Friday, October 9, 2015

SeedBoneMeat: Turning collaborative story telling into a non RPG game

I am wondering why I put my creative energy into RPGs instead of - say for example - writing stories.

The answer is really simple: RPGs give instant gratification and feedback. There is an audience. And this audience is even rewarded - by participation as well as by score tracking system and by rewards for building their characters.

They also don't need a lot of written preparation. You can plan the game under the shower or while doing  a hike and those little splinters of ideas - which can be replaced later by other ideas while just daydreaming - or just put in practice on the gaming table.

RPGs provide a lot of tools to structure the plot and character creation process. There are random tables and die rolls. There are backbones of a setting laid out that can be used to support creators.

So how can we transfer these features to a non synchronous medium? Sure: there are online forum discussions and even online forum games. But the later does not really work so well in my experience. Most of the games take too long to take off and die quickly.

We need a short set up period. There should be the possibility to drop in and out quickly. That can be done best, if there are standardized elements - like character archetypes - that can be used across different realizations of the narrative - different game sessions.

It is also important that there is no need to do too much preparation work, like reading long pieces of text. Contributors would be further motivated by getting score points for every piece of text created - as long as it is a deeper development of a collaboratively designed element - as well as special acknowledgement - karma - for pieces that are well received.

All the elements - setpieces - should be small though. A collaborative writers worst nightmare is the person who starts adding more and more stuff without collaborating any longer. Somehow this energy some people develop has to brought to good use.

What I envision now is a three layer structure: SEED - BONE - MEAT

Seeds are just ideas thrown out on the gaming/writing table.

Bones are created the moment when the seeds are connected to the work already done.

Meat is turning the bones into real text.

Meat has a style texture (skin?) that can be decided on, on the bone level. But probably that is only a suggestion.

There can be different manifestations of the outer layers created from the lower layers - done by different contributors, or even by the same person. In the end it is decided in the group which of the manifestations is
made canonical.

To make all of this work. It is most important that there is a limited time frame. People are not supposed to feel that any of their ideas rejected will take the spotlight of them for too long. This creates frustration and would turn the collaborative effort into a something similar to trench warfare.

Potentially even a randomizer (dice, cards) could be used to take some tension off the cherry picking.

One question that remains is, if there is need to structure the seeds even further. For example into:

characters, locations, interactions, plot twists, scene exits, scenes, etc.

Currently I think about being pretty lose with that. Probably it is best to give a category to each seed. That way contributors can work on in parallel on the same kind of seed. E.g. "everyone creates a location seed now!" Those parallel created seeds can than be ranked and put into categories like "Needs to Be Used", "Maybe" or "Vetoed". As people are forced to rank, it is to be taken less personal.

(Having seed categories should also help to solve the issue of creating too much of one category.)

On the bone level creating connections should be rewarded - but also questioning connections or adding a twist to connections.

The question is whether the connections can be seen as seeds themselves. Maybe they are similar but they definitely belong to the 2nd level. Except for that there is probably not much left for the bone phase anyways.

One issue that comes up is that while everyone is creating seeds (and connecting bones?), is that there will not be much talk. RPGs live from the constant chat. But they also don't create text and are synchronous. The seed-bone-meat(-skin?) game is not supposed to be that. Therefore that should not create issues.

But if it asynchronous, is there a need for a session structure? Would it be possible to just provide a big tool box? I feel that there needs to be a certain pressure. A deadline - an guaranteed end helps with that. The tighter it is, the better. The issue is that asynchronous deadlines are hard to make happen. My best hope is that the reward (karma) structure will help with that.

Karma should expire, creating an urgency to use it. But it is still undecided what Karma actually allows you to do. Probably you are given something like director rights: e.g. what seeds are created next? what bone category do we need now? Probably the Karma can also be used to gain an extra vote in the ranking process.

Now comes the tricky process of meat creation: I never enjoyed turning ideas into final, detailed text. But I think that this process can hopefully gain something by turning into micro competitions. Everyone creates the meat for the same section and then this is ranked. As reward for winning you can create the follow up meat or give it as assignment out to some other players.

The most important part about the meat is that it has to stay SHORT. Probably there should be a strict limit around 500 characters - with the option of "follow up meat" (or "meat bridge"?): another 500 characters. That way it stays modular and hopefully playful.

It would be also great to tag the meat pieces so that they can be recycled to be used with other seeds. E.g. action sequence, or first kiss, or whatever. Meat transformation would be another process: it rewrites a current peace of meat. The director / Karma holder could request a rewrite.

Maybe it would make sense to turn this into a game about the "writers's room" on the set of a TV show. This is an interesting idea - taking something like Primetime Aventures one step furter: you don't play characters: you play writers, or parodies of writers: the melodrama king, the hand grenade action guy, etc.

But this is another interesting idea I will discuss in another post.

The distribution of SBM should be handled via a pyramid structure. For each two Seed decisions there is one Bone created and for 2 Bones there has to be one Meat, before more seeds are allowed to be created.

Just one afterthought: SeedBoneMeat is based on a voting process. Every time there is a stalemate a randomizer is used instead to come to a decision. This way SBM can be even played/used by a single person: just always put two elements out, and let the randomizer pick one. I think this option will make testing the structure for me much easier.

Here you can find a first SBM test run.

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