2006-03-08 : Between-session Activity


Where do you think between-sessions activities (such as GM prep, or discussions about character direction, or whatever) fit into our models of play, which seem to be mainly focused at the table? Do you think between-session activity can be used productively in design? How, and are there any extant examples you can think of?

My easy, short, super stupid dumb answer is: since that stuff isn't play-as-such, it doesn't fit into our models of play-as-such. Instead what we've got is a cluster of different ways to treat out-of-play activity when play resumes. They're all variations on "I know it's not real until it's in play, but let's pretend it's real, in blah blah blah particular way." That's where we get me insisting that a player character's secret backstory is best understood as something the player is planning, not something the player is keeping secret. That's where we get various struggles about how to handle "the GM decides what's a sin before play, but doesn't judge the PCs" in Dogs.

Oh but yeah, obviously I think that between-session activity can be used productively in design. Otherwise Dogs wouldn't have town creation, for instance.

However, I really doubt the usefulness of non-GM between-session activity in rpg design. I doubt that non-GMs are going to put up with having to do any work outside of play. In fact I have a really handy design rubric, when it comes to between-session activity: can I really see Jodi doing this before next session? If I can't, I have to change the design. So far I've had to change every design until only the GM does anything real outside of play.

There're my first thoughts. Any of those grab you, Ben? Any line you want to pursue?

1. On 2006-03-08, ffilz said:

I think there are non-GMs who enjoy between session activity, but I also think that a lot of them are making up for unsatisfactory play (the common "make up characters between sessions" bit).

Various forms of writing up the session are productive between session activities that non-GMs can participate in. But I wouldn't ever make a game design dependent on that.

And I guess I see your point. Building such activity into the design is flawed. If you can't manage your character updates in a reasonable amount of time at the beginning or end of a game session, your design is going to fail for a lot of people.

Character generation is a tricky one. It isn't really play, and certainly benefits from being done as a group (in session), but it can also be a pain when a new character is needed in the middle of the game. It can also be a pain if it takes too long (we've just spent two sessions on chargen for Burning Wheel, and we're still not 100% done, we're like 95% done). My Dogs play experience was tarnished somewhat by the need to do chargen for a new player.

Thinking about that, it seems that between session thought activity is almost required for most games I've played. Is that reasonable to expect that players come to the table having thought about the game, or at least having thought activity that might play into the game (here I'm thinking, for example, that reading a book or seeing a movie feeds the imagination and is valuable to the play experience - even if one doesn't think of the book or movie in game terms at all)?



2. On 2006-03-08, Thor Olavsrud said:

I don't know about model, per se, but I think the trend that a lot of the games we've been designing show is taking as much of that between session activity as possible and turning it into around the table, collaborative play.

What are flags but a very directed discussion about character direction?

Setting prep/scenario prep is bleeding over into character creation: see everything from Dogs (Relationships) to Burning Wheel's Jihad supplement (World Burning) to With Great Power (Origin process)to Prime Time Adventures (Series Creation) and on and on. This stuff involves everyone in an activity that was once the sole province of the GM. It also means that GMs generally need to do very little between sessions (though it varies by degree according to the game).

My With Great Power prep ranged from 5 minutes coming up with a good Plan for my villains, 3 or 4 minutes coming up with a good Conflict Scene with which to start things off with a bang, or zero time at all.

Obviously, this stuff has a potential downside as well. Frank's experience creating characters with Burning Wheel is a case in point. It sucks that it took him that long. And it really sucks if that impairs enjoyment of the game.

At the same time, I think that IS play. It's play in the same way that territory selection at the beginning of a game of Risk or Settlers of Catan is play. You may not be rolling dice or earning cards or any of the stuff that you associate with playing Risk, but you are playing. There's a great deal of strategy involved. You're setting up everything that will follow.


3. On 2006-03-08, Matt Wilson said:

I've been struggling back and forth with in-game or between-game stuff. I wrote PTA thinking there'd be prep, but hardly anyone I know does any.

But now I think I have to go back to that.

I just don't know what's up with the 'Jodies' of the world. If we're gonna compare this to playing in a band, then why don't we all practice our instruments between rehearsals?


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4. On 2006-03-08, Neel said:

I guess I have to disagree with you, Vincent, for the first time in a few months. :)

Of course "that stuff" is play. A PBEM or wiki game is play, right? And a tabletop game is play, right? When you put the two together, both are still play. And when you specialize the type of play in each medium to what the medium supports better, both are still play.

