Purposeful Play

The past couple weeks, Jonathan Perrine has been running Epyllion for us. We just wrapped our third session and we have one more to go before we lose one of our regulars. I don’t know what the plan is beyond next session. But whatever happens, another player in the group is starting his Burning Wheel game whenever Epyllion wraps up and I’ll be playing in that one as well.

This will be the longest stretch as a player in long-form games for as long as I can remember. Like, I literally cannot remember the last time I did this. Possibly a MET Vampire L.A.R.P. 20 years ago? A WOD mashup game around the same time? Hard to believe it’s been literally decades — god I’m old — but there we are.

I’m taking this time to really dig into a few things.

My favorite side activity is observing player dynamics on the player side of the table. Super interesting! Kind of aggravating! From the GM’s seat, I can enjoy the fireworks because I don’t have fireworks exploding in my face. Quite different when you’re operating in the immediacy of character play. I’m playing in ringer mode (mentioned before: there in a support role to help make the GM’s job easier via modeling play or whatever) so I’m keeping my own character and the rest of the table kind of at arm’s length. But I definitely feel the engagement/disengagement of each player in a different way when I’m among them, and not dedicating all my bandwidth to facilitating the rest of the show.

I’m reeling my play waaaaay in. I could probably shoulder my way into the action, but I’m trying to feel out new ways of being fulfilled by the experience other than by being the center of attention. The hardest part of this, for me, is fighting my worst Star Player urges. The thing I mentioned in that old essay about Star Players generating energy but also demanding energy? Yeah, giving up being in the middle of everyone’s attention is hard. I spend a lot of time sitting and listening and trying to figure out to throw softballs to the other players. I’m kind of bad at being a helpful sidekick.

Another interesting thing for me is feeling out authority among my peers. An Epyllion specific thing: the economy of handing out friendship tokens. Quick version is, each character has a virtue, and the player hands out their tokens when they see that virtue played out by someone else. It’s a clever way to keep the players engaged in scenes they’re not in and to pay attention to each other. Our table is kind of terrible at it. Since I’m a fiend for reward cycles and chasing economic inducements, it’s actively aggravating when the table ignores it. A couple times I goosed another player about what it would take to get one of their tokens, which unfortunately also creates kind of bad or awkward feelings: nobody likes to be called out. This is something that jumps out at me as a player more strongly than it would as a GM, since it directly impacts my play priorities. I’m singing and dancing as hard as I can but I can’t get tokens from anyone! Anyway, the point of all this is that bringing this topic up as a player, to another player, just feels different than as a GM. In a perfect world we’re all perfect peers regardless of table role. We live in an imperfect world, though.

Oh, last priority of my purposeful play experiment: observing another GM’s craft. I kind of never do this in a one-shot convention setting where I’m a player, unless something really interesting shows up. But I’ve got time and space to do that in this game. One interesting bit I saw Jonathan do was take detailed notes about mechanical engagement, as in what widgets did we not use? That’s an interesting level of analysis. He noted to himself that my Crafter hadn’t had a chance to use his dris An Eye For Detail move and then muttered “that’s on me.” And I was like…maybe? Could be an interesting exercise in some future game I run to evaluate that sort of thing.

Anyway, it’s been in turns interesting, relaxing, and aggravating. I know for sure I’ll be raring to go once my vacation is over.

22 thoughts on “Purposeful Play”

  1. I’ve been feeling for a while now that getting onto both sides of the table — both in short and long form — is a good thing when you can do it. Even if you’re like me and GM 90% of the time, even if you’re like Mo and play 90% of the time.

    Seeing things from both sides, really having time to experience it and see how things work, feel, and flow, is super cool.

    (Its also one of the reasons I think my split-GM/player games work — everyone involved has experience on both sides of the table, and with each other.)

  2. Playing games where players hand out rewards unguided IME only works with a table full of experienced GMs…and sometimes with tables full of people with no traditional baggage.

  3. Ralph Mazza that is proving itself extremely true at this table. Our newest addition is having some trouble fitting into our play culture in lots of ways, and this game (and my AW game prior) is really highlighting that.

  4. Brand Robins we did Night Witches a couple years ago and it was a very positive experience! I’m not sure that it’s a great fit, thematically/emotionally, with my current table composition. But the rotating GM trick is outstanding.

