Talky-Talky Games

Or as the folks down in marketing call them, freeform games. Sometimes, depending. It’s the games where you play for hours and never touch dice, right? Insert wink emoji and a link to the DMG here.

Whenever I hit a big indie-friendly con, I get my annual dose of talky-talky games. I don’t get to play them a lot at home, where I prefer more traditional play and an extended campaign structure. So I don’t really play them a lot, but I get a lot out of them when I do. At BigBadCon, I got to present Rachel E.S. Walton​’s Mars 244 and Christian Griffen​’s Meridian, and play Steve Hickey​’s Soth and Jamie Fristrom​’s Superhuman, all of which are IMO in this gaussian design space.

Christian and I had a conversation recently about the fact that play skill isn’t something talked about much (as compared to GM and designer skill), in particular play skill in the talky-talky space. I have no idea if I’m the person for this, given my limited experience, but here are my thoughts anyway.

Settle on a couple character hooks early, even if you hate them. So what’s a hook? Might be a funny linguistic tic, or an idea about how the world works, or an attraction or resentment toward another character, or a profound character flaw. I say “even if you hate them” because you need to nail something down really fast, so the other players have something to play against. Nothing, I mean nothing, is harder in roleplaying than characterizing against the player equivalent of the Wilson ball. The easier you make it on the other players, the easier they can make it for you. I eventually find something charming about even the stuff I super-hate about my own characterization. Don’t know why, it’s probably just my ego.

Example: In our Mars 244 game, I played Saros, the ship’s human-seeming android. Totally a scifi trope, right? And I fell into the Lt. Data Star Trek thing pretty early: you know, the ridiculous precision and interpersonal cluelessness. I hated it but I stuck it out, because at least it was something for folks to play against. And then they gave me material right back to play against. And then it got better. I never stopped hating it but it worked, and I found other things to love about him.

Be obvious. I tend to play and run all my games in primary colors, so that’s true here, too. Nobody is psychic and almost everyone is so inwardly focused, that it’s really hard to suss out nuance. Ours is not a subtle art! Nuance is an indulgence I just cannot afford at the table, especially with strangers and limited time. Externalize those internal struggles! Take a small bit of characterization and broaden it.

Example: In Meridian, the Journeyer arrived at a location called the Court of Whispers. It’s full of weird little cliques of characters all judging and whispering and being Mean Girls, basically, but with dancing thimbles and snooty elves. So I played that waaaay up, with the pointing and the scowling and primary-color you are now being judged. Who has time to wait for the player to come to this discovery themself?

Pounce on provocative details. Every moment of play, listen for the new material that shows up that makes you think inappropriate thoughts, or squicks you out, or lends itself to an obvious joke, or really sends your judgy hackles up. Basically, if your ears perk up and your heart races a little, jump on that thing when you get a chance. The fancy word is “reincorporate,” but what I’m talking about is taking someone else’s thing and running with it as hard as you can while you can.

Example: In Soth, oh man…that game is rich with provocative details. Jeremiah Frye​, the Keeper (gm/facilitator), is playing my ex-wife, upon whom I’m dumping my kid because I have to go end the world with a ritual. Jeremiah throws the “you’re a terrible father” shade at my character, and sure enough I get the little flutter and the heart rate thing. And, yeah, so I escalate my bad-dad thing hard! I felt provoked by it way more than anything we had established about the child.

Toss softballs. This is kind of the apotheosis of be obvious and pounce on provocative details: here’s a thing I heard you bring up, it caught my attention, so let me toss it right back into your lap painted in primary colors so you can give me more of that. Softballs are gentle and easy and the other side gets to look like a hero because they’re so, so easy to swing at.

That said, I also save the hardballs for when it’s time to break out the feels. If the whole game is wall-to-wall sadness, eh, that’s probably not a game I’m super into. But! When you’ve got a game that’s designed to play toward that, start with some softballs to get your target used to swinging at what you throw them. And to continue this wretched metaphor, when you throw the hardball, aim for their center of mass. This isn’t time to be gentle. It’s time to make them jump and swing hard as hell. And as often as not, they’ll hit that fucker right back at you and you’re the one who takes the hardball to the heart.

Example: Mars 244 again, because I’ve been thinking a lot about my sad robot story a lot since then. Saros has been observing Abigail, a teenage girl who was born on Mars and is not a prisoner, pining to become like the ship’s crew and wander the stars. She’s a secondary character, so in the Mars/Montsegur structure you don’t really stage them up with major scenes, but she’s gotten some quality play time from other players pulling her in. So anyway, Saros has just heard that the ship will be boarded in an hour, and everyone’s either gonna die or go to jail. He quietly invites her to the ship’s observation deck so he can show her the stars. I do the Data thing a little bit and then stop, playing up the self-awareness that it’s bad human interaction. Then I throw the hardball: “Abigail, do you enjoy this? I thought you’d better see the stars before you … cannot.”

Aiee! Is she gonna go to jail? Is she gonna die? And, yeah, I beaned myself pretty good with that hardball.

