2005-03-18 : Audience?


What purpose does forge stance theory serve?

None! Once it served the purpose of opening up the conversation about who gets to say what about what and when. It was useful back in the benighted days when people considered "players" and "the GM" to be wholly different kinds of things; we could use it to start to talk about opening up duties and responsibilities.

Can we talk about the function of Audience, and how it fits into the scheme of things? I see PTA in particular as doing very interesting things with the role of Audience, and the issue of Audience came up big time in the discussion of sex and romance in RPG. Is there a developed theoretical framework for these issues?

There's not! Let's.

Here's where I'd start, fundamentally: Even if you have no characters or creative property in a scene, the scene depends on your buy-in to become true. Every player, represented in the scene or not, can interrupt the game by refusing to assent to a detail or event in the scene.

In that sense, being audience is the same as acting. The difference between them isn't fundamental, it's no more than that presumably the acting player automatically assents to her own input.

Given that, the next place I'd go is: Even if you have no characters or creative property in a scene, you can still contribute actively. PTA goes so far as to make this mechanical - you can contribute dice to conflicts happening totally outside of your character's reach - but it's possible in any game, via framing, suggestions, table talk, just general saying what you think should happen.

For purposes of this thread, do we define "audience" so that it includes or excludes this kind of character-absent active contribution?

1. On 2005-03-18, Tobias said:

I don?t know how to answer your question yet, Vincent, but I will add another two you might want to answer (possibly by adding a definition to Audience).

1. Does Acting preclude you from being Audience?

(Yes, this does mean that if the answer is "No", one person Acting would have his own audience, I guess*.)

2. Does the "you" have to be a living human person, or can it be a mechanic? (If you consider it the same as the previous question, I'll take that explanation as well).

*I really don't want to derail this conversation and turn it into the other one we're having below this. But since the issues there are still 'hot' and unresolved (to me, at least), adding your definitions will at least keep this conversation on topic. I'm interested in Audience as well, and will take on your stipulations/extended definition for this talk about the big A.

Oh, and I will not be online for the weekend, so that's the cause of silence till monday.


2. On 2005-03-18, Vincent said:

Tobias: Your 1) is a good point. I'd been assuming that we'd use "audience" and "actor" as mutually exclusive, moment-to-moment, but maybe we shouldn't.

Your 2) though: the actor and the audience must both always be real human beings participating in the game. Mechanics can't contribute to or agree to the events of the game - as you'll remember from my smily face drawings.


3. On 2005-03-18, Matt Wilson said:

I'm in favor of the idea that actor can be part of the audience, but not exclusively the audience. I know people who seem to be entertained by their own actions as much as, if not more than, the actions of others. However, I think they need other people to bear witness to it.

I think you need the step, say in PTA, of having to say, "dude, what I did totally deserves fan mail," rather than just being able to award it to yourself.

Also, audience should include character-absent contributions, is my vote. Because a contribution doesn't have to be a game mechanic. It can just be me saying, "hey, that's cool what you just did there." It definitely affects the play experience when it happens.


4. On 2005-03-18, Vincent said:

The distinction I want to get at is between the person who's simply reacting to the imaginary stuff of the game - "hey, that's cool" or "have a fan mail" - and the person who's actively contributing to the imaginary stuff - "[I'm not the GM but] birds fly past the window" or "I put my dice on Mitch's side."

You're audience when you award fan mail for sure. Are you audience or actor when a) your character's not in the scene but b) you spent fan mail to throw in dice and c) you won narration?

(I vote actor, but I don't want to just decide without making sure what Charles meant.)


5. On 2005-03-18, Ghoul said:

I'm certainly with you here, Vincent.  Most games assume a very passive audience, which isn't at all necessary nor is it, I think, desirable.  "Down Time" is the bane of many board games, and it can be even worse in RPGs.  "Speak only in your turn" and "you're not here, stay out of it" are familiar structures but not terribly helpful (and, perhaps, even harmful).  It is critical to keep everyone "in the game" or at least not let them drift too far out of the game, and keeping them somewhat (or even completely) empowered even when they aren't acting is a great way to do this, I think.

Other existing games that have interesting audience mechanics that I can think of off-the-cuff...

Baron Munchausen lives and dies by audience-based challenges, and Universalis isn't all that dissimilar (excepting that coins spent on a challenge in the latter go to the bank not to the player who accepts the new obstacle as in the former).

Paranoia XP Perversity Mods can be sent into a situation remotely (i.e., without your character's involvement), thus allowing the non-participant to become participant.  The GM is given the power to restrict Perversity spending, but I suspect that's more to discourage "grudge matches" than to limit non-actor involvement.

And a long-time favorite of mine, even if it is a bit detatched from the "moment" is Teenagers From Outer Space and the experience vote (XP in TFOS come via a secret ballot of all players on how "fun" you made tonight's game).  PTA's Fan Mail is a more real-time (and, thus, probably more effective) way of doing this, of course.


6. On 2005-03-18, Charles said:

Okay, my backing for this is in Narrative Stance theory, so that may influence things.

I think it is probably a useful fiction to take audience and actor as mutually exclusive moment to moment. I'll agree that it is possible to move fluidly and rapidly from mode to mode, and I'll even agree that it is possible to achieve a childlike balance between the two where you are saying "My giant robot leaps to the walls of the castle and tosses Sauron into the moat." and thinking "That is SO cool!" at the same time, and I agree that this is probably an important state to achieve for engaging in child play, but I think that mostly we can treate the modes as mutually exclusive.

I'd divide things you can do while you don't have a character in the scene into two different chunks (recognizing that the in-between category may be pretty big): chunk one is scene framing, suggesting actions when your suggestions are likely to be incorporated, contributing dice to one side of a contest, etc; chunk two is table talk, joking suggestions of actions, suggested dialogue that can't actually be incorporated, or clear displays of interest or discomfort with the direction a scene is going.

In the first chunk, the player is acting to directly control the direction of the game (in the same manner as players with characters in the scene, or players officially responsible for the situation), and is therefore functioning in an authorial mode. At the most extreme form of the first chunk, the player might even temporarily take on an NPC, or might take over control of the situation. At this point, they are clearly not acting significantly in audience mode, but have become one of the authors of the scene. The PTA system highlights this authorial audience.