  5. Paul Beakley​ what if it were flipped? What if YOU get the token when you observe someone else playing to your virtue.

    How would that change the dynamic?

    I have a thing for totem passing mechanisms. I get a point for passing you a totem. But now you have the totem and I can’t get another point until someone passes it back to me for me to pass again.

  6. I’m feeling the “observation of player dynamics from the other side” feeling right now. Playing in two games, back-to-back, after only having run for a looooong time, and I’m in particular noting things that are not being done that I have come to rely on as second nature, and I’ve had to shift myself hard into “ringer mode,” as you put it.

    Like, I get heavily improvising a short campaign; that’s how I roll. But if that’s going to happen, I build a lot of structure into character creation, with leading questions like “A, what did B do in your shared history that means you’d walk through fire for her?”

    Without that? Yeesh. In our Uncharted Worlds game, there was none of this group-structure-building, just a vague reassurance that the GM wasn’t going to restrict us much, and we ended up with a completely unworkable mess of characters. Sociopaths alongside big-damn-hero types, everybody keeping their super seeeekrit backstories to themselves, players thinking they needed to pass notes to the GM. Frigging nightmare. (Literally my first scene: I picked another character, took him aside in game, and said “you seem like someone I can trust; here are all my secrets! Also, what do you know about mysterious plot element?”)

    It took less than ten minutes to fix it between the first and section sessions, but it required me to say “look, we dropped the ball and our party is a mess, can we try to build our characters to actually give half a shit about sticking together in this giant open world?”

    One of the “worst” players in our group, in the sense of making characters and playing them like precious little darlings who are oh-so-super-unique and also don’t need anything from anybody, has never run a game. Maybe ever. Certainly not since he’s been playing with my crowd. I think there’s definitely something to the notion of flipping the screen every once in a while.

  7. Ralph Mazza like you pay yourself out of a pool when you see someone play your virtue? Dunno, having trouble imagining that. It feels like it’d undermine the laser-like MLP focus on friendship that runs under the game.

  8. I didn’t see myself as a GM for like the first 20 years of playing… going behind the screen was a big eye-opener for me. Gave me a lot more empathy of for what GMs are trying to do, and I suspect it made me a better player, or at least a less selfish one, in the process.

  9. Ralph Mazza the mechanical side of this is that giving your gems to people improves their rolls when they help you, so having everyone at the table loaded with your gems gives you reliable assistance.

  10. Jonathan Perrine sure. I’m just thinking from a share-of-player-attention perspective, the game might have benefited from reversing that.

    So instead of: I pay attention to you so I can give you a reward that may help me. Flip it to I pay attention to you so I can get a reward that may help you.

    Psychologically I think we’re wired to be more likely to recognize when it’s time to get something than to recognize when it’s time to give something.

    That’s one of the reasons Keys work so well.

  11. Ralph Mazza that might be. I know I feel a bit aggrieved when I do the thing, then have to ask for my cookie because my performative virtue went unrecognized.

    I didn’t notice that dynamic in one shot play but it’s kind of building up in this campaign.

  12. Great post, Paul. I like this kind of introspective analysis. I also really enjoy observing how others play and GM, to appreciate it, but also to mine their techniques for my own use!

    Right now I’m having trouble because I joined a group (an ongoing campaign) which has a variety of easily-fixable problems, but they don’t ever make time to talk about the game and don’t like e-mails… it’s frustrating.

  13. As a GM, I’ve never tried tracking people’s uses of their powers/moves/abilities.

    However, I do often go through the characters’ sheets and look at abilities or special details which haven’t seen play and think of scenes or NPCs or Bangs which would give them opportunities to do that. It’s a very handy prep technique!

    (It gets good when you make pairs of them. “Ben hasn’t used his mind-reading skills, and Julie hasn’t earned XP from interacting with her old mentor.” What’s the most obvious thing? Have a scene with the mentor, and give him a mysterious secret he won’t reveal. Dumb example, but you can see how it works. Very quick and effective prep.)

  14. Paul Taliesin one reason I track this is because Epy doubles down on ‘players picking those powers are signaling intent /interest to you’ and it’s on the GM to offer opportunities that fit that. Also, everyone only has 1-3 powers so making a short list and checking them off is simple and quick.

  15. Paul Taliesin there’s a section called Beneath the Scales that says as much, before covering the Playbook moves in detail and what to provide for each to help push that move.

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