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?

3 thoughts on “Under the Spotlight: Collaboration, Confidence, and Scene Framing

  1. I think Shock, as written, works a lot like you describe. The Antagonist asks the Protagonist, “What is your character doing now?” Then s/he proceeds to generate conflict until the Protag. is unwilling to Say Yes, and it goes to the dice. But Zombie Cinema…yeah, I agree with you there. It’s cool to make a co-op zombie film, but a series of monologues isn’t much fun for anybody. It doesn’t help that it’s hard to generate meaningful conflict; as humans vs. zombies, you’re all pretty much on the same side, and a shared threat tends to bring people closer together rather than drive them apart. Could you play Zombie cinema with a Polaris-style Antagonist? I bet you could…and I’d like to give it a shot.

  2. I have no problem with being in the spotlight. If anything, I have more trouble with collaboration because I owrry that my idea won’t fit, or that I’m trampling someone else’s ideas. My problems with the GMless games we’ve tried (Fiasco, ZC, Shock) is that it can be hard to get everyone on the same page and find a good flow. Also, there aren’t that many points in the game where the dice come out, only four or so decision points for each person in the course of a game, and I can wind up thinking too small for those points.

    Shock is the most difficult for me, I think because of the parallel stories. We’ve had a lack of the cross-pollination of play that occurs when all the PCs are tied together. Maybe the settings need to be more shared, rather than wide open? I’m interested in how Human Contact will work, since it deals with what’s happening among a smaller group of humans.

    I think one of the conceits of Zombie Cinema is that, as in many zombie movies, people very often do not come together and do not work together. So I think the players need to reach for those conflicts (especially since conflict is the only way to win!). But it also feels like there’s not a lot of time to establish the setting before the setting gets chewed up by the zombies.

    One thing I’ve learned since I saw you last: playing Shock at a bar helps. One beer, two beer, red beer, blue beer. You want shome drama, I’ll give you shome drama…

  3. I’m the same way. I can think of loads of things for other peoples’ scenes (I have the problem with thinking my ideas are better [sometimes they are-see, I’m at it again!]) but when it’s my turn I draw a blank. I want to initially react then create actions from that initial reaction. If that makes sense. Maybe it’s because I’m lazy and want other people to populate and frame the scene for me, heh. I really do prefer a collaborative form of storytelling. So often I feel that other people have these great ideas I would never have thought of and I’d like to think that I contribute some of those to others’ stories, too.

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