In the second chunk, the player is commenting on the game, and those comments may be incorporated by the other players into the game, but they are more likely to influence the game itself, rather than the progression of the particular scene. In this case, the player is solidly in an audience mode, but is simply an active audience. One of my two play groups uses this mode very heavily (actually, we use it so heavily that players WITH characters in scene will switch to this mode), with frequent discussions of what sorts of slash fic a particular scene leads to within the imaginary fan community of our game, or entire (non-canonical) conversations between slightly out of character characters.

As a more specific example of the later, Kip's character Guard has very poor language skills, and a very poor sense of self, so occasionally Kip will respond to a situation by playing out what Guard would be saying if he had a better sense of self, and others will respond in character or slightly out of character. These conversation do not take place within the events in game, and exist only within the active audience mode as a sort of fanfic, but they are critical to the shape of the game as a whole.

I think it is definitely worthwhile to talk about the interaction between the two modes within the player position of not having a character in play. I don't think we should restrict the discussion to just the audience mode, but should talk about both the state of being without a clearly defined authorial role (having a PC in scene, being GM), and also the state of watching the game.

To my mind, one if the main effects of giving players without characters some authorial rights is that it helps to keep the players engaged in the scene (while some players are happy to take the part of theatrical audience, sitting quietly in rapt attention as the play progresses, and others are satisfied being the hecklers at a movie, or even being the floor show at Rocky Horror, there are far too many players who, when their character walks off stage, pick up a book or stare out the window). This engagement, to my mind, serves to heighten the audience experience. Of course, it is also a good way to engage players as authors of the world.

Before I run on to long (too late, I know), I will close with a sidenote on the other things you can do when you aren't in scene:

There are two other things you can do when you don't have a character in play: 1)sit quietly and watch, and 2) ignore the game. The first is definitely audience mode (in the sense of watching the game), and can effect the game in three ways that I can think of: 1) its really a subset of the second chunk, in that the body language of an interested audience helps to tell the active players that what they are doing matters, that it is interesting to someone, and that it has sufficient meaning to hold someones attention 2) it ensures that the player knowns what is going on in the game, and will be able to contribute meaningfully to the overarching structure 3) it can be one of the main pleasures of the game. The second is not really audience mode, or maybe it is bad audience mode, but it is part of not having an authorial role. Some people seem to need it in order to maintain their focus on what their character knows, other people use it signal that they are bored with where the game is going.

There are advantages and disadvantages that I can see to all 4 types of things (contribute as author, contribute as audience, watch as audience, not watch) a player without characters in scene can be doing.

Anyway, thanks a bunch for starting this thread.

Oh, total side note, somebody needs to give you a recent comments side bar. I think some of your discussions end not because people stop being interested in talking about the subject, but because they drop to far down the page. As your blog develops into a fantastically cool place to talk about gaming, the ability to keep threads going on longer seems like it might be a big plus.


7. On 2005-03-18, Charles said:

Sorry, I cross posted with everything except the first two comments.


8. On 2005-03-18, Vincent said:

That all pretty much makes sense to me, Charles.

I take a hardline position about "bad audience" mode, personally: watching protagonists in action isn't boring. If you're bored when your character's off screen, probably the whole game is irretrievably broken, on account of not having genuine protagonists in it.

So I like active audience participation not as a cure for a bored audience, but instead because everybody talking at once is just the more natural way to do things.

In other words, given that there are genuine protagonists in the game, being limited to "rapt, silent attention" mode isn't boring, but stifling.


9. On 2005-03-18, Eric said:

I would suggest that if Vincent wants to draw a distinction between someone who's present and can chuck fan mail, add birds to the sky, etc., and someone whose only contribution is "That's cool!", then the actor/audience terms aren't really sufficient.  The levels-of-engagement thing isn't a binary setup and I think we'll just waste time trying to shoehorn it in there.  Charles' four-part list comes closer but I think the lines are still blurry.

So let's take Vincent's last question in the originating post and say MU to it.

I think the interesting place for me in this thread, apart from the huge value in the bolded stuff in Vincent's post, is in the blurred area between "contribute as audience" and "watch as audience" in Charles' dissection.

The other lines aren't particularly blurry.  As previously discussed, witnessing seems to be critical to protagonism.  Engagement sufficient to hit this threshold definitely defines the line between ignore, and watch.  The line between actor (PC or explicit GM duty, present in scene) and active audience (able to directly affect SIS, but no PC present nor explicit GM responsibilities) is similarly, I think, generally pretty plain.

But because the social feedback loops are so strong, the spectrum between audience as witness and audience as contributor seems really blurry.  If we draw it anywhere, it's by saying that the latter can affect the SIS directly through their own words, while the former does so indirectly - they affect another player with their words/attention, who then affects the SIS with this in mind.  But since the SIS gets constituted through all of our words, not merely those acknowledged as explicitly "to be included", things blur.

As an example let's say we have two PCs, not including mine (I'm also not the GM), together with an NPC named George.  If the NPC leaves then the tensions between the other two will erupt and we'll get a cool fight.  We all know this.  As a variously-engaged (and empowered) audience member, my contribution to the game could fall anywhere along the following spectrum:
"George goes off on his own now."
"I think it's time for George to go off on his own."
"Hey, GM, this would be a cool time for George to take off."
(Look at GM expectantly, but say nothing.)
(Look to see if the GM will do this cool thing, but null expression, no prompting.)
[Earlier, when George almost left but was restrained by circumstances, burbling about how cool it was that the other two almost got their chance to fight it out today.]

Does that make sense?  Do you see what I mean when I say that I don't see a sharp line anywhere, there?


10. On 2005-03-18, Vincent said:

Lord I hate hate hate the term "SIS." People wiggle all over the place when they use it. Sometimes it means just the made up stuff, sometimes it means whatever anybody's imagining, sometimes it means the people's interactions, sometimes it means the words themselves, sometimes it means potential in-game stuff that nobody's even imagined yet or that everybody's stopped imagining. Phoo to it.

But, Eric: "Does that make sense? Do you see what I mean when I say that I don't see a sharp line anywhere, there?"

Absolutely, I sure do.


11. On 2005-03-18, Ghoul said:

Vincent, I'll agree but just say there's a difference between bored audience and disengaged or de-powered audience.  One can be non-bored, attentively listening, but still have slipped out of the contributional level of attention and involvement that will be necessary when the focus is next turned your way.  By keeping the minimal involvement level above zero, you reduce the "start-up" effort.  It's like leaving the car idling at a stoplight instead of shutting it off; you're going to need it soon, keep it idling.  But maybe if you idle too long you waste fuel and such you could have focused on play when you're the focus later (to mix the metaphor up terribly).