Consider the example of a group that sets up a wiki, and then the players all add stuff to it doing all the world-buildy stuff that works better online than it does at the table due to persistence and hyperlinking, and then at the tabletop they use that stuff as the setting for their game. The between session stuff is real, actual, honest-to-god, worthwhile play.

The problem isn't that stuff that happens away from the table isn't real play—it's when the stuff that happens away from the gaming table is not collaborative. The GM carefully working out secrets the players will never see is engaging in play; he's just not collaborating or interacting with the other players. When that stuff degrades the quality of the cooperation, then it's harmful, and otherwise it's irrelevant to the group.


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5. On 2006-03-09, Michael S. Miller said:

I was just talking about my Assumptions of Game design over on my blog, one of which is Preparation for play is a bug, not a feature. I think about it a lot in time-economy terms. If a game *requires* 1 hour out-of-game prep for every 2 hours of in-game play, that raises the amount of each participant's life that they need to put into the game, which lessens the likelihood that they'll be willing to play it. So bringing those preparatory tasks to the table increases the appeal and the enjoyment of the game, just as Thor said.

Neel also raises a good point, that play can happen in other realms than just "at the table." As long as it remains collaborative, play is going on. One might even say that the system changes depending on the day of the week: "Our fantasy campaign uses the _Burning Wheel_ rules when we're face-to-face on Thursday nights, and _Lexicon_ crossed with _De Profundis_ online Fridays through Wednesdays."


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6. On 2006-03-09, Ben Lehman said:

Here is this cause of the question: I was talking to my friend Dave, and we were talking GNS, seeing as the post I just made on my blog.  Anyway, he was talking about this decision he made about changing his character in the LARP from a Soldier to a Paladin.

And I was like "hold up a second Dave.  So not only LARP, so sketchy in Big Model terms, but also not actually play."

And he was like "wait, between session stuff doesn't count for play?  But, that's like all I do. (the providence group is very into between sessions stuff.)

And I'm like "yeah."

Thus: post.

I'm curious about play which happens in a subset of the game (2-3 players) between sessions.  This happened all the time in the big games I played in college (hey, you me and Bob are together.  Let's do a scene with our characters!)



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7. On 2006-03-09, Chris said:

In the Marginalia, Ben said:

"But what about the relationship between that play and the "big play?""

As long as we're engaging LP in some fashion- we've got play.  Granted, you and me might do a character scene between sessions- we have a mini-SIS happening.  Whether it is allowed to affect main game or not is irrelevant- we have all the features you'd get with play, therefore it is play.

As far as the other stuff- it isn't play but can support play.  For instance, if I make a dungeon and we never use it, was that play?  Not really, there was no SIS, no LP, no System in action.  When we start using it, the prep then assists play as its happening.

What we can analyze in terms of Big Model is how well does a type of prep help play (in design or in play itself)?  Design is definitely concerned with this, so of course we're going to look at it in that sense.

As far as between session discussions, writing fiction, drawing characters, etc.- we can consider it ranging from mental/social fiddling (about as much as fidgeting with the dice is "playing the game") ranging to prepping to produce color for play itself.

What is probably the greyest area here, though, is the role of in play kibbitzing to between session kibbitzing- since it's clear the former assists in communication in play, so I'd also assume the latter would as well...


8. On 2006-03-09, Ben Lehman said:

Hey Chris—

Here's what I'm getting at:  How do we take the stuff we've done in our mini-play and reincorporate it into the macro-play, in a theoretical sense?

In a strict Big Model theorist sense, we're taking the small play and using it as a spur to creativity in the big play.  I find this explanation somewhat unsatisfying, because my experience with small-play is one where it is taken as a totally "real" part of the big-play exploration, and not shunted off in the way that that describes.

So here's some more stuff:

1) How can we use between session activity (either play or non-play) as a tool to help our stuff?  Vincent, here's what I'm unsatisfied with about your answer—I can easily picture optional activities that Jody can not do and other people can do.

2) How about aftermath activity, where we reflect on play, as opposed to prep?  How are the uses for that different?



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9. On 2006-03-09, Vincent said:

Neel, Charles: No big. Here's all I meant:

The big model is an analysis of collaboration. I read Ben to be asking "how does the analysis of collaboration apply to non-collaboration?" I answer "it doesn't, except where the non-collaboration makes a difference to the collaboration; in that case, it's only concerned with the difference, not with the non-collaboration itself."

Whether we define "play" to include or exclude what and which, whatever. It remains that our analysis of collaboration treats non-collaboration narrowly.

Charles: Your between-session play, how much of it is solo and how much of it is collaborative? Your favorite bits, solo or collaborative?