Play toward your worst choices and rely on the other players to rescue you. You ever see those goofy trust-building exercises where you’re supposed to fall backward and get caught? Just like that. And not just in Fiasco-y funny talky-talky games! In Jamie’s Superhuman game, oh lord, I was constantly relying on other players to get me out of bad choices.

Be brave with major authorship. This one’s pretty obvious for the GMs who play these games, and sometimes I think talky-talky games are written by and for GMs who never get to play. But, yeah: add something big, at least once in the game. Add a major location, a major relationship, a major bit of history, a major Big Idea. I think some games are better built to receive those major additions, and you have to be not-tone-deaf. It’s not a perfect technique! But when there’s space for something big, go big.

Another Superhuman story: Jamie had mentioned in passing something called “Project Utopia” in one of his scenes. Hackles went up when I heard it (provocative!). Softballed it a couple times. Then when it was my scene, I went ahead and defined just what Project Utopia actually was. Everyone jumped on it, and it felt kind of like a relief to have it out in the open and discussable, you know?

Anyway, I could go on for another thousand words but this stuff was rattling around up there. Hope it’s useful to someone.

0 thoughts on “Talky-Talky Games”

  1. Ah, great thinking. I think if you trawl a net through those suggestions you will pull out a single long thin eel wriggling through them (that’s how nets and eels work, right?), which is about the emotional reality of the characters rather than their reasonability or goals. And that is good character design whether it’s a freeform game or not.

  2. We definitely need to game together next year. This all sounds like great general gaming insight. Gonna drink it up.

    And dang, I totally misconstrued what Meridian was about. I had this idea in my head that it was, like, card or board focused? No idea where that came from.

  3. Jeremy Kostiew oh yeah, Meridian is a card-driven game. But the cards are just prompts and a little randomization of inputs. Totally a talky-talky psychedelic travelogue.

  4. Hey Brie Sheldon — you’ve been writing some good stuff on how to be a good player. You’re probably already aware of this post, but if not, I think you’ll find it interesting.

  5. Aaron Griffin hm. That’s a really interesting question.

    Some of this is nar-gm type best practices, stripped of their weird social-rank gloss. Like, it’s super good to be brave about authorship as a player in a talky-talky game in a way that it miiight not be in a strong-gm trad game.

    I’m a sponge when it comes to watching and learning so I’m constantly watching for what works and what folks respond well to. But at this point I couldn’t possibly even say what my first talky-talky game was, much less where I learned any of these techniques.

    Some of it is improv-derived but I’m a step away from that. I’ve never taken an improv class but I’ve read a lot, and played with folks with strong improv chops.

    I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Graham W​’s Play Unsafe here. Good read, gives you all the improv tools you’d need.

  6. Paul Beakley interesting. I’ve had great con games where I was proud of my contributions, and I blame that on having a table of awesome players. In a game with (ugh what’s a way to not sound negative?) less bold players, my own play also seems to falter.

    Really terrible metaphor for this venue, but I almost wonder if it’s like the sport of olympic weightlifting – you can learn it on your own but it’s going to be ugly and inefficient until you get some hands on help from a real coach.

  7. This is some really interesting stuff! I totally disagree with playing character hooks you hate, but that might be because I don’t like hating my characters & generally find that it ruins games for me.

    If I find it’s appropriate in my final analysis for my What Makes a Good Player? series, would you be okay with me linking to this? Let me know!

  8. Cool! Thank you. 🙂 I think your points about obviousness, authorship, and provocative details are really on-point, so I think it’d be useful to refer to it when I talk about some of the other players’ comments.

  9. Oh and let me clarify re the “hate” thing, because I totally hear you!

    I wouldn’t actually advocate for aiming toward an unlikable character. But I’m service minded, so what I’m really saying is more along the lines of “perfect is the enemy of done.” I don’t want to hold up anyone else, so I’ll trust that I can extract value from early not-perfect choices.

  10. Paul Beakley OOH that makes much more sense with that clarification. Thanks! I was just thinking of times where I (or others) picked up on negative traits for our characters early on, and stuck to it even though it was clearly frustrating for us or others. With your clarification, it makes total sense!

  11. Oh that is the Superhuman? Post about that game! I literally printed out like 10 copies and have them ready to play all the time, but never get the chance to play it

  12. Jamie Fristrom right? I think it’s super-easy to fall into that with kind of…all the talky-talky games. I could feel the edges of it creeping in here and there during Superhuman but more like…comedy relief than Coen Brothers.

    I wanted to include a thing about tone sensitivity but tbh that feels kind of like 201-level stuff and this was a 101-level post. And there are folks who are so so much more qualified to really go deep into the weeds about freeform.

  13. thanks for this! I have very little experience with talky-talky games, unless they’re super-structured, like Swords Without Master, and would like to learn more. Even PTA3 looks a bit daunting to me.

  14. PTA3 is an outstanding and very tight game. For me it’s right on the border between talky-talky and storygame (for two ill-defined and contentious categories). There is random resolution via card play, which to me is what puts it back over on the storygame borderline.

    I’ve played each edition and third is so so good.

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