Of course, I drive a Prius, which decides the whole idle/shutoff itself, dynamically, but perhaps that's just what we'd like system to do, to support not the automatic decision to always stay idling but instead to smarten up the decision of when to idle, when to shut down, when to start back up.

Eric, I think I see what you're saying, and I don't disagree.  There is a point that is shutdown we can all agree is bad, when the player doesn't even recall that the scene with George happened because they were phased out completely.  But every point in-between is a valid place, a valid degree of involvement.  And for some players, each point might be their maximum comfortable level of involvement in a "not-me" scene.  The old idea of "protecting yourself" from OOC knowledge is deeply ingrained, and the idea of effective involvement in scenes where your character isn't present runs very counter to it.  And some players can switch character on or off quickly while others need to "stay in" or their total play suffers (the Method isn't just actors being wacky, after all).  As such, it's important to realize, I think, that the goal should be encouraging the player-appropriate level of engagement, not any particular level of engagement as a absolute.

By which I do not mean to counter either of Vincent's bold-faced statements, just say that achieving "minimal effective" or "full" involvement will have different meanings for different players.  The goal of maintaining at least minimal and, better yet, something approaching each player's full level remains in place.

And, for the record, I take my old college drama club director's stand that the audience is always part of the performance as applying to RPGs as well.  If the audience is disengaged, the performance/game has failed.  Thus, the question Vincent closed with is, IMO, without meaning.  An audience making no character absent contributions (not even the glimpses or glances of Eric's minimal examples, which ARE contribution, if not fully empowered creative contribution) is a sign of failure (partial or total), and so doesn't seem worth talking about.


12. On 2005-03-18, J B Bell said:

Lord I hate hate hate the term "SIS." People wiggle all over the place when they use it. . . .

"Negotiated Dream"?  "Negotiated Hallucination"?  "Agreed Imagination"?  I'm trying to get at the notion that the SIS is what everyone has already agreed is in there, exclusive of plans or private fantasies.

(What's so ambiguous about "shared" that this term is going awry, anyway?)



13. On 2005-03-18, Chris said:

Lord I hate hate hate the term "SIS.

I typically just say, "Imagined Content", or "That shit we're imagining" depending on the formality of the conversation.  I already know that SIS is one of those terms that just makes a simple idea("This here stuff, we collectively agree is happening") into an ugly, confusing term for the lay person.



14. On 2005-03-18, JasonN said:

A collection of possibly comments which might or might not be provocative.

1) I don't think we want to turn the term "audience" into a pejorative.  Or maybe we do?  But I'm not convinced yet.

2) On a technical level, any time you're listening to someone else make contributions to play, you're audience.  This I think we can all agree on.  And I think as a result, we can say that *listening* is a fundamental skill of roleplaying.  We've all played with bad listeners, I'm sure, and they suck.

3) And when you're the one making contributions, you are doing so *to* and *because of* your audience.  In the styles of play that Vincent espouses, you are taking your audience into account, deeply.  (I think.  Comments?)

3a) Here we divide into certain play styles.  The character immersionists will insist that they will play their characters the same way, no matter what.  People who take audience into account will say that if you have different people in the audience, their play will change accordingly.  (Right?)

4a) When we're doing analysis and trying to decide if Engaged Play happened, it doesn't matter if any player made contributions or not (at any given moment in time).  What matters most is that they had the choice.  Looking at someone who didn't participate, it's very easy to say "they were just an audience"—but that's the pejorative use of the term.  Sometimes, silence is a well-chosen reaction, and a meaningful creative choice in the moment.

4b) Consider a bit of play in which a player, in character, gives an impassioned monologue, and nobody tried to stop her, and after she's done everyone sat silent for a while. Further, let's say that this moment would become a highlight of the game, and part of the group culture.  We *could* say that the person who gave the speech was the sole author of the speech, but that doesn't do justice to the experience that people are really talking about: the experience of the moment indelibly includes the silence which followed, during which everyone was enjoying their reactions.  The people who sat silently made the *choice* to give the roleplay the space they felt it deserved.  The people who sat silently were making contributions to play, if you ask me.

5) The fuzziness we have about where "contributions" stop and "commentary" starts is interesting.  Suppose Bob and Sally are shooting the breeze, waiting for a couple other players to show up.  Bob says, "Boy, I've had a really hard week at work.  I have all this pent up rage.  My boss SUCKS."  This is just a non-game comment.  But if Sally takes this as an *input* and provides Bob, in game, with opportunities to shoot, say, an authority figure with a Very Big Gun—does this non-game comment remain become a contribution, in hindsight?

6) Having the term "audience" hinge on whether you have a character in the scene seems overly formulated to me.  Vincent's thread-starting statements above include not only character, but "creative property" as well—like if you're playing Ars Magica and you tend to look after the Faerie Forest, that's the kind of stuff I think he means to include here.  I think when we say "audience" we're trying to refer to a state where the permissions and expectations work in such a way that you're creatively suspended while others aren't.  For most games that means you're PC's not on scene, but that's by far not how it works.

I think there's something socially sophisticated going on here.  There are these fluctuations from moment to moment and scene to scene in a game.  Kindof like how in playground games, kids take turns.  When the social flow of things says it's not your *turn*, you step back and let the others have some space to play.  When you're letting other people have their chance—maybe that's what we mean by "audience"?

Sorry for the long and meandering post.



15. On 2005-03-18, JasonN said:

Jesus.  Never post a long thing at work during idle moments, NOT using an external text editor, and NOT bothering to proofread.  Apologies for the incoherence, folks.



16. On 2005-03-18, Charles said:

JasonN, actually, that wasn't nearly as incoherent as you think it was. It was actually very nicely put.

I?m also writing from work, so this may be a muddle (okay, that?s my excuse anyway).

Expanding on your points about character immersionists and the good silent audience, a noisy audience can be hell on immersion, particularly an audience providing commentary rather than contributions (and I think we are all in agreement that a player who is making contributions is only audience in the sense of no character in play, which I agree is a poor definition of the term).