If the answers aren't "most of it" and "collaborative" I'll eat my hat.

I don't think it's problematic at all to look at nested roleplaying games. Imagine, for instance, a Dogs in the Vineyard convention. Ten GMs run ten different towns for ten different groups, and then the groups all meet in the center (at Bridal Falls city) for reflection, then the groups shuffle and ten GMs run new towns for ten new groups, etc. Each group collaborates to create fiction, then the larger group collaborates to create an overall fiction incorporating some-but-not-all of the events of the smaller fiction, then more smaller fiction, etc.

We can look at the process by which the GM's town prep becomes part of each group's fiction; we can look at the process by which each group's fiction becomes part of the larger group's fiction - those both being collaborative processes. Exactly the same, we can look at how a subgroup of your group creates stuff, then look at how your whole group incorporates it. Not a problem. Two levels of play with two different sets of rules, is all.

Now, non-collaborative, solo created stuff can matter, of course it can, but as an analyst I don't care about it except when it does matter.

I hope I'm making more sense now, not talking worse gibberish. We'll see.


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10. On 2006-03-09, Vincent said:

I'm with Chris, in other words.


11. On 2006-03-09, Chris said:

Hey Ben,

In a strict Big Model theorist sense, we're taking the small play and using it as a spur to creativity in the big play.

Ah, remember I said pay close attention to where the real enjoyment is coming from?  I've met a couple of groups where the big play is spurring the creativity to the splinter play!  :)

Usually though, those folks are getting more from splinter play often because they're not getting real input in the big game...

How do we take the stuff we've done in our mini-play and reincorporate it into the macro-play, in a theoretical sense?

It goes through the same process of LP & social contract as to what can happen.

For instance, I haven't seen a group that doesn't allow folks to use it as color between players ("Kothar, remember the Feast of Mid-winter?" "Ah, those were the times!").  And I can't recall where I read some L5R group had someone write a story that removed a player character from play between sessions- but the GM accepted it, therefore it affected the big game's fiction...

Basically- what we're asking with this topic is how can we structure splinter activities (with the key feature that the entire group need not be part of it), right?

It will be interesting to see the game that successfully applies this idea.


12. On 2006-03-09, Vincent said:

Personally, I'm aesthetically comfortable with the idea that the splinter-group play might be all the fun, with the full-group play serving only to organize and administrate, like. That seems just as functional to me as any other given arrangement.


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13. On 2006-03-09, John Laviolette said:

How's this?

Collaborative play = Game
Non-Collaborative play = Pastime

Pastimes can be enjoyable and are also useful, even if not later incorporated into the game. Think of it as a learning arena. You could make ten characters, ten towns, ten worlds before you feel you've learned enough to make something that's going to click in a collaborative setting.

What I'm reading as the general desire, here, is to improve the "learnability" of a game design so that the amount of required non-collaborative play is as small as possible. That's one angle.

The other angle, relating to splinter groups and big groups, is that, despite the identification of the big game as "the game", it's really non-collaborative, for the most part. Another pastime, this time at a higher level than where the game occurs. For example, when a hundred people buy a gameworld book and read it, they are participating non-collaboratively in a pastime to select arenas of interest within the overall setting, so that they can find other players interested in the same arenas and begin a game. Again, the general desire here seems to be to reduce the required learnability of this "meta-pastime" so that the required time to select good arenas is as short as possible.

I see both of these angles as the same problem, but on different levels (single-player pastimes and community-level pastimes.) One possible solution to both is the previously-discussed concept of generating Setting Color on the fly through procedural rules, instead of creating trivial details for hundreds of facets of the game arena beforehand.

An example: instead of recording personality traits for every person in a city, record the traits for three or for regions of the city, or three or four social classes. ("East enders are stubborn, nobles are sadistic".) When dealing with an individual, assume those traits to start, but allow, say, a majority of 1s on a die pool roll for the first interaction of a given type to indicate a more positive or more negative trait related to that kind of interaction. "Oops, you failed to bribe Sir Boris, and I rolled mostly 1s; he's Honest." "You successfully persuaded Lord Marcus to finance your expedition, and I rolled mostly 1s; he's Generous."


14. On 2006-03-09, Joshua Kronengold said:

1.  I think that decentralizing the GM role also means decentralizing any required (or desired) prep.  This is obvious.  By the same token, any -need- for prep is a barrier to the GM role, possibliy an unnecessary one.

