are a burgeoning new niche of podcasts, places where you can go to hear people play through new systems, or just go on grand adventures. But many actual plays are boring, with hours of rules lawyering or explanations, nobody talking in character, and nothing edited out of the mix to speed up play. I’ve tried a lot of actual play podcasts over the years, but only two have managed to hold my interest when my attention wanes and life gets in the way of my binge-listening. Both are heavily edited, include music, and go through several layers of production, which make them stand apart from your run-of-the-mill, four-friends-with-a-microphone-put-something-on-the-internet podcast. These are The Adventure Zone, of McElroy brothers fame, and Friends at the Table. A good friend, Kieffer Katz, recently told me how he thinks of these two:
I’ve just finished listening to Friends at the Table’s epic 44-episode campaign, “COUNTER/Weight,” and thought I’d explore this assertion a little bit, about how FATT uses the mechanics of their various game systems not only as a medium to tell their story, but as a method of developing the narrative itself.
Of course this is true of all roleplaying games to some extent. This is largely why we play—no one, GM included, (or perhaps especially) can predict the outcome of an individual scenario, adventure, or session. But what does it mean to let go of the reins, and allow mechanics to dictate the story?
The common Call of Cthulhu complaint is that, if everyone fails the Spot Hidden roll, they don’t get the clue. I’m not sure if that’s what I mean here. It comes down, of course, to GM engagement. If they miss the clue vital to the game, should the GM override the dice to make sure the story progresses–but how does the GM provide them the clue? Essentially, when the dice say, “No, you don’t find this clue here,” the environment changes around the dice–the clue, if it’s vital for the solution to the mystery, moves somewhere else, somewhere the investigators might have a second chance to discover it. Or, perhaps the dice are deciding that the clue simply isn’t necessary, and the Keeper now has to re-orient the session toward the other clues, with certain avenues now closed for the players. In either case, the story has changed around the players, and even around the Keeper, because of the roll of the dice.
The following includes very light spoilers for the COUNTER/Weight campaign.
In Episode 27, GM Austin Walker sits down with player Jack de Quidt to play a micro-game of their own devising, The Tower. It’s an interesting moment, shortly after an in-game revelation about Jack’s character (AuDy: short for “Automated Dynamics,” they’re a former valet-parking robot. It’s this whole thing.) Suddenly, the audience is cast back in time as Jack and Austin play through this two-player system, using its light mechanics and narrative focus to learn (through the system) how AuDy came to be who they are. This learning is key: neither Jack nor Austin presume to know how AuDy came to be AuDy, rather, they use the emergent nature of the game itself to produce the very meaning they latch onto and make part of the story.
Most of “COUNTER/Weight” is played in The Sprawl system, a cyberpunk setting and hack of Apocalypse World. The first episode of the series, however, runs through Stars Without Number, a setting-creation game that builds the framework of the world where the players will play. Part of the pitch behind “COUNTER/Weight” is that two games are always going on at the same time, the main game of The Sprawl, and a higher level “faction game,” run in both Stars Without Number and Microscope, simulating the larger world that moves around the protagonists as they go on heists, get in mecha battles, etc. All told, the Friends at the Table play seven different game systems over the course of “COUNTER/Weight,” all in the interest of letting these different mechanical influences develop the narrative in surprising ways, ways unseen at the outset of the campaign.
So what’s the takeaway from all this? I GMed a session of Dungeons & Dragons this weekend (my first D&D game in almost nine months) and I discovered that my voice had profoundly changed—Austin Walker was in my head, asking my players to act out “scenes” instead of providing those scenes for them, saying, “I think it would be this way… what do you think?” instead of delegating how it is. As I prepare to bring this D&D campaign to a close (yes, it’s a campaign, but we’re grad students and scheduling is hard, cut us some slack!) and imagine the climactic final scenes, I wonder how I can incorporate more of these lessons from Friends at the Table. How do the mechanics of D&D suggest climactic moments, beyond the fight with the big bad? How do I invite my players into writing those final scenes, into making that personal investment?
The mechanics of even the most granular roleplaying systems are actually rather open. Of course we can always (and should) house-rule, but there’s a power to asking players to develop the world for you, and then seeing how the mechanics influence the world you drew together. When they meet a new traveller on the road, ask them what the traveller looks like, and how the road has worn them down.
I hazard you a thought experiment. At the end of a session, a Call of Cthulhu campaign encounters a mysterious orb in an evil scientist’s laboratory. In the next session, when the players show up, business as usual, they are instead set down to a round of Dawn of Worlds, a game in which they create a world and its history from its inception. This, they discover before the night is out, is a capsule-world, developed within the mysterious orb their usual players discovered last session, the will of its peoples being cruelly harnessed as a source of energy. What kind of investment would this create? Now the investigators fight not only for their world, but for this world of their creation.
I ask my students, when they work together, to think about “crowdsourcing” information–why not do this with our roleplaying stories? Especially when a Keeper or GM is pressed for time, or needs to improvise through a scenario, (like, say, a one-page scenario) relying on the players’ own imaginations can be a tremendous resource. In fact, it’s hard for me to imagine running one of our one-page scenarios without this player input, at least not without me doing a lot of prep work beforehand (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing). For me, crowdsourcing is an essential skill in any game that requires improvisation, taking the full burden for content creation off of the GM.
I suppose that this article has shifted from its thesis about letting mechanics make surprising twists in the game to inviting the players into that same, story-generating space. Sometimes, like in the finale of “COUNTER/Weight,” roleplaying games cease being something that we play–they become something more than a story told by a GM, and even more than the sum of their parts in the GM and the players. They become something emergent, opening the space for us to experience this becoming, a sense that there is more than this room to the stories we tell.
Now some of you are saying this is wishy-washy claptrap, (I sincerely hope that there is someone in the world who levels “wishy-washy claptrap” as a form of criticism) that the GM’s job is to present the world to the players and not the other way around. Of course this is true. Austin Walker does a phenomenal amount of work building out the COUNTER/Weight universe, and FATT stands on the dozens and dozens of hours I know that he put in behind the scenes (not to mention the fine production work of Ali Acampora). And yet, Austin is willing to let himself be surprised, to learn from his players, and from the system, that the story might be something unexpected, something more wondrous than a single mind could dream.
So the next time your players do something unexpected, consider rolling with it, wholeheartedly. Even if you’re running a major prewritten campaign, like Masks of Nyarlathotep or Horror on the Orient Express, but especially if you’re using the resources we provide here, be willing to make major changes. There is drama in the dice roll, and players love to frighten themselves–seize on these opportunities. When one of your players wants to steal that painting, let them, but incorporate horrific consequences later. This will both make your players feel more empowered, (they’ve changed the state of the world) and give you more ammunition to drive the drama of your story.
Next time we’ll look at the other side of the equation, how The Adventure Zone uses its systems as medium, as opposed to plot driver.
Special thanks to Ali Acampora for tracking down the original world-building episode of “COUNTER/Weight,” which you can find here.
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