One proof of the fact that we can be audience whenever we are listening is that a two player session in which the players play out a conversation between two characters (to reduce it to as simple a structure as possible) can be hugely satisfying from an audience perspective. On the other hand, I think it is also possible to have immersive scenes in which the audience experience enters into it very little. I have had IC conversations that lasted for hours that were hugely satisfying for the development and experience of character that they allowed, but probably wouldn't have been that interesting to an audience. An audience would probably have liked the scenes if they had been edited down (actually, it is possible that, by only switching into audience mode intermittently, an effect like editing is produced, where I only view the highlights of the conversation as audience, while I experience the entirety of the conversation IC).

One thing that I have been thinking, that I think relates to what you are saying, is that the more interesting question concerning audience is not how can they contribute to the game, but how does the game support the audience experience.

For instance, one of the things that I think is a definite plus to the techniques of giving players without a major authorial authority in the scene (having a character, being GM, having a stake in what happens with the faerie forest are all major authorities) a small authorial stake in the scene is that it is much more likely to keep them sufficiently involved in the scene that they stay in attentive audience mode in between their chances to contribute authorially. I think if you know that you won't have any way to directly contribute to the scene for a long time, you are much more likely to lose interest at some point.

Digressing back to the question of audience experience as the source of the pleasure of gaming, I'm not sure I'm willing to agree that the only satisfaction from gaming is in relation to Audience mode (if you can't hold the audience, the game is a failure). I'd argue for all four narrative stances having their own pleasures from gaming (although Narrative Stance Theory's Actor stance pleasures are usually pretty thin in non-LARP games), and that even within the goal of making stories that have meaning, authorial pleasure is probably as important (although interlinked with) audience pleasure. Also, IC pleasure can be a huge component of the pleasure of gaming, even within the framework of making stories with meaning (if the story has meaning to the audience, it often has meaning to the characters, so the experience of meaning via IC mode can also be important). On the other hand, I can see saying that if the game sucks from any of the perspectives, it is definitely much less of a game than it would be if it didn't suck from any perspective, so if you can't hold audience attention then you are probably doing something wrong.

However, I've found that whether you can hold the audience attention of players without an authorial role in the scene is mostly a player level thing, not a play quality thing. Within my various current and past play groups, holding John's attention as audience is virtually impossible (since he views it as interfering with his ability to function IC), and holding Kip's attention as audience is pretty hard (if you're holding his attention, then your scene is definitely running hot, but not every scene needs to run hot for a game to be good). If your play isn?t deadly boring, then you probably have my rapt attention, and as long as your play doesn?t have tons of mechanics, then it probably would have Sarah?s attention. The first case brings up the fact that some people don?t want to be audience, and the last case brings up the fact that not everyone is interested in all types of games.

Sorry for the muddliness! That is actually edited a bit from the initial muddle.


17. On 2005-03-19, anon. said:

Consider what happens when someone makes a contribution to the game.

1. Bob thinks up something to say.
2. Bob waits for the right time to say it.
3. Bob says it.
4. The other players listen to Bob.
5. The other players think about what Bob said.
6. The other players form conclusions (accept, reject, etc) about Bob's input.

Look at steps 4-5.  I'm way down here on the scale of seconds of time, right?  During this time, when people are listening and then thinking about someone else's contribution?  That, I think, is where "audience" exists.

It might be worthwhile to point out that this sequence suggests ways kinds of audience dysfunction:

1-3: Forcing people into an audience stance by not giving them the time and space to contribute.
4: Not listening to other players carefully!
5: Not valuing the input of other players enough to think it through.
6: Mis-representing your acceptance or rejection of the input.  People who silently reject other players input (and therefore ignore them), for example.

* * *

On the scale of scenes, or arbitrarily larger chunks of game statements?  I think we can look at patterns of contribution, abolutely.  And in some traditional games, sure, you'll have situations where creative input of certain players is shut down because that's how everyone has agreed to structure their game.  Your guy is off-stage?  Then don't talk.  Etc.

What people seem to be talking about when they point at a chunk of play and say, "some people are audience here" is a lack of creative input.[1]

What's fascinating to me is when the social flow is such that people *voluntarily* back off their input so as to allow others more space to give theirs.  There's a finite amount of time involved in a game session.  What are the forces which mediate which contributions are prioritized, and when?


18. On 2005-03-19, JasonN said:

Hey, that was me! (Above.)


19. On 2005-03-19, John Kim said:

Well, my two cents are that the analogy of separate "Actor" and "Audience" is wrong.  In an RPG, these two are—or at least can be—completely intertwined and merged.  In particular, I discuss this in my essay Narrative Paradigms in RPGs.  There is no clear division between conceived story and perceived story, or between expression and interpretation.

Case in point:  There is in my experience a frequent case of Out-of-Game yet In-Character comments during tabletop games.  That is, a player does not have her PC there on the scene.  However, when something happens, she pipes up with an in-character comment.  Sometimes it is clarified that she isn't there—but often its just understood that she is expressing what her character would have said if she were there.  But this means that the player is being audience while still in-character.

In other words, the character is not just a means by which you provide input onto the game.  It is also a lens through which you see the game.  My point is that dividing into Actor and Audience (among other divisions) is missing the point of RPGs.


20. On 2005-03-19, Jasper Polane said:

Jason: In the sort of traditional games you talk about, I don't really think shutting people out of input is the same as putting them in audience mode.

You ever been in a game were you was send out of the room because your character wasn't in the scene? In these games, your character not being there doesn't mean you're audience, it means you're out of the game entirely.

John: Plus, even when your character IS in the scene, I think you're still audience some of the time.


21. On 2005-03-19, Ghoul said:

So, if Audience isn't the right term, what does one call "players who have no character presence in the current scene"?  Audience seems like the natural term for that.  Or, to a lesser extent, as Jason sais, for the situation where your character is in a non-active role during a scene (say you're playing the bodyguard of the prince and he finally gets to the political confrontation with the evil Vizier... your role is to stand back and let the confrontation happen; your CHARACTER is audience until the nature of the scene shifts).  As such, I don't see Audience as a pejorative, at least not unmodified.  As Vincent said at the top, "being audience is the same as acting."  It's just a state you'll find yourself in as the story flows places your character isn't at, either directly or implicitly (the bodyguard during the political discussion).

Still, there is "empowered audience" if they retain the ability to influence the scene despite their character's absence from it, "engaged audience" if they are fully focused and part of the scene, even if not actively empowered to influence it except through social support/reaction.  This with all the layers and degrees discussed earlier.

