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.