Under the Spotlight: Collaboration, Confidence, and Scene Framing

The Problem

I find that I dislike being the one expected to give myself a situation to which my character is supposed to react.

In the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to play several “GM-less” games in which the scene framing is assigned in a round-robin fashion: on your turn to frame a scene, you’re supposed to create a scene involving your own character. Examples of this type of game are Shock: by Joshua A. C. Newman, Fiasco by Jason Morningstar, and Zombie Cinema by Eero Tuoniven.  (All of which I would recommend highly, as despite my issue here they are well worth playing.)

In my recent Shock: game, for instance, I played a sort of corporate assassin whose job was to steal the memories of his employers’ enemies at the moment of their death.  When it came around to my turn, I was expected to set the scene.  Perhaps my character was climbing up the building to get to his target’s office window, and there were some security drones swarming about looking for him.

But frequently when it came around to my turn, my reaction would be this: “Umm….er….maybe my character is…halfway up the building, trying to get to his target’s office?…I don’t know, that’s all I’ve got.”  Basically, I would fold up into myself whenever I was asked to describe the situation for my own character.  The same thing happened in Fiasco and Zombie Cinema.

But here’s the funny thing: while it wasn’t my turn, while the other players were coming up with their own situations, it was much easier for me to think of ideas for situations they might use.  This was especially true in Zombie Cinema, where I could think of ideas for scenes for pretty much everyone else, but when it came time for my own scene I would mumble something about my character going to the next department store.

So, I started wondering why this is happening.  Why is it easier to come up with ideas for other people’s characters but not my own? I think there are three parts to this.

First, the interaction between me and the other players, the collaboration, is my main reason for playing RPGs in the first place.  I want us to build on each others’ ideas, and not just barf up my own for me to act on.  Because the collaboration element is my favorite part of playing RPGs, I find it much easier to build up other peoples’ ideas than to build up my own.  I’m okay with planting a seed — “Maybe my character is climbing up the side of the skyscraper” — but tending to it by myself becomes much more difficult.  Describing, by myself, a fight between my character and the security drones will strike me as all shades of boring.  Me.  Talking.  Alone. For the whole scene.

Second, perhaps, is simply the pressure of being in the spotlight.  I don’t like everyone’s attention on me alone.  If everyone is looking at me expectantly, waiting for me to come up with the next scene involving my character, I’ll get nervous, awkward, and uncomfortable.  When other people are in the spotlight, I have the leisure to relax and think of cool ideas.

Finally, another reason, aside from apparent lack of self-confidence, is lack of interest.  I’m far less intrigued in seeing how my character will react to situations that I think up for them.  I am much *more* interested in making decisions about situations that the other players throw at my character.  And additionally, though I may be interested in how other players’ characters react to situations that the players themselves make up, seeing the characters react to situations that their players had not anticipated makes the choices they make even more fascinating.

My Proposed Solution

Our heavily-modified World of Darkness game works without a GM as well, so when thinking about how to handle it I was determined to avoid having the above issues.  (It *is* a play-by-email game, so that might have alleviated some of the pressure, but I wanted to use the opportunity to test out something new).  My solution was two-fold, drawing mostly on two different games, Prime Time Adventures by Matt Wilson and Polaris by Ben Lehman.  In Polaris, each player is assigned another person’s Player Character for which they play the Antagonist, that is, any NPCs or events that act against the desires of the other player’s character.   In Polaris, other characters are given the roles of NPCs with beneficial intentions toward the PCs, and still others, if necessary, are given the neutral roles.  For our WoD game we simplified this, assigning one player to each PC as the Antagonist, essentially giving them the GM’s role whenever it’s that character’s turn for a scene.  This dovetails nicely with the Best Interests from In A Wicked Age, which we’re also incorporating.  Additionally, so as to give the PC’s player some say in the matter, before the Antagonist sets the scene the character’s owner has the option of requesting a scene, as in Prime Time Adventures (with the difference that PTA has a single GM, the Producer).  Our WoD: Motor City game is really just getting under way, but I’m  interested to see how it works out, and I would be very much interested in trying something like it in games in real life sometime.


Obviously this is only one potential solution to the problems I mentioned above.  Additionally, your mileage may certainly vary.  My “problems” may not be problematic at all for you; different groups and players will of course have different tastes, goals and agendas.  However, if like me you find that you struggle when alone in the spotlight, this may provide an alternative that won’t leave you flailing under pressure.

So how about you, o readers?  What do you think of games where you’re put on the spotlight in this way?  Do you freeze when all attention is on you alone, or do you thrive?  How important is the back-and-forth element of collaboration in your games?

My Current Games

I’m currently running or playing three RPG campaigns.

1. Apocalypse World by Vincent Baker.  This is being played over Skype with my friends Matt and Bekka.  We’re using Vyew.com as a whiteboard to keep track of notes and post pictures and maps and so forth.  This game has been going for over ten sessions.  Matt has retired one character (an Operator named Nero) and created a second (a Brainer named Vile).  Bekka’s Skinner, Shiraz, is still going strong.  The characters are part of a caravan moving between three or four towns; we actually have a fairly large campaign map that so far has been mostly for flavor (so far we’ve only left the Hard Rock Plateau once, to visit the Brandlands).  Shiraz has recently come into possession of an artifact that seems to have some kind of link to or control over the psychic maelstrom (which is a sort of universal consciousness that has been f’d up by the advent of the apocalypse.  Or something.)

2. Dogs in the Vineyard by Vincent Baker – This is also being played over Skype/Vyew.  Dogs has long been one of my favorite games.  My favorite campaign to date was running Dogs with the setting from Engel.  This time we’re playing with the setting from the book.  So far we’ve only done half of a town, the White Springs branch, in which there seems to be some trouble between the townsmen and the local mountain folk.  Dogs has always seemed pretty difficult to run online, so I photoshopped up a conflict worksheet and using it in Vyew has made things a lot easier.

3. World of Darkness: Motor City – Is a play-by-email game that’s just started here in the past couple weeks.  We’re using a heavily modified/simplified version of the World of Darkness rules (taken mostly from the Mirrors sourcebook, but also grafting in some ideas from Spirit of the Century and using an oracle (random situation generator) a la In A Wicked Age to create the set-up.  This is going to be played as a series of vignettes all set in the same city (an alternate Detroit) and timeline, with interconnected and recurring characters.  Our first story involves an incarnation of Death searching for some missing Souls, who have been captured by Sukur-Gis, an ancient evil in the form of a tree of thorns.  On a more mundane level of the story, it’s about a young man searching for his girlfriend, who is one of the souls entrapped by Sukur-Gis.  I expect that the oracles we’re using will be the subject of a post here in the near future.

I’m also part of an RPG group IRL, although with the holidays and everything of late I’ve only been able to play one game with them this month, a one-shot of Zombie Cinema set in a mall on Black Friday.  There is talk of either a Dogs campaign or Shock: Human Contact starting soon, but I don’t know if I’ll be back from vacation in time for either of those.