Now, "depowered, disengaged" audience is a bad thing.  This means they have had their power of influence reduced even from the level of simple social support (the classic "shh, you're not here, just sit on your hands" approach) and so have wandered off in their minds (if not in reality, toward the fridge or some such).  But I'm not sure you can't survive one of those two negatives as long as you avoid them both at once.  It isn't easy, of course, because being depowered leads naturally to disengagement, but I can imagine it being achieved.

I think what's critical here is that we mean Audience as in Theater (where the Actors can sense and respond to the Audience's mood and attention) not as in Cinema (popcorn-crunching drones just taking it all in, to stereotype extremely).  This is Audience that gasps and applauds and cheers and heckles and kibitzes, right where the Actors can take that and make that energy and those suggestions part of the story.  And, of course, because it's an RPG, the Audience has their own roles for other scenes.  An Audience made up of other Actors who just aren't on stage (or are on-stage but not doing anything just now).  That seems a perfectly valid description of the inevitable situation when your character is absent or just out-of-spotlight, and so talk about how to keep the player part of things when in that state seems quite worthwhile to me.  Game mechanics that encourage engagement or empower Audience to directly influence the scene are, of course, only a subset of this part of the RPG toolbox.


22. On 2005-03-19, TonyLB said:

Okay, I don't get how "Audience" is going to correlate to anything else important.  Why is it important to make a distinction between players whose characters are present, and those whose characters aren't?  That's sort of like making a distinction between those whose characters are left-handed and those whose characters aren't.  If the game system importantly cripples your ability to contribute to what matters if you're not left-handed, then yeah that makes a difference, but otherwise it's just narrative color.

A player who has no character present in the scene is not inherently barred from explicit, assured and unabridged contribution to what matters in the game.  They can be Engaged.

They are barred from that contribution if what matters in the game is "what our characters do", or if their best/only tool for engagement is their character.  But that's only true of a subset of games.

PTA, for instance, makes sure that every player can be Engaged in every scene, through the mechanism of fan-mail.  They can always contribute to the game, by shaping the reward structure within which other characters operate (and thereby training/bribing them to do certain things).


23. On 2005-03-19, Ghoul said:

The reason, I think, is that many game systems and/or play styles, even if they empower players when their characters are present, depower them when they are not.  Thus, while you are right and they can be Engaged when Audience, it is much more common that they are left to do so "on their own" rather than with support.

You're very right that PTA is good for this.  I listed earlier a few other published systems with interesting ideas in this area that I could think of right when the topic came up.

One question I'm interested is "does the subset of games where Audience is limited in Engagement have some advantages or is Audience Engagement inherently and automatically a good thing?"  It's pretty clear you've already answered this for yourself, so you don't seem to find the concept of Audience interesting.  I think, thought, it may be an open question and there may be some value in the Audience having different access to story influence than non-Audience and different impacts on the resulting play based on just how those differences are structured.  Even though, as Vincent points out, they must buy-in to events for them to be true, this in no way demands his second point be anything beyond the informal social feedback level.

Clearly, the decision made here would effect play, but perhaps not only in good ways.  Thus, I tend to think that there is an Audience role into which players shift during play, a state that has more power than non-player (non-players having no role at all in play, by definition) but less than the current "on-stage" players (i.e., those with characters in the current scene).  There is a wide spectrum of Audience role between "none" (which may or may not be an inherently broken point on the spectrum; I'm not convinced one way or the other) and, say, Universalis where, at any point any player (with at least one coin to hand) can step onto stage either as a character or an event.  PTA strikes such a balance, with Audience empowered to do some things through fan-mail but not anything.

The issue at hand, I think, is what impact various Audience participations have on play, including what minimum role Audience must have (Vincent's initial comment), what the nature of their role can be (much of this discussion's listing of examples), and ultimately what the impact of defining Audience's role can have on play.  I find that quite interesting.


24. On 2005-03-19, Jasper Polane said:

I guess my definition of "audience mode" in a RPG is "being spectator of (and possibly contributing to) other people's play." To me it doesn't really matter if your character is in the scene or not.

To me, being engaged actually is necessary for audience, even if you're not contributing more than "Cool!" A player that's not engaged is effectively removing himself from play.

I had a player once who always "went out for a quick smoke" whenever his character was not in the scene. As a result, he wasn't even engaged when his character WAS there. Audience, he was not.


25. On 2005-03-19, Ghoul said:

Jasper, I'd agree that it is possible to be Audience even when you have a character is in the scene.  It happens whenever the focus on the current conflict is outside your character's influence, as in the bodyguard at a political confrontation example earlier.

And I've seen people who leave (physically or mentally) whenever their character is not on-stage, but I've seen it both be a disaster and be a glowing success, depending completely on the player and their ability to effectively re-engage upon return.  As a general rule, though, the "transition cost" from disengaged to engaged (re: my car idling at the corner example above) is too high for the game to bear.

But I'd agree, for discussion purposes, "Audience" is (to propose a definition that covers these points) the set of people participating in the game who do not have a character currently in the spotlight.  The person "out for a smoke" has ceased to participate in the game.  The bodyguard's player at the political debate is (though may not remain) out of the spotlight despite being in the scene.  More questionable is the player flipping through the rules (are they looking for the exact mechanics for what they're planning to do when they next act or are they detached from this game and thinking about another?  The former is probably a good thing in rules-heavy games, the latter is almost certainly a problem) or commenting how this scene reminds him of something cool in a movie (OK and even laudable as commentary/feedback, probably becomes bad quickly if it leads to distracting side-conversation that drags others out of the game).

The disfunctional stages Audience can enter (I have to believe the reasons it was considered potentially pejorative earlier in this discussion) are, in effect, often the result of people leaving Audience and becoming, to coin a term, Observer.  The Observer isn't part of the game at all, they just happen to be there.  Observers don't have to be a problem (I have run and participating in successful games with observers present before), but players shifting from Observer to Spotlight have further to go than Audience to Spotlight.  Audience has remained (to some degree) engaged because they are still participants in the game.  Transition cost again.

So I think I'm coming around to the idea that "engaged" is a prerequisite for successful Audience.  Failing that, you become non-participant (or unimportant participant, as in Vincent's statements about Engagement in another thread).  But a caveat... Audience Engagement is usually (though not always) limited beyond that of the on-stage, spotlight characters' players.  As such, I'm not sure it meets Vincent's "unabridged" requisite.  This would seem to say Audience cannot be "Engaged", even when given the level of influence they have in PTA, because they have less influence than on-stage characters' players (i.e., are abridged).