2.  I think prep can be very valuable, which is why, when talking about un-owned play I felt the need to add an ownership mechanicsm back in—because I think that pre-game work should be priveledged over in-game work where this is reasonable.  The breakdown points for this can lead to deprotagonization and other badness, but it's hard to get some kinds of revelation, continuity, and repeated themes without prep.

3.  Prep isn't play.  But it -does- follow a system, can be fun on its own (see CCG designers who come up with endless decks, or scenario writers, or people who write characters up for the fun of it), and gains validity as play once it enters the game.

4.  Prep is valid for play in direct purportion to ownership.  If I own my character's history, I've got full freedom to write that history up in any way I want, with it more or less immediately entering play...unless I create a new country (can interfere with the GM's place-ownership), involve another PC or known NPC (interferes with the onwership of the players in question), or do something another player find objectioanble (interferes with shared ownership).  If I, as GM, detail the villain's stronghold and plans, that's usually cool (entirely within my purview), but if I start planning out the sequence of scenes for the entire session, I'm not only interfereing with the players' character ownership—I'm also interfereing with their partial session- and plot-ownership.

Sub-group play is something different.


15. On 2006-03-09, Joshua BishopRoby said:

I'm not even going to touch what is and isn't play.

Vincent, the Jodi Rule only applies if that between-session stuff has to be done by everybody around the table.  FLFS has the GM hand out between-session prep stuff to other players all the time ("Make me a French ship captain.").  It works because I, the game designer, don't try and predict the social contract of your table, but allow the players to distribute between-session prep according to their sensibilities.


16. On 2006-03-09, Piers said:

Or, more freeform than distribution, just set rules for how to make something to bring to the table, and then rules for what is done with that thing when the game resumes.

If you want to bring something, you have to make it.  Play happens from a combination of what you already have and the things that people bring.  There are no things that ought to have been made—we play with what we have.


17. On 2006-03-10, Ben Lehman said:


My reaction to these statements is "but, wait..." and I realize what's actually going on is not a theoretical discussion, but me designing a subsystem in my head.

So, thanks guys, but I don't know if I can further respond to the discussion without doing what Luke complains that I do too much and talk about a game I'm working on.



18. On 2006-03-10, luke said:

Hah hahahahaahhahahahahahhahahah

AHHHHaah hahahahhhaahahaha

Anyway,  think the between session stuff is part of the overall experience. Sports and other gameplay have a similar phenomena. Fans, amateurs and pros endlessly replay the games, debate tactics and research new strategies—both individually and with other members of their "team" or group. Much of this stuff is brought back into the activity proper.

Now there's a certain phenomenon in roleplaying games where two players get it on outside the game and decide something privately between them that they introduce at the table: "Tah dah!" That's not cool.

But I think brainstorming a scenario, researching the game materials or finishing a character between sessions are part of the game. It's possible to play without these things, but I feel the experience at the table is richer for having them.



19. On 2006-03-10, Calithena said:

I'm personally interested in the way people get into making costumes for RenFaire as an outgrowth of AD&D play, or turn their ordinary social lives into a Vampire mini-larp when they all go out to Denny's together in their goth gear and fake teeth. That's not 'play' in much of any sense, but on the other hand the fact that people take this stuff up and use it to make meaning in their lives is tremendously interesting to me. Like Thor the Barbarian.

An intermediate case: I've had a collaborative fantasy world (used for various versions of D&D, TFT, and T&T as well as for more recent homebrews) shared with about five GMs and more than a hundred players, going back to the late seventies. One thing that some of the members of this group do is sit around and bull about 'what's happening where'. Sometimes maps get redrawn to incorporate new stuff; sometimes a GM will get inspiration for his neck of the woods and start a new miniseries there. So there's a higher-level social campaign management process, mostly informal, that contributes in a BIG way to play; and leads to some odd interactions across players and across the country, as the players in one group discover they need a magic sword possessed by a character in another group, etc.

I'm actually working on rules to formalize this world management process within a group, because I think this is really fun, and has made my life somewhat richer. But note: a lot of the richness comes from the collaborativeness.

But then I think about my old friend Vickie and how she used to make stuff for Renfaire and relate them to what her characters were doing in Pat Farley's ( old D&D game in high school that we played in, and wonder where exactly the line is between stuff like this and the Vampire kids at Denny's.


20. On 2006-03-14, Dave R said:

"Now there's a certain phenomenon in roleplaying games where two players get it on outside the game and decide something privately between them that they introduce at the table: "Tah dah!" That's not cool."

I'd be interested to know why you think that's not cool.  It's been quite useful in my experience.  Obviously you don't run roughshod over other players' areas of authority, but...

Or maybe we're not thinking of the same things.


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