This is a revised and expanded version of my earlier post comparing Dungeons and Dragons (a collaborative story game with a GM) to Fall of Magic (a collaborative story game without a GM). While the previous post attempted to answer if it’s possible to make a “truly” collaborative story game, this one will explore how my experience playing the two games differs and why. I’ll also theorize how players with different backgrounds than mine (for example, those less experienced with TTRPGs) would experience each game, and end with my thoughts on how I might design my own non-GM collaborative story game. If that sounds interesting, read on–the actual post starts below. (It is about 3k words, so be prepared!)
I started playing Persona 5 a few weeks ago. It’s my second Persona game after playing Persona 3 Portable in 2013, and while I’m enjoying it so far, there’s some jarring moments in the game that take me out of the experience of playing it. Specifically, the treatment of the character Ann Takamaki bothers me almost every time she appears. While at first I thought it’s because of the blatant sexualization of her character, I think that there’s an underlying case of ludonarrative dissonance behind the sexism that makes it even worse.
Warning: this post contains spoilers for Persona 5.
What is LARP?
LARP stands for Live-Action Role-Playing. The way I usually explain it to others is “like Dungeons and Dragons, but in real life.” Basically, instead of saying “My character the elf ranger attacks the monster with her sword,” you dress up as an elf ranger and attempt to hit another person dressed as a monster with your fake sword. LARP events are a ton of fun as a player character (or PC), but tackling them from the other side of the curtain can be intimidating, or at least mysterious.
How do the people who dress up as the monsters know how much health they have? How do you come up with the story for players? How do you account for the fact that this story is happening in real life, not just in peoples’ heads? These are the questions the plot team, also known as the non-player characters (NPCs), must answer.
When I say “tabletop roleplaying game,” what do you think of? Probably Dungeons and Dragons, one of the most popular and well-known tabletop RPGs. But maybe you’re more indie than that, and your mind jumps to Pathfinder, Dread, Apocalypse World, Fate, or any number of other tabletop RPG systems. You could also call these games “collaborative story games,” as in a game where all the players work together to tell a story. Something that all these games have in common is a Game Master, or GM, who essentially controls the narrative, while the other players react to that narrative.
Probably all collaborative story games you can think of have a GM role—one might even argue that a GM is necessary for these kinds of games. But are they really? Can you play a tabletop RPG where there is no GM, and every player has the same level of control over the narrative—a truly collaborative story game?
Over winter break, Netflix released Bandersnatch as part of its Black Mirror series, an “interactive film” where viewers make decisions for the main character as he attempts to create an interactive fiction game (hmm) in the 80s. Like many people, I watched–or is it played?–the film, exploring its many routes and endings. And as I did so, it strongly reminded me of a very similar entertainment experience–that of Telltale Games’ The Wolf Among Us and the studio’s similar games.
In both of these kinds of interactive fiction, the consumer watches a scene unfold on the screen, chooses–or doesn’t–the main character’s action or dialogue at certain points, and then continues to watch as the story unfolds from there. Telltale games even include a “default” option if the player doesn’t make an active choice, just like Bandersnatch. Scene, choice, scene… the cycle continues until the story ends, or you decide to go back to a certain scene and make a different choice.
But while Bandersnatch is called a film, Telltale products are called games, even though they have the same core interaction. Which raises the question: Is Bandersnatch a game? Is TWAU a game? At what point can a work of interactive fiction be called a game? And why?
In a game like Cards Against Humanity or Apples to Apples, should cards be judged against a set criteria? Or should judgement be left to the Judge?
I recently played a game called Awkward Moment. Gameplay-wise, it’s very similar to Cards Against Humanity and Apples to Apples–on each turn, there’s a Judge, who draws one card (in this case, a Situation), and the other players submit a card from their hand (a Reaction), and then the Judge decides what Reaction card best suits the Situation card. The player who submitted the card the Judge picks gets a point, then a new player is the Judge, and so on. The winner is the player at the end of the game with the most points.
The difference between Awkward Moment and CAH or AA, however, is that there is a third type of card–a Decider. The Judge draws this card with the Situation, and it contains the criteria by which the Reaction should be judged compared to the Situation. For example, I draw the Situation “You’re picked last for the dodgeball teams” and the Decider “Most terrifying.” The other players then try to pick the “most terrifying” Reaction to the Situation, like “Howl at the moon” or “Give them a piece of your mind.”
This is a significant departure from CAH and AA, where the judgement criteria is left entirely up to the Judge. Awkward Moment is a transformative game intended to get its players to think about bias and appropriate reactions, which is why Deciders like “Most practical” are mixed in with “Most ridiculous,” but CAH and AA, as games with no ulterior motive besides entertainment, have no need for such guidelines.
…Or do they?
I received the new Spider-Man game for PS4 for Christmas, and have spent pretty much every day since playing it (including at times when I should be doing other things, like homework or applying to jobs). I am always a big fan of single-player story-driven games, and Spider-Man quickly shot to the top of my list like it did for everyone else (it’s the best-selling game in PS4 history). What stands out to me about Spider-Man though, especially when compared to similar open-world games, is how I thoroughly enjoyed the side quests. Especially the collection quests.
CMU and Art in Wartime is a multimedia narrative from completely original research on art created at Carnegie Mellon University in response to war in the last century (WWI to the present). I published my research in a both online, on the Atavist; and in a print book, through Carnegie Mellon’s ETC Press.
“On the Line” is a short nonfiction piece about a day in the life of my sister Alex, a line cook. It won an Adamson Student Writing Award for non-fiction in 2018. You can read it below.