So I'm not sure I'm at a conclusion yet.  It seems possible that the definition of Engaged does not allow for Audience Engagement, and yet I think we all have agreed that a disengaged audience is almost certainly a problem.

So, what is the resolution?  Do we have "Abridged Engagement" now?


26. On 2005-03-19, JasonN said:


One question I'm interested is "does the subset of games where Audience is limited in Engagement have some advantages or is Audience Engagement inherently and automatically a good thing?"

I'm going to take your "games" to mean "game designs" for a moment, here.

In the past, Vincent:

Somehow we have to grin together and cheer each other, enthusiastically embrace, while you're dedicated wholly to hurting my character and hurting her until she's transformed by grief and pain. This doesn't come instinctively to us! We won't just fall into it by treating the game as a natural conversation. To accomplish it, we need a well-designed, formal, unnatural structure.

The context here was system stuff which structures and mediates conflict resolution.  Does it apply equally well to Audience Engagement?

Let's consider some examples.

(1) Players whose characters are off-scene (and thus Audience, as we've defined it here) can throw their character's dice on either side of any given conflict.  Is this an unnatural social thing?  To the extent that it permits a player to be adversarial ("super-constrictive", Vincent says), you bet!

(2) Players can give other players Fan Mail when they do cool things.  Is this an unnatural social thing?  Hmm.  It doesn't seem like it, no.  It's just a rulsey way of saying, "That, there?  Cool."  Does it have anything at all to do with conflict resolution?  Sortof, yeah.  Because giving someone Fan Mail is arming them with more dice for future conflicts.

(3) Who was it on the Forge who, in their PTA game, said the group agreed to give Fan Mail any time a kibitzed input was used?  Anyway, that.  To the extent that this encourages players to listen to other players, this is a departure from conventional RPGs where my Guy-ism tends to rule the roost.  Is it related to conflict resolution?  Not *really*, no.



27. On 2005-03-21, Emily Care said:

So, Jason, looks like the kind of rules provided in an rpg that help support players be an engaged audience are quite beneficial since it is not altogether a natural thing, or runs counter to habits formed by trad gaming.

And as for conflict resolution, it does tie in when mechanically connected as in PtA, but I see it as being primarily about coordinating contributions.  Kind of a "pre-emptive" conflict resolution.

Getting back to: "does the subset of games where Audience is limited in Engagement have some advantages or is Audience Engagement inherently and automatically a good thing?"
Very interesting question indeed.  I'd have to say that encouraging players to attend to eachothers' contributions is always going to be a good thing. What's necessary, however, is appropriate boundaries about the input given based on that attention.  I might not want to play a game where other players got to have greater say in what my character did than I do—but then again I might: if the rules make it clear when this can happen and when it can't, and give me and everyone else the same or some fair possibility of doing that to any given character, it might be just fine. As in Universalis.

But let me re-iterate some of what's been said here about engagement. We have a range of interactions, from bare minimum paying attention, to expressing support (how I see Ben's "witnessing"), to giving mechanically unempowered suggestions, to giving mechanically empowered suggestions, to making direct contributions to the in-game situation, to providing adversity.  And more steps in between, surely.

If we try and draw the line between audience/actor/director stances (as was done in the good old rgfa days) we get caught up in the mire Eric pointed out. There is no clear cut dividing line. As John & Charles pointed out, we all (may)switch fluidly between these roles, from moment to moment. They must be observed at the level of ephemera, application of techniques. So it's problematic to look at it from that direction.

However, it's very useful to look at a player who is not empowered in a given scene in the usual ways (ie no character, not occupying a traditional role such as gm, etc.) and acknowledge that they are still taking part in the unfolding game. They are acting as a witness, engaging as an audience, and there is a huge amount that they can contribute. Either in that moment or later.  Their attention is a necessary component of the in-game events being established as having existed.  Another role of the audience we haven't addressed much yet is that of the scribe.  Taking notes or reporting on in-game events can be an important and influential role.

So what I take from this conversation is not so much that we are trying to draw the exact line of when in a given game we are "acting as audience" or "acting as director", but instead are looking at ways that anyone may contribute and discussing new ways that have been found (and will be yet!) to help all players contribute regardless of what kinds of traditional in-game components they have access to.

Whew! what a mouthful. English this time? Not having a character, and not having gm tasks are two very convenient cues for us to say: "This person is acting as audience. They need to be empowered! Sock it to 'em."


28. On 2005-03-22, Charles said:

As long as we are agreed that being audience can be an empowered position, without needing to be author, then I agree that we should work to make sure that our audience is an empowered (or at least engaged) audience. There is a pleasure in being audience. There is a pleasure in having audience.

Is there a difference between a scene that is witnessed only by its participants and a scene that has witnesses who are not involved in playing out the scene?

Of course, I think John's argument (as I understand it) to not dissect audience and author and IC and talk about them as seperate and contrasting things, but instead to look at the wholistic question of "what is the experience of being in a roleplaying game?" is one well worth heeding. I don't necessarily have anything useful to add along that direction at the moment, but I am still thinking about it.


29. On 2005-03-22, Vincent said:

Well, cool. I think that this has been a good one and we can come back to it when we feel like it.

For my part, I don't believe there's a circumstance in roleplaying, ever, when you don't have creative property present in a scene.

Every character and every world detail is your creative property! We share.


30. On 2005-03-22, Jonas Karlsson said:

Hello, all. This is my first comment, but I've thought about the topic of audiences for the last couple of days. I have to start by saying that the posts in the blog and their comments are highly interesting, and I have tried to wrap my head around many of the topics discussed.

It basically started with a game I designed, from an idea I borrowed from this blog, and posted to a Swedish roleplaying forum. The game's called Far Apart and each player controls two characters: a British soldier during the Great War and his girlfriend who work's in a factory back in England. They both have friends around them, but since I wanted the bond between the boy- and the girlfriend to be the strongest the players' soldiers don't know each other, and it's the same with the girlfriends. In the game I do encourage playing other character's friends or other people around them.

The most frequent comment was the problem of not being able to use more than one soldier character in each scene. People didn't like the idea of being turned into an audience by the system, even though it's no problem in "regular" games. I think the days when you were supposed to be quiet or leave the room are over, at least I hope they are. So if a player wants his character to go to the store on his own, the other players are turned into an audience and it's ok as long as it's not something inherent in the system.

Actually my group complained about the same things when playing My Life with Master. Usually the minions work on their own, and it's only the player and the game master who are active. The other people are not encouraged to play NPC:s, even if I suppose they could, and you have the same situation as in my game.

When thinking about game design the question is of course what you can add to make the players engaged in the story even though they are members of the audience for some time. We already have suggestions, but I think one problem is that the engaged audience is mostly a social thing and it's hard to write rules that change the social situation at the table.

Of course, all rules change the social situation, that's one of their main functions. But if you don't want to use direct rules, like The Mountain Witch or Paranoia XP, what can you do?

You could give the audience the power to frame the scene or to add people they want to see the game master portray. Another thing you could do is involve everyone in creating each others' characters, and you shouldn't start playing until you're interested in all of the other characters. Too often you're psyched about your own character, but only have a fleeting interest in the other characters.

Why do people get bored and start flipping through another game while playing? Are they uninterested in the situation, in the other characters or is it just baggage from the time when you were not supposed to interact with people at all when your character isn't present?

I don't know if I've added anything to the discussion or if I've just asked the same questions again as everyone else, but I think it's a topic worth discussing since audiences are part of every roleplaying game.

Yeah, a link to the game if anyone would be interested: (Far Apart, as html or pdf. I hope my html code works...)


31. On 2005-03-22, Ninja Hunter J said:

Jonas said,

But if you don't want to use direct rules, like The Mountain Witch or Paranoia XP, what can you do?

Why don't you want to use such a mechanic? The purpose of such a thing is to solve precisely the problem you pose, and Mountain Witch does it admirably. I haven't played Paranoia XP yet.

For instance, you could have a social circle around each character, with the number of characters in that social circle equalling the number of players. Whenever a character is 'on hir own', the other characters in that social circle effect the character in the center.

With the soldiers, it's obvious how that would work: the characters give resources to their buddies, present or not.

The girlfriends might have individual social circles, with each of those relationships in a one-sentence format on her character sheet, plus that Girlfriend's Soldier. Each other player is assigned on Friend. Anyone whose character isn't present gets to say what their Friend would say and throw resources in on either side of the argument, whether or not the character is there. You could have a Closeness stat (a la Mountain Witch) that determines how many dice that Friend (or Soldier) has. This should directly feed into the relationship the Girlfriend has with her Soldier.


32. On 2005-03-22, Jonas Karlsson said:

Ninja Hunter J wrote:

Why don't you want to use such a mechanic?

I will try to keep this as general as I can and try not to steer the thread to much towards discussing my game, but I'll have to explain the basics. I don't intend to pimp my game, I just want to use it as an example.

The premise of the game is the question of how much the characters are willing to sacrifice for each other during a tough situation. The friends they have are only a backdrop, not something very central to the game. Each of the two characters has three attributes each: Health, Sanity and Friends. They also share one attribute, which is Love. Each turn one of the three attributes gets challenged, with some dice rolling. Afterwards the character can send as many dice as they lower their attributes, up to the score they have in Love, to the other character. There's no way to modify the amount of dice rolled in the challenge except by sending sacrifice dice to the character.

If I empower the audience mechanically by giving them a way to modify the challenge it has to be something which has something to do with sacrifices. The point for the players is not to overcome each challenge, but to try overcoming the ones they feel will produce the story they want to tell of their two characters.

I want the sacrifices to be very central when modifying the challenges. I really liked that in the Mountain Witch, that there were only one way to get a modifier and that was by playing the game as intended. You cannot get it through good roleplaying or clever tactics, only by trusting the others.

So if I empower the audience to give them some way to modify the challenges I feel like I'm de-powering the player. It's like I take away their control over the story they want to tell of their characters. It shouldn't be about trust, like the Mountain Witch, it should be about the connection between the player's own two characters.

So I want to engage the audience to really listen to what is happening and to be interested in the fates of the other characters, but not give them the option of modifying dice rolls. I can't really think of a way to do that, which is frustrating to say the least. Perhaps I'm wrong and there's a way I've overlooked.

Oh, and don't get me wrong, I like the Mountain Witch. I actually got the idea of not giving the players any other option than the ones that address theme when modifying dice rolls. I really like that.


33. On 2005-03-22, Ninja Hunter J said:

How is someone going to be interested if they don't have an investment in what happens?


34. On 2005-03-23, Jasper Polane said:

Jonas: Empowering the audience would not be de-powering the player. The player still chooses which conflicts are important, and will invest in overcoming those challenges.

Giving the audience some control over the conflict doesn't change that. What it does is giving the audience an opportunity to say: "Yeah, I agree! This IS important."


35. On 2005-03-23, Charles said:

I think this raises again the question of "What are the pleasures of being audience?"

While I agree that formally recognizing the contributions of "audience" players helps to keep them engaged as "audience," as well as acknowledging that players are never simply audience, it seems to me that that formal recognition is not the only way to maintain the interest of players who don't have a formal role in the scene.

The way that is probably the most common for maintaining player interest is the degree to which the scene being played will later affect the player's interests. If my character (or chunk of the world) needs for your character to succeed in this scene, then I am more likely to be paying attention to what happens in scene.

Another way of maintaining interest is by parallel thematic structure: if what your character is doing is parallel in theme to what my character is doing, then the scene is more likely to hold my interest: how do your choices reflect my choices? what sorts of doubles are we creating for each other?

A third way of holding audience interest is simply the quality of perceived story being created. If the story is good (including the presentation of the story), then it will hold the audience interest in the same way that any other story does.

If you don't give formal mechanical methods for players to register their interest in a scene, then you need to give non-mechanical methods. A play or a live musical performance is more easily engaging the more often we are allowed to appluad. Television is more fun to watch with friends, so we can register our pleasure or displeasure aloud and have it recognized. A game session is more fun if we can contribute commentary on a scene that we aren't in. Sometimes commentary during a scene can be disruptive, particularly if the comments become off-topic. Sometimes it can enrich a scene by giving a new perspective (the imaginary slash fic that often comes up in one of my games maintains heightened attention on the sexual and quasi-sexual tensions within the party in way that is very different than simply highlighting those aspects in play would). Some scenes may benefit from silence from the audience during play, in which case post-scene response from unempowered players should be supported. If I can't say something is cool while it is happening, I need to be supported in saying it is cool afterwards.

Digressing back to Jonas's game (which is a useful digression, since it gives a specific example to work with), I like J's idea of having the PC have sub-PC friends who are played by the other players. I think that the way to maintain tight player control over hir own story would be for the active player to have to solicit help from the non-active players, rather than having the non-active players free to offer support at any time. Such a structure, particularly if the non-active players have some sort of an incentive to refuse to give support, would nicely parallel the idea of the character having to make sacrifices for their love, particularly if friends is the only renewable resource (first you have to go begging to your friends, but if you can't cajole the other players into giving your character support, then you have to choose between failing your love or destroying your health or sanity, perhaps you would also have the option of demanding that your friend help you this one last time, at which point you burn that friendship, but don't have to burn samity or health). As long as you can keep your friends willing to support you, you are okay, but once they turn against you, you are stuck burning your points one by one, or failing your love.

Another option would be to make the actions of each player matter to the other players on a game level. If my character's decisions change the world for your character, then you are more likely to pay attention. Perhaps my character failing her love means that it is harder for your character not to fail her love, as we on the home front decide it just isn't worth it, and Dear John letters become more normal?

One problem I think I see with this design is that you are basically constructing a game in which most of the players will be unempowered audience for most of the game (depending on how many players you have). Furthermore, they will not apparently have an in-character investment in the results of the scenes they are watching (since the at-home characters don't know each other), so the only two aspects of audience they can enjoy are parallel theme and high quality narrative.

There will be lots of opportunity for parallelism since the theme is highly restricted, but meaningful parallelism isn't particularly well supported if we each have no influence on what sort of story the other chooses to tell. Instead, we will end up with something more like a game of Exquisite Corpse. The idea of having the players brainstorm about their characters together during char gen might help with this though, since part of what will make your character interesting to me is how they are set up to handle the issues that I find interesting. Possibly, the char gen could specifically highlight this aspect.

Audience pleasure in a high quality narrative is a dangerous basis on which to hang a game, since few players are skilled writers or skilled actors or skilled storytellers (and very few are some combination). Our hobby has never been much of a draw for spectators, and that isn't likely to change.


36. On 2005-03-23, Jonas Karlsson said:

On 3-22-05, Ninja Hunter J wrote:
How is someone going to be interested if they don't have an investment in what happens?

That's a good question. I think the reason you willingly make yourself and audience in the case of cinema or theatre is because you expect to get something greater than the investment of time and money in return. You can go to the movies without having a clue what you're about to receive, and even if it's not that good you can still trash the movie together with your friends, complaining about bad acting and such. In the case of reading fiction you usually invest a lot of time in one book, and as a consequence are prepared to give it a more favourable verdict.

When you meet your friends and roleplay you don't prepare yourself to be only an audience, you want to contribute actively, more than if you hade gone to the theatre instead. If you happen to become audience for a while the important thing is that the scenes played should still have a meaning for you. The easiest way to give meaning to a scene is by having the consequences influence your character. A more effective way is by it having an influence on the player. In both cases you want to involve the player, it's only that the character is a statement of what's important to the player, and if you influence that you influence something important. You can't really use your time as an audience to find errors of continuity or examples of bad acting, since everyone present will already know they exist and are part of the game.

If you want the audience members to join the scene by playing a NPC, it has to be a character who means something. If you just play some random guy all you get is the pleasure of acting, but if it's someone important to you or one of the other players in the scene the character suddenly has more meaning.

I think the easiest way to make people invest in scenes where their character's not present is by giving the scenes consequences for the characters and their players and by giving the players a mechanical way of showing that it matters. Exactly what they should be able to effect or how to collect the resources to spend is of course up to the individual game design.

On 3-23-05, Jasper Polane wrote:
Empowering the audience would not be de-powering the player. The player still chooses which conflicts are important, and will invest in overcoming those challenges. Giving the audience some control over the conflict doesn't change that. What it does is giving the audience an opportunity to say: "Yeah, I agree! This IS important."

Yeah, what I wanted to avoid was players depending on the good-will of the others instead of actually using the sacrifices of the other character as the only way to get an edge. I wanted to give the player almost complete control over the fates of his two characters, but it doesn't work that way. The player would still need the agreement of the rest of the group for things to happen in the game world, and one obvious way of reaching that agreement is by giving the audience power to directly affect the outcome of the challenge.


37. On 2005-03-23, Emily Care said:

Alternatively, you could give the audience more say in what kinds of questions or issues they want to see they player explore by making scene framing collective. I've been thinking about giving rewards to non-active players who come up with juicy situations in one of my games. Essentially, making it group brainstorming that gets edited by the current lead player.

I don't know if you have already considered and discarded the idea of having people play each other's sweetheart. That might not be the resource distribution you want, but it would likely invest people in the other characters, and make the decisions about sacrificing even more agonizing.

Two more thoughts, what is important about what happens when you let the other players (non-gms) have input on what happens to your character is that suddenly everyone is directly giving their feedback on what happens. You've got a live, multilateral system that is responsive in ways the connections between players mediated primarily by a gm can't be—it's a network instead of spokes leading to a central hub.  Where you draw the connections is where there will be energy exchanged. For you, Jonas, this would mean that when you give the other players input on an outcome, rather than taking energy away from your active player you are instead allowing everyone to instill some of their energy into the exchange.

And of course what is needed for this is a structure that allows contributions to work together, allowing conflict to feed the flow of the story, rather than bogging down the group in miscommunications.

Also, where you give the other players input allows the story or game experience to be steered by group vision in those areas: if it's in resolution, it steers outcomes towards what folks might support. if it's in scene framing, it steers the situations that arise toward what more folks would like to see.  If it is between characters, it gives players the ability to contribute to eachothers stories.  So, you can look at your structure of rules and see where it makes sense to give everyone input, and where it makes sense to mediate it or reserve it to one party, or restrict the connections to certain parameters like trust between characters.

A big leap Ron made when he started consciously talking about player-empowered thematic play, was to focus the discussion on allowing players to author theme.  It looks like we are making a transition here to finding ways for group to co-author directly on the many story threads presented by character, situation etc. hm.

And I know I'm concentrating on empowered audience-ship, but I just wanted to say "hear, hear" to the ways that Charles noted to engage a mechanically unempowered audience.  Witnessing is critically important even if the only action taken is to simply listen.


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